Stemming the tide of plastic pollution

20 Jan 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 20 Jan 2023

Pic: John Cameron, Unsplash

One of the biggest problems with addressing climate change is the sheer scale of the challenge.

Everything looks so overwhelming that the task can seem hopeless and this is not helped by apocalyptic predictions from well-meaning activists.

We need to realise not only that climate change can be addressed but that steps we take on the journey will make a difference. And it is precisely by breaking down what is required into smaller manageable chunks that we can start to envisage how required changes can be made and the role we can play in them.

A case in point is single use plastics. If we fully understand the harm that they do, the energy required to manufacture them, the cost of disposing of them and the damage they cause when we do not, we can build an action plan which will gain maximum popular support.

It is an area that requires attention, not least because it is one where a lot of momentum was building up prior to the pandemic, and then lost.

First let’s consider the scale of plastic pollution and the evidence of the damage it causes. Since the 1950s we have produced more than 8 billion tonnes of it, and counting. Most of it ends up in landfill or else pollutes the oceans and other ecosystems. Every year around eight million metric tons ends up in our oceans, much of which is thrown away on land, but gets blown there or carried by water courses.

Within a few years it is expected that the total weight of plastic in the world’s oceans will be greater than the total weight of fish.

The trouble is that plastic doesn’t decompose – instead it breaks up into smaller and smaller fragments. It is eaten by fish and birds and enters the food chain. Last year particles were discovered in 80% of human lungs. Plastic can also be ingested through the air that we breathe and the liquids we drink.

The health implications of this are as yet unknown, but are unlikely to be beneficial.

In addition, the majority of plastic is made from fossil fuels, and the entire life cycle generates harmful greenhouse gas emissions that are a threat to the climate and to human health. One study found that plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in a single year. This equates to the pollution from 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. If the entire lifecycle of plastic were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter in the world.

Plastic production on the current scale is incompatible with climate goals.

We know who the worst culprits are for plastic pollution because the evidence is quite literally all around us. Every year campaign group Break Free from Plastic conducts a global brand audit to identify where pollution is coming from and names the biggest polluters. For 2022 the top ten were: The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Mondelēz International, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Mars Inc., Philip Morris International, Danone, and Colgate-Palmolive.

Coca-Cola has been the worst polluter for all five years of the survey, and appears to have increased its pollution footprint over the period.

We also know some of the cost of cleaning up that proportion of the resulting mess that stays on the streets.

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

This brings us to what needs to be done, by government and by ourselves and by manufacturers to tackle this menace.

It turns out there is a lot.

Across the UK the average person 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.

One exciting project to drive this 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.

Its delivery partner in Northern Ireland works with local authorities, businesses, schools and student organisations to help grow its network of 280 free drinking water stations in Northern Ireland. It also operates a Waste Free Events Service, providing drinking water and reusable cups (which are washed after use) at fun runs, marathons and large public events.

It also installs Community Hydration Hubs  to provide free self-serve drinking water dispensers to private businesses.

At present just 43% of the 13bn plastic bottles sold each year in the UK are recycled, and 700,000 are littered every day.

Before the pandemic the frozen food specialist Iceland trialled  “reverse vending machines” in five of its stores. These allowed customers to return plastic bottles in exchange for a voucher worth 10p. In one month 311,500 bottles were returned to the five sites returning more than £30,000 to shoppers.

Other supermarkets have also started experimenting with such machines.

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 is due to launch in August of this year and is estimated to save local authorities between £3 million and £6 million per annum in litter clearance.

Companies are alert to the reputational damage of their pollution, but to date more appears to have been invested in greenwashing than in corrective action. For example Coca Cola was a main sponsor of the Cop 27 climate conference.

As outrage grew over its involvement Coca-Cola said it shares "the goal of eliminating waste from the ocean" and appreciates "efforts to raise awareness about this challenge."

Consumers need to be alert to deceptive claims from companies. In a 2021 global review of nearly 500 websites promoting goods and services across a range of industries conducted by The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) it was discovered that 40 per cent of green claims made to consumers might be deceptive.

The simplest way of cutting through all this nonsense is to introduce and enforce the principle that polluters should pay for the damage they cause. Companies in the UK that produce the waste, including supermarkets and drinks firms, pay one of the lowest contributions towards its recycling of any country in Europe under the Producer Responsibility Obligations. Instead taxpayers pay 90% of recycling costs.

Once people see greenwashing for what it is and become aware of what needs to be done in policy terms, why this is important and what they can do as individuals what seems at first to be an impossible challenge can be achieved. 

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