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Could plastic-free aisles save our oceans?

  • Written by  Frederikke Magnussen
  • Published in Opinions
Plastics in the ocean Plastics in the ocean Rich Carey
05 Jul
Plastic-free aisles in our local supermarkets may just be key to fighting global food insecurity says Frederikke Magnussen

Frederikke Magnussen is Co-Founder of A Plastic Planet. To read more about the campaign visit aplasticplanet.com.

It is widely accepted that plastic waste is the scourge of our oceans, yet few recognise it as a major threat to food security. As the rubbish heap piles up, plastic’s contamination of the food chain is only set to get worse in the decades head.

Headline figures about the extent of the plastic crisis have secured countless column inches around the world. Campaigners often cite the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s claim that there is set to be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. Despite heightened public awareness of the link between plastic waste and environmental degradation, little attention is paid to how plastic is being allowed to contaminate the food chain.

We currently dump eight million tonnes of plastic into global ocean. Every minute we dump the equivalent of one garbage truck’s worth of plastic into global seas. In some areas of the South Pacific, plastic debris is thought to outnumber plankton by a ratio of six to one. The pollution problem shows no sign of going away any time soon however, with plastic taking potentially thousands of years to degrade in water.

When plastic debris finds its way into the ocean, it is ingested by fish who confuse it for food. People then eat this fish, themselves swallowing hundreds of small plastic pieces. A landmark University of Ghent study in 2016 revealed that British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. As a nation of fish and chip lovers, this casts serious doubts on the safety of our national dish.

British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year

Last year a UN Environment Project cast serious doubt on the safety of plastic-contaminated fish. The report claimed that that people who consume plastic-contaminated fish may be exposed to chemicals that can cause poisoning, infertility, cancer and genetic disruption. With around a third of fish caught off the coast of southwest England thought to contain traces of plastic, this calls into question the UK’s ability to secure a sustainable supply of safe seafood.

A growing body of evidence also points to the fact that the leaching of phthalate chemicals used in plastic packaging into food may also endanger human health. Various studies have been done into the toxicity of these ubiquitous substances – including the landmark CHAP (Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel) report on phthalates, published by the US Federal Government in late 2014. The study raised concerns that phthalates may be carcinogenic in high doses.

With little attention paid to plastic’s contamination of the food chain, it’s clear that government and industry action on the issue may be a long way off. We should await with baited breath the outcome of Chief Medical Officer for England Dame Sally Davies’ study into the health impact of plastic particles found in fish. Due to report later this year, the study may be the wake-up call that we badly need in the UK.

The obvious solution to the plastic crisis is to reduce our consumption of single-use plastic packaging which is half of our yearly plastic production. Last year I realised I had to do something positive to stem the tide of plastic pollution. I started A Plastic Planet with my friend and serial entrepreneur Sian Sutherland after we both worked on the launch of the film, A Plastic Ocean. The film illustrates the shocking extent of the plastic pollution crisis that mankind faces. Learning from this experience inspired me to take the plastic-free message to the next level. I wanted to do something about the curse of throwaway plastic, not just talk or think about it.

And so A Plastic Planet was born. It is a campaign for the doers not the thinkers. It’s for those of us who worry about the damage we are doing every time we buy trolley-loads of groceries covered in single-use plastic packaging that will remain on the Earth long after we are gone. The campaign has thus far secured wide-ranging amongst politicians, food security experts and the public. We’ve also managed to assemble a stable of celebrity ambassadors including the adventurer Ben Fogle.

Our campaign is based on a simple premise: you can buy gluten-free, dairy-free, and fat-free, so why not plastic-free? It’s about choice. A Plastic-Free aisle would give consumers the chance to reject goods laden with plastic in favour of more sustainable alternatives.

This month we are bidding to convince Britain’s supermarket bosses that a Plastic-Free aisle would be good for business, good for the planet, and good for our children’s health. We think the supermarkets are perfectly placed to deliver the positive change generations to come so badly need. A Plastic-Free aisle would be the first step on a journey to healthier future for future generations and the planet they will inherit.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the positions of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) or Geographical.

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