Marine litter is a problem that few would deny needs attention. It’s not only unpleasant to see beaches covered in debris, but it’s damaging to land, air and marine species alike. In the last 20 years beach litter levels have increased by 135% and plastic litter by 180%. The issues are well documented so there is no need to go into details. The need for change is indisputable. The challenge is figuring out what needs to be done and by who, and making it happen.
To start to tackle any problem we must first understand the cause by identifying where good data exists and where further research needs to be done. We must separate fact from fiction and focus on solutions that work in practice.
This was the aim of the Marine Litter Action Network (MLAN). MLAN was established to bring together people and organisations from different sectors to tackle the issue of marine litter. It was recognised that to could not rely on single organisations or approaches. We could see that more could be achieved by bringing together not only knowledge and expertise, but also energy and enthusiasm.
The Marine Conservation Society provided resource and funding to facilitate this programme and a Steering Group was formed. A launch event was held in Birmingham in June 2014 and ‘the year to make a difference’ had begun!
But before I describe the achievements of MLAN, I know that readers will want to know what M&S is doing to prevent marine litter. You might be surprised at the breadth of our approach.
One of our early contributions was to stop offering free carrier bags in our food halls. Since 2008 M&S has charged for carrier bags with the profits from these bags being reinvested into our Forever Fish Fund. This money was allocated to the Marine Conservation Society and WWF to invest in a broad range of programmes, from educating schoolchildren about the value of our marine environment, to running marine conservation projects in the UK and abroad, and the project customers will be most familiar with – our annual Big Beach Clean-Up Initiative
Beach clean has engaged thousands of M&S colleagues, customers and members of the public in tackling hands-on the problem of litter. We’re just beginning to get the results back from this year’s beach clean: 6,300 people participated and (so far) their collections have amounted to 4,000 bags of waste weighing 39,000 kg, and 80,000 items including cans, wrappers, bottles, cassette tapes and a moped! But although it’s great to end up with cleaner beaches, the really valuable outcome is the opportunity to analyse what is found. This data helps MCS understand more about litter and how it ends up on our beaches, and that helps tell them where we are succeeding and where more needs to be done.
We’ve looked at what we can do in our own business too. We’ve made our products and packaging as recyclable as possible through simplifying the number of plastics that are used. We focussed on reducing our reliance on plastic and now use 25% less plastic packaging and 70% fewer carrier bags than we did in 2008. And we’ve created new markets for recycling through initiatives like our Somerset recycling project.
But some marine waste comes directly from the fishing industry, old bait boxes, nets, etc. M&S has included guidelines on fishing gear disposal in our vessel guidelines and supported work done by Seafish to promote best practice guidelines through their Responsible Fishing Scheme. Seafish also include responsible waste management in their new entrant fishermen training courses, a major step forward in raising awareness and promoting good husbandry on vessels.
One topic which we’ve learned a lot about recently has been the impact of the microbeads used in cosmetics. M&S committed to removing these from our products by the end of 2015 and we’re delighted to report that six months ahead of schedule we’ve reformulated all our products and M&S Beauty products are no longer made using microplastics.
But despite all these efforts we know more radical change is needed so we’re working with others to explore how to develop a more circular economy – investing in technologies and design to radically reduce our reliance on virgin materials. I don’t have space to go into detail about this here but you can read more about it here. And of course we support initiatives that seek to promote innovative approaches like the Frisbee made from litter gathered on M&S Beach Clean.
So all this brings me back to the Marine Litter Action Network ‘Year to Make a Difference’. The programme brought together a diverse range of focus groups looking at developing technical, behaviour and infrastructure solutions. For example how to get the public to stop ‘flushing the unflushables’ (like cotton buds and wet wipes) or promoting personal responsibilities for litter and behaviour change on beaches and on land. Engaging with the commercial and recreational fishing fleets on gear management and getting commercial shipping to do more to prevent spillages (five million pieces of Lego were lost from a single container off Land’s End in 1997). And of course, encouraging companies to follow M&S example and remove microplastics from their products!
There is much more to be done to turn the tide on litter. But by demonstrating the full impact on marine life and communities we will see others joining this movement for change. I look forward to a future of healthy seas and clean beaches.