The manufacturer of White King “flushable” wipes has been fined A$700,000 because these are not, in fact, flushable. The wipes, advertised as “just like toilet paper”, cannot disintegrate in the sewerage system, and cause major blockages.
The Federal Court found Pental Products and Pental Limited, which manufacture the wipes, guilty of making false and misleading representations. In particular, Pental claimed that the wipes would break down in the sewerage system, like toilet paper does.
So-called flushable wipes, now sold for everything from make-up removal to luxury toilet paper, are a growing hazard to public health. Sydney Water says 75% of all sewer blockages in the city’s waste-water system involve wipes.
Don’t trust the label
While wipes might look a bit like toilet paper, there are major differences. Wipes are made from a very tough material called “air-laid paper”, and are often impregnated with cleansing chemicals, disinfectants and cosmetic scents.
Air-laid paper behaves very differently in sewers to toilet paper and does not readily disintegrate in water.
When in sewer pipes the resilient wipes have a tendency to entangle with other wipes and create blockages. This is a bit like the knot of tangled clothing sometimes found in the washing machine. Sewerage system managers around the globe seem powerless to prevent the problem.
Sewer blockages caused by wipes look grotesque. Unpleasant work in confined places is required to remove the blockages (some of which is done by hand!). In 2016 Newcastle’s Hunter Water removed an ugly seven-metre snake of wipes and assorted sewage debris, weighing roughly a tonne, from its sewers.
Wither do you wipe?
Wipes become very popular in the 1990s to help in cleaning babies’ bottoms while changing nappies. Since then, many similar products (“wet wipes”, “baby wipes” and “face wipes”) have proliferated well beyond the baby aisle.
Wipes may be advertised for personal hygiene, removing makeup and cleaning hands. Others are marketed for cleaning bathroom surfaces, toilets and other household areas. The marketing of wipes often boasts how easy they are to dispose by simply flushing them down the toilet.
More recently, a booming adult market is expanding their use as a luxury alternative to toilet paper, buoyed by endorsements from celebrities like Will Smith and Will.i.am. Research by Sydney Water found that males in the 15-44 bracket particularly preferred to use wipes rather than toilet paper. The same market survey estimated that a quarter of Sydney Water’s 4.6 million customers flush wipes down the toilet rather than putting them in a bin.
The three Ps
The fine imposed on Pental Products and Pental Limited for their “flushable” wipes is an important signal to others in this growing market.
However, wipes are not the only waste item that people should not flush down the toilet. This issue gained international notoriety in 2017 when Thames Water in London removed a 130-tonne monster sewer blockage, in a difficult and laborious three-week operation. The blockage was an accumulation of solids called a fatberg – a nightmarish combination of wipes, congealed fat, nappies, female sanitary products, and condoms.
Have we forgotten what toilets are for? The Australia Water Association reminds us that they are for the three Ps: pee, poo and paper (toilet paper only).
Perhaps people should visit an Irish website called think before you flush. It lists other common waste objects that should not be flushed, such as cigarette butts, cotton buds, dental floss, hair and unwanted medication. It also advises that a bin be placed in each bathroom.
Hopefully, packets of wipes will now carry warning labels to advise users not to flush them down the toilet. Just because you can flush something down the toilet does not mean it is good for the environment or society to do so.
Plastic waste in the ocean is a global problem; some eight million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean every year.
One possible solution – paying a small amount for returned drink containers – has been consistently opposed by the beverage industry for many years. But for the first time our research, published in Marine Policy, has found that container deposits reduce the amount of beverage containers on the coasts of both the United States and Australia by 40%.
What’s more, the reduction is even more pronounced in areas of lower socio-economic status, where plastic waste is most common.
Plastic not so fantastic
There have been many suggestions for how to reduce marine debris. Some promote reducing plastic packaging, re-purposing plastic debris], or cleaning beaches. There has been a push to get rid of plastic straws, and even Queen Elizabeth II has banned single use plastics from Royal Estates! All of these contribute to the reduction of plastics, and are important options to consider.
Legislation and policy are another way to address the problems of plastic pollution. Recent legislation includes plastic bag bans and microbead bans. Economic incentives, such as container deposits, have attracted substantial attention in countries around the world.
Several Australian jusrisdictions, including South Australia, the Northern Territory, and New South Wales), already have container deposit laws, with Western Australia and Queensland set to start in 2019. In the United States, 10 states have implemented container deposit schemes.
But how effective is a cash for containers program? While there is evidence to suggest that container deposits increase return rates and decrease litter, until now there has been no study asking whether they also reduce the sources of debris entering the oceans.
In Australia, we analysed data from litter surveys by Keep South Australia Beautiful, and Keep Australia Beautiful. In the US, we accessed data from the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup.
We compared coastline surveys in states with a container deposit scheme to those without. In both Australia and the US, the proportion of beverage containers in states without a deposit scheme was about 1.6 times higher than their neighbours. Based on estimates of debris loading on US beaches that we conducted previously, if all coastal states in the United States implemented deposit schemes, there would be 6.6 million fewer containers on the shoreline each year.
Keep your lid on
But how do we know that this difference is caused by the deposit scheme? Maybe people in states with container deposit schemes simply drink fewer bottled beverages than people states without them, and so there are fewer containers in the litter stream?
To answer that question, we measured the ratio of lids to containers from the same surveys. Lids are manufactured in equal proportion to containers, and arrive to the consumer on the containers, but do not attract a deposit in either country.
If deposit schemes cause a decrease in containers in the environment, it is unlikely to cause a similar decrease in littered lids. So, if a cashback incentive is responsible for the significantly lower containers on the shorelines, we would expect to see a higher ratio of lids to containers in states with these programs, as compared to states without.
That’s exactly what we found.
We were also interested in whether other factors also influenced the amount of containers in the environment. We tested whether the socio-economic status of the area (as defined by data from the Australian census) was related to more containers in the environment. Generally, we found fewer containers in the environment in wealthier communities. However, the presence of a container deposit reduced the container load more in poorer communities.
This is possibly because a relatively small reward of 10 cents per bottle may make a bigger difference to less affluent people than to more wealthy consumers. This pattern is very positive, as it means that cashback programs have a stronger impact in areas of lower economic advantage, which are also the places with the biggest litter problems.
Ultimately, our best hope of addressing the plastic pollution problem will be through a range of approaches. These will include bottom-up grassroots governance, state and federal legislation, and both hard and soft law.
Along with these strategies, we must see a shift in the type of we products use and their design. Both consumers and manufacturers are responsibility for shifting from a make, use, dispose culture to a make, reuse, repurpose, and recycle culture, also known as a circular economy.
Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO, and Chris Wilcox, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO
There are more than 11 billion pieces of plastic debris on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific, according to our new research, which also found that contact with plastic can make corals more than 20 times more susceptible to disease.
In our study, published today in Science, we examined more than 124,000 reef-building corals and found that 89% of corals with trapped plastic had visual signs of disease – a marked increase from the 4% chance of a coral having disease without plastic.
Globally, more than 275 million people live within 30km of coral reefs, relying on them for food, coastal protection, tourism income, and cultural value.
With coral reefs already under pressure from climate change and mass bleaching events, our findings reveal another significant threat to the world’s corals and the ecosystems and livelihoods they support.
In collaboration with numerous experts and underwater surveyors across Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Australia, we collected data from 159 coral reefs between 2010 and 2014. In so doing, we collected one of the most extensive datasets of coral health in this region and plastic waste levels on coral reefs globally.
Our research provides one of the most comprehensive estimates of plastic waste on the seafloor, and its impact on one of the world’s most important ecosystems.
The number of plastic items entangled on the reefs varied immensely among the different regions we surveyed – with the lowest levels found in Australia and the highest in Indonesia.
An estimated 80% of marine plastic debris originates from land. The variation of plastic we observed on reefs during our surveys corresponded to the estimated levels of plastic litter entering the ocean from the nearest coast. One-third of the reefs we surveyed had no derelict plastic waste, however others had up 26 pieces of plastic debris per 100 square metres.
We estimate that there are roughly 11.1 billion plastic items on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific. What’s more, we forecast that this will increase 40% in the next seven years – equating to an estimated 15.7 billion plastic items by 2025.
This increase is set to happen much faster in developing countries than industrialised ones. According to our projections, between 2010 and 2025 the amount of plastic debris on Australian coral reefs will increase by only about 1%, whereas for Myanmar it will almost double.
How can plastic waste cause disease?
Although the mechanisms are not yet clear, the influence of plastic debris on disease development may differ among the three main global diseases we observed to increase when plastic was present.
Plastic debris can open wounds in coral tissues, potentially letting in pathogens such as Halofolliculina corallasia, the microbe that causes skeletal eroding band disease.
Plastic debris could also introduce pathogens directly. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – a very common plastic used in children’s toys, building materials like pipes, and many other products – have been found carrying a family of bacteria called Rhodobacterales, which are associated with a suite of coral diseases.
Similarly, polypropylene – which is used to make bottle caps and toothbrushes – can be colonised by Vibrio, a potential pathogen linked to a globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes.
Finally, plastic debris overtopping corals can block out light and create low-oxygen conditions that favour the growth of microorganisms linked to black band disease.
Structurally complex corals are eight times more likely to be affected by plastic, particularly branching and tabular species. This has potentially dire implications for the numerous marine species that shelter under or within these corals, and in turn the fisheries that depend on them.
Our study shows that reducing the amount of plastic debris entering the ocean can directly prevent disease and death among corals.
Once corals are already infected, it is logistically difficult to treat the resulting diseases. By far the easiest way to tackle the problem is by reducing the amount of mismanaged plastic on land that finds its way into the ocean.
Plastics have got themselves a bad name, mainly for two reasons: most are made from petroleum and they end up as litter in the environment.
However, both of these are quite avoidable. An increased focus on bio-derived and degradable composites as well as recycling could lessen pollution and, in fact, plastics could make a positive contribution to the environment.
Plastics for bad
The durability of plastics makes them so useful, but at the same time, it turns them into a persistent (and increasingly big) blot on the landscape, or more importantly the seascape, once discarded.
We’ve known for a while that bulk plastics are polluting the oceans. Converging sea currents are accumulating plastic waste in a floating island known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which now covers an area larger than Greenland. The bigger bits of plastic are life-threatening to marine life and sea birds. They can strangle marine mammals or birds and build up in their stomachs and guts.
More recently, awareness of microplastics has raised concern about their ubiquitous presence in the food chain. Commentators suggest that by 2050 there will be as much plastic in the sea as there is fish. Who wants to go catch some plastic then?
Beyond that, plastic production currently relies on petroleum and that has raised issues about health hazards, generally associated with petroleum-based products during production, use and disposal.
Plastics for good
Plastics can contribute positively to the environment in the following ways:
- Reduced food wastage
Between one-quarter and one-third of all food produced is wasted through spoilage. But without plastic packaging, it would be considerably worse and have a larger carbon footprint.
Many of the recycling enthusiasts I know do not think about throwing out spoiled food that required energy in terms of planting, cultivating, harvesting and transporting and therefore will have added to greenhouse gas emissions.
- Lightweight transport
The use of plastics in transportation (cars, trains and planes) will reduce fuel consumption. Their application (along with reinforcing fibres) in aerospace as alternatives to traditional metallic alloys has brought huge gains of fuel efficiency over the last few decades.
Incorporation of fibre-reinforced plastics in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for example, has resulted in fuel efficiencies that are similar to a family car (when measured by kilometres travelled per person). By the way, carbon fibre, the aerospace fibre of choice, is produced from plastic.
There are good things about plastics including benefits for the environment, but is it possible to make use of the good aspects and avoid the bad?
Future proofing plastics
Plastics are, chemically speaking, long chains or large cross-linked structures most commonly made up of a framework of carbon atoms.
For a long time, we have been using bio-derived plastics – naturally occurring materials such as animal skins including leather, gut and wood. These forms of plastic are complicated chemical structures that can only be made in nature at this stage.
Some of the early synthesised plastics were made from naturally occurring materials such as casein (from dairy) that was used for simple items such as buttons. The development of petroleum-based plastics has been a major distraction from such materials.
However, in the last couple of decades, bio-derived plastics have become available that provide good replacements. These include starch-based plastics such as polylactide (PLA), which is produced from corn starch, cassava roots or sugarcane and processed in the same way as petroleum-based plastics. Such plastics can be foamed or used to make drink bottles.
Recycling plastics is another essential step towards reducing the environmental load. Let’s face it: it is people who are doing the littering, not the plastics themselves. More effort could go into waste collection and a carrot/stick approach should include disincentives for littering and a plastic tax which would exclude recycled plastics.
Incentives are also needed to encourage product development that takes account of the full life cycle. In Europe, for instance, legislation has made it compulsory in the automotive industry for at least 85% of a car to be recycled. This has had a dramatic influence on the materials and design used in the industry.
Even with best efforts, it is unrealistic that we would capture all plastics for recycling. Biodegradable plastics could be a useful tool for preventing environmental damage. PLA (polylactide) is biodegradable, though slow to break down, and there are other forms available.
This highlights the need for more research into controlling biodegradability, taking into account different applications and the need for infrastructure to deal with biodegradable plastics at the end of their life. Obviously, we don’t want our planes biodegrading during their 20 years of service, but one-use water bottles should break down within a short time after use.
The planet doesn’t have to become a toxic rubbish dump. In the short term, this will need some government action to encourage bio-derived, recyclable and biodegradable plastics to allow them to compete with petroleum-based products.
There are signs of improvement: increasing awareness of the harm plastics cause and a willingness of consumers to pay for plastic bags or to ban them. We need to stop dumping in our own backyard and remember that the environment is where we live. We ignore it at our peril.