Pulling the plug on plastic

By Shannon Verhagen 27 April 2016
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Australians go through, on-average, about 60kg of plastic per person per year. Can we really live without it?

LOOK AROUND YOUR room, office or house, and chances are you’ll find plastic of some sort. This cheap, durable material has become a part of our everyday lives, whether it be the lid on your coffee cup, the clothes on your back, or the keyboard on your desk.

A synthetic material, plastic is created from the joining of organic molecules found in natural gas, wood fibres and crude oil – among other things – to form polymers (chains of molecules). Masses of polymers are called resins, and these can be manipulated to give the final product (plastic) different properties, including colour, shape, heat resistance and flexibility.

The first fully synthetic plastic was created in 1907, but it wasn’t until the 1940s and 50s that it began being mass-produced. Today, Australia produces 1.2 million tonnes of plastic every year for a range of different industries – in particular for packaging – and it is almost impossible to avoid it.

In 2010–11, over 1.4 million tonnes of the plastic was consumed by Australians – more than 60kg per person per year. There is no denying that it has enabled us to enjoy a fast-paced, convenient lifestyle, however there is growing concern the implications of its mass production are not fully understood, with tonnes of plastic pollution entering our environment every year, often with adverse effects.

Plastic bottles

In 2010-11, Australians consumed more than 60kg of plastic per person per year. (Image: Streetwise Cycle / Wikimedia)

Calling on the government

Last week, the Senate Environment and Communications Committee released a report, Toxic tide: the threat of marine plastic, calling on the Australian Government to take initiative and show leadership in mitigating marine plastic pollution. The report makes a number of recommendations, including banning products containing microbeads, supporting research into the effects of plastic pollution and establishing a national marine pollution database.

The marine environment has been shown to be particularly vulnerable to the accumulation of plastic pollution, which often enters waterways through stormwater drainage systems. Once there, it can persist in the water column for hundreds of years, and evidence suggests more than 200 species of marine animals end up ingesting it – with potentially fatal effects.

Dr Mark Browne, a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, says there is also concern about the health effects of plastic on humans as research has shown it can leach potentially harmful chemicals into our food.

Mark has spent over a decade studying the volume, source and effects of microplastics and says the industry is overdue for more regulation.

Floater Syndrome from The University of Queensland on Vimeo. VIDEO: A turtle with ‘floating syndrome’ from ingesting plastic. The ingested plastic creates a build up of gas in the turtle’s system, preventing it from diving down to feed. (Source: University of Queensland)

“Plastic is a problem because those policies have allowed a material to be produced in such large quantities that it’s now overwhelming waste management,” Mark says, adding that this is not the first time something similar has happened.

“The broader issue is why do we keep having issues with waste reccurring? Plastic’s a recent one we’ve become aware of, but there were issues of other forms of waste like asbestos and various other things like that, that have been a problem in the past,” he explains.

“Because the policies for things aren’t quite right, because things aren’t tested for safety before they’re used, we keep coming back to treating the symptoms rather than the cause.”

Almost 40 per cent of the rubbish collected during last years’ annual Clean Up Australia Day events was plastic – a total of 6,400 tonnes – and cigarette butts (which have a plastic component in them), plastic chip and chocolate wrappers, plastic bottles, caps and lids were among the worst offenders of all types of waste.

Cigarette butt

Cigarette butts contain non-biodegradable plastic in the filter, and are the single most collected piece of litter at international clean up days every year. (Image: Lindsay Fox at EcigaretteReviewed.com)

“Rubbish breeds rubbish,” says Terrie-Ann Johnson, managing director of Clean Up Australia. “People see rubbish lying around and they add to it, it’s the first instinct rather than taking it away.”

Terri-Ann says it also tends to attract pests and disease. “Clean places are safer places,” she says.

But it’s not just the rubbish you can easily spot that is causing concern. Microplastics – fragments, granules and fibres less than 5mm in size – are potentially wreaking havoc.

Microplastics can be the result of the breakdown of macroplastics – a synthetic fleece jumper can release up to 2000 fibres per wash – but can also be intentionally produced, such as the microbeads present in many facial cleansers and shower gels. (Australian supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles have committed to phasing out products with microbeads by 2017.)

In the report, a number of concerns were raised over their impacts, including ingestion by marine animals, ingestion by humans from seafood, absorption of chemicals accumulated in the water column and potential toxicity.

And they could be threatening our reefs, with Clean Up Australia highlighting in the report that coral, as non-selective feeders, are ingesting these microplastics persisting in the seawater.

The ten cent incentive

Two of the recommendations made in the report were to introduce container deposit schemes (CDS) and ban single-use plastic bags in all Australian jurisdictions.

So far, South Australia and the Northern Territory are the only jurisdictions with CDS’s, where a used plastic beverage container is given a value of ten cents, and Terri-Ann says it has made a remarkable difference.

“In South Australia and the Northern Territory recycling rates are at about 80–85 per cent, everywhere else they’re about 35 per cent,” she says.

“You’re not going to drop it onto the street because suddenly it’s worth ten cents, and if you do drop it on the street there’s going to be some kid that picks it up pretty quickly – it adds up dramatically.”

Clean Up Australia is working toward getting the remaining states and territories to follow suit, as Terri-Ann says outside of South Australia and the Northern Territory there is no incentive for people to recycle.

A single-use plastic bag is considered a bag 35 microns or less thick – often seen in supermarkets – which, due to their lightweight nature, can be transported long distances by the wind.

Still available in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria, Terri-Ann says they are currently working with the government to roll out the bans in the remaining states.

“They enter into the food chain very early, they break up into small pieces very easily and enter the food chain so they’re being ingested, particularly by marine creatures – where they look like jellyfish,” Terri-Ann says.

“There’s no nutritional value, so they’ll either starve or they will choke in the process or they’ll become entangled in it and drown.”

Plastic or plastic? Our choices are limited

Consumers do not always have the option of purchasing a product in alternative packaging to plastic, but Mark says there also needs to be research into the pros and cons of the alternatives so our decisions can be guided by solid evidence.

“Is there a better alternative, should we be using cardboard, should we be using paper, should we be using foil, or should we be using plastic?” he says.

While plastic is a useful, durable and versatile product, Terri-Ann says people need to start making more sustainable decisions and choosing multi-use options over single-use.

“There is a use for it, but we have to stop taking over-packaged stuff, we have to stop buying stuff that’s wrapped endlessly in layers of plastic,” she says.

“There’s no reason for apples to be put on a tray with a bit of plastic around them because they’ve already got skin on them, they don’t need to be wrapped again.”

READ MORE: 11 ways to use less plastic