• This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
  • Earth.Org Newsletters

    Get focused newsletters especially designed to be concise and easy to digest

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
SHOP Support

A UN working group on marine litter and microplastics met at a virtual conference in early November to discuss the issue, where more than two-thirds of UN member states as well as the EU declared that they are open to considering the option of a new global agreement. However, two of the biggest per capita waste producers- the US and the UK- have yet to signal their participation in a new global plastic agreement.

The working group, set up in 2017, concluded that the existing international legal framework governing plastic pollution, including the Stockholm and Basel conventions, is “fragmented and ineffective.” A new treaty would be similar to the Paris Agreement or the Montreal Protocol. However, neither the UK nor the US have declared their desire for a new agreement.

What is Happening?

You might also like: Ocean Plastic Pollution Is On Track to Triple By 2040

Hugo-Maria Schally, head of the multilateral environmental cooperation unit at the European commission, said that the EU had been an advocate of a stronger global framework to address marine litter and plastic pollution for some time, and that the lack of participation so far by the US remained a challenge. Schally said, “We see moves by the US to come to some kind of understanding, but I’m not sure that the difficulties can be bridged.”

UPDATE NOVEMBER 23 2020: Britain has now thrown its weight behind a new global agreement to tackle the plastic pollution crisis. In a virtual World Trade Organization event, British barrister Lord Goldsmith said, “Plastic in the ocean is set to treble by 2025. The challenge we face is immense and urgent. We believe its time to negotiate a new global agreement to coordinate action on marine plastic litter and microplastic, one that goes far beyond the existing frameworks. With two-thirds of UN member states already on board we have a chance now to create an unstoppable momentum to tackle plastic pollution in a way that the Paris agreement has done for climate change and the Montreal protocol has done for ozone depletion. I hope many, many other nations will join us as well.”

Featured image by: Flickr

According to officials, Sri Lanka has started shipping 242 containers of hazardous waste, including body parts from mortuaries, back to the UK after a two-year court battle by an environmental watchdog.

The first 20 containers of medical waste, including body parts, were loaded last week and another 65 will be sent this week, according to Sri Lankan customs. A week prior, Sri Lanka’s court of appeals ordered the repatriation of the bio-waste and plastic waste imported in violation of local and international shipping regulations, as well as the BASEL Convention. The imports arrived between September 2017 and January 2018 and the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) had petitioned courts to get it rejected. 

The petition included such issues as severe damage to the environment and biodiversity and threats to the health of the general public. The application also said that the waste was imported without adhering to the terms of the BASEL Convention, according to which Sri Lanka has restricted the import of hazardous waste. 

What’s Happening Now?

The Basel Convention is an international treaty, signed in 1989, designed to prevent the movement of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries.

In September, more than 280 tons of waste in another 21 countries were sent back after the UK agreed to take it back. 

Besides Sri Lanka, several other Asian countries have in recent years started pushing back against a tide of waste coming from wealthier countries and have started turning away shipments of garbage. The region, including Sri Lanka, has been flooded with plastic waste from more developed economies such as the US and UK since 2018, after China ordered a halt to most imports.

You might also like: How The Basel Convention has Harmed Developing Countries

In January, Malaysia sent back 150 shipping containers of plastic waste to mostly wealthier nations saying that it would not be the world’s “garbage dump.” In May 2019, the Philippines shipped 69 containers back to Canada following a long-running dispute. 

Canada will ban single-use plastics, including checkout bags, straws and cutlery, nationwide by the end of 2021, as part of larger plans to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030.

In a news conference, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, says, “Plastic pollution threatens our natural environment. It fills our rivers or lakes, and most particularly our oceans, choking the wildlife that live there. Canadians see the impact that pollution has from coast to coast to coast.”

The government set three criteria for products to fall under the ban- there is evidence that they are harmful to the environment, they are difficult or costly to recycle and there are ready available alternatives. The six items that the government plans to ban are plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food ware made from plastics that are difficult to recycle.

Wilkinson clarified that the single-use plastic ban “would not affect access to PPE or any other plastics used in the medical environment” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he added that the government is looking at ways to properly dispose of PPE “so that it does not end up in our natural environment,” as well as investigating solutions to recycle PPE wherever possible and add options to make some of the PPE biodegradable. 

You might also like: The UK is Sending 1.6Bn Surgical Masks to Landfill Every Month- Report

This is certainly a welcome move as Canada produces an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste per year and the government says that only 9% of this is recycled. Additionally, the country uses almost 15 billion plastic bags every year and close to 57 millions straws each day. More than a third of the plastics in Canada are created for single-use products or packaging. The plan was first announced last year, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describing it as a “problem we simply can’t afford to ignore.”

The government is releasing a discussion paper outlining the proposed plastics ban and soliciting public feedback, which will be available until December 9. 

Featured image by: Flickr

While trail running in 2018, Devana Ng and Flavien Chaussegros were shocked at how much waste they found in the otherwise pristine landscape. While collecting the trash they came across, the husband and wife team started talking about how they could disrupt the packaging industry to reduce our reliance on plastic. Thus, Distinctive Action was born. The Hong Kong-based startup has created a bag that dissolves completely in water and is also biodegradable, non-toxic, compostable and leaves no microplastics. Earth.Org spoke to co-founder Devana Ng to talk about how they hope the #INVISIBLEBAG will change the plastic packaging industry and replace conventional plastics. 

What Inspired You to Start Distinctive Action?

After seeing the amount of trash in Hong Kong, we decided to get to the source of plastic waste. So we started doing research and in 2019, we travelled to different countries to source materials for water soluble plastic packaging. 

We are not anti-plastic and we know that we can’t totally avoid plastic packaging but we can be more aware of our consumption of it. 

We know that we’re not the first company to release eco-friendly bags, but what sets us apart is that our bags are vibrantly branded. We don’t position ourselves as a supplier- we want to make it easily accessible to the general public, which is why we offer our bags in packs of 200. 

What is the #INVISIBLEBAG Made Of, How Easy is it to Source and Can it Be Made Available on a Large Scale?

#INVISIBLEBAG is made of a biodegradable combination of Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA), as well as plant-based starch, glycerin and water. It is completely water-soluble, compostable, non-toxic, marine and wildlife safe, and leaves no microplastics. The bag behaves like conventional plastic but dissolves in water at 70°C and above, If left unintentionally, it will dissolve in cold temperatures but at a slower rate. 

In the marine environment, the #INVISIBLEBAG will degrade up to 75% within 72 days and will fully biodegrade in less than a year. 

PVA was found by two German scientists Hermann and Haehnel in 1924 by hydrolyzing polyvinyl acetate in ethanol with potassium hydroxide. It is a water-soluble synthetic resin that was first industrially produced in Japan and is used as an ingredient in vinylon synthetic fibers. It can be used to coat capsules in medicine, as well as in laundry and detergent packets, and agricultural films. A company in Japan is even using it to create garments with.  

Not many countries can source PVA, and it is mostly Japan and Taiwan, but also the US. However, it can be made available on a mass scale, which makes the possibilities for water soluble packaging endless. We also hope that once the technology becomes more widely available, it will be cheaper to produce, and therefore cheaper for the consumer.

The bag was tested for Estrogen Equivalent (EEQ) by biotech lab testing corporation Vitartgent and is considered to be completely safe for humans and wildlife, both marine and terrestrial.

The #INVISIBLEBAG is also ASTM D6400 and EN13432-certified compostable and the Japan BioPlastics Association has proved that it is biodegradable, which means in the natural environment, the product will be broken down by the action of microorganisms, ultimately becoming carbon dioxide and water.

The carbon content of PVA is about half that of conventional plastic. While the afterlife impact of these conventional plastics will remain for years, #INVISIBLEBAG takes months to return to nature with no harm. 

You might also like: How 3D-Printed Tiles Can Help Restore Hong Kong’s Corals

distinctive action

What Has the Consumer Reaction Been Like?

Consumer awareness about plastic waste is definitely shifting. More brands are incorporating green elements into their models and it’s becoming something that they can’t avoid in any case, because there’s a demand in the market for more sustainable and eco-friendly products. 

What sets Distinctive Action apart from other similar companies is our branding on the bags. It was important to us to do this as we want to make them stand out more and market these products as eco-friendly but with an attitude. We want consumers to engage with the bags and share it on their social media, as they do now, which fosters a collaborative landscape- we hope that we can inspire others to make changes because only together can we change the world. 

How Has Distinctive Action Struggled With the Onset of COVID-19?

It has been difficult to justify the cost of the bags to restaurants during these times. The #INVISIBLEBAG is more expensive than conventional plastics, but we cannot make this comparison, because plastic is so cheap to produce. As more people start using alternative materials like PVA, it will become cheaper to produce. 

We have some restaurant partners: YEARS in Sham Shui Po is using #INVISIBLEBAG and we have an upcoming partnership with La Lune, where customers can get mooncakes in either an #INVISIBLEBAG crossover with La Lune or paper bag.

We are very excited for these upcoming projects. While we want to sell bags and make money, of course, we want to create awareness and influence people to shift their behaviour and become more conscious of their plastic consumption. 

What is Distinctive Action’s Long-Term Vision?

Right now, we are working on research and development to develop new materials that can replace plastic food packaging. We are working with engineers to develop plastic-free materials that can still act as a good barrier against oxygen and bacteria for frozen food and food and beverage containers. This is an ongoing process, and won’t be something that we complete in 6 months. We want to be the leader of alternative packaging solutions, so we need to put a lot of time and effort into it.

Looking outward, we want to work with brands and people that have the same mindset as Distinctive Action or influence them to adopt the same mindset and live more sustainably. Similarly, we want to use our position to help the community we operate in. We’ve donated 200 litres of sanitisers to various charities, including Feeding Hong Kong and Dialogue Experience for the Disabled.

The pandemic has seen more widespread use of single-use items as people have been forced to get takeaway food instead of dining at restaurants. This comes at a time when plastic waste is skyrocketing globally. A study found that even if we reduced our plastic waste by 80%, we will still be faced with 710 million tons of plastic by 2040. 

This dire prediction makes companies working to reduce plastic waste- like Distinctive Action- all the more important. 

Find out more about Distinctive Action and the products they offer at https://www.daction.today/

The impacts of human activity on our oceans have been so tremendous, it is difficult to capture the breadth of it all. From the pacific garbage patch and stormwater runoff to the acidification of the oceans due to temperature rise; we have left an astoundingly negative mark on the oceans. One of the most insidious of these is microplastics; plastic debris measuring from one micron to five millimetres in size. This debris makes up around 85% of plastic pollution in the oceans, and is small enough to pose a significant problem for marine ecosystems. As microplastics accumulate and move up the food chain, it inevitably ends up in the seafood that we consume, no matter where it’s sourced from, affecting our health.

The global fight to ban microplastics has taken tremendous leaps forward over the last decade. The scientific community, aided by environmental organisations, has succeeded in persuading governments to stop allowing microbeads in cosmetics and other products. Primary microplastics, or microplastics that were manufactured to be five millimetres or smaller have been the primary focus of the legislation which has been passed so far. While this is a great first step, it fails to address the larger problem posed by secondary microplastic pollution. 

Secondary microplastics are formed when small fragments flake off of larger pieces of plastic debris. The obvious culprits are manufactured objects, single-use plastics, and used or damaged building materials. Many jurisdictions around the world are looking into eliminating plastic waste entirely by implementing bans on the use of single-use packaging and other single-use plastics, as Germany has decided to do from 2021. While this is admirable as well, legislation often overlooks one of the more insidious sources of microplastics: textiles. Synthetic textiles like polyester fragments come off when being washed and these micro fragments are flushed directly into the water system. 

You might also like: Are Microplastics Harmful And How Can We Avoid Them?

The issue with microplastics is well documented. Microplastics are so small they flow through most waste-water filtration systems and end up in freshwater and marine ecosystems. Because they are so small, plankton, krill and other small marine fauna mistake these pollutants for food. The toxins which are released from the microplasticsin these small creatures can impact everything from their behaviour to their health. One such study, published in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety in 2017 puts this into perspective. The researchers looked specifically at the effect of polystyrene microbeads on planktonic crustaceans and found that the neurochemistry of these animals was directly affected by the polystyrene fragments, which leads to altered behavioural patterns just 48 hours after exposure. 

Other studies have demonstrated the wide-ranging impacts of these toxins in marine wildlife. Studies into the impacts of the many different plastic pollutants are in progress, and with a better understanding of the problem comes better leverage to push for better regulation. Samaneh Karbalaei and Parichehr Hanachi of Alzahra University’s Department of Biotechnology, along with Tony Walker from Dalhousie University and Matthew Cole of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, published an overview of the link between microplastics and human health concerns in 2018. In it they explore the process through which microplastics move through terrestrial and marine ecosystems, ending up on our plates as they bioaccumulate up the food chain and potentially impacting on our health. These findings, along with the growing body of similar studies has prompted some governments to take further action on plastic pollution. 

Canada, for example, has banned primary microplastics in commercial products, and was on track to ban single-use plastics by 2021. Unfortunately, the implementation of this was delayed due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is hoped that the government will push it through once the pandemic abates. 

Other jurisdictions are also pursuing legislation. Each ban has a different focus and scope, and so it’s hard to say what the impacts of these first steps will be. What is clear is that the work of the scientific community and the activism of environmentalists around the world have grabbed the attention of governments. The United Nations Environment Programme published a report on the limitations of single-use plastics in 2018. In it, they found that of the 127 countries that have begun a discussion on the topic, only eight have followed through with implementing legislation. While others have passed similar laws since the publication of this report, the process is painstaking and slow.

Compounding the matter, some of the jurisdictions where plastic bans are already in place have had a change in government and environmental protections have taken a back seat. For example, in the US, a ban on microbeads had been decided under Barack Obama’s administration, however the current Trump administration has since repealed a staggering number of environmental protections. In the time of the climate crisis, one step forward and two steps back is disastrous for the environment. 

While there are plenty of solutions being explored by the scientific community, none are yet ready to be implemented on the scale necessary to eliminate plastic pollutants in our oceans. What is needed is a sustained global movement to hold governments accountable for addressing the climate crisis. The international community has been highly effective in pushing for change only because global environmental organisations and the scientific community have kept the pressure on governments. This is vital work, as governments have a duty to protect their people’s health amid the microplastics crisis.

You might also like: Microplastic Found in Human Blood for the First Time

Featured image by: NICO Expedition

Casper Ohm is the Founder of Water-pollution.org.uk.

Retailers in Japan have started charging for plastic bags, in a move aimed at cutting down on plastic packaging and waste. Shops can decide how much to charge customers for the bags, with a common price being three yen (around three US cents). 

Stores are being asked to charge at least one yen for bags and they may also start distributing free, reusable plastic shopping bags, as well as bags that are decomposed by microorganisms in the sea and those containing at least 25% biomass materials.

Japan’s Plastic Waste

According to the UN, Japan is the second-highest producer of plastic packaging waste per capita in the world, behind the US. The country produces more than nine million tons of plastic waste a year, and in 2018, it vowed to reduce this by 25% by 2030. In December 2019, the government revised the law on containers and packaging recycling, hoping to encourage more people to bring their own bags when going shopping. 

You might also like: Op-Ed: Moving to a Circular Economy Model is Vital for the Planet

The government said in a policy document that the fee “is aimed at prompting people to think twice if a bag is really necessary and helping people to review their lifestyles.”

To tackle the high rates of marine plastic waste in the country, its Environment Ministry has launched a campaign to raise the proportion of shoppers who do not seek plastic bags at stores from 30% in March this year to more than 60% at the end of this year. 

“We will roll out plastic shopping bags fees in hope of making people aware of [the seriousness] of the global issue,” said Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi at a news conference on Tuesday last week. 

Japan has a robust waste management system, with government statistics saying that more than 80% of its plastic waste is recycled. However, much of this recycling involves incinerating plastic, often to produce energy, which generates carbon dioxide.

Although plastic shopping bags account for only around 2% of all plastic waste produced in the country, the government hopes that this fee will encourage consumers to change their packaging habits and be more mindful of their impact on the environment. In the long term, it hopes that the fee becomes the catalyst for more widespread reductions in the overall plastic waste.

Featured image by: Keng Susumpow

Germany will ban the sale of single-use plastic straws, cutlery, cotton buds and food containers from July 2021, aligning with an EU directive intended to reduce plastic waste. 

Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, says, “Many disposable plastic products are superfluous with no sustainable use of resources. In addition, plastics end up too often in the environment or in the oceans. We are taking an important national step in the fight against the plastic flood.” The ban on these single-use plastics in Germany will go into effect on July 3, 2021. 

The German Association of Local Utilities (VKU) estimates that common plastic items make up around 10% to 20% of waste from parks, public places and streets with takeaway packaging for food and beverages made from polystyrene having the largest share. 

Globally, about 1.3 billion tons of trash is generated per year. In Europe, the amount of plastic waste has increased 13% in the last decade and in Germany alone, 3 million tons of plastic packaging waste is produced annually; according to official statistics, 48.8% of this plastic waste is recycled.

You might also like: Op-Ed: Moving to a Circular Economy Model is Vital for the Planet

Certainly, Germany’s recycling system is revered worldwide; its ‘green dot’ system earned the country the title of recycling world champion by the World Economic Forum in 2017 and it has the biggest collection system for reusable PET and glass bottles worldwide. Yet, experts argue that Germany doesn’t actually recycle as much waste as statistics suggest, especially when it comes to plastic packaging. 

A lot of waste that ends up in sorting facilities is incorrectly collected; in Germany, up to 50% of general rubbish ends up in bins designated for plastic, including waste that needs to be separated from plastics. 

Automated facilities are also unable to sort food containers made from different types of plastics, meaning that a lot of mixed plastic packaging ends up being discarded. This waste then ends up in landfills or incineration sites, yet it is counted as being recycled.

Meanwhile, the Bundestag and Bundesrat- Germany’s lower and upper houses of parliament- passed legislation in early July that would phase out coal use in the country by 2038 as part of a road map to reduce carbon emissions, after agreeing on the plan in January. The new plan also legislates the closure of eight brown-coal operations by 2022 as the number of jobs in renewable energy increases. 

If the planet continues producing and discarding as much plastic as it does now, by 2050, the plastic industry would represent 20% of all crude oil production, consuming 15% of the global annual carbon budget. Germany banning single-use plastic is a small step in reducing our reliance on fossil fuel, but an important one nonetheless. 

Hong Kong lawmakers have abandoned a long-delayed bill on a mandatory waste disposal charging scheme, citing a lack of time to complete the legislative process, ending a decade-long campaign. Three bills had been ditched in the past few weeks due to time constraints.

The Hong Kong Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme

On June 22, members of the bills committee on the waste charging scheme in Hong Kong voted seven to four to shelve discussions for the bill, effectively abandoning it. According to government plans, the bill was expected to reduce solid waste by 40% on a per capita basis by 2022. 

Opposition lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung, a member of the bills committee, said, “This means total government failure in terms of environmental failure.” The committee reportedly had difficulties holding meetings during the year due to protests and the coronavirus pandemic that delayed face-to-face sessions. 

Secretary for the Environment, Wong Kam-sing says that the government will ‘do its best’ to reduce through other means despite the waste charging scheme bill being dumped. 

You might also like: Investigation Reveals Plastic in Hong Kong Recycling Bins Sent to Landfills

He says. “The Environment Bureau is proactive in waste reduction in Hong Kong and our efforts will not stop here. We will continue our work in other areas, focusing on clean recycling, including food waste, paper and waste plastics.”

The proposed scheme would have seen residents disposing of waste in designated bags priced at an average of 11 HK cents (1.4 US cents) per litre. The average household would have paid between HKD$33 and $51 per month, depending on the amount of rubbish they produced. 

A joint statement by five environmental groups, including Green Peace, The Green Earth and Green Power, called the bill ‘stillborn’ and expressed frustration over the delays to the scheme. Edwin Lau Che-feng, executive director of The Green Earth, said that the government had missed a golden opportunity to pass the bill over the years, saying that it had to set the tone in driving Hong Kong’s environmental protection laws. 

The groups also made three recommendations to the government on initiatives to implement before the end of its current term in 2022, namely to improve the recycling system, reduce waste at the source by eliminating disposable tableware and packaging and reducing disposable packing in supermarkets, and resubmit the draft to implement the recycling and waste reduction policy to rebuild public confidence. 

The waste problem in Hong Kong is getting worse, with 2018 levels hitting the highest level since records began in 1991 with Hongkongers sending 1.53kgs of trash to landfills every day. In the same year, it was found that 31% of municipal solid waste in Hong Kong was food waste, the largest component of such waste. The abandoned bill aimed to reduce the average waste per capita to 0.8kgs per day. 

A recent investigative survey by local news outlet HK01 found that of 14 housing estates surveyed, nine were sending plastic bottles intended to be recycled to landfills. Some attribute this to the low value of plastics in Hong Kong; the price of recycled plastics has been in decline since 2018, reducing incentives for waste collectors to collect plastic. 

Featured image by: Wpcpey

Of all the serious issues currently threatening life in the oceans, plastic is among the most pervasive, visible and relentless. You’ve probably heard all the familiar stats by now- 8 million tons of marine plastic pollution every year, a garbage truck every minute, more plastic than fish by 2050- but take a second to pause and really imagine the plastic reality we inhabit. Billions of plastic items are created and used briefly every day.

Causes of Plastic Pollution

Less than 10% of all plastic is recycled, so the majority persists on our planet. Much of it ends up in airless landfills, destined to linger for hundreds or even thousands of years – but a massive amount escapes our waste systems, permeates the soil, flows continually down into our waterways and ends up in the oceans.

Microplastic Pollution

Once a piece of plastic touches the surface of a stream, river, lake or ocean it becomes very hard to recover. Over time, plastic accumulates in coastal ecosystems, coats the seafloor, strangles and starves marine life and, most insidiously, breaks apart into smaller and smaller fragments, becoming virtually impossible to ever clean up. These microplastics, and the others released by manufacturing, vehicle tires and textiles, have now been found from the peaks of the Pyrenees to the Arctic sea ice to the bottom of the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean.

Plastic is literally everywhere – it is in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. Scientists have even found it inside our bodies. Most mind-blowing of all? Fossil fuel extraction and plastic production is set to increase drastically in the coming decades.

You might also like: CO₂ Emissions Have Rebounded to Pre-Pandemic Levels

Plastic pollution isn’t the only threat to the survival of our oceans. Overfishing has stripped the oceans of 90% of big fish, putting entire ecosystems at risk. According to the UN, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. Climate change is rendering the very ocean water that supports life more warm and acidic, which could doom coral, phytoplankton and other fundamental ocean species. Agricultural runoff is creating vast dead zones in places like the Gulf of Mexico, and dumping at sea (both routine and illegal) kills off marine life with toxic substances that can persist and accumulate in species like killer whales.

These issues are vital, and Parley supports efforts within our Network and beyond to address them. But as we’ll see, plastic is inextricably linked to carbon emissions, fishing, industrial pollution and other issues. If we can solve these massive problems working together, nature is powerful and resilient. If we tackle emissions soon, the oceans can cool. Pesticides and other toxins will disperse. Fish stocks can recover, often within a decade. But plastic will persist for thousands of years, and plastic is our problem. We drive its unnecessary creation, and we – the creative community – must own the issue. The fashion industry, e-commerce, food delivery services, product packaging and all the other plastic-wrapped commodities that underpin our lifestyles need to be redesigned. We can create novel new materials and systems that co-exist with nature instead of destroying it. We are the people who need to tackle this.

What is Plastic?

Let’s briefly go back to basics and explore exactly what plastic is. Before 1907, modern synthetic plastic didn’t even exist on Earth. Since then, we have created an ever-expanding number of new plastics. The word itself comes from the Greek “plastikos” – meaning moldable. Dating back 3500 years, bio-based plastic was naturally derived from the sap of gum trees to make rubber-like artefacts. Later examples of polymer materials include silk, wool, glass and rubber.

Today, the term “plastic” is used to describe synthetic materials belonging to the polymer family. Polymers are made up of chains of repeating carbon-containing, shorter compounds called monomers. Plastic monomers are built on hydrogen and carbon atoms (hydrocarbons), which are extracted from fossil fuels. Chemists are able to make different types of plastic qualities based on the monomer composition and arrangement.

The process of producing plastic begins with the extraction of crude oil. It contains ethylene and propylene – the two hydrocarbons that make up monomers. Through a process known as cracking, the hydrocarbons are broken down into smaller molecules and turned into hydrocarbon monomers. Polymerization then takes place, which links the the molecules together to form polymers called resins. During this process, ethylene is converted into the resin polyethylene and propylene into polypropylene. Crucially, this can include the addition of plasticizers, dyes and flame-retardant chemicals. The resins are cooled down and cut to form pellets or beads, sometimes called nurdles, which are transported to manufacturers to make products.

Effects of Plastic Pollution

Long before it becomes the all-too-familiar marine pollution you find at the beach, plastic enters the environment in other forms. Pellets and nurdles can and do spill out at every stage of their journey – from refinery to finished products. Researchers in the Gulf of Mexico have uncovered extensive and devastating nurdle pollution, and a massive pellet spill on a Hong Kong beach in 2012 showed the inherent risks of shipping them around the world.

Once they hit the water, nurdles and microplastics can absorb bacteria and chemical contaminants from surrounding environments. In marine wildlife studies, microplastics have been shown to transfer these harmful chemicals from their plastic hosts onto—or into—tissues, which in turn adversely affects the animals. At a nanometer in size, plastic fibers can penetrate cells, which means they can make their way into organs.

It’s not just marine life at risk. A 2018 study tested 259 bottled waters from 11 leading brands worldwide. Six sampled bottles were glass, the rest were packaged in plastic. All the bottles had plastic bottle caps. Plastic debris contamination was widespread throughout, with 93% of sampled bottles containing microplastic particles and a global average of 325 particles per liter of bottled water. One bottle showed an excess of 10,000 microplastic particles per liter — enough to make you never want to drink from a plastic bottle again.

The very durability and flexibility that makes plastic so useful also makes in pretty immortal. In the ocean environment, plastic slowly breaks apart – but not before taking a heavy toll on wildlife. More than 100,000 marine mammals die every year from entanglement in plastic debris. Whales wash ashore with stomachs full of plastic bags, cups, bottles and other everyday detritus. Almost all of the world’s seabirds and sea turtles have ingested plastic.

If we fail to replace plastic and halt the continued pollution of the oceans, we are facing the potential extinction of many sea life species and the interruption of the entire marine ecosystem. We also risk the survival of our own species – since over 4.3 billion depend on the oceans for food, many in small island developing states.

plastic pollution
Photo from ALBATROSS by Chris Jordan

Beyond the damaged caused by the material itself, many plastics come with extra baggage in the form of toxic chemicals used to make it softer, or harder, or more fire-resistant, or other properties. In the ocean environment, these chemicals can concentrate in the fish and marine mammals that consume plastic.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and phthalate compounds have been found in whales and dolphins, where they can affect growth and reproduction patterns. The same blubber that insulates animals like killer whales from the frigid oceans can also become a storehouse for such chemicals, leading to depleted populations like those off the US and Canadian west coast.

A few years back, plastic pollution pioneer and Parley ambassador Emily Penn tested her blood specifically for chemicals banned by the United Nations. Out of 35 banned chemicals, Emily’s blood contained 29. These included traces of pesticides and flame retardants, which are especially concerning in terms of women’s health. Endocrine disruptors mimic hormones that can impact women’s pregnancies and be passed onto offspring through childbirth and breastfeeding.

The production of plastic is intrinsically linked to climate change. Already, 6% of global oil consumption goes towards creating plastics – and for certain types of plastic like polyethylene (PET) the rate of carbon emissions can be as high as 6:1. So for every kilogram of plastic produced, 6 kilograms of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere. The average plastic drink bottle for instance, comes with .4 of a kilogram of carbon emissions.

In 2018, Parley Science Advisor and marine plastics researcher Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Royer and her colleagues at the University of Hawaii revealed another, previously unknown link between plastics and climate change. They demonstrated that many plastics actually give off powerful greenhouse gases as they break down, contributing to climate change. Of particular concern is the plastic type which releases gases at the highest rate: low-density polyethylene (or LDPE). This is also the most prevalent discarded plastic in the ocean today.

LDPE has a weaker and less dense chemical structure than most plastics, meaning it breaks down more easily. The more surface area a piece of plastic has, the more gas is given off. A plastic bottle, for example, after years of photo-degradation, will have a surface area thousands of times greater than its original surface area. Over time, plastics give off more and more gas. Light (and to a lesser extent heat) are the primary catalysts for this gaseous release. This leads to an alarming feedback loop: as the climate changes, the planet gets hotter, the plastic gives off more methane, increasing the rate of climate change and the circle continues.

Featured image by: Giacomo Cosua for Parley 

This article was originally published on Parley, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

A Greenpeace East Asia report has found that the largest supermarkets in Hong Kong, particularly Dairy Farm, the parent company of Hong Kong’s largest supermarket chain, Wellcome, have failed to implement substantial or innovative plastic -free policies.

To put together the report, the researchers distributed questionnaires to the seven largest supermarket chains in Hong Kong according to market share and number of stores, including Wellcome, YATA, City’super, ParknShop, Fusion, U Select, Taste and Marks & Spencer. The supermarkets were assessed in terms of four aspects, namely ‘plastic-free policies’, ‘plastic-reducing measures’, ‘initiatives and innovations’ and ‘information transparency’. The group assigned the supermarkets with scores out of 100; Dairy Farm had a score of 15.5 and A.S. Watson, 27.1. 

Generally, the researchers determined that the performance of all chains are unsatisfactory and urged them to abandon excess plastic packaging as soon as possible.

Supermarket Initiatives and Innovations

A.S. Watson, which owns ParknShop and Fusion, among others, has set up a refilling station where non-packaged personal and household items are sold and customers can bring their own containers. The group has claimed that the idea will be rolled out to other branches. They, as well as City’super and YATA, offer discounts to customers who bring their own containers to the cooked food section. A.S. Watson has also stopped selling plastic straws, but not other disposable plastic products. Other supermarkets have not followed their lead, and have no plans in place to abandon disposable plastic products. 

YATA provides customers with plastic-free shopping options, such as non-packaged oil and vinegar. However, customers have to use containers provided by the supermarket. YATA has claimed they will set up refilling stations.

Other supermarkets surveyed do not provide plastic-free options and have shown no willingness to reduce waste at source, replace disposable containers with reusable ones or make changes to their logistics.

Generally speaking, A.S. Watson, YATA and Dairy Farm performed better in going plastic-free than the four other supermarket chains, while City’super, AEON, China Resources Vanguard and Marks & Spencer received ‘extremely low marks’. In fact, China Resources Vanguard and Marks & Spencer have never disclosed any information on plastic-free policies or measures, which the report determined to be ‘unacceptable’. 

Overall, none of the supermarkets surveyed have formulated comprehensive policies to go completely plastic-free.

Supermarket’s Transparency of Information

YATA documents its use of different types of disposable plastic packaging and is willing to dispense it publicly. A.S. Watson and Dairy Farm, who owns Wellcome, provide the use of plastic packaging on some of their products, while other supermarkets surveyed do not provide such information nor do they intend to. 

You might also like: Tackling the Food Waste Crisis in China

According to the report, customers in Hong Kong generally expect supermarkets to go plastic-free. In April 2019, the Hong Kong Shue Yan University conducted a poll that found that over 90% of respondents agreed that supermarkets should remove unnecessary packaging and nearly 70% of respondents preferred to shop at supermarkets that reduce the use of excess packaging. In June of that year, Greenpeace collected data on the use of plastic in supermarkets and found that over 80% of stocked goods were wrapped in plastic and nearly half were wrapped by the supermarkets themselves. All sliced fruits were wrapped in plastic and over 90% of vegetables and cooked food were wrapped in plastic. Additionally, 74% and 67% of fresh pastries from supermarket-owned brands and whole fruits were wrapped in plastic respectively.  

Recommendations given by the group include the adoption of comprehensive policies, such as by setting a clear timetable for achieving bigger goals of using less plastic, and increasing transparency regarding whether it has gone plastic-free. 

Countries like China, India, Italy, France and numerous African countries have implemented plastic bag levy schemes or plastic bag bans. In 2018, the EU passed the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy bill to change the design, use, production and recycling methods of plastic products. The European Commission shortly thereafter proposed a motion to gradually ban the 10 most commonly found disposable plastic products. 

In the Policy Address in October 2019, the Hong Kong government mentioned ‘cooperating with the retail industry to promote and encourage reduction in the use of plastic packaging’, but so far no meaningful action has been seen in this regard. 

According to the report, polystyrene (PS) and polyethylene (PE) are found all over the coastal waters in Hong Kong, and are also commonly found in disposable food packaging. Therefore, supermarkets play a crucial role in reducing pollution from plastic packaging. 

Global plastic production has surged in the last 50 years, from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014, of which 26% is used in plastic packaging. Discarded plastic has become a prevalent part of almost every ecosystem on the planet, from the ocean, where 90% of seabirds have been found with plastic in their bodies, to microplastics that have recently been discovered in Antarctic ice. 

Recycling is also not the best, nor is it the easiest way to solve the problem. Since the 1950s, the world has produced around 8.3 billion tons of plastic, among which only 9% was recycled. In 2013, 14% of the plastic packaging used globally was recycled, 14% of the remaining plastic was incinerated, 40% was dumped in landfills and almost one third of it was dumped into the natural environment. 

It is clear that plastic packaging has never been appropriately dealt with; governments should therefore refrain from touting recycling as the best solution. The production, transportation, consumption and post-consumption stages should be considered, and recyclable packaging, innovative logistics and sales methods, and making sure that resources are reused and recycled in a circular economy can we truly alleviate pollution caused by plastics. 

This is especially true during the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen the disposal of a significant amount of waste, such as that of masks and hand sanitiser, as people try to protect themselves.

Hall Sion Chan, campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, says in a letter, “The results make it clear that supermarkets may have relied on false solutions to tackle the plastics problem” and uses the example of Dairy Farm reducing the weight of several plastic items instead of getting rid of plastic items when wrapping their products. 

Supermarkets in Hong Kong need to reconsider the necessity of plastic packaging. In a city that generates as much waste as Hong Kong, supermarkets can play an important role in easing this problem. That they choose not to is an egregious disrespect for its customers. 

Featured image by: ricardo


Subscribe to our newsletter

Hand-picked stories once a fortnight. We promise, no spam!

Instagram @earthorg Follow Us