Battle against Plastic Waste

The battle against plastic waste is one of the biggest environmental issues right now, but are we ever going to win the war, asks Simon Birch?

“Plastic waste is one of the great environmental scourges of our time.” So said Prime Minister Theresa May in a speech earlier this year, something that marks the first and only time that I’m likely to agree with anything the Brexit-battered PM says.

From household plastic waste littering our beaches, to wildlife starving to death on a diet of discarded plastic debris in the southern oceans, the planet is now in grave danger from a never-ending rising tide of plastic.

But whilst the images of turtles entangled in plastic waste are grim, there is actually reason to be hopeful, and that hope comes from us: consumer power.

The good news is that we’re now witnessing one of the biggest ever public responses to any environmental issue of recent times.

“There’s been a huge surge in the grassroots plastics-free movement from community beach cleaners to campaigns against single-use plastics,” states Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage.

“Companies may try and wriggle out of questions from campaigners or journalists but when it’s their customers telling them ‘I shop with you and want to stay shopping with you so please stop producing this pointless plastic,’ that’s an important moment,” says Elena Polisano from Greenpeace.

Image: plastic garbage patch
Great Pacific Garbage Patch, credit Greenpeace

Fight against plastic

So, just how are we going to win the war on single-use plastic waste and who should be leading the fight: industry, government or shoppers?

Polisano is in no doubt as to who needs to make the most running: “What we’ve got to do is turn off the tap of plastic production,” says Polisano.

“Ultimately supermarkets need to reduce the amount of plastic packaging they use in the first place. Stopping excess plastic at the source will mean that there’s less of it in circulation, and ultimately less plastic in our oceans.”

Encouragingly, earlier this year, Iceland vowed to become the world’s first supermarket to eliminate all plastic packaging from all its own-label products within five years.

And in a positive sign of a race-to-the-top amongst the UK’s big supermarkets, just as Ethical Consumer was going to press, the Co-op announced a pledge that all its own-brand packaging would become easy to recycle by 2023. 

The pledge is just one measure among many that will see the Co-op aim to slash its plastic footprint.

For example, the Co-op is set to be the first major supermarket in the UK to replace single-use plastic carrier bags with lightweight compostable alternatives that shoppers can reuse as biodegradable bags for food waste.

But whilst these initiatives are steps in the right direction, many look to government to provide a firm stick to ensure that all companies act on plastic:

“Government needs to step in and underpin voluntary commitments that companies make on plastic with strong legislation that really drives out all but the essential uses of plastic,” says Polisano. “Smart, well-aimed interventions can have a massive positive impact such as the plastic bag charge.”

Campaigners are now looking to government to introduce a comprehensive deposit return scheme for all plastic drinks containers as well as a ban on everything from plastic straws to plastic cotton buds.

Image: Bottle deposit scheme
Plastic bottle deposit return scheme at Iceland Supermarket in London. The bottles are exchanged for a token worth 10p per bottle that can be spent in the store. Credit: Kristian Buss, Greenpeace.

What role do shoppers have?

Take the jaw-droppingly environmentally irresponsible example of WHSmith, which is currently flogging water from Fiji in single-use plastic bottles. Surely if shoppers didn’t buy it then WHSmith wouldn’t sell it?

Polisano isn’t convinced: “Taking responsibility for your own purchases is important but if companies, such as WHSmith didn’t sell products such as this then shoppers wouldn’t buy it,” concludes Polisano.
“At the heart of this issue is that companies need to take responsibility for the plastic waste they create.”

However, this isn’t to say that consumers don’t have a key role to play in piling on the pressure on supermarkets to ditch single-use plastic. Surfers Against Sewage are now supporting the creation of almost 400 plastic-free communities across the UK that are encouraging thousands of individual consumers to cut their single-use plastic footprint.

So, given that we’re finally seeing action on single-use plastic, what are the chances that we can consign it to the recycling bin of history?
Hugo Tagholm likens the war on single-use plastic to the campaign to clean up our seas and beaches in the 1990s.
“It took powerful EU legislation and 15 years for water companies to put in the necessary infrastructure and investment that finally lead to the improved water quality that we have today,” he says.

“It’s the same thing today with the campaign against single-use plastic,” says Tagholm who believes that eventually we’re going to win: “We may be at the very start of the campaign, but I believe that in 15 years’ time we’re going to be living in a world which has a very different relationship with plastic.”

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