Marine plastic pollution

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The problem of marine plastic pollution featured heavily in the media in 2017. Powerful imagery such as the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award entry featuring a lone seahorse grasping a cotton bud and the BBC’s Blue Planet II series have helped bring the problem to the forefront of public attention.

The issue was in the headlines again early in the new year as the UK Government ban on the manufacture of products containing plastic microbeads came into effect. The UK government also announced its aim of achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

Effects of plastic on marine organisms

When plastic enters the ocean it can take hundreds to thousands of years to biodegrade. Marine animals and birds can become entangled or eat smaller plastic particles. Microplastics (less than 5mm in diameter) are particularly problematic as they can be taken up by small organisms at the base of the foodchain leading to physical harm and reproductive or toxic effects. Microplastics are also ingested by fish and shellfish that are caught for human consumption.

The scale of plastic pollution

A study published in the journal Science in 2015, estimated that the total amount of plastic entering the oceans each year is between 1.1 to 8.8 million tonnes. According to an Ellen Macarthur Foundation report, in a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050.

Plastic in Scotland’s marine environment

The full extent of plastic pollution in Scotland’s waters is not well known due to a lack of extensive long-term monitoring and research. However, results from surveys and academic research published last year indicate significant levels of plastic are entering Scotland’s marine environment.

Surveys of marine litter in the UK’s beaches conducted by volunteers and coordinated by the Marine Conservation Society found an average of 491 items of litter per 100m of beach in 2017.

Recent studies also highlight the problem of plastic ingestion by marine animals. In one study, 48% of fish sampled from Scotland’s coastal waters contained plastic in their digestive system and in another study  microplastic fibres were discovered in nearly half of invertebrates sampled from the Rockall Trough off the northwest coast of Scotland.

Scottish Government action

Scotland’s first Marine Litter Strategy, launched in 2014, recognises that any marine litter poses a detrimental effect to the environment, economy and society and includes over 40 actions aimed at reducing litter entering the sea.

UK government legislation banning the manufacture of products containing plastic microbeads also includes a ban on their sale which comes into effect in June. The Scottish Government have stated their commitment to introducing secondary legislation to ban the sale and manufacture of these products simultaneously with the UK and  the other devolved administrations.

On 11 January, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform announced the Scottish Government’s intention to legislate for a ban on the sale and manufacture of plastic cotton buds in Scotland.

In the week before Christmas, the Cabinet Secretary took questions in the Chamber on Scottish Government action to tackle marine plastic pollution.

What powers does the Scottish Parliament have to regulate the sale and manufacture of plastic products?

There are a few different examples of approaches that have been used to reduce plastic waste:

Charging (levies)

The Scottish Parliament has responsibility for most environmental matters. An example of primary legislation that includes powers to levy a charge on a single use item is the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. This made provision for a levy to be applied to single use carrier bags through secondary legislation and such an approach has subsequently been implemented in Scotland.

To charge for other items, for example plastic straws, would require separate primary legislation.

Waste reduction

The Climate Change (Scotland) Act also makes provision for regulations to set targets for reduction of packaging and the introduction of deposit and return schemes. These powers have not yet been used. However, the Scottish Government has committed to introduce a deposit return system. Additional measures such as compulsory waste separation have been introduced by amending other primary legislation.

Ban on sale and manufacture

The legality of imposing a ban on certain plastic products in Scotland is more complex given that the UK government has responsibility for product standards and EU Treaties prevent Member States introducing measures that restrict the free movement of goods (although exemptions are possible on environmental grounds).

However the Environmental Protection Act (1990) does provide powers for the UK or devolved administrations to “prohibit or restrict” the use or supply of “injurious substances or articles.” It is on this basis that the Westminster and Scottish Government plan to develop secondary legislation that will impose a ban on plastic microbeads.  The Scottish Government plan to use the same approach to introduce their recently announced ban on plastic cotton buds.

Definitions provided under the Environmental Protection Act (1990) are broad and it remains to be seen whether these powers come to be applied more widely to other plastic products that threaten our environment.

Damon Davies, Research Assistant, Brexit, Environment and Rural Affairs