Maggie Jones calls on the government to show some leadership on the critical issue of marine pollution
Marine litter is a huge and growing problem globally. There are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic afloat in the world’s oceans and an extra 8 million tonnes of waste plastic is dumped each year. As plastic doesn’t biodegrade, the density continues to swell. It is frequently toxic and destructive to the marine ecosystem. It ends up being eaten by fish, marine mammals and seabirds, increasingly working its way through the food chain to human consumption. So we all have an interest in tackling this pollution at source.
Ultimately, action is needed on a global level and there are International and European initiatives to improve plastics recycling and reduce marine dumping. But there is also a great deal more that we could do at a UK level where the problem is getting worse. The Marine Conservation Society has calculated that plastic litter on beaches has increased 140% since 1994. There are now nearly 2,500 items of rubbish for every kilometre of beach, with much of it plastic.
Meanwhile, there has been an increased use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products such as body scrubs and toothpastes that are designed to be flushed away and end up in our oceans. Up to 100,000 can be used in a single application. Once in the ocean they resemble fish eggs and are often eaten by marine life, before being passed through the food chain. Scientists have estimated that in Europe, microbeads add up to 8,627 tonnes of plastic to the ocean each year, with consumers ingesting up to 11,000 each year from seafood.
The US and Canada has already taken steps to ban microbeads and a number of European countries are following suit. It’s an easy and effective step to take, which is why I’m calling on Defra Ministers to ban the production and sale of microbeads.
More generally, Labour is calling on the government to take action on the growing mountain of discarded plastic bottles finding their way into our seas. Evidence from the ‘Great British Beach clean’ found almost 100 such bottles on every kilometre of our shoreline – a new record. One way of tackling this would be to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme for single use drinks containers. That could help reduce littering, increase recycling and cut back on illegal dumping.
When this was considered by the government as part of its waste strategy in 2011, they concluded that whilst it might increase recycling it may also add costs to consumers, businesses and local authorities. But we believe the advantages of reducing plastic waste increasingly outweigh those costs. That’s why the government should revisit the decision as part of their national litter strategy and launch an open consultation on the opportunities and challenges of a Deposit Return Scheme.
These are all small but important steps in tackling a much bigger problem. They can – and would – however make a difference. This is why I’m urging Ministers in the Lords today to show some leadership on marine pollution.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 14th April 2016