KT Long Read: The Attenborough effect on plastic pollution

The big problem is single-use plastics and the quantities in which they are used.

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 9 Dec 2021, 8:50 PM

Last updated: Thu 9 Dec 2021, 8:51 PM

One of the key aspects of Media Studies I used to teach during my previous life in academia is ‘media effects’: the idea that the media can influence people’s behaviour, attitudes and actions. But the degree of that influence, as well as who is most impacted, when, how and why, has been the subject of much debate among scholars for nearly a century; for example, does violence on television and films lead to violence in society? The jury is still out, but there is some consensus that the ‘media effects’ need not be overt — they can be subtle, whose influence on action and behaviour may not be clear immediately.

I did not have to look far to find a good example of ‘media effects’: my home. At one point, I was closely following the documentary series Blue Planet (2001) and Blue Planet II (2017) on BBC, marvelling at their production values and the less known world of issues facing oceans and endangering marine life, narrated brilliantly by the iconic natural historian David Attenborough.

One evening, while unpacking after returning from the supermarket, I realised the extent of packaging that came with items of everyday use: it almost filled the kitchen bin. Almost every item, particularly vegetables and other food items, came in attractive plastic packaging. I looked around the kitchen and the house, and saw how widespread plastic is present, and recalled episodes in Blue Planet II that graphically showed how plastic pollution kills and endangers marine life and ultimately affects the ecosystem. The documentary’s ‘effect’ on me was clear: I soon changed shopping habits, from the supermarket to farmers’ market stalls, bought plastic goods to the bare minimum, and generated less waste for the local council’s bin collection, from one black bin bag in a week to one every three weeks, if not longer. Since plastic cannot be recycled in full and remains a major challenge, who knows where the discarded packaging will end up?

Damage to environment

I was not alone to experience the ‘Attenborough Effect’. The Blue Planet series was watched across the globe and clearly helped raise awareness of how human anthropogenic activity puts marine life and the environment in danger. Much outrage was expressed about plastic pollution after the series was broadcast. It was suddenly a hot topic and people who had never done it before started taking reusable jute, cloth and other bags to supermarkets and grocery stores, refusing plastic packaging. Several surveys showed that the vast majority of people who watched the series changed their shopping habits, if not lifestyles. The series was seen by millions across China, particularly Blue Planet II, which reportedly slowed the country’s Internet at the time. When Theresa May visited Beijing as prime minister in 2018, she presented President Xi Jinping with a Blue Planet box-set, with a special message from Attenborough. As May says, “We look back in horror at some of the damage done to our environment in the past and wonder how anyone could have thought that, for example, dumping toxic chemicals untreated into rivers was ever the right thing to do. In the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls.”

Delighted with Blue Planet’s impact, Attenborough says: “We hoped that Blue Planet II would open people’s eyes to the damage that we are doing to our oceans and the creatures that live in them. I’ve been absolutely astonished at the result that that programme has had. I never imagined there would be quite so many of you who would be inspired to want change. The strength of response has not gone unnoticed in the corridors of power, or in business boardrooms. The actions of any just one of us may seem to be trivial and to have no effect. But the knowledge that there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who are doing the same thing — that rally does have an effect. I think we’re all shifting our behaviour, I really do. I think we are changing our habits, and the world is waking up to what we’ve done to the planet. It is high time we turn our attention fully to one of the most pressing problems of today — averting the plastic pollution crisis.”

The good, bad and ugly of plastic

Plastic itself is incredibly useful. It has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio; it is durable and inexpensive, making it the material of choice for most disposable medical tools, equipment and packaging. The big problem is single-use plastics and the quantities in which they are used. A plastic bag, for example, is used on average for a short duration, but could take 100 to 300 years to fragment. But the British Plastics Federation’s (BPF) position is that single-use plastics also have an important role to play in modern life. It contends that plastics packaging saves resources and, “it is lighter, uses less energy and produces less greenhouse gas emissions than alternatives”. According to the BPF, the main benefits of plastic packaging are: resource efficient, safe, hygienic, lightweight, secure, durable and versatile.

But despite much innovation and advances in recycling technology, a big question mark remains; not all plastics can be recycled, including some resins. Even for some plastics that can be partly recycled, the process can use a lot of energy, and plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely, unlike glass or aluminium. Every time plastic is recycled, its quality decreases, so on average a plastic product can only be recycled two to three times before it is no longer used. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson remarked before the COP26 summit in Glasgow, sparking a row with campaigners, recycling plastic “doesn’t work” and “is not the answer” to threats to global oceans and marine wildlife. Reusing plastics “doesn’t begin to address the problem”, he said, suggesting that instead “we’ve all got to cut down our use of plastic”.

A large number of experts, organisations and governments across the globe are engaged in dealing with plastic pollution, producing voluminous reports and research papers. The figures are stark: every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into oceans; 12 million tonnes of plastic are poured into the ocean every year; scientists have recently discovered microplastics embedded deep in the Arctic ice; plastics consistently make up 80 per cent of all marine debris studied; there may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean, weighing up to 269,000 tonnes; 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually; approximately 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach in the UK; 90 per cent of plastic is produced from feedstock obtained from fossil oil and gas; producing one tonne of plastic generates up to 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide; plastic production has been forecast to grow by 60 per cent by 2030 and to treble by 2050; and less than a third of all plastic in the UK is recycled.


The Covid-19 pandemic’s demand for single use plastic medical equipment has added to the pollution, as new research in the American academic journal PNAS shows. More than eight million tonnes of pandemic-associated plastic waste has been generated globally, with more than 25,000 tonnnes entering the global ocean.

Most of the plastic is from medical waste generated by hospitals that dwarfs the contribution from personal protection equipment and online shopping package material. The research found that hospital waste represents the bulk of the global discharge (73 per cent), which calls for better management of medical waste.

Warriors of plastic pollution

Remedial steps across the globe may be small given the scale of the problem, but check out several urban areas and you see groups of volunteers of all ages picking up plastic litter from parks, woods, waterways and roads, collecting and depositing it in centres for recycling. I often find such groups along the picturesque Thames Path, Richmond Park and elsewhere in London, particularly on weekends, including elderly men and women wearing aprons, with a black bin bag in one hand and a litter-grabbing stick in the other, chatting and joking among themselves at what they find.

“We pick up all kinds of plastic stuff, and I mean all kinds,” says Jane Arthurs, a resident of Putney, with a smile. Similar groups of people can be seen at various beaches across Britain, spaces where a large number of people gather, particularly during the summer, and usually leave behind mountains ofplastic. But things are beginning to change, as Attenborough notes.

The Marine Conservation Society found in a new survey that the amount of waste washing up on the UK’s beaches is falling. Volunteers found 385 pieces of litter for every 100 metres of beach on average, down from 425 in 2020 and 558 in 2019. Single-use plastic bags have fallen from a high of 13 for every 100 metres in 2013 to just three in 2021. Plastic cotton bud sticks dropped out of the top 10 most common types of rubbish following a ban in Scotland in 2019 and in England in 2020. Wet wipes have consistently featured in the top 10 most common items on Scottish beaches, while levels of PPE found this year were similar to 2020, when masks were made mandatory across the UK.

Lizzie Prior, Beachwatch Manager at MCS, says: “The ongoing downward trend we’re seeing in litter levels on UK beaches is a positive sign that the actions we’re taking at a personal, local and national level are working. But we can’t sit back and relax, now is the time for even more ambitious action.”

Another example is the success of the UK government imposing a charge for single-use plastic bags in supermarkets and retailers. There was a 95 per cent drop in the use of such bags when a charge of 5 pence per bag was levied in 2015, which was raised to 10 pence in May this year.

The average person now buys only four single use bags in a year from the supermarkets, compared with 140 in 2014, and there is much pressure on supermarkets to cut packaging. Since the introduction of the charge, retailers have donated over £150 million to charity, volunteering, the environment, and the health sectors.

As Environment Minister Rebecca Pow says: “The introduction of the 5 pence charge has been a phenomenal success, driving down sales of harmful plastic bags in supermarkets by a remarkable 95 per cent. We know we must go further to protect our natural environment and oceans, which is why we are now extending this charge to all businesses. A plastic packaging tax is to be introduced from April 2022 for products that do not have at least 30 per cent recycled content.”

Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist based in London.

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