How we can tackle the global plastic pandemic
Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh argues the Government should follow parliament's lead and be bolder on plastic waste.
There is a global plastic pandemic. The UN’s oceans chief has called a ‘planetary crisis’. It is everywhere from the deepest ocean to Mount Everest. It has even been found at the North Pole, one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet. Plastic has been found in every species in the Arctic, from plankton to polar bears. The UK has a special responsibility to act: the majority of the UK’s marine plastic pollution ends up in the Arctic. This is something my Committee will investigate as part of our inquiry into the changing Arctic.
In the sea, plastic is having a devastating impact on fish, seabirds, and other marine wildlife. The majority of litter in the UK’s coastal waters is plastic. Animals become tangled in large pieces of plastic debris and suffocate. Microplastics and found in rinse-off cosmetics products, are eaten by wildlife, and may end up on our dinner plates in shellfish. If you have eaten six oysters, you will have eaten 50 particles of plastic. My committee’s inquiry into microplastics resulted in a ban on their manufacture in January, and from June it will be illegal to sell products containing microbeads.
These plastics take 5 seconds to make, 5 minutes to use, and 500 years to biodegrade. My committee looked at ways we could reduce the astonishing 2.5 billion plastic bottles a year, enough to stretch around the planet five and a half times. In UK we recycle just 57% of plastic bottles, and 700,000 are littered every day, spoiling our streets, threatening our wildlife and ruining our beaches. Before my committee’s inquiry, most people thought disposable coffee cups were recycled. We use an Just 1 in 400 cups are recycled.
What can we do? My committee called for a national deposit return scheme for plastic bottles. This would reduce litter and boost recycling rates. Scotland is set to introduce a deposit return scheme, we should follow suit. I am pleased that the Government has agreed, though it will not be introduced until 2020.
The plastic bag charge has shown that charges change consumer behaviour – since it was introduced we have used 9 billion fewer bags. So we called for a 25p ‘latte levy’ on disposable coffee cups. We also called for the Government to send a clear message to industry: if all disposable coffee cups are not recycled by 2023, they should be banned.
While we wait until Government mobilises its waste strategy in September to see if they will introduce a latte levy, things are heating up in Parliament. Parliament uses millions of single use plastics every year. After pressure from my Committee, I am pleased that Parliament is phasing out single use plastics. The House of Commons is set to debate whether the latte levy should be rolled out to the whole country – I want the Government to follow Parliament’s lead. Faced with the devastation that plastic wreaks on our common home Ministers must get on with it.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.