Recent reports suggest that nearly 11 billion pieces of plastic have wedged themselves into coral reefs throughout the Asia-Pacific, further destroying an organism that is already suffering due to the onslaught of climate change. The report is illuminating, being one of the first to show a link between plastic pollution and marine-life sickness. By 2050, the ocean will be replete with pieces of plastic, which, scientists say, will outnumber fish by that time.
It’s no small victory then that lawmakers in the UK just passed a measure banning so-called microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic used in toothpaste, face wash and other cosmetic and personal care products. Microbeads eventually make their way to water sources, where aquatic animals ingest the product. Human beings may then eat animals with this plastic substance in their system.
MP Mary Creagh, one of the main proponents of the ban, indicated her intention to continue the fight against plastic pollution: “Microbeads in cosmetics are an avoidable part of the problem, which is why we called for a ban.” She went on, “This is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. Since we called for a ban, my committee has also recommended a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, a latte levy for plastic-lined coffee cups and reforms to make producers responsible for their packaging.”
The Size of the Problem
Creagh’s enthusiasm is matched by the immense amount of plastic currently existing in the farthest reaches of the world’s oceans. According to some reports, there are nearly five trillion pieces of plastic affecting the vast marine ecosystems the world over. Researchers spent six years tracking down the plastic pollutants, taking 24 expeditions to complete their project. Most plastic pollution comes from packaging for food, drinks and clothing, and can in some cases strangle large mammalian creatures or, as mentioned, be ingested by fish, which we then eat.
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that oil and other pollutants are attracted to the plastic. According to Julia Reisser, an Australian researcher, “…there are also chemical impacts. When plastic gets into the water it acts like a magnet for oily pollutants. Bigger fish eat the little fish and then they end up on our plates. It’s hard to tell how much pollution is being ingested but certainly plastics are providing some of it.”
Creagh’s suggested latte levy might be, at least, one small step toward reversing the immense damage done to the oceans. Basically, anyone who purchases a coffee cup with plastic lining would have to pay an additional 25 pence. The levy seems particularly apt, given reports that nearly 2.5 billion disposable cups are tossed every year. That’s 25,000 tons of material.
The levy would be akin to the current 5 pence charge for plastic bags at groceries stores. The extra charge deters customers, who fail to bring their own bag, from using unnecessary plastic. The deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, which is used in places like Germany, Australia and Denmark, would work differently. Basically, people would have to pay a small fee for plastic bottles at grocery stores. Customers who return the plastic bottle would receive a refund for the fee, thereby incentivizing reuse over disposal.
The current Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey, expressed excitement at the recent ban and a willingness to join Creagh moving forward. “Microbeads are entirely unnecessary when there are so many natural alternatives available, and I am delighted that from today cosmetics manufacturers will no longer be able to add this harmful plastic to their rinse-off products,” she said, continuing, “Now we have reached this important milestone, we will explore how we can build on our world-leading ban and tackle other forms of plastic waste.”
With eight million tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, environmental activists still have their work cut out for them. Looking forward, they will certainly want to seize on this momentum in parliament.