Public spaces, beaches and our coastal waters are littered with discarded single use plastic items and very little is being done to address the causes of the problem in Guernsey.
Many volunteers give up their time to clear litter from our beaches through our organised beach cleans and those of other organisations. Whilst this community effort does help keep our beaches cleaner, it does not address the cause of the problem.
The issue of single use plastic pollution is highlighted in CET’s recent marine litter report. During 2021, CET and a team of volunteers surveyed the results of 122 beach litter collections, which involved 48,924 pieces of marine litter weighing more than two tonnes. The analysis of the litter shows that 76% of the items collected were plastic and 33% of all items were single use plastic. The food and drink industry was identified as the source of the largest proportion of items collected.
We need to address the problem by reducing our use of plastics and replacing them with sustainable materials. There are several reasons why we should do so.
Firstly, plastic is produced from fossil fuel and the process involves the emission of greenhouse gases, which we all know are driving the climate change crisis. The UN has estimated that the level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19% of the global carbon budget by 2040. So, significantly reducing our consumption of plastic materials will be an important factor in mitigating the effects of climate change. Getting rid of single use plastic items is an obvious starting point.
Secondly, waste plastic is harmful to marine species. Worldwide we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, which is nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Much of this plastic is not recycled and is discarded directly into the environment (often our streams and rivers), sent to landfill, or burnt. Large quantities of plastic are carried to our oceans by wind, rivers, erosion of coastal landfill sites, jettison from fishing and other vessels and so on. Plastic waste can be fatal to fish, mammals, and sea birds. There have been endless examples of such creatures being killed by ingesting plastic items, such as carrier bags, which cause death by clogging of their digestive systems and numerous instances of entrapment in various forms of plastic further causing untimely deaths. This impact on our marine life is damaging to biodiversity.
Thirdly, human health may be impacted. Plastic is not biodegradable so when it finds its way into the environment it remains there. Most plastic items never fully disappear; they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These pieces, known as microplastics, can enter the human body through inhalation and absorption from food items and accumulate in our blood and in our organs. Microplastics have been found in our lungs, livers, spleens, and kidneys. A recent study has even detected microplastics in the placentas of new-born babies. In laboratory tests, microplastics have been shown to cause damage to human cells, including both allergic reactions and cell death. There are concerns in scientific circles about the implications for human health of the accumulation of microplastics in our bodies. Research is underway and it remains to be seen what the long-term effects of microplastics in our organs might be. The fear is that, like diseases caused by smoking and asbestos, by the time the research has been carried out and causation established, irreversible harm to human health may have already resulted.
In the face of the existential threat from climate change the world has woken up to the problem, and governments, industry and other stakeholders are starting to act. Many governments outside Guernsey have recognized the urgent need to reduce plastic waste and have legislated to promote that process.
At a global level, the United Nations passed a Resolution on Plastic on 2 March 2022, supported by 175 nations, aimed at achieving a global agreement to promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics. Part of the goals is to promote circular economy approaches. The plan is to convene a Negotiating Committee, which will begin its work this year, with the ambition of completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024. An additional 21 nations signed up to the objectives of the Resolution at the UN Ocean Conference in June this year.
The EU has addressed the issue through the Single-Use Plastics Directive, which was required to be given the force of law in all EU countries by 3 July 2021. The Directive aims to reduce the impact on the environment of certain plastic products, and to promote a transition to a circular economy by introducing a mix of measures tailored to the products covered by the Directive. It includes an EU-wide ban on single-use plastic products whenever alternatives are available.
The plastic items which are banned are those which are frequently littered. They are plastic cutlery, plates, straws, cotton bud sticks, balloon sticks, drink stirrers, food containers made of expanded polystyrene and products made from oxo-degradable plastic. (Oxo-degradable plastic is plastic materials that includes bio-additives, such as starch. It is used to make items such as cutlery, which are frequently falsely marketed as biodegradable. The oxo-degradable plastic breaks down through oxidation and becomes micro-fragments of plastic and/or chemical components. These oxo-degradable products are often more damaging to the environment than traditional plastic!).
The EU Directive also requires reductions in the consumption of other plastic items including drinking cups and their covers and lids, and containers for prepared food to be immediately consumed with an aim to achieve ambitious reductions by 2026.
Amongst numerous other measures is a collection target for plastic bottles of 90% by 2029 and a requirement that such bottles must include at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025 and 30% by 2030.
England has already banned the supply of plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds with effect from 21 September2020. On 20 November 2021, plans were announced for a ban on various additional single-use plastic products. The release states that single-use plastic plates, cutlery, expanded and extruded polystyrene cups and food and beverage containers could all be phased out. The plastic items to be banned mirror those covered by the EU Directive, which are in addition to those which have already been banned in England. DEFRA undertook a 12-week consultation on its proposals, which ended on 12 February 2022. The outcome of the consultation is still awaited but it seems likely that some form of additional ban will come into effect.
Scotland has banned the single use plastics listed in the EU Directive by the Environmental Protection (Single-Use Plastic Products) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 which came into force on 1 June this year.
The Welsh government conducted a public consultation on introducing a ban on the single use plastics covered by the EU Directive, which concluded on 22 October 2020 but has not yet introduced a ban.
In Northern Ireland a public consultation limited to banning single use beverage cups and food containers concluded on 14 January this year and it remains to be seen whether a ban on these items will follow.
Other than the Bailiwick of Guernsey, the Crown Dependencies have each carried out public consultations and have approved bans.
The States of Jersey undertook a consultation with retailers on proposed legislation to ban the use of single-use plastic bags and to introduce a charge on plastic bags for life of 70p. Subsequently, legislation, known as the Single Use Plastics etc (Restrictions) (Jersey) Law 2021 was approved and came into effect on Thursday 21 July this year. Guidance on the legislation has been issued by the States of Jersey stating that its objective is to reduce the use of plastic by promoting a culture of taking bags to retailers rather than repeatedly purchasing new ones and discarding them.
The Jersey legislation was drafted so that additional items can be added to the ban in the future and the consultation sought views on what people wished to see included in future bans. The percentage of respondents supporting a ban on single use plastics was: 83.87% for beverage cups and lids, 74.19% for take-away food containers, 70.97% for straws and stirrers and 67.74% for cutlery. With this level of public support, it seems quite possible than wider ban will be put in place.
The government of the Isle of Man has consulted upon and subsequently approved legislation banning single use plastics and single use plastic bags. It is known as the Climate Change (Single Use Plastics) Regulations 2021. The Regulations are wide in scope as they cover not only the items specified under the EU Directive but also single use plastic bags. Plastic bags for life were considered, but were put on hold, pending a review of how the ban on single use plastic bags operates in practice and whether it results in greater purchases of plastic bags for life with resultant littering of such products.
The States of Alderney has also made some progress. In September 2020 it issued a press release stating that a draft Projet de Loi had been approved banning the sale of single use plastic bags, which was expected to come into effect in 2021. However, it seems that a final draft of the legislation is yet to be completed and/or given effect.
So, in summary, Guernsey is surrounded by European nations, countries comprising the UK and other Crown Dependencies, which have all taken the single use plastics issue seriously and, at the very least have conducted public consultations on implementing bans on single use plastic products. So far, all European nations, England, Scotland, Jersey, and the Isle of Man have approved bans, most of which are now in force.
In stark contrast to the governments of all its neighbouring countries, there is no indication that the States of Guernsey has given any serious consideration either to developing draft legislation banning single use plastics and/or to consulting upon them. This failure to address what other responsible nations consider to be a matter of great importance is inexcusable.
The people of Guernsey have previously made it clear to the States that they strongly support taking legislative measures to ban single use plastics. On 14 November 2019 the former President of the Committee for the Environment & Infrastructure was presented with a petition to ban plastic carrier bags in Guernsey, which had been organised by Plastic Free Guernsey. The petition had 6,352 signatures, which represents a very impressive proportion of the population supporting such a petition.
The response was as follows:
“The Committee have already agreed to work up proposals to submit to the States of Deliberation on this topic in the future. We are working closely with Guernsey Waste to put together these proposals, but we are in the very early stages of the process.
Preliminary advice has been received from our legal advisers in regards (sic) to the type of legislative arrangements that may be required to implement such a ban and there are different options that the Committee will need to consider. Through the development of the proposals the Committee, along with Guernsey Waste, will engage with local industry to discuss the options available."
Since 2019, the appreciation of the detrimental effects of plastic on marine eco systems and the potential harm to humans has continued to grow. But no proposals have emerged from SOG in recent years, notwithstanding the huge public support for action and the fact that every other nation neighbouring Guernsey has been addressing this issue.
When, in 2020, the States of Alderney voted 9 to 1 in favour of introducing a Projet de Loi banning single use plastic bags, the reaction was that Alderney's approval was "very good news for Guernsey". It was observed that The States of Alderney will have to draft legislation to implement a ban and that Guernsey "can learn from that" and potentially "cut and paste" their solution. So, it seems that SOG had made no advance with any proposals for Guernsey and was content instead to ride on the coat tails of a junior partner in the Bailiwick: A case of the Alderney tail wagging the Guernsey dog!
It seems that, in Guernsey, there is a systemic failure to seriously address the single use plastics issue. This stands in marked contrast to other Crown Dependencies. For example, the government of the Isle of Man has ambitious plans to become as plastic free as possible and has taken the lead by achieving reductions in the use of plastic within government and at events it hosts. They have published a plan to reduce use of plastic by government. The details are set out in the Single Use Plastic Reduction Plan for the Isle of Man Government GD 2108/0046. It was only after tackling the problem internally that they proceeded to consult upon and approve a ban on retailers from supplying single use plastic items.
Concerned by the lack of any impetus in dealing with plastic pollution in Guernsey and armed with the findings from its marine litter report, CET is stepping up pressure for action. It is proposing to the Committee for the Environment & Infrastructure that it should approve a draft ordinance banning single use plastic bags and the single use plastic items already banned by EU countries. It is further proposing that the Committee should approve a set of principles for reduction of the use of plastics within government, like those in place in the Isle of Man, and propose that they be adopted by the States. This seems an opportune moment to press the issue given that, in July, the States agreed, in principle, to extend the Paris Agreement to the island and will be establishing an expert panel to scope out a proportionate and pragmatic pathway to net zero. Clearly, banning single use plastics should be high on that agenda and CET will be seeking to get that message across.
CET has started a petition to the States urging it to ban single use plastic bags and all products covered by the EU Directive.