Despite being invented just over a century ago, we have developed a relationship with plastic on a global scale, unrivaled by almost any other man-made product. Consequently, vast quantities of plastic are produced each year, totaling up to staggering 300 million tonnes, of which around 50% is single use.
The rise of plastic packaging has been as a direct result of its ability to provide fit for purpose solutions in a wide range of applications from primary, secondary and tertiary packaging in product categories as diverse as food and electronic hardware.
It’s light weight, durability and extremely versatile nature makes it a good choice for those looking to reduce carbon impacts of manufacture and transportation, as well as limiting the economic and social costs associated with transit product damage in the supply chain. While the increased use of single use plastics is definitely making our lives easier, the problem arises as a result of the current lack of adequate infrastructure for the recovery of materials in some parts of the world, and this is leading to ‘leakage’ of plastic into our environment. An incredible 32% of plastic packaging is not recovered and escapes into natural ecosystems, most notably our oceans.
Marine plastic pollution is not a new phenomenon, however, the scale of the problem has grown due to the dramatic increase in plastic production over time. At least 8 million tonnes of plastic leaks into the oceans every year, with predictions expecting the quantity to increase 4-fold by 2050. This substantial increase will lead to the accumulation of plastic in the oceans to levels which rival the quantity of fish (by weight) in 2050.
The ocean plastic problem is now widely recognized, and has led to nearly 200 countries from the UN pledging to tackle the global crisis, but we still need to do more.
What Effects Does Plastic Waste Have On Marine Life?
If you’ve seen any of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, then you will have seen the impact plastic is having upon marine wildlife. Plastic within the marine environment effects all animals, from those too small to see with the naked eye to the largest of marine creatures. Plastic of all sizes, including plastic bags, straws, films, microfibers and microbeads can be ingested by animals and cause the release of chemicals that can cause harmful effects all along the food chain.
Microscopic sea animals have been observed mistaking microplastics for food, which then become lodged within their digestive system and cause death. These negative effects can then translate along food chains and ultimately affect the end consumer, us. Recent surveys have found that plastic has been found within a third of UK-caught fish.
To make it worse, in November 2017, research has discovered that plastic had made its way to the deepest crevices of the oceans, down to the depths of 10,900m. This highlights the scale of the impact mankind has had by its ignorance to plastic pollution, as the effects have now been proven to have truly reached the furthest reaches of the planet.
Ingestion isn’t the only issue, larger plastic items such as netting and films can lead to entanglement, which leads to the death of hundreds of species, especially air breathing marine mammals and seabirds.
What Can We Do To Reduce Marine Plastic Pollution?
We recognize that there’s a role for plastic in our future, and we’re working with industry leaders to explore and evaluate the most responsible ways to produce and consume them. Here are some of the current initiatives that are underway:
Taxation on single use plastics
One potential mechanism to help solve the issue is to try and reduce the quantity of plastic that is used in the first place. One proven way of reducing plastic consumption is to tax single use plastics. Introduced in October 2015, large retailers in England had to charge 5p for plastic bags by law. The statistics from the following years show a staggering reduction in plastic bag usage. From the 7 main retailers alone, there was a 83% reduction plastic bag consumption, which equates to over 6 billion fewer bags.
Following this success, the UK government are keen to introduce other taxation measures to help reduce our plastic footprint, and an announcement in November 2017 called for a consultation period to gather evidence. This could include applying tax to single use plastics such as bubble wrap and polystyrene take away boxes. Some organisations have encouraged a charge of ‘around 2p’ per disposable plastic item to help reduce litter and increase recycling. Options like this provide a great opportunity to reduce the amount of single use plastic that is consumed if it can be implemented in an effective manner. In January 2018, Theresa May announced a 25 year environmental plan, which plans to tackle plastics.
Increase recycling and establishing a more circular economy
As well as stimulating a reduction in plastic consumption, efforts should also be focused on dealing with the plastic at the end of life stage. If we wish to divert towards a more circular economy, tackling the end of life treatment for single use plastics is vital. Not only will a circular economy make the way we use materials more sustainable, but also dramatically reduce the amount of waste plastic ending up in our oceans.
In England, only 57% of plastic bottles make it to the recycling stage, which is dwarfed by the 90% of bottles that are returned for recycling in Germany and Denmark, not to mention the world leaders Norway, where it’s as high as 96%. Nearly a dozen countries, including the previously mentioned, have adopted the use of Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), which clearly provide an effective solution to increase material recovery.
Scotland have already committed to a DRS and a potential DRS is backed by many as a solution to boost recovery and recycling rates in England. But before implementation, suitable research and development is vital to create a programme that is fit for purpose, and that can maximize the schemes potential without impacting negatively on the high levels of kerbside recycling the UK already enjoys.
The introduction of product bans
Microbeads have been a major area of concern over the last few years, with several countries now committing to banning them within their wash off products. The UK is proposing the strictest ban on microbeads out of any country, with all products being banned from shelves on 30th June 2018. Although a step in the right direction, we are still far from eliminating the issue, as until they are banned from everywhere the introduction of microbeads into the sea will persist.
Utilisation of ocean plastic waste
As well as prevention, there is also the issue of what to do with the millions of tonnes we have already found their way into the marine environment. Several organisations have already initiated business cases to integrate recycled content from ocean plastic into their products and packaging. This includes several major brands who are using ocean plastic in ink cartridges, washing up liquid bottles and trainers.
The number of projects is rising; however, the supply of marine plastic is a considerable limitation. Nevertheless, with increasing demand on using recycled marine plastic in products and packaging, there is likely to be an increase in companies filling the gaps in the supply chain.