By rethinking the way our products are designed and changing the way we use plastics, we can tackle the blight of marine litter and the general accumulation of plastic waste. But, as Professor Richard Thompson said in our latest SCItalk, systemic issues and historical excesses have made this no easy task.
Contrary to popular perception, plastic is not the villain. When it comes to marine littering, we are the ogres, with our single-use bottles bobbing in the oceans and the detritus of our everyday lives littering the coastline.
We are the reason why 700 species are known to encounter plastic debris in the environment. It is because of us that plastics have beaten us to the bottom of the deepest oceans and glint in the sun near the summit of Mt. Everest.
According to Richard Thompson, of the Marine Institute School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth: ‘Plastic debris is everywhere. Its quantity in the ocean is likely to triple between 2015 and 2025.’
As Professor Thompson pointed out all of these facts to his audience in our latest SCItalk on 23 March, he outlined potential solutions. However, there is no ignoring the depth of the issues at hand when it comes to the litter in our seas.
Society has gradually woken up to the menace of discarded plastics and, laterally, to the threat of microplastics and nanoplastics. The problem is that we left the barn door open decades ago. So, all of those plastic microbeads from shower gels, fibres from clothing, and tyre wear particles polluted our seas for many years before it came to public and scientific attention.
Professor Thompson said that 300 papers were published globally on microplastics in the last academic year alone, but research in the area was relatively thin on the ground before Thompson and his colleagues released their pioneering study on microplastics in Science in 2004.
‘The business model for the use of plastics hasn’t really changed since the 1950s,’ Professor Thompson said. According to him, we have had 60 years of behavioural training to just throw products away, and our waterways reflect this attitude.
According to Professor Thompson, 50% of shoreline litter items recorded during the 2010s originated from single-use applications. Without a sea change in our attitude towards single-use items, this problem will persist.
Microplastics have been subject to great scrutiny, but much of the research is quite recent.
The problems with larger plastics and even microplastics are now well documented. The worrying thing, according to Thompson, is that there are knowledge gaps when it comes to nanoplastics in the natural environment. What are the effects of nanoplastic ingestion? What are the effects of human health? Time will tell, but Thompson was keen to ask if we really need that information before we take action.
He was more sanguine about the effects of microplastics. ‘The concentration of microplastics is probably not yet causing widespread ecological harm,’ he said, ‘but if we don’t take measures, we’ll pass into widespread ecological harm within the next 50-100 years.’
It seems counterintuitive to think of petrochemical plastics as a sustainable solution; and yet, despite the environmental problems posed by their durability, they do have a role to play in a greener approach.
‘If used responsibly, plastics can reduce our footprint on the planet,’ Thompson noted. Indeed, the lightweight plastic parts in our cars and in aviation can actually help reduce carbon emissions. But despite their merits, how do we keep plastic litter from our seas?
To illustrate a flaw in the way we design plastic products, Professor Thompson gave the example of an orange coloured drinks bottle. While the bright colour may help sell juice drinks, there is an issue with recycling these coloured plastics because their value as a recyclate is lower. Clear plastics, on the other hand, are much more viable to recycle.
He argues that many products aren’t being designed with the whole lifecycle in mind. ‘We’re still failing to get to grips with linking design to end of life,’ he said, before highlighting the importance of communicating how products should be disposed of right from the design stage.
Basically, our products should be designed with end of life in mind. ‘If we haven’t even designed a plastic bottle properly,’ he lamented, ‘what hope do we have with something that’s more complicated?’
Those brightly coloured plastic bottles look nice and fancy, but they can be challenging to recycle in a circular economy.
Professor Thompson argued that better practices are needed to help divert materials away from our seas (and it should be noted that there are other types of discarded materials to be found there). If we recycle greater quantities of end of life plastic products and bring them into a circular economy, he said, ‘we’d decouple ourselves from oil and gas as the carbon source for new production because the carbon source we use would be the plastic waste’.
He said more could also be done with labelling so that customers know whether, for example, a product is compostable and which waste stream it needs to be placed in to achieve that. He also noted that addressing our single-use culture would be a good place to start if we want to change the business model of linear use.
The good news is that there is an appetite for change. ‘Ten years or so ago there was no consensus that there was a problem,’ Thompson noted. ‘I would argue that this has changed.’ However, he also feels that it is essential to gather reliable, independent evidence to inform interventions, rather than espousing solutions that could make things worse.
‘We need to gather that evidence from different disciplines,’ he said. ‘We need to have at the table product designers and couple them with the waste managers. We need to have economists at the table. We also need to bring in social scientists to look at behaviour. We’ve got to think about this in the round.’
He also felt that policy measures – such as mandating recycled content – could be a good option, along with better design and disposal.
The tools we need to tackle plastic pollution are already at our disposal. We just need to act more responsibly – which, unfortunately, has been part of the problem all along.
As Professor Thompson said: ‘It’s not the plastics per se that are the problem – it’s the way we’ve chosen to use them.’
>> For more interesting SCI talks like Professor Thompson’s, check out our YouTube channel.
>> Find out more about the work of Professor Thompson and his colleagues here: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/marine-litter.
The War on Plastic is a grand title. To most of us, it doesn’t seem like much of a war at all – more like a series of skirmishes. Nevertheless, if you look closely, you’ll see that a lot of companies are tackling the issue.
GSK Consumer Healthcare (GSKCH) is one such organisation. The healthcare brand that gave us Sensodyne and Advil has launched a carbon neutral toothbrush to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels (which create virgin plastic).
The composition of its Dr. Best tooth scrubber is interesting. The handle comprises a mixture of a cellulose derived from pine, spruce, and birch trees and tall oil, which comes from the wood pulping industry. The bristles are made from castor oil and the plastic-free packaging includes a cellulose window.
According to GSKCH, Dr. Best is Germany’s favourite toothbrush brand and there are plans to apply the technology to toothbrushes across its portfolio, including its Sensodyne brand. At the moment, GSK needs to apply carbon offsetting initiatives to make the toothbrush carbon neutral, but it says it is working on future solutions that do not require this approach.
GSK isn’t the only company that is actively reducing the use of plastics and minimising waste. Supermarket chain Morrisons has made aggressive moves in recent years to cut waste, and has just launched six ‘net zero waste’ stores in Edinburgh that will operate with zero waste by 2025.
Customers at these stores will be able to bring back hard-to-recycle plastics such as food wrappers, foils, yoghurt tubs, mixed material crisp tubes, coffee tubs, batteries, and plant pots. At the same time, all store waste will be collected by a range of specialist waste partners for recycling within the UK, and unsold food will be offered to customers at a cheaper price on the Too Good to Go app.
Morrisons’ proactive approach will help find a new life for hard-to-recycle packaging.
‘We’re not going to reach our ambitious targets through incremental improvements alone,’ said Jamie Winter, Sustainability Procurement Director at Morrisons. ‘Sometimes you need to take giant steps and we believe that waste is one of those areas. We believe that we can, at a stroke, enable these trial stores to move from recycling around 27% of their general waste to over 84% and with a clear line of sight to 100%.
‘We all need to see waste as a resource to be repurposed and reused. The technology, creativity and will exists – it’s a question of harnessing the right process for the right type of waste and executing it well.’
If this approach is successful, Morrisons plans to roll out the zero waste store format in all of its 498 stores across the UK next year.
>> Interested in reading more about sustainability and the environment? Check out our blog archive.
The government has also issued its latest battle cry in the war on plastics. Having defeated plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, it has turned its attention to other single-use plastics.
Single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups are among the items that could be banned in England following public consultation.
The humble cotton bud has now been retired from active service.
Somewhat surprisingly, it estimates that each person in England uses 18 single-use plastic plates and 37 single-use plastic items of cutlery each year; so, it has begun moves to cut out this waste stream.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We have made progress to turn the tide on plastic, banning the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, while our carrier bag charge has cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets. Now we are looking to go a step further as we build back greener.”
All in all, it’s encouraging to see that companies and the government are brushing up on their sustainable practices.
>> Curious to find out what the future looks like for lab-processed food and meat alternatives? Read what the experts say here.
Sometimes, when you try to solve one problem, you create another. A famous example is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia from Hawaii in 1935. The toads were introduced as a means of eliminating a beetle species that ravaged sugar cane crops; but now, almost a century later, Western Australia is inundated with these venomous, eco-system-meddling creatures.
In a similar spirit, disposable face masks could help tackle one urgent problem while creating another. According to researchers at Swansea University, nanoplastics and other potentially harmful pollutants have been found in many disposable face masks, including the ones some use to ward off Covid-19.
After submerging various types of common disposable face masks in water, the scientists observed the release of high levels of pollutants including lead, antimony, copper, and plastic fibres. Worryingly, they found significant levels of pollutants from all the masks tested.
Microscope image of microfibres released from children's mask: the colourful fibres are from the cartoon patterns | Credit: Swansea University
Obviously, millions have been wearing single-use masks around the world to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the release of potentially harmful substances into the natural environment and water supply could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.
‘The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ says project lead Dr Sarper Sarp, whose team’s work has been published on Science Direct. ‘However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify.
The presence of potentially toxic pollutants in some face masks could pose health and environmental risks.
‘There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.’
The Swansea scientists say stricter regulations must be enforced during manufacturing and disposal of single-use masks, and more work must be done to understand the effect of particle leaching on public health and on the environment. Another area they believe warrants investigation is the amount of particles inhaled by those wearing these masks.
‘This is a significant concern,’ adds Sarp, ‘especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.’
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the Blue Economy as ‘all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.’ Other organisations have their own definitions, but they all stress the economic and environmental importance of seas and oceans.
Header image: Our oceans are of economic and environmental importance
To this end there are a growing number of initiatives focused on not only protecting the world’s seas but promoting economic growth. At the start of 2021 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) joined forces to support clean and sustainable ocean initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
Both institutions will finance activities aimed at promoting cleaner oceans ‘through the reduction of land-based plastics and other pollutants discharged into the ocean,’ as well as projects which improve the sustainability of all socioeconomic activities that take place in oceans, or that use ocean-based resources.
ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, Bambang Susantono, said ‘Healthy oceans are critical to life across Asia and the Pacific, providing food security and climate resilience for hundreds of millions of people. This Memorandum of Understanding between the ADB and EIB will launch a framework for cooperation on clean and sustainable oceans, helping us expand our pipeline of ocean projects in the region and widen their impacts’.
The blue economy is linked to green recovery
In the European Union the blue economy is strongly linked to the bloc’s green recovery initiatives. The EU Blue Economy Report, released during June 2020, indicated that the ‘EU blue economy is in good health.’ With five million people working in the blue economy sector during 2018, an increase of 11.6% on the previous year, ‘the blue economy as a whole presents a huge potential in terms of its contribution to a green recovery,’ the EU noted. As the report was launched, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Committee said; ‘We will make sure that research, innovation and education contribute to the transition towards a European Blue Economy.’
The impact of plastics in oceans is well known and many global initiatives are actively tackling the problem. At the end of 2020 the World Economic Forum and Vietnam announced a partnership to tackle plastic pollution and marine plastic debris. The initiative aims to help Vietnam ‘dramatically reduce its flow of plastic waste into the ocean and eliminate single-use plastics from coastal tourist destinations and protected areas.’ Meanwhile young people from across Africa were congratulated for taking leadership roles in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. Participants in the challenge have raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in general.
But it isn’t just the health of our oceans that governments and scientists are looking at. There is growing interest in the minerals and ore that could potentially be extracted via sea-bed mining. The European Commission says that the quantity of minerals occupying the ocean floor is potentially large, and while the sector is small, the activity has been identified as having the potential to generate sustainable growth and jobs for future generations. But adding a note of caution, the Commission says, ‘Our lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment necessitates a careful approach.’ Work aimed at shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks and knowledge gaps associated with this type of mining is being undertaken.
With the push for cleaner energy and the use of batteries, demand for cobalt will rise, and the sea-bed looks to have a ready supply of the element. But, the World Economic Forum points out that the ethical dimensions of deep-sea cobalt have the potential to become contentious and pose legal and reputational risks for mining companies and those using cobalt sourced from the sea-bed.
Energy will continue to be harnessed from the sea.
But apart from its minerals, the ocean’s ability to supply energy will continue to be harnessed through avenues such as tidal and wind energy. During the final quarter of 2020, the UK Hydrographic Office launched an Admiralty Marine Innovation Programme. Led by the UK Hydrographic Office, the programme gives innovators and start-ups a chance to develop new solutions that solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges as related to our oceans.
The UK’s Blue Economy is estimated to be worth £3.2 trillion by the year 2030. Marine geospatial data will be important in supporting this growth by enabling the identification of new areas for tidal and wind energy generation, supporting safe navigation for larger autonomous ships, which will play a vital role in mitigating climate change, and more.