Rising tide: How the UK turned against ocean plastics

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 26 February 2018 in Inside Politics

What has driven plans to reduce plastic use, and do they go far enough?

One by one, the volunteers dump down bags for collection. One, two, three. On and on, the pile grows as people trudge up the beach. A dozen, or more.

Light pink bags, full of the things we threw away, pile up on the side of Musselburgh promenade.

Most of the rubbish isn’t particularly obvious on a first scan of the landscape. Some objects stand out more than others – a toddler’s shoe, full of sand; the foam back of a sofa; gnarled cans, ripped and twisted by exposure.

A nearby volunteer, Geraldine, asks for a hand after finding an old suitcase, submerged beneath the surface of the beach. It’s stuffed full of sand and needs two to drag it out. Geraldine has come to her first beach clean. She lives nearby and visits the beach a lot, and decided to join up after learning about the group, saying she felt she should help out. She would absolutely come back.

Most types of objects keep reappearing – soft drinks bottles; old cider or energy drink cans; straws and cotton buds; masses of wet wipes, tangled and twisted together, hanging down from a knot at the top, like the legs of a squid.

Some of it is less recognisable. A bit of plastic, bleached and stripped of its former identity, and left condemned to float through the world, on the sea or the beach, intact forever.

The beach clean, organised by a local group of volunteers, has seen a huge spike in interest recently. Today, on a sunny Saturday morning, unusually mild for the time of year, around 40 have turned up to help.

Freddie, seven years old, reports finding golf balls, a shopping trolley wheel, some tyres, and part of an old spade, as well as what he believes may have been a dinosaur bone, though he concedes “it might just have been a bone”.

He asked his family to take him after seeing the effects of ocean pollution in the second series of the BBC’s flagship nature documentary, Blue Planet II. He explains: “The plastic killed a baby whale and it was that that made me want to help. I liked it [Blue Planet II] but it also made me sad.”

Gaynor, who helps organise the clean-up, says she has seen rising enthusiasm for tackling ocean plastic, following increased media attention. “I think it has made people more aware of plastic everywhere, and it has made people aware we have to do something. There’s definitely been a change – we use Fisherrow Waterfront group, and you can see that people have become more aware of it and want to do more to help.”

The problem is becoming harder and harder to ignore, with the equivalent of a truck of plastic entering the ocean every minute, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. If action is not taken, there is expected to be more plastic in the sea, by weight, than fish by 2050.

If the volunteers in Musselburgh were influenced by Blue Planet II, they were apparently not alone, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove describing himself as “haunted” by images documenting the damage done to the world’s oceans by litter and, in particular, plastics.

In the new year, Gove’s concern was followed up with the UK Government’s new plastic strategy, centred around plans to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042.

Outlining new government funding for plastics innovation, alongside a pledge to support developing nations in tackling pollution and reducing waste through UK aid, Theresa May described plastic waste as “one of the great environmental scourges of our time”.

She said: “In the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls.

“We look back in horror at some of the damage done to our environment in the past and wonder how anyone could have thought that, for example, dumping toxic chemicals into rivers was ever the right thing to do.”

So what drove the government’s new commitment to tackle plastic? For Gove and May, it was apparently seeing the reality of ocean pollution hitting home, though others pointed to evidence from Tory think-tank Bright Blue, suggesting a perceived lack of commitment to the environment was hurting the party’s support among young voters.

Meanwhile, factors further afield may also have played a part, with announcements from China and the EU both pushing the UK towards showing more ambition on waste.

First China announced a dramatic shift in policy, telling the World Trade Organization back in July that it was banning the import of 24 categories of solid waste by the end of 2017. Fed up with states from around the world sending low quality materials from domestic sorting facilities, China said it would no longer take in other country’s ‘yang laji’, or ‘foreign garbage’.

The message was clear: China was no longer willing to act as the world’s dump.

The decision was then followed by a new agreement from the European Parliament, European Commission and Council of Europe articulating a plastic recycling rate of 55 per cent by 2030. The EU also launched a new plastic strategy aimed at tackling single use plastic.

Clarissa Morawski is managing director of Reloop, an international non-profit association aiming to promote the circular economy.

She told Holyrood: “Marine litter is driving all of this. It is an emotional issue – it’s not the same as looking at recycling statistics and costs and rates. People really want to solve the problem and they are grasping for anything they can get to solve it. I have never seen so much movement from the industry responsible for the packaging, in terms of progressive policy, as I have in the last seven months, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. This is clearly what’s driving it – you’ve got CEOs of major companies talking about their grandkids, saying they don’t want to be complicit in the problem. That’s also what’s driving the deposit return agenda all over Europe – you know, these are countries that wouldn’t even utter the word [previously].

“The entire market has been driven for 15 or 20 years by the Chinese demand for materials. In other words, we could dump plastic – all plastics – on the Chinese market. We have always been able to dump it on the Chinese market, which pays well for it, because shipping isn’t too expensive and labour in China is cheap, so they pull it apart, they clean it up, and they recycle it. So we’ve had this amazing place where we can dump poor quality material – that’s the case for the UK, and most jurisdictions with access to ports. But now that that’s cut off, we really have a crisis, because all of those facilities that depended on the Chinese market are screwed. They’re really screwed.

“This is permanent – it’s not about the market rebounding. This is China saying, very specifically, ‘we don’t want your shit anymore – we want to develop a robust, self-reliant system in China where we recover our own material’. This is the single biggest disruption we have ever, or probably will ever, encounter in recycling.”

The consequence, according to Morawski, is likely to be better sorting of waste. “We have an opportunity, if we invest in sorting and in better methods of collection, to get more quantity and better qualities which will secure investment in domestic recycling. China is forcing that opportunity, and governments can either take it or not take it. If they don’t take it then it means a lot of their material is going to get exported, probably to disposal or energy from waste.”

She added: “In terms of the UK, which is so dependent on export markets – I mean, you’re even shipping your waste to the Netherlands to get burned – there is an incredible opportunity to grow business. To ramp up collection, to ramp up sorting, to have different systems in place so you can manage materials in the country and utilise the resources that come out of it.

“That’s the kind of circular economy that governments in Scotland and the UK need to think about, to become more independent in the way we manage waste and actually utilise these resources for the value they offer. A ton of energy went into creating those plastics – if we could just collect and then clean them, we can reuse all that energy.”

From China to the EU to Michael Gove’s conversion to environmentalism, whatever the cause of this chain, demand for action has been growing in Scotland for some time, culminating in a series of measures, contained in the Programme for Government, aimed at reducing plastic use.

Central to the announcements were plans to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme – in which consumers pay a small sum which is paid back when they return a bottle or can – with Zero Waste Scotland taking the lead in coordinating the design of the new system.

The measure, aimed at increasing recycling and tackling litter, was announced alongside the establishment of an expert panel to consider fiscal and other measures, for example, a levy on single-use cups.

Similar moves followed, with ministers announcing plans to make Scotland the first country in the UK to ban the sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds, before also outlining plans to ban plastic straws by the end of 2019.

Jenni Hume, campaign manager for the Have You Got the Bottle campaign, told Holyrood: “We looked at the more modern deposit return systems which you can see examples of in Scandinavian countries, as well as Baltic states like Estonia and Lithuania. They are good because they are owned by a single, central system operator which has responsibility to meet recycling targets, and they are convenient for consumers because they usually have a ‘return to retail model’, so it’s really easy for consumers to go into most shops and local drop-off points to return their containers.

“These systems can reach recycling rates of more than 90 per cent, which is excellent. We were pleased last week to hear Roseanna Cunningham say she wanted an ambitious system that is going to look at including glass and cans as well as plastics. We would definitely advocate for that, and we would also advocate for a system that can work easily within the rest of the UK.”

To Hume, part of the advantage of a DRS is not just in its direct effects, but also because of how it could help drive behavioural change, by helping people to recognise that these materials have a value.

She said: “There’s an argument that litter breeds litter, and if we have fewer drinks containers being littered then maybe people will be less inclined to drop other types of litter. Don’t get me wrong, DRS definitely isn’t the solution to everything, there’s a lot of work to be done in other areas too, which is why it is great to hear the Scottish Government talk about banning plastic straws and plastic-stemmed cotton buds, and looking at other items. It is also good to hear they have established an expert panel to look at how we address the issue of ocean plastics and pollution.

“We recognise that DRS only tackles drink containers, and I suppose the dream is that it could be extended eventually to other plastic bottles – household cleaning products and shampoos.”

Meanwhile Catherine Gemmell, Scotland Conservation Officer at the Marine Conservation Society, sees DRS as the next step in a wider journey towards cleaning up the world’s oceans.

She said: “For us it’s about all single-use plastic items, so it’s great the expert panel will look at straws, cutlery, trays, cups – looking at everything and at what incentives could be used to reduce the amount being used, which should then reduce the amount being made in the first place. It could, hopefully, generate a similar effect to the success of the 5p carrier bag charge, with an 80 per cent fall at the point of sale, then for our beach clean volunteers to see a 40 per cent fall on beaches, once the rest of the UK caught up, was fantastic.”

The next step, for MCS, is to introduce levies on other single use plastic items through its ‘Stop the Plastic Tide’ campaign.

“We’re not asking for an all-out ban, because we recognise that plastic has its place, but unfortunately we have become such a throwaway society that we don’t think about how we are using it, and we are probably not using it to its full potential. Things like plastic cutlery might be used once for a couple of minutes, then exist in our oceans for a couple of hundred years, so it doesn’t make business sense either. Scotland can’t be completely plastic free, but we can be far more plastic clever.”

She added: “Plastic isn’t the only problem, though due to its nature, we find it is the most prevalent thing on our beaches. When it comes to items like wet wipes and cotton buds, I think Scotland does have a big fight on its hands to deal with that. We saw sewage-related debris go up 40 per cent last year compared to the Great British Beach Clean in 2016. That’s quite a shocking rise in regards to the amount of wet wipes, cotton buds and other sanitary items that are being flushed down the toilet.

“The issue is that a lot of these items have plastic in them – one of the huge issues with wet wipes is that they have plastic fibres in them, that’s what makes them strong, and that, unfortunately, is why they don’t break down.

“Plastics is obviously the theme of the moment, but we do find everything on our beach cleans. A lot of people have been talking about a DRS with regards to plastic bottles, which is fantastic, but we have seen an increase in metal cans and glass bottles as well, so we want to keep pressure on the Scottish Government to ensure, when they design this system, not just to think about plastic but actually think of it as a way to capture metal and glass as well. It’s about taking a holistic approach – if you see these policies looking at one item and thinking about what else could be included in that piece of legislation or policy so that we are removing as much from the litter stream as possible.” 



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