Attitudes towards waste and recycling have undergone a sea change during the past 25 years, with the issue moving from a concern among environmental groups into the consciousness of wider society.
As awareness builds as to what happens to the rubbish we throw away, and the consequences for the world and the ecosystems that help it thrive, individuals, local authorities and industry have stepped up efforts in the drive to recycle.
Against this backdrop, the UK has declared war on plastic pollution. While awareness of the damage plastic can do to the environment has also been gradually gaining momentum over the past 25 years, the pivotal moment in changing public views on the issue took place in December 2017.
December 2017 saw the screening of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, with the sight of albatross parents feeding their chicks plastic among many signs of the damage plastic waste is doing to the marine ecosystem. This proved a wake-up call for many, catapulting the issue onto the mainstream media agenda.
A month later, the UK government announced a comprehensive plan to tackle the country’s plastic problem.
The UK Plastics Pact1 was launched by the Waste and Resources Action Programme with a goal of meeting a series of key targets by 2025.
Backed by 40 major companies, the pact is targeting 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, with single-use packaging eliminated.
In May 2019, the UK government2 moved a step closer to reaching these goals by confirming a ban on plastic straws, drinks stirrers, and plastic stemmed cotton buds in England.
The ban was due to come into force in May 2020 and follows a consultation which saw more than 80% of respondents back a ban on the distribution and sale of plastic straws, 90% a ban on drinks stirrers, and 89% a ban on cotton buds.
Amid these signs of progress, a report issued in 2018 by the World Wildlife Fund, in conjunction with Eunomia Research & Consulting3, has projected a sharp rise in plastic waste being produced in the UK over the next decade.
Plastic waste is expected to rise from just over five million tonnes in 2018 to more than six million tonnes by 2030.
The study found packaging accounted for 67% of the UK’s plastic waste, driven by the high intake of convenience foods in the UK.
The COVID-19 crisis has inevitably spurred a rapid expansion in the production of plastic products with governments racing to boost their PPE stockpiles and citizens also clamouring for their share of supplies.
As countries start lifting their lockdown measures, we may discover that our reliance on plastic has increased and now our environment is in greater danger than before. The need for single use plastic is rising and so is the demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The majority of PPE being used to protect health workers — such as gloves, face masks and gowns — is being used once before being thrown away.
The Polytechnic of Turin has estimated that during its lifting of the lockdown phase, Italy will need 1 billion masks and half a billion gloves per month in order to protect civilians from the spread of the coronavirus. 4
According to a WWF report, “if just 1% of the masks were disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature, this would result in as many as 10 million masks 5 per month polluting the environment.”
Ultimately this pandemic could spark a surge in ocean pollution – adding to the masses of plastic waste that already threatens marine life.
Before the 2020 pandemic, environmentalists had warned of the threat posed to oceans and marine life from plastic pollution. According to a 2018 estimate by UN Environment, around 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into the Earth’s oceans each year. The Mediterranean sees 570,000 tonnes of plastic flow into it annually – an amount the WWF has described as equal to dumping 33,800 plastic bottles every minute into the sea.6
In May 2019, only 26% of plastic waste was recycled in the UK, with more than half (55%) sent to landfill. Widespread behavioural change is needed if the UK is to meet its targets for plastic waste reduction.
The war on plastic forms part of a recycling revolution which has seen a year-on-year rise in the amount of household waste recycled over the past decade.
The most recent dataset7, published in 2019, shows 45.7% of waste from households was recycled in 2017, continuing the steady increase which has seen the recycling rate rise from 40.4% in 2010.
The challenge that we all now face is to avoid undermining the positive improvement in plastic pollution awareness of recent years being overshadowed by the additional plastic waste that fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has created.
Published Date 30th June 2020
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6 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/08/more-masks-than-jellyfish-coronavirus-waste- ends-up-in-ocean
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