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20 Feb 2019

Plastic: A Sea Change?

All the way back in October 2017, thousands of young voters shared their thoughts on ‘Will Blue Planet 2 convince people to use less plastic?’ The results were fairly unsurprising given David Attenborough’s sombre warnings at the end of each episode. As is often the way, primary pupils took a more optimistic view, while secondary and college students were divided. But who was right?

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Since 2017, the shift in attitudes towards single-use plastic and plastic pollution has been seismic: superstores such as Asda and Tesco, along with major chains such as Pret a Manger and Hilton, have pledged to completely overhaul their approach to waste and recycling in the near future. Judging by these changes alone, it would seem that Blue Planet 2 achieved what it set out to*. However, such a claim requires closer inspection.

Of course, movement towards reducing plastic waste had already been made prior to the release of the series; the quarter of a million tonnes of it in the ocean was getting hard to ignore. For instance, a single-use plastic carrier bag charge was introduced in 2015, and numbers have fallen by almost 90% across the country since. In 2016, “71.4% of UK packaging waste was either recycled or recovered,” exceeding EU targets. Yet, what Blue Planet 2 indicated was a distinct and relatively abrupt change in mindset from the majority.

Politicians were some of the first to use Blue Planet 2 as a way of fast-tracking a reduction in plastic waste. The first episode of the series aired in October 2017, and hot on its heels at the end of November was Philip Hammond’s Autumn Budget, which paid particular attention to the UK becoming “a world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic, littering our planet and our oceans”. Mr Hammond specifically cited the programme and how audiences across the country, glued to Blue Planet 2, have been starkly reminded of the problems of plastics pollution”. Similarly, in the lead-up to the government’s launch of a 25-Year Environment Plan, Michael Gove claimed to have been “haunted by images of the damage done to the world’s oceans. You can see a summary of the targets set out in the plan below.

Whether these references were used tactically by politicians to give an impression of compassion or were anchored in genuinely good intentions, Blue Planet 2’s influence on the behaviour of UK citizens is undeniable. If nothing else, habits are likely to be changed due to financial incentives (5p bag charges) or simply from a lack of plastic resources to dispose of (the government has since “announced its intention to ban the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. The Welsh Government has indicated that it would be interested in collaborating on the ban).

But our question did not focus on what the government would do about plastic pollution or how people would be corralled into new habits. It focused on what the UK population might do to help of their own volition. Following the series, which had a staggering 17 million viewers, a Blue Planet-specific survey was carried out. According to the BBC, “62% of surveyed UK audiences [said] they wanted to make changes in their daily lives to reduce pollution of our oceans” after watching the programme. It seems, however small, change is afoot (or rather, a-fin).

Since our debate on plastic, VotesforSchools has covered a range of topics about the environment, including; setting half the world aside for wildlife, whether eating bugs will save the planet, and the impact of fast fashion on global emissions. Here’s hoping there will be similar evidence of a shift in public attitudes in the years to come.

If this topic has encouraged you to change your habits or learn more, why not try one of the following:

Or, if you just want to relive the majesty of Blue Planet 2, you can find it on BBC iPlayer.




Georgie is the Schools Relationship Officer at VotesforSchools. Her blog series, Power to the Pupils, will take a retrospective look at how the results of the debates by young people in the classroom are coming to fruition (or not, as the case may be). Please email her at georgie@votesforschools.com if you have any questions about this post or suggestions of topics you'd like to see covered in future.


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