Headphones, saw blades, coat hangers: how human trash in Australian bird nests changed over 195 years


This, if you can believe it, is part of a magpie nest.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

Kathy Ann Townsend, University of the Sunshine Coast and Dominique Potvin, University of the Sunshine CoastEnvironmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


When we opened a box supplied by museum curators, our research team audibly gasped. Inside was a huge Australian magpie nest from 2018.

It was more than a metre wide and made up of the strangest assortment of items, including wire coat hangers, headphones, saw blades and plastic 3D glasses — a mix of detritus reflecting our modern lifestyle.

This was one of almost 900 Australian nest specimens dating back over 195 years that we inspected for our recent, world-first study.

We estimate that today, around 30% of Australian bird nests incorporate human-made materials (primarily plastics). We also noted a steady increase in nest parasites over this period.

It’s clear the types of debris the birds use has reflected changes in society over time. They highlight the unexpected and far-reaching ways Australians impact their environment, and put birds in danger.

The full magpie nest from 2018 that was collected outside a construction site.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

The first synthetic item

Birds and humans have been sharing spaces and habitats throughout history.

It’s well known birds incorporate material from their environment into their nests, making them ideal indicators of environmental changes and human activity. It’s also well known, particularly among scientists, that museum collections can provide unique insight into environmental changes through time and space.

Compare the magpie nest above to this natural butcherbird nest from 1894. Butcherbirds are in the same family as magpies.
Dominique Potvin, Author provided

With this in mind, our international team investigated Australian museum bird nest specimens collected between 1823 and 2018. Sourced from Museums Victoria and CSIRO’s Crace Site in Canberra, we inspected a total of 892 nests from 224 different bird species.

Australian birds generate an amazing array of nest types. Rufous fantails, for example, build delicately woven structures made of fine grass and spiderwebs, while welcome swallows and white-winged choughs create nests out of mud, which dry incredibly hard and can be used year after year.

A woven egg cup nest from 1870, made of grass and spiderwebs, by the rufous fantail.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided
Fabiola Opitz, a member of our research team, measuring mudnest collected circ. 1933 of a whitewinged chough. These mudnests can last for years.
Dominique Potvin, Author provided

Before the 1950s, human-made debris found in the nests consisted of degradable items such as cotton thread and paper.

This changed in 1956, when we found the first synthetic item in a bird nest from Melbourne: a piece of polyester string. This appearance correlates with the increased availability of plastic polymers across Australian society, seven years after the end of the second world war.

Australian magpies earn their name

We also determined, based on collection date and using historical maps, whether the nests came from natural, rural or urban landscapes. And it turns out the nest’s location, when it was built, and the species that made it largely determined whether human-made materials were present.

Brown nest with blue string
The nest of a noisy miner found on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, in 2020 with plastic string.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

Our study found nests built close to urban areas or farmland after the 1950s by birds from the families Craticidae (Australian magpies and butcherbirds), Passeridae (old world or “true” sparrows) and Pycnonotidae (bulbuls) had significantly more human-made debris.

Familiar to many an urban bird enthusiast, these species tend to adapt quickly to new environments. The incorporation of human materials in nests is likely one example of this behavioural flexibility.

The research team also had access to ten bowerbird bowers from the family Ptilonorhynchidae, spanning more than 100 years. Male bowerbirds are known for creating elaborate structures, decorated with a range of colourful items to attract a mate.

A silvereye or gerygong nest from 2019.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

In the 1890s, the birds decorated their bowers with natural items such as flowers and berries. Newspaper scraps were the only human-produced items we identified.

This changed dramatically 100 years later, where the most sought-after items included brightly coloured plastics, such as straws, pen lids and bottle caps.

A satin bowerbird collecting blue junk. Video: BBC Wildlife.

But there are tragic consequences

When birds weave non-biodegradable materials — such as fishing line and polymer rope — into their nests, it increases the risk of entanglement, amputation and even accumulation of plastics in the gut of nestlings.

For example, we found evidence of one pallid cuckoo juvenile dying in 1981 after it was entangled in plastic twine used by its adoptive bell miner parents.

This is the bell miner nest with twine that caused the cuckoo chick to die, according to the museum notes.
Dominique Potvin, Author provided

Plastic was not the only issue. We found the prevalence of nest parasites that attack the young chicks also increased by about 25% over the last 195 years.

Nest parasites can kill huge numbers of nestlings. Recent research into the forty-spotted pardalote in Tasmania, a threatened species, has shown nest parasites kill up to 81% of its nestlings.

What has caused this increase isn’t clear. However, the team determined it wasn’t directly linked to urban or rural habitat type, or the presence of human-made materials in the nest. This goes against the findings of other studies, which show a decrease of parasites in nests that incorporated items such as cigarettes.

Interestingly, we did find eucalyptus leaves might deter parasites, as nests that incorporated them were less likely to show evidence of parasitism.

An eastern yellow robin nest from 2003, with eucalyptus leaves, lichen, spider webs and no parasites. Eastern yellow robins are specialist nest builders that don’t tend to stray from using specific natural items.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided
This nest from 1932 is from an Australian magpie, using eucalyptus leaves.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

It may be, therefore, that sticking with certain natural materials is not only better for the safety of nest inhabitants, but also may have an added effect of pest control.

Stop littering, please

While most are aware of how plastics harm sea life, our study is one of the first to show the impact goes further to harm animals living in our own backyard. If the trend continues, the future for Australian birds looks bleak.

However, we can all do something about it.

A weebill or mistletoe bird’s woven nest from 1941, with tufts of spider webs and plant fluff.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

It is as simple as being responsible for our rubbish and supporting proposed legislation and campaigns for moving away from single-use plastics.

The team had access to nests from 224 different species, which equates to only about a quarter of Australia’s total of 830 bird species.

There is still plenty more to discover.




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The Conversation


Kathy Ann Townsend, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast and Dominique Potvin, Lecturer in Animal Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast

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

Australia needs construction waste recycling plants — but locals first need to be won over


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Salman Shooshtarian, RMIT University and Tayyab Maqsood, RMIT UniversityStrong community opposition to a proposed waste facility in regional New South Wales made headlines earlier this year. The A$3.9 million facility would occupy 2.7 hectares of Gunnedah’s industrial estate. It’s intended to process up to 250,000 tonnes a year of waste materials from Sydney.

Much of this is construction waste that can be used in road building after processing. Construction of the plant will employ 62 people and its operation will create 30 jobs. Yet every one of the 86 public submissions to the planning review objected to the project.

Residents raised various concerns, which received widespread local media coverage. They were concerned about water management, air quality, noise, the impact of hazardous waste, traffic and transport, fire safety and soil and water. For instance, a submission by a local businessman and veterinary surgeon stated:

“The proposed facility is too close to town, residences and other businesses […] Gunnedah is growing and this proposed development will be uncomfortably close to town in years to come.”

Map showing location of the proposed waste recycling facility in Gunnedah
The location of the proposed waste recycling facility in Gunnedah.
Source: Google Maps (2021), Author provided

The general manager of the applicant said descriptions such as “toxic waste dump” were far from accurate.

“It’s not a dump […] Its prime focus is to reclaim, reuse and recycle.”

He added: “[At present] the majority of this stuff goes to landfill. What we’re proposing is very beneficial to the environment, which is taking these resources and putting them back into recirculation. The reality is the population is growing, more waste is going to get generated and the upside is we’re much better processing and claiming out of it than sending it to landfill.”




Read more:
We create 20m tons of construction industry waste each year. Here’s how to stop it going to landfill


Why are these facilities needed?

According to the latest data in the National Waste Report 2020, Australia generated 27 million tonnes of waste (44% of all waste) from the construction and demolition (C&D) sector in 2018-19. That’s a 61% increase since 2006-07. This waste stream is the largest source of managed waste in Australia and 76% of it is recycled.

However, recycling rates and processing capacities still need to increase massively. The environmental impact statement for the Gunnedah project notes Sydney “is already facing pressure” to dispose of its growing construction waste. Most state and national policies – including the NSW Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2014-2021, NSW Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure Strategy and 2018 National Waste Policy – highlight the need to develop infrastructure to effectively manage this waste.




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Why, then, do people oppose these facilities?

Public opposition to new infrastructure in local neighbourhoods, the Not-in-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) attitude, is a global phenomenon. Australia is no exception. We have seen previous public protests against waste facilities being established in local areas.

The academic literature reports the root causes of this resistance are stench and other air pollution, and concerns about impacts on property values and health. Factors that influence individuals’ perceptions include education level, past experience of stench and proximity to housing.

Protesters march behind a sign reading 'We demand fair development'.
Local communities around the world have protested against local waste management plants that they see as a threat to their health.
United Workers/Flickr, CC BY

What are the other challenges of recycling?

Our research team at RMIT University explore ways to effectively manage construction and demolition waste, with a focus on developing a circular economy. Our research shows this goal depends heavily on the development of end markets for recycled products. Operators then have the confidence to invest in recycling construction and demolition waste, knowing it will produce a reasonable return.




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A consistent supply of recycled material is needed too. We believe more recycling infrastructure needs to be developed all around Australia. Regional areas are the most suitable for this purpose because they have the space and a need for local job creation.

To achieve nationwide waste recycling, however, everyone must play their part. By everyone, we mean suppliers, waste producers, waste operators, governments and the community.

Today we are facing new challenges such as massive urbanisation, shortage of virgin materials, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and bans on the export of waste. These challenges warrant new solutions, which include sharing responsibility for the waste we all generate.




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What can be done to resolve public concerns?

Government has a key role to play in educating the public about the many benefits of recycling construction and demolition waste. These benefits include environmental protection, more efficient resource use, reduced construction costs, and job creation.

Government must also ensure communities are adequately consulted. A local news report reflected Gunnedah residents’ concern that the recycling facility’s proponent had not contacted them. They initiated the contact. One local said:

“I do understand the short-term financial gains a development like this will bring to the community, but also know the financial and environmental burden they will cause.”

Feedback from residents triggered a series of consultation sessions involving all parties.

A robust framework for consulting the community, engaging stakeholders and providing information should be developed to accompany any such development. Community education programs should be based on research.

For instance, research indicates that, unlike municipal waste recycling facilities, construction and demolition waste management facilities have negligible to manageable impact on the environment and residents’ health and well-being. This is due to the non-combustible nature of most construction materials, such as masonrt.

Such evidence needs to be communicated effectively to change negative community attitudes towards construction and demolition waste recycling facilities. At RMIT, through our National Construction & Demolition Waste Research and Industry Portal, we continue to play our part in increasing public awareness of the benefits.




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With the right tools, we can mine cities


The Conversation


Salman Shooshtarian, Research Fellow, RMIT University and Tayyab Maqsood, Associate Dean and Head of of Project Management, RMIT University

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

Stop removing your solar panels early, please. It’s creating a huge waste problem for Australia


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Deepika Mathur, Charles Darwin University and Imran Muhammad, Massey UniversityInstalling solar panels is an easy way to lower your carbon footprint and cut electricity bills. But our recent research found there are many incentives to remove them prematurely, adding to Australia’s massive waste problem.

Researchers predict Australia will accumulate 1 million tonnes of solar panel waste by 2047 — the same weight as 19 Sydney Harbour Bridges.

But this number is likely to be higher, as we found people often choose to remove panels after just 10 to 12 years of use. This is much earlier than their estimated end-of-life age of 30 years (and potentially older).

Unfortunately, recycling is just a small part of the solution. So why is this happening, and what can we do about it?

Australia’s shocking ‘material footprint’

Australians have heeded the call to increase renewable energy. The installed capacity of panels across Australia has increased dramatically from 25.3 megawatts in 2007 to 77,078 megawatts in 2017. Likewise, the rooftop solar market capacity has almost doubled between 2014 and 2018.

Australia has committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of using fewer resources. And this requires us to use products (like solar panels) efficiently, with less waste. But Australia’s 2020 progress update shows our per capita material footprint is increasing. In fact, it’s one of the highest in the world, at 70% above the OECD average.




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To help lower our growing material footprint and keep e-waste out of landfills, we need to ensure solar panels are sustainable in life, as in death.

It is assumed the primary reason why people remove solar panels is due to technical failures, such as when they’ve reached their expiry after 30 years, or breaking due to extreme weather or during transport. But failing to generate electricity doesn’t explain why many are thrown away prematurely.

So, we interviewed solar panel installers, recycling organisations, advocacy groups and local government waste managers across the Northern Territory. And our resulting qualitative research found social and economic incentives for removing solar panels.

Out with the new, in with the newer

We found a whole system of panels gets removed when only a few panels are damaged, as the new panels must have similar electrical properties to the old.

If the panels are still under warranty, the manufacturer often pays to replace the whole set, even when only a few are faulty. This means working panels are removed alongside the faulty panels, prematurely turning into waste.

Solar panels have also become a commodity item. Many of us dump old phones and cars when newer technology becomes available, and solar panels get the same treatment. After recovering the investment in solar panels through reduced electricity bills, some people are keen to get newer, more efficient models with a new warranty.




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Our research also suggests government incentives aimed at rolling out more solar panels have caused consumers to replace their entire solar array. This is because previous rebates didn’t cover the replacement of only one or a few panels.

Finally, the life of solar inverters is usually 10-12 years, much shorter than the 30-year life span of the panels themselves. Some people use this as an opportunity to install a new set of solar panels when they change their inverters.

So why can’t we just recycle them?

There’s currently little research on what we can do with panels when they’re removed for reasons other than technical failure.

Researchers often put forward recycling as the preferred option for removed panels. But sending the growing number of working panels to recycling facilities is a tremendous waste of resources, and increases the burden for panel recycling, which is still in its nascent stages.




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Managing waste is the responsibility of states and territories, and they align their waste strategies with the federal government’s National Waste Policy.

But there’s no directive yet at the national level on solar panel disposal, specifically. This means there’s a patchwork of policies across the states and territories for managing this waste.

Victoria, for example, has identified solar panels as the fastest growing waste stream in the state’s overall e-waste flow, and the state government has banned them from landfills.

But such measures wouldn’t work for the Northern Territory, given its lack of processing facilities and the distance to the recycling centres in southern Australia, which are at least 1,500 kilometres away. With ample open land, they’re more likely to end up dumped illegally.

What do we do?

Australia needs clear guidelines at a national level on collecting, transporting, stockpiling and disposing solar panels. A lack of clear policy hampers state, territory and local governments from managing this waste effectively.

By proposing recycling as preferred option to manage this waste, we risk excluding other important options in the waste management hierarchy, such as reducing waste in the first place by making solar panels that last, extending their life.

The federal government has also touted “product stewardship” as a potential solution. This is where those involved in producing, selling, using and disposing products share the responsibility to reduce their environmental impact.

But this model wouldn’t effectively service regional and remote areas, as collecting and transporting goods from remote locations comes at a very high financial and environmental cost.

It’s worth noting some panels do undergo a kind of “second life”. There’s a unique demand for secondhand panels from people who can’t afford new systems, those looking to live off-grid, small organisations keen to reduce energy bills, and mobile home and caravan owners.

But with a number of massive solar farms proposed across northern Australia, it’s more important than ever to explore new strategies to manage removed solar panels, with clear policies and creative solutions.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Robin Gregory from Regional Development Australia, Northern Territory to this article.The Conversation

Deepika Mathur, Research Fellow, Northern Institute, Charles Darwin University and Imran Muhammad, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, Massey University

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

Australia’s waste export ban becomes law, but the crisis is far from over


Jenni Downes, Monash University; Damien Giurco, University of Technology Sydney, and Rose Read, University of Technology Sydney

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.

Is exporting waste ‘bad’?

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.

Stages of recycling Australia’s mixed kerbside wastes.
Downes, J. (2020)

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.




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


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.

What does the ban involve?

The new law passed last week will complement and extend existing laws on hazardous waste and product stewardship.

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.

No room for error

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:

Getting the transition right will be critical for Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, which are particularly lacking in proper infrastructure.




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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.

Ultimately, it’s far better for the environment to reduce the generation of waste in the first place.
Shutterstock

Increasing momentum

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.

While there are promising efforts from industry and government to minimise waste by improving the design of Australian-made products and packaging, more should be done.

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.




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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.The Conversation

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

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

These are the plastic items that most kill whales, dolphins, turtles and seabirds



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Lauren Roman, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, CSIRO

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.

Some plastics are deadlier than others

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.

Plastic bag floats in the ocean.
Film plastics cause the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles.
Shutterstock

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.




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What’s the solution?

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.

Image of dead bird and gloved hand containing small plastics.
Plastic found in the stomach of a fairy prion.
Photo supplied by Lauren Roman

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.




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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.




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The Conversation


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

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

From Hobart, to London, to Dhaka: using cameras and AI to build an automatic litter detection system



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Arianna Olivelli, CSIRO and Uwe Rosebrock, 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.

Global insights help build a reliable model

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.

CSIRO research scientist Chris Wilcox setting up a fixed camera to monitor litter in Hobart.

Major damage from food packaging and bottles

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.

Aeriel view of the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The Buriganga river flows by Dhaka. It’s one of Bangladesh’s most polluted rivers due to the ongoing dumping of industrial waste (such as from leather tanneries) and human waste.
Shutterstock

Fake images aren’t always harmful

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.

In this synthetic image, the transparent cup, face mask and aerosol container are digital renderings superimposed over an original photo taken by one of our cameras.

How are objects identified?

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.

Here’s an example of the system detecting a water bottle and packaging as trash, and then placing both items into their respective categories. Probabilities are provided for the likely accuracy of the system’s guess regarding an item’s classification.

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.




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As cities grow, the Internet of Things can help us get on top of the waste crisis


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.

Keeping an eye on Hobart’s litter

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.




Read more:
How sensors and big data can help cut food wastage


The Conversation


Arianna Olivelli, Research Affiliate, CSIRO and Uwe Rosebrock, Senior Software Engineer, CSIRO

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

How life-cycle assessments can be (mis)used to justify more single-use plastic packaging



Peter Endig via Getty Images

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University; Hannah Blumhardt, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington, and Takunda Y Chitaka, University of the Western Cape

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.

Industry arguments to justify plastic packaging

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.




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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.

Plastic bag floating in the ocean
Life-cycle assessment of plastic packaging fails to account for marine pollution.
Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Researchers have acknowledged the method’s critical failure to account for marine pollution. This is now a priority for the research community, but not the plastics industry.

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.




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Life-cycle assessment and packaging policy

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.

Dispensers for cereals, nuts and grains in zero waste grocery store
New Zealand has a growing number of zero-waste grocers.
Shutterstock/Ugis Riba

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 already has growing numbers of zero-waste grocers, supplied by local businesses delivering their products in reusable bulk packaging. We have various reuse schemes for takeaways.

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.

Prominent organisations, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, estimate reusables could replace 30% of single-use plastic packaging by 2040. The Pew report states:

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.The Conversation

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

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

Can we safely burn waste to make fuel like they do in Denmark? Well, it’s complicated



The Amager Bakke power plant in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Shutterstock

Thomas Cole-Hunter, Queensland University of Technology; Ana Porta Cubas, University of Sydney; Christina Magill, GNS Science, and Christine Cowie, UNSW

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.




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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.

One person, one year, 500 kilograms of waste

Australia’s waste crisis began in 2018 when China greatly reduced how much waste it imported. China’s waste market was handling about half of the world’s recyclable materials, including Australia’s.

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.

Burning waste in Denmark

“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.




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


The technology is on the rise among OECD countries. Denmark and Japan, for example, rely on waste-to-energy incineration to reduce their dependency on landfills and reach carbon neutrality.

In fact, Denmark’s waste-to-energy incinerator, Amager Bakke, is so well known it has become a tourist attraction, and is celebrated as one of the world’s cleanest waste-to-energy incinerators.

Amager Bakke provides electricity to around 680,000 people.

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.

So what’s the problem?

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.

Another concern is that implementing waste-to-energy incineration may go against recycling schemes, due to the potential for an increased demand for non-recyclable plastics as fuel.

A truck dumping waste to get incinerated
Burning waste may release substances that can harm our health, such as nitrogen oxide and dioxin.
Shutterstock

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.

A lack of evidence

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.




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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.

Mechanical claw grabbing a huge pile of mixed waste.
Waste incineration goes against the goals of a circular economy.
Shutterstock

Where to from here?

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.




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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.

Another solution is to focus instead on the waste hierarchy. This means first minimising waste production, maximising energy efficiency and maximising recycling and reuse of waste materials.

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.The Conversation

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

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

Japan plans to dump a million tonnes of radioactive water into the Pacific. But Australia has nuclear waste problems, too


Tilman Ruff, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis

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.

Contaminated water in leaking tanks

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.

As of last month, this totalled 1.23 million tonnes. Currently, this water is stored in more than 1,000 tanks, many hastily and poorly constructed, with a history of leaks.

How does radiation harm marine life?

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.




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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.

Failing attempts to de-contaminate the water

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.




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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.

How should the water be stored?

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.

Nuclear waste storage in Australia

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.




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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 proposed storage facilities in Kimba are less safe than disposal, and this plan is well below world’s best practice.

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 legislation before the Senate will deny interested parties the right to judicial review. The plan also disregards unanimous opposition by Barngarla Traditional Owners.




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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.

Kicking the can down the road

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.




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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.The Conversation

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

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