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Is plastics overkill in the media distracting policymakers from climate change?

Companies from Carlsberg to Hovis have made ‘plastic pledges’ in recent months, guaranteeing good publicity as they attempt to drive down the amount of plastic they produce, but a new article written by leading UK academics says the issue of plastic pollution is distracting policymakers from larger threats such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

The Blue Planet effect has become a well-worn phrase but the article, published in Marine Policy, argues that plastics have become too much of a focus amongst media and the public through the ‘draw of simple lifestyle changes’, such as reusable water bottles and ‘quick fix’ technological solutions to plastic pollution.

The scientists say this environmental ‘greenwashing’ has been encouraged by large corporations and many governments and ultimately distracts us from addressing the major environmental issues of climate change and biodiversity loss.

The article claims the environmental implications of plastic pollution are unknown, with many studies showing little direct toxicity effect, and while plastic has been shown to result in the death of seabirds, whales, fish and seals, there is little data on the population level effects of plastic on wildlife.

They say this contrasts with the pressing need to address climate change which has been thoroughly researched and established in recent international scientific reports.

They even believe that the current wave of optimism for reducing plastic consumption could lead to apathy towards environmental matters at a crucial window in time for the more radical actions that are urgently needed to mitigate climate change.

Co-author Dr Peter Jones, UCL Geography, said: ‘It is not our intention to question the importance of plastic pollution but to highlight how this fascination with ocean plastics could be at the expense of neglecting other more pressing concerns.

‘We need to place environmental issues at the heart of our political and economic systems, and address overconsumption and overuse of natural resources as our number one priority that underlies most environmental challenges. Unless we do this, we can’t save the planet from plastics, biodiversity loss or climate change.’

Co-author professor Richard Stafford, Bournemouth University, added: ‘In terms of reducing plastic pollution, there’s a huge emphasis on individual choices, such as refusing single-use coffee cups or plastic straws. There’s also a range of technological solutions, from the Ocean Clean-up project which is trying to “sieve” plastic from the ocean directly, through to new plant-based plastic alternatives.

‘These individual choices and technological “fixes” are simply minor tweaks to a political and economic system which needs a major overhaul, and allow “business as usual” to continue.’

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