Like any good Londoner, I used the fantastic summer weather to kayak from Limehouse to Hackney, discovering that part of the city by water.
As a fairly experienced river and sea kayaker, I was taken aback by how full of litter London’s waters are.
At around the same time, the national and global debate on how to tackle marine plastic pollution was gathering momentum, amplified by shocking pictures of turtles injured by straws and other plastics.
The EU has outlined its plans to outlaw single-use plastics, and the UK government has signalled that post-Brexit Britain will have a very simple approach: ban them. Besides the widely discussed plans to prohibit straws and plastic balloon sticks, the UK is also looking into banning single-use plastic cutlery and plates, while environment secretary Michael Gove appeared to suggest he was considering a ban on disposable nappies.
However, the EU and the UK government have both missed one crucial fact: just two per cent of total marine plastic pollution is caused by citizens of Europe and the US combined. The UK likely contributes around a tenth of one per cent to global marine pollution.
Embracing compostable products as the silver bullet is also not an honest approach. To reap the perceived benefit of compostable products, which typically cost more than traditional containers, we would need to ensure that the packaging will indeed be composted after use, and not littered or thrown into non-compostable trash.
Politicians seems to be confused. If the aim is to clean up our oceans, we should be trying to reduce litter, not banning the practical products some people throw away.
Walking across London Bridge, one dearly misses any clean – let alone recycling-friendly – way of getting rid of rubbish. The easiest way for London’s residents and many visitors is to drop trash on the street or in the river. No wonder that kayaking in the Thames is an unpleasant experience.
London heavily reduced the availability of rubbish bins due to the fear of terrorist attacks dating back to the era of the IRA. With the threat of terrorism still very much on the political radar, we simply do not have enough bins.
But there are ways of balancing safety with the city’s waste disposal needs.
Some places, such as the Tube, offer transparent plastic bags that ought to prevent bombs but still let people throw away their rubbish. During the Olympics, Boris Johnson increased the number of bins on the Tube by 25 per cent to cope with additional waste.
And this hasn’t been the only attempt to find creative ways to solve London’s litter problem. The innovative and bomb-proof Renew recycling receptacles (paid for by displaying digital ads to Londoners) introduced in 2012 were a great idea, but commercially flopped just one year after rollout.
Instead of trying to ban various plastics, policymakers should instead help consumers to dispose and recycle at a high degree. Modern recycling technologies allow us to reuse plastics once they have been disposed. Getting Londoners better access to rubbish bins and recycling facilities is the single best way to encourage them to use them.
At the same time, we should enforce anti-littering laws and fine those who break them, instead of punishing consumers who use single-use plastics and dispose of them responsibly.
That will clean up our streets and our rivers. But when it comes to the oceans, there is little point in symbolically focusing on the 0.1 per cent of marine pollution that the UK contributes – we should ask how to tackle the rest of it.
Developing countries with weak property rights and low environmental standards are the main cause for marine litter. Pushing internationally for stronger property rights in countries such as China, Indonesia, or Brazil, and helping them invest in better technologies, will do much more for sea turtles than banning balloon sticks from British birthday parties.
Plastic isn’t the problem. Litter is. It’s time for politicians to realise that.