The public should be asked to make better choices to cut plastic waste

(Title Image: Independent)

Environment Committee
Policies relating to plastic pollution & plastic waste (pdf)
Published: 10th June 2019

“….overall, we are disappointed that the Welsh Government is not getting to grips with the scale of the problem. We shouldn’t wait for others and must take the lead where we can. The public are supportive – we must harness their energy and enthusiasm and bring forward ambitious and transformative policies.”
– Committee Chair, Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East)

1. Plastics and microplasticscan be lethal to wildlife though their potential effect on humans isn’t fully understood

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it degrades into ever smaller pieces (microplastics) after being exposed to UV light. As a result, microplastics in particular are a big threat to marine life as they can be easily eaten, causing gastrointestinal problems and subsequent changes to feeding behaviour – but it doesn’t end there.

Research has found fish which have eaten microplastics are routinely sold as food for human consumption and microplastics are also present in bottled water. There are also difficulties in removing microplastics from wastewater. There’s no clear information yet on what health impacts these might pose for humans; some of the specific chemicals used in plastics are known to pose health risks, but it’s unclear how toxic they really are.

2. Producers should take greater responsibility for cleaning up plastic waste from their own products

Extended Producer Responsibility is something actively being considered by the Welsh and UK government and was introduced as part of an EU Waste Directive. In effect, it means producers being liable for the clean up/disposal costs and practicalities for waste packaging, which is hoped will reduce the use of unnecessary and un-recyclable packaging.

The Deputy Environment Minister, Hannah Blythyn (Lab, Delyn), said that as the UK government are working on this alongside a deposit-return scheme for plastic bottles, it made more sense to work with them. However, the Committee suggested that if any UK scheme isn’t ambitious enough, a Wales-only scheme should be considered.

Several witnesses said it would be very difficult to introduce a tax – similar to the single-use carrier bag levy – for microplastics as they’re hard to define and it’s hard to find the source responsible for them. The UK Treasury is, however, actively working on introducing a plastic tax from April 2022.

3. The public can do more to help by making better choices

BBC’s Blue Planet II has been a big help for organisations trying to raise awareness of plastic waste and public opinion has changed as a result – but the momentum needs to continue to deliver long-term results. Also, the problems shouldn’t just be framed as one affecting the marine environment because people will assume it’s something that happens in Asia, not on their own doorstep.

One particular area commented upon by the Committee was the release of microfibres from clothes washing, which could make their way into wastewater. Some tools have been invented to deal with this such as a “guppy bag” and “Cora ball” which capture microfibres from clothes.

Dwr Cymru also told the Committee that non-biodegradable wet wipes caused 2,000 blockages a month in Wales. The Committee recommended the Welsh Government consider measures to “limit access” to non-biodegradable wet wipes and other plastics which enter wastewater and to report back to the Committee within 6 months.

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