Plastic surgery for our seas

As a long-term shipping and ports professional living and working on the island nation of the UK, I’m acutely aware of the vital importance of shipping to our everyday lives. But recently I’ve been struck by the intrinsic relevance of consumer choices to our sector.

The consumer switch that has taken me, and many others, by surprise is the sudden and aggressive backlash against plastic. Known colloquially as “the Attenborough effect” after Sir David Attenborough brought the scale of the plastic disaster to the public’s attention in his marvellous Blue Planet II series, plastic has become public enemy no.1 in a matter of months.

A comment related to plastics made at the recent UK Ports Conference gave me pause for thought and underscored the relevance of the issue to this sector.

A speaker, listing problems facing UK ports, cited the rapidly increasing stockpiles of plastic – raw packaging and encased products – at warehouses, and the question of what to do with this now reviled material.

According to Plastics Europe Research Group, over 35 million tons of plastic material was produced globally in 2016, the last year for which full-year data is available. All that plastic is still in existence somewhere, and merrily moved around the world by our industry either for recycling in a cheaper country, or for use in packaging. Now, as plastic faces the hangman’s noose, ports need to take stock of the impact on their operations.

Path to ruin

Since Sir Attenborough revealed the shocking scale of plastic waste in our oceans last year, many large-scale organisations and businesses in the UK have set a clear path to scrapping plastic cups, cutlery, and other single-use plastic containers and receptacles within 12-18 months. On a local level, I have seen plastic straws removed from bars, cafes and restaurants almost overnight. Large UK supermarket chain Morrisons is soon to start asking customers to bring in their own plastic containers to fill in store, while the UK government is also working to implement bans on plastic.

It’s of particular interest in the UK because charity Wrap has spearheaded the UK Plastic Pact, an initiative between businesses from across the entire plastics value chain in co-operation with UK governments and NGOs to stimulate innovative new business models to reduce plastic packaging and help to build a stronger recycling system. The Pact is a global first and has propelled the issue forward at breakneck pace.

But it’s not a UK problem. Globally, prices for scrap plastic have collapsed, resulting in stockpiles at plants that can’t profit from export or domestic markets, most notably in the UK, US and New Zealand. Fewer exports and imports have a direct impact on shipping and ports.

Some ports are managing to make hay while the sun shines. ABP’s recycling scheme to turn plastics found around Hull and Poole Ports into shampoo bottles is a great endeavour and more than ticks sustainability boxes. That specialist bulldozer-like floating machines picked up a whopping 2.5 tonnes of the maligned stuff in just a few weeks speaks volumes about the plastic crisis in our seas.

As ABP demonstrates, the plastic watershed can be seen as an opportunity either commercially, or on a CSR level. Take whichever route works for your port or shipping company, as the plastics issue is certainly not going away.

Carly Fields

Experienced Maritime Editor, LinkedIn, 28 May 2018

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