Ban on toxic mercury looms in sugar cane farming, but Australia still has a way to go



Phil / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Larissa Schneider, Australian National University; Cameron Holley, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, University of Canberra, and Simon Haberle, Australian National University

This month, federal authorities finally announced an upcoming ban on mercury-containing pesticide in Australia. We are one of the last countries in the world to do so, despite overwhelming evidence over more than 60 years that mercury use as fungicide in agriculture is dangerous.

Mercury is a toxic element that damages human health and the environment, even in low concentrations. In humans, mercury exposure is associated with problems such as kidney damage, neurological impairment and delayed cognitive development in children.




Read more:
Australia emits mercury at double the global average


The ban will prevent about 5,280 kilograms of mercury entering the Australian environment each year.

But Australia is yet to ratify an international treaty to reduce mercury emissions from other sources, such as the dental industry and coal-fired power stations. This is our next challenge.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visiting a sugar cane farm in 2019. Mercury-containing pesticides will be banned.
Cameron Laird/AAP

A mercury disaster

Mercury became a popular pesticide ingredient for agriculture in the early 1900s, and a number of poisoning events ensued throughout the world.

They include the Iraq grain disaster in 1971-72, when grain seed treated with mercury was imported from Mexico and the United States. The seed was not meant for human consumption, but rural communities used it to make bread, and 459 people died.

In the decades since, most countries have banned the production and/or use of mercury-based pesticides on crops. In 1995 Australia discontinued their use in most applications, such as turf farming.

Emissions of the element mercury are a threat to human health and the environment.
Wikimedia

Despite this, authorities exempted a fungicide containing mercury known as Shirtan. They restricted its use to sugar cane farming in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

According to the sugar cane industry, about 80% of growers use Shirtan to treat pineapple sett rot disease.

But this month, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority cancelled the approval of the mercury-containing active ingredient in Shirtan, methoxyethylmercuric chloride. The decision was made at the request of the ingredient’s manufacturer, Alpha Chemicals.

Shirtan’s registration was cancelled last week. It will no longer be produced in Australia, but existing supplies can be sold to, and used by, sugar cane farmers for the next year until it is fully banned.

Workers and nature at risk

Over the past 25 years, Australia’s continued use of Shirtan allowed about 50,000 kilograms of mercury into the environment. The effect on river and reef ecosystems is largely unknown.

What is known is that mercury can be toxic even at very low concentrations, and research is needed to understand its ecological impacts.

The use of mercury-based pesticide has also created a high risk of exposure for sugar cane workers. At most risk are those not familiar with safety procedures for handling toxic materials, and who may have been poorly supervised. This risk has been exacerbated by the use itinerant workers, particularly those from a non-English speaking background.

South Sea Islanders hoeing a cane field in Queensland, 1902. Cane workers have long been exposed to mercury.
State Library of Queensland

Further, in the hot and humid conditions of Northern Australia, it has been reported that workers may have removed protective gloves to avoid sweating. Again, research is needed to determine the implication of these practices for human health.

To this end, Mercury Australia, a multi-disciplinary network of researchers, has formed to address the environmental, health and other issues surrounding mercury use, both contemporary and historical.

Australia is yet to ratify

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to control mercury use and release into the environment. Australia signed onto the convention in 2013 but is yet to ratify it.

Until the treaty is ratified, Australia is not legally bound to its obligations. It also places us at odds with more than 100 countries that have ratified it, including many of Australia’s developed-nation counterparts.

Australia’s outlier status in this area is shown in the below table:

Accession, acceptance or ratification have the same legal effect, where parties follow legal obligations under international law.

Mercury-based pesticide use was one of Australia’s largest sources of mercury emissions. But if Australia ratifies the convention, it would be required to control other sources of mercury emissions, such as dental amalgam and the burning of coal in power stations.

The three active power stations in the Latrobe Valley, for example, together emit about 1,200 kilograms of mercury each year.

The coal-burning Mount Piper Power station near Lithgow in NSW. Government efforts to reduce mercury emissions should focus on coal plants.
David Gray/Reuters

Time to look at coal

If Australia ratified the Minamata Convention, it would provide impetus for a timely review and, if necessary, update of mercury regulations across Australia.

Emissions from coal-fired power stations in Australia are regulated by the states through pollution control licences. Some states would likely have to amend these licences if Australia ratified the convention. For example, Victorian licences for coal-fired power stations currently do not include limits on mercury emissions.

Pollution control technologies were introduced at Australian coal plants in the early 1990s. But they do not match state-of-the-art technologies applied to coal plants in North America and Europe.




Read more:
Why won’t Australia ratify an international deal to cut mercury pollution?


Australian environment authorities have been examining the implications of ratifying the convention. But progress is slow.

The issue of mercury emissions does not attract significant public or political attention. But there is a global scientific consensus that coordinated international action is needed.

The pesticide phase-out and ban is an important step. But Australia still has a way to go.The Conversation

Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Cameron Holley, Professor, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, Professor, University of Canberra, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University

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.

Botswana set to weigh in on whether ban on elephant hunting should be lifted



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Elephants at the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Shutterstock

Keith Somerville, University of Kent

The government of President Mokgweetsi Masisi in Botswana has announced that it will hold a two-month nationwide consultation to review the ban on hunting, notably of elephants. The ban, introduced by Masisi’s predecessor, Ian Khama in 2014, has come under increasing criticism from people living in areas with significant wildlife populations as well as impoverished communities previously reliant on hunting income.

The announcement of the consultation followed a vote in the country’s parliament calling for the government to consider lifting the hunting ban on elephants. The motion was put before parliament by Konstantinos Markus, a member of the governing Botswana Democratic Party of President Masisi. The consultation will be run by the minister of local government and rural development.

Markus, who got support of a majority of MPs from all parties, argued that there were several factors necessitating the lifting of the ban. These included the increase in Botswana’s elephant population, the growing conflict between people and elephants (such as crops being destroyed and people’s lives being endangered) and the loss to local communities of income from hunting. He also argued that the ban contradicted the aims of one of the country’s key conservation efforts designed to contribute to rural development.

It’s significant that the environment and tourism ministry isn’t running the process. Given that it’s the local government and rural development ministry in charge the focus is likely to be on rural livelihoods rather than environmental protection.

The history of the ban

Hunting was banned by President Ian Khama in January 2014. The decision followed a survey on Botswana’s wildlife. It suggested that a number of species were declining in northern Botswana, where most sports and commercial hunting occurred. It found that ostrich numbers had fallen by 95%, wildebeest 90%, tsessebe 84%, warthog and kudu 81% and giraffes (66%)between 1966 and 2011.

A weakness of the survey was that it only looked at the numbers and failed to take into account what had caused declines, or what the long-term trends or seasonal factors were.

Khama and his brother Tshekedi, who was minister of the environment and natural resources, blamed the decline on hunting. With urging from animal rights NGOs as well as some wildlife filmmakers they opted to ban sports and most forms of commercial hunting, blaming them for species decline.

But a study carried out by Joseph Mbaiwa of the Okavango Research Unit at the University of Botswana, found that the ban was

not supported by any scientific evidence, and there was no involvement of local communities in the decision-making process.

Mbaiwa found that the ban was opposed in local communities where there had been hunting. This was because it had contributed significantly to incomes which they’d lost. In addition, wildlife was increasingly damaging crops while increased livestock farming in the wake of ban was affecting water resources.

Elephant damage to the Mopane woodlands in Linyanti, northern Botswana.
Author Supplied

Mbaiwa also found that rural communities had lost an important source of meat which provided vital protein.

Why MPs oppose the ban

The combination of lost income, increased conflict with wildlife and increased poaching all weighed on MPs minds when they voted overwhelmingly to call on the government to reconsider the ban. Markus tabled his motion as a matter of “urgent public importance. He said the urgency was partly due to the latest figures showing a national elephant population of 237,000, compared with a carrying capacity of 50,000.

He also argued that the

expansion of the elephant population in Botswana has impoverished communities, especially those in Boteti, Ngamiland, Chobe or northern Botswana where crop damage and lack of harvest due to elephants is prevalent.

The size of the elephant population is hard to pin down accurately as huge numbers migrate between Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Angola. The Great Elephant Census survey carried out in 2014 put the population at 130,451, but the 2012 dry season survey showed 207,545.

Possible explanations for the fluctuation in numbers could include migration as well as seasonal factors rather than an outright decline.

What happens next?

The consultation process is due to start when the current parliamentary session ends in the first week of August. It will involve a series of traditional kgotla meetings – public meetings at which everyone is allowed to have their say before leaders come to a decision.

It’s significant that the chair process is being chaired by the minister responsible for rural livelihoods rather than Tshekedi Khama, the environment minister, who was one of the chief proponents of the ban.

One reason for this decision may be that the new president, who replaced Ian Khama on 1 April 2018, wants to placate an increasing number of BDP MPs, local councillors and chiefs who say the ban is damaging the livelihoods of people in rural areas and having a bad effect on rural development. If these issues aren’t resolved the party risks losing rural votes in Ngamiland in elections next year.

The ConversationThere are likely to be very heated debates in the coming months as the government weighs up whether to lift the ban to meet popular demand and economic reality, or whether the Khama factor will still weigh heavily on the decision.

Keith Somerville, Visiting Professor, University of Kent

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How the ‘yeah-but’ mentality stalls progress on bag bans and other green issues



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Is forgetting your bags really such an inconvenience?
AAP Image/Peter Rae

Anne Lane, Queensland University of Technology

The debacle over the removal of single-use plastic bags from supermarkets has been analysed from a range of different perspectives. Supermarkets have been described as breaking a psychological trust contract with their customers and cynically using environmental concerns to reduce their costs and increase their profits. The pushback by Australian shoppers has been the cause of much amusement and bewildered head-shaking.

But there’s one aspect of people’s resistance to this type of change that has major implications for every environmental initiative in the country. Let’s call it the “yeah-but” mentality.




Read more:
Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction


Yeah-buts know when things are bad for the environment. They know about the dangers of throwaway plastic, whether it be bags, straws or bottles. They know that eating farmed meat, leaving the tap running, and driving cars powered by fossil fuels are not good for the world we live in.

They know this situation is not sustainable and that someone must do something about it. They might even be willing to make an occasional donation to an environmental charity. But ask them to take action themselves, especially if that involves even a low level of inconvenience, and the Yeah-buts sound their call.

Yeah-buts know they shouldn’t really drive to work, but then again public transport takes longer and doesn’t go door-to-door.

Yeah-buts know that farmed meat has a large environmental footprint, but they like the taste, and anyway veggies are only really an accompaniment.

This mentality has significant implications for any organisation attempting to address environmental challenges in Australia, or any other democratic society.

Previous research – such as that into the low take-up of electric cars – has found that consumers can be resistant to eco-friendly innovations in products and behaviour where they perceive that the proposed alternative is more expensive and/or less practical.

A requirement for people to actually put in some effort to acquire new behaviour that helps the environment is almost certainly going to encounter resistance.

How to drive behaviour change

Encouraging people to adopt new behaviours – especially those that involve personal inconvenience – is traditionally done through a “standard learning hierarchy approach”. The first step is to provide people with new knowledge and information on a topic or issue, thus increasing their understanding. As a result they will change the way they feel about the topic, and ultimately change their behaviour to reflect this new understanding and feeling.

Research has shown, however, that giving people new knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do the right thing.

For years, organisations have been telling us how bad plastic bags are for the environment. As a result, people have been feeling increasingly negative towards the use of plastic bags. But despite some shoppers changing their ways, many didn’t. Until this month, supermarkets were still supplying millions of single-use bags, and thousands of their customers were still using them.

Then came the prospect of a ban, and the yeah-but excuses began to flow. One shopper told A Current Affair:

It’s just one extra thing (to remember) and invariably as I get older my memory gets worse.

Clearly the standard learning hierarchy wasn’t working here. The Yeah-buts persisted because their unwillingness to be inconvenienced by the need to provide their own shopping bags triumphed over their knowledge of the harm that plastic bags do. For these people, the inconvenience of forgetting their bags is acute, whereas the guilt over using unnecessary plastic is more vague. So this is where the government stepped in and removed the option of single-use plastic bags altogether.

Under pressure from environmental groups and concerned individuals, governments introduced a legislated ban on single-use plastic bags. This is a different approach to the standard learning hierarchy, which seeks to change people’s perception first, and then their behaviour. Here, people’s behaviour was forcibly altered in the hope that their knowledge and feelings would catch up.

The idea that people will reject an opportunity to acquire a new habit that will bring positive environmental change because it inconveniences them is one that clearly needs more research. It’s hard to think of another example where this inconvenience has resulted from a government mandating the withdrawal of a legal product to benefit the environment.

The case of the plastic bag ban is still being analysed, but could it provoke copycat behaviour by other environmental agencies – lobbying for legislation to force people to take a particular course of action while waiting for them to realise it’s the “right” thing to do and it makes them feel good? It’s an avenue that has been explored by some over many years, with varying degrees of success.




Read more:
Target’s plastic bag backdown a loss for the silent majority


Only time will tell if the use of legislation makes the Yeah-buts’ resistance over the single-use plastic bag futile. If it does seem to work, watch out for a slew of applications from other environmental agencies and charities for similar levels of strong-arm government support.

The ConversationBut those organisations will have to be prepared to weather a severe storm of backlash and negative public sentiment if they think legislation is the way to go. It’s not the governments that will be held liable: just ask Coles and Woolies!

Anne Lane, Academic and researcher, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Coles’ plastic bag backflip leaves us worse off than before


Kim Borg, Monash University and Edwin Ip, Monash University

One month after removing free lightweight plastic bags from checkouts, Australian supermarket giant Coles has decided to offer thicker reusable plastics bags for free, indefinitely. This unprecedented move is in response to strong backlash by customers who are struggling to switch to reusable bags.




Read more:
Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction


We know that offering free lightweight plastic bags causes excessive plastic use. We also know that banning lightweight bags can increase the use of heavier plastic bags (such as bin liners). Coles’ decision brings out the worst of both worlds: giving out heavier plastic bags for free.

Free vs. fee

Consumers respond to price changes: if prices go up, demand falls. Increasing the use of reusable bags by introducing a small fee has generally been successful around the world. This includes examples from Canada, Botswana, Portugal and Ireland, where introducing a €0.15 tax on plastic shopping bags reduced usage by over 90%.

An alarming example for Coles is that of South Africa. They removed lightweight plastic bags and introduced a fee of 46 rand cents for thicker plastic bags, later reducing it to 17 cents. The initial high price point almost halved the use of plastic bags, but when the price was lowered the use of plastic bags increased over time.




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In banning plastic bags we need to make sure we’re not creating new problems


Behavioural economics suggests that people are more sensitive to loss than gains, so financial disincentives for plastic bags are particularly useful. For example, it has been found that use of single-use bags can decrease substantially when a charge is framed as a tax, compared to a bonus for bringing reusable bags.

A habit of free bags

Cole’s backflip is particularly troubling from a behavioural economics perspective. The thicker reusable plastic bags were meant to cost 15c. Coles are essentially offering a 100% discount on these bags compared to rival supermarkets. This, combined with the “power of free”, means that people may take more bags than they need when shopping – increasing plastic usage.

Switching to reusable bags without an added cost means that they are conceptually very similar to the old single-use bags (but with more plastic content). This replacement will not help people to kick their old single-use habits. In fact, they may develop a new habit of using the reusable bags as single-use products. If consumers continue their old habits, this could lead to even more plastic going to landfill and entering the environment.




Read more:
There are some single-use plastics we truly need. The rest we can live without


Alternative solutions

Coles is in a difficult situation. Not only has this decision divided shoppers, but if they decide to charge for these bags in the future, they are likely to experience another round of backlash as consumers experience another bout of loss aversion – but this time the loss will be associated with a higher quality product.

Now that the decision is made, it is important that Coles is able to evaluate the impact: How many free bags are being distributed? How many bin liners are being sold? How are the thicker plastic bags being used?

Coles also has a responsibility to take alternative measures to reduce plastic use. Financial disincentives are not always the best option (for example charging for bags can cause additional hardships for low income households). They are also not the only option for reducing our reliance on plastic bags.




Read more:
How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)


The ConversationA more equitable solution could be to use behavioural science to help consumers break their habits. For example, instead of giving out free plastic bags, Coles could loan their reusable canvas bags for a small fee that is refunded on return. This would encourage reuse while avoiding additional costs for low income households or backlash from customers – everybody wins.

Kim Borg, Doctoral Candidate & Research Officer at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University and Edwin Ip, Research Fellow, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction


Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology and Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Queensland University of Technology

Woolworths’ and Coles’ bans on plastic bags have been applauded by environmental groups, but were reportedly met with abuse and assault and claims of profiteering. Even comedians saw value in the theatre of the bag ban.

This reaction is due to supermarkets breaching their “psychological contract” with customers. When both major supermarkets appeared to back flip in the face of irate customers it only compounded the problem”.

Unlike written legal contracts, psychological contracts are a set of “unwritten rules” or “expectations” exchanged between the parties in a transaction. This can be between an employee and employer, or a customer and a retailer.

These understandings are often tacit or implicit. They tend to be invisible, assumed, unspoken, informal or at best only partially vocalised.

The pre-ban psychological contract between supermarket and shopper was something like “I’ll shop with you and, in exchange, you’ll pack my purchases into a free plastic bag.”

There was an implicit financial exchange between parties. Shoppers spent money on groceries and the supermarket paid for providing a plastic bag.

With the bag ban the psychological contract changed: “I’ll shop with you and give up a plastic bag, you’ll also give up plastic in the store in other areas, and the environment will benefit.”

Supermarkets justified phasing out lightweight plastic bags with the idea of a corporate social responsibility strategy. Customers might have been glad to forgo single-use plastic bans to support a greener future, but this is where the problem occurred.

Shoppers began to realise that supermarkets were saving money (by no longer giving away bags for nothing), while they themselves incurred a cost (paying 15 cents or more, depending on the type of re-usable bag).

The supermarkets had not kept up their end of the psychological contract by reducing the use of plastic in the store, particularly in packaging. The social media comments largely reflect this.

When there is a psychological contract breach, people can engage in revenge and retaliation.

This can range from mild, such as venting on social media, to acts of sabotage like altering floor stock and stealing shopping baskets.

Compounding factors

A couple of other factors have compounded the perceived breach of contract.

Unlike smaller states and territories (South Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and the ACT) where state legislation has banned single-use plastic bags by all retailers, this was a retailer-imposed national ban.

Shoppers in these smaller states quickly became accustomed to not having free bags, as these were not available anywhere.

By simply backflipping soon after implementing the policy, the supermarkets also prompted shoppers to question their intentions and integrity.

While shoppers may have at first accepted the rationale for the ban, extended free bag periods sent the message that the supermarkets are not that serious about banning plastic bags for environmental reasons.




Read more:
Getting rid of plastic bags: a windfall for supermarkets but it won’t do much for the environment


While Woolworths has said it will channel “money made” from selling its “Bag for Good” scheme into a youth environmental scheme, customers also rightly question the cost savings and revenues generated.

Removing a single-use plastic bag is a positive first step, but it is only the beginning. Customers still walk in to supermarkets today and see many varieties of food wrapped in plastic, and they themselves place loose fruit and vegetables into plastic bags.

As a result of media coverage, customers are now more aware and sensitive of plastics throughout dry grocery departments. They see more and more unnecessary plastic packaging, like dry pasta in a box with a clear plastic window.

Fixing the plastic bag ban

There is certainly enough evidence that removing single-use bags leads to positive environmental outcomes. But a national, uniform approach is needed, supported by consumer awareness and education programs.

While many state and territory governments have legislated plastic bag bans, others have held out. The Victorian government last year announced plans to ban single-use plastic bags, but despite widespread consumer support, it is yet to come into effect.

Supermarkets need to be open about the financial aspects of plastic bags, both costs and revenues.

Consumers may understand the procurement and logistics costs of the replacement plastic bag options will be higher – because the bags are thicker and heavier, and it takes extra time to pack different-sized bag options.




Read more:
How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)


The distribution of net profits (not gross profits) from the sale of all re-usable bag options should be channelled into sustainability programs, research grants and education schemes. Programs need to be benchmarked, measured and publicly announced.

Shoppers will be more accepting of change if they can comprehend how their small sacrifice (say 15 cents) is helping the environment.

Shoppers also have an important role to play in the scheme of things. While it will take some time to break old habits, responsibility rests with shoppers to remember to bring a bag. If they forget, they simply need to buy another one.

The ConversationUltimately, the psychological contract needs to once again be aligned and in balance. To do this governments, retailers and consumers need to work together to solve this important environmental issue.

Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology and Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Social Marketing Professor, School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A crisis too big to waste: China’s recycling ban calls for a long-term rethink in Australia


Monique Retamal, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, University of Technology Sydney, and Nick Florin, University of Technology Sydney

Australia’s recycling industry is in crisis, with China having effectively closed its borders to foreign recycling. Emergency measures have included stockpiling, landfilling, and trying to find other international destinations for our recycling – but none of these are sustainable long-term solutions.

To manage this problem sustainably, we need a mix of short and longer-term planning. That means taking a broader approach than the strategies agreed by state and federal environment ministers at last month’s emergency summit.




Read more:
China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


There is a wide range of potential strategies to address the crisis, shown in the diagram below. We have highlighted those that were endorsed at the ministers’ meeting, but there are many other options we could be considering too.


UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, Author provided

Waste management is planned around “the waste hierarchy”. This sets out our options for dealing with waste, in order from most to least preferable for sustainability. To be effective, the government’s strategies need to follow this established hierarchy.


UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures

This means that waste strategies should prioritise avoiding, reducing, and reusing, before recycling, energy recovery, and finally disposal to landfill as a last resort. So how do the ministers’ strategies stack up?

Top of the pile

The ministers agreed to reduce waste through consumer education and industry initiatives. These types of initiatives are important and sit at the top of the waste hierarchy, but the announcement is so far lacking in detail and targets.

Local councils have been running recycling education initiatives for a long time, with mixed success. Going beyond this to waste reduction is even harder and there are few successful examples. To do this well would require substantial investment of time and resources to identify and trial effective approaches to waste reduction. Education alone, without incentives and regulations, is unlikely to deliver sufficient change.

The ministers also endorsed a new target of making 100% of packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. While this target is commendable, we should be prioritising reduction and reuse over recycling and composting when designing packaging.

The industry-led Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has already adopted “closing the loop” (improved recovery) as a performance criterion in its new Packaging Sustainability Framework, but incentives to prioritise reusable packaging are still needed. Refillable returnable glass bottles are common in Europe. Support from government and businesses for local pilots of these and similar schemes would help overcome barriers to implementation.

These “top of the hierarchy” approaches are all long-term and need serious attention to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.

Bottom of the heap

While we’re working on avoidance and reuse, we need to improve our domestic recycling system.




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There are several ways to do this:

Increase domestic recycling capacity

The ministers also agreed to work together on expanding and developing our recycling industry. To do this, we need to focus on improving sorting, and reprocessing recyclables into materials that can be used for manufacturing. The recycling industry is advocating for new reprocessing facilities, but we need to develop local markets for recycled material at the same time to make sure we depend less on export markets.

Develop local markets

For recycling to happen, there needs to be a market for recycled content. The ministers agreed to advocate for more recycled materials in government procurement, such as recycled paper, road base, and construction materials. Procurement guidelines will be needed to ensure this goes ahead. Governments could take this a step further, and incentivise businesses to use recycled content in their products too.

Labelling products to indicate recycled content would also help generate demand from consumers.

Improve the quality of collected recyclables

This is an ongoing challenge, but will be essential for any future recycling pathways. Initiatives to achieve this were not detailed in the meeting. This will require upgrading our sorting facilities, and potentially improving our kerbside collection systems too.

Industry reports have suggested that re-introducing separate bins at the kerbside – or at least separating paper from glass – would greatly improve the quality of mixed paper compared with current co-mingled recycling. It would eliminate glass shards, which make re-milling paper much more difficult.


Adapted from Assessment of domestic Waste and Recycling/NSW DEC

Container deposit schemes also provide an excellent opportunity to collect better-value recycling streams. South Australia developed its scheme way back in 1977 and similar schemes are finally being rolled out in New South Wales (“return and earn”), and will soon be followed by Queensland and Western Australia.

Labelling products with recycling instructions may also help with collection quality. Industry organisations APCO, Planet Ark and PREP Design recently launched a labelling scheme to help packaging designers increase the recyclability of their packaging, and to give consumers information on how to recycle it.

Waste to energy?

Finally, the ministers also identified the potential to develop “waste to energy projects” through existing energy funding channels. This strategy falls lower down the hierarchy than recycling, as materials are no longer available to recirculate in the economy.

Waste to energy projects can be complementary to recycling in processing genuine residual waste (contaminants separated from recyclables at sorting centres), to achieve very high levels of diversion. This is already required under the NSW EPA energy from waste policy. However, waste to energy is not a solution to a recycling crisis and should not be used to deal with recyclables that can no longer be exported to China. It is not a short-term option either, because Australia does not have a mature waste to energy sector, and investment needs to happen at the right scale to ensure that it is complementary to recycling.




Read more:
The recycling crisis in Australia: easy solutions to a hard problem


Most of the strategies currently being pursued are sound in principle, although many of them need clearer plans for their funding and implementation, as well as ambitious targets.

We need a comprehensive range of short- and longer-term strategies if we are truly to get to grips with the recycling crisis. We should be wary of “silver bullets” such as waste to energy, or new export contracts that could undermine more sustainable long-term solutions.

The environment ministers agreed to update the National Waste Policy this year, incorporating circular economy principles, which is encouraging. This will be their opportunity to coordinate a nationally consistent response that promotes the development of resilient markets for recycled content, and reusable and re-manufactured products.

The ConversationThis will need to go beyond the current strong focus on recycling, and embrace the upper levels of the waste hierarchy. The next step will be to develop properly funded plans for implementing these changes.

Monique Retamal, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis



File 20180426 175074 1e1eiyu.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Bernard Spragg. NZ/Flickr

Jenni Downes, University of Technology Sydney

Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg is meeting with his state and territory counterparts today. Top of their agenda? The recycling crisis precipitated by the China “ban”.

States and councils around the country have been struggling since the imposition of import restrictions that exclude 99% of the recyclables that Australia previously sold to China.




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Hopes are high that the federal government will step in and take a clear role. Proposed solutions include investing in onshore processing facilities and local markets, incentives or mandates to use recycled content, and grants and rebates for innovative approaches that go beyond recycling to designing for prevention and reuse.

But what is the ban and why is it such an issue?

What is the China ‘ban’?

The “ban” is actually a set of import restrictions imposed by China under its Blue Sky/National Sword program. This follows its previous Green Fence program, introduced in 2011, which progressively tightened inspection efforts to reduce the amount of contaminated materials entering the country.

National Sword takes this a step further by restricting the importation of 24 streams of recyclable material. It does this by setting stringent “maximum contamination thresholds” and limiting the number of import permits provided to Chinese businesses.




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Of key importance to Australia are the restrictions on paper and plastics, which now have contamination thresholds of just 0.5%. While not a ban in theory, this is virtually a ban in practice, because it is currently unachievable when processing household wastes like plastic.

How much of Australia’s recycling is affected?

Recent estimates commissioned by the federal government suggest that of all recycling collected from households, business and industry in 2017, Australia exported 3.5% to China (some 1,248 megatonnes).

However, the proportion is much higher for two key streams from our household kerbside recycling: 29% (920 Mt) of all paper and 36% (125 Mt) of all plastics collected were exported to China in 2017. This represents around 65% of the export market for each. The contamination rate of Australia’s kerbside recycling averages between 6-10% and even after sorting at a recycling facility is generally well above China’s 0.5% acceptable threshold.

Australia has limited local markets for household recyclables like paper, plastics and glass, so we rely heavily on overseas markets like China to buy and reprocess the waste. Losing the market for a third of our paper and plastics – as have many other industrialised countries – has sent shockwaves through the global recycling market. Oversupply has caused the average price of mixed paper scrap to fall from around AU$124 per tonne to A$0 per tonne (yes, zero!). Scrap mixed plastics has fallen from around A$325 per tonne to A$75 per tonne.

For many recycling companies, this means that the money they can make from kerbside recycling will now be less than the cost of providing the service.


Adapted from APCO Market Impact Assessment Report

Short-term solutions

Despite this reduced market, over the past 12 months traders have been able to sell scrap paper and plastics to other countries in Asia. This is a stopgap solution, as these countries are likely to reach their maximum capacity soon.

Other recycling businesses are storing these materials in the hope that a better option becomes available soon; The Age has reported some 200 “dangerous” stockpiles in Victoria. New South Wales has temporarily relaxed stockpile limits to allow greater short-term storage.

Major recycling company Visy has invoked force majeure to stop accepting recycling from the collection contractor for ten regional Victorian councils, while others councils face increased fees. In response, the Victorian state government unveiled a A$13 million rescue package to help councils meet increased costs until June, when they can increase rates (which are expected to increase by 4.5%).




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Passing costs onto residents isn’t always an option, as in NSW where rates are capped. To prevent a number of councils from abandoning kerbside recycling altogether (as temporarily happened in Ipswich), the NSW government has announced A$47 million of funding to help industry and councils. However, this is money diverted from funds already aimed at better managing waste throughout the state.

In South Australia, some recycling is seemingly still being sent to China despite the ban because of the high quality of recycling in that state. However, this is not a realistic option for all, and industry associations have called for a A$7 million rescue package. The SA government is waiting on a report from a working group before committing to such a package, but has announced A$300,000 in grant funding for the development of secondary reprocessing infrastructure.

The Western Australian government has created a task force to look at solutions but it has so far not returned any findings.

So what are our options?

The immediate responses from state governments have focused on short-term solutions. Our major medium- to long-term options fall under three categories: increasing the quality of recycling to enable continued export; investing in onshore recycling markets and facilities; and reducing the need for recycling altogether.




Read more:
The recycling crisis in Australia: easy solutions to a hard problem


Ahead of the Friday meeting of state environment ministers, there’s been a call for “product stewardship”: making companies responsible for the ultimate fate of their products, to create an incentive to ensure packaging is recyclable.

The Waste Management Association of Australia has been lobbying for a A$150 million action plan to invest in infrastructure and improvements in recycling quality, and for governments to buy recycled products. South Australian data suggest that 25,000 jobs could be created if we process recycling onshore.

Let’s hope the meeting produces a commitment from all ministers to long-term recycling and reuse solutions. What we don’t want to see is prioritised investment in waste-to-energy approaches to kerbside recyclables, as this has the least environmental benefit compared to avoidance, reuse and recycling. Even as a short-term solution any investment could lock out better longer-term solutions, because once these facilities are built they need to be fed.




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


However, for a truly circular economy, we also need governments to take this opportunity to go beyond recycling and invest in waste reduction and reuse. Grant programs and incentives for manufacturers to design for disassembly and reuse are a great idea, as is support for businesses moving to reusable products and systems, like refillable bottles and returnable food containers.

The ConversationRegardless of what does or doesn’t happen at today’s meeting, the key message for the public is to keep on recycling, and to recycle carefully. Use the RecycleSmart app or your council’s website to check exactly what can and can’t go in your kerbside recycling bin. If in doubt, keep it out!

Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.