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Beating the ‘scourge’ of plastic waste

Scott Herrett
Scott Herrett
"I did some research and discovered the amount of plastic put into the ocean every year is the equivalent to roughly a metre of plastic covering the whole of Aberdeen. This gives a clear indication of the enormity of the problem"

Around 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste have so far been generated globally. Almost 80% of it goes into landfill or natural environment. Given the harm this causes, especially in the marine environment, the need to do something is urgent.

The James Hutton Institute aimed to raise the profile of the issue and challenge people to take individual action on plastic use by hosting a free public film screening of ‘A Plastic Ocean’ at its Craigiebuckler site. The screening was held this month and was a great success with over 100 in attendance. The film explores the fragile state of our oceans, uncovers alarming truths about plastic waste, and reveals working solutions that can be put into immediate effect to reduce it.

As well as screening the film the institute will be encouraging staff to try to reduce their use of plastic during February and March by taking part in a ‘Plastics challenge’. The challenge brings home the barriers that exist for people trying to reduce their personal consumption of plastic. The Scottish Government recently stated it will ban single-use plastics by 2030. Theresa May has vowed to ban all avoidable plastic waste – for her “one of the great environmental scourges of our time” - by 2042. Rather long-term targets in both cases.

At present, one of the key barriers arises when doing the weekly food shop: despite the recent 5p charge on single-use plastic bags, 2.1 billion were sold last year. Increasing pressure on retailers to reduce plastic waste has led to some signing up to more drastic action. Tesco wants all its packaging to be recyclable or compostable by 2025, and Sainsbury’s is discontinuing plastic cotton buds; a major source of the oceans’ plastic pollution.

Iceland is the first major retailer to commit to eliminating plastic packaging for all its own-brand products, claiming it will be plastic-free within five years. 80% of 5,000 people it polled lately said they would support the change and go plastic-free.

So, will these changes be enough to have a noticeable effect on plastic pollution and how easy is it to go plastic-free right now? Scott Herrett, a Research Assistant in social sciences at the Hutton gave up plastic for Lent in 2017 and explained the impact this had on his everyday life.

“I decided to go plastic free for 40 days due to a general concern for human impact on the environment. I was born in a coastal town so growing up and seeing pollution on the beach frustrated me. My girlfriend suggested it to cut all of our plastic, but it morphed into a kind of social experiment, and we saw not only how it impacted upon us personally but also how others reacted.”

“The main issue was simply the inconvenience: it affected my entire day. Generally food and drink were the main difficulty and very restrictive when it came to fruit and veg shopping. This seemed to be particularly challenging in Aberdeen as there are very few greengrocers or small retailers selling loose fruit and veg. My girlfriend found it easier in Edinburgh, where there are smaller independent shops doing that.”

“Whether in a shop or chatting to friends, the initial response to me going plastic-free was generally slight puzzlement, which sometimes developed to an almost defensive reaction. People automatically felt that I might judge them, for example for drinking from a plastic bottle. This often made them almost apologetic for their actions, or try and justify why the plastic they consumed was ok. But we just wanted to prompt discussion about plastic and maybe at the same time get others to question their own use.

“Since undertaking the challenge last year there has been a huge spotlight shone on plastic pollution. Blue Planet 2 really provoked a reaction in people which was great. It’s also fantastic that politicians and retailers have made statements and promises relating to plastic waste reduction. There’s still a long way to go, though. For example, my Blue Planet 2 poster was delivered in a plastic envelope – a prime example of how plastic is deeply embedded in our society.

I did some research and discovered the amount of plastic put into the ocean every year is the equivalent to roughly a metre of plastic covering the whole of Aberdeen. This gives a clear indication of the enormity of the problem. We need to keep pushing and make sure the promises are not only kept but expanded on.”


The screening was the first in a programme of films hosted at the Institute, details of the upcoming films are: “10 Billion- What’s on your plate?” Thursday 22st March, 7:00 – 9:30 pm, Biodiversity themed film, Thursday 26th April, 7:00 – 9:30 pm.

Press and media enquiries: 

Adam Walker, Communications Officer, James Hutton Institute, Tel: 01224 395095 (direct line), 0344 928 5428 (switchboard).

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.