Brits Declare War on Plastic

Why you should care

The U.K. may be setting a global standard in the fight against plastic packaging. 

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It’s barely five minutes of TV, but it has caused a revolution. The trademark, grandfatherly husk of veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough introduces a majestic pod of short-finned pilot whales swimming past a plastic bag, suspended in the deep blue. And then, a mother holding her stillborn calf, unwilling to let it go. “Pilot whales have big brains. They can certainly feel emotions,” narrates Attenborough, as we follow the tragic wake of this family of mourning giants. The documentary’s ultra-HD cameras next focus on the baby whale’s identified killer: a kaleidoscope of plastic fragments littering the ocean. Now, the British public is collectively pointing the finger in that direction too.

On May 13, this clip from BBC nature documentary series Blue Planet II won the popular vote for the must-see TV moment of the year at the British Academy Television Awards; the show was the U.K.’s most-watched of 2017, with more than 14 million viewers. Its significance? A wave of activism sweeping the country fighting to reduce plastic waste, with individual shoppers leaving mounds of packaging in supermarkets, and businesses and politicians jumping on the bandwagon.

Since the show, in what’s become known as the “Blue Planet effect,” almost 70 of the country’s largest consumer goods companies have signed on to the U.K. Plastics Pact to reduce plastic waste. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government announced a potential ban on all single-use plastics, with environment secretary Michael Gove citing the TV show for the policy. “Things have just gone stratospheric since Blue Planet,” says Sue Kinsey, Ph.D., a senior pollution policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society, who has been lobbying around this issue for several years.

In a country where “not making a fuss” is essentially the national sport, the general public is leading this environmental revolution. Kirstie Edwards, the lead coordinator of Plastic Free Falmouth, a campaign against single-use plastics in a coastal town in Cornwall, a county in the southwest corner of England, has seen a surge in interest from locals. On Earth Day, the group coordinated a “mass unwrap” sit-in, for which Edwards estimates more than 500 people removed unnecessary plastic packaging in supermarkets as a protest (in the U.K., some fresh produce is regularly sold in plastic-wrapped packs, many of which are not widely recyclable). In a community of just 21,000, some 1,500 now follow Edwards’ Facebook page for Plastic Free Falmouth. One of those Attenborough-inspired activists, Lea Parry-Harlow, says she had never been involved in an environmental campaign before, and though she missed the mass unwrap event, “on my next supermarket shop, I will be taking all the plastic back to the customer service desk.”

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British supermarkets create an estimated 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year.

Source Ned Colin/OZY

This contrasts starkly with previous environmental milestones in the U.K. “Up until recently, a lot of it has been NGOs like us lobbying government,” says Kinsey. “But now, suddenly … [politicians are] falling over themselves to do something.” Since 2015, all large supermarkets have had to charge 5 pence for disposable plastic bags, a policy for which politicians were “dragged along kicking and screaming,” says Kinsey, and that consumers initially felt was a nuisance.

Now, two Change.org petitions to force U.K. supermarkets to stop using plastic packaging have reached more than 300,000 and 420,000 signatures, respectively — the latter among the most-signed U.K. petitions on the platform. “The U.K. is finally in the position where they are taking a lead on an environmental issue,” says Jo Ruxton, founder of Plastic Oceans. “Often we’re behind everybody else.” A ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics came into force in the U.K. this year; President Obama had signed a similar ban into effect in the U.S. in 2015.

You couldn’t pay for a better ambassador [than David Attenborough].

Sue Kinsey, senior pollution policy officer, Marine Conservation Society

The emerging movement cuts across party lines. “It’s no longer about hippie, left-wing, crazy people trying to save the world,” says Edwards. Right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail, one of the most-read newspapers in the U.K., launched an anti-plastics campaign in February, while it’s the Conservative government that’s leading the charge at Westminster. And Edwards says the Plastic Free Falmouth campaign has successfully united the community over a shared issue after several years of divisive politics.

Some cynics suggest the political action is simply an easy way to attract positive headlines while the government scrambles from crisis to crisis on everything from immigration to health care — it’s “the little good news story for the government,” says Amanda Keetley, founder of campaign group Less Plastic. And, of course, the U.K.’s recent plastics epiphany isn’t rooted only in Blue Planet II — Ruxton worked with the city of Bristol in England on a refill campaign aimed at reducing disposable plastic water bottle use back in 2015.

“But it takes the might of the BBC to make people sit up and take notice,” she says. Ruxton worked for the BBC on the original 2001 series The Blue Planet. At the time, she was “frustrated” by the corporation’s unwillingness to highlight the issue of plastics in the ocean. Now, her organization has its own plastics documentary, featuring an interview with David Attenborough, on Netflix. “You couldn’t pay for a better ambassador” than Attenborough, says Kinsey — the 92-year-old is perhaps more of a British institution than the BBC itself.

The long-term success of this movement is far from guaranteed. “Cost is a massive problem when trying to go plastic-free,” says Parry-Harlow. Experts fear the surge in public interest could lead to confused messaging, with consumers — for instance — replacing a single-use plastic bottle with a single-use can. Instead, campaigners are trying to capitalize on the Blue Planet effect to secure key legislative wins, including ensuring that proposed deposit return programs for bottles and cans are sufficiently linked up among the U.K.’s constituent countries.

Even harder still? Mobilizing around environmental issues that can’t be so emotively illustrated as with a mother whale mourning her dead calf. Across the Blue Planet series, more screen time was actually dedicated to climate change than plastics pollution, highlighting issues from melting ice caps to coral bleaching. In the U.K. and beyond, that issue has yet to become a mainstream populist magnet. But nor was plastic packaging a few months ago. The country may just have stumbled upon a new model of activism, sparked by a very old television legend.

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