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Bottle deposit return schemes needed to tackle marine plastic pollution, says Green Alliance

A bottle deposit return scheme is among five actions put forward by think tank Green Alliance that could help to reduce marine plastic pollution by up to two thirds, after new analysis from the think tank revealed that current government policy will only deal with two per cent of the problem.

Marine plastic pollution is one of the most serious environmental problems of our time, with as much as 12 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the ocean each year, according to Eunomia Research & Consulting, which has grave consequences for the fishing and tourism industries, as well as for human health.

Bottle deposit return schemes needed to tackle marine plastic pollution, says Green Alliance

In a speech at the WWF headquarters on 21 July, Environment Secretary Michael Gove promised to tackle the problem as part of a renewed waste and resources strategy. However, according to Green Alliance, Mr Gove’s announcement that microbeads will be banned from rinse-off products later this year is a step forward but will tackle less than one per cent of the problem. The government’s plastic bag charge also only addresses one per cent of the plastic that enters the sea.

Other well publicised methods, such as the Ocean Cleanup Project, which uses floating barriers to remove litter from the open oceans, only tackle floating debris and so could only remove two per cent of the plastic that gets into the sea. This, says Eunomia, is because most plastic sinks below the ocean surface or is ingested by animals.

Five simple steps

Green Alliance analysis claims that the most effective action would be to stop plastic bottles getting into the sea through a deposit return scheme. The largest proportion (33 per cent) of plastic litter comes from plastic bottles, and this problem is likely to escalate as global plastic bottle production is forecast to jump by 20 per cent by 2021.

Deposit return schemes are already widely implemented abroad and have been very successful (nearly 100 per cent of plastics bottles are returned for recycling in Germany). They also provide access to more high quality plastics for recycling, preventing them from going to landfill, incineration or finding their way into the natural environment.

Bottle deposit return schemes needed to tackle marine plastic pollution, says Green Alliance
The government is currently only tackling around two per cent of the marine plastic problem.

Alongside a deposit return scheme, four other actions would reduce the UK’s contribution to plastic pollution in the sea by nearly two thirds in total:

  • enforce Operation Clean Sweep to cut pollution from plastic pellets or ‘nurdles’ used as raw material in industrial processes (9 per cent of plastic pollution);
  • enforce existing maritime waste dumping bans, using techniques similar to those used by Norway to enforce its fish discards ban (11 per cent of plastic pollution);
  • upgrade wastewater treatment plants with sand filters to retain the microplastic fibres shed from synthetic clothes when they are washed (9 per cent of plastic pollution);
  • and expand the UK’s ban on microbeads to all products, not just rinse-off products (one per cent of plastic pollution).

Commenting on the publication of the analysis, Dustin Benton, acting policy director for Green Alliance, said: "It’s depressing to visit a beach that is covered with plastic, and downright scary to learn that the seafood you're eating might be contaminated by plastic pollution.

“The popularity of the microbeads ban and plastic bag charge shows the public is up for tackling these problems. The government should listen, introduce a bottle deposit scheme, and enforce rules on sources of industrial waste. These simple steps would address two thirds of the UK’s marine plastic problem.”

From beach clean-ups to global campaigns

This analysis from Green Alliance isn’t the first attempt we’ve seen in the UK to provide a solution to marine plastic pollution.

Last year the Marine Conservation Society held The Great British Beach Clean - an event where thousands of volunteers up and down the country headed to the seaside to clean up litter strewn along the coastline. The Society maintains that beaches are the best place to focus our efforts to recover marine plastic pollution.

In London, environmental behaviour change charity Hubbub targeted ‘tidy litterers’ with its ‘For Fish’s Sake’ (#FFSLDN) campaign, which aimed to reduce the amount of litter entering the UK’s river and marine systems.

Some of the campaign’s initiatives included voting bins where citizens cast a vote by putting litter in the bin of their choice, and ‘grate art’ to remind people of the importance of protecting the London’s waterways.

Internationally, the UN has launched a global campaign to eliminate the major sources of marine litter by 2022, calling on governments, industry and consumers to take action.

The #CleanSeas campaign focuses in particular on microplastics in cosmetics and the ‘excessive, wasteful use of single-use plastic’.

National governments across the world have been urged to pass plastic reduction policies, with 10 countries already signed up to the campaign with ‘far-reaching’ pledges to fight against the amount of plastic polluting waterways and oceans.

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