Plastic pollution can only be eliminated when we work together

Writing for Environment Journal, Debbie Winton, programme manager of Earthwatch Europe, argues the case for a holistic approach where Britain’s businesses, local authorities and the public come together in order to tackle the issue of plastic pollution.

The budget – environmental issues conspicuous by their absence

The reaction to the Autumn Budget here at Earthwatch Europe, alongside other environmental organisations, has been one of overall disappointment: environmental issues were conspicuous by their absence. High profile expectations, such as a coffee cup tax (the “latte levy”), have been dropped and replaced with watered down commitments. For example, there will be a consultation on a potential tax to be implemented (in four years’ time) on new plastic products made or imported to the UK which contain less than just 30% recycled content. This is a small step in the right direction, but a far cry from what needs to be done.

The UK is lagging far behind the EU which, in October, agreed a total ban on plastic cutlery and plates, cotton buds, straws, drink-stirrers and balloon sticks, as well as a reduction in single-use plastic for food and drink containers like plastic cups, to take effect by 2021.

In our public survey on plastic pollution carried out earlier this year, 99% of over 800 respondents were concerned or very concerned about plastic pollution, and almost half (49%) thought the biggest priority within the plastics agenda for the government should be to ban the unnecessary use of plastics. On the topic of consumer behaviour, 39% claimed that the confusing recycling system stops them from further reducing their plastic waste, with over half (56%) saying they would increase their recycling if the process was improved. We therefore welcomed at least the Chancellor’s announcement of funds for local councils to improve such services. Investment at this grassroots level is crucial to enable local authorities to reduce landfill waste and improve recycling rates.

A unified approach for plastic pollution

The necessity of a unified approach is clear from our own work reviewing the plastic pollution problem and the action required. A literature review we conducted earlier this year highlighted huge knowledge gaps around the quantity, distribution, movement and impacts of plastic pollution in freshwater environments in the UK. Mapping the sources, pathways and the extent to which rivers are a significant source of plastics in the ocean is the first step towards working out how to solve the problem. But action cannot wait the years it would take for this research to be carried out in the traditional way.

Citizen science is one of our tools to address this; engaging the public in scientific data collection on a wide geographical scale has the added effect of empowering people to act as a result of increased knowledge and confidence. Businesses have a stake here too, with such programmes providing opportunities for them to collaborate with scientific researchers to speed up identification of the key issues and develop solutions in tandem.

We already know that, fundamentally, the problem needs to be tackled at source, not just cleaned up at sea. The priority now is to understand what actions are feasible and will have the greatest impact, both for the environment and for resolving the key material issues that threaten businesses.

This forms the basis of Earthwatch Europe’s work in this field, in which we are compiling evidence to create scientifically robust advice and recommendations for consumers and business, as well as quantifying the impact those actions could potentially have. As data flows in, filling knowledge gaps and enabling us to better assess the effectiveness of solutions, we will adapt and refine to improve what we do. Through this tight collaboration between businesses, policy makers and consumers, we can maximise the effectiveness of our actions.

Opportunities for action

Organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and WRAP have already begun the journey with businesses through the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and, more locally, the UK Plastics Pact. With marine plastic pollution awareness rising to the extent where it is fast becoming the most talked about environmental issue of the decade, the groundswell of public pressure to act is snowballing. Finally, with the huge network of scientists and citizen scientists across the UK who are already working together through programmes such as FreshWater Watch and Capturing our Coast, collaborations are coming together on all sides. The opportunity is there, and we are seizing it.

Through offering holistic and scientifically robust advice that is followed by effective policies and business innovation, we can make it easier for consumers to make responsible choices. At this critical time, we welcome conversations with partners who can see the economic and environmental benefits of eliminating plastic pollution. Collaboration really is the only way to make this vision a reality.


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