Roger Ratcliffe doubts politicians will ever get the plastic problem in the bag

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This train of thought began during a walk in Nidderdale, North Yorkshire. I was about to cross a beck (that’s what we call streams in the Pennines) when in the corner of one eye I saw a flash of white in the fast-flowing water. Even before I had turned and lifted my binoculars I knew from past experience that I was about to see a dipper, which looks like a plump female blackbird but has a broad white bib and stubby tail. Dippers are always a delight to watch as they perch on rocks mid-stream, with the current splashing all around them, and dodge in and out of the water in pursuit of insect larvae and other aquatic life.

When I focused, I saw that this one appeared to be struggling to retain a small fish in its slender beak. Then I realised to my horror that it was holding a shard of plastic. Within seconds the dipper had disappeared, so I have no idea whether it swallowed its find – probably with fatal consequences – or, having subjected it to a suck-and-see test, abandoned it for something more wholesome.

Still fresh in my mind was footage from Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series in which an albatross innocently fed plastic waste to its chicks. Seeing that dipper switched on a lightbulb in my head, and I realised that in my rucksack were a plastic drinks bottle, a sandwich in a plastic bag that once contained loose tomatoes, and a cellophane-wrapped chocolate bar. Right in front of me I was seeing just one of the insidious consequences of our dependence on plastic.

Most coverage of the issue concentrates on the vile soup of plastic lapping at our seashores, because the evidence is easier to see on beaches. But the effects beneath the waves are usually invisible, which is why another horror show in Blue Planet II shocked so many people – a dead whale calf with plastic debris strangling its intestines.

There has been a lot of the usual insincere huffing and puffing from politicians about how to tackle the problem, and when Michael Gove suggested a 25-year plan to cut our usage of plastic packaging I almost threw up. Like most of our environmental laws, for more than 40 years we have depended on the EU for sanity. It was Europe that made us take poisonous lead out of petrol, and Europe that issued the stream of clean water directives that made open sewers like the River Aire and River Don capable of supporting brown trout, salmon and otters. Arch-Brexiter Gove, however, would see our environmental laws deregulated at the stroke of a pen. He’s a plastic politician if ever there was.

But anyway, I am convinced the problem won’t be solved by central governments, because they are far too easily leaned on by commercial interests. It is up to consumers to stop buying anything with plastic, and local authorities to help this along by outlawing non-biodegradable packaging in their areas. The Scottish parliament recently introduced a ban on plastic drinking straws in all of its premises. With imagination, there are a million such steps we can take to persuade the food and drinks industry to end its addiction to plastic.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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