Marine litter – the plastics paradox?

10 August 2017

Polyethylene terephthalate, or ‘PET’, is a recycling success story. It’s one of the most widely recycled plastics. It is easy to identify and therefore separate from post-consumer waste streams. 99% of UK local authorities now collect plastic bottles as part of their recycling collections, up from 80% in 2008. And it is a good example of closed-loop recycling, with an estimated third of plastic bottles collected in the UK recycled into new bottles[ii].

So why are plastic bottles, of which the majority are PET, a key part of marine litter? A recent review of 10 years of UK beach survey data collected by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) identified that plastic was by far the most common type of litter, representing 66% of items found[iii] with plastic drinks bottles consistently in the top ten of items on beaches[iv].

These bottles litter the beaches of the world and, after they break-up into micro-fractions, they become an intrinsic part of the ‘plastic soup’ that has now reached every corner of our oceans. We know that this litter has a detrimental economic effect on fishing and tourism industries – one survey suggested that 85% of respondents would not visit a beach with more than two items of litter per metre – and we are only now beginning to understand the impact that marine litter is having on the natural environment and our food chains[v].

What do we do about it?

Clearly, we need to make better progress in designing out single-use plastic items and, where we can’t, we need to design for recyclability. There are some exciting developments here, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy and WRAP’s Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan making efforts to engage the whole supply chain. As well as brands such as M&S stating an ambition to develop one recyclable, plastic polymer group for use across all its plastic packaging – part of its Plan A 2025 commitments.

And we need investment in the infrastructure and systems that get good quality, post-consumer plastics from the consumer to reprocessors and then on to stable end-markets. These efforts need to be aided by the availability of good quality data on secondary plastics markets and a detailed understanding of the whole value chain. University of Leeds is doing some ground-breaking work here on complex value optimisation and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) has formed a Marine Litter Task Force to further explore ways that the waste management sector can play a leading role in tackling marine litter.

But I would suggest that this problem is as much about behaviour change as it is about technical solutions. The MCS’s surveys showed that public littering is the most commonly identified source of plastic containers on beaches. Fundamentally, we need a far stronger effort to prevent plastics leaking from the system in the first place. We need to raise awareness of littering and its affects. For example, Hubbub’s current For Fish’s Sake London campaign, is helping make consumers aware of the effects of littering. It claims 80% of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources which highlights the importance of connecting what people do on land with the impact in the water. And we need to think about these issues in our purchasing decision. We have real power as consumers, but many of us seldom use it. For example, do we need to buy another disposable bottle or could we carry one that we can refill? City to Sea and its Refill Bristol campaign has created some real momentum by encouraging people to fill up their refillable water bottle for free from one of 200 Refill stations across the City.

Whether we’re talking about consumers, retail brands or the waste management sector, it’s going to take all of us to tackle the issue.

This article by David Lerpiniere, Principal Consultant at Resource Futures, first appeared in the CIWM Online Journal.

Image source: CIWM Online Journal


Recoup, 2015. UK Household Plastics Collection Survey.

[ii] WRAP, 2016. Plastics Market Situation Report.

[iii] SE Nelms, Coombes, LC Foster, TS Galloway, BJ Godley, PK Lindeque, MJ Witt, 2017. Marine anthropogenic litter on British beaches: A 10-year nationwide assessment using citizen science data. Science of the Total Environment. 579: 1399–1409.

[iv] Ocean Conservancy, 2016. International Coastal Clean-up.

[v] UNEP