This week I took part in the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean at Porthtowan, joining volunteers to clean up litter and record what we found. I have taken part in the event for several years and, as a Minister in Defra, the evidence collected across the country helps inform policy on reducing litter.
Plastic is a particular concern; it takes hundreds of years to break down and has been the subject of high profile debate recently. The problem is compounded year after year as new plastics find their way into the oceans while those that have already been there for decades remain and break down into smaller particles. While the precise impact of plastics in the marine environment is difficult to quantify, I have always taken the view that we should be on the side of caution.
We know that ghost nets lost from fishing vessels can have considerable impact on marine life. Each year, the Cornwall Seals Group based near Hayle find seals that have been entangled in nets or caught in discarded sections of net. We know that tiny particles of plastic attract toxins in the marine environment and when ingested by fish and marine mammals, those toxins can enter the body. With other marine species like molluscs and shell fish, plastics can block their digestive systems or affect their ability to function normally.
Last year the government introduced a 5p plastic bag charge. The result has been amazing with a drop in carrier bag use of about 80 percent. This year there has been debate about the use of microbeads in cosmetics. Microbeads are tiny plastic particles used to give a gritty texture to some soaps but which sewage systems are incapable of filtering so they end up in the sea. Earlier this year I told the House of Commons that we were considering implementing a ban on the use of such plastics in the manufacture and sale of cosmetics and this was adopted as policy a few weeks ago.
We also need to tackle littering onshore. Last year 5,500 people were taken to court for littering offences and 30,000 on the spot fines were introduced. There is more to do, but we are making progress in tackling the challenge.