Insight: Sea change ahead in global war on waste plastic

A sea turtle encumbered by waste. Picture: REX/Shutterstock
A sea turtle encumbered by waste. Picture: REX/Shutterstock
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Pollution of the oceans by plastic waste is now a serious threat to people, wildlife and the planet. The scale of the problem is shocking, and although climate change is often described as the biggest menace faced by mankind, the United Nations has put plastic pollution up there with it.

However, there are growing grounds for optimism that solutions to the problem can be found.

There’s no doubt the invention of plastics about 70 years ago has benefited society in many ways. It’s cheap, versatile, lightweight and long-lasting. But these desirable attributes are also the problem. Plastics can take anything from 10 to 1,000 years to break down, gradually fragmenting into ever smaller pieces. It’s thought all the plastic that has ever been produced and wasn’t burned still exists in some form.

Most littered plastic ultimately ends up in the ocean, where it can be transported to the most remote and hardest to reach places. Swirled by currents, it accumulates over time at the centre of major ocean vortices, forming vast islands of floating debris. The largest and best known is the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, halfway between Hawaii and California. Discovered in the 1980s, it is now three times the size of France. There is nowhere in the world’s seas that plastic has not been found.

Whales and dolphins are dying through entanglement in abandoned fishing gear. Turtles are swallowing carrier bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Seabirds are unwittingly feeding plastic fragments to their chicks, condemning them to a slow and painful death from starvation.

An estimated 100,000 marine mammals die each year from the effects of plastic debris, along with more than a million seabirds and countless fish. And we’re swallowing it, too – recent tests on mussels caught around the UK found all contained particles of plastic, while traces have also been discovered in bottled water.

The good news is experts believe there is plenty we can do to reverse the situation if we act now and change our behaviour.

Already we are seeing innovative solutions being trialled. This week the pioneering Ocean Cleanup device – a massive “Pac-Man” that sweeps up floating rubbish – was launched, with the aim of cleaning up the North Pacific in five years. Yesterday the Ocean Saviour, a ship that hoovers up plastic and uses it as fuel, was unveiled at the Southampton Boat Show. Scientists have also recently discovered bacteria that eat plastic, raising hopes of a natural method of disposing of waste.

But to properly get on top of the problem will require a multi-pronged approach, including large-scale clean-ups and shutting down sources of new pollution.

Environmental campaigners have long been calling for a deposit-return scheme – where a levy is charged on items such as soft drinks and refunded to the consumer when the empties are brought back – as part of the solution.

Research by Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) shows more than 64,000 tonnes of plastic food packaging and bottles are thrown into household rubbish bins and sent to landfill in Scotland every year, costing an annual £11 million. Only about half of single-use drinks containers sold here are recycled.

Meanwhile, evidence from countries such as Norway, Sweden and Germany suggests charging refundable deposits can boost recycling rates for targeted containers to as much as 90 per cent.

The Scottish Government last year committed to introducing a deposit-return scheme in a bid to combat plastic pollution, raise recycling rates and help create a circular economy in which nothing goes to waste. Westminster has announced plans to follow suit.

A consultation is under way, with people being asked for their views on how the new scheme should work. There are 12 key questions: what will be recycled; whether items other than bottles should be included; where items should be taken retrieve the cash deposit; how the Scottish Government will pay for the initiative; how the public should be told about it; the level of deposit; what infrastructure should be put in place to make sure it works; how to safeguard the system against abuse; how to assess its success; who would judge its performance; who should run it; and whether there should be additional benefits.

ZWS has been tasked with designing the scheme. The group has produced four models based on systems in place elsewhere to allow people to consider the options.

Iain Gulland, ZWS chief executive, says the aim is to deliver a scheme specially tailored to suit Scotland’s requirements rather than one helicoptered in wholesale from elsewhere.

“Part of this commitment has involved a comprehensive programme of engagement with key stakeholders, followed by a nationwide drive to gather views on the scheme in every local authority in Scotland.

“We were determined that as many people as possible should have the chance to have their say and this programme has proved extremely successful, with large numbers of people engaging with our public events and online communications.

“It shows the appetite in Scotland for us all to live a more sustainable lifestyle and the understanding of a need for more care in how we dispose of things we use.”

Some of the systems already in place abroad have already been shown to work well, raising the reclamation rate of target items and creating a step-change in behaviour.

Terje Hanserud, who is chief technical officer for the global recycling firm Envipco, has been involved in beverage recovery systems for the past two decades, helping to set up deposit-return operations in Europe, the US and Canada. In his experience, the most efficient schemes are run by an administration company made up of retailers and producers. He insists it’s also crucial to set the deposit at the right level to incentivise recycling. It’s thought the Scottish system will charge 10p or 20p.

Although a 100 per cent return rate is unheard of, some countries are achieving 90 per cent or more. And the system can create a step-change in society, fostering better habits with regard to rubbish.

He says: “Two groups are key to the feasibility of running a DRS. Bottlers, who produce the drinks, and retailers, who sell and receive the empties.

“The Scottish Government needs to set its target recycling rate and decide what products to include in the scheme. Then an administrator will need to be set up to manage the scheme. If it’s done well then it becomes a competitive opportunity for everyone involved and creates a new dynamic in society.

“In some places in the US deposits have been the same for years and they have seen recycling rates drop. The deposit needs to be meaningful. In places where it’s right you never see a beverage container in a bin for long – someone will pick it up to recycle and claim the deposit.”

Coca Cola has announced its support for deposit-return schemes in Scotland and the UK. The drinks giant, which also owns the Lilt and Fanta brands, uses 120 billion bottles a year.

Nick Brown, the company’s head of sustainability, is of the same view as Hanserud. He adds: “It must be easy for the public, with no penalty for doing the right thing. This means good provision of return points and a deposit that is not subject to tax.”

He believes the scheme should be overseen by a not-for-profit management company run by producers and retailers, which would ensure effective financial management and fraud control. Retailers, machine suppliers and hauliers should be paid for services they provide, with operating costs covered by the sale of collected materials, deposits that aren’t redeemed by the public and a fee on producers and retailers.

Roseanna Cunningham, Scotland’s environment secretary, has high hopes for the proposed scheme, which she believes has universal support and will bring a range of benefits. But she stresses the need to get it right from the outset as adaptations might be difficult at a later date. “The question is not so much about the principle but about how you choose the system that will work best,” she says.

“I’ve not met anyone who doesn’t think we need to do something like this. The questions are more about what’s underneath the principle, which is an interesting thing. What we’ve done is put out four different models. We’re not putting out a preferred model – we’d like to see what people think about the examples. I’m hoping for a really clear response.”

Analysis of the feedback should be complete by Christmas, and if everything is straightforward then a decision is likely to be announced next spring.

Cunningham adds: “Our immediate issue from the government’s perspective is to get a deposit-return scheme up and running, to make it as ambitious as we can at this point and to get it into place.

“We’re doing the consultation, we’re keeping this moving.”

She says Scottish ministers are continuing to liaise with Westminster and Welsh leaders over the implications of rolling out a scheme across the UK.

“Clearly the more cross-border it can be, the better – and that goes for all the borders,” she says.

“We’ve agreed a co-operation but they’ve not even started consulting yet so they are a wee way behind us. What I don’t want is to find we’re not able to get on and do what we want to do – we will continue talking to them and the hope is that they might have regard to the Scottish consultation and the Scottish experience when they come to do their own scheme.”

The consultation is due to close on 25 September. It’s not necessary to answer all the questions, but everyone should take the opportunity to make their views heard and play a part in creating the new system.

“At the end of the day the big benefit is the litter disappears, and given that 80 per cent of what ends up in the sea starts off on the land then you make a big impact there as well and we need to be doing that,” Cunningham adds.

“So the deposit-return scheme will be part of the solution to marine plastic pollution and the terrestrial litter problem.

“It also inserts a big recycling opportunity, which we think is an important potential part of the future circular economy. There is an economic opportunity for Scotland in growing the recycling side of industry.

“I’m fond of saying it’s never been so sexy to talk rubbish. But effectively it is because everybody is switched on to it now, aware of the problems it creates, but we need to switch people on to the opportunities, too.”