Find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or via www,susbiz.biz
Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 12 October. This episode is going to be all about plastic, one of the wonders and one of the curses of modern life.
I’m Anthony Day and before we start let me thank my patrons for their continuing support. I'm delighted to say that the number of people accessing this podcast in September was by far the highest so far this year. I'm delighted to be reaching more and more people all over the world.
Before we Start
Before we talk about plastic, just a couple of news items which I picked up.
You’ll know that the IPCC report I spoke about last time has indeed been published this week, despite confusing messages on the IPCC website. “Global warming must not exceed 1.5C, warns landmark UN report” I will look at it in detail for next time.
You probably heard, at least you may have if you're in the UK, that the government will freeze fuel duty at its current level for the ninth year in succession. That will mean that the Treasury has to find £800 million from somewhere else and of course there will be no effect on consumption or on emissions levels.
On the other hand there is good news from Virgin Atlantic. This week the first commercial flight partly fuelled by recycled waste landed in the UK from Orlando, Florida. The flight’s fuel blend was 5% recycled, but the sustainable element could apparently form up to 50%.
It was produced in the US by LanzaTech, which claims it could eventually supply about 20% of the aviation industry’s fuel, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 65% compared with conventional petroleum. Virgin is bidding for government support to have plants built in the UK that could fuel all its operations.
Something like this is certainly going to have to be done if we are to continue with aviation and have any hope of meeting our emissions targets.
And then there is the weather. Another week of extreme weather events. British tourists killed by flash floods in Majorca. Residents in Florida and Georgia killed by Hurricane Michael, which even now is devastating the Carolinas. And this only a couple of weeks after Hurricane Florence.
And so to plastic.
Plastic. Don't you love it, don't you hate it?
In this episode I want to look at all aspects of plastic. How it’s made, how it can be recycled, how we deal with waste plastic that’s been discarded, the consequences of all that waste and whether we can replace plastic with something that has all of its advantages and none of its problems. I’ll also talk about the BBC’s latest Drowning in Plastic documentary.
In many ways plastic is a wonder product. It is used for so many things. Look around you and see if you can see anything that’s not made of plastic. Even things that are made of other materials may have plastic coatings or plastic fittings. Plastic is robust, waterproof and vapour proof, doesn’t rot and can be moulded or extruded into all sorts of shapes. Generally it’s very, very cheap - much cheaper than many other materials. Some plastic is rigid, some plastic is flexible. Some is transparent, some is opaque. Some plastics can stand the heat of an oven or the cool of a freezer, or both. It’s this resilience which is plastic’s downside. It’s extremely difficult to destroy. You’ve probably heard that every bit of plastic that’s ever been made still exists somewhere on earth, unless it’s been burnt. And an awful lot of it hasn’t been burnt.
Drowning in Plastic
First of all I’m going to talk about Drowning in Plastic, a BBC documentary presented by Liz Bonnin. You can find it on the BBC iPlayer.
This programme started with shearwater chicks. Young birds in Tasmania whose parents feed them with fragments of plastic believing they are food. Volunteers were desperately washing the stomachs of these birds and removing up to 200 plastic fragments from each. Plastic which ends up in the oceans is affecting wildlife and the food chain in at least three ways. Plastic fragments are mistake for food and the animals which ingest them not only risk damaging their insides but also suffer from malnutrition. These plastics may leach chemicals which can affect the animals and even prevent them from reproducing. Plastics may carry pathogens and as they drift with the breeze across the wide oceans they can carry epidemics and diseases rapidly and comprehensively.
Some plastics degrade into microparticles while other plastics are already microparticles and are flushed down drains into rivers and out to sea. They come from synthetic fabrics when they are washed and they come from vehicle tyres as they gradually wear down. Microbeads have been used in toothpastes and facial scrubs and other cosmetics and they pass through all forms of sewage treatment and end up in the oceans. Like the particles that are caused by the degradation of plastic waste they can be absorbed by the very smallest organisms, krill for example, which is the main diet of some whales. The food chain therefore is affected from top to bottom.
About 50% of plastic waste floating in the oceans is abandoned or lost fishing gear. Nets, lines, hooks and buoys. Birds, seals, turtles, even whales can become entangled in this debris from which they cannot release themselves. Harrowing scenes were shown of animals with gaping wounds. A line strangling a seal as it grew. And it's not just abandoned fishing tackle. Lines from lobster pots on the seabed to buoys on the surface trap whales as they make their way along their migration routes to the breeding grounds. Some lobster fisherman are keen to find a solution, but they are trapped in that their whole life and assets are invested in the fishing business and they can't afford to just stop. At least people are looking at possible alternatives including systems where the line is submerged with the lobster pot and not deployed until it's time to reel them in.
We saw how plastic is carried by rivers, in this case in Indonesia. In the world at large 2 billion people have no refuge disposal. Rubbish has always been burnt or chucked into the river. That's not a serious problem with organic materials like wood and plant matter. Organic materials are biodegradable. The plastics of course are not, it's one of their strengths. They float down the river and we saw scenes with whole estuaries choked with plastic from shore to shore. The fisherman do not fish there any more. The fish don't look very healthy at all. Instead the fishermen have become litter pickers and sort through the debris for what they can sell to recycling plants. Apart from plastic bottles and plastic bags, in the developing world consumers buy very much smaller quantities of tea or coffee or sugar or shampoo or soap. It all comes in individual plastic sachets which will add to the debris in the river. And once in the river it makes its way out to sea. You have probably heard of the great Pacific garbage patch. It's an area at three times the size of France full of plastic debris. That’s bad enough, but apparently there are five such garbage patches around the world. Plastic waste is found everywhere, even in the Arctic and at the deepest depths of the ocean. The message of the programme was clear, stark and quite disturbing.
The website linked to this BBC programme is much more limited than I’d hoped. It encourages us to tackle the plastics problem - specifically the single-use plastics problem - by making pledges such as to avoid plastic straws, carry a re-usable water bottle or coffee cup and to take your own container and cutlery for a takeaway. Yes, it’s a start. The link also leads us to the BBC’s Plastics Watch initiative in partnership with the Open University, which has a much broader range of information.
Like most sustainability issues, plastic pollution has no simple solutions and solutions can have unintended consequences. Take plastic drinking straws, an example of a single-use plastic product which may have a useful life of 20 minutes or less. Why don’t we just ban them? Well first of all that would remove something that some disabled people rely on. Give them a paper straw instead! But paper straws can be even more environmentally damaging than plastic straws, although in a different way. And paper straws can collapse more easily, especially if the liquid is hot. Mind you, if plastic straws are exposed to heat they can release toxins. Some paper straws can leach ink if they are used for hot liquids, some may contain plastics to prevent them from collapsing and some may involve harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process. The best paper straws have none of these drawbacks and decompose in 30-60 days. Usually, they are more expensive than plastic straws. Americans use 500 million drinking straws every day, mainly plastic.That’s an average rate of 1.6 straws per person per day. In the UK we use rather less, at around 8.5bn per year or 23m per day: less than half a straw per person per day. (0.383) The global total is unclear, but it’s a lot. At least it’s a lot of straws, but it’s not a lot of plastic. It’s estimated that about 2,000 tonnes of plastic straws end up in the ocean annually, but that’s a very small proportion of the 9m tonnes of plastic which ends up in the sea in total. So please do refuse a plastic straw, but there’s much more to be done, and no straw at all is probably the best solution. If you must have a straw stainless steel straws are available - that’s the material that cutlery is made of. Amnesty’s Christmas catalogue offers bamboo straws, which come with a cleaning brush.
Taking Back Control
We need to go a lot further in controlling plastic. If we don’t cut the production of plastic we will always be fighting a losing battle, but the versatility of plastic makes it extremely difficult to replace. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (which operates as WRAP) is a registered UK Charity. On their website, which covers the whole range of waste, not just plastic, you will find information about the different types of plastic and about plastic recycling. They talk about designing products with recycling in mind, which takes us back to what we were saying about the circular economy a few weeks ago.
Recycling has a long way to go. Most plastic products carry a number in the centre of a triangle of arrows. This identifies the type of plastic and therefore the appropriate method of recycling. There are seven different types, but only 1 and 2, PET and HDPE, polyethylene terephthalate and High Density Polyethylene, are currently collected from domestic premises for recycling. The problem with recycling is a financial one. Recycling requires a reverse supply chain - to return the used bottle or bag or tray to a recycling point. Then the items need to be sorted so that one type of plastic is not contaminated by another. Items may need to be washed to get rid of food residues, for example, which could also contaminate the recycling process. The recycling itself may involve the use of chemicals and will certainly require energy. All these stages have a cost, so the big question is whether it makes more sense just to make something new from fresh raw materials.
Tax or Subsidy?
Maybe governments should put taxes on new products or offer subsidies for recycling. The problem there is that taxation will be passed on as an extra cost to the consumer and subsidies will be paid for by the taxpayer. Either taxation or subsidies might change the producers’ behaviour and could then be phased out, but this will only happen if there is a cost-effective alternative to plastic. Is it cost-effective to send ships to collect the plastic waste gathered far out to sea by those booms floating in the oceanic garbage patches? Is there a demand for it as a raw material?
The Chinese Solution
For many years we in the UK shipped plastic waste to China. We buy a lot of consumer goods from China. The containers were going back empty so it made sense to fill them with scrap plastic so that it could be used as a raw material. A couple of months ago China decided that it no longer needed to import scrap plastic and imports will cease from 31st December this year. The UK is one of the countries which relies on China as a destination for this material and therefore has not built domestic recycling capacity. Some people in the industry see China’s action as a disaster; others see it as an opportunity. Either way there is going to be some stockpiling because recycling plants cannot be built overnight.
This is a superficial review of a wide and complex issue and one which I am sure we will return to. At least it's all not all bad news, so here are some examples of good things which people are doing.
Cleaning up at sea
I mentioned a while ago that a floating boom has been developed which is carried by the wind across the oceans’ garbage patches. It’s slowed by sea anchors so that the faster-drifting plastic debris accumulates behind it. Concentrating the rubbish in one place like this means that it can be more easily collected and taken away for recycling. The BBC programme reported on this, and also another machine which removes plastic from rivers. It’s driven by a water wheel which is powered by the flow of the river.
Eating your rubbish
And edible plastics are being developed. The Fast Company reports that after you finish a cocktail in a new type of glass, you can eat the cup. “Loliware, which is made from a base of seaweed and comes in flavors like yuzu citrus or matcha tea, is designed to replace disposable cups at parties that would normally end up in the trash.” If you don’t eat it, the cup can be composted. Unfortunately Loliware’s website carries the message “Back soon”.
Other edible cups are available. Reuters tells us of Jakarta food and beverages retailer Ong Tek Tjan who sells ice cream in cups his customers can eat afterwards, instead of throwing away - they are made from seaweed and taste like jelly, in flavors from peppermint to green tea.
I seem to remember reporting a while ago on drinks distributed in edible plastic wrapping. My only question with all these products is “Don’t you need to wrap them in something to keep them clean?”
Cleaning up at the supermarket
Morrison’s supermarkets in the UK are giving up plastic bags for fruit and vegetables and offering paper bags instead. Let’s hope that no noxious chemicals are used in the production of the paper. Morrisons will also allow you to bring your own container to collect your meat. (Meat, yes that’s another controversial issue. We may look at that next week.) Morrisons have introduced reverse vending machines and Tesco have announced that they will introduce them as well. We covered them a while ago. It’s a machine which accepts your glass, plastic and aluminium containers, sorts them into separate bins automatically and gives you a voucher for your trouble.
Types of Plastic
Costing a Packet
Walkers Crisps (that’s potato crisps or what you might call potato chips) have undertaken to recycle their packets and are setting up collection points. This follows a popular campaign against the brand when people realised how many packets were thrown away every day and just how difficult they are to recycle. They used the company’s Freepost address to send back the empty packets in such numbers that the Post Office complained. Of course, once again there are two sides to the story. The plasticised foil packet which replaced the traditional paper crisp packet some years ago revolutionised the industry. The new packet keeps the crisps crisp and fresh for much longer, and doesn’t have to be stored out of the light like the old ones did. Finding a more acceptable alternative will be challenging.
Leeds by Example
In Leeds, West Yorkshire, a new campaign called Leeds by example has just been launched.
Environmental charity Hubbub has teamed up with Leeds City Council, Coca-Cola, Shell, McDonald's, and others to boost recycling of plastic bottles and coffee cups
A host of major brands have joined an initiative aimed at improving on-the-go recycling options in the centre of Leeds, where recycling reward machines, 'bubble-blowing' bins, and recycling collection bikes are being rolled out.
The 'Leeds by Example' campaign is aimed at providing consumers with a means of recycling plastic bottles, drinks cans, coffee cups, and other packaging from goods consumed while out on the streets or in public places.
Consumers currently get through 13 billion plastic bottles, nine billion drinks cans, and 2.5 billion coffee cups each year, yet the rate of recycling when on-the-go in the UK remains low, according to environmental charity Hubbub, which is leading the initiative.
At present, only 42 per cent of local authorities provide on-the-go recycling facilities in the UK, while there remains widespread confusion among the public over what can be recycled, Hubbub explained.
As a result, the charity has brought together 23 major brands for the six-month trial initiative launching in Leeds, which will see new recycling facilities deployed for plastic, cans, and paper cups on the streets and in local offices, universities, shopping centres, and transport hubs.
Run in conjunction with Leeds City Council, the results of the six-month trial will be shared with a view to rolling out the most successful elements of the campaign nationwide in the future.
The initiative will also see the first UK trial of the 'We-Recycle' phone app.
The app uses barcodes and labelling on soft drinks packaging and coffee cups to provide clear, cross-brand help for people on what and how to recycle, with a map to find their nearest recycling points.
James Piper, managing director of recycling compliance scheme Ecosurety, explained that contamination from food and drink has previously been a major challenge for efforts to improve on-street recycling. "The communications campaign running alongside the new recycling facilities is a critical part of #LeedsByExample and we hope this will dramatically reduce the level of contamination so that more of the waste collected can be recycled," he said.
There’s a link to all this on the blog. Much better than the link you get if you google Leeds by example - all you get is an unfinished page.
And that’s it
And that’s it for another week. Apologies to Patrons who did not get the Sustainable Futures Report early this time. I normally publish at 01.00am on a Friday morning and it’s currently about 10 o’clock on Thursday night [at the time of recording] and I’m still putting it together. And I’ve driven 250 miles today. Anyway..
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
There will be another one next week.