Here is a global solution to the plastic waste crisis – and A$443 million to get it started



Informal settlments line a plastic-choked river in Manila, Philippines.
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Andrew Forrest, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia

Since the mass production of plastic began, almost six billion tonnes of it – approximately 91% – has remained in our air, land and water. Plastic production and use is embedded in the global economy, and in our natural environment. This culture of waste is clearly perilous and unsustainable.

Our paper, published today in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, argues that only a global, market-driven intervention can stop the plastic tide.

It is backed by a commitment by the Minderoo Foundation, chaired by the lead author, of up to US$300 million (A$443 million) to help establish the scheme and ensure its integrity.

The paper argues that the intervention – a voluntary financial contribution paid by global manufacturers of fossil fuel-based plastic – would drive a system-wide transition to recycled plastic. Our modelling shows that this would lead to a dramatic slowdown in the production of new plastic – creating huge benefits for marine life and human health.

We must turn off the tap

Plastic takes so long to break down that every piece produced since its inception in 1856 still exists today, except the small share we’ve burned into poisonous gases.

Many strategies to address the plastic problem have been proposed to date, and efforts have been commendable. But we are bailing out a bathtub with a thimble – while the tap is running.

We have identified a simple solution: a voluntary industry contribution for new fossil fuel-based plastic production.

We believe this technical and financial initiative would level the playing field by making recycled plastic more competitively priced, establishing the right market conditions for a circular plastics economy.

We know from our discussions with industry that this would release technology, in particular chemical or ‘polymer-to-polymer’ recycling, that is proven today but cannot yet compete economically with new fossil fuel-derived plastic. Increased demand from recyclers would transform plastic waste into a commodity, driving plastic recovery and creating incentives for industry to invest and transition. This is already true for materials like aluminium cans, which are highly recycled because the metal has an inherent value.

Ascension Island is thousands of miles from land, yet even there oceanic wildlife can’t escape plastic waste.
University of Western Australia – Marine Futures Lab / Ascension Island Government

By mobilising new technology to increase recycling rates, plastic flows to the ocean and the broader environment would slow, and hopefully cease altogether. A circular plastics economy would also significantly reduce carbon emissions created through new plastic production.




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Our relationship with plastic is broken

The vast majority of plastics produced to date are derived from fossil fuels. Plastics are made from polymers – long molecular chains comprising smaller carbon-based molecules. Oil and gas are the cheapest materials from which to produce raw polymer resin. This resin is then made into plastic by adding dyes, plasticizers and other chemicals.

Fossil fuel-based plastic has countless uses and is produced very cheaply. Plastic recycling has largely been overlooked because, in the developed world at least, our waste is carted away from our homes and often shipped overseas. This leaves little incentive to tackle our plastic addiction.

But our “out of sight, out of mind” mentality cannot persist.

In 2017, China banned imports of 24 types of solid waste, mainly plastics. This revealed the extent to which developed countries had been sending their waste problem elsewhere. In Australia this led to recyclables being stockpiled, landfilled or sent to countries ill-equipped to handle them.




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Media coverage is also increasingly highlighting the environmental impact of our throwaway culture: plastic washed up on beaches, filling the guts of endangered marine animals and accumulating en masse in circular ocean currents.

This is an abhorrent market failure, which conservatively costs US$ 2.2 trillion (A$3.25 trillion) each year in environmental and socioeconomic damages not taken into account by business or the consumer.

A turtle with a plastic bag fragment in its mouth. Plastic waste in the world’s oceans is devastating some marine life.
Melbourne Zoo

The Sea The Future initiative

We propose an initiative led by global manufacturers in which they make a voluntary financial contribution for each unit of new fossil fuel-based plastic produced. We have dubbed the initiative “Sea The Future”.

Placing a value on plastic both drives its collection and diverts new production away from fossil fuels. The contribution, estimated in our paper as averaging US$500 (A$738) per tonne, would be key to encouraging the small number of global resin producers to choose recycled plastic over fossil fuel as their raw material.

The cost would be passed onto consumers via trillions of individual plastic items. The impact would be negligible – say, a few cents on a cup of coffee – and so is likely to gain broad public acceptance.

Anticipating the concerns of regulators that such a move could be perceived as anti-competitive, the lead author has engaged with global law firms to ensure that the initiative is compatible with free market competition law in countries across the world.

The contribution turns plastic waste into a cashable commodity, feeding the circular economy.

The estimated US$20 billion (A$29.5 billion) per year raised through the initiative would be used to help establish recycling infrastructure, aid industry transition and remediate the environment. Increased demand and a higher price for recycled material also promises to significantly improve the livelihoods of waste pickers – hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who currently carve meagre earnings from collecting plastic.




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The funds would be administered by a self-regulated global industry body, independently audited to ensure performance, accountability and transparency. To address concerns over governance costs, the Minderoo Foundation has committed to underwrite up to five years’ worth of audit fees totalling US$260 million (A$384 million), plus cover US$40 million (A$59 million) in start-up costs, subject to appropriate conditions.

The future is circular

Public pressure is mounting for action on plastics – and what is bad for the planet is ultimately bad for business. The alternatives to an industry-led approach are less appealing. Plastic bans deny us a useful product upon which our economies rely; taxes typically go directly to general revenue and are unlikely to be applied to plastic waste management. So, tax-derived funds are seldom transferred between nations, ignoring the transboundary nature of plastic pollution.

Our global discussions with companies throughout the plastics supply chain have revealed that the vast majority recognise the need to move away from a linear plastics economy. They also understand that a global, market-based mechanism is the only path to achieving the system-wide transformation required.

Society discards over 250 million tonnes of valuable polymer, worth at least a US$ 1,000 per tonne recycled, in plastic waste each year. Soon, if we do nothing, that could grow to 500 million tonnes per annum. What industry would allow half a trillion US dollars of waste each year? Recovering it is simply good business for the environment.The Conversation

Andrew Forrest, PhD Candidate, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, PhD Candidate in Marine Ecology, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Highly touted UN climate summit failed to deliver – and Scott Morrison failed to show up



US President Donald Trump during his brief attendance at the UN climate summit.
HAYOUNG JEON/EPA

Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg had an angry message for world leaders at the United Nations climate summit in New York overnight.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said.

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?”

The summit was touted as a chance for the world to finally get its climate action on track. But by almost any standard, the event was a disappointment.




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There was a handful of positive stories. Almost 80 countries and more than 100 cities promised to achieve net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. Some (mainly developing) nations pledged an end to coal use. And a few developed nations committed more money to the Green Climate Fund, which helps poor nations deal with climate change.

But for the most part, the urgent action needed to avert a global warming catastrophe looked a long way off.

Teen activist Greta Thunberg makes an emotional plea to world leaders to act on climate change.

High hopes but low expectations for the summit

Days out from the summit, millions of protesters marched at global climate strikes to call for strong climate action.

The task was given even greater urgency by a new report by the World Meteorological Organisation, coinciding with the summit, which said emission reduction efforts must at least triple to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

In his opening remarks, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on world leaders to take swift, dramatic climate action.

“Nature is angry. And we fool ourselves if we think we can fool nature, because nature always strikes back and around the world, nature is striking back with fury,” Guterres said.




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Why our response to climate change needs to be a just and careful revolution that limits pushback


Guterres convened the summit to ensure countries are developing concrete, realistic pathways to enhance their pledges under the Paris climate treaty. He wanted world leaders to outline plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050, tackle subsidies for fossil fuels, implement taxes on carbon, and end new coal power beyond 2020.

Few predicted the summit would deliver the global change required. For the most part, world leaders lived up to these low expectations.

President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales speaks during the New York summit.
Justin Lane/EPA

The summit did not deliver

Under President Donald Trump, the United States had already pulled out of the Paris agreement – and its emissions continue to rise. China, arguably disincentivised to act without American participation, also failed to announce new targets and insisted developed nations should lead climate action efforts.

India outlined new plans for reaching emissions targets, but remains committed to coal projects well beyond 2020. And even the European Union, a traditional international leader on climate change ambition and action, did not announce a plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

In a few bright spots, Slovakia confirmed that its subsidies to coal mines will end in 2023. Finland says it will be carbon-neutral by 2035, and Greece will reportedly close its brown coal plants by 2028.

But the disappointing showing by the world’s largest emitters means the summit was effectively a failure.

Australia: a climate summit wallflower

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not attend the summit – despite being in the US at the time. Foreign Minister Marise Payne attended but did not speak.

Morrison’s non-attendance largely reflected the position Australia took to the summit: ever-increasing emissions, no new mitigation targets beyond those announced in Paris, and no new strategies to reach the targets.




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Why our response to climate change needs to be a just and careful revolution that limits pushback


Morrison was in good company. His host, Trump, also did not attend, except for a brief entry to hear Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak.

Australia was not alone in failing to announce new climate action. But its wallflower status at the summit cemented its global reputation as a climate action laggard. Australia was also roundly criticised by our vulnerable neighbours at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu weeks before, confirming the growing gap between Australia’s climate action and its view of itself as a responsible global citizen.

US President Donald Trump and Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the opening of Pratt Paper Plant in Ohio this week.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Andrew Highman, chief executive of global climate lobby group Mission 2020, said representatives from other countries had noticed Australia’s lack of participation.

“It is really very obvious who is absent from the room,” he reportedly said.

“Everyone is well aware that Australia has not made good on its promises in Paris to scale up its commitment to climate action.”

Where to now?

The World Meteorological Organisation said the five years to 2019 will likely be the hottest on record. We are in the midst of a climate crisis, and urgent action is clearly required.

Internationally, the challenge will be to create momentum in the face of US obstructionism and Chinese ambivalence. Guterres indicated he will continue to host these summits and will expect nations to pledge more specific and ambitious targets. Global protest action and mounting scientific reports of accelerating climate change may ramp up pressure for international action.

Youth in the crowd at the global climate strike in Melbourne on September 20.
James Ross/AAP

What about implications for Australian climate politics and policy? The US’ planned withdrawal from the Paris deal may have given Australia some cover for its own lack of climate action. But criticism from other international peers, including our Pacific neighbours, suggests that substantive action may be needed to achieve our foreign policy goals and restore our international reputation.

Pressure is also likely to build on the Morrison government at home. Opinion polls since 2012 have consistently shown growing public support for climate action, in the face of reduced government ambition. In the face of this, the federal government may eventually be prodded into meaningful action. But the climate clock is ticking fast.The Conversation

Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We can make roof tiles with built-in solar cells – now the challenge is to make them cheaper



This, except printed directly onto your roof tiles.
Cole Eaton Photography/Shutterstock

Md Abdul Alim, Western Sydney University; Ataur Rahman, Western Sydney University, and Zhong Tao, Western Sydney University

Despite being such a sunkissed country, Australia is still lagging behind in the race to embrace solar power. While solar panels adorn hundreds of thousands of rooftops throughout the nation, we have not yet seen the logical next step: buildings with solar photovoltaic cells as an integral part of their structure.

Our lab is hoping to change that. We have developed solar roof tiles with solar cells integrated on their surface using a specially customised adhesive. We are now testing how they perform in Australia’s harsh temperatures.

Our preliminary test results suggest that our solar roof tiles can generate 19% more electricity than conventional solar panels. This is because the tiles can absorb heat energy more effectively than solar panels, meaning that the tiles’ surface heats up more slowly in sustained sunshine, allowing the solar cells more time to work at lower temperatures.

The solar roof tile.

Australia’s greenhouse emissions continue to rise, making it harder to meet its commitments under the Paris agreement.

Globally, commercial and residential buildings account for about 40% of energy consumption. Other countries are therefore looking hard at reducing their greenhouse emissions by making buildings more energy-efficient. The European Union, for example, has pledged to make all large buildings carbon-neutral by 2050. Both Europe and the United States are working on constructing buildings from materials that can harness solar energy.

Here in Australia, buildings account for only about 20% of energy consumption, meaning that the overall emissions reductions on offer from improved efficiency are smaller.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t go for it anyway, especially considering the amount of sunshine available. Yet compared with other nations, Australia is very much in its adolescence when it comes to solar-smart construction materials.




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Taking Australia’s temperature

In a recent review in the journal Solar Energy, we identified and discussed the issues that are obstructing the adoption of solar power-generating constructions – known as “building-integrated photovoltaics”, or BIPV – here in Australia.

According to the research we reviewed, much of the fear about adopting these technologies comes down to a simple lack of understanding. Among the factors we identified were: misconceptions about the upfront cost and payback time; lack of knowledge about the technology; anxiety about future changes to buildings’ microclimates; and even propaganda against climate change and renewable energy.




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Worldwide, BIPV systems account for just 2.5% of the solar photovoltaic market (and virtually zero in Australia). But this is forecast to rise to 13% globally by 2022.

Developing new BIPV technologies such as solar roof tiles and solar façades would not only cut greenhouse emissions but also open up huge potential for business and the economy.

According to a national survey (see the entry for Australia here), Australian homeowners are still much more comfortable with rooftop solar panels than other systems such as ground-mounted ones.

In our opinion it therefore stands to reason that if we want to boost BIPV systems in Australia, our solar roof tiles are the perfect place to start. Our tiles have a range of advantages, such as low maintenance, attractive look, easy replaceability, and no extra load on the roof compared with conventional roof-mounted solar arrays.

Challenges ahead

Nevertheless, the major challenges for this technology are the current high cost, poor consumer awareness, and lack of industrial-scale manufacturing process. We made our tiles with the help of a 3D printing facility at Western Sydney University, which can be attached to an existing tile manufacturing machine with minor modifications.

The current installation cost of commercial solar tiles could be as high as A$600 per square metre, including the inverter.

What’s more, we have little information on how the roof tiles will perform in long-term use, and no data on whether solar tiles will have an effect on conditions inside the building. It is possible that the tiles could increase the temperature inside, thus increasing the need for air conditioning.




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To answer these questions, we are carrying out a full life-cycle cost analysis of our solar tiles, as well as working on ways to bring down the cost. Our target is to reduce the cost to A$250 per square metre or even less, including the inverter. Prices like that would hopefully give Australian homeowners the power to put solar power into the fabric of their home.


The lead author thanks Professor Bijan Samali for valued supervision of his research.The Conversation

Md Abdul Alim, Postdoctoral researcher on sustainable development (Energy and Water), Western Sydney University; Ataur Rahman, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University, and Zhong Tao, Professor, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.