Does the UK public have misconceptions about where plastic waste comes from?

What people think
“How much plastic do I contribute to oceanic plastic pollution? How much does the UK and Europe contribute? How can I, as an individual, do my part to stop polluting the world’s oceans?”

These are questions that many viewers, not just the environmentally conscious, might have been asking themselves after watching Blue Planet II. Although David Attenborough makes a striking case for protecting our planet, he does not give answers to these very exact questions. Thus, leaving people wanting to, but unable to translate this willingness into action.

A 2017 YouGov survey showed that 49% of Britons believe that Europe and the USA combined are responsible for more than half the world’s global plastic pollution [1]. Without doubt Blue Planet II has further increased public awareness on plastic pollution of oceans and the presence of microplastics in them and within food chains. For that work, the show been rewarded the NTA Impact award [2].

People in the UK seem to be under the impression that a lot of the ocean’s plastic waste comes from them and thus feel responsible for this problem. Can that really be true? Do Europeans and US Americans really contribute to more than half of the world’s plastic waste in oceans? Wouldn’t our regulation-loving EU have done something about that by now?


Life in plastic



A Plastic Jungle: Setting the record straight

Most of the plastic waste that is in the world’s oceans and is entering the water systems does not originate from developed countries. It is a common misconception, as developed countries tend to have very effective waste management systems with very little environmental leakage. It is important to note that about 80% of ocean plastics come from land-based sources and 20% from marine-based sources such as container ship spillages and fishing [3].

A 2015 journal article in Science estimates the top 20 countries in terms of mismanaged plastic waste- No single European country is part of that list and the USA rank 20th. They estimate that between 4.8-12.7 million metric tonnes (of 275 million generated) entered the oceans in 2010 from land-based sources. The top five (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka) are characterised by high population densities near coastal areas and high amounts of mismanaged waste. All coastal EU countries together would rank 18th in that list, and the USA and Europe together contribute 2% of plastic waste in the world’s oceans [4].

A 2017 research paper (based on the 2015 work mentioned above) suggests that a major source for land-based sources could be 10 rivers, 8 in Asia and 2 in Africa [5]. This paper is often misinterpreted in headlines that claim “95% of plastic polluting the world’s oceans comes from just ten rivers” [6]. Factually correct is that 10 rivers are estimated to contribute between 88% and 94% of river-exported ocean plastic pollution. River-carried plastic pollution ranges between 0.48-2.75 million metric tonnes per year, which is 10-26% of land-based sources. Generally, these rivers have high discharge rates, large populations, and high rates of mismanaged plastic waste in their catchment areas.


Looking ahead: Suggestions for the Individuals, the UK and EU
Having said that very limited amounts of plastic waste from the EU or UK enter the oceans directly, there still is a very positive impact that recycling and reducing consumption of plastics has. More recycled and less consumed plastic improves recovery rates and allows for new plastics to be made from old ones, instead of needing entirely new virgin plastic, most commonly derived from petrochemicals. Reducing consumption is beneficial as it decreases littering and the overall chances of any plastic ending up in the environment. Helping in local beach and river clean up actions can be an effective way of helping on an individual level, alongside raising awareness, and encouraging recycling among colleagues, friends and family.
The UK has taken some steps to reducing plastic consumption, such as banning microbeads and some voluntary action, such as restaurant chains phasing out plastic straws [7]. However, much is still to be done as the UK lacks behind other European countries in terms of plastic bottle deposit systems (currently under investigation) and general recycling rates. There is also a need to develop and implement a national strategy that re-assesses the design of plastic packaging, investigates substitutes and focuses on overall reduction.

The bottle recycling system used in Germany


On a more international level, the UK and EU can look to reduce ocean plastic pollution by helping coastal, developing countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines develop better waste management systems and increase awareness about the negative externalities of pollution among local populations. Furthermore, banning all plastic waste exports to countries less capable of handling waste outside the EU must be considered. However, this may have been taken care of by China’s ban on importing “foreign garbage” [8].

The analysis presented here does not factor in the underlying effects our Western consumer society had on China and other developing nations through globalisation and the outsourcing of manufacturing. Britons and Europeans alike, should not believe that recycling will stop the images of marine life tangled up in plastics appearing on social media and news outlets, as the roots for oceanic plastic pollution are far more global and deep-rooted than we are led to believe. Overall, it remains important that we as individuals play our part and do as much as possible to protect the environment closest to us, meanwhile increasing pressure on governments to tackle the issue globally and demand that corporations provide alternatives to conventional petrochemically-based plastics.