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Only a seriously joined up global approach will protect the marine environment from plastic

3 min read

Labour MP Barry Sheerman writes following a Westminster Hall debate on the UK's role in degradation of the marine environment.

The old counter-argument to the Malthusian line of thought was that human beings were clever, innovative and creative. While the critics of Malthus were absolutely right that humans are creative, clever and innovative, the fact is that they are also greedy, careless and exploitative. That is the truth. Human ingenuity has meant we have progressed in ways previously unimaginable, but we have often done it at the expense of our planet, 70% of which is covered by water. 

Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ has highlighted the damage being caused to our marine environment and dramatically raised awareness of the issue. The challenges facing the marine environment have always been a concern of mine and I am relieved that society is finally awakening to the crisis facing it. However, change is occurring slowly when fast action is needed. This is why I recently called for a debate in Parliament on the UK’s role in the degradation of the marine environment.

According to Sky Oceans Rescue, a rubbish truck’s worth of plastic is dumped in the ocean every minute and WWF has found that 90% of world fish stocks are fully or over-exploited from fishing. This consciousness has led to many achievements, such as the ban on microbeads which will be enforced in the New Year, the creation of nearly 300 Marine Conservation Zones and the introduction of a plastic bag charge. Moreover, national campaigns to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme for bottles and the Government’s desire for the United Kingdom to “become a world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic”, as stated in the Autumn Budget, are further steps in the right direction.

However, a challenge as fundamental as this requires a global response and serious international collaboration. The ambitious aims of the United Nations Sustainability Goal 14 demonstrates that we need to be sharing our research and resources. We need to bring together the major players and the huge variety of special interest groups to tackle this problem at a fundamental level. The plastic manufacturers, the fishing and shipping liners all need to open up a dialogue with politicians and campaigners. A seriously joined-up approach will be the only successful approach. Practically, we need to map out this problem and the variety of possible solutions. For example, waste is currently dealt with through a waste hierarchy scheme which ranks the best ways to dispose of waste. This has been incredibly effective and could be expanded to construct a pollution, plastic disposal and ocean clean-up hierarchy. This would illustrate where focus needs to be most fervently concentrated. Only with a comprehensive mapping of the problem can we best learn how to solve it.

My Westminster Hall debate was testament to the passion that many Parliamentarians hold with regard to the marine environment. As well as clearing up past ravages and dealing with present issues, we must also push tomorrow’s boundaries. With collaboration we could be more innovative and inventive with our use of technology. Why can’t we think big? 

Having highlighted the need for an international and large scale response, the role of the individual cannot be overlooked. The driver of political action has always been people caring about the future that their children will inherit. A grass roots demand for change has pushed this up the political agenda, and the public can ensure it stays there. As a young MP I met and was influenced by Ernst Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’. He convinced me of the need to root activity locally but to generate unstoppable pressure for change! 

Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield

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