The screening of Blue Planet II at the end of 2017 catalysed a year of unprecedented momentum around tackling plastic pollution and the dust hasn’t settled. The energy, challenges and opportunities that 2018 presented continue full force into 2019. The marine plastics team at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is looking back at key moments from 2018 and how to continue harnessing this momentum throughout 2019 and beyond.

1. Hard-won ban

We started off 2018 with the UK microbeads ban coming into force in January. After almost a decade of working on microbeads as our flagship project, this ban marked a huge success for us and everyone else that devoted years to providing evidence of microplastics’ harmful effects on our natural world. It was also a momentous step forward for the UK Government, taken before the full force of the Blue Planet effect took hold.

The experience we gained was invaluable and has allowed us to inform new, further-reaching opportunities – and our work remains far from done. Despite the world-leading definition of microbeads in the UK ban, there are still plenty of legal products lurking in our cupboards containing microbeads that we unwittingly flush down the drain or wash down the sink every day (eyeshadow, household cleaning products, body lotion to name a few).

As such, we look forward to the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee publishing their report early this year on the need to extend the scope of the UK Microbeads Ban, for which we were invited to share our evidence and technical expertise. Beyond the UK, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) also invited FFI to share our knowledge in 2018 and going forward in order to inform a European Union-wide microbeads restriction. We hope to see proposed restrictions in 2019 raise the bar even further beyond the UK’s pioneering ban.

2. Sharing expertise

In acknowledgement of our contribution to the UK microbeads ban, the technical expertise that we harbour on plastics and our international work, we were invited to join the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (CCOA, an agreement between Commonwealth member states to tackle plastic pollution) as technical advisors. This has allowed us to share our microbeads ban guidance on a world platform to be used by CCOA member governments. We look forward to CCOA launching into their practical action to tackle plastic pollution and our being able to play a more active role as technical advisors in 2019.

3. Going global

In parallel with this advisory role on a more international landscape, our marine plastics work has grown into a vibrant programme with the development of international projects with our regional teams. FFI has marine projects in 17 countries globally, from Indonesia to Tanzania and Cape Verde to Turkey. Across these countries we have longstanding partnerships and focus on building in-country capacity to lead and sustain marine biodiversity conservation efforts. As a recognition of how plastic can undermine our site-based marine conservation and in response to growing concern from regional teams as to the biodiversity risk posed by plastic pollution, in 2018 scoping the sources of plastic pollution threats in the field became a priority. In 2019 our teams will begin developing and implementing bespoke solutions to these pollution sources.

4. Keeping a spotlight on the lesser-known polluters

On the micro side, we relentlessly championed work to tackle plastic pellet pollution (or so-called ‘nurdles’, the building blocks of all plastic products), an overlooked source that contributes an estimated 230,000 tonnes of microplastic pollution to the ocean every single year. This year we hope to see the UK government deliver on 2017’s Our Ocean commitment to tackle this major source of plastic pollution.

In 2018 we also decided to search for practical and scalable solutions to the perplexing problem of plastic microfibre pollution from the clothes we wear, the furniture we use and the fishing nets cast to catch our seafood. Microfibre pollution is considered the third largest source of microplastic pollution to the ocean and the experience developed through our microbeads and pellets projects put us in great stead to work on this pollution source.

The widespread recognition of our reliable expertise on microplastics across corporates, policymakers and NGOs led to invitations to present at and attend events like PolyTalk, intergovernmental policy body (OSPAR) meetings and EU Commission meetings for pellets and a parliamentary roundtable, conferences and various business workshops for plastic microfibres in 2018. We start this year by chairing a microplastics session at Scotland’s International Marine Conference.

This year will also mark the establishment of national and international working groups to trial the solution to plastic pellet pollution that we co-developed with our partners Fidra and the Environmental Investigation Agency. Maybe this year ‘pellets’ can become as much a household word as the products that they are used to make, like plastic bags, straws and single-use coffee cups. Events like the first global Great Nurdle Hunt certainly make us hope so. We look forward to taking part and encourage you to take to the beach in search of pellets as well!

5. Informing next steps

As an acknowledged expert in the marine plastics field, in 2018 we were delighted to be invited to share our knowledge with a growing group of policymakers, including the Treasury’s consultation on single use plastic and Defra’s consultations on Deposit Return Schemes and plastic straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic drink stirrers. These consultation responses were well-received and led to productive discussions. We look forward to responding to the newly launched Resources and Waste Strategy early in 2019 and to seeing these consultations bear fruit, particularly the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme and a tax on virgin plastic. We’ll be putting this broadened expertise to excellent use in 2019 through our three new regional projects, starting with our Cambodia team attending EuroCham to engage with businesses on tackling plastic pollution and deliver a talk on our very first regional plastics scoping project.

It’s been phenomenal to see the passion around tackling plastic pollution. But a word of warning: it’s all too easy to jump on false solutions to our ocean’s problems (‘biodegradable’ plastics, mutant enzymes and plastic-free frenzies, we’re looking at you) that don’t address the causes of our pollution disaster. So following on from the 2018 Word of the Year ‘single use’, let’s make ‘sensible plastic’ the unexpected winning word of 2019.

Stay up to date with our work tackling marine plastic pollution by following FFI’s marine plastics team (@marine_plastics) on Twitter.