By Alex Whiting
ROME, April 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The number of plastic bags found in the seas around Britain has significantly dropped since 2010 as European governments crack down on their use, researchers said on Thursday.
The percentage of trawls by fishermen that catch at least one plastic bag in the greater North Sea, off Britain's east coast, more than halved since 2010 to 16 percent, scientists in Britain and the Netherlands said.
Prior to 2010, the average was 40 percent, said the study which spanned 25 years.
Several European countries, including Ireland, Denmark, France and Britain, have introduced plastic bag levies since 2003, which have led to massive reductions in their use.
"The action of all these nations ... meant there are less bags being distributed, less bags ... escaping into the marine environment," Thomas Maes, co-author of the study, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If we think a bit more wisely about plastic, especially the single use items we use in our daily life, we can make big changes," said the marine scientist at Britain's governmental Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.
United Nations figures show 8 million tonnes of plastic - bottles, packaging and other waste - enter the ocean each year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain.
Scientists have urged tougher restrictions on plastic waste. In December, almost 200 nations agreed to limit plastic pollution of the oceans, warning it could outweigh fish by 2030.
In contrast to plastic bags, the researchers found the amount of plastic fishing debris - including nets, floats, buoys - caught has risen. Measures introduced to curb this will take a while to have an impact, Maes said.
Several European countries have introduced deposit return schemes for single use bottles in a bid to increase recycling.
Britain said it plans to follow later this year as plastic is wreaking havoc on the marine environment – killing dolphins, choking turtles and degrading precious habitats.
Plastics which have been in the seas for a while may sink into the sea floor, or be torn up and gradually turned into microplastics. They can take hundreds of years to degrade.
Cleaning up the oceans is a very complex issue but the crucial thing is to stop more plastic waste entering the seas, and then think about cleaning it up, Maes said.
"We can't be mopping the floor while the tap is still open," he said. (Reporting by Alex Whiting @Alexwhi, Editing by Katy Migiro. (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.