It is not news that the world is awash with plastic. The first global analysis by US academics of mass-produced plastics refers to the ‘near permanent contamination of the natural environment with plastic waste’.1 The problem is that we are all contributing to the system of single use consumption and waste in a disposable lifestyle which is harming our planet.
In the last few decades, the proliferation of plastic products has been incredible; we are producing nearly 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, half of which is for single use.2 A trip around your local supermarket provides ample evidence of excess and unnecessary packaging ; from individually wrapped mentos, and pieces of fruit and vegetables to plastic-wrapped plastic cutlery and straws, we are surrounded by plastic.
This is a huge issue environmentally. The amount of plastic dumped into the oceans (estimated by a study in Science Magazine in 2015 to be around 8m tonnes annually, and predicted in a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to be greater than the volume of fish in the oceans by 2050) has led to fish mistaking plastic debris for food. According to a study published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society’, the fish think that plastic is edible because the tiny particles collect biological material such as algae which smells like food.
The lead author of the study, Matthew Savoca of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is reported as saying, ‘When plastic floats at sea its surface gets colonised by algae within days or weeks, a process known as biofouling. Previous research has shown that this algae produces and emits DMS, an algal based compound that certain marine animals use to find food. [The research shows] plastic may be more deceptive to fish than previously thought. If plastic both looks and smells like food, it is more difficult for animals like fish to distinguish it as not food.’3 Plastics in the ocean are therefore a threat to wildlife and at the same time, are entering into the human food chain.
As highlighted in our July blog, food waste is a global issue. Energy360 has the technology to use anaerobic digestion at biogas plants to break down food production by-products into biogas as a source of renewable energy, but in disposing of food waste in this way, the presence of plastic packaging materials poses huge technical problems. Plastic bags and packaging get clogged in the stirring equipment in the tanks, wear out pumps and form layers on the surface of the wet digestate at the top of the reactors. This causes delays in processing associated with trapped gases and flow blockages, and leads to increased costs. Plastic contamination can also affect the use of effluent as fertilizers because farmers will not accept the effluent of biogas processes if it contains plastic residues.
Action is happening; the Courier Mail reported on Tuesday 5th September 2017 that single use plastic bags will be banned in Queensland as of 1 July 2018, and that a number of drink bottles will be eligible for a refund when returned for recycling. This leaves only NSW, Victoria and Western Australia as states where they remain legal. In his editorial, ’Something We Should Talk About’ on The Project in April this year, Waleed Aly commented that , ‘we each send almost 700 kilos of waste to landfill every year, and man do we love a plastic bag.’4
Companies can stand out from their competitors and meet an increasing demand from more environmentally aware customers by producing environmentally friendly products. In Australia, although the media focus is currently directed at supermarket plastic bags, biodegradable plastics can be found in a number of products such as bin liners, cling film, sandwich bags and nappies, with more products expected soon. However, businesses claiming that their products are recyclable, degradable or biodegradable need to make sure that those claims can be substantiated; we need to be cautious around labels touting biodegradability because everything is biodegradable given time.
In Australia, the term biodegradable usually refers to plastics that are 'compostable', meaning they will break down when placed in a home compost bin or commercial composting facility. When disposed of correctly, a compostable plastic will almost completely biodegrade within six months, as opposed to the 100-plus years it would take for something like a normal plastic bag to break down in landfill.5 However, products which are labelled biodegradable may not actually be compostable, and as there is no Australian standard for biodegradable product labelling, there is no time limit on how long it must take to break down; a product can be called biodegradable if it takes two years to break down or if it takes twenty.
Of course, the best way to reduce plastic waste is to use as little plastic as possible, and CHOICE has some useful tips for reducing your plastic waste:
• Abandon plastic bags, not only at the supermarket checkout but also when picking up your takeaway.
• Buy your fruit and vegetables loose and avoid pre-packaged ones; don't put your fruit in the small plastic bags provided at the supermarket.
• Store leftovers in a reusable container rather than covering them with cling film.
• Choose products that have as little plastic packaging as possible. For example, if you buy rolled oats, look for brands that use cardboard packaging rather than plastic.
• Use a lunchbox and loose the sandwich bags and cling film completely.
• If your local council doesn't insist that rubbish is wrapped, don’t use a bin liner. Wrap wet food scraps in a small amount of newspaper before putting them in the bin and hose your bin out regularly.
• Wherever possible, recycle your plastic waste.6
1 The Guardian, 20 July 2017
3 The Guardian, 16 August 2017
4 The Courier Mail, 5 September 2017
5 Choice, ‘A greener plastic bag – or nappy’, Chris Doyle, 8 July 2015
6 Choice, ‘A greener plastic bag – or nappy’, Chris Doyle, 8 July 2015