The BBC’s Blue Planet 2 was one of the most viewed programmes in recent years, delighting millions each week with close-up footage of the incredible variety of plants and animals that live in our oceans.
But it was also a huge wake-up call about the damage we’re doing to the oceans through our excessive use of plastic. In one episode, we watched as a hawksbill turtle was rescued from a plastic sack and in another moving scene, we saw a dead albatross chick, killed in the nest by a plastic toothpick that had entered the food chain and pierced its stomach.
These are far from isolated cases. Nature is paying the price for our wasteful, convenience-obsessed, single-use society, with eight million tonnes of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every year . It has even been estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the seas .
In the UK alone, the Marine Conservation Society’s recent Great British Beach Clean found 718 pieces of litter for every 100-metre stretch of beach surveyed – an increase of 10% on the previous year. Packaging from food and drink consumed on the go made up at least one fifth of this .
This kind of single-use plastic is generally only used for short periods – sometimes as little as 11 minutes  – before being discarded. To make matters worse, not all plastics can be recycled and most are not biodegradable, so once they enter the oceans they can remain there for thousands of years.
The risk to sea life
For birds and larger marine creatures, there is a risk of becoming entangled in plastic bags and other debris, or mistaking brightly coloured plastic for food. Larger pieces can damage the digestive systems of animals and can, as in the case of the albatross chick, prove fatal.
The threat from plastic waste is not limited to visible pieces, however: bottles, bags and other items break down into minute fragments or ‘micro-plastics’, which enter every link of the food chain. Toxic pollutants can cling to these fragments and become ingested as well.
As yet, scientists don’t know exactly what the long-term biological consequences are for marine life – and for us. Dr Michael Sweet, Associate Professor in Aquatic Biology at the University of Derby, is researching the impact of plastic on coral reefs. He said: “A recent article in Science  highlighted the impact plastic has with regard to coral diseases, and surprise, surprise, it doesn’t look good.
“An increased number of diseases were seen where greater amounts of plastic were found. Anything which covers or causes abrasions on the coral surface will undoubtedly result in tissue die-off, which can then result in a disease spreading across the rest of the coral. On a smaller scale, corals have also been shown to ingest micro-plastics.
“Coral reefs are hugely important, not only on a biodiversity level but economically too. Globally, reefs are thought to be worth US$29.8-375 billion annually, taking into account tourism, fisheries and shoreline protection for example. Losing these reefs will result in unimaginable catastrophes, on a scale we have probably not seen – widespread hunger, large amounts of land erosion, economic instability in hundreds of countries which have reefs on their doorsteps, the list can go on and on.
“And if we can help them in any way, we are duty-bound to do so – so stop over-consuming and creating excessive waste. For example, I sit here with my re-usable coffee cup, made from bamboo. Go get one, reduce your takeaway cup usage and save a coral reef.”
It’s time to rethink our reliance on plastic
In January 2018 the government pledged to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042, extending the 5p carrier bag charge to all retailers in England. While critics feel this is too little, too late, the charge is already influencing consumer behaviours. The number of single-use bags used decreased by over 80% after its introduction , and the Great British Beach Clean found 40% fewer bags on beaches .
How we can make a difference
While tacking eight million tonnes of plastic a year can seem overwhelming, we can all play our part. Already, many companies are taking steps to reduce the amount of plastic packaging they use, and as consumers we can make informed choices:
- Avoid plastic straws – among the top 10 items found in UK beach clean-ups 
- Carry a reusable bag on shopping trips
- Buy loose fruit and vegetables rather than pre-packaged items
- Carry a reusable water bottle and refill it
What the University is doing
Helen Rutherford, Quality and Compliance Manager in the University’s Estate Management team, said: “Waste disposal is no longer a choice between recycling or landfill; in fact, it’s no longer a matter of choice: students, staff and visitors must comply with our policies and procedures for the disposal of waste.
“These are driven by legislation, particularly our legal responsibility to apply the waste hierarchy – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Other Recover and, finally, Disposal. We work closely with Ward Recycling to reduce the amount of waste removed from our sites through a dual waste stream system of mixed recycling and general waste. Currently we recycle just under 50% of our onsite waste, giving us a great opportunity to increase the amount which is segregated correctly and recycled.
“By providing mains-fed water coolers, for example, we can minimise the reliance on single-use drink bottles. We would encourage students and staff to use plates and cutlery when buying meals onsite and reduce their use of disposable food trays and plastic cutlery.”
The Union of Students has also implemented initiatives to reduce the amount of plastic used, including:
- Installing recycling bins across the University
- Sending the 16,000 plastic cups and 12,000 milk bottles used in our bar each year for recycling, along with any broken glass. The 100,000 coffee cups used every year are biodegradable
- Not offering plastic bags in our shops
Union President Grace Suszek said: “I am delighted to see that the University is taking action to reduce the amount of plastic we use on campus. It is essential that we take responsibility for our waste products, particularly those as harmful as plastic.”
 Joleah B Lamb et al. ‘Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs’, January 2018