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We're ruining our environment by failing to tackle waste properly – Michael Gove has the power to correct that

Plastic, carelessly discarded beside our roads, on footpaths and beaches, does much more as it degrades than disfigure the view

Emma Bridgewater
Friday 23 March 2018 15:54 GMT
Enjoying Britain’s beautiful countryside is ‘our birthright’
Enjoying Britain’s beautiful countryside is ‘our birthright’ (PA)

For too long we seem to have believed that litter is a rather trivial issue, one we can postpone thinking about. But maybe, at last, we are moving to the stark realisation that our attitude to the disposal of packaging is a life or death challenge.

We have woken up to the immense task of stemming the toxic flood of plastics into our oceans; perhaps now we can see that our cavalier approach to waste disposal more generally is doing huge long-term damage to our environment.

Waste disposal has always been understood by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) as a big challenge: one of my predecessors, the Duke of Norfolk, described it as an aesthetic issue when he said in his maiden speech as the organisation’s president that, “We want the townsman to learn to love England as he finds it, and not bespattered with paper and bottles.”

But lately we have learned that plastic waste, carelessly discarded beside our roads, on footpaths and beaches – everywhere – does much more as it degrades than disfigure the view. As it breaks down into ever tinier particles, plastic is entering our ecosystems with frightening pervasiveness. The Independent’s Cut the Cup Waste campaign has done much to highlight the problem in recent months.

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The Duke of Norfolk’s speech was made in 1946, but since that time the challenge of collecting and disposing of litter intelligently and effectively has not been met. Instead, the confetti of discarded rubbish has become a snowstorm. I share the sentiments of that historic speech; but I definitely do not see our litter problem as confined to the countryside.

I live in Oxford and spend time regularly in London and Stoke on Trent, as well as travelling all over the country. I hate to see plastic bottles clogging canals and footpaths in a town just as much as I feel unhappy at the sight of plastic bags caught up in hedges and trees, or cans on the beach: all of these sights are of concern, and while we can all do our bit by taking our own litter home and recycling it carefully, I want more than that. Fortunately, in our battle to get to grips with litter an opportunity is at hand.

Rural England has provided a deep, rich and continuous source of inspiration to artists of all inclinations throughout our history. We all draw on the restorative qualities of our lovely landscapes, wild and domestic, for refreshment; and access to unspoilt countryside is our birthright, to be fiercely protected.

As a potter in Staffordshire myself, I often think about the county’s greatest son, the first Josiah Wedgwood, whose best creation (if not the Portland vase) was the Frog dinner service created in the 1770s for Catherine the Great. This enormous suite of cream coloured earthenware was lovingly hand painted with hundreds of vignettes and vistas of the English countryside and it caused an international sensation.

On a much more modest and quotidian note, I too draw on the natural world for design inspiration, and I know that I depend on regular airing in the country to offset life’s stresses. Whether in North Norfolk on the marshes, in the meadows of Oxfordshire or the estuaries of the south coast of Cornwall, I know these beautiful landscapes need championing and protecting for future generations.

Now it is time for the Government to play its part in creating a more responsible and robust attitude to waste disposal, most significantly introducing a full and comprehensive deposit return system.

As Michael Gove sifts through the evidence for recycling I urge him, on behalf of everyone who shares my love for the natural environment, to make a gutsy decision.

I really hope that he doesn’t take the low road, grab a few headlines, and speak for a plastic bottle collection system only; this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the game and legislate for the comprehensive deposit system we so urgently need – one which collects, and importantly recycles, all drinks containers, be they plastic, glass or aluminium.

It would be a costly mistake to limit it to one material, only to realise it as an error and change the system further down the line. We need a system that produces recycle rates for drinks containers of 90 per cent or more, as has been achieved in Norway, Germany and Lithuania.

To introduce a deposit return system that only collected half of the potential total would be as nonsensical as not introducing one at all.

As president of CPRE I understand the importance of this problem. From the Duke of Norfolk’s call to arms in 1946, to Bill Bryson’s Stop the Drop campaign first calling for a deposit return system in 2008, my plea is built on the fantastic work of all former CPRE presidents, the tens of thousands of countryside campaigners, CPRE members and supporters up and down the country.

The deposit system we have worked so hard for, for so long, must become a reality. Our beaches, rivers, cherished countryside and towns are under grave threat – we need to do all that we can to preserve our natural habitats for our own enjoyment and the wild inhabitants that call them home.

Michael Gove has the opportunity to make a landmark decision and change England’s environmental footprint forever. Let’s hope for the future of our countryside, towns and villages that he makes the right one.

Emma Bridgewater is president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, a pottery designer and businesswoman

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