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Why do we need to tackle plastics and litter?

Tackling plastics pollution
Image courtesy of the Environment Agency

Plastics have grabbed people’s attention. Recent media coverage has made society ask ‘what more needs to be done to reduce plastics entering the ocean'? There are issues caused by visible plastic contamination of beaches, rivers and soils, and in the ingestion and entanglement of wildlife. There is also increasing concern about the potential impacts of micro-plastics in soils, air, the water environment, the food chain and on human and plant health. There are many justifiable uses of plastic. For example, it is an essential component of flood defences and in medical equipment. The alternatives can also be damaging to the environment. However, there is considerable political and public expectation for action to reduce plastics and litter.

What types of plastic are there?

Plastic mainly enters the environment either as large pieces (sometimes referred to as macro-plastics) or in small particles (micro-plastics). Macro-plastics can degrade to produce what are known as secondary micro or nano-plastics. The plastic can be emitted to air, water or deposited on land.

Where does the plastic come from?

Almost half of plastic beach waste comes from unknown origins, but nearly a third is public litter. Fishing and sewage related debris make up around 20% of plastic on beaches. Cigarette butts account for 18% followed by larger plastic pieces at 8%. Smaller plastic pieces, plastic cups and cotton buds each account for 5%. Cotton buds, shopping bags and crisp packets are also found at around 4% each followed by string and drinks bottles.

Marine Conservation Society data shows that eighty percent of litter found in their beach cleans comes from inland sources, so stopping litter reaching our rivers and coasts is crucial to cleaning up our environment.

What harm can plastic litter do?

Each year an estimated 14 million pieces of plastic rubbish end up in and around our waterways, with around 500,000 pieces flowing out into our oceans. The most obvious affect from this rubbish is on the amenity value of the places that we like to visit; small children and pets are at particular risk if they try to pick up, stand on or eat items. There is also growing concern about the potential physical and ecotoxic effects of plastics. A broad range of water organisms (from plankton to fish, otters and seals) has been shown to become entangled in or ingest plastics. Entanglement and entrapment by debris (nets, ropes and crab pots; to car air filters and polythene bags) have been widely reported for river and marine mammals. Critical life processes, including metabolism, growth, reproduction and behaviour (and mortality) can be affected by the ingestion of plastic.

This information has been sourced from the Environment Agency paper on Plastics Challenges for the Water Environment.

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