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Ocean Talks 2022: How to cut down on plastic use

9 June 2022

Boat International readers put questions to United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson and Frederikke Magnussen, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, which campaigns and lobbies both “to inspire the world to turn off the plastic tap” and help develop and introduce plastic-free alternatives...

What are the most common “hidden” uses of plastic in our daily lives and how can we cut down on them?

Peter Thomson: Packaging. Unwrap your shopping at the till and leave the plastic behind, saying: “I don’t want this, thanks. I just want the banana inside it.” That would be a good movement to get underway.

Frederikke Magnussen: Every time we wash our bodies or our clothes, we are releasing microplastics into the sea. Educate yourself on what personal care products you are using. If they contain Polyethylene and Acrylates Copolymer, they are packed with microplastics, and it is easy to swap them with products that don’t. In addition, try and wear natural fibres as much as possible. Anything that contains polyster should be a no no – it sheds plastic fibres in the wash and those fibres will make it straight out to the ocean. Go for cotton, linen or anything natural whenever you can.

How does plastic stack up against other threats to the ocean?

Peter Thomson: The ocean’s health is measurably in decline thanks to three factors: overfishing; pollution, 80 per cent of which is plastic; and the effects of our anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, which have led to acidification and deoxygenation. We don’t know where plastic pollution fits within that. But microplastics are found everywhere, from the Arctic to the deepest part of the ocean. So they are a huge part of its decline.

Since the noise about plastics began, how much has actually been achieved? Is there now more or less plastic in the oceans?

Peter Thomson: I don’t have a concrete figure, but I believe there is more. The pandemic has contributed hugely to it with all the PPE. The latest projections that I’ve see say there will be a tripling of plastic production by 2050 and therefore a tripling of marine pollution.

Frederikke Magnussen: The awareness is there, now we need action.

Read More/Ocean Talks 2022: The programme
Peter Thomson, United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean

I am the mother of two young children. I find it impossible to shop responsibly. Everything from baby teets to nappies are awful for our planet, and yet I am given no choice. Shouldn’t governments be doing more?

Peter Thomson: Yes, yes, yes! I sympathise. I was shopping for one of my grandchildren yesterday, and we had a trolley full of plastic – supposedly the right kind of plastic, but still… Personal choice does make a big difference. And it’s also about how much we buy. I think quantity is an issue here too.

Frederikke Magnussen: On a practical level, where possible buy things that are pre-filled and can be refilled. But I do sympathise, and ultimately we need tougher laws. The UK has recently introduced a plastic tax, which requires producers to include a quantity of recycled plastic alongside their use of virgin plastic. But it is very difficult to police, plus the definition of ‘recycled’ varies. So yes, we need to make producers do more, and it is up to Government to do this.

Plastic-free options are always so much more expensive – or am I looking in the wrong place?

Peter Thomson: I’m not sure cost is the issue. It might be faster to buy things pre-packaged. But it’s not usually more expensive to buy unpackaged food. It’s more about convenience than cost. Individual choice is going to be a big part of this.

Frederikke Magnussen:  It can be tricky, especially outside of the food sector. We need big retailers to get on board. If there was a big tax on waste, then there would be more competition between, and pressure on, the non-plastic sector, which would in turn force prices down. At A Plastic Planet, we have been pushing to make a platform for new materials and system change.

How worried do I need to be about micro plastics in my food and drink and how can I lessen my exposure to them?

Frederikke Magnussen: Very worried. Avoid plastic water bottles at all costs, and do not freeze or heat anything that is wrapped in or sitting on plastic. Also, wear natural materials.

Sometimes cutting down on plastic can feel overwhelming. If we can't commit to a fully plastic-free lifestyle, what are the most important things we can do that will make the most impact?

Peter Thomson: We need to insist that the plastic industry moves from linear to circular. That is the key thing. Plastic is not going to go away. We know that. But the linear production – making plastic that has to be thrown away – needs to end. We have to make recyclable polymers more competitive so that we can have an effective recycling economy.

Frederikke Magnussen: Say no to plastic. It is very simple: buy better, buy less.

Credit: Adobe Stock

Is the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, correct when he says that recycling plastic “doesn’t work”? Is there any point in recycling it or is it really better to incinerate it?

Peter Thomson: No, he’s wrong. Just because it doesn’t work in the UK doesn’t mean it can’t be made to work globally. That’s what the new UN treaty will address: it’s about making recycling the way forward.

Frederikke Magnussen: I would disagree. Personally I don’t believe in the recycling fairy!  I don’t think we can recycle our way out of this.  But I don’t believe incineration is the answer either. The truth is, there is no silver bullet.  I think that we have to aim to ban plastic altogether.  Innovation comes from a crisis, and everyone has to step up to this huge challenge, from governments to citizens. We need to go back to nature – take from it, and give back to it in a responsible way.

Making individual changes is great, but it's only part of the picture. How do we hold government and big corporations to account for plastic use?

Peter Thomson: Via the ballot box.

Frederikke Magnussen: There should be laws against putting small things in plastic: small sachets for instance.  In the UK we buy 111 billion pieces of plastic packaging from supermarkets each year. But we can only buy what we are sold. Plastic shouldn’t be used in packaging.

Do you really think there will come a time when plastic is obsolete?

Peter Thomson: I do believe we can achieve consensus for a treaty that envisages a circular economy rather than a linear one. But I also think that replacements for plastic packaging made of, for example, algae are coming. And people will prefer them because they are organic and good for the environment. I think that day will come sooner rather than later. It will be bad news for the oil industry, of course, but good news for the rest of us.

Frederikke Magnussen: I think plastic is here to stay, and in some ways it is a fantastic material and has a place in the world. But we have to treat it with respect. Everything in moderation. If we take responsibility for when we use it and how we use it, and create affordable and innovative alternatives, that is a world we can all believe in.

Hosted by BOAT International with support from Ocean Family Foundation (OFF), the three-day programme for Ocean Talks is running from June 8 until June 10.