#OneLess campaign is setting out to rid London of single-use plastic water bottles by 2021 – is this an opportunity for museums nationally to make a similar pledge?

“Every piece of plastic ever made still exists.” This is the sentence that resonated the most with my colleagues from the V&A when we attended the launch of the #OneLess campaign recently. My background is in ecology and conservation and I am only too aware of the longevity of traditional plastic especially in the marine environment.

In my role as Energy and Sustainability Manager for the V&A and the Museum of London I can see a wonderful opportunity to develop similar initiatives to rid museums of single-use plastic bottles.

The UK has some of the cleanest drinking water in the world and many museums provide water fountains and access to tap water already. The challenge is to develop this further. Change the packaging of water sold in cafes and gift shops, sell reusable bottles that can be refilled again and again as well as engaging and educating visitors. Many artists already use recycled plastic bottles to create stunning instillations with strong messages about the impact we have on marine life. The Bristol Whales project is one example.

The #OneLess team have done some of the hard work already. They have clearly identified the problem:

The Problem:

Marine plastic pollution is a serious and growing threat to ocean health.
The problem is pervasive. Scientists estimate that up to 14.6 million tonnes of plastic currently enter the ocean each year and if current trends continue unabated there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the ocean by 2025.

Plastic bottles are one of the most discernible items of marine litter and one of the easiest to deal with. We consume over 13 billion each year in the UK – over 200 per person –, only around half of which are recycled. Many make their way out to sea via wind and waterways.

Plastic leaches toxins into our ocean and ultimately into marine biota.
Estimates for plastic degradation in the ocean range from 450 to over
1,000 years, however in reality they never fully degrade. Rather, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, which themselves persist for centuries. As the plastic decomposes toxins leak out, entering the water column and accumulating in sediments. Plastic particles also adsorb toxic chemicals meaning that when plastics are eaten by marine creatures, these toxins may be transferred to the tissues of the animal.

Plastic debris in the ocean is having detrimental impacts on marine life.
It causes physical entanglement, suffocation and decreased mobility among marine creatures. By blocking their intestines, it is also causing animals to starve. Plastic has been found in the stomachs of a large variety of marine life including birds, invertebrates, marine mammals and planktivirous marine fishes. Scientists estimate that fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 – 24,000 tonnes of plastic each year.

The economic costs of marine plastic pollution are staggering. Experts estimate that the total annual natural capital cost to marine ecosystems of plastic littering is $13 billion.*

They have also developed some ways people can get involved and really make a difference:

How to get involved in #OneLess:

The #OneLess campaign invites you to make a personal commitment to the ocean by pledging to stop using single use plastic water bottles, replacing them with a refillable bottle. To make the pledge, take a selfie with your refillable bottle and tweet it @OneLessBTL using the hashtag #OneLess. You can also inspire and encourage others to take that same action. Together we can free our ocean from harmful plastic.

As a business or organisation, you can inspire your colleagues and customers to make the #OneLess pledge. We invite you to explore the possibility of removing all single-use plastic water bottles from your offices or retail outlets, encouraging the use of refillable bottles, installing drinking fountains where your colleagues and customers can fill up their refillable bottles, and offering alternatives to single-use plastic water bottles.*

*Information taken from documents available at https://www.zsl.org/conservation/habitats/marine-and-freshwater/one-less
Museums hold a special and unique place in society and can truly influence the way we experience the world. Museums need to have a voice on issues of local and global significance such as marine pollution and I see this as a great opportunity for museums to lead the country in developing a better way to stay hydrated. I will continue to work with individual members of staff and whole organisations to develop ways to participate in #OneLess and hope that you can find a way to spread the idea and take the pledge.

Julia Simpson
Energy and Sustainability Manager

* Featured image by Chris Jordan, “Plastic Bottles” 2007 depicting two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes

A footnote from Hilary Jennings, Happy Museum Director

“Single use plastic is a particular concern not only because of the resulting waste but because it is a poor use of a finite resource, oil.  Here is an event held in my local Transition group – Plastic From Oil well to Ocean – and a website encouraging individuals to give up single use plastic for a month (harder than it sounds!)”