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How we can prevent ocean plastic pollution by improving UK recycling systems

To mark World Oceans Day, director of the Prevented Ocean Plastic programme, Raffi Schieir, explains how our current recycling systems are causing ocean plastic pollution.

The climate and ocean crises are global problems that are having untold consequences for our planet. With projections suggesting that by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish, tackling ocean plastic pollution is more urgent than ever.

To mark World Oceans Day, director of the Prevented Ocean Plastic programme, Raffi Schieir, explains how our current recycling systems are causing ocean plastic pollution.

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What is wrong with the UK’s recycling systems?

Currently less than 10 per cent of the plastic ever produced has been recycledand just 14 per cent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally. This is a massive issue as much of the plastic not recycled ends up polluting our oceans and that is having a terrible impact on them and the communities living alongside them.

Shockingly, the UK exports a proportion of its plastic waste to developing countries, the majority of which is not suitable for recycling there and so it is either burned or left to decompose or leak into waterways. In both instances causing detrimental effects to nature and biodiversity there.

The UK is the second worst country in the world for producing plastic waste. It sits just behind the USA as the country that generates the most plastic waste per person per year, that’s 99kg per UK citizen. After recycling, the most common destination for the UK’s rubbish is landfill, with 24 per cent of waste sent there in 2016.

How would a circular economy help?

Ninety-five per cent of plastic packaging loses its material value – equivalent to $80-120billion annually – after one use. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Creating a circular economy on plastic is the best way to address plastic pollution. In a circular economy, plastic maintains its value and doesn’t become waste or litter – addressing pollution at its source.

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And the benefits of building a positive circular economy don’t start and end with the climate crisis. This kind of circular economy also creates income and employment opportunities for those in the formal and informal waste sector. 

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So, what’s the solution?

There is enough plastic in the world already. We now need to get better at collecting it and bringing it back into circulation. There is talk that at least €160bn will need to be invested in making Europe’s plastics systems more circular and carbon-neutral by 2050, if long-term environmental commitments are to be met – but I believe this is a distraction from what we can achieve today.

When there is adequate recycling and good practice, recycling waste won’t be an issue. We already have the technology to turn plastic waste into resources to make new products, we just need to make the most of it.

The Prevented Ocean Plastic programme, for example, demonstrates a recycling system that works. We turn discarded plastic, collected from coastlines before it has the chance to pollute our oceans and waterways, into ‘Prevented Ocean Plastic’ recycled plastic materials. We pay bottle collectors for what they collect and we’re able to support people working in materials collection in developing countries across the world.

While plastic waste shows no signs of slowing down, we need to rapidly accelerate recognition and use of ocean-bound recycled plastic as part of the solution. It is a key element of creating a circular economy for plastic while also protecting our oceans and marine life from devastating pollution.

What can I do today to help stop ocean plastic pollution?

Big companies won’t change unless customers demand it. We can all support a circular economy on plastic by choosing recycled products. By doing this you’re ensuring that recycling has already happened.

Some 64 per cent of UK adults are more likely to buy products with packaging that is recyclable and one in two UK adults expect all plastic to be made of recycled materials by 2030. We care about our natural environment. We just need to be offered better plastic choices.

As shoppers, the more we prefer and demand products in recycled content the more businesses will have to change to meet our needs.

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