I have spent much of my research career in far-flung places across the world. While there are some places where it is quite hard to find the imprint of man, in general, one does not need to look very far before the signs start to appear. More often than not a piece of plastic signals this imprint. I have even seen plastic debris on an iceberg in Antarctica – for me this was the tip of the iceberg in more ways than one.
My interest in marine mammals and seabirds has brought me up close and personal with the impact plastic debris has on our planet. The scale of the problem can be startling. I have studied whales in the tropics and sometimes it looked like the whales around me were swimming through a thin soup of plastic.
A recent study suggested that around 90% of seabirds had plastic in their stomachs and I have seen first-hand the other consequences plastic has on our wildlife. I have removed fishing nets from around the necks of seals. I have seen the plastic debris regurgitated by albatross chicks littering their nest sites, a seabird washed up dead on a beach because it had an elastic band around its bill, and others strangled by the plastic from a six-pack. I have even removed a young Arctic fur seal from a carrot sack. I have seen how these plastics gradually cut through the skin around the necks of these animals, leading to infection and a slow death, often from starvation.
The effect that plastic debris has on our environment goes beyond what we can see. While it’s hard to precisely quantify the full effect, we know that plastics reach far and wide within the ecological systems of our world. It’s not just larger pieces of plastic that are a threat to our planet. Microplastics are the microscopic break-down products formed once ultraviolet light and environmental abrasion get to work on plastics. These end up in the stomachs of zooplankton, like copepods, that are unable to distinguish between them and their real food. As the zooplankton gets eaten by bigger species – fish, squid, whales and the like so the microplastics move up the food chain. If we look at the harm macroplastic can have on some larger animals we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the possible effects of microplastics.
So, with this visible and invisible damage being done to our world, I support plans for retailers to start charging for plastic bags in October, because I’m sure that the charge is going to have a real impact on the amount of plastic that enters the marine environment. It will give me and others across England that nudge we need to remember to bring that bag with us next time we head to the shops and recycled where possible when it comes to the end of its life. My confidence in the impact that the charge will have is grounded in solid evidence. In Wales for example, carrier bag use has dropped by nearly 80% as a result of their 5p charge. It has been a similar story in Scotland and Northern Ireland who have also introduced the charge. In future, those economies that are going to thrive will be the ones that have learned the art of resource efficiency and, in my view, this starts with sensible, proportionate measures like this charge, to reduce the unnecessary generation of waste. This is not ‘anti-growth’, as I suspect some people might suggest, but it is making the case that growth doesn’t require the wasteful use of resources.
As a scientist, my job it is to weigh the evidence and provide dispassionate analysis. But setting aside my duty as a scientist, there are some things that we should just do, because we have a moral duty to do so as a citizen of this planet. For me, protecting our environment and fellow inhabitants of the planet is one of those duties, and we can help to honour it simply by cutting down on our plastic waste. I find myself getting annoyed when I hear people saying what the overall cost of this very small individual sacrifice will be to the economy when they do not, at the same time, assess the benefits that will accrue if we all help just a little amount. The benefit from us doing our bit will far outweigh any cost. And in time, I hope there will be no need to charge for a carrier bag because the very idea of avoiding the creation of unnecessary waste will be deeply engrained in our culture.
The most important thing to remember here is that this really is one of those times where each and every one of us can make a real difference. When disposing of these horrible plastic collars that come with six-packs, I take a pair of scissors to cut them up because never again would I want to walk on a beach and find a strangled bird and have to live with the idea that maybe it was my carelessness that had led to such suffering. And next time I head to the shops I’ll do my best to remember to bring a bag along with me. As a fellow citizen of this planet, I ask you to join me.