5 Sustainability Issues Affecting UK

09 July 2018 by Rachel Frost
blog author

At our sustainability recruitment agency and in our daily lives, sustainability issues are a subject at the forefront of our minds when we look at the impacts everyday living has on the environment.

Ultimately, we are responsible for ensuring we do not deplete our precious supply of natural resources and must work collectively and harmoniously to keep our planet spinning with minimal damage inflicted.

From eating less meat to reducing our carbon footprint when travelling, there are many ways we can live more sustainably.

But there are many environmental issues in the UK and Acre has taken a look at five of the culprits.

1. Plastic Pollution

Plastic is not fantastic, environmentally, as we’re all too aware. We’ve ditched the plastic straws and gone back to basics with more environmentally friendly retro-style paper versions (which, let’s face it, were good enough for us when we were milk guzzling kids at school) and now many firms are leaping onto the eco bandwagon and using recycled plastic or alternative materials in their products. But currently, it’s not enough.

With only a third of the UK’s annual 1.5m tonnes of recyclable plastic waste being recycled, plastic pollution is big news this year and we have a large battle on our hands to protect the longevity of our planet.

Why is plastic catastrophic for marine life?

This year’s World Environment Day chose plastic pollution as its theme and it’s no wonder. As much as 40 per cent of plastic produced is packaging, used just once and then thrown away and as we know, the plastic crisis is catastrophic for marine life (eight million tonnes of waste plastic ends up in the sea each year).

Plastic is killing mussels, dolphins, turtles – the list goes on. Last year, a report for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that, by 2050, the amount of plastic in the seas will outnumber the fish.

A 2022 study [GS1] published in Nature Climate Change found that as much as 90% of marine life are at risk of extinction by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced. This would impact as many as 25,000 species living in the top 100 metres of the world’s oceans, including fish, plants, bacteria and protozoans.

When you also factor in rising water pollution from the dumping of chemicals and trash into the ocean, which is affecting the health of all water-based ecosystems, the number of marine environmental issues that need to be tackled appears to be ever growing.

How are humans affected by plastic?

But we hardly come out unscathed ourselves. Humans are digesting plastic, via fish we consume (who have eaten the plastic that we’ve discarded). It’s a lose lose situation unless we all ditch the plastic, use alternatives where possible and are mindful about the packaging of the products we buy.

For example, crisp packets are made from a laminate of polypropylene and foil, developed to keep crisps fresh and crunchy by making the packet air tight. The material, which can be multi-layered, is difficult to recycle and slow to degrade. But people will of course continue to eat crisps so the packaging, unless manufactured using alternative materials, will carry on polluting our streets, countryside and sea.

The widespread use of plastic is one of the most prominent environmental issues that needs to be resolved, as it is now estimated that we could be eating thousands of bits of microplastic every year. Data compiled from a series of studies found that we may be consuming as much as 52,000 [GS2] particles a year, a figure that could increase up to 121,000 particles when air inhalation is taken into account.

How are some companies encouraging sustainability?

Adidas has taken a big green stride forward in its sustainability plan by making one million shoes from recycled plastic (retrieved from the ocean) and manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble are introducing recycled plastic to the bottles in their haircare range.

Nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute around the world. In 2015, Americans purchased about 346 bottles per person—111 billion plastic beverage bottles in total. Here in the UK, many coffee shops are encouraging customers to buy a reusable cup or pay less for a coffee if they supply their own cup from home. We all need to act on these UK sustainability issues. Isn’t it time we all woke up and smelled the coffee (and then reused the cup, of course)?

2. Water Shortage

We are only a couple of weeks into a proper summer and already ‘water shortage’ are the words on the street. Hosepipes and sprinklers will be made temporarily redundant again if the heatwave continues. Schools have been forced to close as a result of a lack of water already.

Rainfall during summer could also come in the form of shorter, bigger downpours, due to climate change, causing an unusual situation where flooding and drought could exist at the same time.

In recent years, the threat of long-term water shortages has become one of the biggest environmental issues in the UK, although a large proportion of the population are unaware of the full extent of the problem.

Will the water shortage problems worsen?

The Environment Agency has warned that England is facing water supply shortages by 2050 unless rapid action is taken to curb water use and wastage. The agency has said enough water to meet the needs of 20 million people is lost through leakage every day (approximately three billion litres of water).

It is expected that population growth, unsustainable land use and the impact of climate change will add to supply pressures and so people are being urged by the agency to use sensible amounts of water at home and have a personal water target.

In 2016, 9.5 trillion litres of freshwater were extracted from the country’s rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, among others. However, both groundwater and surface water usage were seen to be at unsustainable levels.

Why will England's water supply be under increased strain in the future?

It is expected that by 2026 in England alone (not including the rest of the UK), the population is expected to be made up of 58.5 million people, which will create new pressures in areas where water availability is already under strain.

An Environment Agency report warns: “Projections suggest that if no action is taken to reduce demand and increase supply of water, most areas will not meet demand by the 2050s.

“Even low population growth and modest climate change scenarios suggest significant water supply deficits by the 2050s, particularly in the south-east.”

3. Biodiversity

Plants, sea creatures, bees…these are all crucial to a healthy ecosystem, which is boosted by each species on our planet.

We will enjoy a greater variety of crops if there is a larger number of plant species on our planet but this is only one reason we need to protect biodiversity.

There are many environmental challenges to overcome, according to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which invests public money in world-leading science to help us sustain and benefit from the natural resources. NERC works closely with policymakers and industry to ensure our knowledge can support sustainable economic growth and wellbeing in the UK and around the world.

What are some of the threats to biodiversity?

One such threat to biodiversity is vitamin deficiency in some species of fish and birds which is linked to population decline. Low vitamin B1 can impair their immune system and change reproductive behaviour. Possible causes include low intake due to changes to algae that produces thiamine (vitamin B1), or exposure to pollution.

Another biodiversity threat is the underestimation of soil carbon emissions, that are released as the Earth warms. It is less clear about the effect of warming deeper down, despite loss of carbon in shallow soil being understood, and the fear is that if a substantial amount of soil carbon is missing from the projections, global warming could progress more rapidly than anticipated, with serious impacts on humans and our environment.

How does deep water fishing affect biodiversity?

Deep water fishing with the use of lasers is another problem. This is new technology which could be adopted instead of bottom trawling the sea for high volumes of
wild seafood, as the latter damages marine environments and catches unintended animals and plants.

A targeted approach using wider nets and precision lasers could deliver a bigger catch with minimal damage and lower carbon but according to the Marine Conservation Institute, the best policy would be to end economically wasteful deep-sea fisheries, redirect subsidies to help displaced fishermen and rebuild fish populations in productive waters closer to ports and markets.

In a report published in the journal Marine Policy, marine ecologists, fisheries biologists, economists, mathematicians and international policy experts show that, with rare exceptions, deep-sea fisheries are unsustainable.

4. Climate Change

The earth’s temperature has increased noticeably over the past half century and more than nine out of ten climate scientists agree carbon emissions – that we create – are the main cause of global warming.

Some of the hot weather we are currently experiencing is typical of the season, but if it becomes too out of character, we can’t avoid hearing about the perils of climate change. And it’s a real problem.

What unique challenges does climate change present in the UK?

Our UK weather is infamously unpredictable and we are all only too aware of the four seasons in one day possibility. Easter brought snow and warm sunny days almost simultaneously, leaving us unsure whether we needed don Raybans or snowboots. It was a crazy combination of ice lollies and building snowmen, just weeks apart.

Now we are enjoying a “proper” summer but climate change is impacting the timing and nature of rainfall in England, causing hotter summers and warmer, wetter winters. It is a culprit for the water shortage issue we’ve already mentioned.

Why will global warming be so detrimental to our climate?

While it may appear that summer has arrived as normal and we can all enjoy the long, hot days of bright sunshine, the rising temperatures pose a deadly threat to life on our planet. It adds to the long list of environmental problems in the UK and is one of the main causes of concern about how dramatically our day-to-day lives could be impacted in the very near future.

Global warming is expected to be the greatest cause of species extinctions this century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a 1.5°C average rise may put 20-30 per cent of species at risk of extinction. If the planet warms by more than 3°C, most ecosystems will struggle.

We have to take responsibility for this, considering the amount of fossil fuels we have burnt, and the meat we have consumed (cows contribute 3 per cent of Britain’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and 25 to 30 per cent of its methane).

Whilst at first it may be difficult to understand how eating a piece of meat could damage the planet, when you take a closer look at the food supply chain, including growing livestock numbers, storage issues and transportation requirements, it quickly adds up to one of the Earth’s major environmental issues.

5. Air Pollution

Sometimes you just want a breath of fresh air but it’s not always as simple as that. Toxic air is a major cause of many ailments in the UK.

While polluted air doesn’t kill people directly, it shortens the lives of approximately 40,000 people a year in the UK via heart or lung problems and worsens symptoms for asthma sufferers. In fact, analysis by Asthma UK found that poor air quality is responsible for triggering around 337,500 asthma attacks [GS3] in those registered with the condition in London.

How bad is the air pollution in the UK?

Actually, air pollution in the UK has been slowly dropping (excluding ammonia as a result of farming) but nitrogen oxide (NOx) and harmful particulates limits are still being breached in major UK cities like London. Not good, as it causes the environment to be acidic and corrosive. London’s air is one of the dirtiest in Europe and in 2016 the government was ordered by the High Court to come up with a plan to clean up air across the UK in the shortest possible time.

Buses, taxis, machinery and industry are contributors to the pollutants in the air we breathe and the biggest proportion of pollution in UK cities comes from road transport in general.

Why are diesel cars a massive problem for sustainability?

Sustainability has become the new buzz word in recent years, with brands and organisations all seemingly eager to search for new solutions. However, the continued use of diesel remains one of the biggest sustainability issues in the UK, threatening to undermine the good work being done elsewhere, and alternative sources are desperately needed on our roads to reduce our over reliance on traditional fossil fuels.

Diesel car manufacturers were accused of cheating emissions tests, when once upon a time we bought diesel cars because they were believed to be the greener option.

A 2016 study by the Department for Transport confirmed this, finding that all diesel cars tested produced more pollution on the road than in the laboratory – some emitted up to 12 times the EU maximum and Friends of the Earth is calling on the government to phase-out diesel vehicles by 2025.

Diesel vehicles are much more polluting than petrol cars on a local scale and while a more sustainable way to travel is to walk or cycle where possible, this isn’t always doable.

How does air pollution affect the health of the population?

This week a study revealed pollution is to blame for nearly 15,000 new cases of type 2 diabetes in Britain each year.

Figures have trebled for the number of people in the UK with type 2 diabetes over the last twenty years, costing the NHS around £14 billion a year.

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