Listening to the UK Chancellor’s budget speech a few weeks back left me with mixed feelings of excitement and deflation. On the back of Blue Planet II, the BBC series which seems to have galvanised public anger over plastic pollution in ours seas, I felt the Chancellor had the ideal opportunity to seize the moment and signal an intent to drastically cut, if not totally end, plastic pollution from UK shores.
I was pleased the Chancellor acknowledged the public mood, but disappointed that he did not go much, much further than a mere recommendation that further taxation of plastics be looked into. But, this all did get me thinking. Is it possible, realistic even, that plastic pollution of our oceans could be stopped altogether? Could I live to see a day where not only were the oceans totally clear of plastic, but we are no longer dumping it into the sea?
The task would be epic to say the least. There is an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, most of it being smaller than the naked eye can detect. That garbage is enough to kill more than a million birds and 100,000 sea mammals and turtles every year. Meanwhile, humans who eat seafood, according to scientists at Ghent University, ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year!
And yet, in the face of such an environmetal catastrophe, all the Chancellor can muster is a suggestion of further taxation, at an unspecified point of time in the future!? This hardly demonstrates environmental leadership.
It is some distance behind the approximate forty countries which have already taken some measures to limit or completely ban plastic bag usage (as compared with the UK’s current 5 pence per bag tax). Other countries have gone further still. In Rwanda it is now illegal to import, produce, use or sell all plastic packaging except within specific industries like hospitals and pharmaceuticals. Last year France became the first country in the world to ban plastic cups and plates. In the same year the Indian state of Karnataka completely banned the use of all plastic packaging across the state. No wholesale dealer, retailer, or trader can now use or sell plastic carrier bags, plastic plates, plastic cups, plastic spoons, cling film, or anything of the sort. And, this year saw the banning of all forms of disposable plastic in the Indian capital state of Delhi.
But, encouraging though these bans may appear, they are only piecemeal, and clearly inadequate to the task. On balance they will make all but a fractional change to the tons of plastic vomited into the oceans each year. In fact, their frustrating focus on just selected types of rubbish (plastic bags, cups or plates) make them seem almost like ‘political placebos’, hoodwinking citizens into thinking their governments are being proactive.
What is required instead are wholesale measures which the world can adopt in one fell swoop, and which embrace all forms of plastic pollutant. The following suggestions, I believe, meet this requirement and are probably amongst the best means to deter oceanic pollution, and effect its clean up.
- Create Plastic-Free Supermarket Aisles
In a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper, Andy Clarke, former CEO of Asda, one of the UK’s biggest supermarket chains expressed deep frustration at the billions of pounds wasted on recycling programmes which have “failed to reduce the scale of plastic pollution”.
Andy Clarke has instead borrowed an idea first floated by Plastic Planet, and which I believe offers the brightest hope of placing plastic usage into terminal decline, and that is to create plastic-free aisles in supermarkets. This gives consumers a clear choice in choosing ‘ethical and environmental’ products over the conventional alternative.
It has already happened with organic food. Over the past 20 years, during which time organic food has grown exponentially, we have seen it grow from a niche product stocked in selected stores to a situation nowadays where it overtakes whole sections of supermarkets.
It seems that doing the same and separating out biodegradable vs non-biodegradable packaged products would find popular support. A Populous poll earlier this year which showed four out of five people questioned were concerned about the amount of plastic packaging thrown away in the UK and 91% wanted plastic-free aisles in supermarkets.
2. Investment Much More into Research
Complementing consumer action must be the greater application of science and technology. A brief look at current research taking place around the world reveals some exciting glimmers of hope. Last year the journal Science published a discovery of a certain bacteria called Ideonella Sakaiensis which can feed on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. This is great news since most plastic bottles in the world are made from this material. It is also found in polyester clothing, frozen-dinner trays and blister packaging. In fact, more than 50 million tons of it is produced globally each year (accounting for roughly a sixth of total global plastic production). It is still unclear at this stage where or how this bacteria should be applied to be of most value, but there is still plenty of cause for optimism.
Ocean Cleanup is another ray of hope. This Dutch company, the brainchild of 22 year old entrepreneur Boyan Slat, has pioneered a new and simple technology to eliminate plastics already deposited into the oceans. Rather than relying on convetional use of vessels and nets to clean the ocean plastic, which would cost billions of dollars and take hundreds if, not thousands of years, Ocean Cleanup have devised a simple technology which acts like an enormous static floating barrier that simply catches passing plastic and collects it for it to be then recycled. With full deployment of their technology, Ocean Cleanup estimate that within five years they would be able to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a gyre of debris in the Pacific Ocean that is roughly equal in size to the state of Texas.
3. Extended Producer Responsibility
The third solution is of an order of magnitude so far removed from our current norms it is hard to envisage, and yet there are encouraging signs already of its adoption. It is the radical, and yet entirely logical idea that companies should take responsibility to cover the cost of recovering their own waste products.
This concept was first articulated in a 1990 report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment. Tellingly, many of us will never have heard of it given the lack of media exposure it receives. However, already there are around 400 EPR schemes in operation across the world, most of which are mandatory. Within the UK, packaging, electrical and electronic goods, batteries and cars are all subject to EPR requirements through various EU directives. Outside of the UK, countries such as France and Japan have taken EPR a lot further. France has 14 mandatory EPR schemes in place covering additional products and Japan has an extensive EPR law that covers the lifecycle of products from various industries.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Deal notwithstanding, the global community has demonstrated remarkable ability to agree to stringent standards of carbon reduction. So, on the back on TV shows like Blue Planet, perhaps it is not so wild to imagine the likes of EPR gaining broader exposure and political airtime, and eventually working its way into future international accords.
EPR, improved research and clear consumer choice offer three potentially effective solutions which tackle the input and output of plastics into our work/life ecosystems. None are capable of providing a solution in themselves and neither are they likely to yield immediate results. It will take time, a great deal of patience and further political coordination.
The distressing sight of sea creatures being wrapped, twisted, disfigured and choked by plastic is likely therefore to plague our screens for some years to come. But, if that is what is required to keep the issue alive in the public conscience, then it will not have been in vain. The UK Chancellor’s mention of Blue Planet TV in his budget speech – even as it was still being aired on TV – demonstrated the immediate influence media can have on government policy. This is encouraging. Let us hope that public opinion continues to build behind plastic elimination initiatives and piles on further political pressure, because the time to act is, most assuredly, now.