29th April 2019 0 Comments Purpose

Calling time on single-use plastics

Last month, Plastics Oceans UK brought Sir David Attenborough to Westminster to address the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Prevention of Plastic Waste.

The event was oversubscribed, a clear win for the charity because just a fortnight earlier only a handful of MPs attended the climate change debate in the House of Commons. And just a month prior, government criticised British schoolchildren who walked out of classes in protest against the lack of climate action.

“The world globally is producing every year, 400m tonnes of plastic.”

In Attenborough’s address to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), he began with an anecdotal tale from his school days. in the early 1940s, his chemistry teacher evangelised about plastic. “You lucky people, you are going to grow up in the age of plastic … this marvellous material, it can be moulded in all kinds of ways, serve all kinds of purposes and most remarkable of all, it is virtually indestructible.”

“Since that day,” continued Attenborough “The world globally is producing every year, 400m tonnes of plastic. And over 10m tonnes goes into the ocean every year.”

Your reusable coffee cup won’t fix this

Young girl at protest holding up sign saying 'Our futures on the Line' with other adolescents around her
Photo credit: Josh Barwick

Jo Ruxton, former producer on Blue Planet and co-founder of Plastics Oceans UK, says that exporting our single-use plastic to nations in the Global South that have no waste management infrastructure is not the answer to dealing with our addiction to single use plastic.

“We cannot recycle ourselves out of this. Single use convenience lifestyles must change, and to drive behaviour change it’s imperative to challenge misinformation about plastic with the best, reliable and innovative learning environment for schoolchildren and business alike.”

The drastic change needed to clean up our oceans cannot depend alone on consumers to change their relationship to plastic.

Just six weeks following Attenborough’s address, Parliament was addressed again on the issue of climate change by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg, the schoolgirl who popularised the school strike movement. Thunberg was in London for the Extinction Rebellion protests, calling for “permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The urgency of her appeal chimes with the UN’s latest research that says we’ve just 11 years left to bring climate change under control.

The drastic change needed to clean up our oceans cannot depend alone on consumers to change their relationship to plastic. Government legislation plays a crucial role too. The 5p plastic bag levy introduced in 2018 is a welcome initiative, but does it go far enough to eliminate plastics completely from the single-use supply chain?  

Given the 11-year window we have to make environmental amends, surely more must be done in terms of ambitious legislation to impose limits on the production of disposable, single use plastic – to restrict the supply at source. If government were to set an aggressive ban on petroleum-derived plastic and fund research and development into bioplastics and other plastic alternatives, we could work faster to make the demand for single-use plastic redundant.

Two lobsters, one stone

Several plant pots in orange/grey colours with one containing a cactus
Image courtesy of Shellworks

This year, four graduates from The Royal College of Art and Imperial College launched the Shellworks project, where food waste from London’s restaurants, in this case shells of crustaceans, is turned into a bioplastic, that in time, could replace petroleum-based plastics.

We can’t grow corn, harvest algae or farm crustaceans in an attempt to replace one plastic for another.

There have been other innovations, in bioplastics, from algae to corn, however, single-use is still the problem. We can’t grow corn, harvest algae or farm crustaceans in an attempt to replace one plastic for another. We need to think of plastic in the same way we think of asbestos. Banned now for 20 years, it was a material supplied to the building industry for almost 100 years.

Change is happening quickly, though, at the time of writing, UK Parliament held a debate on Plastics on 23 April 2019, just one month on from the APPG and immediately following mass civil disobedience . In the last two months alone we’ve seen a ground-swell of awareness, engagement and support in government for re-imagining single-use plastic.

We can cease our dependency on single-use plastics, but it will take education and innovation in both industry and government to pull us out of the problem. 


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