What is the UK doing to protect our seas by cutting down on our plastic waste?

When we use a plastic toothbrush, it’s hard to avoid thinking about where that brush will end up once we've finished with it.

Plastics have been found to impact on almost 700 species in our oceans, including 60% of all seabirds and 100% of all sea turtles species.

The problem though starts here on land, where in the UK it’s estimated that 5 million tonnes of plastic is used every year.

So, what are the UK doing to combat single-use plastic pollution?


What is the UK Government doing in England?

Coronavirus delayed the planned Single-Use Plastics Ban by six months, but the UK Government recently renewed its pledge to battle the problem.  From October 2020 however, Defra will have implemented its ban on plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds in England, and from 2022 it will introduce a tax on plastic packaging to ‘penalise’ companies if they produce (or import) packaging which does not contain at least 30% recycled content.

There are also new & extended producer responsibility schemes which penalise businesses if their packaging is difficult to recycle, all aimed at helping to encourage a move towards a more circular economy.

The UK government wants to have zero avoidable waste by 2050 and it has a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042. The aim is also to ensure that all plastic packaging is either recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025.

Finally, there are also proposals for an English Deposit Return scheme and proposed reforms to the 'plastics producer' systems in the Environment Bill 2019-20.


What’s happening in Wales?

Plastic straws, stirrers, balloon sticks, cotton buds, cutlery, polystyrene food and drink containers, and some types of carrier bags are also to be banned in Wales.

A consultation on the proposals will take place in the coming months, with restrictions expected to come into force in the first half of 2021.

The aim is that Wales will be a Zero-Waste nation by the year 2050.


What are the moves in Scotland?

Scotland deserves credit as being the first country in the UK to ban plastic-stemmed cotton buds (go Scotland!).

Their 'Deposit Return Scheme' is also expecting to capture 90% of plastic bottles, glass bottles, aluminium & steel cans when it starts operating (see here for some really cool stats).

Other items, including cutlery, plates, and food and drink containers made of expanded polystyrene, will be banned or restricted by July 2021.

A outright ban on the manufacture and sale of microbeads came into force in 2018.


What are businesses doing?

Businesses came together in the Plastics Pact, which has a target of 2025 to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging, for all plastic packaging to be re‑usable, recyclable, or compostable and for 70% to be recycled or composted.

There is also the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan which includes an increase in the collection of recyclable plastics, improvements in sorting, and development of end markets for recycled plastics.

The UK Circular Plastics Network brings together plastic product users through networking and knowledge-sharing events.  In particular, supermarkets and a number of retailers now have many initiatives aimed at reducing plastic packaging including having 'plastic-free' aisles in stores and allowing customers to use their own packaging/containers to purchase certain goods.


What can you do?

One of the simplest things you can do is to stop using single-use plastics wherever possible.  The reality is that businesses and governments often only take action when there is sufficient public pressure and consumer buying habits can play a large part in this.

Making small changes such as replacing your plastic toothbrushes for bamboo or using Keep-cups/insulated water bottles instead of single-use water bottles and coffee cups also generate a positive impact.

Looking for items in non-plastic, recyclable packaging also sends a signal to large businesses that our needs are changing - and if this fails, try out a zero-waste shop - they're popping up in more & more places.

In summary, there's a lot going on.  Unfortunately, nothing changes overnight but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't all try our play our part - big changes don't happen as a result of decisions made by big organisations, they happen as a results of lots of people making small changes, regularly.

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