Discussion of the environment is embedded in our culture as public awareness over issues such as climate change and plastic pollution has grown. Advertisers are not shy about tapping into this concern for their own benefit.
A Twitter analysis last year revealed that in the UK at least, the environment was a current and growing issue. Between January 2015 and March 2018, discussion on Twitter about single-use plastic, for example, increased by an incredible 5,543%.
Advertisers are already highly skilled at the power of narrative: reducing complexity and helping us make sense of their message. This power is amplified when the narrative taps into culture. A brand message, if successful, then becomes part of people’s conversations rather than interrupting them with ads they don’t care about.
Advertisers who tell a good story can persuade the public of all sorts of things. Some messages are positive and constructive. But a few are disingenuous and misleading.
The latter is especially true in the case of recycling, where advertisers often imply that consumers, not corporations, are responsible for the huge amounts of plastic waste a product creates.
Australia’s National Waste Report last year found 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2016-17 – or 103kg for each person. Most of it was only used once, and just 12% was recycled.
Coca-Cola says by the end of 2019, 70% of its plastic bottles in Australia will be made entirely from recycled plastic. The company in August released a video in Australia thanking people for recycling.
It follows a European campaign launched by the company in June with the tagline “Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you’re not going to help us recycle”.
Absolut Vodka this year launched a new limited edition bottle made of 41% recycled glass – like all of its bottles – accompanied by a “Guide to a Circular Living Together”. The company told customers: “Now’s your time to shine on stage – rocking the recycling lifestyle as a true #RecyclingHero!”
On the face of it, such campaigns might seem virtuous, especially following China’s 2018 policy limiting the import of low-quality mixed recyclables. But in fact they continue a long history of framing consumers as the main waste culprits.
The practice began in the US in the 1950s when Keep America Beautiful was formed. The non-profit consortium included Coca-Cola and tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris, among others. Its campaigns, such as the 1971 “Crying Indian” ad, tapped into a shared cultural guilt for polluting the environment and, in this case, mistreating native people.
Such tactics have been mirrored by Keep Australia Beautiful campaigns.
But guilt is not a good predictor of people’s behaviour. A 2001 study found individuals must feel ethically validated, not guilty, to behave in an environmentally friendly way.
It says responsibility for packaging should be shared by companies throughout the supply chain. Consumers, waste service providers, recyclers and governments also have roles to play.
Researchers have noted that a permissive legal framework has allowed plastic pollution to rise despite the obvious harm it causes to communities and marine life.
As Recycled Plastics Australia general manager Stephen Scherer told the ABC this year:
…the federal government has been absent from the conversation about waste, while Australians are operating in a culture where ‘we don’t do what we’re not forced to do’.
Plastic waste is on the radar of Australian governments. State and federal environment ministers last year set a target that all packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 or earlier.
But critics say rather than set targets, the federal government must mandate the use of recycled plastic in packaging to ensure the waste problem is addressed.
Companies such as Coca-Cola are embracing the concept of sustainability to some extent. But better still, other brands have sought to fix recycling systems themselves.
In February Unilever “paid” people in Buenos Aires, Argentina for their household recyclables with discount coupons redeemable against its products at selected retailers.
In the UK, Burger King last month announced it was scrapping plastic toys from kids’ meals and invited the public to bring in old plastic toys from any restaurant meal. The plastic will be remade into “interactive play opportunities” for families at their restaurants.
In Australia, superannuation fund Australian Ethical ran its latest campaign on 100% recyclable billboard skins.
Consumers do have a role to play in waste reduction, including by recycling or demanding that companies find alternatives to single-use plastics. But if companies want to respond meaningfully to the plastic crisis, they must accept ultimate responsibility for their packaging and work towards zero-waste.
Since the mass production of plastic began, almost six billion tonnes of it – approximately 91% – has remained in our air, land and water. Plastic production and use is embedded in the global economy, and in our natural environment. This culture of waste is clearly perilous and unsustainable.
Our paper, published today in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, argues that only a global, market-driven intervention can stop the plastic tide.
It is backed by a commitment by the Minderoo Foundation, chaired by the lead author, of up to US$300 million (A$443 million) to help establish the scheme and ensure its integrity.
The paper argues that the intervention – a voluntary financial contribution paid by global manufacturers of fossil fuel-based plastic – would drive a system-wide transition to recycled plastic. Our modelling shows that this would lead to a dramatic slowdown in the production of new plastic – creating huge benefits for marine life and human health.
Plastic takes so long to break down that every piece produced since its inception in 1856 still exists today, except the small share we’ve burned into poisonous gases.
Many strategies to address the plastic problem have been proposed to date, and efforts have been commendable. But we are bailing out a bathtub with a thimble – while the tap is running.
We have identified a simple solution: a voluntary industry contribution for new fossil fuel-based plastic production.
We believe this technical and financial initiative would level the playing field by making recycled plastic more competitively priced, establishing the right market conditions for a circular plastics economy.
We know from our discussions with industry that this would release technology, in particular chemical or ‘polymer-to-polymer’ recycling, that is proven today but cannot yet compete economically with new fossil fuel-derived plastic. Increased demand from recyclers would transform plastic waste into a commodity, driving plastic recovery and creating incentives for industry to invest and transition. This is already true for materials like aluminium cans, which are highly recycled because the metal has an inherent value.
By mobilising new technology to increase recycling rates, plastic flows to the ocean and the broader environment would slow, and hopefully cease altogether. A circular plastics economy would also significantly reduce carbon emissions created through new plastic production.
The vast majority of plastics produced to date are derived from fossil fuels. Plastics are made from polymers – long molecular chains comprising smaller carbon-based molecules. Oil and gas are the cheapest materials from which to produce raw polymer resin. This resin is then made into plastic by adding dyes, plasticizers and other chemicals.
Fossil fuel-based plastic has countless uses and is produced very cheaply. Plastic recycling has largely been overlooked because, in the developed world at least, our waste is carted away from our homes and often shipped overseas. This leaves little incentive to tackle our plastic addiction.
But our “out of sight, out of mind” mentality cannot persist.
In 2017, China banned imports of 24 types of solid waste, mainly plastics. This revealed the extent to which developed countries had been sending their waste problem elsewhere. In Australia this led to recyclables being stockpiled, landfilled or sent to countries ill-equipped to handle them.
Media coverage is also increasingly highlighting the environmental impact of our throwaway culture: plastic washed up on beaches, filling the guts of endangered marine animals and accumulating en masse in circular ocean currents.
This is an abhorrent market failure, which conservatively costs US$ 2.2 trillion (A$3.25 trillion) each year in environmental and socioeconomic damages not taken into account by business or the consumer.
We propose an initiative led by global manufacturers in which they make a voluntary financial contribution for each unit of new fossil fuel-based plastic produced. We have dubbed the initiative “Sea The Future”.
Placing a value on plastic both drives its collection and diverts new production away from fossil fuels. The contribution, estimated in our paper as averaging US$500 (A$738) per tonne, would be key to encouraging the small number of global resin producers to choose recycled plastic over fossil fuel as their raw material.
The cost would be passed onto consumers via trillions of individual plastic items. The impact would be negligible – say, a few cents on a cup of coffee – and so is likely to gain broad public acceptance.
Anticipating the concerns of regulators that such a move could be perceived as anti-competitive, the lead author has engaged with global law firms to ensure that the initiative is compatible with free market competition law in countries across the world.
The estimated US$20 billion (A$29.5 billion) per year raised through the initiative would be used to help establish recycling infrastructure, aid industry transition and remediate the environment. Increased demand and a higher price for recycled material also promises to significantly improve the livelihoods of waste pickers – hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who currently carve meagre earnings from collecting plastic.
The small hands of Moroccan recycling
The funds would be administered by a self-regulated global industry body, independently audited to ensure performance, accountability and transparency. To address concerns over governance costs, the Minderoo Foundation has committed to underwrite up to five years’ worth of audit fees totalling US$260 million (A$384 million), plus cover US$40 million (A$59 million) in start-up costs, subject to appropriate conditions.
Public pressure is mounting for action on plastics – and what is bad for the planet is ultimately bad for business. The alternatives to an industry-led approach are less appealing. Plastic bans deny us a useful product upon which our economies rely; taxes typically go directly to general revenue and are unlikely to be applied to plastic waste management. So, tax-derived funds are seldom transferred between nations, ignoring the transboundary nature of plastic pollution.
Our global discussions with companies throughout the plastics supply chain have revealed that the vast majority recognise the need to move away from a linear plastics economy. They also understand that a global, market-based mechanism is the only path to achieving the system-wide transformation required.
Society discards over 250 million tonnes of valuable polymer, worth at least a US$ 1,000 per tonne recycled, in plastic waste each year. Soon, if we do nothing, that could grow to 500 million tonnes per annum. What industry would allow half a trillion US dollars of waste each year? Recovering it is simply good business for the environment.
Andrew Forrest, PhD Candidate, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, PhD Candidate in Marine Ecology, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia
Recycling in Australia used to be fairly simple. Our older readers may remember bottle drives, paper and cardboard collections, and the trip to the scrap metal merchant to sell metals.
This is called, in recycling parlance, sorting the “streams”. It creates very clean recycling that requires little sorting at a plant.
But recycling got more complicated. As councils organised kerbside collection, it made less economic sense to sort at the kerb. Instead, trucks collected mixed recycling and took it to centralised sorting facilities.
The materials also changed, with glass often replaced by plastics. Plastics like the PET in drink bottles and HDPE in milk bottles were easy to separate and had a ready recycling market.
Then, when developing countries like China opened the floodgates to paper and plastics, there was no need to separate the seven categories of plastics. It was cheaper and easier for Australian companies to bundle it all up and send it to China for “recycling” – in 2017, some 600,000 tonnes.
When China found they were the world’s dumping ground they shut the door and demanded only clean, separated plastics – and then only the ones that had a secondary market in China.
Suddenly Australia was expected to separate more carefully – and this cost money. Now the federal government has pledged A$20 million to boost Australia’s recycling industry.
But what is Australia’s recycling industry?
Right now, there are 193 material recovery facilities in Australia. Most are hand-sorted; nine are semi-automated, and nine are fully automated. These are nowhere near sufficient to sort Australia’s annual recycling.
There are two basic ways to sort recycling: mechanical-biological treatment plants, which sort mixed waste into low-grade recycling, and material recovery facilities, which have a stronger focus on extracting reusable stuff.
Here’s how they work.
MBT plants are in various stages of development in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney. These plants take the rubbish we generate every day and inject it into a rotary drum (a bioreactor) that spins and is heated to 60–70℃.
The process shreds the waste and the organic wastes are stabilised and homogenised. Most of the water evaporates through a fermentation process in which microorganisms break down the organic material and release heat – much like a composting system.
Why can’t all plastic waste be recycled?
The material then leaves the reactor and passes over a screen that separates the organic waste. The organic waste then fermented and composted, then separated again using a smaller mesh screen. The smallest particles are sent back to the bioreactor drum to provide the microorganisms.
Meanwhile, the larger material from the first screening is sent to a wind separator where the lightweight material, like plastics, are blown the furthest, medium-weight materials, such as textiles, fall in the middle and the heaviest, like metal, glass and stone, fall immediately. The heaviest fraction is sent along a conveyor and metals are separated by a magnetic separator.
The remaining material is sent to another wind separator, along with any remaining material from the other fractions that cannot be separated, which separates combustibles and debris.
The debris (about 10% of the original waste) goes to landfill, and combustibles are sent to a facility that compresses the material into blocks for industrial fuel.
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’
Material recovery facilities accept mixed recycling. The first step is putting recyclables on a conveyor belt where they are carried up to a sorting line.
In the more mechanical processes, people line up along the belt and rip open bags and remove contaminants such as non-recyclable plastic, used nappies and other rubbish, which then goes to landfill.
In the more automated systems, ripping open the bags can be done by machines and the sorting is done in the next stage.
The material then goes onto a scalping screen that sorts out the small foreign objects before passing over a screen in which flat materials such as cardboard pass over and the others drop down. The paper and cardboard go off to storage. Meanwhile, the material that has dropped through hits another screen that breaks any glass, which drops through the screen and is taken by conveyor belt to a recovery bin.
The leftover material goes to fibre quality-control stations where the fibre materials (such as paper) pass by operators who pick off any contaminants before the paper goes into another bin for baling and recycling.
This leaves the cans and plastic containers. Passing this stream over a magnet means any steel cans will be removed from the stream and collected.
Next, any fibre that has made it through the process is removed manually and the plastics are then sorted manually into individual types. The bottles are perforated mechanically so they do not explode when compressed.
With the plastic containers removed, the next step is to divert the aluminium. Powerful magnetic fields created by an eddy current separator throws non-iron metals, like aluminium, forward from the belt into a product bin and non-metals fall off the belt into a separate bin. Finally most of the materials are compressed and baled for efficient transport.
The nine more modern facilities in Australia use optical sorting systems to take out the manual and mechanical sorting. The optical sorters detect anywhere between three and eight varieties of material.
A new facility in New South Wales can detect eight different types of material: aluminium, cardboard, glass, HDPE plastic, mixed paper, newspaper, PET plastic, and steel. The combined stream passes through a light beam which then instructs a set of high pressure air jets to direct the material to one of eight collection bins.
As worldwide demand for high quality, clean recycling material increases, Australia must upgrade its technology. Incentives and financial help for recycling companies may be necessary to see Australia develop a viable domestic recycling industry.
Indonesia has returned a container load of recyclables back to Australia, because the material did not meet stringent import requirements.
It is the latest Southeast Asian country to refuse Australia’s recycling waste. In January 2018, China stopped buying our recyclables until contamination was reduced significantly.
To achieve this, Australia needed to reduce contamination in commercial and household recycling, and improve our sorting facilities so they can identify and remove the types of materials causing concern.
This should have been a wake-up call that we need to improve our recycling industry and take urgent steps to reduce our reliance on overseas destinations for our recyclables. But did we? Clearly, the answer is no.
In July the Philippines turned away 69 containers (about 1,500 tonnes), of materials incorrectly labelled as plastic and containing unacceptable contaminants. Malaysia has also threatened to send recyclables back to the originating country if the loads contain contaminants.
Looking at photos of the material rejected by Indonesia, it is clearly a typical load of baled recyclables that could have come from any sorting facility in Australia. It contains recyclables, but also contamination like used nappies, clothing, food scraps, paper and cardboard in the plastic recycling, metals and plastic in the paper recycling and some containers that once had motor oil or detergents in them.
While I personally suspect it’s slightly over the top to call this “hazardous” material, as some news reports have – the same loads are shipped to some facilities in Australia – it is a moot point. Indonesia can set whatever rules they deem necessary to protect the health of their communities and environment.
This continues after strong warnings that unless we provide clean recyclables, we will not have access to these overseas markets.
Recycling is basically divided into “streams”. Mostly these streams contain one or two types of materials. For example, we have a cardboard stream, plastic stream or in some instances commingled stream which contains plastic, aluminium, steel and glass containers.
“Contamination” refers to materials that are not wanted in that stream because they interfere with the proper treatment of a given load. Plastic in a load of cardboard and paper is contamination; so are clothes in a plastic load. It does not necessarily need to be toxic chemicals or other things that come to mind when we think of “contamination”.
However, containers used for detergents, disinfectants, and the broad range of household chemicals do contain residues. While some of these fluids and powders do get removed (often while materials are being baled), some residues remain and this can also cause issues for those wishing to use the recyclables as their raw materials.
So it is no wonder Australian businesses are reluctant to use what we currently sort and send out as their raw materials. If the recyclables materials contain contaminants at a high level, then the business who could have used them would have to expend resources to clean up the loads. Apart from that cost, they then have to dispose of the unwanted materials to landfill.
Additionally, due to some uncertainty in the quality of the recyclables, manufacturers are concerned whether their products will be of the required standard and if not, will that affect the customer base. Remember, when recycled paper was first on the market there was some concern about inferior “whitness” and this affected sales. (Ironically, now most business use recycled paper this situation is somewhat reversed.)
Ultimately, the issue is not how we can get other countries to accept our waste. Australia needs to improve our capacity and willingness to use recycled materials ourselves.
We have seen progress recently with Australian companies using recycled materials in new and innovative ways. Plastics used in road construction or in building materials is just one example.
But unless our recycling is better sorted, it won’t be used by domestic companies. Even products made with recycled material need to be clean, safe and reliable.
So what can we do about it? Of course, the obvious first step is to invest more into recycling facilities so they can sort more efficiently. However, we all need to take responsibility for what we put into the recycling at home or work. Many contaminants can easily be avoided with a little more care, so familiarise yourself with what can be recycled by your home council.
Finally, recycling is not a panacea. We need to seriously reduce the amount of waste we create, as individuals and a society. Without this, the problem will only continue to grow.
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
tiny nanoplastics are transported via wind in the atmosphere and deposited in cities and even remote areas, including mountain tops
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.
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.
We humans have a habit of avoiding our waste. We find organic waste particularly unpleasant. We bag it and dispose of it as soon as possible.
Even the most environmentally conscious person would rather not handle something like decomposing food or dog poo with their bare hands. Plastic bags are often the first step we take to disconnect ourselves from our waste – until we can get rid of it somewhere else.
Many environmentally conscious pet owners are turning to biodegradable bags as the solution to their doggy-doo woes, but many brands won’t break down in landfill, compounding the problem. Alternatives are at hand, though, with compostable bags and community sharing programs that can help non-composters.
“Biodegradable” means something that can potentially be broken down naturally in the environment, particularly by microorganisms but also by other factors such as heat, light and oxygen. We usually think of biodegradable materials as derived from natural sources such as plants, but synthetic materials can also be biodegradable.
But there are issues with the term “biodegradable bag”. Bags can be labelled biodegradable, but after being used and discarded they might only partly decompose because the conditions are not right for full decomposition. Or else the decomposition might take a long time.
Full decomposition means complete conversion of the bag into simple substances such as carbon dioxide and water that can be re-used by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi.
The biodegradability of plastic can be measured in a laboratory using methods such as carbon tracking. There are international standards for testing biodegradability of plastics. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed these standards.
Unfortunately, ocean and landfill environments are not conducive for degradation of biodegradable plastic. Marine environments often don’t contain the right types of microorganisms needed to break down plastics, or there aren’t enough to be effective in a reasonable time frame. Landfill conditions often lack oxygen, which limits the types of microorganisms that can exist there.
Compost, however, provides an ideal environment for biodegradation. Compost contains a diverse range of organic materials that support the growth of many different varieties of organisms.
DNA sequencing has revealed the huge diversity of microorganisms that exist in compost. These include bacteria, fungi and invertebrates that can digest a wide range of organic materials. In particular, fungi are found to possess enzymes that are capable of breaking down many different organic substances.
You can now buy compostable bags. These are a type of biodegradable bag that is suitable for disposal in compost only (not in the ocean or landfill!).
How can you tell if a compostable bag can actually be fully broken down in compost? Standards Australia produces standards for the biodegradability of plastic bags. Code AS 4736-2006 specifies a biodegradable plastic that is suitable for overall composting (which includes industrial processes) and other microbial treatment, while AS 5810-2010 specifies home composting.
Standards Australia provide a brief overview of the testing carried out for AS 5810-2010. Other countries have similar standards – for example, the US has ASTM code D6400, which certifies that the material meets the degradation standard under controlled composting conditions.
The Australian Bioplastics Association administers a voluntary verification scheme. This enables manufacturers or importers to have their plastic materials tested and certified.
There is a double arrow logo you can watch out for on bags that have been certified as home compostable and there is a seedling logo for certified compostable. If you cannot locate a certified compostable bag in your area, you can source them online. Make sure they have have the certified compostable logo of the country from which they come.
It is interesting to observe the biodegradability of a plastic bag in your compost heap, as I did with a compostable bag full of dog poo. After two weeks buried in the compost, the only evidence of the bag was some small black fragments. These looked like leaf mould except they had the print from the bag label on them. In comparison, a normal plastic bag buried at the same time was completely unaltered. Of course, this experiment is not proof of total bag degradation – proper laboratory testing would be required for this.
Are you walking your dog enough?
If you cannot compost, you will probably be relying on your local council to dispose of your waste. If the council uses landfill for waste disposal then there may be no point in using compostable bags for your waste, as landfill does not have the right conditions for composting to occur.
If you have a kerbside green waste collection that is composted, this service most likely will not accept food waste at the moment – which means dog poo is very unlikely to be included. Nor may compostable bags be allowed in green waste collections. Some councils, however, are working towards food organics/green organics waste collections for the future, and these may include compostable bags.
Moyne Shire in western Victoria, for instance, provides compostable bags for dog poo and accepts it along with green waste in its fortnightly “FOGO” collection.
If you have material for composting but do not have a compost heap, you can join Sharewaste. Sharewaste links people who want to recycle their organic waste with their neighbours who can use the waste for composting, worm farms or chickens. So this is a way to avoid sending your organic waste to landfill.
Composting your organic waste is like harvesting rain into your water tank or tapping into sunlight for your energy needs. These things are meaningful beyond their utility; they connect you to nature and give insights into the natural cycles of life on planet Earth.
Great areas of our rubbish are known to form in parts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. But no such “garbage patch” has been found in the Southern Indian Ocean.
Our research – published recently in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans – looked at why that’s the case, and what happens to the rubbish that gets dumped in this particular area.
Every year, up to 15 million tonnes of plastic waste is estimated to make its way into the ocean through coastlines (about 12.5 million tonnes) and rivers (about 2.5 million tonnes). This amount is expected to double by 2025.
Some of this waste sinks in the ocean, some is washed up on beaches, and some floats on the ocean surface, transported by currents.
As plastic materials are extremely durable, floating plastic waste can travel great distances in the ocean. Some floating plastics collect in the centre of subtropical circulating currents known as gyres, between 20 to 40 degrees north and south, to create these garbage patches.
Here, the ocean currents converge at the centre of the gyre and sink. But the floating plastic material remains at the surface, allowing it to concentrate in these regions.
The best known of these garbage patches is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which contains about 80,000 tonnes of plastic waste. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points out, the “patches” are not actually clumped collections of easy-to-see debris, but concentrations of litter (mostly small pieces of floating plastic).
Similar, but smaller, patches exist in the North and South Atlantic Oceans and the South Pacific Ocean. In total, it is estimated that only 1% of all plastic waste that enters the ocean is trapped in the garbage patches. It is still a mystery what happens to the remaining 99% of plastic waste that has entered the ocean.
Even less is known about what happens to plastic in the Indian Ocean, although it receives the largest input of plastic material globally.
For example, it has been estimated that up to 90% of the global riverine input of plastic waste originates from Asia. The input of plastics to the Southern Indian Ocean is mainly through Indonesia. The Australian contribution is small.
The Indian Ocean has many unique characteristics compared with the other ocean basins. The most striking factor is the presence of the Asian continental landmass, which results in the absence of a northern ocean basin and generates monsoon winds.
As a result of the former, there is no gyre in the Northern Indian Ocean, and so there is no garbage patch. The latter results in reversing ocean surface currents.
The Indian and Pacific Oceans are connected through the Indonesian Archipelago, which allows for warmer, less salty water to be transported from the Pacific to the Indian via a phenomenon called the Indonesian Throughflow (see graphic, below).
This connection also results in the formation of the Leeuwin Current, a poleward (towards the South Pole) current that flows alongside Australia’s west coast.
As a result, the Southern Indian Ocean has poleward currents on both eastern and western margins of the ocean basin.
Also, the South Indian Counter Current flows eastwards across the entire width of the Southern Indian Ocean, through the centre of the subtropical gyre, from the southern tip of Madagascar to Australia.
The African continent ends at around 35 degrees south, which provides a connection between the southern Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
In contrast to other ocean basins, the Indian Ocean is under-sampled, with only a few measurements of plastic material available. As technology to remotely track plastics does not yet exist, we need to use indirect ways to determine the fate of plastic in the Indian Ocean.
We used information from more than 22,000 satellite-tracked surface drifting buoys that have been released all over the world’s oceans since 1979. This allowed us to simulate pathways of plastic waste globally, with an emphasis on the Indian Ocean.
We found that unique characteristics of the Southern Indian Ocean transport floating plastics towards the ocean’s western side, where it leaks past South Africa into the South Atlantic Ocean.
Because of the Asian monsoon system, the southeast trade winds in the Southern Indian Ocean are stronger than the trade winds in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. These strong winds push floating plastic material further to the west in the Southern Indian Ocean than they do in the other oceans.
This allows the floating plastic to leak more readily from the Southern Indian Ocean into the South Atlantic Ocean. All these factors contribute to an ill-defined garbage patch in the Southern Indian Ocean.
In the Northern Indian Ocean our simulations showed there may be an accumulation of waste in the Bay of Bengal.
It is also likely that floating plastics will ultimately end up on beaches all around the Indian Ocean, transported by the reversing monsoon winds and currents. Which beaches will be most heavily affected is still unclear, and will probably depend on the monsoon season.
Our study shows that the atmospheric and oceanic attributes of the Indian Ocean are different to other ocean basins and that there may not be a concentrated garbage patch. Therefore the mystery of all the missing plastic is even greater in the Indian Ocean.
Mirjam van der Mheen, PhD Candidate in Oceanography, University of Western Australia; Charitha Pattiaratchi, Professor of Coastal Oceanography, University of Western Australia, and Erik van Sebille, Associate Professor in Oceanography and Climate Change, Utrecht University
A powerful marriage between the fossil fuel and plastic industries threatens to exacerbate the global plastic pollution crisis. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates the next five years will see a 33-36% surge in global plastics production.
This will undermine all current efforts to manage plastic waste. It is time to stop trying (and failing) to bail out the bathtub. Instead, we need to turn off the tap.
The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has recognised plastic pollution as a “rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”. An expert group formed last year proposed an international treaty on plastic pollution as the most effective response.
Together with Giulia Carlini, at CIEL, I was part of a 30-strong group of non-governmental organisations within this expert group attending the UNEA summit this week to discuss how we can start making plastic pollution history.
Unfortunately, despite strong statements from developing countries, including the Pacific Island states, a small group of countries stalled negotiations. This effectively turns back the clock on ambitious global action, and leaves us more desperate than ever for a real solution to our plastic problem.
The first step is to reject the many false solutions that pop up in our news feeds.
Recycling is one of those false solutions. The scale of plastic production is too big for recycling alone. Of all the plastics produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% have been recycled. This figure is set to plummet as China and a growing number of developing countries are rejecting plastic waste from Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world.
China had been a major destination for Australia and New Zealand’s recyclable waste. China’s shutdown meant Australia lost the market for a third of its plastic waste. It also left New Zealand with 400 tonnes of stockpiled plastic waste last year.
With limited domestic recycling facilities, Australia and New Zealand are seeking new markets. Last year, New Zealand sent about 250,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill, and a further 6,300 tonnes to Malaysia for recycling. But now Malaysia is also rejecting other countries’ hazardous plastic waste.
Even if we manage to find new plastic recycling markets, there is another problem. Recycling is not as safe as you might think. Flame retardants and other toxins are added to many plastics, and these compounds find a second life when plastics are recycled into new products, including children’s toys.
What about burning plastic waste to generate energy? Think again. Incineration is expensive, can take decades for investors to break even. It is the opposite of a “zero waste” approach and locks countries into a perpetual cycle of producing and importing waste to “feed the beast”. And incineration leaves a legacy of contaminated air, soil, and water.
Producing lower-grade materials from plastic waste (such as roads, fenceposts and park benches) is not the solution either. No matter where we put it, plastic doesn’t go away. It just breaks into ever smaller pieces with a greater potential for harm in air, water, soil and marine and freshwater ecosystems.
This is why researchers are paying more attention to the less visible hazards posed when micro (less than 5mm long) and nano (less than 100 nanometres long) sized plastics carry pathogens, invasive species and persistent organic pollutants. They have found that plastics can emit methane contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
Tyres wear down into microplastics which find their way into the ocean. When plastics break down to nanoparticles, they are small enough to pass through cell walls. Our clothes release plastic microfibres into water from washing machines.
Plastic pollution moves readily around the globe. It travels through trade, on winds, river and tidal flows, and in the guts of migrating birds and mammals. We don’t always know which toxic chemicals are in them, nor their recycled content. Plastic pollution can end up thousands of kilometres from the source.
This makes plastic pollution a matter of international concern. It cannot be solved solely within national borders or regions. A global, legally binding treaty with clear targets and standards is the real game-changer we urgently need.
The NGO component of UNEA’s expert group recognised an international treaty as the most effective response. The proposed treaty has the potential to capture the full life cycle of plastics by focusing on prevention, right at the top of the waste hierarchy.
These solutions could include restricting the volume of new or “virgin” plastics in products, banning avoidable plastics (such as single-use plastic bags and straws), and curbing the use of toxic additives.
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’
More than 90 civil society organisations around the world and a growing number of countries have indicated early support for a treaty. Australia and New Zealand have not.