How climate change can make catastrophic weather systems linger for longer


Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia

Many parts of Australia have suffered a run of severe and, in some cases, unprecedented weather events this summer. One common feature of many of these events – including the Tasmanian heatwave and the devastating Townsville floods – was that they were caused by weather systems that parked themselves in one place for days or weeks on end.

It all began with a blocking high – so-called because it blocks the progress of other nearby weather systems – in the Tasman Sea throughout January and early February.

This system prevented rain-bearing cold fronts from moving across Tasmania, and led to prolonged hot dry northwesterly winds, below-average rainfall and scorching temperatures.




Read more:
Dry lightning has set Tasmania ablaze, and climate change makes it more likely to happen again


Meanwhile, to the north, an intense monsoon low sat stationary over northwest Queensland for 10 days. It was fed on its northeastern flank by extremely saturated northwesterly winds from Indonesia, which converged over the greater northeast Queensland area with strong moist trade winds from the Coral Sea, forming a “convergence zone”.

Ironically, these trade winds originated from the northern flank of the blocking high in the Tasman, deluging Queensland while leaving the island state parched.

Unusually prolonged

Convergence zones along the monsoon trough are not uncommon during the wet season, from December to March. But it is extremely rare for a stationary convergence zone to persist for more than a week.

Could this pattern conceivably be linked to global climate change? Are we witnessing a slowing of our weather systems as well as more extreme weather?

There does seem to be a plausible link between human-induced warming, slowing of jet streams, blocking highs, and extreme weather around the world. The recent Tasman Sea blocking high can be added to that list, along with other blocking highs that caused unprecedented wildfires in California and an extreme heatwave in Europe last year.

There is also a trend for the slowing of the forward speed (as opposed to wind speed) of tropical cyclones around the world. One recent study showed the average forward speeds of tropical cyclones fell by 10% worldwide between 1949 and 2016. Meanwhile, over the same period, the forward speed of tropical cyclones dropped by 22% over land in the Australian region.

Climate change is expected to weaken the world’s circulatory winds due to greater warming in high latitudes compared with the tropics, causing a slowing of the speed at which tropical cyclones move forward.

Obviously, if tropical cyclones are moving more slowly, this can leave particular regions bearing the brunt of the rainfall. In 2017, Houston and surrounding parts of Texas received unprecedented rainfall associated with the “stalling” of Hurricane Harvey.

Townsville’s floods echoed this pattern. Near the centre of the deep monsoon low, highly saturated warm air was forced to rise due to colliding winds, delivering more than a year’s worth of rainfall to parts of northwest Queensland in just a week.

The widespread rain has caused significant rises in many of the rivers that feed into the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, and some runoff has made it into the Channel Country and will eventually reach Lake Eyre in South Australia. Unfortunately, little runoff has found its way into the upper reaches of the Darling River system.

Satellite images before (right) and after (left) the floods in northwest Queensland.
Courtesy of Japan Meteorological Agency, Author provided

Huge impacts

The social, economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s recent slow-moving weather disasters have been huge. Catastrophic fires invaded ancient temperate rainforests in Tasmania, while Townsville’s unprecedented flooding has caused damage worth more than A$600 million and delivered a A$1 billion hit to cattle farmers in surrounding areas.

Townsville’s Ross River, which flows through suburbs downstream from the Ross River Dam, has reached a 1-in-500-year flood level. Some tributaries of the dam witnessed phenomenal amounts of runoff, reliably considered as a 1-in-2,000-year event

Up to half a million cattle are estimated to have died across the area, a consequence of their poor condition after years of drought, combined with prolonged exposure to water and wind during the rain event.




Read more:
Queensland’s floods are so huge the only way to track them is from space


Farther afield, both Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island – located under the clear skies associated with the blocking high – have recorded exceptionally low rainfall so far this year, worsening the drought conditions caused by a very dry 2018. These normally lush subtropical islands in the Tasman Sea are struggling to find enough water to supply their residents’ and tourists’ demands.

Many parts of Australia have tolerated widespread extreme weather events this year, including some records. This follows a warm and generally dry 2018. In fact, 9 of the 10 warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 2005, with only 1998 remaining from last century with reliable records extending back to 1910. Steady warming of our atmosphere and oceans is directly linked to more extreme weather events in Australia and globally.

If those extreme weather events travel more slowly across the landscape, their effects on individual regions could be more devastating still.The Conversation

Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

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

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The battle against bugs: it’s time to end chemical warfare



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Does it really pay to spray?
Dmitry Syshchikov/Shutterstock

Lizzy Lowe, Macquarie University; Cameron Webb, University of Sydney; Manu Saunders, University of New England, and Tanya Latty, University of Sydney

Insects are important wildlife often overlooked in urban habitats. What we do notice are the cockroaches, ants and mosquitoes in and around our homes. All too often we reach for the insect spray.

But not all insects are pests – a wide variety of them help keep our cities healthy. They pollinate plants, feed other wildlife, recycle our rubbish, and eat other insect pests. Insects are vital to our well-being.

Unfortunately, like many other wild animals, insects are under threat. A recent study warned that 40% of the world’s insect species face the prospect of extinction, amid threats such as climate change, habitat loss, and humanity’s overenthusiastic use of synthetic chemicals.

Australians use large amounts of pesticides to tackle creepy crawlies in their homes and gardens. But our fondness for fly spray has potentially serious impacts on urban ecosystems and public health.

We need a more sustainable way to deal with urban insect pests. Our recently published article in the Journal of Pest Science outlines some of the ways to do it.

What’s wrong with pesticides anyway?

Since becoming publicly available in the 1950s, insect sprays have been a popular way to deal with cockroaches, flies, moths, and ants around the home and backyard, and are also widely used by local councils to keep pests at bay. But what may have been effective in the past won’t necessarily work in the future, or may have unintended consequences.

Many pests, such as mosquitoes, are now becoming resistant to commonly used products. In parts of the world affected by diseases such as dengue, this jeopardises our ability to control outbreaks.




Read more:
Chemical or natural: what’s the best way to repel mozzies?


Another, perhaps wider, problem is that indiscriminate use of insecticides can kill more than just pests. Many species on which we rely for keeping our backyard gardens, bushland, wetlands and parks healthy can become collateral damage. This includes predatory species that can themselves help keep pests under control. As pest species often reproduce faster than their predators (a pattern that’s likely to be reinforced by climate change), we can get trapped in a cycle in which pest numbers bounce back higher than ever.

Many wasps are predatory and specialise in eating insects that can be pests around the home.
Manu Saunders



Read more:
Five reasons not to spray the bugs in your garden this summer


How do we do things differently?

Fortunately, there are alternatives to chemical pest control that don’t harm your household or the environment. For centuries, sustainable agriculture systems have used environmentally friendly approaches, and city-dwellers can take a leaf from their books.

Integrated pest management is one such sustainable approach. It focuses on prevention rather than treatment, and uses environmentally friendly options such as biological control (using predators to eat pests) to safeguard crops. Chemical insecticides are used only as a last resort.

There are many other farming practices that support sustainable pest control; these focus on behavioural change such as keeping areas clean, or simple physical controls such as fly mesh or netting around fruit trees.

Adopting these methods for urban pest control isn’t necessarily straightforward. There might be local regulations on particular pest control activities, or simply a lack of knowledge about urban pest ecology.

For urgent pest situations, it may be more expensive and time-consuming to set up a biological control program than to arrange the spraying of an insecticide. Insecticides take effect immediately, whereas biological control takes longer to have an effect. Prevention, the cornerstone of integrated pest management, requires careful planning before pests become a nuisance.

The goal of integrated pest management is not to eliminate insect pests entirely, but rather to reduce their numbers to the point at which they no longer cause a problem. By this logic, chemical insecticides should only be used if the economic damage caused by the pests outweighs the cost of the chemicals. If you hate the idea of a single cockroach living anywhere nearby, this might require you to adjust your mindset.

What can I do at home?

Don’t give pests opportunities. Be mindful of how we produce and dispose of waste. Flies and cockroaches thrive in our rubbish, but they can be effectively managed by ensuring that food waste is stored in insect-proof containers, recycled, or properly disposed of. Don’t leave buckets of water around the backyard, as this invites mosquitoes to breed.

Don’t open your door to pests. Seal cracks and crevices in the outside of your house, and ensure there are screens on your doors and windows.

Support the animals that control insect pests – they’ll do the hard work for you! In particular, don’t be so quick to kill spiders and wasps, because they prey on pests in your home and garden.

Spiders like this leaf curler will happily eat a range of pests, including ants, around your home.
jim-mclean/flickr



Read more:
The secret agents protecting our crops and gardens


What can we do as a community?

Urban communities can learn a lot from sustainable farming. First, there needs to be better education and support provided to the public and policy makers. Workshops run by local councils and information sessions with local gardening groups are a great way to start.

We can also work together to help debunk the popular myth that most insects are damaging or unwanted pests. Reaching for the fly spray might be easy, but remember you may end up killing friends as well as foes.The Conversation

Lizzy Lowe, Postdoctoral researcher, Macquarie University; Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney; Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England, and Tanya Latty, Senior Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

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

The glowing ghost mushroom looks like it comes from a fungal netherworld



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The ghost fungus emits an eerie green glow.
Alison Pouliot, Author provided

Alison Pouliot, Australian National University

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.


It’s worth tolerating the mosquitoes and the disconcerting rustle of unseen creatures that populate forests after dark, for the chance to encounter the eerie pale green glow of a less-known inhabitant.

Australia is a land of extremes, of curious organisms with quirky adaptations. Even our ghosts are more perplexing than your regular spook, and you don’t need a Geiger counter or infrared camera to track them down. Ghosts feature fantastically in folklore across the globe, but Australia’s ghost collective has a special fungal addition. Stealing the limelight, or rather the twilight, is the ghost fungus, Omphalotus nidiformis.

Ghost fungi are large, common and conspicuous, yet they manage to escape the gaze of most. As interest in fungi grows in Australia, the ghost fungi is getting a curious new look-in.



The Conversation/Alison Pouliot

Fungi are well known for their perplexing traits and peculiar forms. One of the more mesmerising – and other-worldly – traits is luminosity. A conspicuous quirk, luminosity has been recognised for a good while. Aristotle (384–322 BC) was among the first to have reported terrestrial bioluminescence (bios meaning living and lumen meaning light) in the phenomenon of “glowing wood” or “shining wood” –luminescent mycelia in decomposing wood.

However, well before Aristotle’s time, Aboriginal Australians knew about the luminescence of fungi. Early settlers in Australia recorded the reactions of different Aboriginal groups to what we think was the ghost fungus. Some, such as the Kombumerri of southeastern Queensland, associated luminous fungi with evil spirits and supernatural activities of Dreamtime ancestors. West Australian Aboriginal people referred to the ghost fungus as Chinga, meaning spirit.

Ghost fungi often grow en masse in large overlapping clusters around the bases of both living and dead trees.
Alison Pouliot, Author provided

Similarly in Micronesia, some people destroyed luminous fungi believing them to be an evil omen, while others used them in body decoration, especially for intimidating enemies.

In California, miners believed them to mark the spot where a miner had died. This seemingly inexplicable glowing trait gave rise to rich and colourful folk histories.

Lighting up the night

The ghost fungus contains a light-emitting substance called luciferin (lucifer meaning light-bringing). In the presence of oxygen, luciferin is oxidised by an enzyme called luciferase. As a result of this chemical reaction, energy is released as a greenish light. The light from the ghost fungus is often subtle and usually requires quite dark conditions to see. To experience ghost fungi at their most spectacular you need to allow your eyes time to adjust to the darkness, and don’t use a torch.

Ghost fungi have been widely recorded across Australia, especially in the forests of the south-eastern seaboard. They often appear in large overlapping clusters around the bases of a variety of trees, commonly Eucalyptus, but also Acacia, Hakea, Melaleuca, Casuarina and other tree genera as well as understorey species.

The large funnel-shaped mushrooms (the reproductive part of the fungus) are variable in form and colour, but are mostly white to cream coloured with various shades of brown, yellow, green, grey, purple and black, usually around the centre of the cap. On the underside, the lamellae (radiating plates that contain the spores) are white to cream coloured and extend down the stipe (stem).

This adaptable fungus obtains its tucker as both a weak parasite of some tree species and as a saprobe, which means it gets nutrition from breaking down organic matter such as wood.

Young ghost fungi can appear remarkably similar to edible oyster (Pleurotus) mushrooms, but be warned, ghost fungi are toxic.
Alison Pouliot, Author provided

Although fungal bioluminescence has been well documented, little research has been done to establish why fungi go to the trouble of glowing. While some experiments have shown that bioluminescence attracts spore-dispersing insects to particular fungi, this appears not to be the case with the ghost fungus.

Researchers who tested whether insects are more readily attracted to the ghost fungus concluded that bioluminescence is more likely to be an incidental by-product of metabolism, rather than conferring any selective advantage.

Those who find this scientific explanation rather unimaginative might prefer to stick with the theory that these fungi help guide fairies (or perhaps a bilby or bandicoot) through the darkened forest.

If you stumble across ghost fungi in daylight, however, they look far less puzzling. It does bear a superficial resemblance to the delicious oyster mushroom (and were once classified in the same genus), but unfortunately they are toxic. Ghost fungi possess a powerful emetic that causes nausea and vomiting. (And who knows, it might even cause you to glow terrifyingly green…)

Returning to darkness

We live in the Age of Illumination, plagued by light pollution. Earth’s nights are getting brighter and many scientists are concerned about the effects on wildlife as well as how they stymie human appreciation of nature. Artificial lights disorient birds, especially those that migrate at night and other species such as hatching turtles that confuse artificial light with that of the moon. Exposure to artificial light also affects human health.

A nighttime wander through the forest reveals its nocturnal inhabitants and may reward one with the pleasures of finding ghost fungi. Only in darkness is their magic revealed.


Alison Pouliot will be launching her book on Australian fungi, The Allure of Fungi, in Melbourne, Daylesford, Apollo Bay and Shellharbour. For more details on these events go here.

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Alison Pouliot, , Australian National University

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

It’s fish on ice, as frozen zoos make a last-ditch attempt to prevent extinction


Nicola Marie Rivers, Monash University

Twenty-six of the forty-six fish species known to live in the Murray-Darling basin are listed as rare or threatened. Recent fish kills in the iconic river system are a grim reminder of how quickly things can take a turn for the worst.

A sudden drop in population size can push a species towards extinction, but there may be hope for resurrection. Frozen zoos store genetic material from endangered species and are preparing to make new individuals if an extinction occurs.




Read more:
Cryopreservation: the field of possibilities


Unfortunately, poor response to freezing has hindered the introduction of fish into frozen zoos in the past. Now new techniques may provide them safe passage.

Ice ice baby

A frozen zoo, also known as a biobank or cryobank, stores cryopreserved or “frozen” cells from endangered species. The primary purpose of a frozen zoo is to provide a backup of endangered life on Earth allowing us to restore extinct species.

Reproductive cells, such as sperm, oocytes (eggs) and embryos, are cooled to -196ºC, at which point all cellular function is paused. When a sample is needed, the cells are warmed and used in breeding programs to produce new individuals, or to study their DNA to determine genetic relationships with other species.

There are several cryobanking facilities in Australia, including the Australian Frozen Zoo (where I work), the CryoDiversity Bank and the Ian Potter Australian Wildlife Biobank, as well as private collections. These cryobanks safeguard some of Australia’s most unique wildlife including the greater bilby, the golden bandicoot, and the yellow-footed rock wallaby as well as other exotic species such as the black rhino and orangutans.

Internationally, frozen zoos are working together to build a “Noah’s Ark” of frozen tissue. The Frozen Ark project, established in 2004 at the University of Nottingham, now consists of over 5,000 species housed in 22 facilities across the globe.

The Manchurian trout, or lenok, is the only fish successfully reproduced through cryopreservation and surrogacy.
National Institute of Ecology via Wikimedia, CC BY

Less love for fish

As more and more species move into frozen zoos, fish are at risk of being left out. Despite years of research, no long-term survival has been reported in fish eggs or embryos after cryopreservation. However, precursors of sperm and eggs known as gonial cells found in the developing embryo or the ovary or testis of adult fish have been preserved successfully in several species including brown trout, rainbow trout, tench and goby.

By freezing these precursory cells, we now have a viable method of storing fish genetics but, unlike eggs and sperm, the cells are not mature and cannot be used to produce offspring in this form.

To transform the cells into sperm and eggs, they are transplanted into a surrogate fish. Donor cells are injected into the surrogate where they follow instructions from surrounding cells which tell them where to go and when and how to make sperm or eggs.

Once the surrogate is sexually mature they can mate and produce offspring that are direct decedents of the endangered species the donor cells were originally collected from. In a way, we are hijacking the reproductive biology of the surrogate species. By selecting surrogates that are prolific breeders we can essentially “mass produce” sperm and eggs from an endangered species, potentially producing more offspring than it would have been able to within its own lifetime.

Cell surrogacy has been successful in sturgeon, rainbow trout and zebrafish.

The combination of cryopreservation and surrogacy in conservation is promising but has only successfully been used in one endangered species so far, the Manchurian trout.

Not a get-out-of-conservation card

The “store now, save later” strategy of frozen zoos sounds simple but alas it is not. The methods needed to reproduce many species from frozen tissue are still being developed and may take years to perfect. The cost of maintaining frozen collections and developing methods of resurrection could divert funding from preventative conservation efforts.

Even if de-extinction is possible, there could be problems. The Australian landscape is evolving – temperatures fluctuate, habitats change, new predators and diseases are being introduced. Extinction is a consequence of failing to adapt to these changes. Reintroducing a species into the same hostile environment that lead to its demise may be a fool’s errand. How can we ensure reintroduced animals will thrive in an environment they may no longer be suited for?

Reducing human impact on the natural environment and actively protecting threatened species will be far easier than trying to resurrect them once they are gone. In the case of the Murray Darling Basin, reversing the damage done and developing policies that ensure its long-term protection will take time that endangered species may not have.




Read more:
I’ve always wondered: does anyone my age have any chance of living for centuries?


Frozen zoos are an insurance policy, and we don’t want to have to use them. But if we fail in our fight against extinction, we will be glad we made the investment in frozen zoos when we had the chance.The Conversation

Nicola Marie Rivers, PhD Candidate, Monash University

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

Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India



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The vast majority of e-waste in India is processed by hand.
Miles Parl, Author provided

Miles Park, UNSW

Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India

The world produces 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) per year, according to a recent UN report, but only 20% is formally recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfill, or is recycled informally in developing nations.




Read more:
Does not compute: Australia is still miles behind in recycling electronic products


India generates more than two million tonnes of e-waste annually, and also imports undisclosed amounts of e-waste from other countries from around the world – including Australia.

We visited India to examine these conditions ourselves, and reveal some of the devastating effects e-waste recycling has on workers’ health and the environment.

Obsolete computer electronics equipment lie stacked along the roads in Seelampur.
Alankrita Soni, Author provided

Indian e-waste

More than 95% of India’s e-waste is processed by a widely distributed network of informal workers of waste pickers. They are often referred to as “kabadiwalas” or “raddiwalas” who collect, dismantle and recycle it and operate illegally outside of any regulated or formal organisational system. Little has changed since India introduced e-waste management legislation in 2016.

We visited e-waste dismantlers on Delhi’s outskirts. Along the narrow and congested alleyways in Seelampur we encountered hundreds of people, including children, handling different types of electronic waste including discarded televisions, air-conditioners, computers, phones and batteries.

Open fires create toxic smoke, and locals reported high rates of respiratory problems.
Alankrita Soni, Author provided

Squatting outside shop units they were busy dismantling these products and sorting circuit boards, capacitors, metals and other components (without proper tools, gloves, face masks or suitable footwear) to be sold on to other traders for further recycling.

Local people said the waste comes here from all over India. “You should have come here early morning, when the trucks arrive with all the waste,” a trolley driver told us.

Seelampur is the largest e-waste dismantling market in India. Each day e-waste is dumped by the truckload for thousands of workers using crude methods to extract reusable components and precious metals such as copper, tin, silver, gold, titanium and palladium. The process involves acid burning and open incineration, creating toxic gases with severe health and environmental consequences.




Read more:
Almost everything you know about e-waste is wrong


Workers come to Seelampur desperate for work. We learned that workers can earn between 200 and 800 rupees (A$4-16) per day. Women and children are paid the least; men who are involved with the extraction of metals and acid-leeching are paid more.

Income is linked to how much workers dismantle and the quality of what is extracted. They work 8-10 hours per day, without any apparent regard for their own well-being. We were told by a local government representative that respiratory problems are reportedly common among those working in these filthy smoke-filled conditions.

Residential areas adjoining Seelampur Drain.
Alankrita Soni

Delhi has significant air and water pollution problems that authorities struggle to mitigate. We were surprised to learn that the recycling community does not like to discuss “pollution”, so as not to raise concerns that could result in a police raid. When we asked about the burning of e-waste, they denied it takes place. Locals were reluctant to talk to us in any detail. They live in fear that their trade will be shut down during one of the regular police patrols in an attempt to curb Delhi’s critical air and water problems.




Read more:
As another smog season looms, India must act soon to keep Delhi from gasping


As a result of this fear, e-waste burning and acid washing are often hidden from view in the outskirts of Delhi and the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, or done at night when there is less risk of a police raid.

Incidentally, while moving around Seelampur we were shocked to see children playing in drains clogged with dumped waste. During the drier months drains can catch fire, often deliberately lit to reduce waste accumulation.

Young boys searching for valuable metal components they can sell in Seelampur.
Author provided

After our tour of Seelampur we visited Mandoli, a region near Delhi where we were told e-waste burning takes place. When we arrived and asked about e-waste recycling we were initially met with denials that such places exist. But after some persistence we were directed along narrow, rutted laneways to an industrial area flanked by fortified buildings with large locked metal doors and peephole slots not dissimilar to a prison.

We arranged entry to one of these units. Among the swirling clouds of thick, acrid smoke, four or so women were burning electrical cables over a coal fire to extract copper and other metals. They were reluctant to talk and very cautious with their replies, but they did tell us they were somewhat aware of the health and environmental implications of the work.

We could not stay more than a few minutes in these filthy conditions. As we left we asked an elderly gentleman if people here suffer from asthma or similar conditions. He claimed that deaths due to respiratory problems are common. We also learned that most of these units are illegal and operate at night to avoid detection. Pollution levels are often worse at night and affect the surrounding residential areas and even the prisoners at the nearby Mandoli Jail.

Women extracting copper from electrical wires, in a highly polluting process.
Alankrita Soni, Author provided

We had the luxury of being able to leave after our visit. It is devastating to think of the residents, workers and their children who spend their lives living among this toxic waste and breathing poisonous air.

Field trips such as this help illustrate a tragic paradox of e-waste recycling in developed versus developing nations. In Australia and many other advanced industrialised economies, e-waste collection is low and little is recycled. In India, e-waste collection and recycling rates are remarkably high.

This is all due to informal recyclers, the kabadiwalas or raddiwalas. They are resourceful enough to extract value at every stage of the recycling process, but this comes with a heavy toll to their health and the environment.


This article was co-written by Ms. Alankrita Soni, UNSW Alumni & practising Environmental Architect from India.The Conversation

Miles Park, Senior Lecturer, Industrial Design, UNSW

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

Why stop at plastic bags and straws? The case for a global treaty banning most single-use plastics



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Joyce Njeri, 8, walks amidst garbage and plastic bags in the Dandora slum of Nairobi, Kenya.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

Anastasia Telesetsky, University of Idaho

Single-use plastics are a blessing and a curse. They have fueled a revolution in commercial and consumer convenience and improved hygiene standards, but also have saturated the world’s coastlines and clogged landfills. By one estimate 79 percent of all plastic ever produced is now in a dump, a landfill or the environment, and only 9 percent has been recycled.

This growing legacy poses real risks. Plastic packaging is clogging city sewer systems, leading to flooding. Abandoned plastic goods create breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and can leach toxic additives such as styrene and benzene as they decompose. Single-use plastics are killing birds and harming marine life.

I study international environmental law with a focus on marine ecosystems. In my view, land-based pollution from single-use plastics is a slow-onset disaster that demands a global response.

One attractive strategy is pursuing a legally binding phase-out of most single-use plastics at the global level. I believe this approach makes sense because it would build on current national and municipal efforts to eliminate single-use packaging, and would create opportunities for new small and medium-sized businesses to develop more benign substitutes.

Plastic bag litter along the Jukskei River, Johannesburg, South Africa.
NJR ZA/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Single-use plastic bans

About 112 countries, states and cities around the world have already imposed bans on various single-use plastic goods. Of these measures, 57 are national and 25 are in Africa. And the list of these restrictions continues to grow.

Most of these bans target thin single-use plastic carrier bags or imports of non-biodegradable bags. Some, such as the one in Antigua-Barbuda, include other single-use or problematic items, such as foam coolers and plastic utensils. A few measures – notably, Kenya’s plastic bag law – impose stiff punishments on violators, including jail time and fines of up to US$38,000.

Groups of states are starting to enact regional policies. The East African Legislative Assembly has passed a bill to ban the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic bags across its six member states, with a combined population of approximately 186 million people. And in October 2018 the European Union Parliament approved a ban on a number of single-use plastic items by 2021, along with a requirement to reduce plastic in food packaging by 25 percent by 2025 and cut plastic content in cigarette filters 80 percent by 2030.

Most of these bans are quite new or still being implemented, so there is limited research on how well they work. However, researchers at the United Nations who have reviewed 60 “national bans and levies” estimate that 30 percent of these measures have reduced consumption of plastics.

Plastics manufacturers contend that better recycling is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of their products. But many factors make it hard to recycle plastic, from its physical characteristics to insufficient market demand for many types of recycled plastics. In many instances, single-use plastics can only be recycled, optimistically, 10 times before their fibers become too short to be reprocessed.

Estimated number of new regulations on single-use plastics entering into force at the national level worldwide.
UNEP, CC BY

Lessons from other global bans

Several global bans and product phase-outs offer lessons for a treaty banning single-use plastic goods. The most successful case is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This treaty phased out production and use of chlorofluorocarbons in a variety of products, including refrigerators and spray cans, after they were shown to harm Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Today scientists predict that stratospheric ozone concentrations will rebound to 1980 levels by the middle of this century. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Montreal Protocol has prevented millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In 2016 nations adopted the Kigali Amendment, which will phase out production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, another class of ozone-depleting chemicals.

Why has the Montreal Protocol worked so well? One key factor is that every nation in the world has joined it. They did so because alternative materials were available to substitute for chlorofluorocarbons. The treaty also provided financial support to countries that needed help transitioning away from the banned substances.

Sir David Attenborough narrates the extraordinary history of the Montreal Protocol.

Where countries trying to reduce use of these chemicals fell short of their goals, the Protocol provided institutional support rather than punishing them. But it also included the option to impose trade sanctions on nations that refused to cooperate.

Another pact, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, banned or severely limited production and use of certain chemicals that threatened human and environmental health, including specific insecticides and industrial chemicals. Today 182 nations have signed the treaty. Concentrations of several dangerous POPs in the Arctic, where global air and water currents tend to concentrate them, have declined.

Nations have added new chemicals to the list and created “elimination networks” to help members phase out use of dangerous materials such as PCBs. And producers of goods such as semiconductors and carpets that use listed chemicals are working to develop new, safer processes.

Even though the United States has not signed the Stockholm Convention, U.S. companies have largely eliminated production of the chemicals that the treaty regulates. This shows that setting a global standard may encourage nations to conform in order to maintain access to global markets.

Other international bans have been less successful. In 1989, seeking to reduce the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, parties to the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species banned ivory sales by ending trade in African elephant parts. Initially demand for ivory fell, but in 1999 and 2008 treaty states allowed African nations to sell ivory stockpiles to Japan and China, ostensibly to fund conservation. These two sales reignited global demand for ivory and created unregulated domestic markets that stimulated high levels of poaching.

Malaysian customs officials display smuggled tusks seized at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Demand for ivory continues to fuel poaching and illegal trade despite an international ban on sales of elephant parts.
AP Photo/Vincent Thian

An opportunity to lead

What lessons do these treaties offer for curbing plastic pollution? The Montreal Protocol shows that bans can work where substitute products are available, but require reliable monitoring and the threat of sanctions to deter cheating. The Stockholm Convention suggests that industries will innovate to meet global production challenges. And struggles to curb the ivory trade offer a cautionary message about allowing exceptions to global bans.

I believe the rapid spread of single-use plastic bans shows that enough political support exists to launch negotiations toward a global treaty. Emerging economies such as Kenya that are aggressively tackling the problem are especially well placed to take a lead at the U.N. General Assembly in calling for talks on stemming the tide of plastic pollution.The Conversation

Anastasia Telesetsky, Professor of International Environmental Law , University of Idaho

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