One of the most common objects we all see every day now – whether on land, the coastline or at sea - are discarded plastic bottles. The statistics are truly staggering - 700,000 plastic bottles are littered every day in the UK alone. 255 million bottles annually are not recycled. The current system is utterly failing to match the explosion of plastic use.
The impact this is having on the ocean has brought the plastic pollution crisis top of mind. Around eight million tonnes of plastic makes its way to sea every year. Dropped, discarded, overlooked and escaping into the environment, it ends up on once-untouched beaches in the Pacific, in the bellies of roaming seabirds, in the deepest ocean trenches or floating next to you in the sea. Plastics are now even present in seafood sold for human consumption.
We can’t just litter pick our way out of the problem. Marine plastic pollution has sadly become an expected part of our ocean experiences. Should there be no change in our habits, it is estimated that there will soon be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
A plastic-free ocean will need progressive government policies and a plastics industry that incentivises design and systems to trap plastic in the economy rather than the environment. Governments around the world are now starting to act to stop the ocean succumbing to plastics. For example, In the UK, the 5p plastic bag charge has stopped over nine billion plastic bags from being used. But what about plastic bottles, which take 450 years to break down in the sea? They don’t biodegrade, just fragmenting over time into smaller and smaller particles lasting indefinitely in the environment and causing harm to marine life as it enters the food chain.
Deposit refund systems (DRS) are an established and effective solution that capture and collect almost 100 per cent of plastic bottles in the recycling economy, ensuring they never enter the environment. Deposit refund systems are currently operating in multiple countries and territories with a combined population of over 200 million. I remember this system working in the UK, collecting and re-using valuable glass bottles until the 1980s but it was phased out with the introduction of cheaper, single-use plastic bottles.
Refund systems are already commonplace around the world. They can capture almost 100 per cent of plastic bottles in the recycling economy, with return rates across Europe including Germany at over 98 per cent and Norway 95 per cent.
It is estimated that a deposit refund system in the UK would help reduce the littering of plastic bottles by 85 per cent - that’s 600,000 fewer bottles on beaches, streets and fields every day and 219 million per year. There is now overwhelming public support for DRS, with almost three out of four people in favour of the measure and business leaders also giving their backing to a ‘well-designed’ DRS being established in the UK. Scotland’s recent commitment to introducing a deposit refund system is a welcome start – hopefully England, Wales and Northern Ireland will follow suit to design and implement the most effective system possible, along with the rest of the world.
This is a brilliant opportunity to show further leadership to tackle plastic pollution. This would dramatically reduce litter, increase recycling, reduce carbon emissions, while supporting communities, local authorities and the economy. If we can significantly reduce that daily 700,000 plastic bottle litter rate – and we know we can – why wouldn't we?