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In the fight against plastic pollution councils cannot wait for uncertainty to end

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Commentary on the need to eliminate plastic pollution

To the more vigilant of our readers, it cannot have escaped your attention that LGC’s daily briefings occasionally run along a similar theme: that England’s town halls must continue to draw on immense levels of magnanimity and creativity to counter Whitehall’s tendency to stymie and centralise. Today is unlikely to be an exception to that rule.

It was reported today that England’s coastal waters are among the worst places in the world for microplastic pollution, causing untold damage to marine life. A study by the National Centre for Scientific Research in France proved for the first time that microplastic pollution had caused a disruption in the relationship between predator and prey, likely impacting on the entire food chain.

Media reportage of plastic pollution, including the now infamous Blue Planet documentary series, often show the global effects in places as far flung as the North Pole or the depths of the southern Atlantic.

Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans from Chris Jones on Vimeo.

Yet the fact remains that plastic pollution affects every environment, and especially those places where plastic is used the most.

In March, researchers from the University of Manchester found that microplastic levels in the River Tame in Denton, Tameside, were among the highest recorded in the world. Lead researcher Jamie Woodward said: “We found that wherever you have people you have plastics, and where you have high concentrations of people with industry you have high levels of plastics.”

Magnanimity and creativity

The need for local authorities to act quickly comes as a result of Whitehall’s incredibly slow rate of manoeuvre on this issue, among many others.

Earlier this year, environment secretary Michael Gove announced a partial ban on single use plastics but fell short of a full and total ban. 

Speaking at the thinktank Theos last week, he said his ministry was “contemplating restrictions on more single-use plastics” in an update to the resources and waste strategy which will possibly be published “before Christmas”, Brexit permitting.

Other options being considered for inclusion in the strategy include a “deposit eeturn scheme” and a move towards extended producer responsibility (an excellent explainer on EPR can be found here.)

More contemplation on the possibility of banning some plastics is not the answer, and this is why local government must (not could or should) step in.

Somerset CC today voted for a reduction in the use of single use plastics (SUPs) by April 2019, leading to the “phasing out of sales of SUP bottles and other SUP products across all premises and events”.

According to Greenpeace banning single use plastics should be seen as “vital” if we want to protect the ocean and its wildlife.

While the Local Government Association has noted that recycling rates have quadrupled in the past decade, the fact remains much more can be done to increase plastic recycling rates.

National government, preoccupied and hamstrung by Brexit, appears unable to make any important policy decisions at the moment. This means that local authorities must act as the guardians and makers of their respective places by leading the charge against plastic.

Councils should be in the vanguard of a plastic-free world. Or, as Somerset CC’s officers wrote in today’s strategy report: “The problem is a global one but in the UK we can do our bit, and in Somerset we can certainly provide leadership on this growing environmental problem.”

By Robert Cusack, reporter

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