The UK's seen several moves in the news to reduce plastic waste this week. What impact might it have?
Last week, the plastic microbeads ban entered force in UK. The US banned them in 2015. The tiny beads can no longer be used in the cosmetics and personal care products, such as abrasive facial scrubs and toothpastes, and so wash into the sea, harm wildlife & enter the human food chain.
The UK Government’s Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) 25 year Environmental Plan, “A Green Future” to improve the UK’s air and water quality and protect threatened plants, trees and wildlife species, also ‘declared war on plastic’ and ‘throwaway culture’. It aims to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste within a generation, by 2042. It extends the 5p charge on plastic bags to all small retailers, encourages ‘plastic-free supermarket aisles’, fruit and vegetable wrapping, will consider other charges on single-use plastic items such as takeaway containers and cups/lids and includes government funding for plastics innovation, school environmental education and to support for developing countries reducing plastic waste and pollution through UK Aid.
In theory of course this is no bad thing, but it’s put little into actual place, and so been heavily criticised as too long in duration, lacking ‘regulatory bite’, and as just a PR young vote-seducer. Never mind the voting statistics, what’s important is how much impact it may have, and that has been seen as a missed opportunity,
“Britain's natural environment needs a 25-month emergency plan more than it needs a 25-year vision" - Greenpeace UK executive director, John Sauven (BBC).
Indeed, the plan may be riding on the wave of greater consumer awareness and emotive response to the damage done to nature by plastic, especially after an autumn of Blue Planet 2.
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Responsible tourism and responsible business takes responsibility.
For actions and for impacts.
In this way, some organisations hold themselves accountable to their own stringent targets, and doing the right thing. For example, rather than wait for any UK policy, Iceland (the supermarket retailer, not country) has quickly announced all its own-label products will be plastic packaging free within five years by 2023.
It should come as no surprise that sustainable tourism specialists are ahead of the game: Cayuga Collection lodges such as Lapa Rios in Costa Rica and Jicaro Island in Nicaragua have pursued a single-use plastic purging strategy for seven years, where the rest of hospitality and tourism is just starting to wake up.
Oceans of Plastic
Our marine conservation blog reveals that, at current rates of plastic pollution, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight) (WEF). Another estimate is for more than 70 million tons of plastic - plastic bags, straws, bottles, toothbrushes, toys - ending up in world’s oceans, accumulating over the world’s beaches and in the seas’ “gyres” - the centres of oceanic currents, 90% from just 10 rivers.
Plastic takes centuries to break down, wildlife and birds get caught in it, or are killed by consuming it: algae on plastic waste can even smell like food (Guardian), making it attractive to eat. One million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals dye each year, some even from inability to eat food, with so much plastic in their stomachs.
Whilst emotive, this might not communicate just how much we all depend on healthy oceans, no matter how far away we are, because of how plastics get into our food chain.
The UK’s 25 year plan for 2042 isn’t going to make much of a dent on a global scale, but it could help the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean Up, which found 718 pieces of litter for every 100m stretch of beach surveyed in the UK, mostly polystyrene and packets, at least 20% from food and drink rubbish, and the subsequent impact on our bodies.
In August 2017, our ocean conservation expedition partners co-founded by Emily Penn (often seen on BBC news and Sky Ocean Rescue), undertook the first continuous plastic sampling while circumnavigating the British Isles, focusing on the science behind marine plastic pollution, potential solutions, and public engagement and awareness.
Making the unseen, seen is an important part of the work. Our water may look clear but what's actually in it? They tested for toxic pollutants such as pesticides, flame retardants and fluorinated compounds, which adhere to the surface of plastic pollution. Many of these are endocrine disruptors, which mimic hormones and can impact pregnancies and be passed on to children through childbirth and breastfeeding. Emily tested her own blood for chemicals banned by the United Nations;
Out of 35 chemicals, Emily's blood contained 29 banned by the UN. (Parley.tv).
Rather than aim for 2042, we'd like to see UK initiatives form part of the work towards the United Nations Global Sustainable Development Goals, to which it signed up voluntarily in 2015 along with 192 other countries, and include Sustainable Development Goal 14 , ‘Life Under Water’ - the sustainability of the seas and marine resources. These feed into the UN global sustainable development Agenda 2030 deadline.
The EU, following hot on the heels of the UK with its own Plastics Strategy war against plastic waste, and spurred into action by China’s decision to ban waste imports, has made its deadline 2030 to ensure all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable and align with Agenda 2030. Only about 30% or Europe’s 26 million tons of plastic a year is currently recycled; oil-derived plastic mostly ends up in landfills or incinerated, often elsewhere, some dumped in the ocean as a result of poor port management. However, China's ban may just mean other countries such Malaysia or Vietnam may step in to take up the surplus, and see the impacts of plastic pollution merely displaced.
The plans to tackle plastic pollution are vital for the world. Unlike Europe, the UK's seems to fall short of real action in the time required for the UN's Gobal Goals for 2030. Quicker action would be an improvement, but real disposal also key: shifting off shore is not the answer.
As with many conscious concerns, it appears that private enterprise actions and consumer demand are what will make a short term difference.
So what can you do to prevent plastic pollution yourself, especially when you travel?
Check out our suggestions to de-plastic your travel for more sustainable tourism.