Blue Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is an amazing series, making the diversity of life in our seas and oceans accessible to all. As well as enjoying the series and using clips in my teaching, as a scientist I have been delighted to contribute ideas and help with fact checks.
Blue Planet II took a critical step by also highlighting the challenges affecting our oceans. There were concerns that this might be less appealing to wider audiences, but these were unfounded: YouGov rates it as the fourth most popular TV programme of all time in the UK (following Planet Earth and Blue Planet in second and third place).
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One such environmental challenge is that of plastic pollution, something I have researched for over 20 years. Indeed, publication metrics tell me I have written more scientific papers on the topic than anyone else. Scientific evidence is crucial, but science alone is of limited value unless communicated, and that’s especially important with plastic pollution where actions by all of us, in daily life, are needed to make a difference.
There has been a marked increase in the level of interest on plastic pollution; indeed, some in this field of research call it the Blue Planet II effect. Michael Gove, the UK’s environment secretary, for example, was apparently haunted by the images of plastic bags in one episode. Images of seabirds regurgitating substantial quantities of plastic debris were particularly harrowing, especially when it became apparent that much of it was household waste.
In my view, a few minutes of coverage by Blue Planet II has done more to raise awareness than the decades of underlying research could ever have done alone. I sat next to Sir David briefly at an event in Parliament a few weeks ago and said exactly that to him. Indeed, I would go further and say that perhaps the most important Blue Planet effect has not just been in bringing the message into the living room, but also into the company board room.
This is of key importance because many of the issues relating to the fate of end-of-life plastics stem from a lack of consideration at the design stage. It’s up to the companies to design plastic products for circular use, and recognise that the solid waste management infrastructure a country has in place depends on its level of economic development.
A step change in interest and awareness is one thing, but what has actually changed in terms of plastic pollution since the series went on air in October 2017? The picture is more variable. In 2018, twice as many volunteers participated in the Great British Beach Clean than the year before, and they reported on average a 16 per cent decrease in the number of items collected per 100 metres of shoreline.
On a global scale, however, one can only speculate, but the problem has more than likely worsened. The quantity of plastic used and waste generated are both increasing, and the amount of end-of-life plastics in the oceans is predicted to triple between 2015 and 2025.
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Levels of interest in the UK have clearly translated into positive action to remove litter from shorelines. This is a fantastic achievement, but on its own clean-up will not fix the problem. More systemic change is required, and that will take time. Over the last 60 years, we have become accustomed – some would say addicted – to convenience delivered by single-use plastic. It has become acceptable for items to be used in an instant, even though the resultant waste persists for decades.
The past 18 months have also brought longer-term initiatives. Members of WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact have committed to making 100 per cent of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Companies from manufacturers to retailers have signed up, as well as the Scottish and Welsh governments and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Government’s 25-year Environment Plan sets a target of zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042.
In my view, the challenge going forward lies in matching potential solutions to the specific uses of plastic. How and where should we adopt the different strategies – reduce, reuse, recycle, biodegrade, compost? Evidence about the problem is now clear and well communicated, but evidence about which specific actions to take, and in which circumstances, is far less clear.
If we are to effectively harness the Blue Planet II effect, we need greater clarity of evidence and communication to guide our direction toward appropriate solutions. Clearly, engaging the public about the problem of plastic pollution is doable, but transferring that interest to product design and waste management practices could well prove much more difficult.