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Consumer-based actions to reduce plastic pollution in rivers: new research shows most effective options

Scientists from Earthwatch Europe have published a new study in the open source journal PLOS ONE as part of our Plastic Rivers project.

The research compared and evaluated consumer-based actions to reduce macroplastic (plastics more than 5mm in size) pollution in freshwater environments. Our scientists’ goal was to give policy makers, producers and the public new information on the feasibility of different actions to mitigate this important pollution challenge. This work builds on an earlier Earthwatch research paper looking at the most common plastic items found in rivers and lakes in UK and Europe, which was published earlier this year. An average of 71% of litter items were plastic and 59% were consumer-related macroplastic items. Five of the top ten items were food related, two were sanitary or cosmetic, and two were smoking related items. For more information about this earlier paper, you can read the paper or the Plastic Rivers report.

The use and management of single use plastics is a major area of concern for the public, policy makers and businesses. As end users, people may find it hard to choose how to cut down on single-use plastics because they receive conflicting information on alternative products or appropriate choices. Our latest study on consumer-based actions explores the effectiveness of 27 plastic reduction actions to determine which actions may realistically have the most positive impact by reducing plastics in the environment. The results show that the most effective consumer-based actions were for consumers to switch to:

  • wooden cutlery
  • reusable water bottles
  • plastic free cotton-buds
  • wooden stirrers
  • refilling shampoo bottles

Dr. Luca Marazzi, Earthwatch scientist and lead author, said that the positive environmental impact of some of these actions is significant; for example, if everyone in the UK switched to reusable water bottles, we could reduce plastic pollution in our rivers and ocean by nearly 7,000 tonnes.

This research shows that eliminating common and superfluous plastic items from our daily lives can have important and direct actions to reduce plastic pollution and the harm that it can cause to wildlife and even humans. The paper also discusses how these more environmentally sustainable choices and actions could become new norms and widely accepted habits. For that to happen, environmental and social scientists and the public need to collaborate with local authorities, NGOs, and other stakeholders to incentivize and reward more sustainable behaviours.

You and everyone else in the UK can help Earthwatch's research by telling us which plastic items you use most commonly and what you are doing to reduce your plastic use. Have a look at our plastic footprint calculator and complete our brief survey. More than 1,000 people have already taken part! With your contribution, we will be able to identify and help people make more sustainable choices rather than relying on single-use plastics on a local and national scale. You can also take our plastic pledge to reduce the plastic items you use the most.

“Every person, business, authority and organisation have a role to play to reduce plastic use, incorrect disposal and thus pollution.” 

Help our in-house scientists Debbie Winton, Luca Marazzi and Steven Loiselle and our engagement team to reduce plastic pollution in your communities. And watch this space! We will shortly have some more exciting news about our work with our business partners.

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