Government has cut marine plastic pollution by 2 per cent, but it could stop two thirds

Friday 4 August 2017
Dustin Benton Dustin BentonPolicy director020 7630

Plastic marine litter from the UK could be reduced by nearly two thirds with five simple actions, reveals a new analysis by think tank Green Alliance. One, a deposit return scheme for beverage containers, would stop a third of the plastic going into the oceans. [1, 2]

Plastic pollution has serious implications for the fishing and tourism industries, and to human health. Keeping it from getting into the ocean is the most effective means of protecting the sea and people.

In a speech to WWF on 21 July, Environment Secretary Michael Gove promised to tackle marine plastic litter as part of a renewed waste and resources strategy. Mr Gove’s announcement that microbeads will be banned from rinse-off products later this year is a step forward, but it will tackle less than 1% of the problem. The government’s plastic bag charge also addresses 1% of the plastic that enters the sea.

Other well publicised methods, which use buoys to remove litter from the open oceans, only tackle floating debris and so could only remove 2% of the plastic that gets into the sea. This is because most plastic sinks below the ocean surface or is ingested by animals. [3]

Green Alliance analysis shows that the single most effective action would be to stop plastic bottles getting into the sea through a deposit return scheme (see infographic 2). The largest proportion (33%) of plastic litter comes from plastic bottles (see infographic 1), and this problem is likely to escalate as global bottle production is forecast to jump by 20 per cent by 2021.

Deposit return schemes are already widely implemented abroad and have been very successful (nearly 100% of plastics bottles are returned for recycling in Germany); they also provide access to more high quality plastics for recycling, preventing them from going to landfill, incineration or finding their way into the environment. [4]

Alongside a deposit return scheme, four other actions would reduce the UK’s contribution to plastic pollution in the sea by nearly two thirds in total (see infographic 2):

• enforce Operation Clean Sweep to cut pollution from plastic pellets or ‘nurdles’ used as raw material in industrial processes (9% of plastic pollution); [5]

• enforce existing maritime waste dumping bans, using techniques similar to those used by Norway to enforce its fish discards ban (11% of plastic pollution); [6]

• upgrade wastewater treatment plants with sand filters to retain the microplastic fibres shed from synthetic clothes when they are washed (9% of plastic pollution); [7] and

• expand the UK’s ban on microbeads to all products, not just rinse-off products (1% of plastic pollution).[8]

Dustin Benton, acting policy director for Green Alliance said:
"It’s depressing to visit a beach that is covered with plastic, and downright scary to learn that the seafood you are eating might be contaminated by plastic pollution. The popularity of the microbeads ban and plastic bag charge shows the public is up for tackling these problems. The government should listen, introduce a bottle deposit scheme, and enforce rules on sources of industrial waste. These simple steps would address two thirds of the UK’s marine plastic problem."


Dustin Benton, acting policy director, Green Alliance (available for interview), 020 7630 4522

[1] The infographic, How to stop two thirds of plastic waste getting into the sea is published today by Green Alliance.
[2] Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. Since 1979, it has been working with a growing network of influential leaders in business, NGOs and politics to stimulate new thinking and dialogue on environmental policy, and increase political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK.

[3] Optimal placement of ocean buoys would remove 31% of the 6% of marine plastic pollution that floats: or about 2% of the total. Calculation based on analysis from: Peter Sherman and Erik van Sebille, ‘Modeling marine surface microplastic transport to assess optimal removal locations’, Environmental Research Letters, Volume 11, Number 1.

[4] Deposit return schemes are effective in virtually eliminating beverage litter, which accounts for a third of the volume of plastics entering our seas. Such systems see a small charge placed on container packaging at the point of sale (between 5p and 20p), which can later be redeemed upon the return of the packaging to an authorised centre or the original seller. They are widespread throughout Europe, where 130 million people live in countries with deposit return schemes, and in large portions of North America and Australia. In places like Germany, nearly 100 per cent of plastic bottles are returned for recycling through a long established system. The UK, by contrast, currently only collects around 57 per cent of plastic bottles that go on the market, despite near universal coverage of kerbside recycling schemes. The need to collect the remaining 43 per cent of bottles, in part to prevent them from entering the marine environment, means political interest in such schemes is growing. Plans are most advanced in Scotland, with design options and potential costs currently being considered, while Wales is investigating such schemes as part of a wider study into extended producer responsibility. In England, campaigners, opposition political parties and some businesses are increasing pressure on the government to act on the plans to investigate the schemes, announced in the National Litter Strategy.

[5] Operation Clean Sweep: Nurdles are small plastics pellets that are used to manufacture nearly all plastic, and that end up in the marine environment as a result of spills and mishandling. Operation Clean Sweep is an international industry led programme to prevent nurdle leakage into the environment. It involves the whole value chain across the plastics industry, from plastics producers, to processors, to logistics operators. At present, Operation Clean Sweep is only a voluntary initiative and there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure that companies adhere to best practice to prevent pellet loss. Mandatory measures should be put in place to address what is effectively a form of industrial pollution.

[6] Enforce existing bans on maritime litter: Norway has put in place a ban on fish discards, an initiative that has proven successful in reducing discards over the years. Enforcement includes a marine patrol presence through the coastguard, which was found to be a key deterrent to discarding. A similar catch quota management scheme implemented in the North Sea includes a remote electronic monitoring system with CCTV cameras on board fishing vessels. Based on the success of this scheme in reducing fish discards, similar enforcement mechanisms could be applied for existing bans on maritime litter and could include mandatory GPS on board to facilitate location of maritime waste for retrieval, mandatory reporting of gear loss and satellite-based monitoring.

 [7] Synthetic fibres from clothing enter the wastewater system as microplastic fragments through industrial laundries or domestic washing machines. Standard wastewater treatment cannot remove such small particles, and consequently plastic fibres are prevalent in the marine environment. Sand filtration is a tertiary treatment that can be introduced in addition to the currently implemented wastewater treatment processes. In this step, the pre-treated wastewater passes through a sand layer that removes contaminants including suspended solids like synthetic fibres.

 [8] Plastic microbeads are commonly used in personal care products and cosmetics. Over 680 tonnes of plastic microbeads are estimated to be used in the UK every year. Use of these products, which can contain several thousand microbeads per gram of product, results in the direct entry of plastic beads into the wastewater system and eventually the aquatic environment. Various cosmetics companies have committed to phasing out microbeads, but the commitment is not universal. Speaking to WWF on 21 July 2017, Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove confirmed that a UK ban on the manufacture of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products will be implemented by the end of the year.