MP for Edinburgh North and Leith
From the Himalayas to the Pacific
‘A cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities…’
This quote may sound like it belongs in the pages of a dystopian science fiction novel. In fact, it was the disturbed reaction of Italian scientists when they discovered microplastic particles in the placentas of unborn babies in 2020.
While the research was alarming, it did not come as a huge surprise. Previous studies had already detected microplastic particles in human blood, lungs, livers, kidneys and spleens. We unwittingly consume these tiny particles through food we eat (5g per person per week, on average!) and the air we breathe. Although the full extent of the health risks is still unknown, chemicals present in plastics have been linked to cancers, lung diseases, and birth defects.
Of course, plastic is not just polluting our bodies, but the planet too. From the peaks of the Himalayas to the depths of the Pacific Ocean, nowhere is untouched. Every year we churn out a staggering 430 million tonnes of plastic, outweighing the combined mass of the world’s eight billion people. Because single-use plastic is produced from fossil fuels, the process of extracting and creating them emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases and plastic consumption is on course to nearly double by 2050.
We need to come to a screeching halt and reverse this trend fast. We can see wee glimmers of hope there though, in part driven by the huge and growing concern about the issue, a concern we know many in this constituency share, as my office can testify.
This public pressure is beginning to translate into political action. Earlier this month in Paris, many of the world’s governments agreed to draft a new treaty, which the United Nations estimates would cut plastic production by 80% by 2040. Crucially, it appears there's strong business support for tough regulatory measures too, including from some of the biggest such as Unilever and Coca-Cola.
Hitting the 2040 target would mean further cutting out unnecessary single-use packaging, re-using, and replacing plastic use with sustainable biodegradable materials. Governments could also tax the production of new plastics and remove industry subsidies.
The most radical measures are opposed by a small but powerful minority of countries, including China, India and the US, as well as fossil fuel companies. To help shift their positions and exert international pressure, a draft resolution on microplastic pollution was presented at this month’s meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, which as a member I was pleased to support.
We need the UK Government to step up too. When I recently urged FCDO ministers to ensure the big plastic polluters sign up to and enact the treaty’s provisions, I was assured the government was very active on the issue. Hmm, we'll see - I won't let this slip.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has just published the Circular Economy Bill, which will create new powers to tackle waste and increase reuse and recycling rates. Last year, Scotland became the first part of the UK to ban many of the most unsustainable single-use plastics, aligning itself with the EU Directive, and we must keep building on this progress.
Leith is home to many organisations and businesses leading the way in this mission. The social enterprise Edinburgh Remakery is dedicated to diverting waste from landfills and fostering a culture of repair and reuse. They specialise in refurbishing tech items, furniture, and more, while also providing education in repair and reuse skills.
Also over in Ocean Terminal is Leith Collective, the UK’s first single-use plastic-free shop of its kind. The Collective mentors and supports over 300 artists and the store is packed to the brim with fabulous upcycled gifts and recycled and handmade treasures.
There’s also the wonderful Weigh to Go on Leith Walk, which encourages customers to bring their own jars and containers for refilling with loose and liquid produce — something that was commonplace before the 1960s.
Lots of plastics and waste still end up in our streets and public places though, so the heavy-handed intervention of the UK government in Scotland's proposed Deposit Return Scheme has been extremely disappointing and means millions more containers will end up in our streets and seas while we wait for England to catch up.
In the meantime, we owe a huge debt to groups like the Water of Leith Conservation Trust who are working tirelessly at the sharp end. Made up mostly of different groups of volunteers, the Trust’s conservation and clean-up team carry out maintenance work in the area around the river 3-6 times a week, picking up rubbish and fly-tipped items, as well as vegetation, sweeping leaves, clearing drainage channels and more.
We can all do our bit to cut down on single-use plastic and other waste by bringing our own containers or bags, and sourcing products from local suppliers who prioritise sustainable packaging.
But addressing plastic production and consumption is a systemic issue that requires political and corporate solutions, much like the climate crisis. I’ll keep pushing the UK Government to take much bolder action on what is a matter of critical significance to public health and environmental justice. ■
Leith Collective, the UK’s first single-use plastic-free shop of its kind