How Earth’s plastic pollution problem could look by 2040



Rich Carey/Shutterstock

Costas Velis, University of Leeds and Ed Cook, University of Leeds

During a visit to a bookstore a few weeks ago, we couldn’t help but stare at a display unit featuring no fewer than ten books telling you how to rid plastics from your daily life. We’re bombarded by information on the topic of marine litter and plastic pollution, but how much do we really know about the problem?

Think about other planetary challenges, like climate change or ozone layer depletion. Mature areas of research have developed around them, allowing scientists to identify where the gases that cause these problems come from, and how much reaches the atmosphere each year.

But when it comes to plastic pollution, we know close to nothing about how and where plastic waste is generated, managed, treated and disposed of, especially in low and middle income countries. As a result, we’re struggling to limit the amount of litter accumulating in the environment.

Our research published in Science involved a herculean effort to spot, track and model the current and future flows of plastics into the world’s land and waterbodies. We found that plastic entering the marine environment is set to double by 2040 and, unless the world acts, more than 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be dumped on land and in waterbodies.

By identifying the ways in which this litter is produced and distributed, we’ve also discovered how best to reduce the plastic deluge. In the process, we found the unsung heroes on the frontline fighting the pollution crisis who could be the world’s best hope of stemming the tide.

Discarded face masks on a rocky beach.
Single-use plastic consumption has increased during the pandemic.
Fevziie/Shutterstock

The world’s plastic problem in numbers

We developed a model called Plastic-to-Ocean (P₂O) which combines years of accumulated knowledge on global flows of plastic. It compares our current production, use and management of waste with what is projected in the future.

Do you burn your waste in the garden or in the street? Do you drop it into the river? If you answered no to both of these questions then you are possibly one of the 5.5 billion people whose waste gets collected. If you were among the remaining two billion, what would you do with your uncollected waste? Would you make use of a nearby stream, cliff edge, or perhaps squirrel the odd bag in the woods after dusk?

More often than not, uncollected plastic waste is simply set on fire as a cost-free and effective method of disposal. Our model suggests that cumulatively, more than 2.2 billion tonnes of plastic will be open burned by 2040, far more than the 850 million tonnes that’s anticipated to be dumped on land and the 480 million tonnes in rivers and seas.

Having tracked the sources of plastic items through the supply chain and their fate in the environment, we explored what might help reduce aquatic pollution. We found that the single most effective intervention is to provide a service for the two billion people who currently don’t have their waste collected.

A graph showing how different measures could reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean.

Breaking the Plastic Wave, Author provided

But, of the nine interventions we tested, none solved the problem on their own. Only an integrated approach that in addition to increasing collection coverage includes interventions such as reducing demand for single-use and unrecyclable plastic and improving the business case for mechanical recycling, could be successful. For the countries suffering most from plastic pollution, this knowledge could offer a way forward.

But even in our best-case scenario, in which the world takes the kind of concerted and immediate action proposed in our study, approximately 710 million tonnes of plastic waste will be released into the environment by 2040. That may sound a lot, but it would mean an 80% reduction in the levels of plastic pollution compared to what will happen with no action over the next two decades.




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Could waste pickers save the day?

Our work also cast light on the contributions of 11 million waste pickers in low and middle-income countries. These informal workers collect waste items, including plastics, for recycling, to secure a livelihood for day-to-day survival. The model estimates that they may be responsible for 58% of all plastic waste collected for recycling worldwide – more than the combined formal collection services achieve throughout all the high-income countries put together.

Without this informal waste collection sector, the mass of plastic entering rivers and the ocean would be considerably greater. Their efforts should be integrated into municipal waste management plans, not only to recognise their tremendous contribution but to improve the appalling safety standards that they currently endure.

A man in India peddles a bicycle cart to collect rubbish.
An additional 500,000 people will need to be reached by waste collection services each day until 2040.
EPA-EFE/JAIPAL SINGH

Establishing a comprehensive baseline estimate of sources, stocks and flows of plastic pollution, and then projecting into the future, has been an immense task. When it comes to solid waste, the availability, accuracy and international compatibility of data is notoriously insufficient.

Plastic items occur throughout the world in tens of thousands of shapes, sizes, polymer types and additive combinations. There are also considerable differences in cultural attitudes towards the way waste is managed, how plastic products are consumed, and the types of infrastructure and equipment used to manage it when it becomes waste.

Our modelling effort was a delicate and tedious exercise of simplifying and generalising this complexity. To understand how reliable, accurate, and precise our findings are likely to be, think of the first models that estimated how sensitive the climate is to human influence back in the 1970s.

Hopefully, the strong evidence base we have presented today will inform a global strategy and strong local preventive action. The plastic pollution challenge can be substantially controlled within a generation’s time. So, is anyone ready to act?The Conversation

Costas Velis, Lecturer in Resource Efficiency Systems, University of Leeds and Ed Cook, Research Fellow in Circular Economy Systems, University of Leeds

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

Avoiding single-use plastic was becoming normal, until coronavirus. Here’s how we can return to good habits



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Kim Borg, Monash University; Jim Curtis, Monash University, and Jo Lindsay, Monash University

As COVID-19 restrictions start to ease, we’re unlikely to return to our previous behaviours, from our work-life balance to maintaining good hygiene.

But there are downsides to this new normal, particularly when it comes to hygiene concerns, which have led to an increase in an environmental scourge we were finally starting to get on top of: single-use plastics.

We’ve recently published research based on data collected in mid-2019 (before COVID-19). Our findings showed that not only were people avoiding single-use plastics most of the time, but one of the biggest motivators was knowing others were avoiding them too. Avoidance was becoming normal.




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But then COVID-19 changed the game. Since the pandemic started, there has been a significant increase in plastic waste, such as medical waste from protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, and increased purchases of sanitary products such as disposable wipes and liquid soap.

The good news is we can return to our plastic-avoiding habits. It just might look a little a different.

As we needed to protect ourselves with masks, we added to the waste crisis.
Shutterstock

Avoidance was more normal than we realised

In our representative survey of 1,001 Victorians, we asked people about their behaviours and beliefs around four single-use plastic items: bags, straws, coffee cups and take-away containers.

We found people’s beliefs about how often others were avoiding these items was one of the strongest predictors of their own intentions.

Other influences that predicted intentions included personal confidence, the perceived self and environmental benefits and financial costs associated with avoidance, and whether others would approve or disapprove of the behaviour.




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While beliefs about other peoples’ behaviour was one of the strongest predictors of intentions, there was still a gap between these beliefs and reported behaviour.

On average, 70% of our sample reported avoiding single-use plastics most of the time. But only 30% believed others were avoiding them as often.

Thankfully, our findings suggest we can encourage more people to avoid single-use plastics more often by sharing the news that most people are doing it already. The bad news is that COVID-19 has increased our reliance on single-use items.

Some single-use is necessary during a pandemic

Just when avoidance was becoming normal, the pandemic brought single-use plastics back into favour.

Despite the fact the virus survives longer on plastic compared to other surfaces and a lack of evidence that disposable items are any safer than reusable ones, many businesses are refusing to accept reusable containers, such as coffee cups.

Cafes have refused reusable cups to try to maintain better hygiene.
Shutterstock

Overseas and in Australia, some government departments delayed upcoming bans on single-use plastics and others overturned existing single-use plastic bag bans.

So even if consumers want to avoid single-use plastics, it’s not as easy as it used to be.

Avoiding plastic can still be part of the new normal

It is still possible to avoid unnecessary single-use plastic right now. We just need to get creative and focus on items within our control.

We can still pack shopping in reusable bags, make a coffee at home in a reusable cup, carry reusable straws when we go out – just make sure to wash reusables between each use.




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Many Victorians can even order delivery take-away food in reusable containers, thanks to the partnership between Deliveroo and Returnr, the reusable packaging scheme. Boomerang Alliance also produced guidelines for sustainable take-away options, including practical tips for contactless transfer of food.

Our research focused on public single-use plastic avoidance behaviours, but now is a good time to look at private ones too.

There are plenty of single-use plastics in the home: cling wrap, coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bottles, disposable razors and liquid soap dispensers to name a few.

Using reusable wraps for your food is a much better alternative than single-use cling wrap.
Shutterstock

But you can find reusable alternatives for almost everything: beeswax or silicone wraps, reusable coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bars, reusable safety razors and bars of soap, rather than liquid soap.

Buying cleaning products in bulk can also reduce plastic packaging and keeping glass jars or hard plastic containers are great for storing leftovers.




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Just because we’re in a period of change, doesn’t mean we have to lose momentum. Single-use plastics are a huge environmental problem that we can continue to address by changing our behaviours.

Many are calling on governments, businesses and individuals to use the pandemic as an opportunity to look at how we used to do things and ask – is there a better way?

When it comes to single use plastics during COVID-19, we can’t control everything. But our actions can help shape what the new normal looks like.The Conversation

Kim Borg, Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Jim Curtis, Research Fellow in Behaviour Change, Monash University, and Jo Lindsay, Professor of sociology, Monash University

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

More than 1,200 tonnes of microplastics are dumped into Aussie farmland every year from wastewater sludge


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Abbas Mohajerani, RMIT University

Every year, treated wastewater sludge called “biosolids” is recycled and spread over agricultural land. My recent research discovered this practice dumps thousands of tonnes of microplastics into farmlands around the world. In Australia, we estimate this amount as at least 1,241 tonnes per year.

Microplastics in soils can threaten land, freshwater and marine ecosystems by changing what they eat and their habitats. This causes some organisms to lose weight and have higher death rates.

But this is only the beginning of the problem. Microplastics are good at absorbing other pollutants – such as cadmium, lead and nickel – and can transfer these heavy metals to soils.

Wastewater treatment plants create biosolids, which are packed full of microplastics and toxic chemicals.
Shutterstock

And while microplastics alone is an enormous issue, other contaminants have also been found in biosolids used for agriculture. This includes pharmaceutical chemicals, personal care products, pesticides and herbicides, surfactants (chemicals used in detergents) and flame retardants.

We must stop using biosolids for farmlands immediately, especially when alternative ways to recycle wastewater sludge already exist.

Where do the microplastics come from?

Biosolids are mainly a mix of water and organic materials.

But many household items that contain microplastics – such as lotions, soaps, facial and body washes, and toothpaste – end up in wastewater, too. Other major sources of microplastics in wastewater are synthetic fibres from clothing, plastics in the manufacturing and processing industries, and the breakdown of larger plastic debris.

Before they’re taken to farmlands, wastewater collection systems carry all, or most, of these microplastics and other chemicals from residential, commercial and industrial sources to wastewater treatment plants.

To determine the weight of microplastics in Australia and other countries, my data analysis used the average minimum and maximum numbers of microplastics particles, per kilogram of biosolids samples, found in Germany, Ireland and the USA.




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Australia produced 371,000 tonnes of biosolids in 2019. And globally, we estimate between 50 to more than 100 million tonnes of biosolids are produced each year.

Why microplastics are harmful

Microplastics in soil can accumulate in the food web. This happens when organisms consume more microplastics than they lose. This means heavy metals attached to the microplastics in soil organisms can progress further up the food chain, increasing the risk of human exposure to toxic heavy metals.

When microplastics accumulate heavy metals, they transfer these contaminants to plants and crops, such as rice and grains, as biosolids are spread over farmland.




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After a storm, microplastics in Sydney’s Cooks River increased 40 fold


Over time, microplastics break down and become even tinier, creating nanoplastics. Crops have also been shown to absorb nanoplastics and move them to different plant tissues.

Our research results also show that after the wastewater treatment process, the absorption potential of microplastics for metals increases.

The metal cadmium, for example, is particularly susceptible to microplastics in biosolids and can be transported to plant cells. Research from 2018 showed microplastics in biosolids can absorb cadmium ten times more than virgin microplastics (new microplastics that haven’t gone through wastewater treatment).

Biosolids have a cocktail of nasty chemicals

It’s not just plastic – many industrial additives and chemicals have been found in wastewater and biosolids.

This means they may accumulate in soils and affect the equilibrium of biological systems, with negative effects on plant growth. For example, researchers have found pharmaceutical chemicals in particular can reduce plant growth and inhibit root elongation.




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Other chemical contaminants – such as PFCs, PFAS and BPA – have likewise been detected in biosolids.

The effects these chemicals have on plants may lead to problems further down the food chain, such as humans and other animals inadvertently consuming pharmaceuticals and harmful chemicals.

What can we do about it?

Given the cocktail of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and microplastics, using biosolids in agricultural soils must be stopped without delay.

The good news is there’s another way we can recycle the world’s biosolids: turning them into sustainable fired-clay bricks, called “bio-bricks”.

Bricks incorporated with biosolids are a sustainable solution to an environmental problem.
RMIT media, Author provided

My team’s research from last year found bio-bricks a sustainable solution for both the wastewater treatment and brick manufacturing industries.

If 7% of all fired-clay bricks were biosolids, it would redirect all biosolids produced and stockpiled worldwide annually, including the millions of tonnes that currently end up in farmland each year.




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We also found they’d be more energy efficient. The properties of these bio-bricks are very similar to standard bricks, but generally requires 12.5% less energy to make.

And generally, comprehensive life-cycle assessment has shown biosolid bricks are more environmentally friendly than conventional bricks. These bricks will reduce or eliminate a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions from biosolids stockpiles and will save some virgin resources, such as clay soil and water, for the brick industry.

Now, it’s up to the agriculture, wastewater and brick industries, and governments to make this important transition.The Conversation

Abbas Mohajerani, Associate Professor, School of Engineering, RMIT University

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

After a storm, microplastics in Sydney’s Cooks River increased 40 fold



A litter trap in Cook’s River.
James HItchcock, Author provided

James Hitchcock, University of Canberra

Each year the ocean is inundated with 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic washed in from land. A big proportion of this plastic is between 0.001 to 5 millimetres, and called “microplastic”.

But what happens during a storm, when lashings of rain funnel even more water from urban land into waterways? To date, no one has studied just how important storm events may be in polluting waterways with microplastics.




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So to find out, I studied my local waterway in Sydney, the Cooks River estuary. I headed out daily to measure how many microplastics were in the water, before, during, and after a major storm event in October, 2018.

The results, published on Wednesday, were startling. Microplastic particles in the river had increased more than 40 fold from the storm.

Particles of plastic found in rivers. They may be tiny, but they’re devastating to wildlife in waterways.
Author provided

To inner west Sydneysiders, the Cooks River is known to be particularly polluted. But it’s largely similar to many urban catchments around the world.

If the relationship between storm events and microplastic I found in the Cooks River holds for other urban rivers, then the concentrations of microplastics we’re exposing aquatic animals to is far higher than previously thought.

14 million plastic particles

They may be tiny, but microplastics are a major concern for aquatic life and food webs. Animals such as small fish and zooplankton directly consume the particles, and ingesting microplastics has the potential to slow growth, interfere with reproduction, and cause death.

Determining exactly how much microplastic enters rivers during storms required the rather unglamorous task of standing in the rain to collect water samples, while watching streams of unwanted debris float by (highlights included a fire extinguisher, a two-piece suit, and a litany of tennis balls).

Back in the laboratory, a multi-stage process is used to separate microplastics. This includes floating, filtering, and using strong chemical solutions to dissolve non-plastic items, before identification and counting with specialised microscopes.

Litter caught in a trap in Cooks River. These traps aren’t effective at catching microplastic.
Author provided

In the days before the October 2018 storm, there were 0.4 particles of microplastic per litre of water in the Cooks River. That jumped to 17.4 microplastics per litre after the storm.

Overall, that number averages to a total of 13.8 million microplastic particles floating around in the Cooks River estuary in the days after the storm.




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In other urban waterways around the world scientists have found similarly high numbers of microplastic.

For example in China’s Pearl River, microplastic averages 19.9 particles per litre. In the Mississippi River in the US, microplastic ranges from 28 to 60 particles per litre.

Where do microplastics come from?

We know runoff during storms is one of the main ways pollutants such as sediments and heavy metals end up in waterways. But not much is known about how microplastic gets there.

However think about your street. Wherever you see litter, there are also probably microplastics you cannot see that will eventually work their way into waterways when it rains.




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Many other sources of microplastics are less obvious. Car tyres, for example, which typically contain more plastic than rubber, are a major source of microplastics in our waterways. When your tyres lose tread over time, microscopic tyre fragments are left on roads.

Did you know your car tyres can be a major source of microplastic pollution?
Shutterstock

Microplastics may even build up on roads and rooftops from atmospheric deposition. Everyday, lightweight microplastics such as microfibres from synthetic clothing are carried in the wind, settling and accumulating before they’re washed into rivers and streams.

What’s more, during storms wastewater systems may overflow, contaminating waterways. Along with sewage, this can include high concentrations of synthetic microfibers from household washing machines.

And in regional areas, microplastics may be washing in from agricultural soils. Sewage sludge is often applied to soils as it is rich in nutrients, but the same sludge is also rich in microplastics.

What can be done?

There are many ways to mitigate the negative effects of stormwater on waterways.

Screens, traps, and booms can be fitted to outlets and rivers and catch large pieces of litter such as bottles and packaging. But how useful these approaches are for microplastics is unknown.

Raingardens and retention ponds are used to catch and slow stormwater down, allowing pollutants to drop to bottom rather than being transported into rivers. Artificial wetlands work in similar ways, diverting stormwater to allow natural processes to remove toxins from the water.

Almost 14 million plastic particles were floating in Cooks River after a storm two years ago.
Shutterstock

But while mitigating the effects of stormwater carrying microplastics is important, the only way we’ll truly stop this pollution is to reduce our reliance on plastic. We must develop policies to reduce and regulate how much plastic material is produced and sold.

Plastic is ubiquitous, and its production around the world hasn’t slowed, reaching 359 million tonnes each year. Many countries now have or plan to introduce laws regulating the sale or production of some items such as plastic bags, single-use plastics and microbeads in cleaning products.




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In Australia, most state governments have committed to banning plastic bags, but there are still no laws banning the use of microplastics in cleaning or cosmetic products, or single-use plastics.

We’ve made a good start, but we’ll need deeper changes to what we produce and consume to stem the tide of microplastics in our waterways.The Conversation

James Hitchcock, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Seafloor currents sweep microplastics into deep-sea hotspots of ocean life



A rockfish hides in a red tree coral in the deep sea.
Geofflos

Ian Kane, University of Manchester and Michael Clare, National Oceanography Centre

What if the “great ocean garbage patches” were just the tip of the iceberg? While more than ten million tonnes of plastic waste enters the sea each year, we actually see just 1% of it – the portion that floats on the ocean surface. What happens to the missing 99% has been unclear for a while.

Plastic debris is gradually broken down into smaller and smaller fragments in the ocean, until it forms particles smaller than 5mm, known as microplastics. Our new research shows that powerful currents sweep these microplastics along the seafloor into large “drifts”, which concentrate them in astounding quantities. We found up to 1.9 million pieces of microplastic in a 5cm-thick layer covering just one square metre – the highest levels of microplastics yet recorded on the ocean floor.

While microplastics have been found on the seafloor worldwide, scientists weren’t sure how they got there and how they spread. We thought that microplastics would separate out according to how big or dense they were, in a similar manner to natural sediment. But plastics are different – some float, but more than half of them sink.




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Plastics which once floated can sink as they become coated in algae, or if bound up with other sticky minerals and organic matter. Recent research has shown that rivers transport microplastics to the ocean too, and laboratory experiments revealed that giant underwater avalanches of sediment can transport these tiny particles along deep-sea canyons to greater depths.

We’ve now discovered how a global network of deep-sea currents transports microplastics, creating plastic hotspots within vast sediment drifts. By catching a ride on these currents, microplastics may be accumulating where deep-sea life is abundant.

Once plastic debris has broken down and sinks to the ocean floor, currents sweep the particles into vast drifts.
Ian Kane, Author provided

From bedroom floors to the seafloor

We surveyed an area of the Mediterranean off the western coast of Italy, known as the Tyrrhenian Sea, and studied the bottom currents that flow near the seafloor. These currents are driven by differences in water salinity and temperature as part of a system of ocean circulation that spans the globe. Seafloor drifts of sediment can be many kilometres across and hundreds of metres high, forming where these currents lose their strength.

We analysed sediment samples from the seafloor taken at depths of several hundred metres. To avoid disturbing the surface layer of sediment, we used samples taken with box-cores, which are like big cookie cutters. In the laboratory, we separated microplastics from the sediment and counted them under microscopes, analysing them using infra-red spectroscopy to find out what kinds of plastic polymer types were there.

A microplastic fibre seen under a microscope.
Ian Kane, Author provided

Most microplastics found on the seafloor are fibres from clothes and textiles. These are particularly insidious, as they can be eaten and absorbed by organisms. Although microplastics on their own are often non-toxic, studies show the build-up of toxins on their surfaces can harm organisms if ingested.

These deep ocean currents also carry oxygenated water and nutrients, meaning that the seafloor hotspots where microplastics accumulate may also be home to important ecosystems such as deep-sea coral reefs that have evolved to depend on these flows, but are now receiving huge quantities of microplastics instead.

What was once a hidden problem has now been uncovered – natural currents and the flow of plastic waste into the ocean are turning parts of the seafloor into repositories for microplastics. The cheap plastic goods we take for granted eventually end up somewhere. The clothes that may only last weeks in your wardrobe linger for decades to centuries on the seafloor, potentially harming the unique and poorly understood creatures that live there.The Conversation

Ian Kane, Reader in Geology, University of Manchester and Michael Clare, Principal Researcher in Marine Geoscience, National Oceanography Centre

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

Using lots of plastic packaging during the coronavirus crisis? You’re not alone


Daiane Scaraboto, University of Melbourne; Alison M Joubert, The University of Queensland, and Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos, The University of Queensland

In eight years, US environmentalist and social media star Lauren Singer had never sent an item of rubbish to landfill. But last month, in an impassioned post to her 383,000 Instagram followers, she admitted the reality of COVID-19 has changed that.

I sacrificed my values and bought items in plastic. Lots of it, and plastic that I know isn’t recyclable in NYC (New York City) recycling or maybe even anywhere … why would I go against something that I have actively prioritised and promoted?

Singer wrote that as the seriousness of COVID-19 dawned, she stocked up on items she’d need if confined to her home for a long period – much of it packaged in plastic.

Her confession encapsulates how the pandemic has challenged those of us who are trying to reduce our waste. Many sustainability-conscious people may now find themselves with cupboards stocked with plastic bottles of hand sanitiser, disposable wipes and takeaway food containers.

So let’s look at why this is happening, and what to do about it.

Sustainability out the window

We research how consumers respond to change, such as why consumers largely resisted single-use plastic bag bans. Recently we’ve explored how the coronavirus has changed the use of plastic bags, containers and other disposable products.

Amid understandable concern over health and hygiene during the pandemic, the problem of disposable plastics has taken a back seat.

For example, Coles’ home delivery service is delivering items in plastic bags (albeit reusable ones) and many coffee shops have banned reusable mugs, including global Starbucks branches.




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For decades, scientists puzzled over the plastic ‘missing’ from our oceans – but now it’s been found


Restaurants and other food businesses can now only offer home delivery or takeaway options. Many won’t allow customers to bring their own containers, defaulting to disposables which generate plastic waste. This means many consumers can’t reduce their plastic waste, even if they wanted to.

Demand for products such as disposable wipes, cleaning agents, hand sanitiser, disposable gloves and masks is at a record high. Unfortunately, they’re also being thrown out in unprecedented volumes.

And the imperative to prevent the spread of coronavirus means tonnes of medical waste is being generated. For example, hospitals and aged care facilities have been advised to double-bag clinical waste from COVID-19 patients. While this is a necessary measure, it adds to the plastic waste problem.

Many cafes will not accept reusable cups during the health crisis.
The Conversation

Cause for hope

Sustainability and recycling efforts are continuing. Soft plastics recycler Red Cycle is still operating. However many dropoff points for soft plastics, such as schools and council buildings, are closed, and some supermarkets have removed their dropoff bins.

Boomerang Alliance’s Plastic Free Places program has launched a guide for cafes and restaurants during COVID-19. It shows how to avoid single-use plastics, and what compostable packaging alternatives are available.

As the guide notes, “next year the coronavirus will hopefully be a thing of the past but plastic pollution won’t be. It’s important that we don’t increase plastic waste and litter in the meantime.”

Old habits die hard

In the US, lobbyists for the plastic industry have taken advantage of health fears by arguing single-use plastic bags are a more hygienic option than reusable ones. Plastic bag bans have since been rolled back in the US and elsewhere.

However, there is little evidence to show plastic bags are a safer option, and at least reusable cloth bags can be washed.

A relaxation on plastic bag bans – even if temporary – is likely to have long-term consequences for consumer behaviour. Research shows one of the biggest challenges in promoting sustainable behaviours is to break old habits and adopt new ones. Once people return to using plastic bags, the practice becomes normalised again.

In Europe, the plastic industry is using the threat of coronavirus contamination to push back against a ban on single-use plastics such as food containers and cutlery.

Such reframing of plastic as a “protective” health material can divert attention from its dangers to the environment. Prior research, as well as our preliminary findings, suggest these meanings matter when it comes to encouraging environmentally friendly behaviours.




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Many people are using their time at home to clear out items they no longer need. However, most second-hand and charity shops are closed, so items that might have had a second life end up in landfill.

Similarly, many tool, book and toy libraries are closed, meaning some people will be buying items they might otherwise have borrowed.

Once consumers go back to using plastic bags, it will take time to break the habit again.
Darren England/AAP

What to do

We can expect the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the COVID-19 crisis has passed. In the meantime, reuse what you have, and try to store rather than throw out items for donation or recycling.

Talk to takeaway food outlets about options for using your own containers, and refuse disposable cutlery or napkins with deliveries. Use the time to upskill your coffee-making at home rather than buying it in a takeaway cup. And look for grocery suppliers offering more sustainable delivery packaging, such as cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags.

Above all, be vigilant about ways environmental protections such as plastic bag bans might be undermined during the pandemic, and voice your concerns to politicians.




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The Conversation


Daiane Scaraboto, Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Melbourne; Alison M Joubert, Lecturer in Marketing, The University of Queensland, and Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos, Lecturer in Marketing, The University of Queensland

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

For decades, scientists puzzled over the plastic ‘missing’ from our oceans – but now it’s been found


Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO and Chris Wilcox, CSIRO

You’ve probably heard that our oceans have become a plastic soup. But in fact, of all the plastic that enters Earth’s oceans each year, just 1% has been observed floating on the surface. So where is the rest of it?

This “missing” plastic has been a longstanding scientific question. To date, the search has focused on oceanic gyres such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the water column (the part of the ocean between the surface and the sea bed), the bottom of the ocean, and the stomachs of marine wildlife.

But our new research suggests ocean plastic is being transported back onshore and pushed permanently onto land away from the water’s edge, where it often becomes trapped in vegetation.

Of course, plastic has been reported on beaches around the world for decades. But there has been little focus on why and how coastal environments are a sink for marine debris. Our findings have big implications for how we tackle ocean plastic.

New research shows a significant amount of plastic pollution from our oceans ends up back on land, where it gets trapped.

The hunt for marine pollution

Our separate, yet-to-be-published research has found around 90% of marine debris that enters the ocean remains in the “littoral zone” (the area of ocean within 8km of the coast). This new study set out to discover what happens to it.

We collected data on the amount and location of plastic pollution every 100 kilometres around the entire coast of Australia between 2011 and 2016. Debris was recorded at 188 locations along the Australian coastline. Of this, 56% was plastic, followed by glass (17%) and foam (10%).

Data was recorded approximately every 100 kilometres along the coast of Australia. Of the marine debris recorded, more than half was plastic.

The debris was a mix of litter from people and deposition from the ocean. The highest concentrations of plastic pollution were found along coastal backshores – areas towards the inland edge of the beach, where the vegetation begins. The further back from the water’s edge we went, the more debris we found.

The amount of marine debris, and where it ends up, is influenced by onshore wave activity and, to a lesser extent, wind activity. Densely populated areas and those where the coast was easily accessible were hotspots for trapped plastics.




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Think about what you see on your beach. Smaller debris is often found near the water’s edge, while larger items such as drink bottles, plastic bags and crisp packets are often found further back from the water, often trapped in vegetation.

We also found more debris near urban areas where rivers and creeks enter the ocean. It could be that our trash is being trapped by waterways before it gets to the sea. We’re finding similar patterns in other countries we’re surveying around the Asia Pacific and beyond.

This pollution kills and maims wildlife when they mistake it for food or get tangled in it. It can damage fragile marine ecosystems by smothering sensitive reefs and transporting invasive species and is potentially a threat to human health if toxins in plastics make their way through the food chain to humans.

It can also become an eyesore, damaging the economy of an area through reduced tourism revenue.

Onshore waves, wind and areas with denser human populations influences where and how much marine debris there is along our coastlines.
CSIRO

Talking rubbish

Our findings highlight the importance of studying the entire width of coastal areas to better understand how much, and where, debris gets trapped, to inform targeted approaches to managing all this waste.

Plastic pollution can be reduced through local changes such as water refill stations, rubbish bins, incentives and awareness campaigns. It can also be reduced through targeted waste management policies to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics. We found container deposit schemes to be a particularly effective incentive in reducing marine pollution.




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This discussion is particularly timely. The National Plastics Summit in Canberra last week brought together governments, industry and non-government organisations to identify new solutions to the plastic waste challenge, and discuss how to meet targets under the National Waste Policy Action Plan. Understanding that so much of our debris remains local, and trapped on land, provides real opportunities for successful management of our waste close to the source. This is particularly critical given the waste export ban starting July 1 at the latest.

Plastic in our oceans is increasing. It’s clear from our research that waste management strategies on land must accommodate much larger volumes of pollution than previously estimated. But the best way to keep plastic from our ocean and land is to stop putting it in.

Arianna Olivelli contributed to this article, and the research upon which it was based.




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The Conversation


Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO and Chris Wilcox, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO

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

Morrison government will use purchasing power to encourage plastics recycling


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government will use its procurement policy to encourage the recycling of plastics, as well as committing financial assistance for upgrading infrastructure to boost the capacity for this waste to be reused.

Scott Morrison will announce the initiatives to a national conference in Canberra on Monday that is looking at the challenge of dealing with this escalating and environmentally destructive problem. The meeting is attended by industry, government and community representatives.

The prime minister, who has previously highlighted better management of plastics waste as a priority for his government, will emphasise that for major change “the only way forward is in partnership – working with our neighbours; state, territory and local governments; industry, our manufacturing sector and supermarkets; waste operators, and with consumers and communities”.

In a speech circulated ahead of delivery he proposes “three pillars” for tackling the problem: taking responsibility for the waste; encouraging demand for recycled products; and expanding industry capability.

Plastics “are choking our oceans. Scientists estimate that in just 30 years’ time the weight of plastics in our oceans will exceed the weight of fish in our oceans. That’s appalling.

“Taking responsibility means recognising the problems we are contributing to – and it also means keeping faith with the Australian people who recycle,” Morrison says.

“Only 12% of plastic put out in the yellow bin for recycling is actually recycled. Australians don’t expect their waste to be exported to someone’s village or waterway.”

Morrison will meet state and territory leaders at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) next month to finalise a ban on the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres.

He stresses this isn’t to ban the export of value-added recyclable materials.

Morrison says more investment is much needed in the recycling industry; this and collection systems are under “severe strain”. Investment is needed in “technological innovation that maximises the value of the recycled product and minimises the costs as well”. Only 8% of the $2.6 billion states and territories collected in waste levies over 2018-19 has been reinvested in infrastructure and technology.

“The Commonwealth stands ready to co-invest in these critical facilities with state and territory governments, and with industry”, he says. “We will invest with governments and with industry on a 1 to 1 to 1 basis.” Details will come closer to the May budget, Morrison said.

The waste sector employs 50,000 and generates more than $15 billion annually, Morrison says.

“For every 10,000 tonnes of waste sent to landfill, 2.8 direct jobs are created. But if we recycle the same waste, 9.2 direct jobs are created.

“According to the Australian Council of Recycling, recycling more domestically could create more than 5,000 new jobs.”

With a ban on waste plastic being exported, there will be more in Australia to reuse – which means finding ways of encouraging demand for recycled products. Both industry and government need to do this, Morrison says.

As the first of a number of measures the government will take, its procurement guidelines will be rewritten “to make sure every procurement undertaken by a Commonwealth agency considers environmental sustainability and use of recycled content as a factor in determining value for money”.

He instanced a number of examples of innovative recycling, These included “recycled plastic into asphalt … a one kilometre, two-lane stretch [of road] uses up to half a million plastic bags”, as well as into picnic tables, bollards and gardening products.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

How to have yourself a plastic-free Christmas



File 20181214 185240 1txrk2j.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Paper not plastic.
Adina Habich/Shutterstock.com

Manuela Taboada, Queensland University of Technology; Glenda Amayo Caldwell, Queensland University of Technology; Hope Johnson, Queensland University of Technology; Leonie Barner, Queensland University of Technology, and Rowena Maguire, Queensland University of Technology

Research shows that waste can double during the Christmas period, and most of it is plastic from gift wrapping and packaging. The British, for example, go through more than 40 million rolls of (mostly plastic) sticky tape every year, and use enough wrapping paper to go around the Equator nine times.

We love plastic. It is an amazing material, so ubiquitous in our lives we barely notice it. Unfortunately, plastic waste has become a serious worldwide environmental and health issue. If we don’t love the idea of a planet covered in plastic waste, we urgently need to reduce our plastic consumption.

Yet old habits die hard, especially over the holiday season, when we tend to let go and indulge ourselves. Typically, people hold off until the new year to make positive changes. But you don’t have to wait – it’s easier than you might think to make small changes now that will reduce your holiday plastic waste, and maybe even start some enjoyable new traditions in your family or household.




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Here is our list of suggestions to help you transform this indulgent time into a great opportunity to kickstart your plastic-free new year.

Gifts

The best option is to avoid or minimise gifts, or at least reduce them to a manageable level by suggesting a secret Santa, or a “kids-only” gift arrangement. Of course it’s hard to justify giving no gifts at all, so if you must give…

  • Make a list of presents assigned to each person before you hit the shops. This will help you avoid impulse buys, and instead make thoughtful choices.

  • Look for gifts that will help the recipient eliminate plastic waste: keep-cups, stainless steel water bottles, worm-farm kits, and so on.

  • Gift an experience, event tickets, massage, or a donation to a charity the recipient believes in.

  • Consider making gifts for the natural environment: bee hotels, possum and bird boxes, and native plants are all enjoyable ways to encourage nature.

  • Where possible, avoid buying online so as to avoid wasteful packaging.

  • Consider whether the recipient will treasure their gift or end up throwing it away. Here’s a handy flowchart, which you can also use for your own (non-Christmas) purchases.

Decisions, decisions.
Manuela Taboada, Author provided

Gift wrapping

Not only do we buy gifts, we wrap them in paper and decorate them with ribbons often made of synthetic materials. It might look fantastic, but it generates a fantastically tall mound of waste afterwards. Here’s how to wrap plastic-free in style.

  • Ditch the sticky tape and synthetic ribbons. Instead, use recycled or repurposed paper and tie up with fabric ribbons, cotton, or hemp twine.

  • Try Japanese fabric wrapping (Furoshiki). The big advantage: two gifts in one!

  • Choose gifts that do not need wrapping at all, such as the experiences, event tickets or charity donations mentioned above.

Furoshiki: sustainable and stylish.
Katorisi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Tableware

Disposable tableware is convenient – perhaps too convenient. Plastic plates, cutlery and cups are handy if you’re hosting dozens of friends and relatives, but they are used for a minimal amount of time and are often non-recyclable. So, when setting up your table:

  • Use “real” tableware. You can easily find funky second-hand options. Mixed tableware is a trend!

  • If your dishwasher (human or mechanical) can’t handle the strain, consider a washing-up game instead. Line up the guests, time their washing, and give them a prize at the end.

  • If disposables are essential, opt for biodegradable tableware such as paper-based uncoated plates and cups, or wooden or bamboo plates and cutlery.

  • Beware of plastic options labelled as “biodegradable”. Often they are only degradable in industrial composting facilities, which are not available across most of Australia. Check your local recycling options.

Toys

Last year, tonnes of plastic waste were found on Henderson Island, one of the most remote places in the world. Among the items were Monopoly houses and squeaky ducks. Toy items are usually non-recyclable, and eventually end up in landfill or scattered throughout the environment.

  • Choose wooden or fabric-based toys. Alternatively, look for toys or games that teach children about the environment.

  • Many board games have dozens of plastic accessories, but not all. Look at the list of contents, and choose ones with less plastic.

  • It might be hard to stay away from Lego or other iconic plastic toy brands. In this case, consider buying second-hand or joining a toy library.

Packaging

This is by far the hardest item to avoid. Lots of non-plastic items come packed in plastic, including most of our food. So, simply…

  • Refuse it: find alternatives that don’t come wrapped in plastic. This might mean changing how and where you buy your food.

  • If there are no other options, choose plastic that can be recycled locally and avoid styrofoam, also called expanded polystyrene, which is not recyclable at most facilities.

  • If you are buying online, you can often ask for your items to be packed with no plastic.

  • For party food leftovers, use beeswax wraps or glass containers, or ask guests to bring their own reusable containers.




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There’s a lot going on at Christmas, and it can be easier simply to follow the path of least resistance, and resolve to clean up your act in the new year. But you can avoid getting caught in consumption rituals created by the retail industry.

Make some changes now, and you can have a reduced-plastic Christmas with the same amount of (or even more) style and fun!The Conversation

Manuela Taboada, Senior Lecturer, Visual Design, Queensland University of Technology; Glenda Amayo Caldwell, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Queensland University of Technology; Hope Johnson, Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology; Leonie Barner, Associate Professor, Queensland University of Technology, and Rowena Maguire, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology

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

Why municipal waste-to-energy incineration is not the answer to NZ’s plastic waste crisis



Since the Chinese plastic recycling market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste goes to countries in South-East Asia.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University

New Zealand is ranked the third-most-wasteful country in the OECD. New Zealanders produce five times the global daily average of waste per person – and they are getting more wasteful, producing 35% more than a decade ago.

These statistics are likely to get worse following China’s 2018 ban on imports of certain recyclable products. China was the world’s top importer of recyclable plastics, but implemented the ban because it could no longer safely manage its domestic and imported waste. Unsurprisingly, in 2015, China was named the top source of marine plastic pollution in the world.

Since the Chinese market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste now goes to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — all countries with weak regulations and high rankings as global sources of marine plastic pollution.

Waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has been raised as a solution. While turning plastic waste into energy may sound good, it creates more pollution and delays a necessary transition to a circular economy.




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Dirty plastics

Shipments of plastic recycling often arrive in developing countries unsorted and contaminated. Materials that cannot be easily recycled are commonly burned, releasing dioxins into air, soil and water. In response, South-East Asian countries have started returning dirty plastics to developed countries.

Several New Zealand councils have stopped collecting certain plastics for recycling offshore. They are sending them to landfill instead. Available data suggest that even before the China ban plastics made up roughly 15% of the waste in municipal landfills – about 250,000 tonnes a year. Much of this is imported plastic packaging.

Many New Zealanders are very or extremely worried about the impact of plastic waste. We cannot continue ignoring our role in the global plastic pollution crisis while dumping plastic in homegrown landfills or in developing countries.




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In the scramble to find alternatives, waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has become a hot topic, particularly as foreign investors look to establish WtE incinerators on the West Coast and [other centres]in New Zealand. Some local government representatives have endorsed WtE proposals, or raised WtE as an election issue.

Less plastic good for climate

Like landfills, WtE incinerators symbolise the linear “take-make-waste” economy, which destroys valuable resources and perpetuates waste generation.

Globally, countries are moving to circular approaches instead, which follow the “zero waste hierarchy”. This prioritises waste prevention, reduction, reuse, recycling and composting and considers WtE unacceptable.

Some New Zealanders say Nordic countries have proven that incineration is the environmental silver bullet to our waste woes. But a recent study found these countries will not meet EU circular economy goals unless they replace WtE incineration with policies that reduce waste generation. Such policies include packaging taxes, recycling and recovery rate targets, landfill bans on biodegradable waste, deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility.

Rejecting linear approaches is also good for the climate. Actions at the top of the waste hierarchy stop more greenhouse gases than those at the bottom.

In contrast, WtE incinerators can produce 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of municipal solid waste burnt. New Zealand’s zero carbon act means we have a responsibility to ensure we do not increase our greenhouse gas emissions by investing in WtE incineration.

Incinerators also cannot magic away toxins in plastic waste. Even the most high-tech WtE incinerators [[release dioxins and other pollutants into the air]. Meanwhile, toxin-laden fly ash and slag are dumped in landfills to eventually leach into the environment and contaminate food systems.

Shifting responsibility for plastic waste

To address plastic pollution, it is easy to see how prevention and reduction work better than “getting rid of” plastic once produced. Many WtE proponents argue that incineration technology can be a temporary solution for the plastic waste we have already created.

But incinerators are not short-term fixes. They are expensive to build and maintain. Large-scale incinerators demand about 100,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste a year, encouraging increasing production of waste. Investors guarantee returns on their investment by locking councils into decades-long contracts.

The only real solution to our plastics problem is through regulation that moves New Zealand towards a circular economy. We can start by making the linear economy expensive by increasing landfill levies above the current $NZ10/tonne and expanding it to all landfills. We must also invest in better waste collection, sorting and recycling systems, including a national network of resource recovery centres.

Instead of burning or burying plastic that cannot be reused, recycled or composted, we can prevent or reduce it through targeted phase-outs. The government is proposing to regulate single-use plastic packaging, beverage packaging, electronic waste and farm plastics through mandatory product stewardship schemes. This would make manufacturers responsible for the waste they produce and provide incentives for less wasteful and toxic product design and delivery systems (e.g. refill stations).

All of these circular solutions will provide far more jobs than WtE incineration.

Without a swift, brave shift to a circular economy, New Zealand will remain one of the world’s most wasteful nations. Circular economies are developing globally and WtE incineration will only set us back by 30 years.


Hannah Blumhardt, the coordinator of the NZ Product Stewardship Council, has contributed to this article.The Conversation

Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University

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