Few will forget the day in April 2010 a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil gushed for 87 days and the world reacted with horror. Birds, fish and marine mammals lay lifeless along the coastline, consumed by the deadly waste. It was one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the United States.
Oils spills are big and ugly. They splash across the news channels and demand billions in compensation from guilty corporations. But what about less obvious threats to ocean life?
At this very moment, the same precious species are being choked not by oil but by plastic waste. The surge of plastic clogging our rivers and oceans is nothing short of a man-made environmental disaster. From large items like television sets and packaging to tiny microplastic particles, 8 million tons of discarded plastic reach our seas each year putting marine wildlife under serious threat and doing serious and irreversible damage to our environment.
It is easy to see why plastic is attractive. It is a versatile material with unique characteristics that make it ideal for manufacturing. But the evidence is indisputable – plastic waste dumped on land and in rivers is finding its way into our oceans at an alarming rate, smothering habitats and entangling marine animals. Many creatures, from turtles to plankton, mistake plastic for food, clogging their digestive systems and affecting growth and reproduction rates. Some plastics also contain chemicals added during manufacture. Others bond with organic chemical pollutants once in seawater. Either way, they are causing catastrophic damage to the delicate marine ecosystem.
Everyone, from government and industry to consumers, has a part to play in confronting this problem and protecting the world’s most vital natural resource and single biggest habitat.
It is no surprise therefore that plastic pollution was the central issue at both the recent United Nations Ocean Conference in New York and the ‘Our Ocean’ meeting in Malta. It is the duty of every government to turn international concern into action at home to reduce the amount of plastic reaching our seas.
In the United Kingdom, we have made a promising start. Our 5-pence charge on single-use plastic bags has meant 9 billion fewer have been used since October 2015, a reduction of 83 per cent. The charge has also raised £95 million ($125 million) for good causes, all with the endorsement of consumers and businesses.
We are also introducing a ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products. These tiny specks of plastic can be devastating to marine life. Often we are oblivious to their existence but one shower can send 100,000 microbeads into the water system. Fish, seabirds and marine mammals are ingesting these particles of plastic, damaging not only their own health but human health too as they are consumed in seafood.
Plastic microbeads are not just harmful, they are unnecessary. Our work with the cosmetics industry has shown that natural alternatives are able to achieve the same effects. Manufacturers have already demonstrated their willingness to use substitutes like shells, salt and sugar as exfoliants, for example. When sustainable alternatives are available, we should do all we can to remove and reduce the use of microplastics.
That is why the government has drawn up what campaigners have described as the strongest microbead ban in the world. The ban on the manufacture of new cosmetic and personal care products containing microbeads will come into force in January 2018 and their sale will be banned from June 2018. We will also continue to work with scientists and industry to identify other products containing microplastics that could reach the marine environment.
Despite the action we have already taken on ocean plastics, there is still so much more do. In particular, we must tackle waste from plastic bottles and drinks containers.
Only 57 per cent of plastic bottles were recycled in the United Kingdom in 2016. We’ve got to make sure that we use fewer, recycle them better and – most crucially – stop them from ending up in our seas and causing terrible damage to wildlife as well as blighting the landscape.
We have launched a call for evidence on reward and return schemes and want to find the best approach for England. These schemes have delivered fantastic results in, for example, Denmark and South Australia, where recycling rates of deposit marked cans and bottles are 90 per cent and 80 per cent respectively. Big drinks manufacturers have acknowledged that more must be done. So we will work with them, as we have worked with the cosmetics industry, to develop an approach that achieves results.
The United Kingdom is a global leader in protecting beaches, oceans and marine life around the world. Our effort to reduce plastic waste is just one part of a wider strategy to improve how we care of our land, rivers and seas. We soon hope to publish our 25-Year Environment Plan, setting out an ambitious agenda at home and abroad for not just protecting but enhancing our environment. We have one goal – for this generation to be the first to leave the environment in a better place than we found it. That simple principle will guide us as we work with international partners to protect our planet.