WHY IS SINGLE-USE PLASTIC CAUSING SUCH A PROBLEM TO THE MARINE ENVIRONMENT TODAY & FOR THE FUTURE? - Part three - Actions
A BIT ABOUT ME
My name is Terry Smith and I am not a scientist. I grew up in the town of Dunedin, New Zealand, a quiet town with a small population. Located on the coast, I was surfing the Southern Ocean waters, which created a love for the ocean. Through my roles in the tourism industry, I travelled and learnt to scuba dive. It was amazing, I was hooked, so much so I become a Dive Instructor.
That was 15 years ago, and I still love the ocean. I try to spend as much time as possible in it or at least near it. Over the years I have travelled and worked in beautiful places with wonderous marine life, but something that has been bugging me for a while is the amount of plastic waste you see on every Scuba Dive. In Sydney, my BCD pockets would be full after every dive, with wrappers and of course, in some shape or form, plastic bottles. This is a major city with a kerbside recycling waste program in place. Travelling to remote destinations and islands, this underwater litter increases.
I am hoping to create awareness in these series of articles as most of us do not know where or how plastic is created, what is actually happening out there now, and what we can do to on a personal, national and international level, as this is becoming a larger issue for the planet, and all living here, great & small.
I hope these articles help you in some way or form.
Why is single-use plastic causing such a problem to the marine environment today & for the future?
Everyone is becoming increasingly concerned with the state of our environment both below and above the surface, as the degradation of the environment, is affecting everyone and every animal on the planet. There are many issues (climate change for example), but I want to look at the one aspect which is affecting the marine environment today. And that is:
Single-use Plastic (and plastic in general) usage & wastage
This article brings the series to a conclusion. The series was articles on plastics, in the hope to create more understanding, awareness of our use, and more importantly ways to reduce & recycle.
In the first article (Part One), what is plastic, the make-up, types and uses? - Please Read for background
The second article (Part Two) is about recycling, what you, countries, and companies are doing currently.
And the third article (Part Three) is about what steps are needed, what’s in the pipeline, by companies, countries and what you the individual can do to reduce this problem. And how we can protect our future environment.
(For a summary of a collection of research completed on the marine plastic impact on marine life, click here)
PART THREE - Actions
Part One Recap
In part one, we discussed the different types of plastics, the history and their usage. You would have noticed that plastic can be made up of so many chemicals to give different outcomes of use.
Part Two Recap
Part two looked at the recycling aspect using the resin identification system or the "number" we see on our plastic items. Basically, what happens when you place a plastic item into the recycling bin.
What you would have noticed was the diverse types of plastic and what was actually hard to recycle. In essence, we don't recycle enough but more importantly, this plastic we have created is just to hard to effectively recycle or degrade back into a natural, environment ingredient.
This has been hard to put together. From my research into this, it has become very clear that we are in a crisis. We look at governments, states, organisations and companies all looking to make contributions to the ease or reduce the plastic waste. It is not an easy path as plastic has become embedded in our society.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is in the North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California and is the largest ocean garbage site in the world. This floating mass of plastic is twice the size of Texas, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea life six to one.
Plastic constitutes approximately 90% of all trash floating on the ocean's surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile, one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans. 44% of all seabird species, 22% of cetaceans, all sea turtle species and a growing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies.
ENVIRONMENTAL / PLASTIC POLLUTION
From the above examples, you can see the extent. To address the root cause of environmental pollution, a viable approach is to use bio-related polymers as substitutes to replace petroleum-based polymer, largely due to their excellent eco-friendly attributes. The only way to permanently eliminate plastic waste is by destructive thermal treatment, such as combustion or pyrolysis.
That is one solution the other is to see each piece of plastic usage (all waste actually) in terms of a cycle. What we call the circular economy.
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation outlines this superbly
"In a circular economy, economic activity builds and rebuilds overall system health. The concept recognises the importance of the economy needing to work effectively at all scales – for large and small businesses, for organisations and individuals, globally and locally.
Transitioning to a circular economy does not only amount to adjustments aimed at reducing the negative impacts of the linear economy. Rather, it represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits.
The model distinguishes between technical and biological cycles. Consumption happens only in biological cycles, where food and biologically-based materials (such as cotton or wood) are designed to feed back into the system through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion. These cycles regenerate living systems, such as soil, which provide renewable resources for the economy. Technical cycles recover and restore products, components, and materials through strategies like reuse, repair, remanufacture or (in the last resort) recycling.”
Basically, if it is used how do we use it again, not just discard it. Part of this is the composition of such products.
OIL/ PETROLEUM AS A BASE PRODUCT
The best estimates say that we have reached or soon will reach peak oil consumption— when the rate of oil extraction peaks and then enters terminal decline as reserves diminish.
The British Plastics Federation estimates 4 per cent of our global oil consumption goes into making plastic each year. A European Union report estimates that will rise to 20 per cent by 2050.
But researchers are developing depolymerisation technology — a technique for returning plastic to its chemical components, including extracting oil for fuel.
A study published in the International Journal of Energy and Environmental Engineering last year found that plastic was able to be converted into a low-emission alternative to motor fuel using catalytic depolymerisation.
And there are literally billions of barrels of oil locked up in plastics in a landfill. Can we extract these? Do we need too?
WHAT ARE COUNTRIES DOING IN THE BATTLE OF SINGLE USE PLASTICS?
Germany and Denmark were among the ﬁrst to ban the single-use plastic bag in most retail stores back in the 1990s. Subsequently, countries in Africa, Asia, Ireland, and the rest of Europe gradually introduced bans or enforcement of plastic bag consumption tax and levy; which contributed to reducing the overall consumption signiﬁcantly.
Australia is divided into Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Canberra, Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland, and the Northern Territories. Eight different sections called States or Territory’s, all varying in size and population. Each has its own governing body, State Government with Federal government overseeing national affairs.
In 2018 there was a call for total plastic ban Federally – so for the whole of Australia in five years, which would mean 2023.
Currently, we are in a general election for a new government one party -The Labor party will ban plastic and microbeads if elected, by 2021. Will that happen, who knows…?
TASMANIA – in 2003 a small township called Coles Bay was one of the first to ban plastic bags.
S.A. – South Australia was the actual first state to ban the plastic bag in 2009.
ACT – Australian Capital Territory introduced a Plastic Bag ban in 2011. The ban applies to all retailers in the ACT for single-use, lightweight polyethylene polymer plastic bags that are less than 35 microns in thickness (these are the thin plastic bags with handles that were typically supplied at supermarkets check-outs). It wasn’t well liked at the time but has been adopted. A follow up was done in 2013 about the use and the results showed a clear reduction in landfill amounts over a six-month period of 36%. A full detailed review from ACT plastic shopping bag ban.
NSW – New South Wales state government, disagrees with a plastic bag ban saying, “retailers are already doing it so why should the government legislate it”. There is a petition by Greenpeace to introduce the ban. You can sign it here.
VICTORIA – has implemented a total ban in 2019 - all plastic shopping bags less than 35 microns in thickness. Environment Minister Lily D'Ambrosio “Banning single-use plastic bags will slash waste, reduce litter and help protect marine life in Victoria’s pristine waters,"
A retailer report from the National Retail Association (NRA) of Australia, lists that three months on from the decision in July 2018 an estimated 1.5 billion bags have been prevented from entering the environment. This equates to an 80% drop in the consumption of plastic bags nationwide.
Opposition to bans
When each of these bans was announced there was always an opposition. Two major retailers were up in arms, and then the two major supermarkets Coles & Woolworths had to bring them back due to complaints from customers. This has now settled down and is standard to bring your own bags.
California becomes the first state to impose legislation to ban single-use plastic bags at large retail stores.
Hawaii has a ban on single-use plastic bags as well, but it has the counties implementing it. It now covers most of the state but is not a statewide ban as such.
New York banned plastic bags this year 2019, but as with all change, there is again opposition to it. The agreement is being criticized by business and trade groups, including the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, which represents grocery stores, a major target of such bans and fees. Mike Durant, the group’s president, said the proposed law would “have a drastic impact on retailers.” They are implementing a fee for paper bags which retailers see as being a brunt on them.
If we look at a result of a ban in Suffolk County which was introduced at the start of 2018, we see an 80 per cent decline in the distribution of single-use plastic bags. There was also concern then about a “tax” for the fee. But as quoted in the article
“A tax is unavoidable. The nickel fee is avoidable. Just bring your own bag.”
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group based in Farmingdale, NY, USA, on - the fee is an effective means of changing public behaviour.
Europe began phasing out plastic bags 15 years ago. In March, the European Parliament took steps to ban 10 items most commonly found on European beaches, including bags, by 2021.
The proposals "will help us move on from single-use plastics and toward less consumption, the multiple use of better-designed products, more innovation and a cleaner environment," said Margrete Auken, an EU lawmaker for the Greens/EFA group. "The next step is to move away from our waste-based culture."
In 2017, the United Nations launched the #CleanSeas campaign, which in a little over a year has garnered commitments from over 50 countries representing over 60% of the world’s coastline. Check out the timeline.
In its G7 presidency, Canada has made marine pollution a central issue and along with the governments of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the European Union launched an Ocean Plastics Charter with timebound targets to reduce plastic pollution and support sustainable consumption.
This year 2018, Britain announced it will ban all sales of single-use plastics including straws and cotton swabs from as early as 2019, with Prime Minister Theresa May calling plastic waste one of the "greatest environmental challenges facing the world". Restrictions on single-use plastic straws, cutlery and cotton buds have also been launched by the European Union as part of a plan to ensure 55 per cent of all plastic is recycled by 2030.
"Trying to make recycling more viable would be a good option, but also reducing the amount [of plastic] and some incentive to import or manufacture using glass instead of plastic would probably be better for the marine environment." The Minister in Charge of Foreign Affairs, Ralph Regenvanu.
It has been a decade since Sweden all but banned rubbish going to landfill. Now the Swedes claim to reuse or recycle as much as 98 per cent of their waste
According to the 2016 Avfall Sverige (Swedish Waste Management) Report, the Swedes recovered three megawatt-hours of energy per tonne of waste burnt. That is enough to power about 900 Australian homes for an hour, according to the Clean Energy Authority.
In 2015, Sweden imported 2.3 million tonnes of waste from Norway, the UK, Ireland and elsewhere to fuel its incinerators. In short, they have created a system that is reliant on waste as a fuel source.
Indonesia is trying to sort out their problem but again it will take time. In terms of plastic waste measured in metric tons, four of Indonesia’s rivers have topped the world’s 20 most polluted rivers due to poor management. As a result, Indonesia has become the second-largest contributor to marine plastic pollution following China.
The government made a pledge to the United Nations that by the end of 2025 it will have reduced its plastic debris from 2017. It has implemented what’s called “National Action Plan on Marine Plastic Debris”. This plan has five main pillars. Improving Behavioural Change, Reducing Land-Based Leakage, Reducing Sea-Base Leakage, Recusing Plastics Production & Use, Enhancing Funding Mechanisms, Policy Reform & Law Enforcement (“polluters pay principle”). (Full report here).
(Information on how to help or set up a business to combat or look at waste reduction.)
COMPANIES WHICH ARE MAKING AN EFFORT
Plastic single-use bottles, perhaps the most commonly seen plastic waste product in the marine environment. So what are the big companies doing?
This is a statement from their 2017 Sustainably report:
“To help tackle the world’s packaging problem, our new packaging vision, World Without Waste, involves rethinking how bottles and cans are designed and made, as well as how they’re recycled and repurposed within our system around the world. The centrepiece of this vision is a bold, ambitious goal to help collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can we sell globally by 2030. The Coca-Cola system intends to back World Without Waste with a multi-year investment that includes ongoing work to make our packaging 100 per cent recyclable by 2025 Perhaps the biggest is Coca Cola. “
This sounds great but again its big business. Will they implement it due to the cost factor? Their target is six years in which all packaging is to be 100% recyclable from then on. My question, is the actual plastic bottle “packaging”? If so, I know recycling is great, but for the time and investment surely a non-petroleum-based product would be a better sustainable product. The cost to recycle could outweigh the development of such a product.
If its 100% recyclable do we then start to use discarded plastic in landfills or is it a collection for the next six years to make the recyclable products?
ECO STORE AUSTRALIA
Eco Store Australia uses a - Sugarcane-based HDPE - is physically and chemically identical to traditional petrochemical plastic. This means it can be recycled in the same chain used for recycling traditional high-density polyethylene (#2) from petrochemical sources (unlike other bio-based plastics for which no recycling system exists). Its products are environmentally friendly and well worth using.
QANTAS – Australia major airline
Earlier this year Qantas announced an ambitious plan to become the worlds first airline to reuse, recycle and compost at least three-quarters of its general waste by the end of 2021. You may remember the plastic wrapping around headphones and blankets. These are now removed. They are looking at ways to reduce any packaging that is single-use plastic and try to find alternatives.
REPLAS - Australia recycling product company
Replas plastic recycling company which has been around for over 28 years. They developed technology at their plastic recycling centre to reprocess Australia’s’ waste into outdoor plastic products.
BIO COMPOSTABLE PRODUCTS
You may notice that some coffee cups are now labelled “Bio Compostable”. They are not compostable if you bury them, they still need to be commercially processed.
In Australia, they are several companies around that do this (here is a link to the industry database), but does the local government send them there?
An example is Gippsland Water – The Soil & Organic Recycling Facility (SORF) in Gippsland, Victoria which was the first of its kind in the state of Victoria. Awesome facilities (follow the link to see what they do) I hope companies use them.
CATALYTIC HYDROTHERMAL REACTOR (CAT‐HTR)
A reactor that can recycle mixed plastics, often referred to as contaminated, end‐of‐life plastics. Basically, the hardest materials to recycle and which China has stopped taking.
How does it work? As Cat‐HTR Technology breaks plastics down into smaller hydrocarbon components, the system uses water and a mix of catalysts to prevent the intermediate radicals from reacting with each other. The resulting liquid is a stew of stable, distillable molecules that can be easily separated into high-value components, ready for reuse. A plant in the UK is being built through an infrastructure investor, Armstrong Energy, and when it comes online, it will convert 20,000 tonnes of waste plastic annually.
COMPANIES LOOKING AT NEW ALTERNATIVE PRODUCTS TO PLASTIC
ORIGIN MATERIALS – looking at Furan Chemistry (a class of organic compounds with one oxygen atom & four carbon atoms, highly volatile, somewhat toxic and boils at roughly room temperature) & better processes for production.
AGILYX – developed new technologies and process to transform otherwise non-recyclable plastic into reusable products. We also have broadened our solutions platform to be the only company in the world that can take waste polystyrene and produce styrene monomers that can be fully recycled back into polystyrene products.
BIOPLASTECH – they focus on the production of a range of Biodegradable polymers. One of which is polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) which are biodegradable polyesters made by bacteria. They have elastic & rubber-like properties. These can be used in the medical & pharmaceutical industries.
FOUNDATIONS/ NOT FOR PROFITS/ ECO COMPANIES
There are numerous Foundations, “not for profit” or organisations out there are trying to help create awareness, educate and solve the problem of marine waste and plastic pollution. I will list a few and I will create a follow up on this part as many companies are doing great work and need your support.
ELLEN MACARTHUR FOUNDATION – Works with business, government and academia to build a framework for a circular economy, an economy that is restorative & regenerative by design.
SURFRIDER FOUNDATION – A network of individuals which offers clean-up days, and campaigns to reduce plastic pollution.
WORLD WILDLIFE FUND (WWF) – one of the largest global foundations fighting to protect living species and their environments around the world. Implements several programs for healthier oceans and raises awareness about plastic & the environment.
PLASTIC POLLUTION COALITION – for organisations & individuals. A network of partners working together to understand & solves plastic pollution. They use the 4R’s – Pledge to Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, & recycle Plastic.
OCEANA – works to protect our oceans & marine life. Works to clean up oceans from irresponsible drilling & aquaculture.
ALGALITA – leaders in research & education on plastic pollution. They believe education and knowledge are the keys to combating plastic pollution.
CLEAN SEAS – the UN Environment initiative. Creates awareness by connecting individuals, civil society groups, industry & governments. They target the production & consumption of non-recoverable & single-use plastic.
THE OCEAN CLEAN UP – Developed a system which collects plastic waste in the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch. Hoping to reduce it by 50% in size by 2023.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Choose to reuse when it comes to shopping bags and bottled water. Cloth bags and metal or glass reusable bottles are available locally.
REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE and ultimately REFUSE, single-use plastics!
Bring your reusable cup/ mug or bottle for water and coffee (Keepcups are awesome) and anywhere else that lets you. (Will we see fast food restaurants offering fill-ups?)
Go digital! No need for plastic CDs, DVDs when you can buy your music and videos online.
Seek out alternatives to the plastic items that you rely on.
Recycle - if you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled plastics.
Volunteer at a beach clean-up. Surfrider Foundation Chapters often hold clean-ups monthly or more frequently. Check your local dive shop as they have clean-ups too.
Spread the word - talk to your family and friends about why it is important to reduce plastic in our lives and the nasty impacts of plastic pollution.
Support outlets that no longer offer plastic bags at the checkout.
There is no simple or easy solution to our plastic problem. It will not just go away.
Even if we recycle from now on it will take decades to catch up the waste we have created. We need to do the Four R’s – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse & Recycle, but it won’t end the problem.
We need to have a deep change. We have created a society that likes convenience regardless of the consequences.
We need to create awareness that our actions today affect tomorrow.
We need to take our reliance off the plastic and re-think its uses.
We need to re-think what our products are made from, make them biodegradable.
We need to introduce a circular economy for all the products we create!
What did we do before plastic? We survived ok, why can’t we do that today?
Wouldn’t it be great that in 100 years they found a half litre plastic bottle buried in the ground and it was an artefact that was very rare, not part of a man-made plastic mountain, a community was built on!