How the UK slowly turned against single-use plastics | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 10.10.2018
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How the UK slowly turned against single-use plastics

Communities around the UK are trying to rid their towns and villages of polluting plastics. What started as a small grassroots campaign has spread nationwide, garnering support from unexpected places.

The first thing you notice about Tynemouth's beaches is how clean they are. The minute your dog delivers an unexpected "parcel" that ruins the view, at least two fellow walkers will approach you, proffering bags to clean it up.

The village, which sits, as the name suggests, on the mouth of the Tyne river in northeast England, is serious about the pristine condition of its beaches and bays. Residents and visitors take part in regular group and individual — or two-minute  — beach clean-ups.

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Tynemouth's dedication to a litter-free coastline hasn't gone unnoticed.

At the start of 2018, it became the first community in the area and the second nationwide to be awarded "plastic free" status as part of a campaign by the green charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).  

There's also good reason for Tynemouth's dedication.

In the UK, hundreds of millions of tons of plastic are produced yearly and more than 35 million plastic bottles are used every day. Some estimates suggest nearly half of those bottles don't get recycled. The rest end up in landfills — or the oceans.

A dog on a beach

Even his bigger 'business' doesn't stay on the beach for long

What is 'plastic free?'

Given the material's pervasiveness and convenience,  the term "plastic free" is certainly more aspirational than factual. But it reflects an attempt to reduce plastic, item-by-item and community-by-community.

To qualify for the status, at least six businesses in any community have to commit to replacing three single-use plastics in their supply chain. They also have to raise awareness in schools and gain support from local authorities.

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A number of communities around the UK are now striving for the SAS plastic-free title and Penzance in southeast England — the first town that has been awarded the status — already has 70 local business involved in shedding the oil-based material.

In Tynemouth, the local aquarium has phased out plastic sachets of sauce, as well as plastic straws and lids in its cafeteria. Staff are also brushing the teeth of the aquarium's resident seals with plastic-free toothbrushes.

A sign on the beach that calls on people to collect trash

In Tynemouth, anyone can and is encouraged to take the initiative, including in the form of a '2 minute beach clean'

At Riley's Fish Shack — a local institution on the pretty King Edward's Bay beach — visitors gaze out to sea, munching their grilled chili squid out of compostable Vegware boxes rather than polystyrene or plastic.

"Tynemouth is one of the best seaside villages in the country and the environment is central to seaside regeneration," said Alan Campbell, Tynemouth's representative in the UK parliament. "The great thing about this project was, it is bottom up — surfers, residents and businesses coming together to make change happen."

Growing awareness

The SAS campaign is just one example of the seemingly sudden shift in attitudes to plastic. Environmentalists say conservative and liberal media outlets taking up the anti-plastic crusade are a part of the reason for the change.

In 2016, The Daily Mail, a tabloid not famous for its environmental coverage, ran four front pages calling for a ban on microbeads in cosmetics. The government promptly announced it would outlaw the use of the tiny particles.

Read more: Microplastics endanger whales and sharks

Read more: Time to clean up the ocean garbage dump

Similarly, Sky TV launched its "Ocean Rescue" campaign in January 2017 with a commitment to phase out single-use plastics in its canteens and offices by 2020 and a pledge to plough more than £20 million (€22.6 million, $26 million) into schemes to protect marine ecosystems.

View down a street in the British town of Tynemouth

People from all walks of life are actively striving for change, says Greenpeace

But the moment that really captured the public imagination came at the end of last year when broadcaster,  naturalist and British national treasure Sir David Attenborough's latest Blue Planet series aired to record audiences, showing them the true impact of plastic waste on the ocean and its wildlife.

"I think Blue Planet had somewhere to land," said Will McCallum, head of ocean campaigns at Greenpeace UK. "There were campaigns up and running that people could ask about and get involved with."

The power of starting small

Grassroots campaigning is another reason for the changing tides and Natalie Fee is just one example of how such campaigns can reset the agenda.

Fee founded the City to Sea group during a meeting with like-minded friends and volunteers in a Bristol pub in 2014. Two years later, they shot onto the national scene with a "switch the stick" campaign, calling on retailers to switch to paper rather than plastic cotton-bud stems.

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"I didn't really have any expectations, I was just really fed up with the cotton bud situation and thought that was something I could try and do something about," Fee told DW.

Awards and TED talks followed.

The group now has 17 full-time staff and has just overseen the UK's first National Refill Day, which is all about getting people to refill their bottles with free tap water from participating business rather than buy new bottles.

So far, 12,500 restaurants, train stations and other business have signed up to the scheme and are searchable using an app.

Vegetables wrapped in plastic in a UK supermarket

According to a current study, 85 percent of UK residents are aware that there is a plastic problem

Still, Fee says she's surprised by how mainstream the plastic issue has become.

"It's an easy access point into environmentalism," Fee said. "We recently commissioned a survey which showed that 85 percent of people in the UK are concerned about plastic pollution and are trying to do something about it."

McCallum, who has just written a new guide for people trying to live a plastic-free life because of the explosion in interest in the topic, expressed similar sentiments.

"When you look at it, it does kind of make sense because there is a real tangible link between the things you're holding in your hand and the thing you find on the beach," he told DW.

Read more: Germany's waste problem: Recycling isn't enough

Read more: Plastic bottle recycling champion: Norway or Germany?

A long road ahead

Old habits die hard though and despite plastic reduction schemes by businesses, such as supermarkets, there's still a long way to go.

David Potts the chief executive of supermarket chain Morrisons recently admitted that only one in ten patrons were using a bring-your-own packaging scheme at the stores' deli counters. 

Back in "plastic free" Tynemouth, soft drinks in single-use plastic bottles are still easy to find. Even Riley's Fish Shack sells water in plastic bottles.

"There is no alternative material that we can use at the scale that we use plastic that's going to solve this problem," said McCallum. At the same time, he says there is no recycling infrastructure equipped to deal with the volume of plastic the UK produces.

"So the only way out of the mess we're in," added McCallum, "is to produce less of it."


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