How Norfolk can be a trailblazer in getting rid of plastic
- Credit: PA
We're drowning in a sea of plastic and we need to act now to stop it, says Lesley Grahame.
Plastic is everywhere: on our streets, in our bins and in our oceans. An estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic including bottles, bags and microbeads ends up in our oceans each year, much of it flowing down the rivers into the seas. We've all seen the pictures of the devastating effects this is having on wildlife – the turtles tangled up in plastic nets, the baby birds being fed bits of plastic instead of food.
Organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Green Party have been trying to alert us to 'the plastic problem' for years but it's taken Sir David Attenborough and Blue Planet 2 to make it finally hit the headlines.
Such a major problem needs action at a national and local level. Some progress is being made, but it's far too slow.
All over the country efforts are being made to stop the flow of plastic waste into the seas. In Norfolk there are a number of initiatives to clear up the plastic and other waste that accumulates in and around our rivers and on our beaches. Local groups of the River Waveney Trust in Diss, Harleston, Bungay, Beccles and Lowestoft ensure that the river and its surroundings are maintained and cared for. The Norwich Rivercare Project and Norwich Green Party among others organise litterpicks and river based activities around the Wensum in the Hellesdon area. Community groups in Norfolk coastal towns from Great Yarmouth to Hunstanton meet regularly to keep their beaches clean.
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But in order to stop this plastic getting on to the beaches we must reduce the amount of it we use and throw away.
Last November the government announced its budget commitment to 'investigate how the tax system and charges on single-use plastic items (SUP) can reduce waste' and pledged to 'ban all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042'. But this is not legally binding and has no realistic timetable.
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Supermarkets are major producers of waste plastic and although individually they are taking some steps to reduce their use of plastic packaging, it's too little and too slowly.
Ideally we should eliminate single use plastic packaging entirely and we are still some way from this goal. To help reduce SUPs locally, Green Party motions requiring Norfolk County and Norwich City Councils to stop using them in their workplaces were passed back in 2016.
If we can't find a suitable alternative we can at least recycle all the plastic that we do use.
But just because the packet says 'recyclable' doesn't mean that it can be recycled where you live. Different local authorities collect different sorts of plastic and send it to different places to be processed. In Norfolk, the plastic we put in our recycling bins is sorted at the MRF (Materials Recovery Facility) at Costessey and then the different kinds of plastic are distributed to various processors in the UK (Middlesborough, Birmingham, Essex and Kent) or the Netherlands, for processing into reusable plastic.
Recycling plastic only takes us so far and what really needs to happen is a drastic reduction in throw-away plastic overall.
Finding alternatives is a shared challenge that we can all contribute to. Greenpeace lists nine easy-to-do actions including saying no to plastic straws, carrying a shopping bag and getting your milk delivered in reusable glass bottles. In Norwich and Hunstanton the Refill initiative enables people to fill their reusable bottles with tap water at the cafes, pubs and other businesses displaying the promotional stickers in their windows. Many cafes and take-aways in Norwich and Norfolk will refill customers' own mug with hot drinks.
We can lead the way in getting rid of this scourge. We can put pressure on the government, local authorities and supermarkets to improve their performance and we can do our bit. We only have one planet, let's look after it.
Lesley Grahame is a Green Party councillor on Norwich City Council