Plastic in the food chain

Sky Ocean Rescue

Sky TV’s Ocean Rescue campaign is now in its second year. Science correspondent Thomas Moore brings us up to date

One has to question the sanity of anyone prepared to swim the length of the English Channel wearing only a pair of Speedos. It’s over 500 kilometres of often rough water, the world’s busiest shipping lane, and there are lots of jellyfish. But Lewis Pugh did it, and Sky News followed him all the way, from Land’s End to Dover. In 49 days he took 530,000 strokes and burned 100,000 calories.

But it wasn’t just a story of human endeavour, a battle with nature and a new record set. Lewis – the United Nations Patron of the Oceans – was swimming to highlight the plight of the marine environment.

Overfishing, climate change and plastic pollution are putting the world’s oceans under unprecedented pressure. And The Long Swim up the Channel brought the message home. The UK’s coastal waters are also in trouble.

An underwater Eden

Thomas Moore, broadcasting for Sky TV’s Ocean Rescue, from Santorini, Greece. Photo: Sky Ocean Rescue

Before he set off we took Lewis to Lundy Island, 20 kilometres off the north Devon coast. For decades the marine life there has been protected from fishing, extraction or any other damaging activity. It is an underwater Eden. Lewis swam in clear blue water with seals that have lost their fear of humans. And he saw lobsters that have swelled in number, spilling over into neighbouring areas where fishing is still allowed.

Lundy represents a win–win for conservation and for local fishermen. There are similar conservation zones off the Isle of Arran and the Yorkshire coast. But they amount to a few square kilometres of protected water. A tiny fraction of the 500,000 square kilometres of UK coastal seas. It’s nowhere near enough. Lewis wants 30% of the world’s ocean properly protected, with a network of conservation zones acting as nurseries for fish.

The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, met Lewis as he climbed onto the beach in Dover. Mr Gove has paid tribute to the influence of our campaign, not just on marine protection, but on plastics too. He has set up a ‘Blue Belt’ of protected areas around the UK.

But the protection is weak. Goodwin Sands in the eastern Channel was afforded protected status this summer. But a fortnight later the Port of Dover was given permission to dredge 3 million tonnes of aggregate from the area next year to expand the harbour. What kind of protection is that?

A dirty business

Launched in January 2017, Sky Ocean Rescue aims to shine a spotlight on the issues affecting ocean health, find innovative solutions to the problem of ocean plastics, and inspire people to make small everyday changes that collectively can make a huge difference. A year on, January 2018 saw the airing of the latest in a series of campaign documentaries, Dirty Business. The film uncovered thousands of tonnes of plastic scrap that had been collected for recycling from British households but then transported and dumped on sites as far away as Hong Kong.

The programme revealed that the system makes it more lucrative to export our plastic recycling than to process it ourselves. It even creates a financial incentive for companies to fraudulently claim they have recycled packaging, particularly for plastic.

In response to the investigation, Michael Gove committed to reducing the amount of waste we produce and processing more of it at home. The pressure from the Ocean Rescue campaign is working.

Responses from government and business

#PassOnPlastic

The British government is bringing in taxes to incentivise manufacturers to use more recycled plastic – or use alternative materials instead. And a deposit scheme on plastic bottles is on the way, something we have campaigned for.

Businesses too have started to act, sensitive to the concerns of their customers. Of the supermarkets, Iceland has promised the toughest action, with a vow to eliminate plastic packaging from its own-brand products. It’s long overdue. As consumers we can’t avoid much of the packaging that comes home with our weekly shopping. It needs suppliers to take control.

Several restaurant chains have stopped using straws – McDonald’s, Pizza Express, and Wetherspoon’s among them. Anyone who has seen the viral video of a turtle having straw extracted from one of its nostrils will appreciate just how big a deal this is.

Sky is also leading by example. Single use plastic will be eliminated from our business and products by 2020. Most of the disposable plastic has already been removed from our catering facilities, with staff issued with reusable alternatives. So far we’ve used 750,000 fewer plastic bottles and 7 million fewer coffee cups. It’s a clear message to all companies: it can be done.

Sport and the media

Sky is also using its influence in the world of sport, to push the #PassOnPlastic message to a new audience. You may have seen the Sky Ocean Rescue logo on the shirts of Team Sky in the Tour de France. Our cricket commentators and pundits have handed out refillable water bottles at England test matches. And most recently Sky and the Premier League teamed up to encourage football clubs and fans to take action and eliminate single-use plastic.

The rest of the media have also taken heed of the overwhelming support for action on plastic, and upped their coverage of the issue. The BBC’s Blue Planet 2, with its stunning images, showed us what is at stake.

The more coverage the better. There is urgency to the plastic crisis. The latest estimate is that 13 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year. Much of it comes from the developing world. But that doesn’t let us off the hook in the west. As Dirty Business showed, our recycling can end up in countries with weaker environmental controls. And packaging from western companies litters the beaches of Mumbai and elsewhere.

A glimmer of hope, but much more to do

Producers need to take more responsibility for their wrappers and sachets. Fortunately some innovative companies are experimenting with packaging made from seaweed, algae or even shrimp shells rather than plastic. Hopefully that soon becomes the norm.

It was a huge honour to receive the award for Maritime Awareness last year. Sky Ocean Rescue continues, committed as ever. But despite the success so far, there is still so much more to do.

At last year’s Maritime Media Awards, the Sky News science team won the judges’ special award for maritime awareness for their Sky Ocean Rescue campaign. For further details of the campaign, see https://skyoceanrescue.com.