NORTHERN Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has cautiously welcomed a UK Government commitment to do more to reduce the amount of plastic waste in society and says it could go hand-in-hand with a local initiative launched last week.
The spotlight on unnecessary plastic waste has become more glaring in recent months in the wake of high-profile publicity in the BBC’s Blue Planet programme. Even the Daily Mail, not exactly a bastion of ecological warriors, has begun highlighting the issue prominently.
Last week local shop owner and SIC environment and transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson launched a Shetland-wide effort to initially phase out the use of plastic straws and cups. He ultimately hopes that single-use plastic can be more or less eliminated from the islands.
A ban on the manufacture of plastic microbeads came into force on Tuesday, to be followed by a ban on sales next July – while the Scottish Government is planning to become the first part of the UK to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds to reduce marine pollution.
The UK Government has unveiled an environmental plan that envisages eradicating avoidable plastic waste within 25 years.
Prime Minister Theresa May described such waste as “one of the greatest environmental scourges of our time” and floated measures such as introducing plastic-free supermarket aisles, a tax on takeaway containers and funding for “plastics innovation”.
“In years to come, I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly,” she said.
But environmental campaigners Greenpeace described the announcement as a “missed opportunity” that did not include measures that have proved a success elsewhere, such as a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles.
Campaigners also warn that leaving the EU risks weakening the environmental regulations governing the UK as the government seeks preferential new trade deals.
Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett said it was “easy to make lots of commitments about things that will be done when you are no longer in office”, and the government’s environmental record to date – including on things like fracking and incentives for fossil fuel discovery – left him sceptical about its commitments.
Carmichael said on Thursday that while there were some omissions and “bits they could do sooner”, on the whole it was “not a bad start”.
“I welcome the government’s commitment to do more to improve our natural environment, including specifically reducing the levels of plastic in the oceans,” he said.
“Around eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year, and last year I called on the government to commit to eradicate unnecessary plastic waste, and to work with businesses to reduce plastic packaging and introduce a plastic bottle return scheme, which has been tried and tested in many other countries.
“While not all of my suggestions have been taken, and the devil will be in the detail of what the government eventually propose, it is good to hear that this is something that the government will be focusing on.
“It is certainly an improvement since the last Conservative leader who wanted to ‘get rid of all the green crap’.”
The Liberal Democrat MP said it should still be open to local communities to take their own action, and he describes Thomson’s effort as a “great initiative”.
“I think the two approaches are complementary, so I will hopefully get the chance to sit down with Ryan in the next week or two [and see if we can] tie up the work I’m doing in Westminster with the work he’s doing in Shetland.”
Carmichael said that plastic waste was particularly visible when walking around island communities.
He said aiming for “behavioural change” would mean a series of small steps such as getting people to think “if I leave the house and I’m going to stop for a coffee, I should have a cup that I take with me. If there is a financial advantage to that, that’s one of the best ways”.
“This is something that has crept up on us over a generation, maybe more,” Carmichael added. “The people who could really make a difference here are the supermarkets, and their behaviour will be influenced by what consumers want. The answer lies within our own hands.”