What can be done about marine litter?
Nov 11 2009
It is becoming increasingly clear that our maritime environment is under considerable pressure from the activities of man – be it overfishing, mineral exploitation, pollution and littering. Left unresolved, this situation will only get worse as the human population continues to expand and demand ever increasing resources, some of which find their way back into the Earth’s seas and oceans in the former of litter.

That is why this Plastics 2020 Challenge debate is focussed on the growing problem of marine litter.

Over recent years we have all seen the images of large amounts of litter washed up on beaches around the world or floating in the sea. We have also been exposed to distressing pictures of marine animals such as turtles and albatrosses exposed to the effects of waste, much of it apparently plastic. As a result of this media exposure many people are rightly asking what is really happening, how big a problem is it and what can be done to stop it?

This is your chance to contribute to this debate, tell fellow visitors to this site what you think and suggest some solutions.

A complex issue

We can probably all agree that there is a real problem, but how and where do we start to address it?

Marine litter is a hugely complex, multi-faceted and increasingly serious challenge. However, the simple fact is that waste, plastics or otherwise, does not belong in the sea. Litter is primarily a result of human neglect and poor waste management and if we all acted responsibly there would be no reason for the large majority of it to be there.

Statements like this are easy to make but delivering on such a vision is much harder. That is why the search is on to find practical solutions to marine litter, for the benefit of future generations of mankind and sea life alike. It is a fundamental and urgent challenge for our global society. As an active and concerned member of this global community, the plastics industry is as keen as any to help resolve the issue of marine litter and start making progress towards a day when it is no longer an issue

There is much to be done.

Making a start

Each year, since 1994, the Marine Conservation Society carries out its UK-wide Beach Litter Survey — and the results get steadily worse year on year. For example the MCS states that the density of discarded plastics in the UK marine environment has increased by 146% since the survey started. Due to the fact that it floats, plastic litter is highly visible and is often seen as the primary problem. In reality, there are many forms of heavier materials that are routinely littered, sinking straight down to the seabed and out-of-sight. But this does not mean they have magically gone away. Plastic litter is therefore, simply a symbol, or the visible evidence of a much wider malaise.

In its policy announcements, The Marine Conservation Society has set the ambitious goal of halving the amount of litter found on UK beaches by 2015. That date is only just around the corner and if anything the evidence suggests the UK is going in the opposite direction.

Therefore, as part of its commitments under the Plastics 2020 Challenge, the UK plastics industry recognises that it must help lead the search for joined-up solutions, that will help achieve less waste plastics in the marine environment and do so quickly.

Industry action

Some progress has already been made by the industry. For example, under producer responsibility programmes introduced in the 1990s, the plastics industry is already signed up to spending millions of pounds on Plastic Recovery Schemes, aimed at taking waste out of the environment before it has a chance to reach the sea.

There have been other initiatives too such as Operation Clean Sweep, a best practice code introduced by the plastics industry to ensure its members prevent the loss of plastic pellets into the sea during transportation or down factory drains (that can also find their way to the sea).

Such initiatives can and do make a real difference but the industry acknowledges they are not enough to stem an increasing wasteful trend..

Marine litter is a global problem.

Marine litter is often referred to as being both a global phenomenon and a global problem. It does not respect national boundaries or territorial claims and often as not the litter produced in one country can end up somewhere completely different. Indeed, floating litter can be found in some of the most remote places known to man, sometimes in high densities, as a result of currents and tides.

This means that global solutions are needed such as those coordinated and advocated by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). But such agreements take a long time to create and even longer to action effectively. To make progress quickly we also need to be acting closer to home.

But what can be done in the UK?

The Plastics 2020 Challenge thinks that the recent agenda and action plan produced by the Marine Conversation Society provides a useful structure to get the debate started and has much that the industry can agree on.

The MCS Agenda calls for

Government to:

  • Create a coherent marine litter strategy with one lead body to drive and implement it
  • Work with signatory countries to ensure that statutory enforcement of waste reduction measures under OSPAR and MARPOL conventions
  • Ensure all facilities for collecting and recycling litter at beaches are in place
  • Extend port waste reception facilities to include fishing vessels

Business and industry to:

  • Improve water treatment storage capacity and reduce the discharge of untreated sewage, most especially sewage related debris such as sanitary and reproductive health products
  • Tighten packing, transport and shipping procedures to reduce the loss of plastics pellets to the marine environment

The general public to:

  • Support clean up schemes to remove litter from the environment before it reaches the sea
  • Take responsibility for all litter items at all times and in every environment, and avoid flushing plastic products as a way of disposal
  • Reduce their use of plastic packaging, re using and recycling when ever possible

A few facts you may not know about marine litter and plastics

  • It is thought that only 20% of marine litter originated from sea-based activities such as fishing and sailing. The rest comes from poor waste management practices on the land and irresponsible littering by people.
  • 90% of floating marine litter is plastic and of this 70% will eventually sink
  • Biodegradable plastics that might degrade over time on land will not do so in saltwater, as the micro organisms needed to achieve this find the marine environment too hostile
  • In the UK 37.7% of uncontained beach litter is directly traceable to the general public
  • A further 13% of waste on UK beaches originated from the fishing industry, mostly in the form of lost or discarded nets and equipment
  • Plastics are neither bio accumulative or toxic and are essentially inert in the marine environment.
The marine litter challenge

If society is to start to reduce the amounts of plastic and other litter in the marine environment, then it needs to start to work together in pursuit of a common goal.

That said there are a number of particular challenges that can best be addressed by certain groups.
The challenge for the plastics industry

  • Increase the recycling rate of plastics so that they come out of the waste stream. The Plastics 2020 Challenge set a goal to double the recycling rate of plastic packaging by 2020. The Challenge is off to a flying start delivering the performance improvements for the first year but much remains to be done.
  • The industry must ensure that there is a high level of awareness across the supply chain about the need to tighten up waste process and protocols to ensure proper management of the product takes place at every stage, including transportation.
    Work in even closer co operation with all parties including customers, NGOs and government to set the tackling of marine litter as a key objective

The challenge for national government

  • The creation and enforcement of legislation that ensures better management of waste both on land and at sea is essential if progress is to be made. There needs to be a higher penalty for poor waste management that allows any material to find its way to the sea.
  • The Government needs to coordinate measures taken against marine litter and ensure there is a coherent and practical strategy in place to achieve measurable results
  • This clearly needs to be linked to an overall waste strategy that limits the role of land filling, (which is where much of the waste plastics in marine litter originates) and focuses on the four R’s including energy recovery.
  • A continuous commitment to public education is required to achieve behavioural change on littering, but this needs to extend to businesses as well as the consumer.

The challenge for regional and local government

  • Some beaches have a lot less waste compared to others and although there are many reasons for this, variable standards of waste management on the beaches themselves will play an important part, as nearly 40% of waste originates from the general public.
  • Councils need to consider the effectiveness of their litter strategy, by focussing on simple concerns such as the number and
  • Continuously improve waste receiving facilities and practices in all ports

The challenge for the public

  • Plastics make life easier and better but we all need to be responsible for their ensured disposal
  • To understand that our individual actions can directly increase or decrease the size of the problem
  • To create a culture that takes a zero tolerance view of public littering
Join the debate

If you agree that something needs to happen to stop littering the marine environment, enter the debate now and tell the many visitors to this site your views and what needs to be done to put things right.



39 Comments to “What can be done about marine litter?”

  1. Karl says:

    Marine litter is an issue that the UK government and we as a society have neglected for far too long. A Marine Conservation Society Society survey in April of this year highlighted the record levels of waste washing up on this nation’s shores—and with the UK’s population set to grow by around 20m over the next 20 years, it is unlikely that this trend will reserve itself.

    We need strong leadership from civil society, government and industry on this issue, and the challenge will serve as an important first step in this regard. Living on an island, beaches have played an important role in the history, heritage and culture of British society. It would be a shame to let that rich tradition be tarnished by this generation’s collective apathy and inaction.

  2. Olaf Janssen says:

    Why cannot we have a levy on the plastics industry to pay for clearing up this mess – as in other EU countries? Why does the local tax payer have to bear this burden?

  3. Andrew Cook says:

    I visit Charmouth in Dorset UK every June and am apalled by the amount of plastic which litters the lengthy beach….all glimmering in the sun all the way into the distance…..
    Councils the breadth of the UK MUST clean up their act…..
    I spend a few hours of my week holiday bagging some of this up and helping to do my best but if I lived in these areas I would pick up a few items every time I walked the beach…..I think a collaborative effort by residents and importantly visitors should pick up any waste…signs should highlight this on every beach car park with recycle bins….once this is highlighted most (not all) will be happy to help…but it needs highlighting….Also there should be campaigns educating children….weekly guided school clean ups should be organised sponsored by brands whose waste contributes to this situation…you know who you are…Coke, Pepsi, Britvic, Nestle, Unilever….not to mention the horrid tobacco firms who’s cigarette butts are everywhere and wild birds think are food.

    I think the fishing industry has alot to answer for as much of the litter is from this community…

    Its really depressing which is why I try to do my little bit but every time I return in June the problem gets worse….heaven knows how bad its is in the plastic quagmire in the pacific….

  4. Keith Urwin says:

    As a Coast and Countryside Ranger for the local council for the last 2 years Iam astounded at the litter on the beaches of Cleveleys and Fleetwood. Plastics are the most common item which I think is partly caused by recyling in these areas. On windy days the streets are littered with spilt recyling boxes which are blown towards the sea front. We have large blue bins for waste paper which are under used. It would make sense to use the blue bins for plastics and bottles ,cans and the small green box for waste paper. The blue bin should have a weight attachment fixed to the bottom to make it more stable during strong winds. Also the amount of sanitary products washed up on the beach from the sewage outfall pipes is unbelievable. We strive for clean beach status yet these products which include plastic applicators , tear of strips , sanitary towels and wipes are strewn along the beach with every tide , it’s embarrassing. can pressure be put on United Utilities to filter theses items before they get dumped out to sea.

  5. Heidi Willis says:

    I want to see an improvement in how the plastics industry contain the raw plastic pellets that they use during the injection moulding and extrusion processes. The current laws need to be tightened so that we no longer allow these pellets to enter our water courses and eventually our seas. Countless number of seabirds die each year due to ingestion of small plastic items. These small pieces of plastic can travel thousands of miles due to being swept along with prevailing winds and surface water currents. Surface feeding birds mistake them for food and eventually starve to death, usually because their digestive systems are blocked up with plastic.

  6. fran says:

    I think that manufacturers, not just govenment, need to to take a lot more responsibiity for building awareness about disposal of plastics – particularly in relation to the flushing of sanitary products. In addition, the industry needs to be much more proactive in finding alternatives for plastic for single use ‘disposable’ products. Given the difficulties in disposing of plastics and the use of oil in their production, plastics really are ill-suited to many single use applications – one of the worst examples of this is the relatively recent development and promotion of plastic applicator tampons which we now find washing up regularly on our shoreline. What a legacy to future generations…

  7. Jan-Erik says:

    Hello Fran

    I also hate to see waste on the beach – whether it is glass, wood, paper, metal or plastics. We simply have to work together to reduce and eventually resolve this problem.
    Sanitary products should definitely not end up on a beach. The user of such products must take the responsibility and refrain from throwing them away on a beach or flushing them down a toilet. This is about respect to the environment and to other people.
    We must jointly work for safe disposal options in toilets, homes and public places – and sometimes we will have to carry the used sanitary product home (why not in a plastic bag) and safely dispose it there.
    To achieve this we need more and better information to trigger right behaviiour and the industry has a role to play here.
    Plastics are often choosen in sanitary products for their superior benefits to the user at the lowest cost. Better absorption and better convenience are some of these benefits. The problem is what we do after the use phase and I believe we should attack this as I believe few consumers would want to go back to yesterday’s products.
    Some plastics are best to recycle whilst others can be recovered in energy producing facilities where they would substitute other fuels. No plastics – or other materials – should end up on landfills or on beaches.

  8. Wolfgang says:

    Hi all,
    I would like to make a few comments on some of the messages below.

    Olaf: pls tell me in which other European countries is the plastics industry pay ing for beach clean ups.
    Secondly, I think it is the task of our local authorities to keep our communes tidy. If we as citizens become ever more creative in goods we use to make our life more convenient, we have to considere that the necessary clean up actions cannot be supported with yesterdays structures.

    I think the plastics industry including converters and recyclers should run a tidy shop and serves as a role model. they should support others to take well informed actions.

  9. Michael says:

    What can be done about marine litter? Of course we must encourage people not to drop litter on or near the sea, lakes or rivers. But whatever we do, some litter will get accidentally or deliberately into the marine environment. We can protect future generations against plastic pollution by making all short-life plastics from Controlled-life plastic (see d2w.net and http://www.biodeg.org) so that they will harmlessly self-destruct at the end of their useful life.

    Do Bioplastics represent to solution for the future? Yes, if they are Controlled-life plastics but not if they are crop-based (http://www.biodeg.org/files/uploaded/biodeg/Oxo_vs_Hydro-biodegradable.pdf). In June 2009 Germany’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research concluded that oil-based plastics, especially if recycled, have a better Life-cycle Analysis than compostable plastics.

    Why can’t all plastics degrade? They can. All plastics will eventually degrade and be bioassimilated, but modern plastics will last for many decades after they have served their purpose. The answer is to make them biodegradable. This is done by putting a small amount of d2w Controlled-life additive into the plastic, which breaks the molecular chains and makes it degrade then biodegrade in the presence of air, on land or at sea, in the light or the dark, in heat or cold, in whatever timescale is required, leaving NO methane, and NO toxic dust or any other harmful residues. d2w plastic can be tested according to American Standard 6954, and is certified safe for food-contact. Plastic is normally made from a by-product of oil refining which used to be wasted, so nobody is importing extra oil to make it. Oxobio can be recycled, and made from recyclate, and there is little or no additional cost.

  10. Andy Osborn says:

    Given that 37.7% of litter on UK beaches is directly attributable to beach users, there should be a nationwide campaign to put BIG signs up on all popular beaches, with recycling bins, and to set and police BIG fines for people caught littering on a beach. Its completely unnecessary but is all too common a sight, people just don’t seem to care what happens to their rubbish as they throw it and leave it behind. Its time to change this childish attitude.

  11. fran says:

    Jan-Erik

    Plastic tampon applicators do nothing to increase absorbency and whilst convenient in being more compact than cardboard applicators they are LESS compact than tampons without applicators and LESS convenient than all other types of tampons in that the user has to find a bin for disposal of the plastic. But that they rarely do! – the non-flushability of this type of tampon is given really low profile on the packaging and instructions. The fact is that this type of tampon is premium priced and considerably more profitable to the manufacturer who therefore invests large amounts of advertising to switch users to it and enhance their market share. A cynical piece of marketing that will mean future generations will be unable to play or swim on our beaches without contact with this type of debris. Even if disposed of ‘properly’ these products will contribute to landfill volume. This is undoubtedly an example of manufacturer innovation that society and the environment just does not need! I am sure there are other examples of plastic use that is completely inappropriate but this seems to me the most blatant.

  12. polly mather says:

    I work on the isles of Islay and Jura as a beach ranger, keeping our islands’ beaches clean. I’ve been doing this for two years. The amount of plastic which washes up on our shorelines is unbelievable and depressing. Every tide brings a new load of plastic, mostly from fishing and shipping, but also local sewage related debris and alot of drinks bottles and cans. I pick it up, recycle what I can and landfill the rest, sometimes with the help of community groups. I help educate the local school children about marine litter and most of the schools have adopted their beaches, through the marine conservation society initiative. It would be great to see other beach rangers appointed around the country – I’m employed by Re-JIG our local recycling group, but am funded through EB Scotland. More must be done to prevent so much marine litter, it’s so harmful to wildlife, and ugly, and as someone else mentioned, embarrassing, when sanitary towels and other ‘nasties’ litter the beaches, which so many holiday makers come to.

  13. Paul says:

    I know the beaches of Islay well having visited there a number of times myself and share Polly’s view that is it is profoundly depressing to see plastics waste on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. As someone who makes part of his living from the plastics industry, I think we can all agree that more needs to be done to solve it. Much of the solution lies in changing a mindset that believes it is OK to chuck rubbish in the sea and this is applicable right across society from industry to consumers.

    A starting point for this is education and as an industry we need to put more effort and resources into encouraging the next generation to see liittering as socially unacceptable – in much the same way as drink driving and more recently smoking in public places has become.

    But we should not limit this to education to children. Infrastructure owners such as local authorities,waste management organisations and utility companies need to be reminded that the public find marine litter increasingly unacceptable too – as they cam make a real difference to how much of it ends up there.

    These days we have the technology available to ensure that all end of life plastics can be disposed of efficeintly through reuse, recycling or recovery – so there is no need for it to end up in the marine environment or anywhere else for that matter – including landfill.

  14. Mike Campbell says:

    The problem of plastic contamination of our seas is massive. I am 48 yrs old and I have noticed the increadible increase in all form of litter. I agree that most plastic ingress into our seas comes from poor waste control on land. I work at a power station on the River Test and the amount of plastic(mostly bags and wrappers) that gets stuck on our Sea Water Inlet strainers is unbelievable. If this is indicative of what is ending up at sea we have got real problems. I also notice large amounts of litter left on my local beaches by visiting scum that cannot be bothered to take their waste away.

    To stop it we need drastic legislative action to reduce plastic bags, wrapping and bottles. We need zero tolerance for littering and we need education. We owe this to the next generation.

    Whilst I am at it, I cannot understand the mentality of beach fishermen who derive pleasure from the act of fishing but then leave all their detritus behind which threatens that simple pleasure, strange !!

  15. Peter Davis says:

    Thanks Mike for your comments and contribution to our debate.

    I agree with you that legislative action or enforcement of legislation is needed to challenge all marine and costal litter – whatever the material. Fines for any form of littering need to be enforced, also for illegally dumping waste at sea.

    I also agree we need to educate people not to litter, ensure there are enough waste receptacles, and that they are emptied regularly. 13% of beach litter comes from fishing so perhaps angling clubs and those who issue licences should insist they remove their litter.

    Thanks again for sharing your views and concerns.

    Peter Davis Director General British Plastics Federation

  16. Rikkie Carette says:

    Last year I started a business that removes (along with other things) plastic from the sea. At the moment we are based in the Plymouth area but hope to expand to other areas.
    We use boats as well as walking around beaches, harbours and marinas etc to collect the rubbish and it is very satisfying when members of the public come up to us and say whay a great job we are doing and how unusual it is to see ‘cleaners’ on the sea.
    If you would like to see more about us please visit our website at http://www.cleancoastservices.com

  17. Maya Plass says:

    A good place to start would be to engineer plastic bottles from the same polymer / plastic types & then have a lid which is somehow integral & does not seperate. Bottle lids are a major hazard to marine wildlife such as the Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll whose stomachs are filled with plastic. You also say “37% of uncontained beach litter..is attributable to beach users”. I , personally, question this figure – how can we be so sure that some of this litter is not lost at sea from boats etc.?We need to make sure litter is not dumped at sea – there are atill reports from witness’ to litter trails behind large tankers/boats.

    If all plastic was easier to recycle without so many differing types perhaps it would be less within one product it would be less of a logistical headache?

    I do regular MCS beach cleans & am disheartened by the vast array of bottle lids.

  18. Maya Plass says:

    Oh yes an dyou say the 4 R’s – Reduce, reuse, recycle, recover but what about refuse? Refuse to buy it in the first place if you think it is contributable to unnecessary waste!

  19. Peter Davis says:

    Thanks for your comments Maya. On behalf of the Plastics 2020 Challenge I would like to reply with the following thoughts.
    Firstly we have checked the statistic with the Marine Conservation Society as they provided the original information and we accept that beach users should say general public so we have changed the introduction to the marine litter debate on the website.
    Your point about bottle lids is interesting and I agree that serious thought needs to go into considering the design of bottles and caps and whether they can be integrated. As with most of these things the answers are not normally straight forward but there would clearly be environmental advantages to be had from such designs. I will make sure your comments are brought to the attention of those who look at design issues like this.
    With regard to the diversity of product types and polymers used for bottle lids, this is a consequence of having so many different global producers and no single technical standard or raw material specification. Again your point is well made and the industry is now beginning to think about how such a complex global manufacturing challenge can be addressed to minimise the environmental impact. Of course the best thing that could be done is for people not to carelessly discard their items creating litter.

  20. Maya Plass says:

    Many thanks for your speedy response and for making ammendments to your website – it is so important that we correctly use collated data & accurately report from it. Otherwise, hours can be wasted in projects on, in this example, beach users, when actually they are not the only culprits. There is another paragraph in the section “The challenge for regional government” where again you say that nearly 40% is attributable to beach users – perhaps this could be changed too? I really believe (working daily on a beach locally) that this rubbish on our beach is seldom from beach users – but washed ashore – maybe from other beach users but in the majority I would hazard a guess (& only a guess) that this is dumped at sea / washed to the sea from inland. But that is just my idea and perhaps the origin needs to be clarified in some way – but how?!?!

    It is comforting to see that the BPF is taking all these matters seriously and working towards change!

  21. Peter Davis says:

    Dear Maya,

    Thanks for the further comment about the reference to beach goers versus the general public. We have amended the comment under action for regional and local government as well.

    Your last comment at the end about researching the true origins of waste in the sea is something we agree needs to be done and we are willing to play our part in this working with others.

    Thanks again for your interest in our debate stream on marine issues.

    Peter Davis Director General British Plastics Federation

  22. Maya Plass says:

    “Plastics are neither bio accumulative or toxic and are essentially inert in the marine environment.”

    I refer you to research of Dr Takada (Marine Pollution Bulletin 50 (2005) 1103–1114 and Environ. Sci. Technol. 2001, 35, 318-324) which clearly demonstrates that not only do pellets / mermaids tears / nurdles have PCBs adsorbed on their surface they also contain them (pre 1970). This then accumulates within food chain after ingestion. Also, biofilms on plastics lead to marine plankton “nibbling” on them along with any toxins on plastic surfaces and again build up in the food chain.

    We are very familiar with images of stomachs full of plastics in seals, dolphins, turtles, sharks, sea birds and this has a pretty “toxic” effect.

    One of the simplest solutions is provision ( and emptying!!) of recycling receptacles within harbours, beaches, industrial sites. Beach clean wardens in North Cornwall proved really effective and should be a responsibility for all local authorities with a coastal region. If they don’t then an allocation for street/ riparian cleaning. If more beaches had bins I think more people would put rubbish they found on the beach in them! Coastal council or landowner car parks should have a percentage contributable to beach cleaning.

    I spend alot of time talking to primary schools about the impacts of marine litter – this has an immediate effect and will hopefully last into adulthood. Education is paramount for future action…

  23. Maya Plass says:

    My last comment, promise, I do think plastic is a really useful material – we just need to be wiser in the way we use and reuse it! I often state this within any marine ed. talks!

  24. Peter Davis says:

    Maya,

    Thanks for your comments about plastics being a really useful material. We seem to agree on the need to make the best possible use of its value as a resource – which is what the Plastics 2020 Challenge is all about and why we have thrown open the debate to everyone to tell us their ideas and views.

    In response the references to research published by Dr Takada, such claims are based on early research on two types of plastic granule in heavily polluted Japanese coastal water. However plastics can absorb all kind of chemicals toxic or non toxic in their immediate environment, provided the chemical is compatible with plastics. A study undertaken by the University of Washington Seattle in June 2008 called for more studies on the uptake of toxins from plastics in marine ecosystems but stated that: “The likelihood of ingestion is minimal due to the low mass and concentration of debris particles relevant to zooplankton organisms”.

    Peter Davis, British Plastics Federation

  25. Maya Plass says:

    More recearch (independently funded) is needed to clarify the potential toxic impact of microplastics/plastics on our marine environment. Although, I beleive, there is research taking place in this field and that will help us better understand the impact of plastics that will now reside in our seas and oceans for many years to come. I don’t think we have yet proved that plastic is “non toxic in the marine environment”.

  26. Graym M. McMillan says:

    Amongst the facts about marine litter and plastics on this page is, ‘Plastics are neither bio accumulative or toxic and are essentially inert in the marine environment’. This neglects findings that, ‘”Plastic fragments have also been shown to attract toxic chemicals onto their surfaces and marine creatures are eating these fragments. … Ultimately, plastic litter may be providing a new method for these chemicals to be passed up the food chain to human consumers.” (Marine Conservation Society, as quoted in BBC News website http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8586920.stm). This might well be the most worrying aspect of plastic marine litter, for both humans and other animals.

  27. Graym M. McMillan says:

    I despair at the message that the answer so marine litter is ‘education’ and ‘criminal penalties’. Apparently, this is the answer to all of society’s problems, from alcohol and drug use to fly-tipping and littering. For instance, the flushing of cotton buds and sanitary products. This continues to happen unabated, despite the worthy efforts of groups such as the Women’s Environment Network. Yet people continue to flush and litter such products in considerable quantities, especially if it is easy to do so and unseen by others. It is all very well arguing for education initiatives and the penalisation of offenders; meanwhile plastic waste continues to accumulate in the marine environment with devastating consequences for marine wildlife. There is only one solution that is guaranteed to work, and that is to phase out the use of plastic disposable products.

  28. Rod Fox says:

    Litter is perhaps the largest, most visible problem that is ignored by the majority of the UK population. The laws for dropping litter are ineffective as they are very rarely enforced. In fact if someone gets fined for dropping litter it often makes news headlines. To overcome this problem we need to change the social habits of the minority who drop litter, but this along with other social ills will undoubtedly take time through education and much wider ongoing publicity, rather like that used to promote the seat belt laws. The habits of a generation were changed, but it took time, money and real enforcement by the Police.

    In the meantime it is clear from a variety of studies that only a minority of people drop litter, an even smaller minority of us make a habit of picking it up rather than passing it by. The majority of people simply choose to ignore the problem, believing it is not their job, that we pay others to collect it and don’t want to get their hands dirty. Many years ago I was walking in a small town in Sweden and one of my colleagues dropped a cigarette end in the street. Imagine his surprise when two young boys accosted him asking him “not to rubbish their lives”. He was so embarrassed he picked it up immediately and apologised to the boys. I doubt that he has ever dropped litter again.

    What can we do about the problem now? Many will say it is difficult as the number of different types of plastics used for packaging and end up as litter make it expensive to recover, separate, wash and recycle. Added to this even the small number of polymer types used for packaging are sub-divided into many different grades. Sounds difficult to resolve doesn’t it, but it isn’t, let me tell you why.

    For more than 30 years unsorted, unwashed, mixed plastics packaging waste has been used as an ideal feedstock to manufacture a variety of wood substitute products. You have all seen them in the form of traffic bollards, fencing and park benches and once made they last many years, without the need for maintenance. The problem in the U.K. however is that the initial purchase price is a lot higher than the wood products they replace. This puts off many buyers, be they individuals or more usually those who procure for both public and private organisations.

    During the past 4 years our own research has addressed this price problem and through the technology developed as a result have been able to reduce the costs involved to a point whereby prices of the resulting products compete on a like for like basis. We also examined a variety of product markets and concluded that with more than 1.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste being landfilled each year we needed to find macro-scale product markets to service on a sustainable basis.

    Instead of wood substitutes being our first priority it was realised that concrete substitutes, initially in the form of road and driveway kerbs and a number of other products offered a demand that far outstripped the entire amount of plastics waste landfilled.

    Having carried out filed testing during the past 3 years the kerbs have proven to be superior both in physical and environmental performance than their concrete counterparts. With a weight saving of 60%+, they overcome the high costs of compliance with the H & S Manual Handling regulations, they can be laid more rapidly, are virtually unbreakable and yet may be recycled at the end of a service life many times longer than concrete. As an added bonus it was found that the manufacturing process saved 99% of the carbon emissions associated with producing concrete kerbs.

    The technology is ready to be rolled out, the construction and civil engineering industry wants the products, as do the highways maintenance contractors. All we need now is to hear the voice of the public demanding government both Nationally and locally to seriously examine and support this simple, but efficient way of overcoming the plastic litter and plastic waste problem. We perceive facilities being built in or near towns and cities throughout the U.K. keeping transport of waste to a minimum. Unlike waste to energy plants the process does not create emissions to air, land or water and the products themselves are inert.

  29. Rod Fox says:

    See my previous answer – What I mean about mixed plastic packaging litter and waste includes plastic bags, shrink and stretch wrap, yoghurt pots, butter and margarine tubs, hamburger boxes, metallised crisp and snack packets, egg cartons, meat and fruit trays, multi-layer films, all types of plastic bottles and containers. The recycling process also tolerates up to 10% non-plastics in the form of aluminium foil, paper labels , residual organic and inorganics and general dirt.

  30. Phil Corlett says:

    Having read Rod’s interesting explanation on what recycled plastics could be used for I hope that Peter of BPF takes it back to his industry and helps to implement them ASAP.

    It’s good to see/read comments on this site and BPF are to be commended on setting it up – I hope it isn’t just used a form of ‘greenwash’ and that genuine benefits will come of it.

    If we continue to let the plastic waste build up in the environment then it will be hazardous to all of us never mind the marine life. It is now granulating and I find the claim that it is not toxic doubtful when the particles could get so minute that they maybe inhaled.

    I live on the IoM and am also a diver and our beaches and ‘some’ underwater habitats around here are littered with plastics – it can be so disheartening and the amounts on the beaches overwhelming, despite numerous beach cleans by hardy volunteers.

    I do tend to think that the general public could be a lot more ‘caring’ of their environment and bin it or take it home – the excuse of there not being any bins is pretty lame.

  31. Peter Davis says:

    Graym despairs that the answer to marine litter seems to be just education and fines and really phasing out plastic disposable products is the answer. I’m afraid it is’nt and we need to encourage everybody to look on waste as a resource which in plastics case needs to be reclaimed for recycling first and foremost and if unrecyclable then it is an energy source through energy from waste combustion. Our country faces power cuts five to seven years from now due to Government failing to plan in good time to replace old power stations. Perhaps in years to come rather than gathering winter fuel as in the old carol, we’ll be gathering in litter on beaches for our local community energy from waste plant to keep us warm through the winter. That’s already happening in Massachusetts.

    Rod Fox makes a very good point about education to prevent littering taking time and money as was the case with car seat belt use. I think the Government and Keep Britain Tidy are very anxious to stop people dropping chewing gum in the street. Some years ago the plastics industry submitted ideas for a chewing gum pack with a separate compartment to put waste gum in – the gum companies didn’t adopt it but it shows plastics can provide solutions!

    Rod points out that recycled plastics are used in long life applications such as bollards, decking, kerbstones . One of my favourite examples is the 450 metre long boardwalk built in wetlands at Lake Derwent. It was made out of 500,000 recycled plastic bottles. It was moulded with a non-slip surface and will last four times longer than wood.

    I can reassure Phil that what we learn from this debate we will use to help to make strategy moving forward so that marine litter can be addressed in a practical way. That is why we are happy to be at the start of dialogue with the MCS to see how we can move things forward faster.

    Regards Peter

  32. Graym M. McMillan says:

    I’m afraid that Peter Davis ‘would say that’ phasing out plastic disposable products isn’t the answer, after all plastic companies profit from them. 70% of marine plastic waste sinks to the bottom of the sea, and is consequently unrecoverable. Plastic physically degrades, but does not truly biodegrade – it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, which are then taken up into the food chain (along with the toxins that they attract). We quite simply have no idea what we are doing to the living environment. The ‘precautionary principle’ demands that we tackle the issue at SOURCE, preventing plastics from entering the environment BEFORE they begin to degrade; akin to cutting CO2 emmissions to prevent global warming, even is some ot the evidence is uncertain.

  33. Graym M. McMillan says:

    Reading the aims of this debate:

    REDUCE must also entail cutting the amount of plastic that is produced.

    REUSE must also entail the examination of reusable and returnable products, e.g. beverage containers (as in Scandinavia).

    Also, PRODUCER RESPONSIBILITY will hopefully one day entail the removal of plastic waste from the wider environment by those that produced it.

    An open debate must also lead to LIFE CYCLE ANALYSIS of all plastic products to determine whether plastic is the best material from technological, social, economic and environmental (e.g. in sanitary products).

    It has been shown that disposable plastic bags can effectively be taxed and phased out with great environmental benefits. Perhaps the plastics industry, in the interests of open debate, might lead the way in replacing other disposable products with longer-life environmentally benign ones.

  34. Peter Davis says:

    Everybody who doesn’t litter or illegally dump waste at sea would agree with Graym that we must prevent used plastics getting into the marine or riverine environment. However contrary to what he suggests the evidence seems to be that tougher enforcement and fines, more education and more litterbins are a large part of the answer. Phasing out disposable plastics is not the answer for several reasons.

    Take plastic bottles, which are easily recyclable if we can get them back from the users. Regrettably many British councils don’t collect plastic bottles from households yet and for several public health and safety reasons there is a lack of bins in public places. Also there are heavy financial and environmental costs behind re-use systems with all the extra lorries required to transport empty containers. This is why there’s no great enthusiasm for it in the UK.

    If you were to adopt Graym’s idea and replace plastic bottles with glass, first of all prices of drinks would go up because the cost of transporting heavy glass is so much greater, and secondly the glass would also end up on our beaches. Even in April 1934 the East Kent Mercury was complaining that “four or five men should be employed daily to clear the broken bottles from Sandwich Bay now that the bathing season is almost upon us.”

  35. James Clarke says:

    I love the seaside, and used to spend time sailing, there was nothing worse than being 10 miles off shore and seeing a pile of plastic bags and milk bottle float by.

    The fact that the plan of attack is so multi-faceted shows the understanding that this is not a simple problem with a simple solution.

    With regard to Biodegradable plastics, what is needed is an increase in the use of Oxo-Biodegradable plastics as these do not rely on microbes for their breakdown (like many Biopolymers such as PLA), rather they are triggered by Mechanical action, sunlight and heat, so in the case of the ubiquitous plastic bag, the wave action coupled with the direct sunlight will start the process off in no time.

    Again one of the simple and most powerful answers to beach waste is education, people throwing waste and rubbish away responsibly, rather on the ground when they have finished eating their picnic etc.

  36. Iain Campbell says:

    Marine litter is a huge problem in Scotland. But a demand for a central body would overturn devolution. Do you not know that Scotland has just passed its own marine conservation act of parliament?

  37. Sue Kinsey says:

    Hi Iain

    Many thanks for your comment. What we meant by one central body – is not one body for the UK as a whole, but one in each of the devolved countries. At the moment there is no one body anywhere that has responsibility for marine litter. Of course various bodies such as the EA, SEPA, MCA etc all do something, but at the moment there is no coordinated strategy!.

    As litter knows no boundaries we would hope that there would be consultation between countries to try and come up with some common solutions.

    You might be interested to know that Scotland was the first country to understand that such an action plan is needed and following collaboration between MCS in Scotland and teh Scottish Green Party, Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead commited to producing an Marine Litter Strategy for Scotland.

    Before the elections we asked each party if they would take action and received the following answers:

    Huw Irranca-Davies MP, the then Minister for Marine and Natural Environment stated “If Labour is re-elected we will bring together all those who use the seas, and produce a practical action plan for more progress on tackling litter in the seas.”

    Richard Benyon MP, Shadow Minister for Environment, Fisheries and Wildlife has stated, “Marine litter is a massive issue in both our inshore waters and beyond. A Conservative Government will require DEFRA to draw up a cohesive strategy for dealing with this problem. This will include input from other Departments and will set out clear deliverable objectives. The new MMO will take the lead in implementing the Strategy.”

    Andrew George MP Liberal Democrat said, “We agree that a Marine Litter Strategy is needed to determine what new actions are needed to tackle this growing problem.”

    Our next step is to follow up on these promises adn ensure that they are turned into action!

    Sue Kinsey – MCS Litter Policy Officer

  38. Tom Voute says:

    End-of-useful-life plastic objects escape control because the final user has no economic incentive to allocate time and space to managing them properly. Idealistic talk about changing societal behaviour is just wishful waffle which contradicts the basic assumptions of classical economics. Only deposit-return systems with sufficiently high deposits (fully funded and operated by industry and retailers) will ensure that all (or certainly most) end-of-life objects are captured before they can become litter. Any government (local or central) involvement will dilute the effectiveness of such systems and allow much litter to escape because of political pressures and commercial lobbying.

  39. Barry Turner says:

    Hello Tom,

    While it is important that all materials are recycled including plastics, it is not acceptable for valuable resource to be landfilled.

    On the issue of industry doing its part, producers have actually been contributing towards waste reprocessing infrastructure through the Packing Waste Recovery Note (PRN) system, while retailers and the suppliers of packaging materials make a significant contribution to local council finances through the payment of rates. These payments enable companies to meet their packaging waste obligation.

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