Britain Gets Serious About Curbing Plastic Waste

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Plastic tableware on display in London
Single-use plastic: Your days are numbered. (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

You’ll soon be hard-pressed to find single-use plastic — drinking straws, bottles, and disposable tableware, in particular — on the grounds of all royal estates including Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. None other than Queen Elizabeth II herself launched this anti-plastic campaign, which in addition to outlawing certain disposable plastic items in staff dining rooms, calls for the use of biodegradable and compostable takeaway containers at cafes located on properties maintained by the Royal Collection Trust. The use of china plates and glasses along cups will also be de rigueur at these open-to-the-public royal eateries including Buckingham Palace’s touristy afternoon tea hotspot, the Garden Café.

As reported by the Telegraph, it’s believed that nonagenarian naturalist Sir David Attenborough had a hand in inspiring the queen, a personal friend, to take action. Among other things, Attenborough's most recent nature documentary series "Blue Planet II" highlighted the devastating havoc wreaked by plastic waste on the world's oceans.

Buckingham Palace exterior
Caterers at Buckingham Palace are doing away with non-biodegradable tableware. (Photo: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

It’s unclear if the queen, who reportedly takes in most of her telly while slumming it at Balmoral Castle, joined over 14 million subjects to watch the wildly popular BBC One series, which ranked as the United Kingdom’s most viewed television program of 2017. But when you consider both the queen’s friendship with Attenborough and the newly announced waste-curbing campaigns at royal residences, it’s hard to imagine that the impassioned message of environmental stewardship at the heart of "Blue Planet II" didn’t resonate with the House of Windsor.

(The queen also appears alongside Attenborough in the upcoming documentary about the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, a large-scale forest conservation project spanning 53 countries.)

"Across the organization, the Royal Household is committed to reducing its environmental impact," a spokesman for Buckingham Palace tells the Telegraph. "As part of that, we have taken a number of practical steps to cut back on the use of plastics. At all levels, there's a strong desire to tackle this issue."

Beyond being at the center of a plastic waste-curbing campaign, Buckingham Palace is also in the midst of an ongoing green retrofit with the goal to improve energy efficiency at the royal residence by 40 percent by installing rooftop solar panels, upgrading antiquated heating systems and other measures.

Queen Elizabeth II, David Attenborough
Queen Elizabeth II and David Attenborough, both 91, pictured at Buckingham Palace in 2016. Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images

BBC takes its own programming to heart

"Blue Planet II" didn’t just prompt the queen of England to give single-use utensils and service ware the royal heave-ho.

Other highly visible — and respected — British institutions are also taking a stand against ocean-polluting, wildlife-harming plastic waste. They include the BBC, which, when you think about it, only makes sense given that a program that it broadcast was so powerful, so widely watched that even Buckingham Palace decided to take action.

Early this month, the BBC announced a plan to phase out the use of all disposable plastic food service items by 2020. Throwaway plastic cups and cutlery are due to disappear from BBC-operated cafeterias and commissaries by the end of the year while plastic to-go containers are slated to get the ax by 2019. The BBC is the world’s largest public broadcasting company with upwards of 21,000 hard-working — and likely highly caffeinated — employees. In total, 2 million single-use plastic cups are used and discarded by BBC employees and guests every year.

Plastic waste, Thames Estuary
Plastic waste accumulated on the shore of the Thames Estuary in Kent, England. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

"Like millions of people watching 'Blue Planet II,' I was shocked to see the avoidable waste and harm created by single-use plastic," explains BBC honcho Lord Tony Hall. "We all need to do our bit to tackle this problem, and I want the BBC to lead the way. Scrapping throwaway plastic cups and cutlery is the first step, and with our plan, I hope we can have a BBC free of single-use plastic altogether."

The BBC notes that 400 million metric tons of plastic are produced annually with roughly 40 percent of it being disposable — used once and then unceremoniously chucked. Every year, more than 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters our world’s oceans and waterways where it poisons, maims, strangles, and chokes a wide variety of marine life.

"The BBC is already a bit of a hero amongst those of us worried about the millions of tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year, as the 'Blue Planet II' series did as much to raise awareness of this issue as years of campaigning," Louise Edge of Greenpeace UK explains to — who else but — BBC News. "But awareness-raising is only step one, so it's really encouraging to see the BBC moving on to taking action."

Tesco plastic bag litter
The British government enacted a 5 p tax on plastic shopping bags in 2015. (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Lent's newest no-no

A BBC nature documentary inspiring Buckingham Palace to do something about plastic waste, which, as a result, prompts the BBC itself to take action is a rather neat little arrangement; the power of a television program with a planet-bettering message comes full circle.

While "Blue Planet II" no doubt had some part of it, a new plastic fast of sorts introduced by the Church of England is a response to a much larger plastic-eschewing sensibility sweeping across Britain. Debuting on Ash Wednesday, the "Lent Plastic Challenge" implores followers — and anyone, really — to give up plastic products much like they would red meat, chocolate, booze, or Twitter during the most drawn-out and abstentious stretch of the liturgical calendar.

As the New York Times reports, this first-of-its-kind episcopal initiative specifically applies to plastic packaging and single-use items found "polluting oceans and rivers, fouling beaches, killing wildlife and clogging landfills." To lend the devoted a helping hand, the Church of England’s Environmental Programme has even created a daily Lenten calendar that blends bible passages with helpful daily, if somewhat basic, tips on how to avoid or limit the consumption of plastic.

Plastic-wrapped LImes
Egregious waste: Plastic-wrapped limes for sale at a London supermarket. (Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images)

For example, the entry for Feb. 28 tasks church members with checking the labels of their personal care and bath products to see if they contain exfoliating polyethylene microbeads and, ideally, refrain from buying or using these products in the future. (These teeny-tiny plastic pellets with a huge knack at disrupting aquatic ecosystems were effectively banned in the U.K. at the beginning of the year.)

On March 11, the calendar asks churchgoers to contemplate their own coffee cup habits and to consider bringing their own mugs to their church’s Sunday morning post-worship coffee receptions. Other daily avoidables include over-packaged "convenience" foods, plastic kitchen storage containers, disposable cutlery, non-reusable produce, and shopping bags, bottled water, and wet wipes, which contain plastic fibers and usually aren’t flushable as advertised.

"I think it might well be a first for us, to have an entire Lent program on an environmental issue, but it is very much an integral part of what the church is about," Ruth Knight, environmental policy officer for the Church of England, tells the Times. As far as the Lent Plastic Challenge goes, she notes that some of the daily recommendations are "more difficult than others. It’s definitely not a commandment to do all of them, it’s the encouragement to do as much as you can."

Plastic straw and cup
Sip 'em while you got 'em: Plastic straws may soon be a thing of the past in Scotland. (Photo: D Coetzee/flickr)

Going beyond the usual suspects

With the Church of England, the BBC, and the monarchy all cracking down on disposable everything, it would seem that all major corners of influence in the U.K. are on an anti-plastic tear. As they should be. But what about the federal government?

Prime Minister Theresa May — such a fan of "Blue Planet II" that she gifted Chinese President Xi Jinping with a boxed-set of the series complete with a message from David Attenborough — has all but waged a full-on war against the plastic with a long-term environmental battle plan that, among other things, would see all avoidable plastic waste disappear from the U.K. by 2042. Initiatives outlined in the plan include a potential tax on all plastic takeout containers and the creation of plastic-free aisles at British supermarkets.

Since October 2015, customers have had to pay 5 pence (6 cents) for each single-use plastic bag when shopping at retailers that employ more than 250 people. Since then, there's been an 86 percent drop in disposable bags issued by those stores. Because of the success, the plastic bag fee might increase to 10 pence and be extended to all stores, May announced in August 2018, according to the BBC.

It's just part of the government's plan to tackle plastic pollution.

May announced in April 2018 a proposal to ban the use of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton swabs by the end of the year. "Plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world, which is why protecting the marine environment is central to our agenda at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting," May said. At the meeting, May took an even bolder step — asking other Commonwealth countries to also ban certain plastics.

May's government also plans to ban wet wipes, reports The Independent. "As part of our 25-year environment plan, we have pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, and that includes single-use products like wet wipes," said a spokesperson from the Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in a statement.

A 2017 study conducted by Thames 21, a charity that cleans waterways, revealed that the Thames River has the highest concentration of wet wipes ever recorded. The wipes end up in the water system because of people flushing them down the toilet instead of throwing them away.

“We are continuing to work with manufacturers and retailers of wet wipes to make sure labeling on the packaging is clear and people know how to dispose of them properly – and we support the industry's efforts to make their customers aware of this important issue," said DEFRA.

While May’s 2042 plan has received criticism, much of it valid, for not being urgent or forceful enough, it’s a decent start — a bit frustratingly vague, yes, but certainly something to work with. Calling plastic waste "one of the great environmental scourges of our time," May has also committed to providing developing nations with aid earmarked for plastic pollution reduction schemes as well as government funding for bio-plastic innovation efforts.

Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May unveils a 25-year environmental plan in January 2018. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Scotland is going straw-free

On a countrywide scale, Scotland has emerged as a crusader against a specific, particularly egregious single-use plastic item: the straw. Poised to become the first European country to ban plastic straws, Scotland kicked off its crackdown on single-use plastic sipping tools first at Scottish Parliament, where 4,000 of them were previously used — and tossed — at parliamentary eateries. Paper straws are now available to diners.

Scottish Environmental Secretary Cunningham hopes to see the proposed ban, which has received some blowback from disability advocacy groups, become law by the end of 2019. The government also plans to phase out the sale of cotton swabs with plastic rods by the end of this year. The non-biodegradable remains of cotton buds are amongst the most prevalent forms of plastic pollution found on Scottish beaches.

"There are obviously a number of legislative, financial, and accessibility issues to consider when it comes to banning plastic straws, however, it is our intention that we will be in a position to confirm definitive plans over the coming months," a spokesperson for the Scottish government tells the Independent.

"I would hope to have, by the end of this parliament, more than just plastic cotton buds and straws done," Cunningham adds. "It’s a continuing process."