Plastic: Turning the tide

4 Jan 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Jan 2019

Pic John Cameron, Unsplash

Last year was a terrible one for those of us who care about the environment. There were apocalyptic reports about climate change, extreme weather conditions and species extermination.

This year can and will be better. It will start by turning the tide on the use of plastic packaging.

The use and wastage of plastic is at crisis point but public opinion has turned. The omens for making serious progress are good.

To reprise. We have produced 8.3bn tonnes of plastic since the 1950s. The majority ends up in landfill or pollutes the oceans and other ecosystems.

Every year about eight million metric tons of the stuff ends up in our oceans. Most of it – around 80% - is discarded on land. Plastic does not decompose instead it breaks up into smaller and smaller fragments. It is eaten by fish and birds and enters the food chain.

On this trajectory within a few years the total weight of plastic within the oceans will be greater than the total weight of fish.

Aside from the damage to the environment plastic is costing us a fortune. For example it takes 12m barrels of oil to make the 102m plastic bags used every year in the United States. The vast majority of these are only used once. They are either recycled, put into landfill or end up littering the streets or in the oceans.

In Northern Ireland the cost of street cleaning stands at £45m. That’s £25 for every man, woman and child.

The problem is not diminishing.  Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful carries out an annual beach survey. The latest found there are five pieces of beach litter per metre – around 5,000 per kilometre.

In 2014 International Coastal Cleanup carried out a one-day clean-up of beaches around the world.  Volunteers collected more than 5,500 metric tons of rubbish. These included more than two million cigarette butts and hundreds of thousands of food wrappers, drink bottles, bottle caps, drinking straws and plastic bags.

Environmental campaigners have been banging on about this for years. Now change is happening and is set to speed up.

Next month Lidl in Ireland and Northern Ireland will remove all black plastic packaging from fresh fish. Meat poultry and cured meat ranges will follow by the summer.

Supermarkets use black plastic in food packaging because it makes produce look more appealing. But it cannot be recycled because recycling systems cannot detect the black pigment.

 This will save 65 tonnes of waste.

The German chain is also scrapping the sale of single-use plastic like straws and disposable plates and replacing them with biodegradable alternatives. 

Supermarket chains are motivated by profit, not by environmental concerns. The company believes that its war on waste is attractive to consumers and will  give it a competitive advantage.

This has got to be a good thing and is bound to put pressure on other chains to bring forward their own reductions in plastics.

The frozen food specialist Iceland has just announced results of a trial of “reverse vending machines” in five of its stores. These allow customers to return plastic bottles in exchange for a voucher worth 10p. During November 311,500 bottles were returned to the five sites returning more than £30,000 to shoppers.

This is encouraging news for the Westminster government which is planning to introduce a deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic and glass bottles and cans.

At present just 43% of the 13bn plastic bottles sold each year in the UK are recycled, and 700,000 are littered every day. In Germany, a DRS was introduced in 2003 and 99% of plastic bottles are recycled.

Scotland announced its own DRS scheme in September of last year. It estimates that it will save local authorities between £3 million and £6 million per annum in litter clearance.

Support for the scheme is growing with large retailers Aldi and the Co-op in support.

Northern Ireland will have to wait for a government to introduce such a scheme but the fact that retailers do see the advantages will help balance the inevitable backlash from trade bodies.

Some organisations are going further. The Natural History Museum in London is to stop selling single-use plastic water bottles at its sites to help reduce the pollution of the oceans.

The National Trust is to phase out all single use plastic from its properties and cafes. It has started offering free water refills to coffee shop customers and moved to reusable plant pots and trays in shops.

One of the most innovative projects is the Refill scheme run by the community interest company City to Sea.

It has signed up more than 14,000 businesses, transport hubs and public spaces who will refill water bottles for free. An app can be downloaded from the website to help people find the nearest station. There are no businesses signed up in Northern Ireland to date.

The website states that the average person in the UK will use 150 plastic water bottles every year. It  follows that if just one in ten refilled once a week, we’d have 340 million less plastic bottles a year in circulation.

It is also encouraging people to join its campaign to persuade MPs to be more  responsible. The House of Commons and House of Lords used over 2 million avoidable single-use plastic items in 2017. They should be replaced with sustainable alternatives. The Refill Scheme is asking people to write to their MPs to ask them to bring this to an end.

One public body that is already acting is Ards and North Down Borough Council. It has banned single use plastics from its events and meetings.

It has also bought three sea bins which it installed at Bangor Marina.  Each can sieve two million litres of sea water each year. They trap even tiny fragments of plastic in an inner mesh which is then removed and emptied. More will be bought if the trial proves a success. 

The Irish government announced this week that it plans to ban single use plastics from its government departments and public bodies. However this will not happen until 2021.

Also coffee outlets are offering discounts to customers who bring their own cups, helping to reduce wastage of single use items.

There is therefore plenty of room for optimism in 2019 in this area at least.

 This requires action from consumers. More people need to choose to shop at outlets that are on board. And we should be demanding faster action from the laggards.  Businesses are far more amenable to consumer pressure than politicians to voters. 

As the movement against plastic gathers momentum, so too will public opinion and behaviours change. Progress will embolden and strengthen environmentalists and other, more challenging campaigns can be addressed with renewed confidence.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.