A Tax On Single-Use Plastics Won’t Prevail Over Convenience Culture

The finale of the BBC’s brilliant Blue Planet II was probably David Attenborough’s most important appearance on our screens to date.

“Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity, and indeed all life on Earth, now depends on us.”

If anyone can influence the masses, it’s Attenborough – a man with the ear of the nation, and the strong and stable reputation of which most politicians can only dream. His parting message left viewers in no doubt that the essential job of saving and protecting our oceans rests on all our shoulders.

The series was the latest milestone in what has been a breakthrough year for ocean campaigners – particularly around the plastic pollution crisis.

Following on from Philip Hammond’s announcement of the consultation on a plastic tax in last month’s budget and a number of other big media moments throughout 2017, it seems the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves.

But while public awareness is growing quickly, and we can all now agree that plastics present a vast and critical threat to marine life, we still feel a long way from consensus on how best to tackle the problem.

It is a big and complicated challenge that comes in two parts: we’ve got to rid our oceans of the plastic that’s already there, and put a stop to more finding its way in.

The clean-up of existing waste needed is no mean feat. Eight million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean every year. That’s one rubbish truck every minute. If we keep going as we are there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. It’s going to take more than a few beach clean-ups to get rid of it all, and large-scale technological solutions are still in their relative infancy.

Stemming the flow of plastics into our oceans is possibly an even greater challenge. Single-use plastics are embedded in our everyday lives. As it stands, it’s perfectly normal to use a plastic cup for 10 minutes and then throw it away. Fundamentally, we need to create a new normal. To tackle the problem effectively would be to drive behaviour change on an almost unprecedented scale.

It’s this behaviour change that will prove most critical. Yes – we have a clean-up job to do. But the one thing all marine scientists agree on is that the best way to get rid of the plastic in our oceans is to stop putting it there in the first place.

So how do we get there? Crucially, we can only truly understand how to change behaviours when we learn what it is that drives them.

The battle against single-use plastics isn’t really a battle against single-use plastics at all. It’s much bigger than that. The battle is against a culture of convenience that is shaping the world we live in today.

Plastics – and single-use items in particular – are probably the biggest and best example of a convenience culture that has grown exponentially over the last 50 years. And with technology now taking on the mantle, it is here to stay. Just ask Alexa.

When you start looking at the plastic problem in this context, you begin to appreciate why consensus on a solution is so hard to find. All of a sudden, a plastic tax feels a bit like taking a knife to a gunfight.

In reality, it’s likely that nothing short of an outright ban will enforce the change that is needed. With France already leading the way with a ban on plastic cups, cutlery and plates from 2020, equivalent legislation in the UK and other countries doesn’t feel out of the question.

Nonetheless, a tax on single-use plastics would mark great progress. It is real action. And an important step beyond governments and corporations massaging their egos with panel debates, white papers and green rhetoric. At the very least, it will keep the issue in the headlines and maintain pressure to find the right solution.

In the meantime it should inspire the rest of us to start taking real action of our own, too. Let’s find reusable alternatives for single-use plastics in our everyday lives. Support campaigns. Join conservation groups.

Because as Britain’s favourite naturalist reminded us, we all need to be part of the solution: “Never before have we had such an awareness of what we’re doing to the planet and never before have we had the power to do something about that.”