Indonesia has sent Australia’s recycling home – it’s time to clean up our act



Indonesia is not the only country to turn back contaminated waste.
FULLY HANDOKO/EPA/AAP

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

Indonesia has returned a container load of recyclables back to Australia, because the material did not meet stringent import requirements.

It is the latest Southeast Asian country to refuse Australia’s recycling waste. In January 2018, China stopped buying our recyclables until contamination was reduced significantly.

To achieve this, Australia needed to reduce contamination in commercial and household recycling, and improve our sorting facilities so they can identify and remove the types of materials causing concern.




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This should have been a wake-up call that we need to improve our recycling industry and take urgent steps to reduce our reliance on overseas destinations for our recyclables. But did we? Clearly, the answer is no.

Dealing with difficult waste

In July the Philippines turned away 69 containers (about 1,500 tonnes), of materials incorrectly labelled as plastic and containing unacceptable contaminants. Malaysia has also threatened to send recyclables back to the originating country if the loads contain contaminants.

Looking at photos of the material rejected by Indonesia, it is clearly a typical load of baled recyclables that could have come from any sorting facility in Australia. It contains recyclables, but also contamination like used nappies, clothing, food scraps, paper and cardboard in the plastic recycling, metals and plastic in the paper recycling and some containers that once had motor oil or detergents in them.

While I personally suspect it’s slightly over the top to call this “hazardous” material, as some news reports have – the same loads are shipped to some facilities in Australia – it is a moot point. Indonesia can set whatever rules they deem necessary to protect the health of their communities and environment.

Indonesia is not the only country to turn back contaminated waste.
FULLY HANDOKO/EPA/AAP

This continues after strong warnings that unless we provide clean recyclables, we will not have access to these overseas markets.

So what is contamination?

Recycling is basically divided into “streams”. Mostly these streams contain one or two types of materials. For example, we have a cardboard stream, plastic stream or in some instances commingled stream which contains plastic, aluminium, steel and glass containers.

“Contamination” refers to materials that are not wanted in that stream because they interfere with the proper treatment of a given load. Plastic in a load of cardboard and paper is contamination; so are clothes in a plastic load. It does not necessarily need to be toxic chemicals or other things that come to mind when we think of “contamination”.

However, containers used for detergents, disinfectants, and the broad range of household chemicals do contain residues. While some of these fluids and powders do get removed (often while materials are being baled), some residues remain and this can also cause issues for those wishing to use the recyclables as their raw materials.




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So it is no wonder Australian businesses are reluctant to use what we currently sort and send out as their raw materials. If the recyclables materials contain contaminants at a high level, then the business who could have used them would have to expend resources to clean up the loads. Apart from that cost, they then have to dispose of the unwanted materials to landfill.

Additionally, due to some uncertainty in the quality of the recyclables, manufacturers are concerned whether their products will be of the required standard and if not, will that affect the customer base. Remember, when recycled paper was first on the market there was some concern about inferior “whitness” and this affected sales. (Ironically, now most business use recycled paper this situation is somewhat reversed.)

How can we fix it?

Ultimately, the issue is not how we can get other countries to accept our waste. Australia needs to improve our capacity and willingness to use recycled materials ourselves.

We have seen progress recently with Australian companies using recycled materials in new and innovative ways. Plastics used in road construction or in building materials is just one example.

But unless our recycling is better sorted, it won’t be used by domestic companies. Even products made with recycled material need to be clean, safe and reliable.




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So what can we do about it? Of course, the obvious first step is to invest more into recycling facilities so they can sort more efficiently. However, we all need to take responsibility for what we put into the recycling at home or work. Many contaminants can easily be avoided with a little more care, so familiarise yourself with what can be recycled by your home council.

Finally, recycling is not a panacea. We need to seriously reduce the amount of waste we create, as individuals and a society. Without this, the problem will only continue to grow.




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We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’


The Conversation


Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

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Will the discovery of another plastic-trashed island finally spark meaningful change?


Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania and Annett Finger, Victoria University

Today we learnt of yet another remote and formerly pristine location on our planet that’s become “trashed” by plastic debris.

Research published today in Scientific Reports shows some 238 tonnes of plastic have washed up on Australia’s remote Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

It’s not the first time the world has been confronted with an island drowning under debris. Perhaps it’s time to take stock of where we’re at, what we’ve learnt about plastic and figure out whether we can be bothered, or care enough, to do something meaningful.




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Taking stock

In 2017, the world was introduced to Henderson Island, an exceptionally remote uninhabited island in the South Pacific. It has the dubious honour of being home to the beach with the highest ever recorded density of plastic debris (more than 4,400 pieces per metre squared).

What’s more, a single photo taken in 1992 showed Henderson Island had gone from pristine to trashed in only 23-years.

Now, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands off the coast of Australia are set to challenge that record, despite being sparsely populated and recognised for having one of Australia’s most beautiful beaches.

A recent, comprehensive survey of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands revealed mountains of plastic trash washed up on the beaches.




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While the density of debris on Cocos (a maximum of 2,506 items per square metre) was found to be less than that on Henderson Island, the total amount of debris Cocos must contend with is staggering: an estimated 414 million debris items weighing 238 tonnes.

A quarter of the identifiable items were found to be “single-use”, or disposable plastics, including straws, bags, bottles, and an estimated 373,000 toothbrushes.

At only 14 kilometres squared, the entire Cocos (Keeling) Island group is a little more than twice the size of the Melbourne CBD. So it’s hard to envision 414 million debris items in such a small area.

Lessons learned

Islands “filter” debris from the ocean. Items flow past and accumulate on beaches, providing valuable information about the quantity of plastic in the oceans.

So, what have these two studies of remote islands taught us?

South Island. A quarter of the identifiable items were found to be disposable plastics.
Cara Ratajczak, Author provided

On Cocos, the overwhelming quantity of debris you can see on the surface accounts for just 7% of the total debris present on the islands. The remaining 93% (approximately 383 million items) is buried below the sediment. Much like the proverbial iceberg, we’re only seeing the very tip of the problem.

Henderson Island, on the other hand, highlighted the terrifying pace of change, from pristine, tropical oasis to being inundated with 38 million plastic items in just two decades.

In the past 12 months alone, scientists have made other, ground-breaking discoveries that have emphasised how little we understand about the behaviour of plastic in the environment and the myriad consequences for species and habitats – including ourselves.




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Here are a few of the shocking discoveries:

  • microplastics were reported in bottled water, salt and beer

  • chemicals from degrading plastic in the ocean were found to disrupt photosynthesis in marine bacteria that are important to the carbon cycle, including producing the oxygen for approximately every tenth breath we take

  • degrading plastic exposed to UV sunlight (such as those on beaches) was reported to produce greenhouse gas emissions, including methane. This is predicted to increase significantly over the next 20 years in line with plastic production trends

  • microplastic particles are ingested by krill at the base of the marine food web, then fragmented into nano-sized particles

  • plastic items recovered from the ocean were found to be reservoirs and potential vectors for microbial communities with antibiotic resistant genes

  • tiny nanoplastics are transported via wind in the atmosphere and deposited in cities and even remote areas, including mountain tops

Meaningful action

Clean-ups on near-shore islands and coastal areas around cities are fantastic.

The educational component is invaluable and they provide an important sense of community. They also prevent large items, like bottles, from breaking up into hundreds or thousands of bite-sized microplastics.

But large-scale clean-ups of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and most other remote islands, are challenging for a variety of reasons. Getting to these locations is expensive, as would be shipping the plastic off for recycling or disposal.

There are also serious biosecurity issues relating to moving plastic debris off islands. Even if we did somehow manage to clean these remote islands, it would not be long before the beaches are trashed again, as it was estimated on Henderson Island that more than 3,500 new pieces of plastic wash up every single day.

As Heidi Taylor from Tangaroa Blue, an Australian initiative tackling marine debris, puts so aptly:

if all we ever do is clean up, that is all we will ever do.

For our clean-up efforts to be effective, they must be paired with individual behaviour change, underpinned by legislation that mandates producers to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products.

Single-use items, such as razors, cutlery, scoops for coffee or laundry powder and toothbrushes were very common on the beaches of Cocos. Clearly this is an area where extended product stewardship laws (following the principles of a circular economy), coupled with informed consumer choices can lead to better decisions about the types of products we use and how and when we dispose of them.




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The global plastic crisis requires immediate and wide-ranging actions that drastically reduce our plastic consumption. And large corporations and government need to adopt a leadership role.

In the EU, for instance, governments voted in March 2019 to implement a ban on the ten most prolific single-use plastic items by 2021. The rest of the world urgently needs to follow suit. Let’s stop arguing about how to clean up the mess, and start implementing meaningful preventative actions.The Conversation

Jennifer Lavers, Research Scientist, University of Tasmania and Annett Finger, Adjunct Research Fellow, Victoria University

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

Ditch plastic dog poo bags, go compostable



File 20190227 150718 11v5pnz.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Don’t do these doggie-doo don’ts.
Shutterstock

M. Leigh Ackland, Deakin University

We humans have a habit of avoiding our waste. We find organic waste particularly unpleasant. We bag it and dispose of it as soon as possible.

Even the most environmentally conscious person would rather not handle something like decomposing food or dog poo with their bare hands. Plastic bags are often the first step we take to disconnect ourselves from our waste – until we can get rid of it somewhere else.

Traditional plastic bags are made from ethylene, derived from petroleum or natural gas. Ethylene does not degrade easily. So these types of bags are major contributors to plastic pollution.

More than three-quarters of plastic ends up in landfill, while up to 5% finds its way to the ocean. Only 9% of plastics are recycled.




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Many environmentally conscious pet owners are turning to biodegradable bags as the solution to their doggy-doo woes, but many brands won’t break down in landfill, compounding the problem. Alternatives are at hand, though, with compostable bags and community sharing programs that can help non-composters.

A ‘biodegradable’ statement on a bag isn’t enough: it needs a logo

“Biodegradable” means something that can potentially be broken down naturally in the environment, particularly by microorganisms but also by other factors such as heat, light and oxygen. We usually think of biodegradable materials as derived from natural sources such as plants, but synthetic materials can also be biodegradable.

But there are issues with the term “biodegradable bag”. Bags can be labelled biodegradable, but after being used and discarded they might only partly decompose because the conditions are not right for full decomposition. Or else the decomposition might take a long time.

Full decomposition means complete conversion of the bag into simple substances such as carbon dioxide and water that can be re-used by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi.

Food becomes poop, which becomes…?
Carol Von Canon/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The biodegradability of plastic can be measured in a laboratory using methods such as carbon tracking. There are international standards for testing biodegradability of plastics. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed these standards.

Unfortunately, ocean and landfill environments are not conducive for degradation of biodegradable plastic. Marine environments often don’t contain the right types of microorganisms needed to break down plastics, or there aren’t enough to be effective in a reasonable time frame. Landfill conditions often lack oxygen, which limits the types of microorganisms that can exist there.

Compost, however, provides an ideal environment for biodegradation. Compost contains a diverse range of organic materials that support the growth of many different varieties of organisms.

DNA sequencing has revealed the huge diversity of microorganisms that exist in compost. These include bacteria, fungi and invertebrates that can digest a wide range of organic materials. In particular, fungi are found to possess enzymes that are capable of breaking down many different organic substances.

Compost to the rescue

You can now buy compostable bags. These are a type of biodegradable bag that is suitable for disposal in compost only (not in the ocean or landfill!).

How can you tell if a compostable bag can actually be fully broken down in compost? Standards Australia produces standards for the biodegradability of plastic bags. Code AS 4736-2006 specifies a biodegradable plastic that is suitable for overall composting (which includes industrial processes) and other microbial treatment, while AS 5810-2010 specifies home composting.

Standards Australia provide a brief overview of the testing carried out for AS 5810-2010. Other countries have similar standards – for example, the US has ASTM code D6400, which certifies that the material meets the degradation standard under controlled composting conditions.

The Australian Bioplastics Association administers a voluntary verification scheme. This enables manufacturers or importers to have their plastic materials tested and certified.

There is a double arrow logo you can watch out for on bags that have been certified as home compostable and there is a seedling logo for certified compostable. If you cannot locate a certified compostable bag in your area, you can source them online. Make sure they have have the certified compostable logo of the country from which they come.

It is interesting to observe the biodegradability of a plastic bag in your compost heap, as I did with a compostable bag full of dog poo. After two weeks buried in the compost, the only evidence of the bag was some small black fragments. These looked like leaf mould except they had the print from the bag label on them. In comparison, a normal plastic bag buried at the same time was completely unaltered. Of course, this experiment is not proof of total bag degradation – proper laboratory testing would be required for this.




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What if you can’t compost?

If you cannot compost, you will probably be relying on your local council to dispose of your waste. If the council uses landfill for waste disposal then there may be no point in using compostable bags for your waste, as landfill does not have the right conditions for composting to occur.

If you have a kerbside green waste collection that is composted, this service most likely will not accept food waste at the moment – which means dog poo is very unlikely to be included. Nor may compostable bags be allowed in green waste collections. Some councils, however, are working towards food organics/green organics waste collections for the future, and these may include compostable bags.

Moyne Shire in western Victoria, for instance, provides compostable bags for dog poo and accepts it along with green waste in its fortnightly “FOGO” collection.

If you have material for composting but do not have a compost heap, you can join Sharewaste. Sharewaste links people who want to recycle their organic waste with their neighbours who can use the waste for composting, worm farms or chickens. So this is a way to avoid sending your organic waste to landfill.

Composting your organic waste is like harvesting rain into your water tank or tapping into sunlight for your energy needs. These things are meaningful beyond their utility; they connect you to nature and give insights into the natural cycles of life on planet Earth.The Conversation

M. Leigh Ackland, Professor in Molecular Biosciences, Deakin University

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

We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history



File 20190314 28496 1l9vu3m.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The world urgently needs to move past plastic.
Veronika Meduna

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University

A powerful marriage between the fossil fuel and plastic industries threatens to exacerbate the global plastic pollution crisis. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates the next five years will see a 33-36% surge in global plastics production.

This will undermine all current efforts to manage plastic waste. It is time to stop trying (and failing) to bail out the bathtub. Instead, we need to turn off the tap.




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The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has recognised plastic pollution as a “rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”. An expert group formed last year proposed an international treaty on plastic pollution as the most effective response.

Together with Giulia Carlini, at CIEL, I was part of a 30-strong group of non-governmental organisations within this expert group attending the UNEA summit this week to discuss how we can start making plastic pollution history.

Unfortunately, despite strong statements from developing countries, including the Pacific Island states, a small group of countries stalled negotiations. This effectively turns back the clock on ambitious global action, and leaves us more desperate than ever for a real solution to our plastic problem.

Why we need a treaty

The first step is to reject the many false solutions that pop up in our news feeds.

Recycling is one of those false solutions. The scale of plastic production is too big for recycling alone. Of all the plastics produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% have been recycled. This figure is set to plummet as China and a growing number of developing countries are rejecting plastic waste from Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world.

China had been a major destination for Australia and New Zealand’s recyclable waste. China’s shutdown meant Australia lost the market for a third of its plastic waste. It also left New Zealand with 400 tonnes of stockpiled plastic waste last year.

With limited domestic recycling facilities, Australia and New Zealand are seeking new markets. Last year, New Zealand sent about 250,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill, and a further 6,300 tonnes to Malaysia for recycling. But now Malaysia is also rejecting other countries’ hazardous plastic waste.

Sending our platic to Asia is not a solution.
EPA/Diego Azubel, CC BY-SA

Even if we manage to find new plastic recycling markets, there is another problem. Recycling is not as safe as you might think. Flame retardants and other toxins are added to many plastics, and these compounds find a second life when plastics are recycled into new products, including children’s toys.

Plastic-to-energy is a false solution

What about burning plastic waste to generate energy? Think again. Incineration is expensive, can take decades for investors to break even. It is the opposite of a “zero waste” approach and locks countries into a perpetual cycle of producing and importing waste to “feed the beast”. And incineration leaves a legacy of contaminated air, soil, and water.

Producing lower-grade materials from plastic waste (such as roads, fenceposts and park benches) is not the solution either. No matter where we put it, plastic doesn’t go away. It just breaks into ever smaller pieces with a greater potential for harm in air, water, soil and marine and freshwater ecosystems.

This is why researchers are paying more attention to the less visible hazards posed when micro (less than 5mm long) and nano (less than 100 nanometres long) sized plastics carry pathogens, invasive species and persistent organic pollutants. They have found that plastics can emit methane contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Tyres wear down into microplastics which find their way into the ocean. When plastics break down to nanoparticles, they are small enough to pass through cell walls. Our clothes release plastic microfibres into water from washing machines.

Plastic is truly global

Plastic pollution moves readily around the globe. It travels through trade, on winds, river and tidal flows, and in the guts of migrating birds and mammals. We don’t always know which toxic chemicals are in them, nor their recycled content. Plastic pollution can end up thousands of kilometres from the source.

This makes plastic pollution a matter of international concern. It cannot be solved solely within national borders or regions. A global, legally binding treaty with clear targets and standards is the real game-changer we urgently need.

The NGO component of UNEA’s expert group recognised an international treaty as the most effective response. The proposed treaty has the potential to capture the full life cycle of plastics by focusing on prevention, right at the top of the waste hierarchy.

The Zero Waste hierarchy.
Zero Waste Europe

These solutions could include restricting the volume of new or “virgin” plastics in products, banning avoidable plastics (such as single-use plastic bags and straws), and curbing the use of toxic additives.




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More than 90 civil society organisations around the world and a growing number of countries have indicated early support for a treaty. Australia and New Zealand have not.The Conversation

Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University

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

Plastic and Marine Life


The link below is to an article reporting on how plastic is leading to reproductive problems for marine wildlife.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/27/plastics-leading-to-reproductive-problems-for-wildlife