Steve Burgess: We must do more to fight hazards of plastic waste

Plastic bottles and other rubbish floating in Leith Docks
Plastic bottles and other rubbish floating in Leith Docks
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THE final episode of Blue Planet 2 late last year vividly showed the terrible consequences for sea-life of discarded plastic. Since then there’s been a huge public groundswell for action to reduce the use of so-called ‘disposable’, single-use plastics.

Across the world dedicated anti-plastics campaigns sprang up in response, including our own ‘Plastic-Free Scotland’. But if the public outcry is to be properly answered then it’s going to require government at all levels to take concerted action to support, encourage and require reduction in SUPs.

Veteran environmental organisations like Greenpeace have long warned about the damage these plastics are doing. The Greenpeace research vessel Beluga toured Scotland last summer sampling our waters for microplastics, clearing beaches of piles of plastic waste and campaigning for a deposit-return scheme for plastic bottles.

To be fair, the Scottish Government has not been idle. The plastic bag tax introduced a few years ago has proved successful in reducing the scourge of plastic bags choking hedges, drains and animals. Last autumn Roseanna Cunningham, the Environment Minister, also gave the go-ahead for the introduction of a plastic-bottle deposit return scheme, taking Scotland in the direction of Scandinavian levels of recycling practice and ahead of the rest of the UK.

But plastic bags and bottles are only part of the plastic landscape. The use of plastic items goes far deeper and wider - in almost every aspect of daily life there are throw-away plastics: from straws to plastic-lined coffee cups to cutlery and carry-out trays.

Edinburgh school children are given packed lunches every week in thousands of plastic containers including bottles of water. So last autumn I won backing from Edinburgh Council to investigate how the council can reduce this sort of unnecessary use of plastic.

Green councillors also asked the council to explore reintroducing water fountains for refilling re-useable bottles. This has led to a pilot scheme in Leith where businesses volunteer to be identified as places that will refill bottles. However, the council has been otherwise slow to react and months later councillors are still waiting for feedback and next steps. Faced with such slow progress, I’ve now asked to meet the council leader and chief executive to discuss the council’s capacity to respond to plastic reduction and other environmental challenges. Other councils across the UK are rising to environmental challenges, so it’s high time Scotland’s capital city was at the forefront of this movement like other leading cities of Europe.

Plastic pollution is certainly not the only environmental problem our planet faces. It is highly visible and its impact widespread but, globally, climate change is causing havoc at a scale far greater than the direct impact of plastics while not being as easy to pin down and capture visually. Only last week scientists reported a change in the circulation of the Atlantic currents that maintain our relatively warm oceans and climate. This would be devastating for cold water corals and other species.

But it is truly amazing what can be achieved when there is enough public pressure and Government response to an issue. After the ozone hole was found in the 1980s, there was a massive shift away from HFCs and HCFCs in products like aerosols and fridges. Change can happen.

And, in the same way as many of us are now standing up for a future beyond plastic, if we refuse to accept runaway climate change is inevitable, then there is hope. As David Attenborough put it at the end of Blue Planet 2 ‘The future of all life depends on us’.

Steve Burgess is Green councillor for Southside-Newington