Last week, Australia took an important step towards addressing the ongoing effects of the 2018 waste crisis. The federal parliament passed legislation banning the export of unprocessed waste overseas via the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020.
The new law provides an impetus to reconfigure local infrastructure to reprocess and re-manufacture recyclables onshore. It should create local demand to reuse these recovered materials in infrastructure, packaging and products as part of a move towards a circular economy.
It’s encouraging to see the federal government finally providing clear policy direction for the waste industry and making Australia more responsible for how our waste is recovered. But it’s far from enough to temper the waste crisis.
The total amount of waste generated in 2018-19 went up 10% from just two years earlier — and only half of that was recycled. Meanwhile, opportunities to export material for overseas recycling have been drying up.
In 2019, Australia exported an estimated 7% of all waste generated. The proportion is much higher for the household commingled recycling bin, where around one-third of all paper and plastics were exported to overseas trading partners, particularly in Asia.
Exporting material recovered from waste isn’t “bad” per se, particularly when you consider Australia imports more manufactured goods than we make locally. Currently, our economy remains structured around exporting virgin (new) and recyclable materials, which are made into products offshore and then re-imported.
So, when we export well-sorted, quality, recyclable material, it’s no different than exporting, say, iron ore.
However, just dumping “rubbish” on other countries is not acceptable. And even exporting potentially recyclable material without taking responsibility for how the material will be recovered overseas leads to a greater risk of it being dumped or burned.
Such an economic structure makes us reliant on international markets and the policy priorities of those countries.
This was highlighted in 2018 when China banned waste imports of all but the highest purity, with other countries in Asia following suit. This shocked Australia’s (and the world’s) recycling industry, and led to plummeting prices for certain waste materials and increased stockpiling and short-term landfilling.
What’s more, when developing countries import too much waste or low-quality material, their infrastructure and markets can become overwhelmed. The waste then ends up “leaking” into the environment, including the ocean, as litter.
A ban on Australia’s waste export was first announced in August 2019 to help address our responsibility for ocean plastics. The ban could localise much of Australia’s reprocessing — and possibly, manufacturing — activity.
Effectively, the ban prohibits the export of specific raw (unprocessed) materials collected for recycling: plastic, paper, glass and tires. Any materials that have been re-processed and turned into other “value-added” materials (those ready for further use) can still be exported under the law. For example, a single type of plastic cleaned and shredded into “flakes”, or cleaned packaging glass crushed into “cullet”.
The law is accompanied by commitments from the federal and state governments to help address some of the critical systemic barriers to onshore processing, such as the lack of existing infrastructure and domestic markets for reprocessed material.
Without sufficient transition measures, it’s possible the ban could lead to more waste ending up in landfills, stockpiling or illegal dumping.
For the ban to be effective, a lot of things need to go right. This includes:
sufficient time to plan, get approval and build the new recycling infrastructure
sufficient financing to test new technologies and build new facilities
creating local demand and markets to reuse and remanufacture recycled plastics, paper, glass and tires
Getting the transition right will be critical for Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, which are particularly lacking in proper infrastructure.
It’s also important for NSW and Victoria because of the high proportion of banned materials they currently export. For example, over 80% of Australia’s exported plastic was from NSW and Victoria, while 90% of exported glass was from Victoria.
Given exports are only a part of overall waste material flows, it’s great to see the ban is part of a suite of responses. This includes the Recycling Modernisation Fund, and the recent $10 million National Product Stewardship Investment Fund and Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence.
Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact these are predominantly “end-of-pipe” solutions.
Options include minimum design standards and extended producer responsibility, which would make manufacturers and retailers financially responsible for ensuring their products are recycled. This would incentivise better “up the chain” (design) choices.
And as a major importer of manufactured products, Australia also needs to manage what’s coming into the country through improved standards, such as minimum requirements for recyclability and durability, or prohibiting problematic materials in inferior products that will quickly become waste.
Ultimately, it’s far better for the environment to reduce the generation of waste in the first place. Together with better design, this will move us towards a more circular economy.
If Australia’s new waste and recycling law represents increasing momentum towards a circular economy in Australia, rather than a pinnacle on which we rest, it will be an excellent step forward.
Jenni Downes, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia (Monash Sustainable Development Institute), Monash University; Damien Giurco, Professor of Resource Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Rose Read, Adjunct professor, University of Technology Sydney
How do we save whales and other marine animals from plastic in the ocean? Our new review shows reducing plastic pollution can prevent the deaths of beloved marine species. Over 700 marine species, including half of the world’s cetaceans (such as whales and dolphins), all of its sea turtles and a third of its seabirds, are known to ingest plastic.
When animals eat plastic, it can block their digestive system, causing a long, slow death from starvation. Sharp pieces of plastic can also pierce the gut wall, causing infection and sometimes death. As little as one piece of ingested plastic can kill an animal.
About eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, so solving the problem may seem overwhelming. How do we reduce harm to whales and other marine animals from that much plastic?
Like a hospital overwhelmed with patients, we triage. By identifying the items that are deadly to the most vulnerable species, we can apply solutions that target these most deadly items.
In 2016, experts identified four main items they considered to be most deadly to wildlife: fishing debris, plastic bags, balloons and plastic utensils.
We tested these expert predictions by assessing data from 76 published research papers incorporating 1,328 marine animals (132 cetaceans, 20 seals and sea lions, 515 sea turtles and 658 seabirds) from 80 species.
We examined which items caused the greatest number of deaths in each group, and also the “lethality” of each item (how many deaths per interaction). We found the experts got it right for three of four items.
Flexible plastics, such as plastic sheets, bags and packaging, can cause gut blockage and were responsible for the greatest number of deaths over all animal groups. These film plastics caused the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles. Fishing debris, such as nets, lines and tackle, caused fatalities in larger animals, particularly seals and sea lions.
Turtles and whales that eat debris can have difficulty swimming, which may increase the risk of being struck by ships or boats. In contrast, seals and sea lions don’t eat much plastic, but can die from eating fishing debris.
Balloons, ropes and rubber, meanwhile, were deadly for smaller fauna. And hard plastics caused the most deaths among seabirds. Rubber, fishing debris, metal and latex (including balloons) were the most lethal for birds, with the highest chance of causing death per recorded ingestion.
The most cost-efficient way to reduce marine megafauna deaths from plastic ingestion is to target the most lethal items and prioritise their reduction in the environment.
Targeting big plastic items is also smart, as they can break down into smaller pieces. Small debris fragments such as microplastics and fibres are a lower management priority, as they cause significantly fewer deaths to megafauna and are more difficult to manage.
Flexible film-like plastics, including plastic bags and packaging, rank among the ten most common items in marine debris surveys globally. Plastic bag bans and fees for bags have already been shown to reduce bags littered into the environment. Improving local disposal and engineering solutions to enable recycling and improve the life span of plastics may also help reduce littering.
Lost fishing gear is particularly lethal. Fisheries have high gear loss rates: 5.7% of all nets and 29% of all lines are lost annually in commercial fisheries. The introduction of minimum standards of loss-resistant or higher quality gear can reduce loss.
Other steps can help, too, including
incentivising gear repairs and port disposal of damaged nets
penalising or prohibiting high-risk fishing activities where snags or gear loss are likely
and enforcing penalties associated with dumping.
Outreach and education to recreational fishers to highlight the harmful effects of fishing gear could also have benefit.
Balloons, latex and rubber are rare in the marine environment, but are disproportionately lethal, particularly to sea turtles and seabirds. Preventing intentional balloon releases and accidental release during events and celebrations would require legislation and a shift in public will.
The combination of policy change with behaviour change campaigns are known to be the most effective at reducing coastal litter across Australia.
Reducing film-like plastics, fishing debris and latex/balloons entering the environment would likely have the best outcome in directly reducing mortality of marine megafauna.
Lauren Roman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO
It’s estimated about two million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans from rivers each year. But our waterways aren’t just conveyor belts transporting land waste to the oceans: they also capture and retain litter.
Currently, the most common method for monitoring litter relies on humans conducting on-ground visual counts. This process is labour-intensive and makes it difficult to monitor many locations simultaneously or over extended periods.
As part of CSIRO’s research to end plastic waste, we’ve been developing an efficient and scalable environmental monitoring system using artificial intelligence (AI).
The system, which is part of a larger pilot with the City of Hobart, uses AI-based image recognition to track litter in waterways.
The technology is underpinned by two branches of AI: computer vision and deep learning. Computer vision involves training computers to understand and interpret images and videos, whereas deep learning imitates how our brains process data.
Drawing on these capabilities, we worked in partnership with Microsoft (using its Azure cloud computing services) to develop an automated system for monitoring river litter.
We have been detecting and classifying items floating on the surface of Hobart’s stormwater channels, the River Thames in the UK and the Buriganga River in Bangladesh.
We’ve remotely analysed the amount of litter, the type of litter and how this changes across locations.
Our work relies heavily on two applications of computer vision. These are “object detection” and “image classification”.
Object detection specifies the location of a particular object in an image and assigns it a label. Image classification assigns one or more labels to the image as a whole.
Before either of these models can be applied reliably, however, they have to be trained, tested and validated using a large number of labelled images. For this, we drew from our footage of river litter collected from Hobart, London and Dhaka.
Our dataset now contains more than 6,100 images with 14,500 individual items. The items are labelled across more than 30 categories including plastic bottles, packaging, beverage cans, paper and plastic cups.
Our data revealed food packaging, beverage bottles and cups were by far the most frequently spotted litter items across all three countries.
To build a well-performing machine learning model, we needed a balanced set of training images featuring all item categories — even if certain categories are more frequent in real life.
Introducing synthetic (computer generated) images to our dataset was a game changer.
These images were generated by Microsoft’s synthetics team based in Seattle. They rendered various objects and superimposed them over backgrounds obtained from our field photos.
Once the digital objects were created, the superimposition process was automatic. Thus, the team managed to produce thousands of synthetic pictures over just a few weeks, rapidly expanding our training dataset.
There are a few steps by which our system identifies litter objects in photos. First, the photos are all scored against a single-label (“trash”) object detector. This identifies items of litter in the frame and stores their coordinates as annotations.
These coordinates are then used to isolate the items and score them against an image classifier which includes all the litter categories.
Finally, the model presents the category it thinks the item most likely belongs to, along with a suggested probability for how accurate this guess is.
An AI-driven approach to litter management allows a quicker response than a manual system. But when it comes to litter, the major challenge lies in creating a model that can account for millions of different shapes, colours and sizes.
We wanted to build a flexible model that could be transferred to new locations and across different river settings, including smaller streams (such as Hobart’s stormwater system) and large urban rivers (such as the River Thames or the Buriganga River).
This way, rather than building new models for each location, we only have to deploy more cameras. Data retrieved could help identify litter hot spots, implement better waste-related policies and improve waste management methods to make them safer, smarter and relatively cheaper.
We’ve also been collaborating with the City of Hobart to develop an autonomous sensor network to monitor gross pollutant traps, such as floating barriers or litter socks.
These structures, integrated into Hobart’s stormwater drainage system, are supposed to prevent solid waste such as cans, bottles, tree branches and leaves from reaching the estuary and ocean.
We currently have a network of sensors and six cameras installed under bridges tracking litter in the traps. The system can inform an operator when a trap requires emptying, or other maintenance.
Once in full use, the technology will provide almost real-time monitoring of litter around Hobart — assisting efforts to reduce environmental harm caused by stagnant, and potentially hazardous, waste lost to the environment.
After banning plastic bags last year, New Zealand now proposes to regulate single-use plastic packaging and to ban various hard-to-recycle plastics and single-use plastic items.
These moves come in response to growing public concern about plastics, increasing volumes of plastic in the environment, mounting evidence of negative environmental and health impacts of plastic pollution and the role plastics play in the global climate crisis.
Addressing plastic packaging is key to reversing these negative trends. It accounts for 42% of all non-fibre plastics produced.
But the plastics industry is pushing back. Industry representatives claim efforts to regulate plastic packaging will have negative environmental consequences because plastic is a lightweight material with a lower carbon footprint than alternatives like glass, paper and metal.
These claims are based on what’s known as life-cycle assessment (LCA). It’s a tool used to measure and compare the environmental impact of materials throughout their life, from extraction to disposal.
LCA has been used to measure the impact of packaging ever since the Coca-Cola Company commissioned the first comprehensive assessment in 1969.
While independent LCA practitioners may adopt rigorous processes, the method is vulnerable to misuse. According to European waste management consultancy Eunomia, it is limited by the questions it seeks to answer:
Ask inappropriate, misleading, narrow or uninformed questions and the process will only provide answers in that vein.
Industry-commissioned life-cycle assessments often frame single-use plastic packaging positively. These claim plastic’s light weight offsets its harmful impacts on people, wildlife and ecosystems. Some studies are even used to justify the continued expansion of plastics production.
But plastic can come out looking good when certain important factors are overlooked. In theory, LCA considers a product’s whole-of-life environmental impact. In practice, the scope varies as practitioners select system boundaries at their discretion.
Zero Waste Europe has highlighted that life-cycle assessment for food packaging often omits important considerations. These include the potential toxicity of different materials, or the impact of leakage into the environment. Excluding factors like this gives plastics an unjustified advantage.
Even questionable LCA studies carry a veneer of authority in the public domain. The packaging industry capitalises on this to distract, delay and derail progressive plastics legislation. Rebutting industry studies that promote the environmental superiority of plastics is difficult because commissioning a robust LCA is costly and time-consuming.
LCA appeals to policymakers aspiring to develop evidence-based packaging policy. But if the limitations are not properly acknowledged or understood, policy can reinforce inaccurate industry narratives.
The Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand report, from the office of the prime minister’s chief science adviser, has been influential in plastics policy in New Zealand.
The report dedicates an entire chapter to LCA. It includes case studies that do not actually take a full life-cycle approach from extraction to disposal. It concedes only on the last page that LCA does not account for the environmental, economic or health impacts of plastics that leak into the environment.
The report also erroneously suggests LCA is “an alternative approach” to the zero-waste hierarchy. In fact, the two tools work best together.
The zero-waste hierarchy prioritises strategies to prevent, reduce and reuse packaging. That’s based on the presumption that these approaches have lower life-cycle impacts than recycling and landfilling.
One of LCA’s limitations is that practitioners tend to compare materials already available on the predominantly single-use packaging market. However, an LCA guided by the waste hierarchy would include zero-packaging or reusable packaging systems in the mix. Such an assessment would contribute to sustainable packaging policy.
New Zealand is also a voluntary signatory to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which includes commitments by businesses and government to increase reusable packaging by 2025.
A reduction of plastic production — through elimination, the expansion of consumer reuse options, or new delivery models — is the most attractive solution from environmental, economic and social perspectives.
The plastics industry has misused LCA to argue that attempts to reduce plastic pollution will result in bad climate outcomes. But increasingly, life-cycle assessments that compare packaging types across the waste hierarchy are revealing that this trade-off is mostly a single-use packaging problem.
Policymakers should take life-cycle assessment beyond its industry-imposed straitjacket and allow it to inform zero-packaging and reusable packaging system design. Doing so could help New Zealand reduce plastic pollution, negative health impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.
Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University; Hannah Blumhardt, Senior Associate at the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington, and Takunda Y Chitaka, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of the Western Cape
When it comes to handling the waste crisis in Australia, options are limited: we either export our waste or bury it. But to achieve current national targets, policy-makers are increasingly asking if we can instead safely burn waste as fuel.
Proposals for waste incinerators are being considered in the Greater Sydney region, but these have been lambasted by the Greens and independent members of the NSW parliament, who cite public health concerns.
Meanwhile, the ACT government has recently put a blanket ban on these facilities.
But are their concerns based on evidence? In our systematic review of the scientific literature, we could identify only 19 papers among 269 relevant studies — less than 10% — that could help address our question on whether waste-to-energy incinerators could harm our health.
This means the answer remains unclear, and we therefore call for a cautious approach to waste-to-energy technology.
On average, Australia produces roughly 500 kilograms of municipal (residential and commercial) waste each year. This aligns with the OECD average.
New Zealand in comparison, despite its strong environmental stance, is among the worst offenders for producing waste in any OECD country. It produces almost 800 kilograms per person per year.
Now, most recyclable or reusable waste in Australia goes to landfill. This poses a potential risk to both climate and health with the emission of potent greenhouse gases such as methane and the leaching of heavy metals such as lead into the groundwater. As a result, local governments may want to seek alternative options.
“Waste-to-energy” incineration is when solid waste is sorted and burned as “refuse-derived” fuel to generate electricity. This can replace fossil fuel such as coal.
Every day, around 300 trucks filled with non-recyclable municipal solid waste are sent to Amager Bakke.
This fuels a furnace that runs at 1,000℃, turning water into steam. And this steam provides electricity and heat to around 100,000 households. Generally, people in Denmark warmly welcome it.
In Australia and the US, community reception towards the building of new incinerators has been cold.
The big concern is burning waste may release chemicals that can harm our health, such as nitrogen oxide and dioxin. Exposure to high levels of dioxin can lead to skin lesions, an impaired immune system and reproductive issues.
However, control measures, such as the technologically advanced filters used in Amager Bakke, can bring the amount of dioxin released to near zero.
Supply of this plastic could come from the waning fossil fuel industry. This would work against the goal of establishing a “circular economy” that reuses and recycles goods where possible.
An analysis from 2019 found that to meet European Union circular economy goals, Nordic countries would need to increase their recycling, and significantly shift away from incineration.
This concern is understandable given incinerators operate cleanest when fuelled at full capacity. This is because a higher temperature means a more complete combustion — a bit like less ash and smoke coming off of a well-built campfire.
As with many policy solutions, determining the safety of burning waste is complicated.
Our review found a lack of evidence to fully reject well-designed and operated facilities. However, based on the limited number of health studies we found, we support a precautionary planning approach to waste-to-energy proposals.
This means we need appropriate health risk assessment and life cycle analyses built into the approval process for each and every incinerator proposed in the near-future.
The studies we found were all performed in the last 20 years. None were from the Nordic countries, however, where waste-to-energy incineration has been in use for many decades.
The reasons for the Nordic embrace of this technology are speculative. One reason may be that their level of economic development allows large capital investment for safe, state-of-the-art design and operation.
If councils are determined to pursue waste-to-energy incineration, we suggest they prioritise specific applications.
For example, we found the process with the most favourable life-cycle assessment (the most beneficial to health compared to traditional fossil fuel use) was the “co-incineration” of refuse-derived fuel for industrial cement.
Currently, cement kilns are mostly fuelled by burning coal, and it’s difficult to reach the high temperatures required with traditional renewables. This means substituting coal for refuse-derived fuel could reduce the industry’s dependency on coal, when renewables aren’t an option.
So, while we wait for more knowledge on how waste-to-energy incineration may affect our health, let’s focus on improving our waste hierarchy, rather than exporting our waste to feed a global crisis.
Thomas Cole-Hunter, Research fellow, Queensland University of Technology; Ana Porta Cubas, Knowledge and Translation Broker- Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research (CAR), University of Sydney; Christina Magill, Senior Natural Hazards Risk Scientist, GNS Science, and Christine Cowie, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Air Quality & Health Research and Evaluation, Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, University of Sydney; Senior Research Fellow, South West Sydney Clinical School, UNSW
The Japanese government recently announced plans to release into the sea more than 1 million tonnes of radioactive water from the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The move has sparked global outrage, including from UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak who recently wrote,
I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.
Alongside our Nobel Peace Prize-winning work promoting nuclear disarmament, we have worked for decades to minimise the health harms of nuclear technology, including site visits to Fukushima since 2011. We’ve concluded Japan’s plan is unsafe, and not based on evidence.
Japan isn’t the only country with a nuclear waste problem. The Australian government wants to send nuclear waste to a site in regional South Australia — a risky plan that has been widely criticised.
In 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami resulted in the meltdown of four large nuclear reactors, and extensive damage to the reactor containment structures and the buildings which house them.
Water must be poured on top of the damaged reactors to keep them cool, but in the process, it becomes highly contaminated. Every day, 170 tonnes of highly contaminated water are added to storage on site.
If radioactive material leaks into the sea, ocean currents can disperse it widely. The radioactivity from Fukushima has already caused widespread contamination of fish caught off the coast, and was even detected in tuna caught off California.
Ionising radiation harms all organisms, causing genetic damage, developmental abnormalities, tumours and reduced fertility and fitness. For tens of kilometres along the coast from the damaged nuclear plant, the diversity and number of organisms have been depleted.
Of particular concern are long-lived radioisotopes (unstable chemical elements) and those which concentrate up the food chain, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. This can lead to fish being thousands of times more radioactive than the water they swim in.
In recent years, a water purification system — known as advanced liquid processing — has been used to treat the contaminated water accumulating in Fukushima to try to reduce the 62 most important contaminating radioisotopes.
But it hasn’t been very effective. To date, 72% of the treated water exceeds the regulatory standards. Some treated water has been shown to be almost 20,000 times higher than what’s allowed.
The cherry trees of Fukushima
One important radioisotope not removed in this process is tritium — a radioactive form of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years. This means it takes 12.3 years for half of the radioisotope to decay.
Tritium is a carcinogenic byproduct of nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants, and is routinely released both into the water and air.
The Japanese government and the reactor operator plan to meet regulatory limits for tritium by diluting contaminated water. But this does not reduce the overall amount of radioactivity released into the environment.
The Japanese Citizens Commission for Nuclear Energy is an independent organisation of engineers and researchers. It says once water is treated to reduce all significant isotopes other than tritium, it should be stored in 10,000-tonne tanks on land.
If the water was stored for 120 years, tritium levels would decay to less than 1,000th of the starting amount, and levels of other radioisotopes would also reduce. This is a relatively short and manageable period of time, in terms of nuclear waste.
Then, the water could be safely released into the ocean.
Australians currently face our own nuclear waste problems, stemming from our nuclear reactors and rapidly expanding nuclear medicine export business, which produces radioisotopes for medical diagnosis, some treatments, scientific and industrial purposes.
This is what happens at our national nuclear facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The vast majority of Australia’s nuclear waste is stored on-site in a dedicated facility, managed by those with the best expertise, and monitored 24/7 by the Australian Federal Police.
But the Australian government plans to change this. It wants to transport and temporarily store nuclear waste at a facility at Kimba, in regional South Australia, for an indeterminate period. We believe the Kimba plan involves unnecessary multiple handling, and shifts the nuclear waste problem onto future generations.
The infrastructure, staff and expertise to manage and monitor radioactive materials in Lucas Heights were developed over decades, with all the resources and emergency services of Australia’s largest city. These capacities cannot be quickly or easily replicated in the remote rural location of Kimba. What’s more, transporting the waste raises the risk of theft and accident.
And in recent months, the CEO of regulator ARPANSA told a senate inquiry there is capacity to store nuclear waste at Lucas Heights for several more decades. This means there’s ample time to properly plan final disposal of the waste.
The Conversation contacted Resources Minister Keith Pitt who insisted the Kimba site will consolidate waste from more than 100 places into a “safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility”. He said a separate, permanent disposal facility will be established for intermediate level waste in a few decades’ time.
Pitt said the government continues to seek involvement of Traditional Owners. He also said the Kimba community voted in favour of the plan. However, the voting process was criticised on a number of grounds, including that it excluded landowners living relatively close to the site, and entirely excluded Barngarla people.
Both Australia and Japan should look to nations such as Finland, which deals with nuclear waste more responsibly and has studied potential sites for decades. It plans to spend 3.5 billion euros (A$5.8 billion) on a deep geological disposal site.
Intermediate level nuclear waste like that planned to be moved to Kimba contains extremely hazardous materials that must be strictly isolated from people and the environment for at least 10,000 years.
We should take the time needed for an open, inclusive and evidence-based planning process, rather than a quick fix that avoidably contaminates our shared environment and creates more problems than it solves.
It only kicks the can down the road for future generations, and does not constitute responsible radioactive waste management.
The following are additional comments provided by Resources Minister Keith Pitt in response to issues raised in this article (comments added after publication):
(The Kimba plan) will consolidate waste into a single, safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility. It is international best practice and good common sense to do this.
Key indicators which showed the broad community support in Kimba included 62 per cent support in the local community ballot, and 100 per cent support from direct neighbours to the proposed site.
In assessing community support, the government also considered submissions received from across the country and the results of Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation’s own vote.
The vast majority of Australia’s radioactive waste stream is associated with nuclear medicine production that, on average, two in three Australians will benefit from during their lifetime.
The facility will create a new, safe industry for the Kimba community, including 45 jobs in security, operations, administration and environmental monitoring.
Tilman Ruff, Associate Professor, Education and Learning Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis, Tutor Principles of Clinical Practice Melbourne Medical School
Apple has released its new smartphone, the iPhone 12, without an accompanying charger or earbuds. Users have harshly criticised the company for this move and will have to purchase these accessories separately, if needed.
While some see it as cost-cutting, or a way for Apple to profit further by forcing customers to buy the products separately, the technology giant said the goal was to reduce its carbon footprint.
This is the first time a major smartphone manufacturer has released a mobile without a charger. Earlier this year, reports emerged of Samsung considering a similar move, but it has yet to follow through.
But even if abandoning chargers is a way for Apple to save money, the action could have a significant, positive impact on the environment.
Just as single-use shopping bags contribute to plastic waste, unused and discarded electronic appliances contribute to electronic waste (e-waste).
Just over a decade ago, Australia started to ban single-use plastic bags, starting with South Australia. Today, every state and territory in Australia has enforced the ban except New South Wales — which intends to do so by the end of 2021.
Since South Australia implemented its ban in 2008, state government estimates suggest it has avoided 8,000kg of marine litter each year — and abated more than 4,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
The benefits for the environment have been clear. So, why are we so hesitant to do the same for e-waste?
E-waste includes different forms of discarded electric and electronic appliances that are no longer of value to their owners. This can include mobile phones, televisions, computers, chargers, keyboards, printers and earphones.
On this basis, the environment would greatly benefit if more users reused phone chargers and if tech companies encouraged a shift to standardised charging that works across different mobile phone brands.
This would eventually lead to a reduction in the manufacturing of chargers and, potentially, less exploitation of natural resources.
Citing an increase in e-waste and consumer frustration with multiple chargers, the European Parliament has been pushing for standardised chargers for mobile phones, tablets, e-book readers, smart cameras, wearable electronics and other small or medium-sized electronic devices.
This would negate the need for users to buy different chargers for various devices.
Of course, there’s no doubt phone companies want people to regularly buy new phones. Apple themselves have been accused of building a feature into phones that slows them down as they get older. Apple responded by saying this was simply to keep devices running as their batteries became worn down.
But even if this is the case, Apple’s decision to ship phones without chargers would still reduce the use of precious materials. A smaller product box would let Apple fit up to 70% more products onto shipping pallets — reducing carbon emissions from shipping.
However, it remains to be seen exactly how much this would assist in Apple’s environmental goals, especially if many consumers end up buying a charger separately anyway.
It’s worth considering whether Apple’s main incentive is simply to cut costs, or perhaps push people towards its own wireless charging devices.
Without a shift to a standardised plug-in charger, a wireless charging boom could be an environmental disaster (even though it’s perhaps inevitable due to its convenience). Wireless charging consumes around 47% more power than a regular cable.
This may be a concern, as the sustainability advantages of not including a charger could come alongside increased energy consumption. Currently, the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) sector is responsible for about 2% of the world’s energy consumption.
Perhaps one solution to the dilemma is device trade-in services, which many companies already offer, including Apple and Samsung.
Apple gives customers a discount on a new device if they trade in their older model, instead of throwing it out. Similar services are offered by third parties such as Optus, Telstra, MobileMonster and Boomerang Buy Back.
Ultimately, however, the best solution would be for tech giants to agree on a universal plug-in charger for all small or medium-sized electronic devices, including mobile phones.
And hopefully, just as we all now take reusable bags to the grocer with us, in a few years we’ll be able to use a common charger for all our devices — and we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
Michael Cowling, Associate Professor – Information & Communication Technology (ICT), CQUniversity Australia and Ritesh Chugh, Senior Lecturer/Discipline Lead – Information Systems and Analysis, CQUniversity Australia
Face masks are part of our daily lives during the pandemic. Many are made from plastics and designed to be used just once, which means thousands of tonnes of extra waste going to landfill.
Masks may help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But according to one estimate, if everyone in the United Kingdom used a single-use mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.
Evidence also suggests masks may be a source of harmful microplastic fibres on land and in waterways and litter.
So let’s look at how face masks might be designed to cause minimal harm to the environment, while still doing their job – and which type is best for you.
China is the world’s biggest face mask manufacturer. Its daily output of face masks reportedly reached 116 million units in February this year. That creates a big waste management problem around the world.
One way to address this is to adopt “circular design” principles. This thinking seeks to reduce waste and pollution through product design, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.
Which face mask should I wear?
When it comes to face masks, the three common types are cloth, surgical and N-95. N-95 masks offer the highest level of protection, blocking about 95% of airborne particles. Cloth masks are designed to be used more than once, while surgical and N-95 masks are usually intended for single use.
Face masks may consist of one or more layers, each with different functions:
Each type of mask is made of different materials and used in varying settings:
– N-95 masks: These are designed to protect the wearer from 95% of airborne particles and are largely worn by health workers. N-95 masks are designed to fit closely to the face and are usually worn only once. N-95 masks comprise:
– Surgical masks: These are designed to protect sterile environments from the wearer, acting as barrier to droplets or aerosols. Generally intended as single-use items, they comprise mostly polypropylene between two layers of non-woven fabric.
– Cloth masks: These types of masks are worn by the general public. Some are homemade from fabric scraps or old clothing. They may be wholly reusable, or partially reusable with replaceable filters that must be disposed of.
These masks typically comprise an outer layer of polyester or polypropylene (or in some cases, cotton), and an inner layer designed for breathability and comfort – usually cotton or a cotton-polyester blend.
Research suggests cloth masks are less effective at filtering particles than medical masks, but may may give some protection if well-fitted and properly designed. Health advice is available to help guide their use.
It’s important to note that any attempt to redesign face masks must ensure they offer adequate protection to the wearer. Where masks are used in a medical setting, design changes must also meet official standards such as barrier efficiency, breathing capacity and fire resistance.
With this in mind, reducing the environmental harm caused by masks could be done in several ways:
– Design with more reusable parts
Evidence suggests reusable cloth masks perform almost as well as single-use masks, but without the associated waste. One life cycle assessment conducted in the UK found masks that could be washed and reused were the best option for the environment. Reusable masks with replaceable filters were the second-best option.
The study also found having a higher number of masks in rotation to allow for machine washing was better for the environment than manual washing.
– Make masks easier to dispose of or recyle
In high-risk settings such as hospitals and clinics, the reuse of masks may not be possible or desirable, meaning they must be disposed of. In medical settings, there are systems in place for disposal of such protective gear, which usually involves segregation and incineration.
But the general public must dispose of masks themselves. Because masks usually comprise different materials, this can be complicated. For example, recovering the components of a N-95 mask for recycling would involve putting the straps, nose foam, filter and valve in one bin and the metal staples and nose clip in another. And some recyclers may see mask recycling as a health risk. These difficulties mean masks often end up in landfill.
Masks would be easier to recycle if the were made of fewer materials and were easy to disassemble.
– Use biodegradable materials
For single-use items, placing synthetics with biodegradable materials would be a first step in circular design thinking.
The abaca plant, a relative of the banana tree, offers one potential option. Its leaf fibre reportedly repels water better than traditional face masks, is as strong as polymer and decomposes within two months. Most abaca is currently produced in the Philippines.
From a purely environmental perspective, research suggests owning multiple reusable face masks, and machine-washing them together, is the best option. Using filters with reusable face masks is a second-best option.
But when choosing a mask, consider where you will wear it. Unless cloth masks are shown to be as effective as other masks, health-care workers should not use them. But they may be suitable in low-risk everyday settings.
In the longer term, governments and manufacturers must make every effort to design masks that will not harm the planet – and consumers should demand this. Face masks will probably be ubiquitous on our streets for months to come. But once the pandemic is over, the environmental legacy may last for decades, if not centuries.
Nowhere, it seems, is immune from plastic pollution: plastic has been reported in the high Arctic oceans, in the sea ice around Antarctica and even in the world’s deepest waters of the Mariana Trench.
But just how bad is the problem? Our new research provides the first global estimate of microplastics on the seafloor — our research suggests there’s a staggering 8-14 million tonnes of it.
This is up to 35 times more than the estimated weight of plastic pollution on the ocean’s surface.
What’s more, plastic production and pollution is expected to increase in coming years, despite increased media, government and scientific attention on how plastic pollution can harm marine ecosystems, wildlife and human health.
These findings are yet another wake-up call. When the plastic we use in our daily lives reaches even the deepest oceans, it’s more urgent than ever to find ways to clean up our mess before it reaches the ocean, or to stop making so much of it in the first place.
Our estimate of microplastics on the seafloor is huge, but it’s still a fraction of the amount of plastic dumped into the ocean. Between 4-8 million tonnes of plastic are thought to enter the sea each and every year.
Most of the plastic dumped into the ocean likely ends up on the coasts, not floating around the ocean’s surface or on the seafloor. In fact, three-quarters of the rubbish found along Australia’s coastlines is plastics.
The larger pieces of plastic that stay in the ocean can deteriorate and break down from weathering and mechanical forces, such as ocean waves. Eventually, this material turns into microplastics, pieces smaller than 5 millimetres in diameter.
Their tiny size means they can be eaten by a variety of marine wildlife, from plankton to crustaceans and fish. And when microplastics enter the marine food web at low levels, it can move up the food chain as bigger species eat smaller ones.
But the problem isn’t as well documented for microplastics on the seafloor. While plastics, including microplastics, have been found in deep-sea sediments in all ocean basins across the world, samples have been small and scarce. This is where our research comes in.
We collected samples using a robotic submarine in a range of sea depths, from 1,655 to 3,062 metres, in the Great Australian Bight, up to 380 kilometres offshore from South Australia. The submarine scooped up 51 samples of sand and sediment from the seafloor and we analysed them in a laboratory.
We dried the sediment samples, and found between zero and 13.6 plastic particles per gram. This is up to 25 times more microplastics than previous deep-sea studies. And it’s much higher than studies in other regions, including in the Arctic and Indian Oceans.
While our study looked at one general area, we can scale up to calculate a global estimate of microplastics on the seafloor.
Using the estimated size of the entire ocean — 361,132,000 square kilometres — and the average number and size of particles in our sediment samples, we determined the total, global weight as between 8.4 and 14.4 million tonnes. This range takes into account the possible weights of individual microplastics.
It’s important to note that since our location was remote, far from any urban population centre, this is a conservative estimate. Yet, we were surprised at just how high the microplastic loads were there.
Few studies have conclusively identified how microplastics travel to their ultimate fate.
Larger pieces of plastic that get broken down to smaller pieces can sink to the seafloor, and ocean currents and the natural movement of sediment along continental shelves can transport them widely.
But not all plastic sinks. A 2016 study suggests interaction with marine organisms is another possible transport method.
Scientists in the US have shown microbial communities, such as bacteria, can inhabit this marine “plastisphere” — a term for the ecosystems that live in plastic environments. The microbes weigh the plastic down so it no longer floats. We also know mussels and other invertebrates may colonise floating plastics, adding weight to make them sink.
The type of rubbish will also determine whether it gets washed up on the beach or sinks to the seafloor.
For example, in a previous study we found cigarette butts, plastic fragments, bottlecaps and food wrappers are common on land, though rare on the seabed. Meanwhile, we found entangling items such fishing line, ropes and plastic bags are common on the seafloor.
Interestingly, in our new study we also found the number of plastic fragments on the seafloor was generally higher in areas where there was floating rubbish on the ocean’s surface. This suggests surface “hotspots” may be reflected below.
It’s not clear why just yet, but it could be because of the geology and physical features of the seabed, or because local currents, winds and waves result in accumulating zones on the ocean’s surface and the seabed nearby.
Knowing how much plastic sinks to the ocean floor is an important addition to our understanding of the plastic pollution crisis. But stemming the rising tide of plastic pollution starts with individuals, communities and governments – we all have a role to play.
Reusing, refusing and recycling are good places to start. Seek alternatives and support programs, such as Clean Up Australia Day, to stop plastic waste from entering our environment in the first place, ensuring it doesn’t then become embedded in our precious oceans.