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The War on Plastics: Is It Too Little Too Late?

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With UK Prime Minister Theresa May announcing today that UK supermarkets must have a plastic free aisle as part of her government’s 25-year environmental improvement plan, it is the latest in a line of reforms seeking to reduce the harmful plastic contamination that has become a worldwide scourge. The negative impact of plastics on our wildlife and ecosystems has been repeatedly hitting the headlines over the past months.

The UK government’s new policies will also extend the 5p plastic bag levy to small shops, with less than 250 employees, that were previously exempt from the charges. A more controversial aspect that is also being considered for the future is a charge on single use plastics, such as takeaway containers and coffee cups. The move has the potential to prevent millions of tonnes of plastic waste ending up in landfill and our oceans.

Whilst the use of biodegradable plastics may be preferable to the traditional non-degrading type, they can still pose a risk once they have entered the waterways and seas. In order to successfully degrade, these biodegradable plastics must be within certain environmental conditions. This includes warm temperatures, exposure to UV light and microorganisms. Once at the bottom of the ocean, these conditions are unlikely to be met and the action of the sea instead breaks them down into small particles dubbed “microplastics” that can then be ingested by marine life and cause harm.

Scientists have long known that microplastics present a hazard to marine animals that mistakenly eat plastic debris because the tiny fragments look like prey. A recent study looking at corals showed that chemicals in the plastics may actually make them appealing to eat. However, further work is needed to work out precisely which substances are having this unwanted effect.

It has been estimated that 12 million tonnes of plastics end up in the oceans each year and has even been found in creatures living seven miles beneath the surface.

Plastic contamination does not always stem from the obvious sources that may spring to mind, like bags and packaging. Apparently innocuous items, such as glitter and synthetic clothing fibres can also be an important source of plastic contamination.  An investigation across dozens of nations found that 83% of tap water samples were contaminated with plastic fibres, which could have as yet unknown health implications. 

Today’s announcement from the UK government comes only days after the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products was banned in the UK. Microbeads are handy little tools because they can be used to exfoliate or to break open at the right moment to deliver ingredients, for example in toothpastes. Unfortunately, they are also too small to be extracted by sewerage plants and end up in our rivers and oceans. The ban, which was pledged in September 2016, followed a report that found more than a third of the fish in the English Channel were contaminated with microbeads, typically found in facial scrubs and cosmetics. This move follows in the footsteps of the U.S. and Canada who banned their use in 2015. Whilst there is no evidence that their presence in fish entering the food chain is harmful to human health, it highlights the level of environmental contamination and harm to wildlife from human activities.

These reforms show that policy makers are starting to take the plastics issue seriously, but the question remains, could it be too little too late for the health of our planet?

Do you think the problem is being seriously addressed? Let us know your thoughts.