What are we doing about our plastic oceans?
Two weeks ago the Marine Conservation Society released their latest annual beach clean report, announcing a 22% decrease in the number of plastic bags found along UK beaches (mcsuk.org). This follows the introduction of a 5p charge for plastic bags in England on the 5th October 2015, resulting in six billion fewer bags being issued over the last year. However, despite this positive result, the overall number of litter items collected in 2016 decreased by only 4% and there was a substantial increase in the number of many other plastic items found. The number of balloon related items increased by over 50% and drinks containers, lids and caps by 4%. The marine conservation society suggest a bottle deposit return system across the whole of the UK, similar to the ‘Have you Got the Bottle’ campaign that currently exists in Scotland, along with many other campaigns to reduce plastic pollution. MCS have also recently launched a ‘Wet wipes turn nasty (when you flush them)’campaign, to increase awareness of the problems that flushing wet wipes down the toilet can have, flushing can cause sewers to block, overflow and pollute our beaches. The campaign aims to combat the misleading labelling found on many products which suggest they are suitable for flushing and help reduce ocean pollution (wetwipesturnnasty.com)
It has recently come to light how many personal care products contain microbeads, miniscule balls of plastic (microplastics), which become washed down our drains and flow into our sewer systems. These microbeads get released into our rivers, seas and eventually oceans where they contribute the ever increasing plastic soup. In 2012 Unilever announced that all of its products will be plastic free and by 2015, many other multinational companies had followed suit (beatthemicrobead.org). In September 2016 the UK government announced plans to ban microbeads and personal care products and is due to launch a 3 month review process in December (gov.uk). In anticipation of the ban large supermarkets and cosmetic brands have committed to removing microbeads from all of their products by 2017. However, in the meantime you can easily check whether products you are purchasing contain microbeads using the Beat the Microbead App or by looking for the Zero Plastic Inside logo which can be found on products that are guaranteed to be 100% free of microplastics.
The UK uses over 5 million tonnes of plastic per year, and it is estimated that about 29% of this is being recovered or recycled. Recently there have been many innovative ideas to tackle the amount of plastic that reaches our oceans as well as to clean our oceans from the plastic that is already there, causing damage to the environment. On a small, local scale, the Seabin has been designed by two surfers to clean up ports and marinas (seabinproject.com), and on a much larger scale, The Ocean Cleanup Project is designed to clean up the North Pacific Sub-tropical Gyre, more commonly known as the great pacific garbage patch (theoceancleanup.com). Here plastic from all over the world is transported by currents and accumulates at the centre of an oceanic gyre, covering millions of square miles of ocean. The project is currently in development and is set to be in operation by 2020 however, whilst it is supported by millions, many others are sceptical of its ability to make an impact on the huge plastic problem we face and are concerned over its potential to have other adverse effects on the marine environment. However it is currently the only large scale ocean clean-up operation in progress.
Whilst cleaning our oceans of plastics and other waste items, through beach cleans and other methods, to protect our marine environment we also need to continue to develop ways of reducing plastic waste. This can be by moving away from our throw-away culture, coming up with more innovative solutions to reuse, recover and recycle plastics and by increasing awareness of the plastic crisis we face amongst the general public. The Florida Saltwater Brewery have developed edible six-pack rings which decompose quickly and can even be digested by marine life (discovermagazine.com). Plastic six-pack rings are well known for becoming entangled with or eaten by many marine animals, particularly birds and turtles, often resulting in death. Whilst this innovative solution only targets a small percentage of the plastic that makes it into our oceans, it has the potential be incorporated into other markets and industries.
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