Clearing the millions of tonnes of plastic in the oceans is a job for future generations and humanity must focus on “turning off the tap” of plastic to avoid catastrophe, an environmental charity has said.
The devastation caused by plastic pollution was catapulted to the public’s attention in 2018 – largely due to the powerful images broadcast in Sir David Attenborough’s BBC TV series Blue Planet II.
“Single-use” was named by Collins Dictionary as word of the year, and dozens of possible strategies to cut back on plastic were announced by the government.
Major brands including McDonald’s, Wetherspoons and Costa began phasing out plastic straws, and there was more progress in December when the European parliament announced a ban on a raft of single-use plastic items including cutlery, cotton buds, drink stirrers and polystyrene food containers, which is due to come into force in 2021.
But despite the positive noises, there has been little tangible change in the UK and with Brexit looming scientists at the Herefordshire-based Marine Conservation Society (MCS) fear promises made in 2018 could be shelved by a government in crisis.
Oceanographer Dr Laura Foster, head of clean seas at MCS, believes despite the public outcry against plastic pollution seen this year, the only way to maintain momentum is to incentivise change.
Recycling rates have stagnated for several years, but the government is considering a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans, and also plans for manufacturers to bear the cost of the waste they produce.
Dr Foster said: “In 2018, we’ve been referring to the ‘Blue Planet II effect’ – I think it really brought it into people’s homes beyond those who are connected to conservation work or campaigning on single use plastics.”
MCS saw record numbers of people join its beach cleans, and all over the world there were headlines about plans to reverse the destruction caused by plastic. But without drastic change to the way we consume plastic, MCS believes that piecemeal efforts to undo the damage are doomed.
Dr Foster said: “The most important thing at the moment should be to look at stopping the amount going into the ocean – think of an overflowing bath with the taps on full blast. Meanwhile we’re trying to bail with a teaspoon and we’re wondering why that’s not having an effect.
“We need to focus on stopping things going into the ocean in the first place and it may be that future generations look at a clean up.”