Collecting rubbish - manila, philippines
© aldarinho/Shutterstock

Throwaway society to circular economy

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 13 April 2018

Rubbish that damages life is a recent human invention. There is no such thing in nature: everyone’s debris is someone else’s raw material in one big “circle of life”

Plastic rubbish
© Pabak Sarkar

When HRH the Prince of Wales, told the Our Ocean summit last autumn that the world has reached a critical point where plastics are “now on the menu”, he probably raised quite a few eyebrows. Eyebrows which, incidentally, may have been finished off and neatened up with a cotton bud, before it was popped down the loo, plastic stick and all.

Clare Fischer,
MCS PR Manager

We run the Great British Beach Clean every year, and each year the evidence points to a growing crisis. The remnants of all human life seem to arrive on a beach at some point. You don’t believe it? Here are some of the items we’ve collected:

Christmas coasts Christmas on the beach like they do down under? We could just about do it with what we’ve found. An artificial tree, fairy lights, festive sticky tape, decorations and a TV to watch the Queen’s Speech on!

Wild walkies Dogs love beaches but when they go home they leave behind leads, collars, bowls, ball throwers and lots and lots of tennis balls.

Looking good We found just about everything you need for your beauty regime – toothbrushes, razors, dental floss, combs, hair bands, hair clips, perfume bottles, lipstick, mascara, contact lens holders and of course heaps of wet wipes.

Out on the town You could have a great night out with what we have collected – socks, pants, bras, earrings, high heels, belts, beer bottles and lots of drinking straws. To reduce the amount of litter that’s in our seas we need to take a long hard look at the way we’ve all chosen to live. Our world has been filled with cheap things that we don’t value. We’re leaving the content of our lives behind on our travels, or we’re popping it down the loo, or stuffing it in the bin and letting it go off to landfills. Much of this life litter is ending up in our seas and because so much of it is made of plastic we’re lumbering our oceans with a massive, massive problem.

Plastic Pile - FB

When the MCS President, HRH the Prince of Wales, told the Our Ocean summit last autumn that the world has reached a critical point where plastics are “now on the menu”, he probably raised quite a few eyebrows. Eyebrows which, incidentally, may have been finished off and neatened up with a cotton bud, before it was popped down the loo, plastic stick and all.

Prince Charles was referring to the fact that plastic is increasingly found in fish. The problem is, whatever people tell you, we all love a bit of plastic. It’s so widespread we don’t even notice it. When was the last time you lovingly fondled a food container, marvelling at its plasticity? ‘I must go and buy a plastic milk bottle,’ said nobody, ever.

In the 1930s, 40s and 50s there was frenzied plastic production – the first toothbrush with nylon tufts was manufactured, commercial production of polystyrene began, Velcro was patented, and Lego and Barbie became toddler favourites. It was a great time – here was a product that just went on and on. People loved it. Plastic was ‘the’ product – versatile, cheap, long lasting. What on earth could go wrong? Well, it seemed like nothing then. But we’re paying for it now because plastic is long lived and when it’s finally chucked away it never really goes away. Of course we all know that now. But back then we were just loving filling our homes with plastic stuff from furniture to toys, cooking utensils to clocks.

When we loved metal and wood and wool, life was very different. We were poor but we were happy – or at least that’s what our grandparents told us! We did that funny thing of handing stuff down to the next generation. Was your childhood lived in other people’s clothes as you played with toys that had seen better days, rode on a bike that had been so rebuilt it wasn’t the original anymore? Things lasted. We reused and recycled – then we stopped. We leave anything and everything behind these days. Can you imagine having gone camping in the 50s and 60s and leaving your tent behind? Go to any summer festival from Glasto to Creamfields and you can’t move for abandoned tents when everyone’s gone home.

Now back to Prince Charles and his speech at the Our Oceans conference. He told delegates the irreversible damage to the Great Barrier Reef is a “serious wake-up call” for nations, and what is needed is a circular economy which allows plastics to be

“recovered, recycled and reused instead of created, used and then thrown away.”

Now the circular economy isn’t a new concept. It’s moved from an idea to be a ‘thing’. It’s all about designing out waste to minimise negative impacts. At MCS we see this as a way to reduce, among other things, marine litter. Not familiar with the circular economy? Here’s a crash course.

Dealing with waste is a rather unprecedented issue in the history of our planet. The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as waste in nature. Everything, no matter how small or big, smelly or dirty, is reused by some other organism in one big “circle of life.” The law of nature is simple: everyone’s debris becomes someone else’s raw material. That was until we invented, just a few decades ago, materials that would take centuries to decompose and that would, in the meantime, be beneficial to few and lethal to many species. We humans invented useless and damaging and poisonous litter. Litter not just unprecedented in persistence but also unimaginable in quantity.

How did that happen? The transition from a world where the same watch and trousers would be passed on from father to son sometimes for generations, to that of fast-fashion and plastic coloured watches, made to last one season and then chucked, is a very recent one. In the beginning it was simply a corollary of progress and the marvellous wonders of technological progress, the efficiency of “machines.” Then something changed radically, when manufacturers started designing items that would fall apart in a pre-defined time. We’re not talking about plastic cutlery, or packaging but phones, tvs, stereos: all designed to break or become old just in time for the new one to be launched on the market.

It is called “programmed obsolescence”, basically your expensive smartphone has just enough components and materials to work very well for one or two years before it starts deteriorating and then stops working. And if it doesn’t break down it will not be able to run the new software updates efficiently. Essentially, since profit comes with economies of scale, and economies of scale come with great quantities, our system needed to keep producing more and more and more. So, since there are only so many blenders and phones a household needs we started building stuff that would fall apart or that was not possible, or convenient, to repair.

And here we are, drowning in rubbish. The good news is that thinkers and scientists have been on the case for a while now. The fight against the tide of waste has seen many phases. At different times we’ve called it different names (remember the 3 Rs? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? That then became 5 with Refuse and Rot and then 6 with Redesign). Now, as a clear reference to the “circle of life” that wastes nothing, we call it the “circular economy.” The main ambition is very simple: to replicate the way nature works. How? Imagine a world where everything is designed to either last, or to become something else (recycled in its entirety or in its parts/materials) once its lifetime is over, its mission accomplished.


The transition from a throwaway society to a circular economy will require radical changes in the way we produce and consume. And the way our governments in the UK use their taxes plays a massive role. But, just like that Chinese philosopher once said: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a simple step. The transition to a new cleaner world starts today with “us” finally remembering to tell the bartender: “I do not want a straw in my drink, thank you.” Also, it starts with you embracing and supporting our campaign: the time has come to stop the plastic tide. Thank you.

This article was written for our winter 2017 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

Actions you can take

  1. Join the Plastic Challenge
  2. Refuse straws at your local restaurant/bar
  3. Download straw graphic for cafe/bar counter
  4. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2019
  5. Help us stop the plastic tide
  6. Download our 'Living without single-use Plastic' guide
  7. Share #stopsucking
  8. Download our straw poster

Did you know?…

Since the carrier bag charge came in across the UK, the Great British Beach Clean has recorded almost 50% fewer bags on beaches

To date, our beach cleans have removed over 11 million pieces of litter

UK Seas provide us with resources from fish to renewable marine energy