I DO love a new Scrabble word. I acquired a good one a year ago when I joined 100 or so volunteers clearing rubbish from Edinburgh's Cramond foreshore: nurdle, the name for the tiny pellets used as a raw material in the manufacturing of plastic products. But as the Great Nurdle Hunt wore on over the course of a sunny Saturday morning, the novelty of the word soon wore off.

Don't get me wrong, I was proud when I found my first one. But when you start spotting them you can't stop. And by the time you have a handful and everyone else on the beach has a handful and you've pooled those handfuls into larger bags and those same bags also contains coffee cups, sanitary pads, disposable nappies, condoms, cotton buds and plastic bottles – so many plastic bottles! – you realise that even your one short stretch of littoral is literally choked with rubbish. And so you start to curse the nurdle and everything it represents.

In Penzance, at the opposite corner of the UK, they call nurdles “mermaid's tears”. On any given day you can fill around 30 bin bags with them and other plastic detritus on the town's beach. Residents regularly do, and were so appalled by what they found that last year, they decided to do something about it: they lobbied the town council and local chambers of commerce, spoke to schools and businesses and drew commitments from those bodies to reduce their use of plastic. Eventually around 30 businesses pledged to remove single-use plastics from their premises and in December the Cornish town became the first in the UK to be awarded Plastic Free status under a scheme run by the environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage.

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Those are two small stories about plastic on beaches and local people trying to do something about it. Now some big facts: in 1950, we produced an annual 1.5 million tonnes of plastic waste globally. In 2016, that figure had risen to 320 million tonnes annually and much of the 88 per cent of it that isn't recycled is washing into our oceans at the rate of around eight million pieces a day. The effect is devastating, as you'll know if you watched David Attenborough's Blue Planet II. (UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove did. He has said he was “haunted” by it.)

Others have had similarly unsettling experiences but at first hand. Fifteen miles off the coast of Honduras there's an “island” of plastic and styrofoam which has been documented by underwater photographer and environmental campaigner Caroline Power.

“Everywhere we looked, plastic bags of all shapes and sizes,” she told The Daily Telegraph. “Chip bags, ziplocks, grocery, trash, snack bags, other packaging. Some were whole and the rest were just pieces. Sadly, many turtles, fish, whales, and seabirds will mistake those bits of plastic for food.” Many will die as a result.

The “island” is almost five miles long and at its widest – a distance of two miles – Power saw “trash lines that stretched from horizon to horizon”. No wonder the United Nations has called the issue of marine plastic “a planetary crisis”.

The seas around the UK fare little better. More numbers: British coastlines average around 5,000 items of plastic per mile of beach, with around 150 of those being plastic bottles. You'll find plenty of disposable coffee cups too, just some of the 2.5 billion we throw away every year (it rises to 58 billion globally). You can go on and on with the figures – there are five trillion pieces of microplastic in the oceans; around 20,000 plastic bottles are sold every second; the average “lifespan” of a plastic shopping bag is 12 minutes – but pretty soon you'll be drowning in them, so what's the point?

Still, the numbers do carry weight. So do piecemeal, grassroots community efforts such as beach clear-ups and plastic-free town initiatives. And so, increasingly, do those social media users who post photographs of excessive supermarket packaging to shame companies into acting.

Just last week we saw two of the giants roused to remedial action when shrink-wrapped coconuts and something called cauliflower steaks brought down the wrath of green-minded shoppers on Sainsbury's and Marks And Spencer respectively. The latter have since said they will stop selling the £2.50 cauliflower slices, while Sainsbury's boss Mike Coupe told the BBC that he'd be “asking some questions about why we wrap coconuts in plastic”. He also admitted what everyone else already knew – that it was “daft”.

More than that, however, governments are now acting too, adding to the feeling that we are at, or near, a point of critical mass where plastic's ethical and environmental acceptability is concerned. To borrow a slogan from the sexism-battling and equality-promoting #MeToo movement – another powerful force which will shape public debate over the next 12 months – 2018 could be the year we say time's up for the nurdle and for disposable plastic products in general. If there's a version of the pink pussy hat for anti-plastic campaigners, there's going to be a lot of people taking up knitting over the coming months.

It's certainly true that every day of 2018 seems to have brought another high-level plastic-related initiative aimed at tackling the problem. Just last week the EU announced that it might begin to tax plastic packaging, in part to plug a budget gap caused by the UK's departure. The following day at Holyrood, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced that the Scottish Government was to ban cotton buds. This ban, she said, would send “a clear sign of our ambition to address marine plastics and demonstrate further leadership on this issue … Despite various campaigns, people are continuing to flush litter down their toilets and this has to stop”. A deposit scheme on plastic bottles has been mooted too.

And of course we had Prime Minister Theresa May's 25-Year Environmental Plan, unveiled in a speech last Thursday. In it, May called plastic waste  “one of the great environmental scourges of our time” and made bold promises such as the elimination of all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. She also proposed initiatives such as a tax on takeaway containers and plastics-free aisles in supermarkets, and stated that she would extend the 5p levy on plastic shopping bags to all shops, regardless of size (the Scottish Government initiated a universal charge on plastic carrier bags in 2014, which led to an 80 per cent fall in use. The Westminster Government initiated a limited version of the same law a year later but, randomly, only for shops with more than 250 employees). “In years to come,” she said, “I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly.”

Not everyone was cheering, however, and not everyone was convinced. “No legislative backing for a set of vague, very long-term ambitions,” tweeted Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. “Nothing new at all on climate.” It was, she added, “entirely underwhelming”. Greenpeace called it “a missed opportunity” and Michael Gove's opposite number at Westminster, Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman, called the plan “a cynical attempt at rebranding the Tories’ image” which contained “only weak proposals”. She probably had in mind David Cameron's infamous “hug a husky” stunt, the 2006 visit to the Arctic he made shortly after becoming Conservative Party leader, in which he talked about climate change and promised “the greenest government ever”. That went well, didn't it?

But the moves May outlined will still be popular – particularly among the young voters who overwhelmingly failed to back the Conservatives at the last General Election. Research by marketing analysts Mintel released on the day of the speech showed that 75 per cent of Britons think takeaway restaurants should use recyclable containers and 51 per cent of those aged 20-24 back a price increase on takeaway coffee, if it results in cups which are 100 per cent recyclable or compostable. This is the so-called Latte Tax. Nationally we spend £3.4 billion in coffee shops annually and 90 per cent of people in the 18-27 age range will have bought at least one takeaway coffee last year. That's a lot of empty cups.

“The BBC’s Blue Planet II series really catapulted plastic pollution back into the public debate, and some businesses are already taking the lead in helping ‘nudge’ consumers to play their part in reducing waste,” says Mintel analyst Trish Caddy, commenting on the findings.

Interestingly, a separate report issued in December highlighted the growing power that consumers will have to influence brands in 2018. “Concerns over safe packaging disposal will increasingly colour consumers' perceptions of different packaging types, and impact shopper purchase decisions,” it found. “Only by communicating that a brand is working towards a solution will this growing barrier to purchase be overcome.”

One venue aiming to cut back on its use of cups is the Butternut Squash Cafe in the upmarket Edinburgh suburb of Portobello. Last month it became Scotland's first Cup Conscious Cafe, an initiative started in Australia to promote the use of customers' own, reusable coffee cups, which forms part of a wider “cup-conscious” movement.

However Mintel's Trish Caddy expresses scepticism about how far such a movement can go in reducing waste. “The hassle factor of carrying around reusable coffee cups could limit the popularity of schemes that reward people for doing so,” she says. “A more effective solution would be to make things easier for consumers by making cups more easily recyclable by, for example, using 100% biodegradable packaging rather than recycling the plastic.” 

She has a point, because even if cups are collected for recycling, the issue of who does it and where is going to become increasingly problematic. The majority of our collected plastic waste has previously been recycled in China, but with the Chinese now getting serious about pollution and the environment – in 2017 they installed 55 gigawatts of solar power capacity, greater than the existing capacity of any other country, and last month they launched the world's largest carbon emissions trading market – that has changed. In July they announced that they were banning the import of 24 kinds of waste, including plastic. Asked about the repercussions of that move in November, Michael Gove floundered. “I don’t know what impact it will have,” he admitted. “I will be completely honest – I have not given it sufficient thought.” Clearly this was before he was “haunted” by Blue Planet II.

The Chinese ban came into force on January 1. Some local councils in the UK – yours perhaps – may have to stop recycle collections as a result, while waste companies resort to incineration or landfill. “We have relied on exporting plastic recycling to China for 20 years and now people do not know what is going to happen,” UK Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin said earlier this month. “People are very worried.” So even as the issue of plastic becomes a political hot potato, it seems it isn't just on our beaches that the stuff is building up: the UK's recycling centres are choked with it too. Maybe that will stir even more people to action.

So what does the future look like where plastic is concerned? If you're an optimist, then habits will change fast and plastic – the wonder material which formed the backdrop to so much innovation and commerce in the 20th century – will reach the end of its useful life. We'll go back to using wood or ceramics or something new that's less environmentally damaging. Either way, we'll radically alter our patterns of consumption and the dolphins will thank us.

If you're a pessimist, on the other hand, you'll assume there are only so many attention-grabbing, awareness-raising nature programmes David Attenborough can make, and only so much that governments are prepared to do if, as some suspect, their environmental credentials aren't quite what they seem. And let's not forget the vested interests who have little to gain by cutting back on plastics and everything to lose – the plastics industry itself and the food and soft drinks manufacturers who use its products. They all have deep pockets and they and their lobbyists will push back hard against initiatives such as a bottle deposit scheme.

One thing's certain, however: even if 2018 is the year we finally wake up and smell the coffee, the plastic choking the planet is one problem we can't just throw away.