Used Plastics Litter in Marine & Riverine Environments
The BPF’s View
|Used plastics litter is far too common in the marine and riverine environment. It should not be there and more effort is needed by all concerned to: improve waste management on shore and on vessels; educate and change littering behaviour. Used plastics are a valuable resource. They should not be landfilled or littered. They can be recycled several times and if recycling does not bring environmental or economic benefits then they can go to Energy from Waste incineration to provide valuable local energy and heat.
The BPF’s Operation Clean Sweep is an industry Initiative to reduce plastic pellets loss into the Environment.
The extent of the problem
According to the Marine Conservation Society Beachwatch of 2008:-
Plastic debris accounts for almost 60% of all litter found on UK beaches.
A significant proportion of waste on beaches (13.8%) was fishing related and most of this was plastic
Plastic pellets have been found on Porthtowan beach in Cornwall
The BBC Panorama programme in February 2008 focussed on plastic waste around Midway Island in the Pacific
There are claims that birds, turtles and fish can ingest plastics as well as other litter, causing injury
Beach Litter 75 years ago before plastics:
- In April 1934 the East Kent Mercury wrote that, "four or five men should be employed daily to clear the broken bottles from Sandwich Bay now that the bathing season is almost upon us...."
How do used Plastics get into the seas and rivers and on beaches?
- Visitors littering beaches with packaging and other items. 37.7% of beach litter is traceable to beach visitors
- Ships and leisure craft illegally dumping rubbish at sea
- Fishermen and fishing boats losing or dumping nets, tackle and equipment
- Poor waste management practices in ports and in landfill sites
- In the case of plastic pellets: containers toppling off container ships in bad weather; or poor housekeeping in plastics factories allowing pellets to be flushed down drains.
BUT Plastics are inert. In the marine environment many plastics materials can float and therefore can be collected up. Other heavier forms of waste stay on the sea bed.
The sea water itself is a corrosive, saline environment. The key issue is not the plastics material which brings many essential benefits to society such as lightweighting packaging, cars and aircraft; prevention of food waste and energy efficiency. The key issue is littering, dumping and poor waste management
Biodegradable plastics are not the solution to the problem, since degradation mechanisms heavily depend on the surroundings. Articles that might bio-degrade on land will not degrade in saltwater as it is hostile to the micro-organisms which normally degrade the article on land.
How can we prevent used plastics getting into seas, rivers and beaches?
- Education has a big role to play with beach visitors encouraged not to litter but take their waste home or put it in a bin.
- More beach litter bins, signage and warning of litter fines are needed
- Increased surveillance of beaches and more severe fines must be considered
- The Marine Conservation Society’s Beachwatch volunteers clean up about 370 beaches each year over a September weekend
- Tidy Britain Group Quality Coast Awards have achieved great improvements in high standards of UK beach management
- Most packaging carries the ‘Tidyman” symbol reminding consumers to put their rubbish in a bin.
Illegal Dumping of Rubbish from Ships and Leisure Craft
- The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) states that, “in some areas most of the rubbish found comes from passing ships which find it more convenient to throw rubbish overboard rather than dispose of it in ports.”
- The 1973 MARPOL Convention sought to eliminate and reduce the amount of garbage being dumped in the sea from ships. Annex V prohibits the disposal of plastics anywhere into the sea. The Annex also obliges Governments to ensure the provision of facilities at ports and terminals for the reception of garbage. By February 2009, 139 countries had ratified Annex V
- A new Regulation 9 came into force for ships from 1st July 1998. All ships of 400 gross tonnage and above and every ship certified to carry 15 persons or more will have to carry a Garbage Management Plan and Record Book.
- The EU Port Waste Directive 2001 required implementation of a prior notification system for ships’ waste.
- The Merchant Shipping (Port waste reception facilities) Act 2003 requires Ports to produce a Waste Management Plan.
- The Association of British Ports is responsible for the safe disposal of approx 50,000 tonnes a year of solid waste from ships visiting ports.
- Under new regulations to be introduced by the UK as part of the EU Directive on Port Waste Reception Facilities nearly all ships travelling to UK ports will have to notify them in advance of the waste they will be off loading.
As can be seen above strict regulations and fines are in place for ships, boats and ports to prevent waste being dumped in the sea. BUT it’s a fair assumption that illegal dumping is still occurring at sea.
• The UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) report ‘Marine Litter a Global Challenge’ called for integrated waste management to better address litter; raise public awareness and education; improved port waste reception facilities and stronger economic instruments and incentives.
Discarded Fishing Gear
- As stated earlier 13.8% of waste on UK beaches is fishing related, and mostly plastic
- Dr David Laist in a study published in 1997 found that it was fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands which adversely affect mammals and birds, not plastic bags
- Fishing communities in Massachusetts collect discarded plastic fishing gear which is picked up to provide electricity through Energy from Waste
A ‘Fishing for Litter’ campaign involved fishermen in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and UK who returned all litter caught in their nets to the shore. The project paid the costs. In 2004 the scheme collected 500 tonnes of litter from 60 boats.
Preventing plastic pellet loss
Beach surveys and research has been finding plastic pellets (raw material) in the marine environment. The UK Plastics Industry must focus on proper containment of its raw material to ensure that none of it gets flushed down drains into waterways, and eventually into the sea. Plastic pellets are valuable and should be contained, reclaimed and used or disposed of properly.
- The BPF have launched Operation Clean Sweep – Plastic Pallet Loss Prevention. This is a manual (click here to download) on best practice in ensuring zero pellet loss into the Environment.
- The BPF wants a commitment by every company, from top management to shop floor employees to use this manual on prevention, containment and cleanup of plastic materials to ensure no escape into the environment.
- Plastic pellet in marine environments may have come from containers lost overboard from cargo ships in bad weather – a not uncommon occurrence.
- In January 2008 1,500 tonnes of Russian timber fell off a ship and ended up on Ramsgate beach - click here to view BBC footage.
Not everything that is described in literature as plastics pellets originate from the transport chains of the plastics industry. It is known that the cosmetics producers use micro-sized plastic pellets in skin care products (scrub) which are flushed with the waste water and may escape the waste water treatment plants into the rivers
Allegations that toxins are attracted to plastics in the sea
Researchers have claimed that plastics in the marine environment will accumulate and concentrate toxic chemicals from the surrounding sea water.
Such claims are based on early research on two types of plastic granule in heavily polluted Japanese coastal water. However, plastics can absorb all kind of chemicals (toxic or non-toxic) from their immediate environment, provided that the chemical is compatible with the plastics. The NOAA concluded in their latest report of July 2008 (1) that:
‘toxicology studies are necessary to investigate the possibility of uptake of toxins from plastics or other
inorganic debris particles in marine ecosystems. The likelihood of ingestion is minimal due to the
low mass and concentration of debris particles relative to zooplankton organisms.’
The International Workshop on Microplastics in marine debris (Tacoma USA September 2008) concluded that, ‘at current levels in the open ocean, microplastics are unlikely to be an important global chemical reservoir for historically released POPS (persistent organic pollutants).’
Plastics and Fresh Water
It is a basic human necessity that all people should have access to clean drinking water.
Only 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh and most of that is in the ice caps. The National Trust in its report ‘From Source to Sea’ (October 2008) states that fresh water is a vital and dwindling resource and can no longer be taken for granted. The Environment Agency expects the UK supply of water to drop by about 15% by 2050 with rivers shrinking by 80% in the summer months. The United Nations estimates that by 2025 two thirds of the world’s population will have inadequate water resources. Annual world water use has risen six fold during the past century – more than double the rate of population growth.
The United Nations estimates that by 2025 two thirds of the world’s population will have inadequate water resources. Annual world water use has risen six fold during the past century – more than double the rate of population growth.
- In London 1,000 miles of old cracked Victorian water mains are being replaced by blue polyethylene pipes to prevent 50% water leakage.
- 30 million litres of bottled water in PET bottles were distributed in 2007 to victims of the Gloucestershire floods. The BPF arranged for the empty bottles to be collected and recycled.
- London Underground recommends the carrying of a ‘portable water supply’ (in plastic bottles) while using their services.
- Plastic pipes are chosen because of their corrosion resistance, longevity and durability. 50% of new pipes installed are plastic bringing clean, safer water to people around the world.
- See on this link the brief ‘PET plastic bottles – facts not myths.’
The UK Plastics Industry does not put used plastics in the sea, rivers or beaches and believe it should not be there.
The UK Plastics Industry wishes to co-operate with all parties to ensure:
- Littering is prevented
- There is no illegal dumping from ships or boats;
- Port waste management is fit for purpose;
- Waste does not blow off landfills;
- Plastic pellet loss is zero from plastics manufacturing, due to Operation Clean Sweep.
Director General BPF
PD/LH/ updated October 2009