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Tackling the global plastics crisis: protecting people and nature from microplastics by reducing plastic production at source

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Megan Randles

Political Campaigner at Greenpeace

Megan Randles, political campaigner at Greenpeace explains the scale of the plastics crisis and the need to tackle the problem at source. She also discusses the importance of Greenpeace’s Big Plastic Count initiative.

Plastic is everywhere. We encounter it constantly. Vast quantities of plastic now pollute our world, from big pieces of plastic to tiny microplastics and nanoplastics which are difficult to see.

It has been estimated that a truckload of plastic enters the ocean every single minute. In total, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans every year, and plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris. Plastic is lethal to wildlife, killing an estimated one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles every year. Turtles, dolphins and seabirds can become entangled or injured by large pieces of plastic. It can even be mistaken for food.

Over 80% of ocean plastics come from land-based sources. When plastic breaks down it doesn’t disappear, it gets smaller, creating microplastics. Even clothes made from artificial materials shed microplastic fibres when they’re washed. Impossible to filter from waste water, they end up in our oceans. Tiny pieces of plastic have been found in the remotest regions of the world, including the deepest ocean trenches and on uninhabited islands. Greenpeace researchers have even found plastic pollution in Antarctica.

The UK produces more plastic waste per person than almost any other country, and a huge amount of it is sent abroad, most of it going to countries that aren’t equipped to handle it. Greenpeace investigators found British plastic waste being dumped and burned in Turkey – on the roadside, near waterways and in the open air, and people nearby have reported serious health problems.

Whilst at the same time, public concern about the plastic pollution crisis has risen sharply in recent years. The UK’s governments have made gestures towards stemming the plastic tide, but the sheer volume of plastic waste generated each year vastly exceeds the UK’s capacity to recycle it. A complete rethink is needed.

Political Campaigner at Greenpeace, Meg Randles talks to Fleur Anderson MP on her Private Members Bill to ban plastics from wet wipes

Fleur Anderson MP is campaigning to tackle one significant element of the plastic crisis – plastic in wet wipes. I sat down with Fleur to discuss her campaigning and her Private Members Bill, which is currently going through parliament.

Fleur tells me she could talk about wet wipes all day. Her bill, which enjoys cross party support, seeks to ban the production of wet wipes that contain plastic, which could have a huge impact. This one small and inconspicuous item, which many people don’t even realise contains microplastic fibres, is responsible for blocking sewers and drains, clogging up rivers and polluting riverbanks and shores. We discussed how microplastics are just as devastating. Swallowed by everything from microscopic zooplankton to giant blue whales, they enter the food chain and carry harmful toxins. Approximately 11 billion wet wipes are used in the UK every year. A record 23,000 wet wipes were counted and removed from one stretch of the Thames foreshore in just two hours last month.

Fleur explained that plastic wet wipes are one example of plastic items which are problematic and are indicative of an even larger problem. Eradicating plastic in wet wipes is just the start, there’s also a need to look at plastic production overall, ways of reducing plastic use across the board, and how we need to switch to reusable solutions.

Fleur observed that companies aren’t going far enough or fast enough in handling the plastic wet wipe problem, and this is something we see across generally when it comes to plastic producers and retailers taking responsibility for the plastic items they sell.

Plastic is so pervasive in our lives that although individual actions are welcome and valuable, it is industry that must take responsibility. However, voluntary action from industry hasn’t turned the tide on the plastic crisis. The government must mandate a 50% reduction in single-use plastic by 2025 – and supermarkets and major brands must deliver it.

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Final thought

It was a pleasure to discuss with Fleur how MPs and individuals can play their part in tackling the global plastics problem. However, it is important not to blame individuals for the plastic pollution problem. We’re all doing our bit to recycle, but plastic waste is still everywhere.

Fortunately the answer is simple: make and use less plastic. Action from the government, industry and supermarket is desperately needed. The longer we wait, the more plastic ends up in nature. This year, the government is starting to decide on legal targets to reduce plastic waste. We want them to set a target to reduce single-use plastic by 50% by 2025 and ban dumping our waste in other countries.

This spring, Greenpeace is teaming up with Everyday Plastics to launch The Big Plastic Count – which will be the UK’s biggest ever investigation into household plastic waste. The Big Plastic Count will produce new evidence into our recycling system at a time when the government is considering new targets under the Environment Act.

About Greenpeace

Greenpeace campaigns to tackle all elements of the global plastics crisis, from radical reduction and ending waste exports to exploring some of the potential solutions. Greenpeace works to identify and reveal environmental injustice. We amplify the voices of those affected and the important changemakers who can make a difference. We hold the government and businesses to account so practical solutions can be found that work for everyone.

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