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21 March 2022updated 23 Mar 2022 9:02am

How the UK can fight global plastic pollution

Policymakers and experts gathered at a New Statesman round-table event to discuss the UK’s role in the global plastics crisis.

By Spotlight

Our global use of plastics is at crisis point, with 11 million tonnes of it ending up in the oceans every year. Some of these plastics can take over 400 years to break down, and plastic production, consumption and disposal are significant drivers of climate change, with the plastics value chain contributing 3 to 4 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. 

At a recent round-table event hosted online by the New Statesman and sponsored by the University of Portsmouth, a group of policymakers and experts gathered to discuss the UK’s role in the global plastics crisis. They discussed considerations for UK plastics policy and regulation, the opportunities for the UK research and innovation communities, and the potential for the UK to be a global leader in this area. The round table happened hot on the heels of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, which saw 173 countries set out to develop an international legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. 

The group agreed that significant change would only work if the entire system of production, consumption and waste management was considered as a whole. Alan Whitehead, shadow minister for energy and the Green New Deal, stressed the need for “government direction”, and for the UK to make a commitment to stopping the production of plastics as far as possible, gathering up the plastic that we have in an efficient way, and ending the export of it to other parts of the globe. 

Simon Terry, managing director of Anglepoise, a lighting manufacturer, explained how he had seen, first hand, plastic infiltrating every part of the supply chain, from the polystyrene boxes in his warehouse to the carry handles on the company’s products. Paula Chin, senior policy adviser for conservation organisation WWF UK, agreed, and warned of the complexity of the system and, therefore, against blanket solutions. She explained that if everyone were to switch away from some plastics, which had previously been recycled, “all of a sudden you’ve got all this material that doesn’t have an end market for its use and a secondary life. What do we do with it? It becomes another element of waste.” 

There was consensus among the group that government intervention was vital for pushing forward any solution. Matt Davies, head of public and industrial affairs at the British Plastics Federation, said “there is a suite of solutions – one solution will not do it all. There is a job for industry but also for government.” Chin echoed this, and said that, at present, “low-hanging fruit” policies are getting “kicked down the road”, including delays to implementation programmes and system overhauls. 

Reflecting on the progress made by politicians, Alberto Costa, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on microplastics, said that “parliament and government have made inroads into banning single-use plastics”. He said the APPG had put pressure on the government to consider mandating the fitting of microfibre/microplastic washing machine filters on all domestic and commercial washing machines, “which has resulted in the government undertaking a series of discussions and talks with some of the stakeholders”. However, he also stressed that action cannot just come from the government, and that pressure from the media and buy-in from the public is important because “each of us has a role to play”.

Terry agreed that the public had a role to play in tackling the plastics crisis but emphasised the need to provide people not just with choice, but with the right choice – one that was good for the person and the planet. “Citizens want to do the right thing in so many ways, but the solutions are so complicated,” said the Anglepoise managing director.

He added that even something as simple as choosing the right lightbulb can be confusing for the consumer, and if we amplify this issue across industries we can see what a huge issue this is. Davies of the British Plastics Federation concurred: “Consumers have a role to play but it shouldn’t be put all on them to make the right choices.” Chin agreed that the current system was a “minefield for citizens”. “We’re facing an existential crisis so we can’t expect the average household to make choices which could make that crisis better or worse.”

All parties agreed that the UK had the potential to be a global leader in the drive to end plastic pollution. Christina Dixon, deputy campaign lead (Oceans) at the Environmental Investigation Agency, said the UK was a co-sponsor of “the most ambitious resolution that was put on the table [at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi] with regards to plastic pollution”. As a result, Dixon explained that it was imperative that the marker the UK has now put in the ground translates through to the negotiation phase, and by “doing the best we can at a national level” we can create a standard for other countries around the world. 

Professor Steve Fletcher outlined the work of the Global Plastics Policy Centre at the University of Portsmouth. He explained it was “committed to making a difference” by bringing an evidence-based approach to plastic policymaking, to help find sustainable solutions to tackle plastic pollution around the world. The centre is the first of its kind and is designed to give governments and business groups the evidence needed to make better policy decisions and reduce the negative impacts of plastics. He spoke about the various innovations the university was leading on, including the pioneering technique of a plastic-eating enzyme, and the research on microplastics in the home and the impact on human health. 

The panel said it was vital that the UK shared its knowledge and expertise globally. Kristin Hughes, director at the Global Plastic Action Partnership, said: “I think that we should find ways to capture those learnings and share them across to some of our other partners, perhaps in the Commonwealth”. Patrick Mahon, head of policy at social enterprise Common Seas, also stressed this point, that we “absolutely need to help countries assess the problem and the size of problem”. He explained how Common Seas has designed a tool to assist low to middle-income countries with plastic pollution, helping them to assess their “worst offenders”, analyse how it may get worse over time, and to think sensibly about policy solutions. 

Fletcher concluded the round table by stating that although “there aren’t any simple answers”, the conversation has highlighted that “any isolated policy or intervention that doesn’t respect the wider system in which it sits is unlikely to be effective”. As a result, he emphasised the need to think about how we transition to a different system, what institutions need to shift, and how we create the incentives that will alter policies and fight the global plastics crisis.

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