There’s much to be learned from the successful anti microbead campaigning in the US and hope for similar campaigns targeted at getting rid of polystyrene pollution to make the same kind of impact, writes Horatio Morpurgo
Between 2014 and 2015, beachcombers in the South West of England began to report hundreds of ‘sea fangles’. These are formed by the sea’s action wrapping plastic waste - mainly lost fishing net and line - around one or more pink sea-fans.
Party balloons, synthetic clothing and even headphones have been found in the bundles that wash ashore - all apt symbols for the knottiness of this problem. And they are washing up even where the sea bed is protected, as it has been for a decade in Lyme Bay, Dorset.
So how do you protect a Marine Protected Area from abandoned fishing gear? And it isn’t just about fishing: ‘the variety of debris from domestic sources,’ observed a recent research paper from Plymouth University, ‘demonstrates just how important it is to reduce the amount of litter entering the marine environment.’
The paper argues that European guidelines must be adhered to or improved upon after Brexit. The EU has proposed measures against single use fishing gear and policies on everything from product design to improved storm water and sewage management. And at the recent Lush Summit in London, as speaker after speaker in the ‘Ocean Space’ addressed the crisis in our seas, I was reminded, even at times discouraged, by how inextricably enmeshed these problems are.
One group of American activists were there with a complex but also heartening story to tell. In 2012 researchers found that the Great Lakes were much fuller of plastic than anyone had suspected. Much of it was microbeads, traceable to cosmetics and personal care products. Three years later, the Microbead-Free Waters Act, having sailed through both Houses of Congress, was signed into being by President Obama. A US ban on microbeads came into force in July 2017.
Now environmentalists don’t often get exactly what they want when they want it. The activists and biologists who uncovered the scale of this problem did not, of course, simply ‘luck their way’ to that end-result. There was a plan. There was an ally, too, in New York State’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. His office produced a paper highlighting the research, then helped with drafting a ban to be put before the State Assembly, where it (narrowly) lost.
Lush was another ally. It worked with 5 Gyres to campaign on this in all 225 of its North American outlets. It trained 4,000 staff to engage customers on the issue, raised money and made a short film on the topic.
Illinois passed the first ban, somewhat trickily inserting a clause exempting its enormous corn-based (‘bio-degradable’) plastics industry. New Jersey quickly followed Illinois through this loop-hole. There is, however, no evidence that plant-based plastic breaks down at sea into anything other than microplastics. Only when California became, in 2015, the first State to vote for a full ban were the cosmetics companies forced to re-think.
The federal Act signed by Obama contains no loophole for ‘bio-degradable’ plastics. This success in the US has led to similar legislation in Holland, Ireland and Britain.
5 Gyres attended the London Summit, where it announced its next campaign: a ban on polystyrene. Once again, the aim will be to show the research, shift perceptions, then win State-by-State until industry concedes nationally.
Change, in other words, comes about through knowing and working a particular political system. A particular language, too. Plastic waste at sea is still being referred to in the US as ‘marine debris’, as if somehow indistinguishable from floating weed. Activists coined the more accurate ‘plastic pollution’. ‘Plastic smog’ was better still. The point being that this is not the kind of rubbish we can scoop out, bury and forget about in the usual fashion.
Tiny they may be, but microbeads were in some ways an easy target. It was only in the 1990s that cosmetics companies switched from using ground apricot stones or sand or salt as exfoliants. Some never switched at all. But the success of the campaign is still worth studying.
In the UK, for example, the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC), an informal partnership of 40 different groups, has started sending joint letters to the manufacturers of ‘biodegradable’ party balloons found on Cornish beaches. It also raised the alarm about ‘biobeads’. These are plastic pellets, used in a few wastewater treatment plants, which appear to have leaked into the aquatic environment in colossal numbers in some locations. CPPC has taken the issue to the water companies and demanded change.
Know your region, your language and your political culture. Make allies wherever you can find them. ‘It’s not enough to be anti-plastic,’ as Jane Patton of the (American) Plastic Pollution Coalition put it, ‘We have to be for people, for the earth.’