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