Sea Changes: How new laws are cleaning up the oceans

Sea view with rain

The plastic bag charge has reduced the number of bags washing up on Britain’s beaches.

They are everyday items that seem insignificant within larger schemes of climate change and changing earth systems. But the legislation regarding plastic bags and prospectively microbeads proves that small scale efforts have the potential to accrue wider significance in tackling issues of environmental quality. The one scheme – the plastic bag tax – has already been proven a success, whilst the other (the recently revived issue of microplastics) promises the same level of change.

The plastic bag tax was introduced in October 2015, and recent reports by the Marine Conservation Society show that the charge is already effecting tangible improvements with a ‘40% drop from the average’ in the number of bags collected on UK beaches in 2015. This data is sourced from the ‘Great British Beach Clean’, a yearly event run by the MCS wherein UK beaches are simultaneously cleaned and surveyed by volunteers. Furthering the sustainable momentum of the plastic bag tax, the scheme is reported to have generated £29m for charitable causes, some of which has been reinvested in the MSC project. The circularity of this tax makes it a sustainable and progressive move forward; the removal of the pollutant, the raising of profits for charity, and the funding for projects that actively clean up British beaches, all work through this initial tax to shape an exponential positive impact on consumerism.

In September this year, a ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetic and cleaning items was proposed for 2017. The tiny beads are microplastics – plastics under 5mm in diameter – and have been identified in the digestive systems of marine species (Roger Harrabin, BBC News). This effectively simulates the sense that they have eaten, preventing them from eating nutritious food and eventually starving them. To compound the issue, microbeads have been shown to leach toxins into the water they end up in. As they are too small to be properly filtered out by standard waste water treatment plants, they are seemingly irreversibly lodged in the world’s oceans.

However, this is no news to many people. This recently revived issue has been common knowledge for a long time, with other nations having already imposed bans as early as 2014 (Gavin Haynes, The Guardian). It is not as though there are no, or never have been any alternatives. Many cosmetic brands have been using comparable natural ingredients for many years; abrasive agents that are biodegradable. It is perhaps yet another case of cost prevailing over conscience.

It must be ensured that not only consumer-oriented environmental issues become the focus of the new cabinet

The microbeads ‘scandal’ may be seen as having worked as a touchstone of the new cabinet’s environmental credentials. After PM Theresa May dissolved the Department for Energy and Climate Change, she replaced it with the so-called Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the new emphasis of the title possibly highlighting a changed attitude to climate evinced by the transition to a post-Brexit government. Amidst the fallout from the Brexit vote, it is natural to fear that commonly slighted issues such as those of the environment and climate may be left behind in the wake of what are perceived to be more urgent political paradigm shifts.

However, these recently implemented measures go to show that steps are being taken to reverse environmentally damaging habits in the retail world. But although these new schemes can be considered relatively progressive, it must be ensured that not only consumer-oriented environmental issues become the focus of the new cabinet under PM Theresa May. The government’s accountability to be progressive in other environmental sectors, beyond those that immediately impact consumerism, must not be forgotten. For although positive changes are taking place to an extent in our seas, sea changes in environmental approach are still needed.

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