Guest blog – Plastic shotgun cartridges by Caroline Bedell of BASC

BASC appointed Caroline Bedell as its executive director of conservation in October last year. Caroline has more than 25 years’ experience of the rural economy and environment. With a degree in rural land management, she qualified as a rural practice chartered surveyor.

Caroline spent the first 10 years of her career advising and managing rural property portfolios and advising clients on environment and conservation issues.

The second half of her career was spent with the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), where she worked at a national level on issues relating to public rights of way and open access.

It probably proves how ubiquitous plastic has now become in our lives that few people choose anything else for their shotgun cartridges.

Plastic cartridges may have become the norm, but they are not ‘traditional’, as Mark said in his blog, if you consider the entire history of shooting. In the very early days, cases were brass. And for the first half of the 20th Century, paper cartridges were the only widely-available option for the majority.

The arrival of plastic in wider society had a pretty dramatic impact. The shooting community quickly abandoned paper cartridges which, although coated in wax, could still swell if wet; with the UK’s weather, that was a real and obvious problem!

Non-lead ammunition, such as steel, has always been produced in plastic cases and with plastic wads (the inner workings of the cartridge that ‘cups’ the shot as it travels along the barrel). Steel, being harder than lead, has the potential to damage guns more easily and so the shot is held in the plastic cup to avoid the charge touching the barrels.

Plastic cases were eventually adopted over paper by manufacturers because the material is strong, cheap, lightweight, and easy to use. Margins for cartridge manufacturers are tight and so, like almost every other business in the world, if effective and cheaper alternatives become available, manufacturers will use them.

Few could have foreseen the current public clamour to consider the long-term impact of single-use plastics on our environment. And whether you support shooting or not, the challenges facing us now are little different to the issues challenging other sectors across the globe. The world has finally woken up to the potential adverse impact of plastics.

We should accept there are massive changes afoot in shooting and all of us should take personal responsibility to do our bit to influence positive change. Since Blue Planet II and the thought-provoking footage of the albatross parents feeding chicks bits of plastic, BASC members have been asking about the alternatives and what they can do to help.

Most shoots already insist on fibre wads, so that plastic is not left in the environment, and most game ‘Guns’ will use them as a matter of course. Manufacturers are responding to the changes in demand. Eley, for example, produce some of their cartridge range in paper cases with fibre wads.

Guns are encouraged to collect their cartridge cases from the field and compliance rates are pretty comprehensive. Plastic wads are less easily dealt with and manufacturers are striving to develop and market effective alternatives.

The message from Blue Planet II that plastic is bad and is damaging our planet is simple and powerful, but as with many other areas of life, implementing change isn’t quite as straight-forward. In the rush to move away from plastics, do we risk doing more harm than good?

Think of supermarket bags. Single-use plastic bags were banned and a minimum charge was introduced for all bags, but the problem is that a “Bag for Life” isn’t quite that. Most people will use it about as many times as the thinner single-use bags. A Bag for Life is thicker and so requires much more carbon to produce. To have the same impact on CO2 emissions as a single-use plastic bag you would need to reuse it around nine times.

And it gets worse. If you buy a cotton bag you would need to reuse it 400 times to get the same per-use carbon emissions as the humble single-use bag. So, we save the albatross but instead contribute to CO2 emissions and climate change?

BASC are working with partners in industry to find sustainable ways of using plastic and alternatives that don’t mortgage our tomorrows for a simple solution today. Therefore, it is important that manufacturers are given time to adapt to truly sustainable alternatives.

While those alternatives are developed, those who shoot can recycle cartridges and many are choosing to do so.

Companies like Agri-Cycle specialise in recycling cartridges and reusing the plastic and metal components. BASC is working with them to encourage shoots to collect cartridges to be recycled. Some cartridge suppliers are also offering recycling services.

BASC is actively raising awareness of recycling opportunities and encouraging networks to be developed where they do not currently exist. There will likely be a cost to this for the end user, but we pay it now without quibbling for bags at the check-out.

Those who shoot are taking this issue seriously and want to be in a better position to make informed choices on plastic, whether it’s a bag or a cartridge.


33 Replies to “Guest blog – Plastic shotgun cartridges by Caroline Bedell of BASC”

  1. Good to see BASC discussing this issue but I am afraid the blog contained a few inaccuracies and was dotted with the sort of complacent platitudes that too often typify the shooting community’s approach to environmental issues.

    Firstly, non-lead ammunition is already available without plastic wads. See here:

    There is therefore no need to use lead ammunition or plastic wads for smaller flying game (although I understand the larger steel shot used for wildfowling is still only available with plastic wadding – much of which will be distributed over water).

    And is Caroline Bedell really trying to tell us that paper cartridges might be as bad for the environment as plastic ones? She asserts that most people will only use a ‘bag for life’ about the same number of times as a single use plastic bag. Does she have a source to support that incredible claim? Certainly this is not my experience.

    We are told that “those who shoot can recycle cartridges and many are choosing to do so” but again no figures are given. I have only been able to find one company that recycles shotgun cartridges and they claim to have recycled 16 million cartridges last year. Admirable, but a back of the envelope calculation suggests that this represents a small percentage of all the cartridges fired. Consider, if ±12-16million pheasants are shot each year (approx one third of the ±35-50 million birds released) plus another ±3 million red-legged partridges, and half a million grouse, and if all these birds birds are killed on average every other shot (no doubt this varies with skill and location) that is at least 30 million cartridges being fired at driven birds alone. Shotguns are also used for lots of other types of shooting of course, from rough shooting to wildfowling, but I don’t even have a back of the envelope estimate for how many shots that adds up to, while clay shooting grounds fire many millions of shots each year.

    We are assured that most shoots already insist on fibre wads and most game ‘Guns’ will use them as a matter of course, but no statistics are provided to support this claim and so we are left to take it on faith. Having recently picked up more than a hundred plastic wads at a pheasant stand in the Severn Valley I am low on faith.

    How many driven shoots collect all their clients’ spent cartridges and then recycle them? I doubt even BASC know. But I suspect we have all seen plastic cartridges and plastic wads littering the countryside and I have recently observed metal bins being used to illegally burn thousands of cartridges on a pheasant shoot in Shropshire (reported to the Environment Agency). Those ‘Guns’ who conscientiously take their spent cartridges home only put them in the bin, from where they make their way to landfill.

    I applaud BASC for waking up to this long overlooked issue, but suggest they could do a lot better than make vague statements about what many ‘guns’ are allegedly doing. How about a survey of their members to see how many are using paper cartridges, how many are using fibre wads and how many are recycling used plastic cartridges? Then we’d have some figures to work with and a baseline to improve on.

    As ususal, the shooting community could be doing so much better.

    1. I have about 4 Bags for life that are about 3-4 years old, used every week! My others are a bit ‘younger’. They may outlive me!

    2. Think about it….30 million cartridges, with a MINIMUM load of 1oz of lead. 30 million ounces of lead-that’s a MINIMUM fired at driven birds per annum! And apart from some of it ending up within the bird’s carcases where else does the spent shot end up? Does any other Industry discharge toxic waste into the environment so blithely? I think it’s time BASC withdrew the ‘C’ from their title.

      1. I wish I understood the Contaminated Land Regs – can’t understand why the soil lead content of shooting grounds doesn’t affect the value of land, given the clean-up costs and other hassle. Or does it?

        1. I find it remarkable that farmers will buy land, at times for close to £10k/acre, without having had the soils analysed. I would have thought the banks would insist upon it. I know one chap who discovered his newly acquired land had an average pH of 7.9 thanks to the previous owners penchant for paper waste applications.

    3. ‘they claim to have recycled 16 million cartridges last year’
      I really find that claim hard to believe unless it is just from clay pigeon shooting. That would make sense. Clay pigeon cartridges have to be picked up and it would be easy and good PR to recycle them but i just don’t buy that shooters are picking up their cartridges on any scale and then recycling them.
      The other problem is the little disk that is shot out. Sorry i haven’t a clue what it is just know that on my sisters farm, where she has no shooting rights, last year i found scores of them in one small field along with scores of plastic cartridges.

      We are supposed to believe that the BASC is full of tree-hugging, eco-zealot, greenie, leftie, conservationists. Yes of course there will be some, i even know one but to have us believe that there isn’t an attitude problem within the shooting hobby and BASC is just bad spin.

      1. A while ago I was involved in a discussion in a Facebook Group about the material used in the ‘clays’ used in Clay Pigeon Shoots. I undertook a Farm Bird Survey which included a CP Shoot, all the cartridges were cleared up (easy, shooting from a static point), but the field was littered with brightly coloured shards of the clays which I assumed were plastic. However I was told that they are made from natural materials and would disappear over time. Subsequent visits showed little degeneration. Can anyone confirm the material.please?

          1. Many thanks Jonathan, I’m afraid I missed your reply, so didn’t see the link, which is most helpful. The ‘clays’ are a luminous orange so they are obviously multi-material but hopefully not too toxic. Just unsightly!

  2. It’s great to read this and hear that something is being done about plastic cartridges. But it’s what’s inside the cartridges that concerns most conservationists. I can remember Stuart Scull from BASC helping with the kite reintroductions in Northamptonshire years ago. He was there at one of the releases and was fantastically helpful in allaying concerns about kites held by local keepers – more helpful than anyone from any other shooting organisation. But now lead is killing some of those kites – not enough to stop them increasing, but unnecessary deaths all the same and deaths that slow the rate of increase and the spread to new areas. And the kites are not the only species that are affected. It’s simply that they have been well-monitored and so are highlighting a problem that will be having wider, if largely unrecorded, impacts on other species. Are you able to explain BASC’s views on this issue? Radio silence is, I’m afraid, interpreted by many (perhaps unfairly) as uncaring disinterest and is damaging the reputation of the organisation among conservationists. You have the C in your name so, please, what are your thoughts in relation to the lead in shotgun cartridges that is killing our predators and scavengers?

  3. So the shooters are happy to change from ‘traditional’ brass, to paper to plastic cartridge cases as it suits them. However, lead shot is ‘traditional’ so it can’t be changed??

    Also, the words about plastic bags are just wadding. On litter picks, I now have to pick up far far fewer plastic bags than I used to, and, like Mairi above, our reusable bags last far longer than is stated and then are themselves recycled.
    Pull the other one.

  4. When I first read this morning, before any replies were published, I was thinking ‘well maybe she has several points here?’ but thought better of commenting as my knowledge of this subject (other than that lead is bad for birds, people and the environment, and that plastic is bad) is almost non existent. It looks like my knowledge gap has been comprehensively filled by the comments here. Indeed, the only gap in the provision of non lead shot would appear to me to be due to a lack of demand by shooters, probably including that of the BASC executive director of conservation, although I may be wrong on that score. Anyway, thanks to Caroline Bedell for sticking her head above the parapet. Personally I’d like to see a guest blog from a shooter discussing their views on their actual use of non lead shot and their approach to conservation. Surely there must be some people….

  5. Good to see that BASC is at least talking about the problem. As others have mentioned my experience of bags for life is of long term use.The diversion into the cradle to grave scenarios for bags does not seem to be matched with one about various types of catridges.I also wonder about Caroline’s use of the word “clamour” when refering to public concern over plastic usage why not just stick with public concern?

    As she states the industry will use the cheapest materials it can,capitalism being what it is,so maybe the “cost” to shooters needs to be increase to encourage them to recycle. Maybe a tax of of say 10p a cartridge for plastic catridges similar to the tax on single use plastic bags would be a good idea!!

  6. It is good that BASC is trying to act to reduce the environmental impact of the use of shotgun cartridges by its members. Recovering spent cartridges and getting them recycled is going after very low-hanging fruit, though, and it is sad that this is not already universal practice.

    The exact number of times a ‘bag for life’ gets re-used is a bit a red-herring, but it is a fair point that a solution that addresses one environmental problem can potentially make another one worse (many biomass energy schemes would be a case in point). I don’t know how plastic wads compare with fibre wads in terms of overall impact but am prepared to accept that different options should be considered carefully in the context of relevant data before the industry opts for a solution to this problem.

    The more serious problem that Caroline Bedell does not engage with at all in her post, though, is the is the impact of lead shot. There is plenty of evidence for the harm lead does in the environment and tried and tested solutions that work perfectly acceptably in countries that have banned lead shot. It would have been more interesting to hear what BASC’s Director of Conservation thinks about this issue and how the use of lead can be phased out (or if she thinks that this is not necessary, the grounds on which she bases her view).

    It was good that Caroline had the courage to come and make her case on a forum where she could expect her views to come under fire but a great shame that having chosen to do so she ducked the most important issue.

    1. “a great shame” – to be fair it is a response to the 22 January blog about plarstic cartridge litter which also did not include the word “lead”

        1. Fair comment maybe, but now she has been asked directly about lead and because of the ‘C’ in BASC it will be ‘a great shame’ and look rather odd if she simply ignores the question. Is BASC ashamed of its position on lead?

          1. To which I would add that she chose to write a response to Mark’s post about plastic cartridges but did not do so in response his rather more frequent posts about lead (I assume that if she had done so Mark would not have refused to post it). In any case I would like to see a post from her in which she either announces BASC moves to eliminate the use of lead ammunition or explains why she thinks that is not required.

    1. Random22 – well they may be, but on those two issues they are doing something about this one and could easily do something about lead. The fact that the shooting industry does not solve the lead issue now, themselves, quickly is a bit stupid of them. But if they did – you would still criticise them wouldn’t you?

  7. With reference to Ian Carter’s post, its worth remembering that it was the former director of BASC, John Swift, whom the CA and allies were chortling over when they managed to scupper the move away from lead shot. The lead in the cartridges and what they are made of is ‘low hanging fruit’ for shooting – good things they can do, not without some difficulty perhaps, without undermining the basics of their activities. Excuses and obfuscation tell their own story.

  8. Dear Caroline Befell,

    To whom should I send the used plastic cartridges that I find lying about on the droves of West Moor, Somerset?

    Yours sincerely

    Alick Simmons

  9. And yes, I know I’m late on this but I’ve been out all day. Nobody, but nobody has picked up on the fact that she goes on and on about CO2 in plastic bags and cotton bags but says not one word about all the CO2 released by burning our hillsides.
    Got off very lightly on that one didn’t she?
    Perhaps a series of three blogs. This. Lead. And then CO2.
    Conservation my a***.

  10. It is very odd that people of any type but particularly adult, apparently educated and often wealthy ones have to be told to pick up their litter when dropping it in the countryside and even more so when it is non- biodegradable.
    So sorry if i don’t get all excited at an initiative to state the bleeding obvious.
    These aren’t victims of slavery who have been locked up in a house for the whole of their lives. These aren’t social victim children of poor uneducated families. These are the people we are always told are lovers of wildlife, the only ones who understand the country ways blah blah, yet they don’t know the very basics of the countryside code.
    Yes of course i want the BASC to discipline their eco-vandal, anti-social children but please just get on with it and don’t make such a PR stunt out of something you should be ashamed of.
    Only the shooting lobby could make a virtue out what the ordinary person takes for granted.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Greenwash bullshit from degenerates who abuse wild animals for their own perverted pleasure.

  11. Prasad, it only applied to townies – real country people are allowed to make as much mess as they like – after all, they are the stewards of the countryside, aren’t they ?

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