It seems that you can’t turn on the radio or TV these days without a story concerning the evils of plastic waste and the damage it is doing to our oceans. The recent BBC series Blue Planet 2 showed many visual, hard-hitting examples which shocked viewers and has galvanised the media into getting behind various initiatives – Refuse the Straw, The Latte Levy for example. But for these initiatives to truly succeed there has to be a change to social conforming behaviours. The introduction of a charge for carrier bags in UK supermarkets is an excellent example of this.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of social conforming behaviours (“norms”) which when aligned and triggered can change behaviours permanently.
First we have descriptive norms – we do these things because others do it. Closely linked are injuctive norms – we take these actions because we believe they are publicly approved as “the right thing to do”. Finally there are personal norms which are as a result of our upbringing, education or experiences. If policymakers can align these three norms and find trigger then we change people’s habits.
Looking at the plastic bag charge that has been so successful in the UK, research shows that most people’s personal norms consider waste to be bad. So they will save bags if the two public approval norms can be triggered. The publicity campaign introducing the charge stressed the harm that plastic bags can do to animals as well as the visual impact of litter. This primed people to appreciate that avoiding plastic bag use was the “right thing to do” as well as being publicly approved.
There only remained one aspect to establish – to subtly persuade individuals that most people bring their own bags to stores. Making this standard practice socially reinforces individual actions and becomes habit-forming which is then likely to be sustained. The introduction of the 5p charge also triggers a loss-aversion process, which subliminally reinforces that buying plastic bags is neither normal nor “the right thing to do”.
Another aspect to the loss-aversion process is the UK proposal to follow other European countries and introduce a refundable deposit scheme for plastic bottles. Recycling rates of up to 95% have been achieve elsewhere.
Scientists in Norway found more than 30 plastic bags inside the stomach of a whale stranded in shallow waters off the island of Sotra, Norway. The creature had very little blubber and was emaciated, suggesting that the plastic had led to it becoming malnourished.
The Cuvier beaked whale was put down by wardens after it became apparent that it wasn’t going to live and had clearly consumed a large amount of non-biodegrabeable waste.
When researchers at the University of Bergen performed an autopsy on the mammal, they analyzed the stomach contents and found huge amounts of plastic, including 30 plastic bags and other plastic packaging with labels in Danish and English. Dr Terje Lislevand, a zoologist who studies whales added that the intenstines were also probably blocked up with plastic, causing severe pain. Unfortunately, they weren’t shocked by this but Dr Lislevand said that it very sad to find such large quantities.
The following video may contain distressing scenes.
Cuvier’s beaked whales grow up to 22ft long and usually feed on squid and deep sea fish. They are not normally found in Norwegian waters. At the beginning of 2016 experts warned there will be more plastic than sealife in the oceans by 2050. At least 8 million tonnes of plastic already ends up in the ocean every year – the equivalent of a rubbish truck of waste every minute, according to the report from the World Economic Forum.
The rate of plastic pollution is only expected to increase as more and more plastic is used globally, especially in emerging economies with weaker waste and recycling regimes.
Some facts about plastic in our oceans
Every year millions of tonnes of plastic debris such as bags, bottles and food packaging seeps into our oceans.
As plastic degrades slowly, it pollutes the oceans for a long time.
It breaks down into fragments called micro-plastics, which are ingested by sealife.
It can badly affect living organisms as they become entangled in or ingest it, and they can become choked or poisoned.
Researchers estimate the amount of plastic in the oceas is set to increase tenfold by 2020.
There could be more plastic than life in our oceans by 2050.
If you visit our STOP page, you can find out how you can help with our campaign to Save the Oceans from Plastic.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water………….
UN’s top environmental scientist warns bottles and bags do not break down easily and sink, as report highlights the ubiquity of plastic debris in oceans.
Biodegradable plastic water bottles and shopping bags are a false solution to the ubiquitous problem of litter in the oceans, the UN’s top environmental scientist has warned.
Most plastic is extremely durable, leading to large plastic debris and “microplastics” to spread via currents to oceans from the Arctic to the Antarctic, a UN report found.
Greener plastics that breakdown in the environment have been marketed as a sustainable alternative that could reduce the vast amount of plastic waste that ends up in the sea after being dumped. But Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist at the UN Environment Programme, told the Guardian that these biodegradable plastics were not a simple solution.
“It’s well-intentioned but wrong. A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50C and that is not the ocean. They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV and break down,” she said.
Speaking at the the UN environment assembly in Nairobi, where 170 countries met in May 2016 and passed, among many others, a resolution on microplastics, she added: “We have detected plastics in places as far away as the Chagos Islands [in the Indian Ocean]. Even if you are remote, you are not safe from it.”
More than 300m tonnes of plastic were produced in 2014 and that is expected to swell to nearly 2,000m tonnes by 2050 on current trends, the UN report said. While the exact amount that reaches the oceans is not known, the report concluded: “plastic debris, or litter, in the ocean is now ubiquitous.”
The spread of everything from large plastic debris such as fishing gear which dolphins can become entangled with, to fragments smaller than 5mm in diameter known as microplastics, has ecological, social and economics costs.
Jellyfish, for example, are using plastic as a habitat and to hitch a ride, allowing them to extend their range. The spread of jellyfish is considered bad news by experts because of the amount of plankton they eat, taking away food from fish and other marine life.
“There is a moral argument that we should not allow the ocean to become further polluted with plastic waste, and that marine littering should be considered a ‘common concern of humankind’,” the report’s authors wrote.
The main solution to plastics in the ocean is better waste collection and recycling, particularly in the developing world, the UN said. But McGlade said that some of the biodegradable additives in plastic to allow it to break down made it harder to recycle, and potentially harmful in the natural environment.
“When you start adding all of that [additives], when it becomes waste, they [the additives] become the enemy of the environment. As consumers we need to think of the use of plastic,” she said.
The UN report said that it was only in the past decade that plastics in the ocean had been taken seriously. “Warnings of what was happening were reported in the scientific literature in the early 1970s, with little reaction from much of the scientific community.”