Plastic pollution on a beach

Plastic problem: why we need government action

Plastic is almost inescapable. Asking people to avoid plastic just isn’t realistic unless we get tough on the companies producing it.
  Published:  11 Apr 2019    |      3 minute read

Tell the UK government that we need a new law to phase out plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is suffocating the planet. Nowhere is immune.

It’s been found in the highest mountains and deepest oceans. We’ve even discovered tiny plastic waste in Britain's most iconic and remote rivers, lakes and reservoirs – including the seemingly crystal-clear waters of the Lake District.

A map of Britain showing the waterways we tested for microplastics and the amount of pollutants per litre
The waterways we tested for microplastics and the average amount of pollutants per litre.
Credit: Friends of the Earth

Scientists have found plastic in air, drinking water, seafood and human stools. As well as the health concerns, wildlife can become entangled in it or end up ingesting it.

Plastic hangs around in the environment for at least hundreds of years. It doesn’t disappear, it just breaks down into tiny pieces that continue to pollute our lives.

And one study has now revealed that plastics degrading in our oceans are releasing methane – a potent greenhouse gas.

Underwater image of plastic pollution in the ocean
Plastic pollution in the ocean
Credit: istock

Avoiding it is more difficult than it sounds. It’s in so many of the everyday things we buy. In a lot of cases it’s hidden from plain sight, lurking in everything from teabags and beer caps, to clothes and cosmetics.

So much plastic packaging

Food wrappers are one of the bigger culprits of plastic pollution.

Sainsburys told us that plastic is used to "keep groceries fresh and well-protected". That means stopping fruit from getting bruised – or keeping vegetables separate so their shelf life is prolonged.

Alternatives to plastic: an organic broccoli wrapped in plastic – is this necessary?
Should supermarkets be selling fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic?
Credit: istock

But Professor Steve Evans of the Institute for Manufacturing isn’t swallowing the food waste argument:

"Food waste is roughly the same wherever you go. But in other countries it happens closer to the farmer. In the UK we've got really good at avoiding the food waste at that level, here it just happens in the home.”

His comments that plastic packaging isn’t reducing food waste are backed up by a Friends of the Earth Europe study. It revealed that between 2004 and 2014 household food waste in the EU doubled despite plastic packaging increasing by 50%.

Tell the UK government that we need a new law to phase out plastic pollution.

More plastic on the way?

We can all do our bit to reduce the plastic we use. But with the amount of plastic produced set to grow by 40% over the next decade, our individual efforts will never be enough to solve the problem.

To illustrate this, we set the public a challenge to avoid everyday plastic. Time and again people found themselves being tripped up by the sheer ubiquity of plastic. People like Charlie Gilpin and his friend Will Hearle.

"It's everywhere and it's unavoidable. We need to pressure the retailers to stop using plastic in everything." Will Hearle.

"Consumers can make a real difference through their choices, but retailers also need to say they don't want plastic containers any more. I think it's really important that the government decides to act on this." Charlie Gilpin.

Examples of everyday plastic waste in our lives including disposable coffee cups and food packaging
Plastic has become an inescapable part of modern-day life.
Credit: Friends of the Earth

What is the solution to the plastic problem?

We need government action.

The government has made some encouraging pledges to act on things like cotton buds and straws. But to tackle all the many sources of plastic pollution, we need legislation that commits the government to phasing it out.

We're not suggesting an outright ban on plastics. Some plastics are essential or hard to replace – getting rid of them could lead to worse social and environmental outcomes.

For example, banning plastics in clothes without a viable alternative could lead to an increase in cotton production – an industry known for using lots of water and pesticides.

Part of the process will involve identifying those types of plastics and eradicating all the rest.

A new law to end plastic pollution

Together with our partners in the Women’s Institute, we’ve launched a piece of legislation called the Plastic Pollution Bill.

The Bill calls for a phase out of plastic pollution. It commits this and future governments to stopping the flow of plastic into our waterways and oceans.

The Bill is already gathering pace, with MPs from across the main parties as well as many other charities and organisations supporting it.

Tell the UK government that we need a new law to phase out plastic pollution.

Support for our new law

There is lots of support for our bill already – and it’s growing every day.

Members of Parliament across the main parties back our call for legislation, with many of them championing the Bill to help it on its way to becoming law.

Over 20 of these MPs came on board after meeting up with one of our local groups.

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, holding a banner up with Quentin Given, Tottenham and Wood Green Friends of the Earth. The banner declares David's support for a plastics law to phase out non-essential plastics
David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, and Quentin Given of Tottenham and Wood Green Friends of the Earth
Credit: Friends of the Earth
Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, flanked by members of Oxford Friends of the Earth, holding up a banner to declare support for a law to phase out non-essential plastics
Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon
Credit: Friends of the Earth
Suella Braverman, Conservative MP for Fareham, holding up a banner to declare support for a law to phase out non-essential plastics
Suella Braverman, Conservative MP for Fareham
Credit: Friends of the Earth

A number of organisations are also backing the bill, including the Marine Conservation Society, the Soil Association, the NUS and lots more.

Help us get a plastics law

There’s still a long way to go to make this new law a reality.

To really get it moving, we need a commitment from the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove.

We’ve achieved great things this way in the past. It’s how we won the Climate Change Act – the world’s first law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We need thousands of people to send messages to Michael Gove. This could be the thing that puts our new law on the Environment Secretary’s radar and persuades him to take action.

Tell the UK government that we need a new law to phase out plastic pollution.