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Sustainability Focus: The link between plastic, oceans and climate change

By Ben KnightSep 20213 min read

GoCardless has recently appointed a new Head of Environmental Sustainability, Ben Knight. Ben will be helping GoCardless to  measure all our emissions, including scope 3, and to work towards setting a net zero target by the end of 2021. He will also be sharing his expertise through regular blogs which will help to educate and raise awareness of environmental factors both in and out of the workplace. This month, Ben gives us an insight into the impact that single-use plastic is having on climate change. 

Oceans; Climate Change, Plastics and The Great British Beach Clean  

Covering more than 70% of the planet, our oceans are home to a hugely diverse ecosystem of plants and animals, from phytoplankton to blue whales. With 80% of our oceans still unmapped and unexplored, these massive salt-water systems not only provide habitats for life, but they also provide critical services to humanity and the planet, from regulating climate and providing food, to absorbing atmospheric co2 and producing oxygen. 

However, these ecosystems are at continually increasing risk of anthropogenic harm. Rising sea temperatures impact marine life - as seen with coral bleaching - whilst increasing atmospheric Co2 being absorbed is causing ocean acidification. Elsewhere, freshwater from melting glaciers entering the oceans threatens to alter global currents. This impact on oceans is a key reminder of the importance of responsible emission-reduction strategies, such as the one we are developing here at GoCardless.

Pollution such as single-use plastic also causes major harm to ocean biodiversity, with 100 million Tonnes of plastic produced each year and 8 million tonnes of this entering the oceans. The Guardian recently reported that plastic waste is responsible for the deaths of more than 1,000,000 birds and 100,000 sea mammals and turtles every year, whilst the Marine Conservation Society reported that pollution is one of the five main drivers of the current biodiversity crisis, threatening 40% of marine mammals with extinction. A recent report by the WWF estimates that on our current trajectory, by 2040 there will be 600 Million Tonnes of plastic in our oceans, producing 20% of all global Green House Gas emissions, due to the fact plastics are manufactured from fossil fuels, with GHGs released during the manufacturing and end-of life treatment process.

This is not only an environmental crisis, however. Across the world, many vulnerable communities depend on the food and services that the oceans provide. Yet, climate change, pollution and human exploitation of the ocean are already dramatically impacting this vital resource.

However; across the world, governments, businesses and individuals are taking action.

In July 2021, The EU banned the sale of single-use plates, cutlery, straws, and cotton buds, with the UK Government announcing the intention to follow suit after already implementing a plastic bag charge – reducing consumption by 95% in since 2015 – banning plastic microbeads in 2018, and single-use straws and stirrers in 2020. Large scale projects such as the Ocean Cleanup, which aims to remove 90% of plastics in the oceans, and UK based Ocean Saviour - which will collect up to 5 ocean tonnes of plastic per day - are both developing innovative technology to tackle the problem.

According to the Waitrose Food and Drink report in 2019, 88% of viewers who watched “Blue Planet 2” have since changed their consumption habits, whilst a survey conducted by Oceana found 87% of consumers believe major retailers need to reduce the amount of plastic they use.  Major brands are responding to this, with Mars & Heinz both recently announcing plans to move towards a circular economy and away from single-use plastics, whilst Tesco has announced a re-use scheme on 88 products. 

Citizen-science projects such as the Great British Beach Clean, are bringing together individuals wanting to take action. Led by the Marine Conservation Society, the event will bring together hundreds of volunteers over the next 10 days across hundreds of UK beaches. I joined the Shoreham clean-up last week with my daughter Aurelia. We spent a few hours on the beach collecting waste and recording the results - it was great to see lots of people getting involved and making a positive impact. We found everything from plastic bags and wrappers, through to socks and glasses. The largest collection by far was plastic fragments <25cm. And for those who do not live near a beach, there are city-based events to stop waste getting to the waterways in the first place. If you'd like to find out more, click here.

GoCardless are founding members of Tech Zero -  a climate action group for tech companies of all sizes committed to fighting the climate crisis. Find out more about our commitment to the environment and being carbon neutral here

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