[ 3 May 2018 ]

The British establishment has declared war on plastic, with recent measures described as the 'strongest in the world'. Are they?

International carrier-bag bans
Britain was an early mover among industrialised nations to ‘ban the bag’, but initiative was taken in the developing world much earlier: Bangladesh banned plastic bags in 2002, after devastating floods were found to have been caused by bags clogging the drainage system. Several African countries followed suit, including Rwanda, Somalia and Tanzania, as the bags visibly pollute their environment and are routinely found in the stomach of livestock.

Other early-adopters include South Africa, China and Australia.

Stretching it a bit?
However, the world’s toughest plastic bag rules go to Kenya. Selling, or even using, a plastic bag in the country will get you up to 4 years in prison or a $40,000 fine.

Britain's bag-ban

By contrast, the UK’s 5p charge seems tiddly, and yet it has proved highly effective – more so than other much more stringent regimes – with an estimated 85% drop in plastic bag usage since the ban two years ago. That’s about 9 billion fewer bags per year. Scientists have confirmed that it's working.



One area the UK is truly leading the way is in banning microbeads, tiny particles of plastic present in toiletries that wash into the oceans and enter the food chain as toxic particles. Just three other countries are taking meaningful steps towards banning microbeads: US, Canada and Australia. The ban came into effect in January 2018 to plaudits from NGOs:

“The UK Government has just proposed the strongest ban on microbeads in the world to date.” Greenpeace UK

"This is the strongest and most comprehensive ban to be enacted in the world." The Marine Conservation Society.

The final straw
Britain’s latest target are plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton ear buds. A proposed ban was announced in April, with the hope it will be effective this year. It would be the first ban of its kind in the world.

Where it all began

Clearly school children and scientists have understood the problem for decades. But it was the BBC’s Blue Planet that galvanised public opinion. Has there ever been a more influential nature documentary?


The plastistics

  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans per year.
  • 7 billion to 500 million – the fall in plastic bags in the UK between 2016-2017.
  • 100,000: the number of microbeads flushed during a single shower.
  • 8.5 billion straws used per year in the UK.


More than 40 British companies, covering 80% of supermarkets, have signed up to an agreement to eliminate single-use plastic within seven years. It's a world-first.

Iceland is the only major non-signatory, because it plans to remove all plastic from its branded products within 5 years.


Rock on

60 British musical festivals have committed to banning single use plastic from 2021. The Glastonbury Festival won't allow plastic bottles at its next event in 2019. It reckons about 1 million bottles are used at its festival each year.

Cup half full

Disposable coffee cups are particularly hard to recycle and while several chains now offer on-site recycling, less than 0.25% actually get recycled.


What's the alternative?

For many uses, there are simply no commercially viable alternatives to plastic, yet. Biome Bioplastics, a Southampton-based company has developed a disposable coffee cup made from potato and corn starch and cellulose.

Nottingham's Sherwood Group has created a plastic alternative for food packaging. Meanwhile, the University of Bath has come up with alternative polycarbonates made of sugar and carbon dioxide that can biodegrade back to sugar and CO2.


British scientists accidentally engineer a plastic-eating enzyme

Scientists at the University of Portsmouth have ‘inadvertently’ engineered an enzyme that can eat the most common plastics in the oceans, providing a potential solution to this global catastrophe.

The potentially world changing discovery was made using the UK’s national synchrotron, a world-leading x-ray, which according to this professor, is a nice bit of gear:

"The Diamond Light Source recently created one of the most advanced X-ray beamlines in the world; having access to this allowed us to ... engineer a faster and more efficient enzyme.”
Professor McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth

Make plastic roads

Make roads with plastic not oily bitumen.That was MacRebur's idea, and it's being trialled in Cumbria with great success apparently.

Don't mention carbon emissions

A study by the Danish government has found that plastic bags are best for climate change prevention. A cotton bag must be reused 7,000+ times to be better for the climate, and 20,000 times if its organic.

There is inevitably a trade-off between plastic use and climate change. This blog by Peter Maddox of Wrap sums up the problem by considering 'the humble cucumber'.


The verdict?

Britain is leading the way in some plastic areas, in the peloton for others, and certainly not lagging behind. The bigger issue seems to be reconciling the menace of plastic pollution with the longer-range threat of climate change. Regulation and abstinence is all well and good, but plastic austerity won't fix a planet of 7 billion consumers. Britain's innovators may end up being more important than its legislators. It was science that created this problem. Now we've got to science our way out of it.

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