Is The UK Government Doing Enough To Save Our Environment?

We were all distressed at the sight of Blue Planet II’s final episode where a Hawksbill Turtle was entangled in a plastic sack, an Albatross parents unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic and mother dolphins exposing their new-born calves to pollutants through contaminated milk.

David Attenborough delivered a powerful call to do more to help the environment during the episode which showcased the true threat of plastic pollution to our waters and sea creatures.

“The future of humanity and indeed all life on Earth now depends on us” Attenborough went on to say during his closing speech – watch the full message below.

I’m pretty confident in saying that most viewers got chills after hearing those words, I know I did and it made me reflect on the plastic I had taken in that day.

  1. A subway salad box
  2. Single use cutlery
  3. Plastic bag
  4. A bottle of water
  5. A pack of crisps
  6. Coffee cup lid
  7. A plastic straw
  8. Chinese takeaway containers
  9. Another plastic bag

Apart from realising I have an awful diet, I was astounded at how much plastic we use without even realising every day, most of which goes un-recycled if there is only a general waste bin in a restaurant or in the street.

This even includes items I almost forgot such as your shower gel, shampoo and conditioner bottles, the bottle your olive oil comes in, even fruit and vegetables that have a natural protection skin come in plastic.

On April 26th this year the UK Plastics Pact was launched, it’s an initiative that will create a circular economy for plastics according to their website.

“Bringing together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with UK governments and NGO’s to tackle the scourge of plastic waste.”

What they mean by keeping a circular economy for plastics is that instead of keeping our linear plastics economy, where we make, use and dispose of plastic evolving it to a system where we keep plastic in the economy and out of the natural environment. A circular movement.

The UK Plastics Pact has already successfully partnered with over 70 businesses including major supermarket chains such as ASDA, M&S, Morrisons and Tesco.

Nikki Dixon, Senior manager for Plastic Reduction at ASDA said:

“No business is able to fully tackle the issue of plastic waste alone – we need the whole industry to work collaboratively to confront the problem. I’m delighted Asda is a founding member of The UK Plastics Pact, further underlining our promise to our customers to use less and recycle more plastic.”

The UK Plastics Pact is definitely a step in the right direction but is it enough?

The single use 5p bag charge implemented in 2015 has made a significant difference, with recent statistics revealing the amount used by shoppers in England has reduced by more than 85%.

A total of 7 billion bags were handed out by the seven main supermarkets in the year before the changes, but this figure decreased to slightly more than 500 million in the first six months after the change was introduced, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.

Environment minister, Therese Coffey, said:

“Taking 6 billion bags out of circulation is fantastic news for all of us. It will mean our precious marine life is safer, our communities are cleaner and future generations won’t be saddled with mountains of plastic taking hundreds of years to breakdown in landfill sites.

It shows small actions can make the biggest difference, but we must not be complacent, as there is always more we can all do to reduce waste and recycle what we use.”

The stats are impressive, it’s hard to imagine what 6 billion plastic bags look like but it’s the equivalent to about 900,000,000m2, over three times the area of Birmingham, or 6 billion bags laid end-to-end would stretch 75 times around the world.

Lucy Boutwood, founder of Plastic Free Whitstable said:

“Government changes are way too slow all around the world. There’s a lot happening but until we really get a grip on kerb side recycling and make it easy for people, the change will be slow. Charges and taxes will help but it’s not enough. Everyone is struggling to find an answer.”

The elimination of plastic, particularly straws has encouraged businesses to think more green.

Starbucks recently announced it will trial alternative solutions for plastic straws, testing the public reaction to paper and biodegradable plastic straws.

Plastic straws are a huge environmental problem, they are too lightweight to be recycled and often are made out of the same plastic as Styrofoam, which is not recyclable.

Alongside this trial, Starbucks have released results from the first six weeks of a three-month trial into reusable cups.

You may have noticed people using reusable cups in your daily run to Starbucks, 35 stores have implemented a 5p paper cup charge, with profits being donated to an environmental charity. Customers using a reusable cup also receive 25p off their order.

Results show that there has been a staggering 150% increase in reusable cup usage.

Starbucks are not alone with commitments from McDonald’s, Weatherspoons and Wagamama phasing out the use of plastic straws across their UK branches.

40 of the largest UK businesses have also signed a pledge with UK Plastics Pact to make all their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Michaela Hollywood, who has spinal muscular atrophy, has urged companies however to ensure they are providing an alternative, such as paper straws, because disabled people sometimes rely on straws to drink.

However members on the ‘Kent’s Journey to Zero-Waste’ had other views

Maria Martin said:

“If you need a straw for drinking it makes sense to carry a reusable one anyway.”

Kylie Brown, who has a disabled son said:

“My son is disabled and I buy him special straws to drink with. At his residential school, they have a stash of McDonalds straws for him as it means he is able to drink when out and be more like his peers, it’s important for his confidence. I understand the wider concerns regarding the damage they cause but sometimes there’s a rational need.”

The war on plastic waste has reached Canterbury, last month Unboxed Kent opened its doors after owner Lynda Desmarais was shocked at how much packaging she wasted when even trying to reduce it.

Mrs Desmarais told Kent Online:

“…one night I woke up and thought why not go back to basics, like my own mother did when she went shopping and there was hardly any packaging.”

“We will encourage customers to bring their own shopping bags and receptacles but will also have brown paper bags if needed”

“We are trying to keep prices down to supermarket levels and it’s certainly not about making a big profit.”

Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently said in an interview that more investment is needed in the fight to reduce the amount of plastic we use as he announced a ban on cotton ear buds as one of the next steps.

Plastic pollution can be difficult to imagine if you’ve not seen it first hand, for one local Kent artist Dan Webb decided to start a project, where he kept all the plastic he used throughout one year, without reducing it in any way, each item was cleaned and stored in his spare room.

The artwork is being showcased at Dreamland, Margate.

The results were astonishing, after producing 4,490 items. If we take Dan as the average consumer and multiply his intake by the population of the UK, it would mean in a year the UK on average throw away 293 billion pieces of plastic.

I spoke to some zero waste locals from Canterbury, I was worried I’d feel judged or guilty about my plastic waste but after speaking to a few people I realised I was wrong. They weren’t these plastic free warrior cliches I’d imagined, but instead incredibly helpful in giving me tips on how to start reducing my intake. These are their top tips:

Zoe Stevenson said: “Don’t try to do everything at once. Start small and build up from there. Don’t beat yourself up when you get something wrong.
Shampoo and soap bars are one of the easiest switches to make to start with.”

Denise Mcgivney-Nolan said: “Baby steps. Otherwise it becomes utterly exhausting and overwhelming (at least I found that). Summit each mountain one at a time. Start with easy things, so for me; reusable coffee takeaway keep cups, always have a reusable water bottle so you don’t have to buy bottled water, always have a carrier bag with you when you go out for any shopping you might do. Then I found it just built up from there. Stop buying cling film and use food wraps, buy lose veggies rather than packaged etc… We’re far from zero waste in our house, but we have a v young family and they create a massive amount of rubbish. I’m doing my best at the moment, it’s far from perfect but I’m not beating myself up about it.”

Jess Bunce said: “We are still very much in the early stages but shampoo bar is an easy swap, reusable water bottles, food waste bin (if you haven’t already), loose veg wherever possible. But we also try buying products which come in recyclable plastic if we can’t get it plastic free. Or minimal plastic that needs the bin. I’ve started using reusable cotton pads/make up remover wipes which I love. Reusable dish cloths. But not all of this at once! Start with the easy ones and make them habits then move onto others.

Charlotte Gray said: “Menstrual cup and reusable cotton pad to remove make up! That’s my top 2 easy swap that save up a lot of plastic and money.”

In conclusion, I think the government is seeing changes need to be made, but that’s about where it stops. Sure, putting a charge on a plastic straw is going to reduce our intake but it’s not going to stop it completely.

People need to be educated on where their waste ends up, and it should start from a young age so the next generation can reduce even further.