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  • Writer's pictureRebecca

How do we turn off the tap?

We love cleaning beaches! We find beachcombing treasures, we are relaxed by the sound of the sea, we get exercise, explore new places and meet new people. It's a great way of being mindful and immersing yourself in your environment - so its great on so many levels.

We also know that this alone will never solve the problem of marine plastic pollution and to show why we'd love to share the analogy from David Katz with you:

Just imagine you come home from work and there's water flowing across the kitchen floor from the overflowing sink, do you mop the floor...or turn off the tap? Silly question huh? You turn off the tap.

How do we turn off the plastic tap? Well, we need to know where the plastic is coming from.

Prof. Richard Thompson in his report for the UK government quoted the Marine Conservation Society beach clean survey data, where volunteers cleaned 3,245 beaches between 2005 and 2014 and showed that 80% of the litter on UK shores was plastic. Most of it came from land-based sources with a significant proportion being plastic packaging. It's clear that some of this would have been shorebased litter that would have been blown offshore or carried along our waterways, as eventually they all flow into the sea. Some of it may also have been discarded on beaches and from boats.

Litter cleaned from the beach on the Penryn River, Falmouth

In an attempt to understand at least part of the problem: how the waste management industry works and how we should manage our plastic waste more effectively in our little piece of paradise, we posed some questions to our crew member and resident waste management hero, Peter!

Peter Wynn

From the perspective of the long term issue of marine plastic pollution, what do you think would be the best thing to do to tackle plastic waste in the UK?

The critical thing is to stop plastic from entering the seas. It’s probably too late to do anything about the material that is already there, according to Prof Richard Thompson. Most of the waste arisings in the UK are well managed, although not perfectly, so there is room for improvement. Fugitive waste, that which slips through the net for various reasons or is deliberately or accidentally allowed to enter the environment in an uncontrolled manner, is a harder problem. The present focus on marine plastics will hopefully drive research into what needs to be done - answers may include better enforcement, changing attitudes and behaviour, perhaps a wider remit for local authorities, and probably legislation addressing some single use plastics.

I understand that currently, there are over 300 different waste policies for domestic waste in the UK. Can you explain to me why this is? How are our waste and recycling policies cascaded down from central government?

Ever since waste became a problem in UK cities, it has been the role of municipal authorities to collect municipal waste. These roles have become better defined in recent times but the general pattern still prevails. The logic is that local authorities understand their needs better than central government, and you can understand that, say, Orkney, may well have different requirements and resources than Dorking. So, local authorities are required to manage their own waste, to produce a waste strategy, to consult upon it and to implement it, according to guidelines from central government.

Can you explain how these individual waste policies typically evolved, how they tend to vary (i.e. what can be recycled in some areas and what can’t) and what the differences mean to our national waste management?

New Forest recycling uses the two bag system

One of the big differences is between kerbside sort and the two bag system. In the former, householders undertake a large degree of sorting their recyclables. In the latter, you get a black bag for rubbish and a clear bag for mixed recyclables. Contractors prefer the latter because it means the need for long contracts. The kerbside sort produces better quality recyclate and is more flexible to changes in the recycling market. But different areas have differing needs. For example, Tower Hamlets in London consists predominantly of high rise flats. Having a recycling system that depends on the householder sorting out material into five different boxes is simply impracticable, because they quite literally don’t have the space. A two bag system works much better.

Why are some items of plastic packaging or plastic products not recyclable?

In order to make recycling work, there has to be a market for the material that is collected and sorted. The sorting plants are large pieces of kit that require millions of pounds of investment. To enable this investment there has to be commitment to a long term plan, and this inevitably introduces inertia: if a plant has been designed and built to a specification, it needs to be run according to specification, so it’s not a simple matter to change the outputs. Thus if a market comes along for a new plastic stream it is hard to take advantage of it, plus the recycling public will have to be re-educated in what to put in their bags.

We are consistently encouraged to REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE. What would be the impacts of us buying less plastic and so reducing the domestic input of plastic into the waste system?

Plastics ideally will be sorted out of a waste stream and into recyclables. However, a certain proportion of plastics will inevitably find their way into the residual stream, by which I mean the domestic waste that has to go to landfill or energy recovery for various reasons. Plastics have a high calorific content, so potentially we have an interesting problem should their use decrease. Where the residual waste goes to recycling, the overall calorific value might reduce, causing a problem for the energy recovery plants (incinerators) in that they could end up having to use support fuel to keep them going. However, this is only theoretical; please don’t let this stop you from reducing your dependance on plastics!

We have more questions and answers to share with you on a later blog so do drop back. If, like us, you have questions you'd like to have answered about marine plastic pollution, send us an email and we'll see what we can do to pose them to Peter or one of the other experts we know.

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