It was tough viewing Blue Planet II this weekend with its portrayal of the consequences of plastic building up in our oceans. There is no doubt that marine life is under threat from a material which, in its everyday use, is a marvel. The modern world would fall apart, literally and figuratively, if we stopped using plastic tomorrow.
But that’s not say we should use whatever practical powers are available to us globally to minimise the dangers of its misuse or neglect.
Since most plastic goes into Asian seas, that would be a good place to start. Ocean Conservancy reported in 2016 that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam dumped as much as 60% of the plastic waste that enters the world’s seas.
A contributory reason is that the US, UK and other ‘developed’ countries export sorted, recycled materials to Asia that do not generally recycle domestic material. Our convenient bales of plastic are used to make products that are exported back to the west. China’s recent import restrictions will mean more materials being sourced domestically, but that is only a start. British, and other western, expertise in recycling technologies is such that we can help to drive recycling in all these ‘dumping’ countries.
A consequence, though, of greater recycling in China, Vietnam and others will be no market for our own surplus plastic. Even if we had sufficient energy-from-waste plants to burn this extra material, it would ultimately be an unsatisfactory way of dealing with a valuable resource.
A comprehensive approach to the use of plastic in all products is needed. Designers must be encouraged to use, in all possible cases, secondary materials. They must design for recycling or reusability. Brand owners should be incentivised by both carrot and stick to prioritise secondary materials.
And what of the growing public concern in the UK of the effect of waste plastics on Mother Earth? The Treasury has indicated it will look at taxing single-use plastic packaging and comparisons are drawn with the 5p plastic bag charge. The latter had a profound impact on consumer behaviour and politicians deserve credit for introducing it.
But, in that case, for consumers it was a question of bag or no bag. I am not convinced that charging more for non-recyclable packaging will make anything like the difference. By all means try, chancellor, but you should also offer manufacturers the carrot of tax relief if recycled and recyclable materials are used in the first place.
By addressing the waste issue across a product’s life cycle, we can reduce exports of secondary plastics significantly. That in turn will encourage Asian economies to recycle more of their own plastics – rather than ‘losing’ a valuable resource as marine litter that destroys ecosystems.