|Andrew R.T. Davies AC|
|Dai Lloyd AC|
|Gareth Bennett AC|
|John Griffiths AC|
|Joyce Watson AC|
|Mike Hedges AC||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Fredric Windsor||Myfyriwr PhD, Is-adran Ymchwil Organeddau a'r Amgylchedd, Ysgol y Biowyddorau--Prifysgol Caerdydd|
|PhD Student, Organisms and Environment Research Division, School of Biosciences--Cardiff University|
|Gill Bell||Pennaeth Cadwraeth Cymru--Cymdeithas Cadwraeth Forol|
|Head of Conservation Wales--Marine Conservation Society|
|Julian Kirby||Prif Ymgyrchydd yn erbyn Plastigau--Cyfeillion y Ddaear|
|Lead Plastics-Free Campaigner--Friends of the Earth|
|Yr Athro Steve Ormerod||Athro Ecoleg/Cyd-gyfarwyddwr y Sefydliad Ymchwil Dŵr, Ysgol y Biowyddorau--Prifysgol Caerdydd|
|Professor of Ecology/Co-Director Water Research Institute, School of Biosciences--Cardiff University|
|Elizabeth Wilkinson||Ail Glerc|
|Marc Wyn Jones||Clerc|
|1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau||1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest|
|2. Ymchwiliad i effaith llygredd microblastigau yn nyfrffyrdd Cymru: sesiwn dystiolaeth un||2. Inquiry into the impact of microplastic pollution in Welsh waterways: evidence session one|
|3. Ymchwiliad i effaith llygredd microblastigau yn nyfrffyrdd Cymru: sesiwn dystiolaeth dau||3. Inquiry into the impact of microplastic pollution in Welsh waterways: evidence session two|
|4. Papurau i’w nodi||4. Paper(s) to note|
|5. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitem 6||5. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting for item 6|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:31.
The meeting began at 09:31.
Bore da, a chroeso cynnes iawn.
Good morning, and a very warm welcome.
Can I welcome you this morning to this evidence session? Can you, for the record, introduce yourselves and give your names? And then, are you prepared to accept questions from Members? Or do you want to make some short introductory remarks?
We will give a short introduction, if we may. I'm Steve Ormerod, I'm professor of ecology in the School of Bioscience in Cardiff University.
I'm Fred Windsor. I'm a PhD student at the School of Biosciences in Cardiff University.
If I could just say a few words about how our research came about, what the background has been and some of the initial conclusions we've come to, and then Fred, as the PhD student involved with the detail of the work, can pick up any of the detailed elements of what we may wish to tell you about.
So, essentially my research group, my own work for 38 years in Wales, has been about looking about global change effects on rivers of various types, and one of the things that we've been looking at over the years is how urban river systems in particular have been recovering from some of the gross sanitary problems of pollution—things like sewage treatment works. What that has led to has been a range of clean-water animals essentially recolonising recovering rivers, so things like Atlantic salmon we now know are in the Taff, a range of invertebrates, river birds like the dipper that typically like clean waters, but at the same time we know that those clean-water animals are now exposed to new kinds of problems and new kinds of pollutants. So, flame retardant chemicals are an example. So, there is a question about how those chemicals are being transported through river systems and into the animals.
One of those new areas of interest, of course, has been plastics, and we were aware by 2016 that plastics were becoming a really substantial problem in the marine environment. So, we were seeing examples of entanglement, marine organisms swallowing plastics, and we also knew that rivers were a major route globally for some of the plastic material reaching the ocean. So, something like 8 to 12 million tonnes of plastic reaches the world's oceans every year and about 4 million tonnes of that is coming through the river environment. Rivers are close to the sources of plastics. The densities of plastic particles on the river bed sometimes can be as much as 0.5 million particles per sq m. That's much, much more plastic than, in fact, the living organisms present on the bed of the river.
We also, interestingly enough, knew that the Taff, and south Wales rivers in general, had a problem. So, if you look back into the 1990s, there is already evidence available showing the distribution of plastics in the Taff. Forty-five per cent of the litter present was plastic material, so in fact we have had some time, I think, to have acted on this problem had we started to take this issue seriously earlier down the line.
In 2016 we decided we would deploy Fred as a PhD student, and other students, to look at this problem, and we started to look at the extent to which insects in the river were contaminated by plastic, and found that one in every two insects in the Taff river system already contained plastics. We also looked at the transfer of that material into organisms like river birds, and we found that at two thirds of the sites we looked, we already find evidence that river birds are ingesting, particularly, microplastic particles. That tends to be a bigger issue where there is more urban land, but microplastics appear to be everywhere through the Taff catchment, which of course raises a question. So, we've come to the conclusion that we need to know far more about this issue in general. There are some very major gaps in our understanding of the sources of this material, what the movement through river systems is, where it ends up, how much goes into the sea and what damage it does along the route. So, that's my opening statement.
Thank you. I was so excited to get you speaking that I forgot to do two items I'm supposed to do. Can I give the apologies of Jayne Bryant to the meeting and can I ask Members if they've got any interests to declare? No. Okay. Sorry about that.
My question is: do you know what the source of these microplastics is and where they're entering the river system? You've talked extensively about the Taff. Is that likely to be replicated in other rivers around Wales and the Tawe in Swansea, which I know much better than any of the others, for example?
Okay. So, I can give some generic information and Fred will pick up on the detail. So, microplastics in particular can arise from the breakdown of larger plastic material of which we know there is quite a substantial amount coming, for example, through combined sewer overflows that bypass sewage treatment works. But, things like clothing fibres could be coming through sewage treatment works. Tyre dust is another potentially major source and things like road paint consist of plastic material. Microbeads, we seem to be getting on top of, but those are just some of the possible sources that we need to quantify better and understand better. Fred might have some more information.
Yes, I think from what we've been doing, certainly, as soon as a piece of plastic enters the environment it becomes extremely difficult to detect where that piece of plastic has come from, especially when you think about the kinds of processes going on in rivers, mixing processes. So, trying to identify sources, especially in the work we've done, is quite difficult. What we show—the study was looking at ingestion of plastics by insects rather than just the distribution of plastics in the river system itself. As a result of that, sources were difficult to identify. It seemed to be that with an increasing relative proportion of effluent from sewage treatment works, there was a gradual increase or a mild increase in the levels of plastic we saw, but that's only, as Steve suggests, one source of plastic. The fact that we found plastic ingested in insects across all of the sites, irrespective of level of urbanisation or levels of agriculture, indicates that, actually, there are multiple sources from a range of different land uses—both point sources, so waste water treatment works, combined sewer overflows, but also a range of diffuse sources. Certainly, the work that's been done, as Steve suggested, in the 1990s identified that combined sewer overflows provided a significant amount of large plastic particles, but also that actually littering and fly-tipping—I mean, this was unidentified but diffuse littering actually also contributes a significant amount. But in terms of what we found from microplastics, it's difficult to identify sources. A lot of the particles were fibres, but as I say, trying to pin that down to a specific source is quite difficult.
But you can pin it down to the plastic, can you? You can tell me if it's polypropylene or polyethylene or any of the other polymers.
Yes—with the techniques you can employ to identify specific plastic polymers, yes.
So, you can reverse that back, can't you? Say you find it's polyethylene, then you know what uses high and low-density polyethylene, don't you?
Sure, yes. I mean, I suppose the difficulty is that plastics are so widely utilised across society that, yes, you can pin down specific polymers and that gives you a good idea of potential sources but it still doesn't specifically—there are multiple routes of entry, I suppose. You know, polypropylene, it could come from treated sewage effluent but it also could be coming from a CSO, which are both in close proximity to one another in a river system.
If I may, Chairman, I think one of the fundamental conclusions here is that we do need a better inventory of what the sources are. The places I think I would be looking would be sewage treatment works, combined sewer overflows where surface water is actually bypassing sewage treatment, and I would want to know about the implications of sewage sludge and its redistribution across land surfaces when used in agriculture, for example. But it's absolutely clear that we need better evidence, better quantification of sources and better quantification of movement.
I wonder, have you considered—I'm sure you have—the changing weather patterns and the very heavy downpours that we are experiencing more frequently than we ever did before, which then leads into the surface water run-off and a system that allows that run-off to go straight to the river, which is what you've just talked about—the bypass from sewage—simply because that's how the systems were built and, in many cases, that's how they remain? What impact does that particular source have on all the evidence that you're collecting?
So, to say, first of all, yes, you are correct that there is some evidence that intense events are increasing in frequency. I think you'd have to ask the water companies whether there is more of a tendency for that floodwater to bypass sewage treatment works more often. I think that's a very genuine question. We need to get a better handle on the extent to which combined sewer overflows do discharge more often, and we need to get a better handle on exactly where they are and what's coming through them. I guess the other key point is that there is clearly an interaction between any kind of stressor on the river environment and climate change impacts of the type that you're implying. But, I think, just again to point out that, whilst there is evidence from our work that plastics are in greater concentrations near to urban locations, there are still diffuse sources in the wider environment that must be upstream somewhere of those urban areas. But the interaction with climate, I think, would be a fundamental part of where I would wish to do further investigations about sources and movements.
If I could just take you back to the application of sewage sludge, which you talked about, and digestate as well, on to agricultural land. As I understand it, and I'm trying to draw on my farming experience here, this is a phenomenon that has grown recently, over the last couple of years. There are extensive testing applications put onto the fields that are obviously going to be in receipt of this sewage sludge, but I think you pointed out that there's still a considerable knowledge gap to understand exactly the interaction and maybe the run-off from that sewage sludge. Are you able to enlarge on that at all and maybe on what further safeguards should be put in place, because, as I said, in recent years, this has been quite a growing area of access to fertiliser, if you like, for farms?
So, again, Fred can pick up on the detail of how much plastic is removed by sewage treatment and how much remains in sludge. You are correct that sewage sludge is still a very major problem in water treatment in general. Absolutely laudably, we have ceased disposing of sewage sludge into the marine environment, which has put pressure on the locations where sludge can be disposed of or used, largely as a soil conditioner. I think that it is one of the areas that you should be asking the water companies about: so, how much plastic is in sewage sludge residue? How much does go on to land? And what is then it's tendency to re-suspend? But Fred will have some detail on what we know already.
Yes, so the studies that have been done on sewage sludge thus far have been modelling studies. So, they've looked at getting a mean value of plastic per unit of sewage sludge—so, per litre or per kilogram per unit mass—and they've multiplied that by the amount of sewage sludge produced and redistributed based on figures, and I can't quite remember where the figures they got were from. And then they work out a total burden across an area of the amount of plastic that potentially could be redistributed. But I think it categorically is a major gap in our knowledge. We know how much—. Sewage treatment works in general—it depends on the sewage works and it depends on the processes going on there, but in the literature, it ranges from about 85 per cent to nearly 100 per cent—98 per cent—of plastics that are removed inadvertently. So, the sewage works aren't targeting plastics as a pollutant they're removing, but they're inadvertently removing a good proportion—around 80 to 90 per cent of plastics—and the vast majority of those are stored in sludge and, obviously, the consequent redistribution of that. But I think it's the link between the concentrations of plastic we know are in the sewage sludge and where it's redistributed, in what quantities and, then, subsequently, what the levels of run-off are, and working out the link between the levels of plastic we have in sewage sludge and its entrance into the system is a massive gap in our knowledge. We know approximately the levels and we know approximately how much is redistributed across agricultural land, but we don't actually have direct links between those two processes, and also looking at the levels that then run off into river systems, or are redistributed across soil ecosystems because that's, obviously, another important gap in our knowledge. It's not just looking at how much is running off into river systems; it's potentially the effects of these plastics and contaminants alongside it on terrestrial ecosystems as well, and that's something we really have a very bad understanding of, or a very limited understanding of its interactions in soil ecosystems and terrestrial ecosystems.
If I may, Chairman, just to expand also on one point, I think you mentioned the word 'safeguards' and, clearly, ultimately we are looking for solutions to the plastic issue. We do need to get a far better handle on microplastic sources and movement, and the fate of materials from those different sources, before we know exactly where it is we should be most effectively placing our safeguards. So, I think the knowledge gap actually does expose a little bit of a blind spot in knowing exactly how we should be acting.
Diolch yn fawr, Gadeirydd, a diolch yn fawr, gyda llaw, yn y lle cyntaf am y dystiolaeth ysgrifenedig fendigedig rydych chi wedi ei chyflwyno ymlaen llaw. Mae'r papur, yn enwedig papur Fredric, yn fendigedig. Felly, diolch yn fawr iawn am hynny.
Yn adeiladu ar hynny, yn amlwg rydych chi newydd gydnabod, ac rwy'n credu y buasem ni i gyd yn cydnabod bod yna fylchau mewn gwybodaeth ynglŷn â meicroblastigau. Ac, wrth gwrs, mae yna groestoriad, rywfodd, gan ddefnyddio fy het i rŵan—fel mae Andrew yn ffarmwr, rwy'n feddyg—ac wedyn mae yna wybodaeth yn fanna ynglŷn â sut rydym ni wedi bod yn llosgi carbon a'r holl agenda llygredd awyr, a'r gronynnau PM10 a PM2.5, ac ati. Wrth gwrs, pan roeddech chi'n sôn am meicroblastigau a'r llwch oddi wrth deiars, ac ati, hynny yw, mae'r llwch a'r plastigau bach, mae'n debyg, efo'i gilydd yn fanna ac mae yna ddigon o dystiolaeth feddygol rŵan sydd yn dweud ein bod ni'n cymryd y gronynnau bach yma i mewn i'n system, i mewn i'n gwaed, hyd yn oed, ac maen nhw'n landio fyny yn ein calonnau ni ac yn rhoi clefyd y galon i ni—y gronynnau bach, bach yna sy'n deillio o losgi carbon.
Nawr, gan fod y meicroblastigau bach yma hefyd yn byw yn yr un un lle, yn enwedig pan rŷm ni'n sôn am lwch oddi ar deiars, a ydych chi'n credu y buasai o gymorth i gamu mewn, efallai, i'r ochr iechyd y cyhoedd o hyn i gyd, a gweld faint o'r meicroblastigau yma sydd yn gorffen lan yn ein gwaed ni, achos dyna beth rydym ni'n sôn amdano o ran llwch a llygredd awyr, ac rwy'n cymryd bod yr un un math o beth yn digwydd efo meicroblastigau? Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you very much, Chair. Thank you very much, in the first instance, for the wonderful written evidence that you've already submitted; Fredric's paper is wonderful, so thank you very much for that.
Building on that, obviously, you've just acknowledged, and I think we would all acknowledge, that there are gaps in our knowledge of microplastics. And, of course, there's a cross-section, somehow, and using my hat—Andrew is a farmer, and I'm a GP—so there's knowledge there about how we've been burning carbon and all the air pollution agenda, and PM10 and PM2.5 particles, and stuff like that. Of course, when you were talking about microplastics and tyre dust, and so on, that dust and those small plastics are together there and there's plenty of medical evidence now to suggest that we ingest these particles into our system, into our blood, and they end up in our hearts—these very small particles that stem from burning carbon.
Since these microplastics also live in the same place, especially when we're talking about tyre dust, do you think it would be of help to step into the public health side of this, and see how much of these microplastics end up in our blood, because that's what we're talking about when we're talking about air pollution and dust, and I take it the same is true with microplastics? Thank you.
So, I think the first thing to say is that we're not health professionals, and although there is a potential risk through plastics in the mammalian system, we're not the right people to ask about those questions. And I think there are differences also in the interaction between burnt carbon particles and the human lung system, which, of course, we know a very great deal about over a long time period, and the potential routes through which plastics could be ingested. Again, I would suggest that there is a need to know more about what the exposure routes are for the human animal—potentially, drinking water we suspect already is contaminated by plastic. I think we need to know more about the density of plastic particles in foodstuffs, particularly if agriculture through sewage sludge is a potential route.
And then, there are three potential things that could happen. One is that there could be some kind of physical effect analogous to the lung system. Another is that the plastic particles might be toxic in their own right, but another really key area is in the co-contaminants that are potentially being transported alongside plastics. And those three issues, potentially, of risk and damage, affect all of the organisms that are exposed and not just the human animal. Natural ecosystems and food web transfers do give us a bit of a warning about how people could be in some way exposed and affected, but, again, I think it's another area that perhaps the committee could explore with other people who may follow. Fred, I don't know if you have any detail.
Yes, just to reiterate, obviously, yes, we're not health professionals, but, from what we see in the literature looking at the effects of plastic on human health, at the moment there are, as Steve suggests, multiple pathways through which we perceive there to be a potential risk of transfer of plastics from the environment into humans. But, as to specific risks or effects to humans, there is very limited information. So, Steve said about co-transfer: things like phthalates and alkylphenols that are additives in plastic have the potential to leach out, but, there again, the extent to which they do leach is currently under debate. And some studies have started to look at the concentrations of things like phthalates and bisphenol A and other contaminants in human populations. But, as of yet, there are no direct links to ingestion or inhalation of specific particles. But there are—as Steve suggested, there are certainly multiple pathways through which there is potential for the transfer of plastics to humans in the environment.
Just one other piece of evidence, actually, we can add—so, in some of the work we've done with river birds, and this is an ornithological system, some years ago, we showed that there are various legacy and new pollutants that are accumulating in birds themselves and in their eggs in the south Wales Valleys to concentrations that are at least as high, if not higher, than in the same kinds of perching and song birds anywhere else in the world. Now, we did also make measurements of things like thyroid function and growth in those birds that had elevated concentrations of pollutants, and we know that there are effects—so, potentially skewed sex ratios, developmental retardation and altered thyroid function. So, there are the hints that some things could be happening if those materials—those legacy pollutants—were being transferred alongside plastics. But I think we need to know far more, in fact, about those transfer processes.
I was going to take the human health argument a little further, but I hear what you say about not being experts in that field, and I think it would be unfair to put that line of questioning to you. But, on environmental health, and, indeed, the effect of microplastics on the natural environment, can you give us maybe a taste of your experience of what those effects are, especially on the natural environment, and maybe whatever impact the research to date is having, informing Government policy in this area?
So, again, Fred will have the detail as the person at the sharp end of the work, but the mechanisms actually so far that we know about are absolutely overwhelmingly from the marine environment, which is where most work has been done. I think there is a blind spot in the terrestrial and the freshwater environment, even though the densities of plastics there are actually greater. The kinds of effects that are arising are, particularly in smaller organisms, things like gut blockages. In larger organisms, of course, there is a risk of entanglement, some kind of physical impact—eventually leading, in some cases, to mortality. So, marine birds like fulmars, for example—a very large percentage around the British coastline actually now contain plastics, and there are some far more extreme examples in the more distant marine environment.
I think investigation of plastic toxicity and co-transport of pollutants that might sometimes be associated with plastics is a risk area, but we need to know more about it. But, Fred, you might have more detail.
Yes. So, it's a bit of a complicated matter. So, obviously, when we talk about other pollutants—things like DDT, DDE, your classic pollutants that we know to have quite toxic effects—we're talking about individual compounds of a known structure, and, when you get them in a known concentration, you've got an effect. So, using a standardised toxicological test, you can work out an effect. For plastics—obviously, when we're talking about plastics, we're talking about lots of different polymers. There are hundreds of thousands of different types of plastic; we are developing new types of plastic, new co-polymers. So, when you start to try and look at ecological risk it becomes very difficult because you need to understand the toxicity of the individual polymers rather than the toxicity of plastic as we see it in the environment. So, it's currently trying to be addressed, working out the sort of net toxicity of plastic, but actually it's quite complicated in the sense that plastic is a mixture of a whole range of different compounds and a whole range of different co-contaminants.
But, just to expand on what Steve is saying about the kind of mechanisms for toxicity, we know that, say, ingestion and gut blockages, leaching of additives, as I suggested to do with human health—phthalates and phenols—and the co-transfer of other persistent pollutants that bind onto plastics once they enter the environment, they're just a few of the different mechanisms that we perceive to be a route of risk to organisms. At the moment, the development of these toxicological tests is occurring, and we're starting to get a better understanding of the relative risks, but actually then translating that into the exposures we see in natural systems—we're still a way off actually determining the actual toxicity of the mixture of plastics we see in the environment. So, we're starting to understand the potential mechanisms through which they can have effects, but we're still quite a way off actually determining the negative effects of plastic in a system. Obviously, microplastics we're talking about here; the negative effects of large bits of plastic—you're talking about entanglement and subsequent mortality—they're obviously very obvious, but, when we're looking at microplastics, we still have a great gap in our knowledge as to the effects and also the effects of the mixtures of plastic we see in the environment.
Can I just come back on that? Talking about knowledge, if you talk to the average person in the street, plastic is plastic, isn't it, as such. I think you highlighted the fact that here we're talking about microplastics. But is there good and bad plastic? Because you talked about obviously developing different components and obviously the knowledge gap in certain areas is far greater than in other areas. So, for the average punter in the street who maybe does want to reduce their plastic consumption in their everyday life, are there good and bad microplastics or plastics in general that they should be looking out for? I mean, you only need to walk out here and look in Cardiff Bay, and there is plastic all around the edge of that, whether it be large or small bits of plastic.
Yes. So, certainly some polymers are more toxic than others, and it's—. I'm trying to think of an example. So, PVC often has quite a lot of additives in it, and the potential for them to leach out is therefore enhanced, compared to something like polystyrene or—. So, there is a whole range of different risks associated with different types of plastic because of the difference in their chemical structure. But, in terms of pinpointing specific risks of different plastics, it's again compounded by the fact that, as I say, not only do we have all these polymers but they're all of different physical sizes in the environment. It would be difficult to pinpoint a specific plastic that is potentially of more risk or less risk without introducing a whole lot of caveats surrounding the size and the relative structure in the environment.
So, it's not as simple as we've seen in other walks of life, with insulation products and things like that, where you get a warning or you get told that this is a better insulation product for the environment than the one that maybe historically we've used. Because, for me, if you look at the awareness that came around Blue Planet, you look at Sky News, on the bottom, on the ticker tape along the bottom, their plastics campaign in the oceans—this has come on the agenda recently, and for a lot of people they do genuinely want to make that effort and that leap in their everyday lives, but it's about informing people in a way that they can take positive action and it doesn't seem insurmountable. From your point of view, you've been at it for many years in the research field.
Yes, and if I can offer some things here—. So, you're absolutely right that there is a dreadful set of circumstances, which are viscerally moving—. Some of the scenes that we saw on Blue Planet, as an example, some of the instances where—I don't know if anyone has seen the film ALBATROSS, which is around the gyre of plastics that circulates around Midway Island, and there is a very large mortality of albatross chicks and sometimes adults and it's horrendous. There are clearly some no-regrets issues, no-regrets routes, that we can take to very obviously reduce our plastic usage—single-use plastics being one example.
But I think that one of the things we've become aware of is that those are the very conspicuous, obvious impacts of large pieces of plastic and the damage they do. My concern isn't around those. As terrible as they are, those individual welfare instances could be hiding a much bigger issue associated with smaller amounts of plastic. There are much smaller-sized classes of plastic that are, potentially, in much larger volumes in ecosystems that could be doing other kinds of damage, accumulating, going beyond just effects on individual organisms to change species populations in communities and the kinds of functions that we depend on—fish production as an example. That's where, I think, we need to know more.
Just on that point, there's been a mystery surrounding the mortality of cockles around Burry Inlet. I think they've been examined for years for many possibilities in that mortality. Do you think it might be worthwhile and advantageous, if it hasn't happened already, that microplastic contamination is examined as a possibility, since they've spent 13 years not finding the answer to that? If I'm wrong, and they've been looking for it, you could tell us.
So, again, we're not marine biologists, and I think you do have, for example, Gill Bell from the Marine Conservation Society coming in behind us. I do know a little bit about the Burry Inlet cockle fishery, having lived in Llanelli for quite a few years, and, in fact, I've eaten some of those cockles at times. There have been long-standing concerns about things like metal pollution in the estuary; there are potential risks around disease. The really interesting element is the extent to which filter-feeding organisms like cockles could be quite important sentinel organisms that tell us just what the extent of accumulation in estuarine systems actually looks like. So, the use of blue mussels, Mytilus edulis, in north Wales, cockles in the Burry Inlet, even invasive zebra mussels in Cardiff Bay we've started to think about as a potential sentinel set of organisms to look just at how much microplastic is accumulating at the bottom end of rivers to try and tell us something about the sources and materials involved. So, I think it's certainly a line that's very much worth pursuing.
Have you collected, at any stage, samples and then looked at them by size, so that you could see the size distribution? I've read through your paper—I didn't see a graph of size distribution in there. I think that would put it into perspective for me—exactly how small some of these things are. We all see those big plastic bottles going down the river, be it the Usk, the Tawe or the Taff or the Tywi. So, we have no problem with seeing those, but the microplastics—we're not seeing that they're there. So, have you got any—? Is there any information—have you got a graph showing the distribution of different sizes?
Again, in the freshwater environment, which is where we work, we are, I think, at a very rudimentary stage of understanding the kinds of material, the size classes, the types of organisms and the co-contaminants that occur alongside it. I think all of the things you just outlined are the kind of things that we'd like to look at further.
Yes. I just wonder whether there's anything that could be said at this stage in terms of emerging lessons for what people eat and drink, in terms of microplastic contamination. Recently, there was publicity about drinking bottled water from plastic bottles, wasn't there, in terms of the plastic that people are consuming as a result. From what you say, there's also plastic in the water that we're drinking through our taps, but, presumably, not as much as you would get from drinking from plastic bottles. Are there emerging lessons that people ought to know about?
You are taking us outside our expertise, and I know that you do have water companies that are coming along as part of this inquiry. I chair the environmental advisory panel of Welsh Water. Welsh Water are very justifiably proud of the fantastic product that they produce, but I would be asking them, as experts, what the concentration of plastics is in the drinking water that they supply, relative to bottled water. I think it's a question for them.
But also, I suppose, when you're thinking about the supply of drinking water, there's a whole section of piping and distribution that the water companies are not comparable for in terms of when it enters the house. So, there's a whole range of different questions, but as Steve suggests, a representative from Welsh Water would be a start on this.
And more broadly on what we're eating and drinking—fish, vegetables; food, again—is there anything you could offer, or are those questions we'd best direct at others?
I think probably best directed at food standards and people who are interested in—marine fishers. We know a little bit about concentrations in shellfish. There is some evidence around how much plastic might be ingested through that route, but it's a question we don't necessarily have the equipment to answer.
I suppose the only thing I would say with regard to ingestion of plastics through food is in terms of what we see when fish ingest plastic, when you eat a fish, the gut contents—unless the particles move into other tissues—the likelihood of direct ingestion of a plastic particle from a fish is relatively reduced compared to something like a bivalve, a mussel, where you're eating the whole organism. Obviously, I know the guts are cleared and things like that, and it's not like you're eating the whole organism's gut contents in some cases, but, obviously, the way we think about it is you're eating the whole organism there, whereas with the fish you're skimming off a section that potentially might not be contaminated. As I say, it's unknown as to the amount of movement of plastic particles from gut contents into tissues in fish, it's relatively under-researched. But if you think about it like that in terms of seafood, obviously, you're ingesting the whole organism, whereas, with something like fish, you're only ingesting a single tissue.
Which is quite different from what happens in natural food webs, where, very often, whole organisms are ingested by predators. I think the food-web transfer there and potential eco-toxic effects that are passed through ecosystems are clearly an area of interest.
So, we know some of the issues. There are gaps in evidence. What we would like to know now is if there is anything that we can do, as politicians, that is, to move this agenda forward. You've mentioned gaps. Where would you feel the need to prioritise your research, going forward, so that, eventually, we could start to understand and then put in some policy solutions?
To declare an interest, we are both environmental scientists, but we are concerned about the consequences of a range of problems in ecosystems, just to caveat the answer I'm about to give you with that information. I think we do need to know far more in the round about the sources of different types of plastics in catchments and in the transitional water marine environment, particularly around Wales. There are other areas that are more advanced than we are. I don't think we've invested quite so much here in the United Kingdom, or specifically in Wales, into understanding the sources of plastic material in river catchments. We don't know enough about the movements through ecosystems of that material. We don't know enough about where that material ends up and what its fate is. We don't know what the effects are on species populations, on communities, on ecosystems and processes.
Ultimately, we do need to know far more about what this means for us, how much is coming through the food we eat, how much is coming through the water that we drink. It is a very substantial blind spot for what could be a very substantial area of risk. It's very interesting to me to be able to relate to you that our Natural Environment Research Council were recently offered the opportunity to invest in this area, quite substantially, but, instead, have chosen to fund a research project on cloud formation to a very a substantial degree, and it would seem to me that that decision leaves us in the science funding community with quite an ongoing knowledge gap that we in the science community would like to address and fill better. So, I think support from Welsh Government in pursuing that agenda would be extremely valuable.
As politicians, however, you can also encourage best practice in the use of plastic material, in the circular economy, in recycling, and in a whole range of no-regrets-type issues, where, even without detailed knowledge of microplastics, you could be instituting now. Things like the refill programme as one example, but I think you can broaden out beyond that one example.
In terms of international support and work, how joined up is that within your community? And, following on from that, assuming that you might be sharing some of the learning and your knowledge, is there a danger, as we're moving towards Brexit, of any negative impact on your research in that environment?
I don't know how much we should be declaring interests in interaction and collaboration with European Union partners. Certainly, I can tell you that I have been part of a very substantial €9 million collaborative programme looking at how the water framework directive either worked or could have been improved. And that, to me, was a fantastic opportunity to share expertise and experience.
There is, clearly, a risk, depending on the nature of the Brexit agreement that we reach, that we could lose the opportunity to interact with European colleagues, at least as part of EU-funded programmes. And, I guess, one of the concerns for us is how UK funding will replace the priorities or the extent to which funding will be available to science, but, as a collaborative scientist, being able to interact with partners in other locations is, clearly, a very major opportunity.
Just as an example, we've got colleagues over in Peru at the moment, who are working on a collaborative—it's a symposium or a conference—where they're working with researchers in Peru to disseminate some of the techniques and some of the experiences they've had, working with microplastics in the marine and fresh water environment. So, there are ongoing collaborations with a whole range of different countries, relating to the dissemination of good practice in terms of research. But, as Steve says, the conditions of those collaborations are, obviously, potentially, at risk, if not—. But there are a whole range of different collaborations and, obviously, it's unclear as to how they will move forward.
International learning and sharing is a key part of the way scientists and science operates. We have, nevertheless, specific circumstances with dominantly urban river catchments in Wales that are an extremely interesting case study, as well as being of clear intrinsic importance to the people of Wales. But international collaboration is key to us all.
Yes, in terms of the response, really. What is being done to stop microplastics getting into the environment, given it's been increasingly understood as a significant issue? Is much happening at the moment to deal with this problem?
I think the industry itself is still looking for appropriate answers as to how it should be acting, and if we go back, our points of departure were around just how diverse the sources of microplastics are. So, if you think of things like tyre dust, and the volumes of material that are distributed through tyre dust, that's a very substantial problem, but it's very difficult to tackle.
One of the issues we've started to talk about in the university a little bit is that not only is the Welsh environment one where we can investigate the problems, but Wales is small enough to make big change happen that we could investigate also within the Welsh environment. So, if we do start to take action, we do have a leadership opportunity to show just exactly what we can do where the problems are solved, and how far downstream those solutions are actually detectable through the river and into the marine environment.
Could you give us any examples of what the major responses might be in those terms within Wales to reduce the impact?
There's a whole range of potentially complicated things, but if, for example, the dominant microplastic sources are fibres, then clearly the way we think about clothing—. Moving away from synthetic clothing, of course, comes with its own issues around the alternatives, which are extremely demanding in terms of water for cotton production as an example. But, altering the way we use and wear clothing, looking for alternatives for plastic road paint, altering the way we do transportation—there are a range of very, very far-reaching issues. Communities, of course, can also be involved in the way that we engender change and alter activity.
Just in terms of Welsh Government's responsibilities and powers—and, obviously, Welsh Government has legislative tools it could use—is there anything that stands out for you in terms of what Welsh Government might do?
Both the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, around resilience and the biodiversity duty, and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 clearly should be looking at global responsibility and the resilience dimensions as being clear areas where, perhaps, you could have some interaction and purchase over the way things are done. But you're the people who have far more expertise about this than I do, so—.
But we don't have the power to ban microplastics in shampoo, for example. Can I just go back a stage? If we looked at having this—. If a group like us was having this conversation in 1968, not now, would we be talking about the same sources of microplastics, or are a lot of these things, such as plastic in paint as opposed to non-plastic paint, certainly plastic in shampoos—are they something that is a much more modern phenomenon? It gives certain advantages to the manufacture, and, possibly, certain advantages to the purchasers in terms of cost and in terms of quality, but really, could we do without them?
Some of the issues are around—. I mean, plastic is a fantastic material, and let's not forget how all its properties around strength and lightness and manufacturability—so substitutability is a really important dimension in all of this, and the clothing fibres versus cotton issue demonstrates that a little bit. Some things, we can act on easily, such as microbeads, which I think is what you're alluding to in shampoos, and there has been action in that area. Other issues we may have to tackle through practice and altered practice rather than altered use of materials: so, improved treatment, the way we use sewage sludge, as an example. Practice could potentially come before altered usage, but substitution—I think others who come behind us will have better ideas about the use of alternatives to plastic.
I wasn't thinking about alternatives; I was thinking: what did we do before? Plastics are sort of new. I would say the last 100 years, but it's slightly longer than that now. What did we do before? How did we have shampoo without microbeads, and when did they come in? Why can't we go back to that time? Was it that bad when we didn't have microbeads in our shampoo, for example?
I guess the challenges are—. You are absolutely right; there was a world before plastics, but it was a world with far fewer people, living to a far different degree of material affluence at far lower volumes of transport of material and use of products. So, it's a different world in which we live.
I belong to a group of people who are used to copper in the kitchen. Everything is now plastic, and I'm sure that's probably true of everybody else in here. That's a movement that's happened. It's one that's been driven by ease and cost, but not necessarily good. If it's doing damage to me and the environment, I might be prepared to pay that little bit extra not to do damage to me and the environment.
Can I just ask one question? You mentioned earlier the issue around combined sewer overflows, Presumably, then, it would be—. If Welsh Water was able to increase its capacity so that it could treat more water—notwithstanding the issues with sludge, it would be better if they had that additional capacity, and something like that would make a significant difference.
And that's a primary example where altered practice is available to us. So, the deployment of sustainable drainage systems—. So, the RainScape project in Llanelli or Greener Grangetown are absolutely prime examples, where absorbing floodwaters rather than allowing floodwaters to be released directly into the river environment is a prime example where altered practice is valuable. And the Llanelli RainScape project I've looked at, and it appears to be operating extremely well. So, rolling out sustainable drainage is, I think, another opportunity.
Just on this, this is something I've been banging on about for years, and I agree absolutely with everything you've said. So, then we come up against delivery—the housebuilders saying they can't make enough money, we're putting too much of a burden on them, and the pressure is felt by Government and the whole area gets reduced down. So, as politicians, and in terms of getting the message out there—it links to yours; the 'buyer pays', if you like. I suppose what we need as politicians is real good evidence that the policies we're making are not just simply about trying to stop water entering a watercourse, but the reasons that we're doing it and the impact that will have immediately back on the individual who might be objecting. So, I suppose the question here is, and it links quite nicely—that the research and the science will help us in that regard to see a much bigger picture, which is needed in terms of convincing everybody that this is necessarily in and of itself a good path to take.
If I may, there are two elements to that. One is that, very clearly, as scientists funded in the public sector, we are public servants and our efforts should be directed at finding solutions to the kinds of problems that we're discussing here, and understanding better everything that we've been talking about should be about informing solutions eventually. I think that's really important. I think there's another element, which is around the way we account for the environment and environmental damage more generally in the way that we carry out our economic business. So, in the end, we are all dependent on a healthy, functioning environment to keep us alive. If the practices that we're involved with are damaging that environment because we are not properly costing the damage and building that into accounting, I think there is something wrong with the way we're operating, and the well-being of future generations Act, of course, takes that absolutely to heart in this visionary legislation we now have in Wales to think about the environment that we bequeath to future generations in an appropriate state, and we have to take better care of what we have now.
Thanks, Chair. I don't know if there's anything that either of you can add to what you've said, because we've kind of skirted around what the solution should be, but, in terms of trying to get an overall reduction of plastic in the environment, what sort of things do you think we should be aiming for?
So, we can give you some broad classes of activity. So, clearly, the no-regrets issues around single-use plastic, recycling, a circular economy are things we could pretty much start to enact straight away. Some issues we have to change through altered practice. So, we've just alluded to sustainable drainage systems, for example, as a means of ensuring that less water bypasses sewage treatment works. I think we need to think very carefully about broader diffuse sources of plastic in the wider rural environment. Quite what we can do with sewage sludge I think you would have to ask others who come after us, because this is a really major problem. And then, I think, looking at the substitutability of products that are used as primary microplastics is another generic area of potential activity.
Yes, so I think Steve's right, there are some real—. What we've seen so far enacted in relation to the ban on the production of microbeads or limiting the use of microbeads—there are some real easy wins that, like Steve says, have absolutely no regrets. There are things that can be either no longer produced and just removed—as Mike alluded to, talking about the plastics in shampoos, 'What did we do before then?' So, there are some real easy steps we can take to reduce our plastic, but I suppose the most difficult ones are relating to the use of synthetic textiles, things that have become an integral part of society. When Mike was talking about, 'What did we do before?', you can't really very well disentangle the production of plastic from development over the past 10 years. If you look at developments of technology, they're all tied in to the use of plastics, so it's difficult for some things to remove plastic, whereas there are some very easy steps we can take and behavioural changes—how we deal with plastic waste, how we recycle it, what we do if we're not recycling it, where it moves and reducing spillage or leakage during those processes. There are some really straightforward steps that we can start implementing now without evidence in the environment. So, there are some steps we can take that would start to reduce our output of plastic into the environment.
We've heard a body of evidence this morning from your good selves, and I take it you're not human behaviour experts, I do take that, but actually the guy or girl who created the plastic bottle that held the water isn't the person at fault because it's floating in Cardiff Bay; the person who consumed it and lobbed it into the bay is at fault. Likewise the person who walks in and wants a straw and uses a plastic straw because that's what's available—. Human behaviour, obviously, is going to be the biggest changer of this, isn't it? And your evidence is going to play a big part in that in informing—you know, 'Actually this is what the consequences are and these are some of the baddies that are in this product.' But how do you link up the whole argument to get that seismic change? Because, if the consumer ultimately doesn't demand change, people will fill that need by providing the product, won't they? So, it's about providing that behavioural change, and responding to that behavioural change will be the biggest driver in improvement of our environment, will it not?
Two things, actually: it's interesting that the examples that you are citing are macroplastic examples—
But—. So, you're absolutely correct that there are some areas where individual human behaviour is a key part of this, but some of it also must be institutional behaviour, if you look at some of the sources of microplastics that we've been discussing. But this is an area where people, I believe, are now very ready to make change, simply because of what they're seeing on television programmes like Blue Planet and Drowning in Plastic, which we saw on the BBC just a few evenings ago. There really is a major groundswell, I believe, here of people wishing to do something to make a bigger difference to the environment.
And I would agree with you on that, but you have a window of opportunity to make that change, don't you, and then society as a whole tends to move on to another issue, however regrettable that might be. So, it's about linking up the excellent work you're doing on microplastics and the information you've given us with the behavioural change we want to see, with, obviously, the information that comes via our media sources so that we capture that opportunity we have now because, as I said, it was only back to Blue Planet, which was relatively recently, that the average punter in the street started talking about this.
So, dissemination, education, illustrating how big the problem is—and I think the fact that you as a committee have taken an interest in this issue is also clearly extremely important to moving the issue forward, certainly in Wales. So, I think those of us in the environmental field actually appreciate very substantially the interest that you've taken.
Can I ask a final question? This would not be unique if we actually took action against microplastics, for example. We've already taken action against lead pipes in houses, we've taken action everywhere against asbestos, because we know they do harm. We've also taken action against items that probably you've come across but most people on here won't, things like carbon tetrachloride and acetone, but the first two are things that used to be in common usage—I remember asbestos being described as a wonder material—but, because of the danger to human health, they have now stopped being used. Do you see a day when we do exactly the same with microplastics?
I don't, unfortunately, have a crystal ball, but I would very much wish that we were taking more substantial action. Every single one of those examples you just outlined to us is an instance where action was warranted, action was taken, and benefits were realised. It illustrates that, when we do see an issue that we can do something about and we do something about it, we can make a difference, and I think that's a really key point.
Can I thank you very much? You're the first people we've talked to in this investigation, so what you've done has been not only helpful to us this morning, but will help us with future questioning. So, thank you very much for coming in, and we're very grateful.
Okay, well thank you for listening to us also. Thank you very much.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:31 a 10:42.
The meeting adjourned between 10:31 and 10:42.
Bore da. Good morning. Croeso cynnes iawn. Can I very warmly welcome you to the committee this morning? If you could give your name and the organisation you're representing. Do you wish to make a short introductory statement, or are you ready to move straight to questions? Take your pick. Who's going to go first?
Do you want to go first?
I'll go first. Good morning. Gill Bell, from the Marine Conservation Society. Thank you very much for letting us come and speak to you today. I think I'll start off by telling you why I'm here, really. I started off life rescuing animals, and I got a bit fed up of rescuing the animals from being entangled and from eating plastics and getting entangled in marine pollutants, so I decided that the only way to tackle this was to actually start working in policy and to talk to people like you, to have the effect that we needed. Because it's all very well working on the end, but you need to tackle it at the source. So, that's why I'm here today. I've got a lot more that I was going to say, but I just thought that that demonstrates my passion, why I'm here, why I've been doing that for 30 years.
If, at the end, there's anything you want to say that hasn't come out in questions, please feel free to say it.
Hi, I'm Julian Kirby. I'm from Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I work out of the London office, but I'm our lead plastics pollution campaigner, and I'm here speaking for that campaign, but also for the Friends of the Earth Cymru office, headed up by Haf Elgar, who some of you may know, and the team there.
So, much of what we will talk about has been covered already by your previous witnesses, so it will be good to go over that but explore, maybe, some other areas. I had a bit of a delay at the Oxford Street tube this morning with an incident there, so I've missed some of what happened earlier—so forgive me if I repeat a little bit of what you've already heard.
As well as needing to get to grips with, really, the breadth of microplastics pollution—of course, much of which comes from macroplastics—headline pointers from us would be: let's also consider nanoplastics, the even smaller particles of plastic, which may be even more insidious in their harm on wildlife, because the smaller particles absorb and transport toxins, be they chemicals or pathogens, and perhaps even more effectively. And let's be mindful that not only is there an enormous breadth of sources of plastic pollution, but, as I know you were hearing earlier, some of them are easier to address than others, and others are going to require many years, maybe even decades, of concerted effort to deal with. So, things like vehicle tyre dust and microfibres from synthetic clothes et cetera.
So, what we at Friends of the Earth are advocating overall is that we need to take a framework approach in which we would like to see legislation that commits Governments across the UK and beyond—so, absolutely including here in Wales—to set an end goal to reduce plastic pollution to as near zero as can be achieved, to have near-term objectives of getting rid of those pointless, those needless, those easy to replace single-use plastics especially, but also really setting to work in committing to work, over the course of Governments to come, addressing those difficult areas, and perhaps with an expert committee set up, or leaning on an expert pool of university advisers who can be really driving the development of policy around those areas, and the ambitions related to them.
As anybody living in Wales will tell you, a 5p charge for plastic bags has made a huge effect on the number of plastic bags floating around. I remember you couldn't cross a piece of grass without having plastic bags floating round there. The fact that they're now charged for has had a huge effect. It is a minimal charge, but it has a huge effect on behaviour.
You mentioned nanoplastics, which I think is very interesting. Do you know what the major source of nanoplastics is?
Not enough is known about nanoplastics, and this is why I think we need to really look at them and establish them as an area, as a portion of microplastics that requires a lot of research. I can take an educated guess, which is that they will be forming from the same sources that microplastics do, because microplastics form from the breakdown of macroplastics, but also from the release from car tyres and synthetic clothes and paints, as you've heard earlier on, as well as nurdles, the pre-production plastic pellets, and so on. So, if microparticles are formed from the breakdown of those, then it would make sense, of course, that the nanoplastic particles are formed from the further breakdown of those.
Having said that, additional sources might include plastics that are added as ingredients. Now, the definition of microbeads in cosmetics—well, I think that the use of them has tended to be to ensure that the minimum size is larger than what the European Union would classify as a nanoparticle, because if it gets down to a nano size then a whole load of other restrictions come into place. Having said that, plastics are used as ingredients in forms that aren't necessarily in bead form, in a solid form; they're used as waxes, as gels, and that kind of thing. They perform all sorts of functions in those products, and when those products change their environment—their physical or their biological environment, for example—then they can change their physical nature. So, something that is in a gel or a wax-like form in a product getting into the sea may take on different attributes, and become a physical, bead-like solid form.
So, those might be sources too, and, actually, the debate about microbeads has been a very good one, and there's been good effort and progress made on it, but it's also been selective. So, we're restricted to rinse-off products, and many others, including sun creams, for example, don't cover them. But it also has—because I think the debate was framed around microbeads, the idea of this solid particle—omitted those other uses of plastic as ingredients.
Only just to—. Steve indicated earlier that we don't know the full effects of them. We do know that there's a lot of—right the way from the food chain, right the way down the food chain, these animals and environments are being impacted by this. The nanoplastics that ultimately assume most of the microplastics will become, because they will get smaller and smaller—we know that they're potentially crossing. Because they are nanoplastics, they're potentially crossing the barrier in the gut, and that means that it could all be in our bloodstream, it could be in animals' bloodstream, and along with that comes the potential of all the pollutants that can adhere to those plastics, and then you get bioaccumulation, and you may have this in particularly things like filter feeders and things like that. That's what they rely on—they're filtering the food out of the water and so the amount of bioaccumulation that you would get on those, and then that then can transfer up the food chain, is something of great concern.
Diolch yn fawr, Cadeirydd. A allaf i ddiolch yn fawr iawn am y papur rydych chi wedi'i baratoi ymlaen llaw? Mae'r wybodaeth yn fendigedig yn fanna. Rwyf jest am adeiladu ar beth rydych chi wedi bod yn ei ddweud yn wreiddiol ynglŷn â bylchau mewn gwybodaeth ac, wrth gwrs, yr holl elfen yma o nanoblastigau, achos y gymhariaeth, fel gwnes i ei defnyddio yn y sesiwn blaenorol, ydy beth sydd wedi digwydd efo llygredd awyr nawr a'r gronynnau PM10 a PM2.5 ac ati, sydd yn deillio o losgi carbon ac ati, ac rydym ni'n ffeindio y rheini mewn llwch oddi ar deiars hefyd. Rwy'n pendroni taw un o'r bylchau yma mewn gwybodaeth ydy faint o'r plastigau bach yma, y nanoblastigau yma, sydd hefyd yn yr un un llwch sy'n dod oddi wrth y teiars, achos mae'r wybodaeth feddygol ddiweddaraf yn darogan bod y gronynnau bychain, bychain iawn yma, y PM2.5, yn mynd i mewn i'n hysgyfaint ni ond hefyd yn gallu trosglwyddo i gylchrediad ein gwaed ni ac yn mynd i'n calonnau ni hefyd achos eu bod nhw mor fach. A oes yna unrhyw dystiolaeth mor belled bod y math yna o beth yn digwydd efo nanoblastigau eto, neu a ydy hynny efallai yn destun rhagor o ymchwil? Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you very much, Chair. May I thank you for the paper that you prepared beforehand? It's wonderful information there. I just want to build on what you said originally regarding gaps in information and, of course, this element of nanoplastics, because the comparison, as I used in the previous session, is between what's happened with air pollution now and the PM10 and PM2.5 particles that result from the burning of carbon, and we're also talking about tyre dust. I was wondering that one of the information gaps that we have is how many of these small plastics, these nanoplastics, are also in the same dust that comes from the tyres, because the latest medical information predicts that these very, very small particles, these PM2.5 particles, get into our lungs and can also transfer to the blood circulation and to our hearts because they're so small. Is there any evidence so far that that kind of thing is happening with nanoplastics again, or is that perhaps the subject of more research? Thank you very much.
Diolch yn fawr. That's as far as I go, I'm afraid. So, there is a lot of evidence of plastic forming a considerable portion of airborne pollution. As I think the Friends of the Earth paper says, if I remembered to put this one in, there was an estimate last year, I think, that the city of Paris experiences between 3 and 10 tonnes per year of plastic settling from the air. A good proportion will be from car tyres, also from clothing and from brake dust as well. We know that the very smallest microplastics and, of course, nanoplastics beneath that, can go through gut membranes and also placental and blood-brain barriers and other barriers like that. As to what their impact is having, this is an area that I think we would all agree we need to research much further. We're not health experts—certainly, I'm not—and I think you would want to hear from people who are. I know that we have one doctor in the room. One thing I—
Okay. I won't argue. [Laughter.] We use nanoparticles—I don't know what the material is—in medicine to deliver complex molecules to bits of the body that would otherwise not be able to receive them, and we wouldn't be able to get them there. Now, one of the very worrying things about microplastics and nanoplastics, as I think you've probably heard elsewhere, in the sea we have hard evidence, peer-reviewed evidence, that shows they can be a million times more toxic than surrounding sea water because of this characteristic they have of essentially hoovering up surrounding toxins. So, if they can deliver the very complex molecules that are the medicines, essentially, the pharmaceutical chemicals that we're looking to deliver, then what else that's in the environment can they also be delivering?
I was talking to a wetlands scientist from Bangor University just a couple of months ago, who was telling me about actually the growing, but largely untold crisis—I don't know if that's the right word yet, but it's certainly a great worry—of pharmaceutical pollution into the environment. We've got no idea what those chemicals can be doing to wildlife as well as, of course, to humans, where we reimbibe them, reingest them and such like. I think the real danger here is we have this synergistic effect of these various chemicals, be they pharmacological, be they pesticides, herbicides, things like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane that we banned decades ago, vehicle tyre dust and the other pollutants there, acting in concert with these plastic particles that are acting, potentially, as very, very, very clever vectors—transporters of these materials.
I hate the term 'precautionary principle'—the two words there, I think, are enough to turn most people off. Who wants to be cautious and overly principled? We have just got to get on and be dynamic, haven't we? But the sentiment behind that principle is: let's not do things that are potentially dangerous, if we literally don't know what the effects are, and that is the case here with those particles. So, I think there's a big, red question mark warning us of reasons to be worried.
If I may. So, the Eunomia extended producer responsibility report that was commissioned did state that the UK generates 60,000 tonnes of microplastic from tyres, and, of that, they think that about 12,000 of it ends up on surface waters. So, obviously, that will get mixed in. We do need to think about the fact that the microplastics are persistent. We've talked about them. They break down from macro to micro to nano. They're going to be around. They're bioaccumulative. We know that different toxic chemicals will stick to them, and, as just mentioned, they can be up to concentrations of a million times greater than the surface waters.
We also need to think about the fact that we don't really know everything that's going on. You were talking about the impacts on human health. Obviously, I work in marine so one of the—harbour porpoise are marine mammals, so they are mammals. I had the unfortunate job of looking at dead harbour porpoises and collecting blubber samples from them. From that, we were looking at polychlorinated biphenyls in them and the bioaccumulation. Usually, you don't have a null hypothesis, you have nothing to compare with, but because, unfortunately, we had the bycatch animals, animals that were unfortunately caught in fishing gear, they were used as a null hypothesis. When we compared the two different ones, we found that the ones that had lots of PCBs died from infectious disease mortality. So, we're immunocompromising them. We're making them more susceptible to death from persistent—and if you combine that with those things, we don't know how much plastics we're taking in.
But, the other thing that I found very disturbing is the fact that if you look at the difference between the male and the female, the males have much higher concentrations of PCBs than the females, and you think, 'Why's that?' The reason being is that these things are fat soluble, so the females are actually passing them on to their offspring, so their offspring can be born with them but then they're also getting fed it through their milk. We don't have the evidence, but it's easy to think that that is potentially happening to other mammals as well.
If I could just add one other thing to that, which is that we're also seeing that some of the effects of chemicals associated with plastics take place over multigenerations. So, it's not just things that are happening right now but the accumulative effect can also happen from one generation to the next. For example, there was a study that got some media attention earlier in the year about the effects of chemicals associated with plastics on male genitals. It's been well known about the impacts on female health, with links to breast cancer for years, but this one caught the media recently. What the scientists there, two Australian scientists, were saying is that it looks as if the effect here happens on a three-generation basis. So, it's just another factor, I think, but it's worth having in mind that this isn't something that just switches on and it isn't something that we might see the effects of now. There may be quite dramatic effects that accumulate over years, and, of course, therefore, this whole thing very much sits within the well-being of future generations, which, of course, Wales uniquely and strongly has legislation on.
We've started incinerating more in recent times and there's a greater enthusiasm for incineration rather than placing in holes in the ground. Are there dangers of plastics in the main refuse? I know they get sorted and all the high and low-density polystyrene and polyvinyl chlorides and polypropylene and stuff are all moved out easily, but when plastic is a part of another material—possibly, people not even knowing it's in there—are there dangers, when it gets incinerated, that you're actually going to break it down into very small particles that will become airborne and become a danger?
Friends of the Earth has opposed incineration or creating energy from waste for decades. It is a real issue for a number of different reasons. We went from being relative outsiders on that debate to actually seeing it now becoming really part of the orthodoxy. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs chief scientist, Professor Ian Boyd, only earlier this year, I think, or late last year said in the Westminster Parliament at an event there that he can't see any circumstances in which—I'm paraphrasing here—incineration can be a good thing. Words to that effect. Because it destroys things that we should be able to reuse and, of course, putting things in landfill means you can recover them later. Now, what you're touching on there, of course, is a concern many people have around incineration, which is of the health impacts of them, and we heard mention of PM10s and PM2.5s and such like. Dioxins as well—other very unsavoury chemicals are released from that process.
The proponents of the industry would say that they have great filters on their chimneys and they collect that fly ash, which is highly toxic, and then that's all put in a safe storage. I've seen photos and videos of one of these secure storage sites right next to a village in Gloucestershire, where the wind blows and you can see the dust lifting off the heap there.
For that and for all sorts of other reasons, incineration, whether it's with energy recovery or not, is really something the we must be moving away from. It's very polluting in terms of climate change, but also in other respects as well. But that also touches onto—if I may just say a little bit here, quickly, really—what the approach should be with regard to plastics. For any materials, we've got the waste hierarchy enshrined in UK law from European law—the waste framework directives. So, it's still in play, no matter what happens with Brexit. That, of course, says that we must focus on prevention first and foremost. So, see if we can do away with the material. And then reuse, where we can—a reusable coffee cup or whatnot. Recycling is actually the least good thing we should do. And we should be stopping at recycling and composting.
Very, very little at all should be landfilled. Nothing should be incinerated, unless it's a potential health hazard from a hospital or something. For no material or family of materials, I think, does that apply more strongly than for plastic, and the reason for that is because you can only recycle plastic so many times, and then you're going to have to work to out how to deal with it.
Much of what is plastic pollution escapes the system, because it's lightweight, like crisp packets and such like, and so, whether or not you're recycling, it's still getting out. But also, so much of what is plastic pollution is never going to be captured by recycling anyway, because it's formed from abrasion of the car tyres, of the synthetic clothes, of the paints, and so on. That's why we really, really need to be looking at minimising our use of plastic as far as possible.
But the important qualifiers for that are there are going to be some uses that we must regard as essential. So, we need to take an environmental and a social qualifier to that, which is: is it going to have a worse environmental or social impacts if we move away from plastic? And we, absolutely, must not get into a straight material-swap habit, because that will just replace one form of waste and environmental impacts for another.
I would just add that the slogan is 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.' In Wales, we're very proud of our recycling rates, and, indeed, we should be, and we should continue to pursue that, but there has been a focus on the recycling. We need to change that, we need to start looking at extended producer responsibility, to looking at the polluter-pays principle, as well as the preventative principle. And that's something that I would hope that would be one of the key messages that this committee will take forward to Welsh Government.
Obviously, the evidence that we have, as we saw in our earlier evidence-gathering session, does have big knowledge gaps in it. From both your personal experiences, and your organisations' experiences, how much knowledge do we really have of the impact of microplastics on our natural environment? And I was going to ask you a question around human health, but I appreciate that's most probably not your field of expertise. But if you did have examples from your organisations' work, by all means, please feel free to use this part to put that on the table.
Do you want to take that?
Okay. At Marine Conservation Society, we've been working on marine litter for 25 years. This is the twenty-fifth year of our Great British Beach Clean. And so, we've been surveying and collecting beach litter. So, the big difference is that most people collect litter, but they don't actually survey, but we do a very detailed survey. We've also then got the OSPAR commission to do the European, and we also contribute to the global.
And, from that, we've been able to identify the main sources of litter and, by far, every year, the main source is public litter, then fishing. Then, we have other things, like sewage-related debris—so, things that people flush down the toilet that they shouldn't flush down the toilet—and then medical waste.
When we look at the main sources of that and we identify the types, we identify the top 10 items and almost always, nine out of 10 of those are plastic. The only thing that isn't is usually glass pieces. Always a top 10 item are pieces of plastic—unidentified pieces of plastic, because we don't know what they are so we can't classify them. Then, there are other plastic things within that. So, we are either able to identify—for instance, we noticed, despite all of the publicity around the amount of litter and the plastic pollution, we still saw a 20 per cent increase in what we classify as 'food-on-the-go items' on Welsh beaches between 2016 and 2017. That's just unacceptable to me—to see that that is still increasing. It could be argued that it may not have been Welsh, but I just tell you to go on your lunch hour to look at what I'd call the Dr Who beach, or where Dr Who used to be—just go and have a look at that area. That has come down from Welsh rivers. I know we have been trying to look at the research to find out whether it is Welsh litter or whether it's not. To me, it's irrelevant—we still need to tackle it at source.
Unfortunately, we also saw in the 2017 results—we also saw an increase of 13 per cent in single-use plastics. So, we need to make sure that we're reducing—there is no need for single-use plastic. We need to be reusing things—reducing and reusing. If there is a single-use plastic, we need to make sure that there's either a levy or a tax on it to disincentivise use.
We also found that 138 pieces of on-the-go litter were found for every 100m—138 pieces. It's just obscene. Nobody wants to go to the beach to be surrounded by litter. Obviously, the beaches are cleaned from May to September—that is a cost to us, as taxpayers. After then, the beaches aren't cleaned—all the way from the end of September to the beginning of May, they're not, generally, cleaned. Because, as has already been mentioned, plastics will float, they float in and float out and animals will then be impacted. We could have areas where they're accumulating, or they could be accumulating in the sea, but they're not just going to disappear.
So, the evidence that we have—we can provide further information about our 25 years-worth of data. We're hoping to try and do that, because this is the Year of the Sea. So, as part of that, we're trying to look at what's been happening in Wales and how we're going to improve things. We don't have an awful lot of data about the macroplastic. Within our surveys, we do monitor when we get those plastic pellets that we were talking about. We haven't, so far, been looking at the microplastics.
The issue is that, until recently, it was very difficult to get anybody interested. I've been saying what David Attenborough said for 15 years at MCS—that's why I came to MCS. Nobody was really listening to me for some reason, but they listened to David, so that's great. The knowledge isn't there, but we do have some long-term data sets that we can draw on.
Just before Julian comes in on this, you introduced the prospect there of a tax or levy. This institution has a good record on that via the plastic-bag levy—in fact, I had the good fortune of sitting on the Petitions Committee that recommended that go forward. The flipside of that is that if you look at single-use plastic straws, for example, it is consumer pressure that has driven the change there, rather than actually saying you need a levy or you need a tax. In some respects, it seems attractive that legislatures should impose a levy or a tax. Do you see that as the only way of delivering that real change in single-use plastic, or can you draw comfort from the change on single-use straws, for example, where the consumer has taken ownership of that issue and then has forced the provider—the fast-food joints or whatever—to make those changes?
I gave evidence to help get the carrier bag charge in with MCS data, so I do feel that legislation is the way forward. I think that you're pushing at an open door with the public. Yes, it's good that there are voluntary initiatives and that some businesses are taking this forward, but not everybody is doing it.
When I was campaigning to try and get the carrier bag charge, I actually gave a presentation to Business in the Community in Cardiff, and they told me in no uncertain terms could they get any of their smaller retailers to do this and that it would never happen. But, obviously, once we got the legislation, it did, so I would always say that, because of the publicity that we've got now, legislation is the way to go forward to make sure it's uniform and make sure that there aren't any loopholes that people can get out of.
We are waking up to find ourselves in the midst of a plastic-pollution crisis—it really is a very serious issue that we're waking up to here, and we're waking up in a flash. This is something we have literally stepped over for decades; I have. And then suddenly, in common with the vast majority of us, it no longer is something I can just step over—you know, all this plastic everywhere. This isn't something we can accept any more. So, as Gill says, the public will and the public support for action is absolutely there. So, I think the approach then that we can take off the back of that support, which really is unprecedented in my longer-than-I-care-to-mention experience as a professional environmental campaigner—. I've never seen anything like this with the level of public concern. So, that brings into play a whole load of things. The problem with voluntary initiatives is that they're only ever partial. How many outlets are still giving away plastic straws? Probably more than have switched, actually. And then what about all the shops that are selling them and so on? But that's only one small part. It's really important—I want to put this out here now, of course, whilst talking about plastic straws—that it's very important that we recognise that a lot of people need plastic straws for accessibility reasons, and any action that's taken on plastic straws should have those people in mind.
Across much of Europe, the people who produce what goes on to become plastic pollution—and I think it's important that we think of it as pollution rather than litter, for reasons I'll explain—they pay about 90 per cent to the clean-up cost, and council tax payers and taxpayers pay 10 per cent. Here in the UK, it's the other way round. So, local authorities, us taxpayers pay 90 per cent towards the cost of clean-up, and the people who make and market and push out these pollutants are paying much, much less. Now, that industry is saying, 'Actually, yes, we should pay more now', so we're seeing a shift there, but we need to see much more producer responsibility across the board, not just on plastic straws and all the rest of it. I think the plastic bag tax or levy is a really good example, actually, of where you've got a combination of a top-down Government-driven approach that is working also with the best of behaviour change, psychology, behaviourism and so on.
But we really do have to go across the board because we are, as I say, in a crisis here. It's not just the macroplastics we can see; it's all the invisible plastics that are actually arguably even more dangerous, and that's what your focus is on here. Most people don't know that they're wearing plastic clothes or that their cars—. I never—I am a pollution campaigner; it never occurred to me until very recently how much is coming off car tyres. I just never would have thought about it. You think, 'They're rubber, aren't they?' Well, they're synthetic rubber with all sorts of chemical additives that act in the same way as plastic in the oceans and suchlike. So, I really think we do need, and have support for, strong Government action.
You're well ahead of me; I didn't know there was plastic in tyres until I came in here this morning. Joyce Watson.
I like this idea of the polluter pays principle, because it's absolutely right. Why should people who are using material they don't need to, who end up polluting, just simply walk away from the problem they know they're creating, and they know that there are other solutions. But within that, and in terms of legislation, the public sector has massive buying power in Wales, as it does anywhere else. So, I don't know whether you've considered this, but in terms of the legislation we already have, if we were to say, 'We won't buy your product, you won't be able to bid, you won't be able to tender unless we consider the use of plastic as a pollutant within your tendering process.' I think that's a way forward. We could, in fact, legislate to put it up there as a consideration when we are buying things that don't need plastic.
So, the extended producer responsibility report advocated this. I think that, given that, under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, all the public service bodies had to do their well-being plans, it is imperative that Welsh Government set the scene for this and that they demonstrate the best practice. We have just been in the green room where there was tea and coffee offered in plastic—
You know, it's just unacceptable. I know that Welsh Government did undertake a big review—or, actually, the Assembly, sorry—about trying to reduce the amount of plastic, and you are ahead in some ways. But the public service bodies are accountable to Welsh Government, and they have, under the well-being of future generations Act, a duty to do this. They haven't got the resources to implement it and to look into it fully; it's something that the National Assembly should be doing, and they should be providing best practice to them in order to facilitate that.
I just want you to know, as a commissioner, I have written to the Commission on the use of the sachets for coffee and chocolate, which I think are the only two things, because I wasn't in any way happy, because those—. I watched that programme—it was rather distressing—last week, but they're a major, major pollutant worldwide.
The other thing I wanted to go on to ask you is: you mentioned, quite rightly, that plastic doesn't biodegrade, but it photodegrades instead, causing all the problems that we are talking about. What level of confidence can we have, or can the public have, when they are buying what they think is a biodegradable plastic bag, and it turns out to be a photodegradable plastic bag? Have you done any research in that area?
So-called 'oxo-degradable' bags should be banned; there's no question about that. These are bags that are marketed as degradable. Sometimes they're even marketed as biodegradable, but they're not, and they will just break down into smaller plastic pieces. They are a source of microplastic pollution, in other words. So, they're an out and out con, basically—they should go. But we also need to be very careful about a push towards so-called 'bioplastics' or 'biodegradable plastics' or 'compostable plastics'. We need to approach that with great care. So, the terms are used varyingly, so just to clarify how I'm using them here: bioplastics are plastics that are chemically identical to conventional plastics. They're just made from plants or maybe fungi, or whatever, but they're the same as fossil-based plastics. So, environmentally, they're at least as bad, and, potentially, they're worse, because they might involve a large use of land in order to make them—not a solution at all.
Compostable or biodegradable—there's a real issue here with people switching wholesale to these things because a cup says, 'I am not a plastic cup' or such like on it. Many of these things, if you leave them by the footpath, in the woods, certainly in the sea, you come back a year or so later and you'll find them perfectly identifiable. They can be just as bad for wildlife in terms of entanglement and ingestion, and such like, and might even have similar qualities in terms of how they degrade. So, of course, there can be a role for compostable, by which I mean genuinely home-compostable materials, but we need to recognise that many people, perhaps most people, don't have home composting. Wales is pushing ahead with having home food waste collections across the country, which is a very good thing—in England, they're going backwards; councils are giving that up. But, even so, the worry there, as I touched on earlier on, is that you're looking at substitution of one material for another, and you could be just creating a whole new waste stream.
So, there needs to be real clarity as to what these materials are, so when people are buying them they can see that, but I think there also needs to be a real focus on just reducing the use of a single-use material and a disposable material in the first place. And there's a lot of great stuff happening here. Here in Cardiff, one of the market companies that's famous nationally has adopted tiffin trays and people buy their curries and take them away in tiffin trays. That kind of model of reuse and so on—no reason why that really can't grow with the right level of support.
And I'd like to ask you if you've got examples of best practice that you can bring to the table, and also, because we are, as you know, policy makers, what is probably the best thing that we can do right now, because that's what we're here to find out?
Oh, big list. Can I just go back slightly to your previous question to talk about—we're moving to anaerobic digesters in Wales, and they can't actually cope with those biodegradable plastics? So, I just echo what was said, that we need to make sure that we're reducing and providing viable alternatives, and that needs to be through legislation and making and compelling producers to take a cradle-to-cradle approach—so, circular economy, rather than producing something that is ultimately going to be disposed of.
So, on best practice and recommendations for what you can do, again, I think that the National Assembly should be leading the way. We need to focus on a reduction. The extended producer responsibility report that was commissioned didn't go far enough as far as we're concerned. You need to make sure that, as already indicated, producers pay the full cost of the disposal, recycling and collection of all the materials that they produce. I believe that if it's sold in Wales, it should be able to be reused and then recycled in Wales. We need to make sure that manufacturers reduce unnecessary packaging, and that's something, again, that Welsh Government have the power to be able to do through the packaging directive. Those are all the things that we can do from 'upstream', as I call it.
The downstream things that we can do are: we want a deposit-return system—I've come in front of you three times to talk about that. We need to make sure that we try to introduce a minimum recycled content into pulp so that we reduce the use of virgin plastics. We need a levy around non-reusable drinks, which I know that the Minister indicated as something that they're going to take forward. We talked about the sachets. These are in the Eunomia report, but we need to ban these. If you're eating in, there should be a dispenser and you shouldn't have a little plastic sachet to take with you. We need to eliminate things that are not easily recyclable, so the black plastics and polystyrene. We talked about being the first refill nation—fantastic, and we should be taking that forward, but that should be also in conjunction with this 'latte levy', as it's called. And then, as I say, we need to make sure that we're reusing, and when, ultimately, things are recycled, we have this cradle-to-cradle approach so that they're very easily recyclable within Wales.
Friends of the Earth would absolutely support all of that—no surprises there. Plenty of other specific item-by-item approaches that we could look at: wet wipes needn't have plastic in them and they should certainly never be marketed as flushable, because they're not. So, things like that.
We are going to bring out a report shortly, which is also by Eunomia, which will look at—not the top 10 necessarily, but 10 of the top most commonly polluting uses of plastic. And that's got a number of recommendations in it, both for individuals and householders, but also for local government and national Government and businesses. So, we'd be happy to share that with you, obviously, and we can do that before publication, if that would be useful.
I think, in terms of best practice, we can also look beyond plastics, because I think, whilst there have been people who have been warning about this and really working hard on this for decades or more, for most of us, and especially for policy makers, it's really come as quite a big issue very quickly, hasn't it? So, let's look at other issues. And I think that the best analogy, actually, is climate change. Here are some of the reasons that I would say that that analogy works: one is that there are many, many sources of climate-changing pollution. So, just as with plastics, there's a lot from the agriculture sector, there's a lot from energy and there's a lot from transport and so on—across the board. So, what's happening, and what was happening very much with climate was that you had a lot of piecemeal initiatives, some of which were better than others, but I think you had, overwhelming a lot of people, a sense of, 'This is all too much and how can we approach this?' The way to approach this, which brought it all together, was to take that framework approach that I touched on right at the beginning, and that's what the UK Climate Change Act 2008 did, and does, and other bits of legislation that have been based on that or are similar to that.
We have drafted legislation for plastic pollution that takes a similar approach. Again, we'd be very happy to share that with you, obviously. To summarise that very quickly, what it does is say, 'Let's have an end date', which you might say is 2030, 2040 or whatever, by which we want to have hit near zero plastic pollution. Then, let's set a requirement on Government, year by year, term by term, session by session, to continue acting on the recommendations of an expert committee that is set up to advise and to say, 'Right, here are the issues, some of which have quicker fixes than others', and Government has a duty to respond to that committee and basically do what it says or to give good reasons why it wouldn't.
So, we have that flexibility built in, but you've got a process set up. I think what that does is it gives us space and time to think about the trickier areas, the car tyres, the textiles and so on, and maybe to get on with some things we can do to try and mitigate a little bit from those, like driving awareness educative type programmes. Installing drain and gutter filters to collect plastics roadside might help in the short term, but how do you replace the car tyres? That's going to take us a while to work out, isn't it? The same with synthetic clothes. If we just switch to cotton that would be disastrous, because cotton is also a very environmentally, and in terms of human impact, unkind crop in many respects.
So, we would really advocate that approach. As I say, it's modelled on the climate change Act. You've got an expert committee, you can ensure that committee is staffed with the right skill set, not just of what's wrong environmentally, but what are the good uses of this material that we would need to be substituting for, or accepting what are the economic and social et cetera impacts, and what are the big questions, in particular health et cetera, that we need to look at and set us on course to dealing with the problem with the requisite milestones built into that.
In terms of health and what we eat and drink, are there any emerging lessons for people in terms of what they shouldn't be eating and drinking in terms of this microplastic pollution?
I'll start. I'll just use this excellent example here. I think again we can demonstrate best practice to have a reusable cup. Not only is it reusable but it also has health benefits, because we now know, as the research is demonstrating, plastics are in the water we drink, they're in the food we eat, they're in the air that we breathe and we don't know the impacts of them. We can do research into that and look at the evidence, but in the meantime we're still being exposed to it.
So, I think that, again, I would look to the Assembly to demonstrate best practice, and although we may not have baseline data to be able to say, 'Well, actually, yes, we are', I do agree that we do need to be monitoring how we are improving. We need to have some baseline data but we need to make some changes immediately. The public are very receptive to this. They've accepted the carrier bag charge; it's normal behaviour now. They've embraced all the recycling targets. We need to instigate behavioural changes through good education programmes and I do believe that Welsh people will then follow suit. We don't have all the information about health implications. I don't think we should be waiting until we have that. I think we should be making the changes now, before it's too late.
But an initial step might be not to drink water from plastic bottles, not just in terms of environmental issues but in terms of health as well. No?
I think we need to strike a balance here, in that we need to be mindful that we have a pollutant here that is in the environment, is pervasive, and we don't want to be absorbing that into our bodies. But, at the same time, the evidence base around impacts and how those impacts happen on human health is thin right now. I would say, as a Friends of the Earth campaigner, don't buy bottled water in plastic bottles because the tap water is perfectly good. If you're worried about plastic particles and other particles, then get yourself a water filter. I've got one that's made of glass. You can get a glass water filter.
I think we need to be careful about how we talk about potential health impacts, of course, because we just don't know enough about it right now. The environmental arguments for reducing plastic use are very, very strong and we know enough from what's happening with wildlife to know that we need to be reducing what gets into human bodies. But I don't think I'm qualified, certainly, to go further than that, except to say that we do really urgently need to research it.
I would say that there are uses of plastic as an ingredient that, frankly, I found shocking and I'm sure other people do and I'd rather not see happen. I can't believe that there are plastics in chewing gum and I was shocked to discover that I had been putting plastic in my children's mouths when I was brushing their teeth. Fortunately, plastic microbeads are now largely banned from toothpaste—that's one of the two categories along with rinse-off—but if you're putting lipstick on, chances are you've got plastic or plastic polymers in there, you know, other uses. So, I think we should just be saying—. Just on that, cosmetics and such like, if they have plastic as an ingredient, that needs to be really clearly labelled and I'd say we need to be getting it out, because if it's in as an ingredient, it's going straight into the environment as a microplastic.
Just one other thing, Chair. As you said, it can be very complex and complicated and perhaps sometimes people might throw up their hands and say, 'I don't know where to start with all this.' But, you know, there are some things that we could do that would be generally beneficial environmentally and would deal these microplastic issues as well, such as vehicle use. You talked about tyres and we know there are issues with brakes, so moving to a more integrated transport system and reducing our car use is a win-win-win right across the piece really, isn't it, including on these issues?
And it's interesting that, when you look at the economics of this, there's very little data and it's not generally included. I mean, you know, the tyres and the microplastic from tyres is a fairly new area, so I think when you do cost-benefit analysis of looking at things, you need to factor in—you're supposed to, you know, look at the three pillars of sustainable development, and quite often, because the environment is so data deficient, we don't necessarily cost that up effectively and accountably and properly, really, because we just don't know. So, I think we always have to err on the precautionary principle when we're costing up these things and make sure that we are. We all depend on the environment for everything. With the future generations Act, we need to make sure that we are looking after it for our future generations. So, I just think that whenever any decisions are made, we need to look at the more holistic, ecosystem-based approach on the decisions.
In terms of a positive future, of course, we're not just looking at a healthier environment, we're looking at a healthier society. We all know that better community connectivity is a key part of that. You touched on, there, transport and more public transport, and the sharing economy generally is a key part of that. So, that would apply to clothes as well. One of the answers for textile pollution from clothes is much more of a sharing economy for clothes as well and a reuse economy, which cuts right across the board actually. So, yes, this touches on a lot of dimensions; the win-win-win-win-win-win-win list could go on for some time.
Could I just come back on one point? John, you were talking about labelling and it is really important not only that we label things correctly—wet wipes has been one of the things that MCS has been campaigning on for quite some time because on a lot of them they have a label that says they're flushable. They've got plastic in them. We end up with all these fatbergs and all these issues. So, things should be clearly labelled and whatever we instigate within Wales to try and improve things, it must be very clear. What I talked about, about the anaerobic digestors, and we're moving to them and we can't put the compost or waste in there—what do we do? What are people supposed to do with that if they've bought these compostable materials in good faith, but they're not suitable for household composting? At the moment, they're going into the landfill, which is ultimately not what we want. So, we need to make sure, whatever we do, that it's very clear.
We know that people put the wrong things in recycling. So, we need to make sure that it's consistent and it applies to everything because otherwise you can end up with a situation where it's confusing for people. Also, if you've only got, for instance, a deposit on certain things, they can look more expensive than the other items even though the deposit that you'll get back will actually make them cheaper, but, you know, for people's perception it's, 'That's more expensive; I'm going to buy this one.'
It's a missed opportunity for the retailers because then they can be seen to be doing their corporate social responsibility and also to be reducing their costs, because they will be taking items back. You then, again, look at the nature of that, so that there are no loopholes in it. So, for instance, in some places in Europe, if it's 3 litres, it has a tax on it. So, they have bottles that are 3001 ml to get around it. We don't want that happening, so, we need to look at it very carefully.
And then just to make sure that you don't get any market distortions. So, what it should be in Wales is that it's cheaper and easier to buy less polluting materials than it is to buy something that's single use. I do the plastic challenge every year, trying to source things. It ends up being more expensive, and most people just can't afford that. So, whatever we do, people in Wales need to have—. It needs to be cheaper and better and easier for them to be more ethical, and to make the right sustainable development choices.
A last, very quick point, if I may—I'm aware we're going over time. As far as we're aware, and our lawyers have looked into this, plastic is not classed as a pollutant in the UK. I don't know whether the Welsh Government would have the powers to class it as a pollutant within Wales. But, given the action that's been taken on microbeads, I would guess that it does. Obviously you guys would know better than me—forgive me that I don't.
The fact that it isn't classed as a pollutant means that, where water companies are releasing microfibre pollution or spreading it on fields—. Fair play to them, they didn't know that was an issue, probably, initially; they would have known for a few years. But it's an intractably difficult problem. Companies putting plastic in as an ingredient and it will become a pollutant, or just releasing microfibre, microplastic pollution directly out of factories and so on, as was one of the sources of the pollution in the River Tame, which achieved some international notoriety when the study was released earlier this year, making it the most microplastic-loaded river surveyed so far, at least. So, we would ask, as Friends of the Earth, if you would please look at that, at the classification of plastic as pollutant. What can we do to enable action to be taken on that basis?
Since you are the Marine Conservation Society and since we haven't touched too much on pollution within the sea, one of the biggest sea pollutants is discarded fishing material. And we're about to enter into, at some stage, new agreements around fishing Welsh waters. Have you got any suggestions—I know you will—about how we tackle what is, probably, the worst, most long-lasting pollution that is discarded fishing material, and how we might put that into any legislation that we will draw up in the next year or two?
Yes. So, historically, obviously, fishing materials were made out of hemp and biodegradable materials. They're not now—they're mostly made out of plastic. We have this massive issue of ghost fishing, so, lost fishing gear that continues to fish and they think that it will fish for at least up to 12 months, which then has a massive impact, even on the target species that the fishermen are looking to catch. It has to be said that, obviously, fishermen, generally, don't discard their fishing pots and things deliberately, it's just they get snagged on the bottom.
What we have in other places like the USA and Canada is that they have monitoring and every single lobster pot has a label and who it belongs to. They have a closed season, those lobster pots are monitored, they come up, they're counted, so you know exactly how many pots they have and where they're allowed to put them. With the inshore vessel monitoring systems, that's going to go on all the fishing vessels to monitor where they're fishing. Because we mostly have an in-shore fleet that, mostly, does potting, we should be including that—where they're potting, how many pots. Also, every year, they lose a set number of pots. If we could find out where they are—. There's a fantastic organisation, Neptune’s Army of Rubbish Cleaners, who go round. The fishermen tell them when they've lost a pot, and they go down and try and retrieve it, because that pot will continue to fish for, possibly, 100 years or so. So, we could do that—label the pots and make sure that if they're lost they're identified. Potentially, because we've got the offshore area, we'll be talking about having a lot more fishing nets, so we need to make sure that that is adequately managed as well. Ideally, we would like to—. What was suggested is that it could be identified again. If we are using the IVMS to work out where these vessels are fishing, they need to be reporting.
The other thing is that the port reception facilities don't currently take account of, and they don't allow for, disposal of fishing nets. Fishing nets only last between one and five years. What do the fishermen do with those nets afterwards? If they bring them ashore, they quite often are charged for disposal of them. We need to review that to make sure that it's better for them to bring them ashore.
Then we also have the issues when they bring up litter in their nets. If they bring it ashore, they get charged for that. We don't want that, either. We want them to be able to make sure that any plastic that they bring out of the environment is actually brought back to shore.
There have also been suggestions of a deposit-return scheme on nets as well, so to provide an incentive to bring back your nets to port, and the use of geotagging technology so that we can see where these things are as well if they're floating out there.
Can I thank you both very much? Can I first of all thank Julian Kirby of Friends of the Earth? I perhaps should've said at the beginning of the meeting that I am a member of Friends of the Earth.
Can I also thank Gill Bell of the Marine Conservation Society? Can I again say that, whilst not a member of the Marine Conservation Society, I'm very supportive of the work they're doing?
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr.
Can we note the correspondence from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to the temporary Chair of the Finance Committee in relation to the draft budget?
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
Can I move a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting for item 6?
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 11:42.
The public part of the meeting ended at 11:42.