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*This debate pack is no longer being updated. For more up-to-date information on marine plastics and Government policy to reduce plastic waste, see Library briefing paper, Plastic Waste.*

The scale of the marine plastic problem

A study published in Science in 2015 estimated that around 8 million tonnes of plastic is released into the ocean each year. There is some uncertainty around this estimate: authors report that the figure is likely to be between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes. The UN Environment Programme has estimated that plastics make up as much as 95 percent of the marine litter found on coastlines, sea surface, and the ocean floor.

Recent Government policies and initiatives

Over recent years several UK Government policies have been put forward to address problems with plastic waste. A four point plan to reduce levels of plastic waste was set out in the Government’s January 2018 publication A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. The UK and devolved Governments have each introduced plastic bag charges to reduce the number of carrier bags in circulation.

Forthcoming initiatives for deposit return schemes for drinks containers, including plastic bottles, have been confirmed by the UK and Scottish Governments, subject to future consultation. The Welsh Government is also reported to be considering such a scheme.

Most recently, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in April 2018 the Government announced its intention to ban the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. The Welsh Government has indicated that it would be interested in collaborating on the ban. On 27 April 2018 the Scottish Government published a consultation on a proposal to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds in Scotland.

European Strategy for plastics in a circular economy

As part of its work towards moving towards a circular economy, (where the value of resources are maintained for as long as possible), a European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted by the European Commission on 16 January 2018. The aim of the strategy is that “all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, the consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted.” The Commission is expected to present a formal proposal on single-use plastics later in 2018. The implications of this for the UK will depend on the speed at which the Circular Economy Package progresses through the European institutions and the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

UN resolution on marine litter and microplastics

In December 2017 the UK was one of the 193 UN member states to sign a resolution, Marine Litter and Microplastics (UNEP/EA.3/Res.7), at the United Nations Environment Assembly to help reduce the amount of plastic in the world’s seas. Under the agreement, an international taskforce will advise how to combat marine litter.

The UK “plastic pact”

On 26 April 2018 a number of UK supermarkets, food companies and plastics industry members launched a new voluntary pledge, a “plastic pact” to cut plastic packaging. It includes an aspiration that by 2025 all plastic packaging can be reused, recycled or composted. Information about the pact and who has signed it is available from the WRAP website. There has been some criticism of the pact in the press that it is a voluntary measure, with no enforcement mechanisms.[1]

Stakeholder views on plastics policies

The Government’s policies to reduce plastic waste have been broadly welcomed. For example, the coalition of 31 organisations represented by Wildlife and Countryside Link welcomed the 25 Year Environment Plan commitments on waste reduction and single-use plastics.[2] The Campaign to Protect Rural England welcomed the proposal to introduce a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, saying that it was “thrilled” and that it would set “a strong precedent for other schemes where the polluter pays.”[3] 

There has been some criticism however, particularly in respect of the timing of when these policies would be introduced. The charity the Marine Conservation Society commented on the marine plastic approach set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, calling it “not sufficient”, and said it was disappointed by “the lack of commitment to take action now to address existing problems.”

The Environmental Audit Committee expressed concern in its 2017 report that the Government will miss the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution”, by 2025. The Committee recommended that a timeline should be established for publishing more accurate data on marine litter.

The industry body, the British Plastics Federation, states that any ban of plastic products will not solve the problem of reducing marine litter.[4] It believes that the Government needs to increase recycling rates in the UK that further investment should be made in recycling infrastructure.

[1]     See for example, “UK supermarkets launch voluntary pledge to cut plastic packaging” The Guardian, 26 April 2018

[2]     Wildlife and Countryside Link press release, Environment charities welcome 25 Year Environment Plan, but an Environment Act needs to secure its success, 11 January 2018

[3]     “Drinks bottles and can deposit return scheme proposed” BBC News, 28 March 2018

[4]     British Plastics Federation website, Marine Litter [downloaded on 30 April 2018]

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