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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. 

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. 

Plastic is an inevitable part of consumer behaviour, and in recent years the plastic waste problem has become a mainstream part of the public consciousness. However, some practical challenges need to be addressed in order to reduce our reliance on the substance.

Plastic Packaging Waste Statistics

The packaging sector is responsible for almost half of the plastic in the world. A KPMG report says that if the growth of plastic production continues at the current rate, the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption by 2050. Almost a third of all plastic packaging leaks out of collecting and sorting systems and ends up in soil and the ocean. Additionally, plastic degrades into fine nano-sized particles that are harmful to animals and stay in food chains. 

However, cutting out plastic completely is not as easy as people would like to think. 

Why is plastic packaging used?

  1. Food Preservation
    One of the biggest uses of plastic packaging is food, however there is ongoing debate as to how best to balance food and plastic waste, and food safety. The argument is that plastic is necessary to prevent food waste; roughly one third, or 1.3 billion tonnes, of the food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted every year.

    Plastic packaging supports the safe distribution of food over long distances and minimises food waste by keeping food fresher for longer, and it provides a barrier against bacteria. For example, 1.5g of plastic film wrapping a cucumber can extend its shelf life from three to 14 days, and selling grapes in plastic bags or trays has reduced in-store wastage of grapes by 20%. However, 40%, or 9 million tonnes, of all food packaging ends up in landfills.

    Manoj Dora and Eleni Iacovidou from Brunel University London believe that a way to reduce plastic packaging is to create shorter food supply chains and ensure that food is consumed sooner before it goes to waste. Having shorter food supply chains means reducing the number of intermediaries between where the food is farmed and where it is bought and consumed. They suggest that this change will encourage a shift towards more seasonal diets, and that it will place an emphasis on the rise of community-based growers where consumers can see where their food comes from.

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

  2. Plastic Recycling Isn’t Always King
    Only 14% of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling. A large problem lies in the failure to collect plastic in the first place, and that people don’t know what type of plastic can be recycled.

    There are seven types of plastic, making recycling trickier. Designing packaging that is easier to separate is vital, like having removable outer packaging and using water-soluble glues. Alternatively, plastic can be limited to a single standard to make recycling easier; coloured plastics such as black trays are harder to identify by sorting technologies, slowing down the recycling process.

    Further, plastic packaging cannot be recycled infinitely because it degrades in quality. Contamination and mixing of polymer types can also lower the economic and technical value of the secondary plastic being made and plentiful fuel is required to melt the plastic down and re-pelletise it. Additionally, some of the most ubiquitous plastic films are difficult to recycle, such as crisp packaging and disposable cups with plastic lining.

  3. Bioplastic Alternatives
    Alternative plastics must be created which are just as lightweight, durable and convenient as conventional plastics. Plant-based plastics, or bioplastics, made from corn starch or sugarcane, are one such solution.

    Bioplastics produce significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional plastics over their lifetime. There is no net increase in carbon dioxide when they break down because the plants that bioplastics are made from absorbed that same amount of carbon dioxide as they grew.

    However, while their biodegradability is an advantage, most bioplastics need high temperature industrial composting facilities to break down, and very few cities have the necessary infrastructure; bioplastics therefore often end up in landfills where, deprived of oxygen, they may release methane. Further, when these plastics aren’t discarded properly, they can contaminate batches of recycled plastic and harm recycling infrastructure- if bioplastic contaminates recycled PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate, the most common plastic), the entire lot could be rejected and end up in a landfill. Separate recycling streams are necessary to be able to properly discard bioplastics.

    The land required for bioplastics also competes with food production as the crops that produce bioplastics can also be used to feed people. In 2019, The Plastic Pollution Coalition projected that 3.4 million acres of land were needed to grow the crops. Additionally, the fuel used to run the farm machinery produces greenhouse gas emissions.

    Lastly, bioplastics can be costly. PLA (Polyactic Acid- made from the sugars in corn starch and sugarcane) can be 20-50% more expensive than comparable materials because of the complex processes involved in converting corn or sugarcane into PLA. However, as more efficient and eco-friendly strategies for producing bioplastics are devised, prices are expected to come down.

  4. Sacrificing Convenience
    “The reality is, you’d have to use some reusable bags 3 000 times to basically neutralise the carbon footprint of the disposable bag that’s produced today,” says Karl Deily of sustainable packaging company Sealed Air.

    The way to rely less on plastic is to use none at all. But in the age of convenience, it is not that simple. A number of start-ups such as Loop, a supermarket delivery service using only reusable containers, is starting to gain momentum and it is these innovations that are vital to reducing plastic usage.

    With massive polluters like China announcing the ban of single-use plastic bags, there is hope yet for a world that relies less on plastic. Additionally, the amount of material used in packaging declined by 28% between 2004 and 2014 as a consequence of advanced technologies, indicating a global push towards a less plastic-centric world. 

For those of us who are reducing our intake of single-use plastic, reusing plastic items and recycling wherever possible, it can be frustrating when companies don’t seem to be playing their part, or are merely using the issue as a marketing tool. Nature and oceans especially are paying the price. However, there is an industry that is rallying against the problem of plastic pollution.

Are we fighting a losing battle when it comes to plastic? Chloe Harvey, Director at The Reef-World Foundation doesn’t think so. “While the distressing impact of plastic pollution is something I see with a heavy heart,” she said, “I do have hope.” Her positivity stems from the “forward-thinking knowledge exchange across the [scuba diving] industry.” 

what is being done to stop plastic pollution?

The diving industry has been tackling the plastic pollution problem head-on for decades, with many enterprises integrating socio-environmental initiatives as part of their business plan. The reason for this can perhaps be best summed up in the words of Sylvia Earle, an American marine biologist, who once explained that scuba divers and surfers are often among the strongest ocean conservation advocates “because they’ve spent time in and around the ocean, and they’ve personally seen the beauty, fragility, and even the degradation of our planet’s blue heart.” For companies in the marine tourism industry, seeing the beauty of our ocean day in and day out – as well as the damage being done by humans – motivates them to take real action to protect our underwater ecosystems. 

Collective action is in the works. Hundreds of businesses across the scuba industry pledged to join an initiative called Mission 2020. Set up by Fourth Element, a diving gear retailer, the initiative is encouraging companies to make significant changes to their business models to better protect the ocean; particularly when it comes to eradicating single-use plastics.

Jim Standing from Fourth Element acknowledges the high costs of ‘going green’ but stresses the importance of improving environmental practices anyway. “Frankly, we have to do it,” he told delegates at the ADEX dive show in Singapore in 2019. “If we don’t,” he continued, “the future is incredibly stark.” That’s why, even though some changes might carry an associated cost, Fourth Element has accepted some of the kickback of making their processes more expensive in a bid to protect the ocean. 

As part of Mission 2020, Fourth Element has committed to eliminating single-use plastic packaging from its products by 8 June 2020 (World Oceans Day). The company is already using cardboard or cassava starch packaging for its products and doesn’t use any plastic bags or tags. Additionally, its new Thermocline wetsuit range is made from ghost fishing nets recovered from the ocean. For Jim and his team, manufacturers and businesses across the diving supply chain should lead the way by adapting their business models until consumers have no choice but to be green. 

Blue O Two, a tour company that provides scuba diving holidays, is also involved in the initiative. According to Managing Director Alyson Tyler, the company has pledged: “Our fleet vessels will be single-use plastic free by the end of 2019. We pledge to minimise pollution on our boats and in our worldwide offices, achieving this whilst educating yet also respecting local communities.” Single-use plastics have already been removed from Blue O Two’s Red Sea fleet; equating to over 60,000 bottles each year. While removing single-use plastics across the entire fleet will be a challenge, the company is working with Reef-World to find ways of improving even further through its Green Fins initiative. 

Similarly, Explorer Ventures Liveaboard Fleet is working towards the elimination of single-use plastics onboard its Caribbean vessels. It’s also helping Reef-World establish protocols specifically designed to improve global environmental policies for liveaboards. Rachel Huber, from Explorer Ventures, explained why this is so important for them: “As divers, people on the ‘front line’ we understand we have an obligation and a responsibility to act as stewards of our oceans and environment, so that future generations will be able to enjoy nature as we do,” she said. 

Value alignment across the industry has multiple benefits. Countries of all sizes and from across the world can join in. Disparate initiatives can achieve higher aggregate impact if more businesses increase awareness amongst diver communities, and share best practices on how to tackle the plastic menace from both a prevention and clean up standpoint. 

Researchers in Israel have developed an environmentally friendly, degradable plastic – like polymer derived from marine organisms that feed on seaweed, which is completely biodegradable, as well as recyclable.

It was the successful outcome of a collaboration between Dr Alexander Golberg and Professor Michael Gozin of Tel Aviv University. Their study was published in the journal Bioresource Technology this month (January 2019).

This material may one day free the world of its worst pollutant. Plastic accounts for up to 90% of all the pollutants in our oceans, according to EcoWatch – yet there are few comparable, environmentally friendly alternatives to the material.

“Plastics take hundreds of years to decay. So bottles, packaging and bags create plastic ‘continents’ in the oceans, endangering animals and polluting the environment,” says Dr Golberg. “Plastic is also produced from petroleum products, which has an industrial process that releases chemical contaminants as a by-product.”

You might also like: How Wax Worms Can Be Used to Fight Plastic Waste

Conventional plastic is in fact largely derived from non-renewable fossil fuels like natural gas and coal that are resistant to natural degradation. Over time, they enter into the animal and human food chain. Hence, efforts are focussed on finding substitute primary materials that can decay naturally without altering the equilibrium of ecosystems when discarded.

What is bioplastic?

Researchers settled their attention on seaweed-feeding microorganisms and produced a biodegradable polymer named polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which completely breaks down into organic waste.

“A partial solution to the plastic epidemic are bioplastics, which don’t use petroleum and degrade quickly. But bioplastics also have an environmental price. To grow the plants or the bacteria to make the plastic requires fertile soil and freshwater, which many countries, including Israel, don’t have.”

“Our raw material was multicellular seaweed, cultivated in the sea” Dr Golberg continues. “These algae were eaten by single-celled microorganisms, which also grow in very salty water and produce a polymer that can be used to make bioplastic.”

“There are already factories that produce this type of bioplastic in commercial quantities, but they use plants that require agricultural land and fresh water. The process we propose will enable countries with a shortage of fresh water, such as Israel, China and India, to switch from petroleum-derived plastics to biodegradable plastics.”

The new study could transform global efforts to clean the oceans without affecting arable land and without using fresh water, always according to Dr Goldberg.

“Plastic from fossil sources is one of the most polluting factors in the oceans,” he says. “We have proved it is possible to produce bioplastic completely based on marine resources in a process that is friendly both to the environment and to its residents.

We are now conducting basic research to find the best bacteria and algae that would be most suitable for producing polymers for bioplastics with different properties” he concludes.

Innovations- such as this biodegradable plastic polymer using marine organisms- should be delved into further to use the power of nature to benefit the planet.

References:

Golberg, Alexander; Gozin, Michael; Fadeev, Ludmila; Greiserman, Semion; Gnaim, Rima; Ghosh, Supratim. “Macroalgan biomass subcritical hydrolysates for the production of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) by Haloferax mediterranei”, Tel Aviv University. Bioresource Technology, Elsevier. January 2019.

Featured image by David Martin 

 

 

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