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Let’s leave a plastic-free legacy in our oceans

Rowan Byrne, Principal marine environment scientist

We produce an estimated 300M tonnes of plastic each year, with more than 12M tonnes ending up in our oceans. The total mass of plastic polluting our oceans could be as high as 100M tonnes, and this is expected to rise tenfold by 2025. This is having a devastating effect on wildlife, with an estimated 1M sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals dying each year as a result.

These shocking figures will be at the front of our minds as we gather with colleagues and representatives from the industry and academia for the Marine Plastics conference on 17 May 2018. While cleaning up our oceans is a mammoth task, cutting down on the amount of plastic we send to landfill will prevent the problem getting even worse. Here are four key ways we can drive down plastic waste:

1. Regulate for a low plastic economy

Businesses work within the confines they are given, and a carefully formulated regulatory environment will steer companies towards more efficient use of plastics, or, where possible, alternatives to plastic. As well as the ‘stick’ of backing up non-compliance with legal or financial consequences, don’t forget the ‘carrot’ of incentives such as tax breaks or reputational benefits to reward those who make progress.

2. Keep manufacturers involved beyond the point of sale

Extended producer responsibility (EPR), also known as product stewardship, sees manufacturers take responsibility for the treatment or disposal of products at the end of their lifecycle. This could be a financial responsibility, such as paying for retrieval and processing of waste, or could involve providing the logistics and mechanisms to collect and recycle waste. And ensuring that manufacturers are involved in the disposal or recycling of their products will be another incentive to encourage low-plastic design from the outset.

3. Embrace the circular economy

The best ways to avoid plastic infiltrating our environment and waterways is to avoid sending it to landfill in the first place. Designing products for a long lifecycle, and for ease of reuse or recycling, will cut the demand for new plastic products as well as the amount of plastic waste. This may involve recalibrating how we measure value, paying companies for the ‘amount of use’ and ‘ease of reuse’, their products provide, rather than concentrating simply on material cost and time spent on production.

4. Incentivise consumers

We can’t just focus on supply-side efforts; substantial progress will only come through reducing consumer demand. Yet people need to be motivated to change their behaviours. There are several examples of this, from the country-wide levy on plastic bags, to the coffee shops which charge customers less if they bring their own re-useable mugs. One coffee shop in Exmouth has gone further, offering free drinks to customers who collect a bucket worth of litter from the beach. From national policies to initiatives at local level, motivating people will help drive the behavioural changes which will reduce plastic waste.

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