Study finds most common items discarded into the environment are drinks bottles and cans.
A new study co-authored by Keele scientists has found the majority of UK litter is made up of plastic, and the most common items discarded into the environment are drinks bottles and cans.
Researchers at Keele University worked alongside colleagues at Loughborough University, the University of Nottingham, and Nottingham Trent University, to reveal the types of materials and products that are being dumped in our hedgerows and waterways.
Published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, the study was conducted in collaboration with Planet Patrol - the environmental non-profit dedicated to tackling the pressing threats of pollution using its citizen science app to analyse and interpret data to drive change.
Each year, Planet Patrol launches clean up events across the UK for public participation. At these events or independently, volunteers add data to the app by tracking, logging, and removing litter from around land, coastlines, and waterways. Each piece is recorded and geolocated in the app - broken down by brand, material, and type, with each individual piece verified and photographed.
Researchers examined 43,187 items of litter found across the UK that were logged on the Planet Patrol app throughout 2020.
The researchers found:
- 63% of items were made of plastic, 14% metal, and 12% composite (a material made from two or more different materials)
- The majority of all litter (56%) had been used as packaging, with beverage containers accounting for 33.4% of all litter
- Though most items of litter were plastic-based, when it came to litter associated with the beverage industry, metal cans were highest in abundance (33.6%) and then plastic bottles (29.7%)
- Branding could be identified on 38.8% of all the logged litter - 26% of the brand-bearing litter was associated with the Coca-Cola Company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and PepsiCo.
They have described the findings as ‘surprising’ given the European-wide initiatives in place that look to reduce single-use plastic, and highlight the disconnect between the findings and the focus of environmental legislation and policy.
Dr Antonia Law, Senior Lecturer in Geography at Keele University, who co-authored the study, said: "This study highlights that although plastic and in particular drinks packaging is the dominant type of litter in the environment, there are also other types of materials that end up in the environment as litter. Some of these alternative materials are often marketed as greener, but they are still a problem in the environment and the full extent of their impact is largely unknown.
"Corporate policies focus on the type of material used in their products rather than the long-term environmental fate of the material once it is in the environment. As new legislation and policies are introduced to reduce the volume of plastic entering the environment, the switch to plastic alternatives and their presence and impact on the environment needs to be monitored to judge the effectiveness of their implementation. This dataset can act as a baseline to assess the success of future legislation and policy."
The researchers hope to build on this research by exploring differences in the types of litter that are found by app users in different countries.
They will also monitor the UK dataset over the next few years and assess how profiles of litter change over time, and the impact of legislation and policy changes.
The full paper, titled ‘Planet Patrolling: A citizen science brand audit of anthropogenic litter in the context of national legislation and international policy’, can accessed via the Journal of Hazardous Materials website.
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