ByClaire Rosling
26/03/2018
6 min read

War on Plastic – Why now?

Plastic pollution is the environmental issue of the moment. An incredible momentum has gathered pace to cut down single-use plastics from every part of society. But why now? We explore what is driving this shift and who is doing what to cut plastic waste.

The UN has recently warned that marine life is facing “irreparable damage” from the millions of tonnes of plastic waste which ends up in the oceans each year. An estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced to date, 79% of which is now polluting our land, seas or is buried in landfill. The effect of plastic waste in the marine environment has been highlighted by recent studies which revealed plastic waste in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabird species examined.

Why now?

Scientists have warned about the environmental impact of plastic for a long time. So why is there so much happening to cut plastic waste now?

We got in touch with some of the country’s most successful campaigners on this topic for their views on what has spurred this sudden shift to action.

"I think it's a wonderful combination of the work of lots of campaigning organisations banging the drum, whipping up a frenzy on social media that anyone can get involved with, along with UK media being massively onboard with the narrative. Blue Planet II was the tipping point; over the past three months plastic pollution has gone from an environmental campaigning phrase to a household conversation."

Natalie Fee - Author, Presenter, Environmental Campaigner and Founder of City to Sea

“Although awareness has been growing over the last decade, we have nicknamed the recent explosion in awareness and action the 'Attenborough Effect'. Blue Planet 2 shone an all-encompassing light on the threat that plastic poses to our oceans, leading to a wave of new engagement. Our Plastic Free Coastlines project has also been making waves in the UK and has led to a massive shift in society’s behaviour towards single-use plastics… It’s a really exciting time to be working in marine conservation, we just need to keep up the momentum and keep working together.”

Dom Ferris - Head of Community & Engagement, Surfers Against Sewage

“We are nearing a tipping point where it simply cannot be swept under the carpet any longer. This is coupled with the fact that it is SO visible and its effects so clear and instant - unlike Climate Change... Most throw-away plastics are also so unnecessary and everyone can see how pointless and wasteful this is. Lastly and with a grateful hand on my heart, I thank the BBC and Sir David Attenborough who has brought this into living-rooms around the world. More people watched Blue Planet 2 than voted for Brexit, and in dark times, this gives me hope."

Gus Hoyt - Refill Programme Manager, City to Sea

Images really do say more than a thousand words. With 17 million viewers for it’s first episode (a record for any BBC programme in 2017), Blue Planet II captivated audiences across the globe. The tear-jerking final episode in December 2017, showed footage of albatross parents unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic and a whale with her dead calf, poisoned by her plastic-contaminated milk. These powerful images combined with rallying call to action from one of our most respected national heroes, Sir David Attenborough, was a recipe for success.

Following the final episode of Blue Planet II, a huge number of people turned to social media, pledging to do more to cut plastic pollution, thus spreading the message ever further. With plastic now being such a focus in the public eye, businesses began to get involved (it’s a great PR move after all!) and campaigns finally began to get heard.

"It's fantastic to see plastic pollution come to the foreground as an environmental issue. Back in 2015 we had to explain what this was and why it was a problem every time we met new partners, now however they instantly 'get-it' and want to be involved."

Gus Hoyt, Refill Programme Manager, City to Sea

Just three months have passed since Blue Planet II and during this time there’s been an incredible effort to cut plastic waste from every part of society.

So who’s doing what?

Big Business

Every week there seems to be a new pledge by a business giant to cut their plastic waste. Plastic straws,1,2,3,4 plastic bags,5 plastic tea-bags,6 plastic bottles,7,8 general single-use plastic packaging,9,10,11,12 these have all been the central focus of companies of late (see appendix for references).

Politics

The UK government has set out its environment strategy which includes a pledge to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042 and an extension of the 5p plastic bag charge to include small shops in England. Many, including Jeremy Corbyn, have criticised Theresa May’s 2042 target saying it is “far too long”.

The ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics has also come into force in the UK, thanks to pressure from campaign organisations like Greenpeace.

The Treasury has also said it is looking at changes to taxation and new levies to tackle plastic waste however they are well and truly dragging their heels on this.

***Update 28/03/18: The government has just announced that all drinks containers (plastic, metal or glass) will be covered by a deposit return scheme – fantastic news!***

People Power

By far the most impressive contribution towards reducing plastic waste is not from businesses or politicians but from individuals and campaign organisations. It is often such campaigns that influence changes in policy and business practices in the first place. Here are just a handful to inspire you:

Refill

Launched by City to Sea in September 2015, Refill is a national tap-water campaign that aims to make refilling your bottle as easy, convenient and cheap as possible – with the bonus of reducing the unnecessary use of plastic water bottles (which are now consumed at the ridiculous rate of 1 million per minute!). There are now over 1600 free refill points across the UK including water fountains, friendly cafes, shops, hotels and businesses and a useful app that allows you to find them and add new ones.

Plastic Free Coastlines

This project from Surfers against Sewage is tackling the issue from every possible angle – it is made up of several campaigns: Plastic Free Communities, Plastic Free Schools and Plastic Free Parliament.

 

“Plastic Free Communities brings communities together to eliminate their reliance on unnecessary single-use plastic. It instills a sense of local ownership but clearly links communities up and down the country to a national fight against plastic. There are over 250 Communities currently bringing together businesses, councils and community groups to meet our five-point plan to create a Plastic Free Community."

Dom Ferris, Head of Community & Engagement, Surfers Against Sewage

One example is Frome Town Council who have unanimously agreed to become a ‘single-use’ plastic-free council, phasing out the use of non recyclable single-use plastic products in all council activities by April 2018. They have also successfully encouraged a number of local organisations and businesses to do the same.

The Plastic Free Communities campaign has so far reached 6,240 businesses, 4,160 community groups and 1,248 community events, with a combined population represented of over 19 million individuals. Pretty impressive!

As part of the wider Plastic Free Coastlines project, Plastic Free Parliament now has 173 MPs signed up to get their house in order and eliminate single-use plastics from the Houses of Parliament. 170 schools have also signed up to the Plastic Free Schools campaign.

Plastic Bottle Deposit Scheme

80% of consumers agree that current recycling schemes are not enough to curb plastic pollution and are calling for deposit return system for plastic bottles. The brilliant campaign organisation, 38 degrees are working with Surfers against sewage on their Message in a Bottle Campaign, calling for the UK government to bring this deposit return system into effect and have already gained over 329,000 signatures on the petition.

***Update 28/03/18: The government has just announced that all drinks containers (plastic, metal or glass) will be covered by a deposit return scheme. Well done to SAS and the many other tireless campaigns on this!***

No Single-use Plastics Shetland

If you feel like individuals can’t make much of a difference, take a look at our final examples and think again! Started by shop owner Ryan Thomas as a Facebook campaign, the aim is to completely eradicate the use of single-use plastics such as straws and cups in the Shetland Islands by the end of 2018. Ultimately, his aim is for the Shetland Islands to be the first place in the UK to achieve this ambitious target. Home to just 20,000 people, this tiny archipelago is the perfect plastic-free testing ground and could set an example to the rest of the world. Through his tireless campaigning, Ryan has over 31 local businesses committed to tackling the issue by replacing plastic straws and cups with biodegradable alternatives.

British diver films sea of rubbish off Bali

Many of you will have already seen this shocking video of diver Rich Horner swimming through a sea of plastic rubbish off the coast of Bali. Again, the actions of one person were involved here and through posting the video to Youtube the video now has over 310K views on the Guardian news channel alone. An incredible way of bringing the plastic waste issue to the forefront.

 

What a difference three months makes…

What we all must do now is ride this wave and see it through. Let it not be just be another media highlight to get swept under the carpet. Let’s harness this momentum and use it to make a real, lasting change for the future of our planet. The oceans are counting on us.

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