Thoughts on the 25 year environmental plan…

Yesterday, the UK’s Prime Minister committed to a 25 year environmental plan for England. Aiming to address some of the environmental problems in the UK, and to encourage more people to enjoy the countryside, there are undoubtedly some worthwhile aims. 

Environment - birds eye view

However, a lot of organisations think more needs to be done, and that the goals set out aren’t immediate enough.

Theresa May’s foreword to the plan states that the goals are simple ones:

‘…cleaner air and water; plants and animals which are thriving; and a cleaner, greener country for us all. We have already taken huge strides to improve environmental protections, from banning microbeads which harm our marine life to improving the quality of the air we breathe to improving standards of animal welfare. This plan sets out the further action we will take.’

So, what is in it?

The plan is about 151 pages long SO in a nutshell, some key points are:

    • Creating more space for wildlife in the face of intensive farming and building, by establishing 500,000 extra hectares of wildlife habitat (part of the Nature Recovery Network)
    • Planting 11 million trees and ensuring that existing woodlands are better managed
    • Changing local planning rules to make it mandatory for all new development to have a net benefit to biodiversity
    • Developing a code for the reintroduction of native species like the beaver and the pine martin
    • Creating an independent environmental watchdog which would ensure high standards on clean air, water and soil post-Brexit
    • Designating a third round of marine conservation zones by July 2019, protecting species from overfishing and other threats
    • Closing the plastic bag charge loophole so all shops are now charging 5p for a plastic carrier bag. (Currently smaller shops are exempt from the charge in England – unlike in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and the abolition will affect 3.4 billion bags handed out at over 200,000 shops in the country
    • Connecting people with the environment by using green spaces to help improve health and well-being through mental health services and encouraging children to be close to nature (in and out of school) focusing on disadvantaged areas
    • Encouraging plastic free supermarket aisles by addressing the unnecessary use of plastic packaging for certain items – for example, shrink wrapped cucumbers…
    • Supporting companies and retailers to offer water refill points so people can refill their own bottles for free in every major city and town
    • Working to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042
    • Tackle air pollution in a ‘Clean Air strategy’ and reduce the impact of chemicals on the environment
    • Implement a sustainable fisheries policy (as we leave the Common Fisheries Policy) to secure clean, healthy and biologically diverse seas and oceans

While the plan is undoubtedly brilliant in the way that it brings to the light goals for key issues like plastic pollution, biodiversity, water sustainability and air pollution, there is still disappointment among conservation charities and organisations across the UK at some glaringly obvious omissions.

For starters, there’s no mention of bottle return collection schemes or deposit return systems, which used to exist in the UK and are proven ways of reducing and recycling bottles. This is something both Surfers Against Sewage and Greenpeace have campaigned about and, despite strong petitions from the former, it’s not even mentioned in the plan.

On their website, Surfers Against Sewage urged more immediate action on the fight against plastic pollution – particularly plastic bottles.

‘In the UK we use a staggering 38.5 million single-use plastic bottles and a further 58 million cans every day. Only half of these are recycled, so it’s no surprise that many of these end up on our beaches and in our oceans.’

Furthermore, the ‘latte levy’ which stormed the news and social media last week doesn’t appear either. Michael Gove has said it’s an ‘interesting idea’ but the 25p charge for non-recyclable coffee cups isn’t part of their long term strategy yet.

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Which is a shame. The 5p carrier bag charge made a huge difference to the reduction of littered plastic bags -many of which end up in oceans and are ingested by a number of marine species including turtles, who mistake the plastic for jellyfish. Once ingested, the bags block their stomachs resulting in starvation.

Yet, once the charge was introduced, early figures revealed that the number of single-use plastic bags used by shoppers in England fell by more than 85%. That’s staggering.

Unfortunately, it seems a financial incentive is what it takes to make us sit up and listen. It took a financial incentive to make us cut our use of everyday plastic. That sad fact is why I’m really hoping a latte levy comes into play soon.

Likewise, another simple action which could have been implemented immediately with huge effect would have been to ban plastic straws. Replacing them with reusable metal straws or not using them at all (do we really need straws in cocktails?) would have been simple and incredibly effective. The Marine Conservation Society’s 2017 Great British Beach Clean showed that plastic makes up around 70% of beach litter with cutlery, take-away trays and straws making up 11%.

So while it’s good news that so much has been set aside and prioritised in the plan, there’s still much more to be done.

For example, Scotland has just become the first UK country to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic earbuds. Although most big retailers have switched to biodegradable paper-stemmed buds, imported plastic brands continue to be sold by smaller outlets and make their way into streams, rivers and oceans. Campaigners estimate that this ban alone will reduce the country’s marine plastic pollution by half.

Plastic cotton buds were among the top ten items found by the MCS during their 2017 Great British Beach Clean, with over 26 found for every 100m. Banning them will go a long way to reducing marine litter – if only the rest of the UK were to follow suit.

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Plus, 25 years to make changes for the environment is an awful long time. The oceans, and other threatened habitats in the world, are in danger right now. In 25 years time, some species probably won’t be here anymore – don’t we think we should be doing more?

In Blue Planet 2, David Attenborough said:

‘The creatures in the big blue are perhaps the most remote on the planet. But not remote enough, it seems, to escape what we are doing to their world.’

If our thoughtless actions on land can negatively affect creatures in the deepest depths of the oceans, they can drastically change the environmental landscape, and the species within it. Maybe it’s time we did more.

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For more information, check out some of the coverage of the 25 year plan here, and the response from MCS here or WWF here

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