If you have had the chance during our rather wet summer to get down to the beach I am sure you will have seen the myriad plastic bottles and bits of fishing gear that now litter so many.
What you see is just the sports cap at the tip of the plastic bottle mountain. More than 8 million tonnes of plastic reaches the oceans each year, affecting at least 136 species of marine life, such as sea birds.
If you are fond of shellfish, you could be ingesting up to 11,000 bits of microplastic every year.
Today (Thursday, 10 August) an all-women scientific research voyage, circumnavigating the British Isles in 30 days trawling for plastics and toxics in the oceans as they sail, will be docking in to Cardiff. I hope to welcome the crew of the Sea Dragon to our National Assembly to mark their visit.
The expedition’s slogan, “making the unseen seen”, poses a challenge for us here in Wales, because we have considerable powers to reduce our use and waste of plastics which we are not using.
The single most effective action would be to recycle all plastic bottles, whcih account for 33% of marine litter, through a deposit return scheme. Earlier this year I secured majority support in principle in the Assembly for a deposit return scheme.
A deposit-return scheme, would mean customers pay a small additional charge for plastic bottles. They would be paid back when they return the empties. This would encourage people who do not already recycle and will introduce an element of resource saving into our economy. This scheme could be available for plastic cans and bottles as well as metal and glass ones.
Germany’s deposit-return scheme is the most successful in the world. A charge of up to 25 euro cent is applied to all drink containers. As a result, 98.5 per cent of refillable bottles are returned by consumers with the quality of recovered material good enough to guarantee that an old bottle will become a new bottle.
Though Wales’s recycling rate has doubled over the last decade, from just under 30 per cent in 2006-07 to over 60 per cent in 2015-16, we do not come close to these figures on plastics. In addition, some local authorities are significantly behind the pace of change. I’m pleased that Plaid Cymru led councils lead the way in Wales on recycling, but we must do more.
Recycling is often heralded as the answer to the pollution problem, yet every piece of plastic ever made unless it has been burned still exists. Despite increasing rates of recycling in the UK, the vast majority of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced globally each year remains unrecyclable. Much of Britain’s plastic waste is incinerated, which releases a cocktail of harmful chemicals.
I have met with the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for the Environment to discuss these ideas. I understand the Welsh Government is liaising with the Scottish Government, which has already expressed an interest in a deposit return scheme.
We have the tools also to deal with a related plastic problem, that of polystyrene widely used in food packaging. This material is not recyclable but we can reduce its use, for example by taxing it so better alternatives such as compostable packaging become more attractive.
In the meantime, we can all do more to reduce our own reliance on plastic. It’s almost imposssible in some shops to reject layer after layer of plastic packaging. On behalf of Plaid Cymru I’ve backed a UK wide campaign ‘We are A Plastic Planet’. The campaign aim is to persuade UK supermarkets to introduce a plastic-free aisle in their stores.
Plastic remains a very useful material. But consumers who want to reject single-use plastic packaging in favour of alternatives currently have little choice. Shoppers can buy gluten free, dairy free, fat free; but cannot easily buy plastic free.
I hope the Sea Dragon expedition will highlight the real impact on the environment of the choices we make. We need to take the lead in Wales, as we did with the levy on supermarket bags, to take swift and decisive measures to stop single use of plastics.