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


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

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

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

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




Read more:
This South Pacific island of rubbish shows why we need to quit our plastic habit


Taking stock

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

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

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

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




Read more:
Plastic warms the planet twice as much as aviation – here’s how to make it climate-friendly


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

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

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

Lessons learned

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

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

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

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

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

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




Read more:
Eight million tonnes of plastic are going into the ocean each year


Here are a few of the shocking discoveries:

  • microplastics were reported in bottled water, salt and beer

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

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

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

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

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

Meaningful action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Read more:
There’s no ‘garbage patch’ in the Southern Indian Ocean, so where does all the rubbish go?


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

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

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

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

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Plastic and Marine Life


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

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

Cities can grow without wrecking reefs and oceans. Here’s how



File 20181203 194953 1yx65zo.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Cairns has lots of hard grey infrastructure but much less green infrastructure that would reduce the impacts of the city’s growth.
Karine Dupré, Author provided

Silvia Tavares, James Cook University and Karine Dupré, Griffith University

What happens if the water temperature rises by a few degrees?” is the 2018 International Year of the Reef leading question. While the ocean is the focus, urbanisation is the main reason for the rising temperatures and water pollution. Yet it receives little attention in this discussion.

In turn, rising temperatures increase downpours and urban floods, adding to the pressures on urban infrastructure.




Read more:
Design for flooding: how cities can make room for water


Protecting the reef as Cairns grows

Cairns is an expanding Queensland city located between two World Heritage sites – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. While important research focuses on these sites themselves, not much is known about how the surrounding urban areas influence these natural environments. Similarly, little is known about how urban planning and design contribute to the health of the inner city and surrounding water bodies, including the ocean.

Cairns is a major Australian tourism destination with a unique coastal setting of rainforest and reef. This attracts growing numbers of visitors. One effect of this success is increased urbanisation to accommodate these tourists.

There are many opportunities to promote sustainable and socially acceptable growth in Cairns. Yet this growth is not without challenges. These include:

  • impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise and ocean warming
  • lack of comprehensive urban infrastructure strategy
  • lack of comprehensive assessment of the benefits of integrated urban design to maximise coastal resilience and the health of streams and oceans.
Rain gardens are common in Singapore.
Roger Soh/Flickr, CC BY-SA

As with most Australian cities, Cairns has an urban layout based on wide streets, mostly with little or no greenery. Rain gardens, for instance, are rare. Bioswales that slow and filter stormwater are present along highways, but seldom within the city.

The arguments for not adding greenery to the urban environment are familiar. These typically relate to costs of implementation and maintenance, but also to the speed with which water is taken out of streets during the tropical rainy season. This is because green stormwater solutions, if not well planned, can slow down the water flow, thus increasing floods.

However, cities can be designed in a way to imitate nature with solutions that are an integral part of the urban system. This can include dedicated areas of larger wetlands and parks, which capture water and filter pollution and undesired nutrients more efficiently, reducing polluted runoff to the reef.




Read more:
If planners understand it’s cool to green cities, what’s stopping them?


Integrated urban design

Integrated urban design is an aspect of city planning and design that could be further developed to ensure the whole system works more efficiently. This involves integrating the three elements that make up urban infrastructure:

  1. the green – parks, residential gardens, rain gardens, green roofs and walls, bioswales, etc
  2. the grey – built drains, footpaths, buildings, underground vacuum
    system
    , etc
  3. the blue – streams, stormwater systems, etc.
A rain garden, which absorbs rain and stores water to help control run-off from impervious hard surfaces, in Wellington, New Zealand.
Karine Dupré

Urban infrastructure, therefore, can and should be planned and designed to provide multiple services, including coastal resilience and healthier water streams and oceans. To achieve this, a neighbourhood or city-wide strategy needs to be implemented, instead of intermittent and ad hoc urban design solutions. Importantly, each element should coordinate with the others to avoid overlaps, gaps and pitfalls.

This is what integrated urban design is about. So why don’t we implement it more often?

Challenges and opportunities

Research has shown that planning, designing and creating climate-resilient cities that are energy-optimised, revitalise urban landscapes and restore and support ecosystem services is a major challenge at the planning scale. To generate an urban environment that promotes urban protection and resilience while minimising urbanisation impacts and restoring natural systems, we need to better anticipate the risks and have the means to take actions. In other words, it is a two-way system: well planned and designed green and blue infrastructures not only deliver better urbanised areas but will also protect the ocean from pollution. Additionally, it helps to manage future risks of severe weather.

The uncertainties of green infrastructure capacity and costs of maintenance, combined with inflexible finance schemes, are obstacles to integrated urban solutions. Furthermore, the lack of inter- and transdisciplinary approaches results in disciplinary barriers in research and policymaking to long-term planning of the sort that generates urban green infrastructure and its desired outcomes.

On the bright side, there is also strong evidence to suggest sound policy can help overcome these barriers through technical guides based on scientific research, standards and financial incentives.




Read more:
Here’s how green infrastructure can easily be added to the urban planning toolkit


Collaborative partnerships are promising, too. Partnerships between academia and industry tend to be more powerful than streamlined industry project developments.

Finally, and very promisingly, Australia has its own successful green infrastructure examples. Melbourne’s urban forest strategy has been internationally acclaimed. Examples like these provide valuable insights into local green infrastructure governance.

Cairns has stepped up with some stunning blue infrastructure on the Esplanade which raises awareness of both locals and visitors about the protection of our oceans.

This is only the start. Together academics, local authorities, industry stakeholders and communities can lead the way to resilient cities and healthier oceans.

Cairns Esplanade Lagoon helps raise awareness of the need to protect the ocean as the city grows.
Karine Dupré, Author provided



Read more:
How green is our infrastructure? Helping cities assess its value for long-term liveability


The Conversation


Silvia Tavares, Lecturer in Urban Design, James Cook University and Karine Dupré, Associate Professor in Architecture, Griffith University

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

Curious Kids: How do plastic bags harm our environment and sea life?


File 20180625 152156 1v9zr1y.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Sea turtle eating a plastic bag.
from www.shutterstock.com

Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO and Qamar Schuyler, CSIRO

This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.


My name is Sanuki and I’m 8 years old. I live in Melbourne. My question is how do plastic bags harm our environment and sea life? – Sanuki, age 8, Melbourne.


Good question, Sanuki!

Plastic bags harm marine (and land) environments in a few ways.

Turtles (and other animals) may mistake plastic bags for food. Turtles like to eat jellyfish, and we think turtles eat the plastic bags because they resemble jellyfish.

When turtles eat plastic, it can block their intestinal system (their guts). Therefore, they can no longer eat properly, which can kill them. The plastics in their tummy may also leak chemicals into the turtle. We don’t know whether this causes long term problems for the turtle, but it’s probably not good for them.




Read more:
Australian waters polluted by harmful tiny plastics


How plastic impacts the ecosystems

Plastic bags can also smother corals and other seabed communities. When plastic bags end up in our oceans, animals (including seals, dolphins and seabirds) can get tangled up in them. An animal with a plastic bag around its neck will have trouble moving through the water, catching its prey or feeding, and escaping predators.

Plastic can smother seabed and coral, impacting ecosystems.
from www.shutterstock.com

On land, plastic bags are an eyesore. They get stuck in trees, along fence lines, or as litter at our parks and beaches.

Many people don’t realise that plastic bags can also cause flooding. Previously in Ghana (in West Africa), plastic bags blocked storm water drains during a big rainstorm. This caused flooding so bad that people were killed.

Making plastic requires a lot of energy and work

Plastic bags can even be harmful before they are used. It takes a lot of resources and energy to create a plastic bag. A key ingredient is oil. As a fossil fuel, oil must be extracted from the ground. Do we want to use fossil fuel resources to make a product that is only used once (we call this a “single use plastic”)?

Many millions of barrels of oil are used to make plastic bags every year. A lot of energy is also used to make and transport plastic bags. It is better for the environment if we reduce our energy use.




Read more:
This South Pacific island of rubbish shows why we need to quit our plastic habit


The push towards plastic-free

Lately, lots of people recognise the impacts that plastic bags have, and they are working on alternatives. Many local and state governments have passed plastic bag bans here in Australia, which helps stop the use of single use plastic bags.

In fact, New South Wales is the only state in Australia where you can still get thin, single use plastic bags at the grocery store.

So, remind your parents to bring their reusable cloth bags whenever you go shopping. You just might save a turtle.


Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to us. They can:

* Email your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au

* Tell us on Twitter


CC BY-ND

The ConversationPlease tell us your name, age and which city you live in. You can send an audio recording of your question too, if you want. Send as many questions as you like! We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.

Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO and Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO

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

New map shows that only 13% of the oceans are still truly wild


File 20180731 176698 1vumezv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Tuna are among the most vulnerable species to human pressures.
Rich Carey/Shutterstock

Kendall Jones, The University of Queensland; Alan Friedlander, University of Hawaii; Benjamin Halpern, University of California, Santa Barbara; Caitlin Kuempel, The University of Queensland; Carissa Klein, The University of Queensland; Hedley Grantham, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Nicole Shumway, and Oscar Venter, University of Northern British Columbia

Just 13% of the world’s oceans are now free from intense human activities such as fishing, according to a new map of ocean wilderness areas.

Our research, published in the journal Current Biology, shows that only 55 million square km of the global ocean can still be classified as “wilderness”, out of a total of 500 million square km.

There is almost no wilderness left in coastal seas, where human activities are most intense. Much of the remaining marine wilderness is clustered around the poles or near remote Pacific island nations with low populations.

Marine wilderness in exclusive economic zones (light blue), in areas outside national jurisdiction (dark blue), and marine protected areas (green).
Jones et al. Current Biology 2018

Humans rely on the ocean for food, livelihoods, and almost three-quarters of atmospheric oxygen. We use the ocean for the vast majority of global trade, and more than 2.8 billion people rely on seafood as an important protein source. It’s little wonder that more than eight in ten Australians live within 50km of the coast.

Earth’s ocean wilderness areas are home to unparalleled levels of marine life and are some of the only places where large predators are still found in historical numbers. Top predators such as sharks and tuna depend on these areas, as their slow reproduction rates make them particularly susceptible to decline even at mild levels of fishing.

Even the strictest, best-managed marine reserves cannot sustain the same levels of wildlife diversity as wilderness areas. This is either because reserves are too small, or because human activities in neighbouring areas impact wildlife as soon as they swim outside of reserve boundaries. According to our research, only 4.9% of marine wilderness is currently within marine protected areas.

There is evidence that wilderness areas are more resilient to rising sea temperatures and coral bleaching – stressors that cannot be halted without globally coordinated efforts to reduce emissions. These areas also give scientists a true baseline for system health, providing important information for restoring degraded marine ecosystems.

Threats to wilderness

Human impacts on marine ecosystems are becoming more intense and widespread
each year, threatening wilderness areas across the planet. Fishing is
now one of the most widespread activities by which humans harvest natural
resources. Industrial fishing covers 55% of the ocean, an area four times larger than is used for terrestrial agriculture. In many places, fishing has become so intense that large predators and charismatic species such as sea turtles have almost been wiped out.

Technological improvements have allowed humans to fish in the
farthest reaches of international waters. In the high Arctic, places that were once safe because of year-round ice cover are now open to fishing and shipping as warming seas melt the ice.

Even in nations with world-class fisheries management, such as Australia and the
United States, marine environments are being severely impacted by sediment and
nutrient runoff due to poor land management and deforestation. Sediment runoff onto the once pristine Great Barrier Reef is now five to ten times higher than historical levels, contributing to declining coral diversity and more frequent crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, and reducing the resilience of reefs against climate change.

Can we save the last of the wild?

Marine wilderness is overlooked in both global and national conservation strategies, as these areas are often assumed to be free from threatening processes and are therefore not a priority for conservation efforts. Our results show that this is a myth – wilderness areas in the ocean and on land are being rapidly lost, and protecting what remains is crucial. The Arctic, once thought of as untouched, is now likely to see new shipping channels, fisheries, and mining operations as sea ice disappears.

Protecting wilderness will require a combination of national and international efforts, but the fundamental goal must be to curb the impacts of current threats such as commercial fishing, shipping, resource extraction, and land-based runoff.

In nations like Australia and Canada, which still have substantial wilderness remaining within their national waters, using marine protected areas or fishery management regulations to protect wilderness will be crucial. Because even low levels of human activity can severely impact vulnerable species such as sharks and tuna, these areas should be strictly protected and cannot allow activities like commercial fishing.

However, current government plans to almost halve the area of strict protection in the Australian marine reserve system do not bode well for the future of wilderness protection.




Read more:
Australia’s new marine parks plan is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes


While protecting wilderness within national waters is legally straightforward,
preserving wilderness on the high seas will likely prove much more challenging, as no country has jurisdiction over these areas. One option may be to harness existing international and regional agreements, such as Regional Fisheries Management Organisations – international agencies formed by countries to manage shared fishing interests in a certain area. These organisations are already accustomed to set fishing limits, and have been used to close large areas of the high seas to damaging bottom-trawl fishing. An extension of their powers to create high seas conservation areas is certainly feasible, but this is likely to require substantial lobbying from member nations.




Read more:
New laws for the high seas: four key issues the UN talks need to tackle


The need for improved high-seas management is also now being recognised by the international community, with the UN currently negotiating a “Paris Agreement for the Ocean” – a legally binding high-seas conservation treaty to be established under the existing Law of the Sea Convention. Australia, as a wealthy nation and a signatory to fishing agreements in the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans, has the potential to be a world leader in marine wilderness conservation if it so chooses.

The ConversationJust like wilderness on land, pristine oceans are difficult to restore once lost. Our research should be a clarion call for immediate action to protect the world’s remaining wild oceans so that future generations can see the sea as it once was.

Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Alan Friedlander, Researcher, University of Hawaii; Benjamin Halpern, Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara; Caitlin Kuempel, PhD Candidate in Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Carissa Klein, Postdoctoral research fellow in conservation biology, The University of Queensland; Hedley Grantham, Research Associate, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Nicole Shumway, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland, and Oscar Venter, Associate Professor and FRBC/West Fraser research chair, Ecosystem Science and Management Progam, University of Northern British Columbia

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

How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)



File 20180712 27024 g44m2p.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Single-use plastics are convenient, but it’s time to phase them out.
Photo by Sander Wehkamp/Unsplash

Kim Borg, Monash University

Australia is responsible for over 13 thousand tonnes of plastic litter per year. At the end of June 2018, the Australian government released an inquiry report on the waste and recycling industry in Australia. One of the recommendations was that we should phase out petroleum-based single-use plastics by 2023.

This means a real social shift, because the convenient plastic products that we use once and throw away are ubiquitous in Australia.




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


Bans, as Coles and Woolworths recently adopted for plastic bags, are one option – but are not suitable for every situation. They can also feel like an imposition, which can inspire backlash if the community is not on board. Behavioural science can offer a path to curb our plastic use.

Technology alone is not the solution

First off, plastic is not evil: it’s flexible, durable, waterproof and cheap. The issue is the way we dispose of it. Because plastic is so versatile it has been adopted across a range of single-use “throw away” consumer products.

Many people are working on technological solutions to our plastic problems. These range from better recycling techniques and biodegradable “plastics” made from algae or starch, to (my favourite) using the wax moth caterpillar or “mutant bacteria” to consume plastic waste.

But these options are slow and expensive. They can also have other environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption.

There are lots of reusable alternatives to many single-use products. The challenge is getting people to use them.

Behavioural science to the rescue

My research involves applying insights from various disciplines (like economics, psychology, sociology or communication) to understand how governments and businesses can encourage people to change their behaviour for environmental, social and economic benefits.




Read more:
Plastic-free campaigns don’t have to shock or shame. Shoppers are already on board


Research has found that simply providing information through awareness campaigns is unlikely to change behaviour. What media attention and campaigning can do is increase the public visibility of an issue. This can indirectly influence our behaviour by making us more open to other interventions and by signalling social norms – the unwritten rules of acceptable behaviour.

Successful behaviour change campaigns must empower individuals. We should be left feeling capable of changing, that changing our behaviour will impact the problem, and that we are not alone. One positive example is modelling sustainable behaviours, like using KeepCups or beeswax wraps, in popular TV shows.

Once we’re aware of an issue, we may need a little help to move from intention to action. One strategy for providing this push is a small financial disincentive, like Ireland’s famous “plastax” on single-use plastic bags. Many cafés also offer discount coffees to reward bringing reusable cups.

We can also encourage retailers to “change the default”. Japan increased the refusal rate of plastic bags to 40% after six months of cashiers simply asking people if they wanted a bag.

This approach could be used for other products too. For example, imagine your drink not coming with a straw unless you specifically ask for it. This would cut down on waste, while also avoiding the unintended consequences of banning a product that is important for people with a disability.

Given that there is already strong support for reducing our reliance on single-use plastics, another simple solution would be to provide prompts in key locations, like carparks and workplaces, to remind people to bring their reusables.

While we may have the best of intentions to carry reusables, our old habits can often get in the way. Defaults and prompts can help to bring our good intentions in line with our actual behaviours.

Consumer demand also encourages manufacturers to make more convenient reusable options, like collapsible coffee cups and metal keychain straws. Businesses can also make reusables more accessible by introducing product-sharing schemes like the Freiburg Cup in Germany or Boomerang Bags in Australia.

No ‘one size fits all’ solution

Different situations need different solutions. Product sharing or reusable coffee cups might work in an office or café where the same customers return regularly, but would be impractical at a gallery or museum where customers vary each day.

For societal-level change multiple approaches are more effective than any one initiative alone. For example, if we wanted to phase out plastic cutlery nationally, we could start with an awareness campaign that encourages people to carry reusable alternatives. Then, once the community is on board, implement a small fee with some reminder prompts, and finally move to a ban once the majority have already changed their behaviour.




Read more:
Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans


The ConversationThe key to successfully phasing out our reliance on single-use plastic products is to change the norm. The more we talk about the problem and the solutions, the more businesses will seek out and offer alternatives, and the more likely we are to mobilise together.

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

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