Plastic pollution

In September 2020 we met with our MP, Andrew Selous to discuss strengthening the Environment Bill, which was just resuming its passage through parliament. At the end of the meeting, Mr Selous asked us to send him a briefing summarising the issues; this is what we sent.

Why we need more action on plastic than the Environment Bill provides for

Plastic waste does not decompose:

  • plastic degrades very slowly into ever smaller pieces (microplastics), which may end up in the air, in soil, in watercourses and in oceans;
  • microplastics have been found in terrestrial systems [2], in wildlife [3], and in humans [4];
  • toxins contained in plastic may be transferred up the food chain;
  • plastic waste can last for centuries in landfill, or it may end up as litter in the natural environment, which in turn can pollute soils, rivers and oceans [1].

The impact of plastic and microplastics on the marine environment has been well documented:

  • the full effects are not understood, but there is growing evidence of plastic harming sea creatures and restricting their movement, as well as polluting beaches [3].

Evidence is beginning to emerge showing that plastic and microplastics are likely to be harmful for human health. Amongst others:

  • researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and the Austrian Environment Agency have found microplastics in human stools, showing that microplastics have entered the food chain [4];
  • a study by a team from Johns Hopkins University has looked at the implications of the large amount of microplastics found in seafood for human health [5];
  • Microplastics have been found in the air, and their effects are beginning to be documented. A Portuguese university team have already found synthetic fibres in human lung biopsies [6];
  • Researchers from the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences have documented harmful effects of two chemicals commonly used as plasticizers on cardiovascular conditions, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, atherosclerosis, and myocardial infarction [7];
  • Phthalates are a group of chemicals commonly used in plastics; they are known to disrupt the endocrine system, and evidence is beginning to emerge of their harmful effects on the heart [8].

There has been a growing understanding that plastic pollution isn’t just familiar nuisances like excessive packaging and disposable coffee cups. Microplastics also come from the wear and tear of vehicle tyres, synthetic clothes and paints, as well as when discarded items like bottles and fishing nets break down. Microplastics come from many sources, notably:

  • degradation of plastics that can no longer be reused or recycled;
  • shedding during use, e.g. vehicle tyres and brakes, microfibres from textiles;
  • wastage during manufacture;

The Environment Bill focuses only on plastic as part of ‘Waste’, mostly as part of a recycling system; but this will not be sufficient to mitigate the situation:

  • only a few types of plastic can be recycled, or recycled in an economically viable way;
  • if it has been recycled, it is still likely to end up as microplastic in the environment, it just takes longer to do it because until recently, most plastics were down-cycled during the recycling process, and most still are. Recycling does not generally result in a true circular economy, because in most cases, the plastic produced by a recycling process each time is inferior to the original;
  • some alternatives to plastic interfere with the smooth running of current recycling systems, e.g. some compostable bags are put in green waste bins, and end up fouling the equipment;
  • roughly 12% of plastic it is incinerated for waste-to-energy, and does not end up in the environment [9]. However, this incineration will create CO2, and the ash resulting from it brings its own problems.
  • alternatives to plastic may bring their own challenges. For example, plastic milk containers could be replaced by glass, but this brings other problems such as increased weight (increasing transport costs and CO2 emissions), possibility of injury, CO2 emissions in the manufacturing process, and the complexity of any deposit scheme.

This is why an expert committee is needed to balance all sides of the many complex issues involved.

So we need to reduce the total amount of plastic we use rather than just focusing on recycling. A useful analogy might be an overflowing bath – the taps need to be turned off before we start bailing out the water:

  • the May Government addressed this in its 25 Year Environment Plan, which outlines ways to reduce the use of plastics that contribute to pollution,and broader steps to encourage recycling and the more thoughtful use of resources;
  • the problem is serious, complex and difficult, and solving it requires input from experts in many fields, including toxicology, ecology, medicine, manufacturing and human behaviour;
  • this function is not provided for in the Environment Bill. The Office for Environmental Protection described in that Bill would have a monitoring role, receive complaints, and have a range of enforcement powers;
  • however, the OEP may establish committees (see “Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill: Schedule 1 – The Office for Environmental Protection, paragraph 9”), so would have the power to establish a committee of independent experts in all the relevant fields. Such a committee would be analogous to the Committee on Climate Change, which sifts evidence and informs debate;
  • a start has been made, e.g. with a Statutory Instrument which was approved in July 2020 (Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020) to restrict the use of Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers. Much more work is needed to reduce the amount of plastic that enters the waste stream.

Conclusion

– We need long-term targets to get to zero, and short-term targets to ensure we’re on track; and those targets need to be robust and effective.

– We need an independent expert Committee to guide policy in this very complex area.

– Finally, there needs to be a way of holding this and any future government to account.

Pippa Sandford

Contact: email: ps@pippasandford.com tel: 07774 414530

For South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth, September 2020

References

[1] House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper Number 08515, 31 March 2020, on Plastic Waste, page 3.

[2] “Microplastics as an emerging threat to terrestrial ecosystems”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5834940/

[3] Government Office for Science, Foresight, Future of the Seas: Final Report, March 2018, p11 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/706956/foresight-future-of-the-sea-report.pdf

[4] https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-10/sh-mdi101518.php

[5] Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health, Baltimore team (School of Public Health), August 2018 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PhtMC6132564/

[6] Airborne microplastics: Consequences to human health? https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0269749117307686?via%3Dihub Feb 2017)

[7] The Adverse Cardiac Effects of Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate and Bisphenol A https://www.ncbi.nlm.niAh.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4213213/

[8] Plastics and cardiovascular health: phthalates may disrupt heart rate variability and cardiovascular reactivity, Nov 2017 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5792203/

[9] “Earth is becoming Planet Plastic” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40654915