Published on 14th August 2019


We chat to head of oceans for Greenpeace UK, Will McCallum, about the widespread problem of plastic pollution. Will is also the author of How to Give Up Plastic: A Guide to Changing the World One Plastic Bottle at a Time, published in 2018 by Penguin Life.


How did you get into environmental activism?

“I was politically active throughout school and sixth form, often on marches and campaigning, though without much focus. And then some time towards the end of my studies it gradually got clearer that unless we sort out the environment the rest of politics is relatively futile – and this realisation sparked my interest (and more studies), which got me involved in a number of groups, eventually ending up working at Greenpeace.” 

Where is all the plastic in our oceans coming from?

“It comes from all over the place – the problem with plastic is that once it is in the ocean it can be carried all over the world by the ocean currents. From frozen Arctic ice to the deepest trench in the Pacific, no matter which beach or river it starts its journey from, it automatically becomes a global problem. Much of the plastic we see in the oceans is stuff we use in our daily lives, sometimes it got there because it was littered, but more commonly it leaked in through landfill sites next to the ocean or next to a river. 

“The most commonly found items of plastic are bottles and bottle caps, plastic bags, cigarette butts, wet wipes and various other household items. However, roughly a third of plastic by weight in the ocean is microplastics, and it’s estimated that roughly a third of that is microfibres coming from synthetic clothing – tiny filaments of plastic that shed off polyester or nylon clothes in the wash. By buying more natural materials like cotton and trying to buy fewer clothes (fast fashion is also a major contributor to climate change) you can help reduce how many microfibres you’re responsible for.” 

What is the impact of plastic pollution – where does it all end up?

“Plastic is already causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds and sea creatures every single year – through choking or entanglement. But plastic also breaks down into tiny micro-plastics and these can end up being eaten by small fish, which get eaten by bigger fish, eventually being eaten by big predators – including us!” 

What is the worst example of plastic pollution you have seen?

“When I was in the Weddell Sea, the coldest sea on the planet, many thousands of miles away from any permanent human habitation, I was part of a team testing for microplastics. We found them in the water, in the freshly fallen snow, and we even came across a large group of fishing buoys. It was a horrible reminder that no matter how remote you are, the impact of humans is always felt.” 

What can we do to reduce our plastic waste on a household level?

“Reduction is really the only solution – don’t buy into the marketing ploys that want you to replace plastic with another material that supposedly biodegrades better. We have to look at options that don’t involve plastic. If you get a reusable water bottle, a reusable bag and a reusable coffee cup – and then pick one product you use often that’s made of plastic – something like wet wipes, or shower gel – and replace that with a reusable alternative (like a cloth flannel, or a bar of soap), then you’re going a long way to reducing your plastic impact.” 

Are supermarkets doing enough to tackle the problem? If not, what could they be doing?

“Absolutely not. There isn’t a major supermarket out there that is doing enough. They have to set clear reduction targets, and stick to them. 

“The plastic bag charge made a massive difference, cutting use by 85 per cent. However, to get the scale of change we need they have to start thinking beyond individual item bans or charges and develop a proper reduction strategy.”  

Are there any particularly impressive innovations that deal with plastic recycling?

“Often the best solutions are quite old-fashioned. Water fountains, buying in bulk, making your own lunch. All the solutions are out there, we just need to deploy them at scale.” 

Which country, if any, has the best strategy for dealing with plastic waste and what can the rest of the world learn from them?

“I think the Seychelles banning the import of single use plastic was a major step – as a small island nation they simply didn’t have a choice but to take radical action. Now that more and more countries are saying no to importing our plastic waste, it may not be too long before the UK comes to the same conclusion.”

Plastic waste is getting a lot of attention right now but is there something else that we should be thinking of or doing to protect our oceans?

“Yes. Climate change is the single biggest threat facing the health of our oceans, shortly followed by overfishing. Governments have to start listening and responding to the science which is very clear when it says we need to stop burning fossil fuels, and stick to evidence-based fishing limits. We are all voters and we can all put pressure on our politicians to do just this.”


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