Five simple solutions to Michael Gove’s plastic problem

8598451066_9623d447a0_bThe scale of plastic pollution plaguing our oceans is alarming. Eight million tonnes of the stuff is being lost to the sea each year. At least 136 species of marine life are affected by plastic entanglement, and many more still – at least 250 species – ingest plastic pieces that can be a million times more toxic than the water around them. We are one of those species, with European shellfish consumers ingesting around 11,000 bits of microplastic every year.

Thankfully, the government is acting. Last month, environment secretary Michael Gove highlighted Defra’s existing 5p carrier bag charge as a success (which we estimate tackles one per cent of the plastic problem) and committed to a microbeads ban for some products (which could tackle a further one per cent, if extended to all products). But, with less than two per cent of plastics addressed by actions so far, more action is clearly needed and Mr Gove has said he is looking for solutions. He announced an exploration of “new methods of reducing the amount of plastic – in particular plastic bottles – entering our seas.”

We think the answers are already here. And that they are simple. At the beginning of the year we published an infographic that highlighted the scale of the problem:


Our new analysis now shows the five actions that could prevent nearly two thirds of the plastic pollution from ever reaching the sea.

A third in one step
The single most effective action would be to recycle all plastic bottles, which account for 33 per cent of marine plastic litter, through a deposit return scheme.

This would involve a small charge being placed on drink containers at the point of sale (between 5p and 20p) that can later be redeemed when the packaging is returned to an authorised centre or the original seller. Such schemes are widely implemented abroad and can virtually eliminate beverage litter. In Germany, for instance, nearly 100 per cent of plastic bottles are returned for recycling, compared to only 57 per cent in the UK.

A few more steps
But the government should not stop with drinks containers. Alongside a deposit return scheme, it could take four other actions that, when added together, would reduce the UK’s contribution to the marine plastic problem by almost a third more. These are:

  • Enforcing Operation Clean Sweep. This is an international, industry led programme to prevent nurdles – the small pellets used to manufacture nearly all plastic products – from spilling into the environment. In other words, it prevents industrial pollution. At present, this voluntary initiative has no enforcement mechanism. Making it mandatory and enforcing it would prevent a further nine per cent of plastic pollution. And, as it is an industry led initiative, it should be welcomed by businesses for removing a potential source of reputational risk.
  • Enforcing existing maritime waste bans. As the UK leaves the Common Fisheries Policy, it should apply the techniques used by Norway to enforce a ban on fish discards. These can be adapted to stop plastic waste being thrown overboard from ships. In Norway, discarding is deterred through a coastguard patrol presence and a similar catch quota management scheme in the North Sea involves remote electronic monitoring with on board CCTV cameras. These measures could be complemented by mandatory GPS tracking of vessels, mandatory reporting of gear losses and monitoring through aerial footage. This would address a further eleven per cent of plastic pollution.
  • Upgrade waste water treatment plants with sand filters. When synthetic clothes are washed, minute plastic fibres are washed into the waste water. These are too small to be captured by the standard treatment systems. Sand filters, already used in the United States, capture these fibres before they get into the ocean. Fitting these to waste water treatment plants would tackle a further nine per cent of plastic pollution.
  • Expand the UK’s ban on microbeads to all products. Over 680 tonnes of plastic microbeads are used as exfoliants or abrasives in UK products every year. The government’s proposed ban only covers rinse-off products like face and body washes, and not leave-on products like deodorants and sunscreen. Nor does it address microbeads used in non-cosmetic products. Addressing this loophole would prevent a further one per cent of plastic pollution.


So if Michael Gove wants to move solutions from a drop in the ocean to making a real splash in his first few months as environment secretary, and fulfil his wish to protect the sea from more plastic pollution, the easy answers are already here.

See the infographics and references.

[Image: Bottle bank? by Ben Salter from Flickr Creative Commons]


  • Martin Brocklehurst

    That we let the problem of plastics in the oceans reach this level shows an utter contempt by our Government for effective action to protect the environment. Al Gore makes the point that to fix any major environmental problem “we need to first fix the government crisis”. He goes on to say that “Our democracy has been hacked” and by that he means “That those with access to large amounts of money and raw power have been able to subvert all reason and fact in collective decision making.” Rather than concentrate on the environmental problem it is time we focused on the political problem that now faces the UK. We have a Parliament that needs reform but seemingly no way to drive that change. We have politicians in many parliamentary seats that are theirs for life because the voting system is so outdated. It is no surprise that time and again our politicians fail to head the early environmental warnings, take action too late, by which time the costs have spiralled out of control to deal with the issue. Read the report “Late Lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation by the European Environment Agency” and you will get a series of examples where the science is ignored and problems are allowed to spiral out of control.

    So we need a powerful “constitutional convention” of the willing to explore the failings of our democracy and prepare a new written constitution that will drive effective change in our democracy or the long slow decline of the UK and the degradation of our environment will just continue driven by those who have “hacked our democracy”

  • Let us deposit all .bottles like the Germans do

  • Instead of a deposit return scheme on plastic bottles, why do we not return to using glass bottles? Which we once had in the UK, with a deposit return scheme. The continued use of plastic bottles, which their inherent health risks and cause of pollution, continues our dependence on fossil fuels!

  • How can you use a study of marine litter thousands of miles away in Australia to say that 30% of the marine litter in the UK is composed of plastic bottles? Do you have actually proper data for the UK?

    • The overall context is that all the data available on marine plastic pollution is poor: its sources are widely dispersed, ocean sampling is spotty at best (and almost never below a few tens of metres of depth), and solely relying on beach cleanup data tends to bias the statistics towards small, floating plastics. On this basis, we think the Australian data is a reasonable best estimate for sources of marine litter. The figures are mainly calculated based on plastic consumption by category and assumed leakage rates – this is consistent with methodologies used in peer-reviewed papers and the reports we cite rely heavily on sound data from the CSIRO, the country’s federal agency for scientific research, which has some of the best marine plastics data in the world.

      As to the comparability with the UK, we’re pretty confident of this. Australia and the UK have similar wealth and consumption patterns, and the UK’s overall municipal recycling rate is below that of Australia, which was around 50% when the government published its waste review in 2013. We also know from RECOUP, for instance, that the UK’s overall rigid plastic packaging recycling rate is 45%, and that the figures for Australia are similar: according to the Australia Packaging Covenant’s ‘National Recycling and Recovery Survey (NRRS) 2014–15’, the overall recycling rate for plastic packaging was 46.9%. For plastic bottle recycling in particular, the rate in the UK is 57%, while Australia recycles 81% of PET – the plastic most bottles are made out of – but less than a third of HDPE, which is used to make milk bottles (though these are less likely to be littered) as well as most plastic bags.

  • Hi,
    could you please provide more info/references to the Norway deposit scheme?

    • Do you mean the Norwegian fish discards ban? More information about that can be found here

      The deposit scheme referenced in the infographic and post is the one in Germany, although Norway has one, too, which also achieves high recycling rates for plastic bottles. More information about both can be found here

      A full list of references for the infographic can be found on our website

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  • Great post, really insightful. Now I’d be impressed if the government’s 25 year plan was to eradicate plastic in that time, but reduce it? What a wasted opportunity. The crazy thing is, they abolished micro beads overnight, so why can’t they force ready meal manufacturers to return to using recyclable foil and card containers and putting fruit and veg in paper bags? The cynic in me thinks they don’t want to upset the plastic industry. Such a sad state of affairs.

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