Despite the facts that the British government is in total chaos over their failure to agree about a plan for the country to leave the European Union and that they are now leaderless because the Prime Minister has resigned, it seems they are able to agree on some things. One of these is a new law designed to help protect the environment and, in a small way, begin to tackle the country's plastic waste problem.
A government committee reported that more than 80 percent of those who were asked said they would be in favor of a ban on the distribution and sale of non-essential plastic items. This has resulted in the passing of a new law that says as of the beginning of April next year you will not be able to get a plastic straw, a plastic coffee stirrer or any type of Q-tip with a plastic stem in Britain.
This action may seem like a drop in the ocean as far as plastic waste is concerned, but when you realize that Britain uses 5 billion plastic straws each year, 300 million stirrers and 2 billion Q-tips, it suddenly adds up to a lot of plastic, all of which is discarded.
After the law comes into effect, properly licensed pharmacies will still be permitted to stock and sell plastic straws, either in stores or online, but only if there is a genuine medical reason for them. Fast food places, bars, pubs, cafs and restaurants, on the other hand, won't be able to supply these items to their clientele at all.
So, what are the politicians proposing we use instead of these everyday items? Their preference is that drinks be served without straws or stirrers but, if for some reason they are deemed necessary, the lawmakers are suggesting catering establishments supply paper straws and biodegradable alternatives to stirrers, while they want Q-tip manufacturers to switch to using stems made from alternate materials, such as fast-growing soft woods.
These three items will now be joining plastic supermarket bags in the fight against waste. The bags aren't banned but, by law, supermarkets now have to charge customers up to 15 cents for each one they use and, since this became law in October of 2015, the number of bags sold has fallen by 90 percent.
Naturally some customers aren't happy about the charge, but it seems the major stores are, because they don't have to buy, handle or supply the bags and consequently it cuts their costs- and the revenue generated by those customers who still buy bags goes to environmental charities.
These changes are now law and will be coming into effect in less than a year, but there are other initiatives being considered too.
Some of the world's biggest dangers to the environment are plastic bottles. In Britain people use around 13 billion of these each year. Most are made from a material called polyethylene terephthalate, which can be readily recycled, yet 6 billion of Britain's plastic bottles are discarded every year and never reach recycling plants. Instead, they tend to end up in one of two places - the ocean or landfill sites.
Today, 40 percent of fish the Brits eat have plastic in them and in landfills, it can take more than 400 years for the plastic to decompose. What can we do about this? There is one initiative already being undertaken in Europe and the British government are so interested they have sent a cross-party group of Members of Parliament to study it.
The scheme, in use in Norway, is simple. They add between 13 and 35 cents to the cost of the full bottle and, when the consumer has finished with it, he or she takes it back to the store and feeds it into a machine which reads the barcode and issues a voucher returning the deposit to the person. The system isn't completely infallible, but the Norwegian government says that since it's introduction, 97 percent of plastic bottles get recycled.
Some of the store owners in Britain are said to be cautious about introducing a similar scheme there, but their Norwegian counterparts say that on the whole they are very pleased with it. They receive a small fee for operating the scheme but, more importantly, they say not only does it increase the number of people visiting their stores because people come back to recycle, they also tend to use the vouchers they get for returning bottles to purchase additional items from them.
As I said, there is some opposition to introducing a similar scheme in Britain but those in favor of it hold up examples like China and the small Balkan state of Lithuania. The Lithuanians introduced a scheme similar to Norway's and, in just three years they've managed to achieve a 94 percent recycling rate. At the same time, it is said that you will not find many plastic bottles in Chinese land fills. This is because the government pays people to return them and some of the poorer people actually make a living out of scavenging for them.
Here, in the United States, there are some plastic bottle recycling schemes and the latest figures I could find put the amount we reuse at just over 30 percent. That doesn't sound too bad until you realize that we use 1500 plastic bottles every second of every minute of every day. That's more than 50 billion bottles a year, 35 billion of which are lost to the environment.
In the long-term, this is unsustainable and, since this is the world we are going to be leaving to our children, perhaps it's time we thought about doing what we can to clean it up a little.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.