How the 5p carrier bag charge has helped to tackle plastic pollution

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How the 5p carrier bag charge has helped to tackle plastic pollution

By Saskia Restorick 12th April, 2021

In 2019, Waitrose launched Plan Plastic – The Million Pound Challenge – calling for innovative ideas that would have a long-lasting impact in tackling plastic pollution. The £1 million fund was raised from the sale of 5p carrier bags and grants ranged from £150,000 to £300,000.

Waitrose partnered with Hubbub who managed the fund and measured impact. The fund attracted 150 applicants from a diverse range of organisations presenting a hugely varied set of ideas. An expert panel, brought together by Hubbub, assessed the applications and selected five winners.

Today, Waitrose and Hubbub are delighted to share what has been achieved by the Fund. Five key themes have emerged:

  1. Nature-based solutions
    There is growing interest in nature-based solutions for tackling pollution and two projects explored this route.

    There is growing scientific concern about the environmental and health impacts of microplastics which are being discovered in the remotest areas of the earth and in food chains. Plymouth Marine Laboratory used grant funding to assess the effectiveness of mussels’ filter-feeding power to stem the flow of microplastics from polluted estuaries and coastal water.

    The research used state-of-the-art laboratory technology to recreate real-life conditions assessing the ability of mussels to act as filters removing microplastics in an efficient, low-cost and environmentally friendly manner. The research studied the impact on the mussels and how the microplastics could be captured ensuring they didn’t get released into the marine environment.

    The results of the trial have demonstrated the mussels’ filtering potential, resulting in additional funding being secured to further test the concept, and expand to other nature-based solutions such as sea grasses and salt marshes.

    A different nature-based solution was tested by a partnership between the Onion Collective and Biohm. The collaboration sought to generate high quality green jobs in an old paper mill in the Somerset harbour town of Watchet by developing a nature-based process for recycling discarded plastic.

    A new bio-recycling facility has been created, employing two local people. Research has successfully demonstrated the fascinating ability of ‘mycelium’, the root structure of mushrooms, to digest plastic waste at an accelerated rate, and the facility is now up and running.
  2. The role of smart technology
    It is estimated that lost fishing gear makes up as much as 46% of marine plastic pollution. Over 700,000 tonnes enter the ocean each year killing marine life until it breaks down or is washed up. Lost gear is not only bad for the environment it has significant financial implications. One crab fisherman in Plymouth estimated that it is usual to lose £20,000 of equipment in towaways every year.

    Grant funding from Waitrose allowed Blue Marine Foundation to test the impact of inexpensive technology called SAFEGEAR which uses electronic beacons to make fishing gear visible to all marine users, day and night, fair weather or foul. By giving fishing gear an electronic footprint, SAFEGEAR allows fishing vessels to inexpensively monitor their gear at sea, receive alerts if their gear starts to move and contact vessels in proximity. If gear is lost due to towing or in bad weather, the beacon allows the fishing vessel to track the gear and recover it. 

    With grant funding, Blue Marine Foundation has tested over 100 beacons at sea with fishermen from the UK’s third largest fleet in Plymouth. Results have been immensely encouraging, providing a bedrock of evidence that will be used to seek a national/international expansion.
  3. Tackling hidden plastics
    It surprises many people how plastic has become part of our everyday lives and that they might unknowingly be contributing to plastic pollution. One example of this is the plastic contained in menstrual products.

    To raise awareness of this hidden plastic, a partnership of Women’s Environmental Network and City to Sea was awarded grant funding to deliver taboo-busting education to thousands of students. This included training 724 teachers and nurses to deliver workshops exploring the social and environmental issues surrounding menstruation, whilst raising awareness about sustainable period products.
  4. Making change easy
    Creating change at scale often requires infrastructure to be put in place that makes the change easier. A grant to the Youth Hostels Association enabled them to eliminate the need for half a million single-use plastic bottles per year, by providing publicly accessible water fountains for everyone to be able to use whilst enjoying the outdoors. This simple change is expected to make a real difference when Covid restrictions can be relaxed. 
  5. Collaboration
    The impact of Covid hit the delivery of all projects, requiring timeframes to be extended and plans to be altered. The collaborative nature of the grant fund made it easier for the groups to navigate these changes as they were able to share experiences, learn from each other and could rely on continual support and guidance from Waitrose and Hubbub.

It has been a privilege to watch the projects develop with each having a long-term legacy beyond the grant fund. You can find the full impact report on the grant fund below.

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