2017 was a landmark year for all those who care about the ocean. I realised how things had changed when a conversation sprang up at a local pub and my new-found acquaintances asked me the inevitable ‘So what do you do for a living?’ question. I mentioned KIMO and the work we’re doing to prevent marine pollution. Rather than drawing mildly approving blank-looking smiles from my interlocutors as had previously been the case, I was met with enthusiastic nods and a diatribe on the evils of microplastics. I was pleasantly taken aback. Had this been a one-off occurrence, I may have chalked it down to chance and the vagaries of people’s personal interests. However, as the weeks passed, the same thing happened again and again. I heard a postman launch into the disgrace of North Sea fulmars having stomachs so full of plastic fragments that they starve to death. I heard a woman plastic-shaming her friend for asking for a straw with her drink: ‘They kill turtles you know!’. I met an aquaculture worker who spent his holidays travelling by boat to remote atolls in Shetland to remove marine litter.
Public awareness of the marine pollution problem has never been higher. People want to help protect and clean up the oceans. Great! We are at a crossroads where we can make a significant and lasting improvement to the way we generate and process waste to the ultimate benefit of our seas. It would be a great pity if we squandered the opportunity. How might we conspire to do that? By replacing one form of environmentally damaging waste with another.
Browsing through lists of ‘ocean friendly brands’ recently, I found that up to half of the products listed were made from ‘bioplastic’, ‘biodegradable plastic’ or ‘compostable plastic’. To see why this is a problem, let’s take a look at what these terms actually mean.
Most plastics are synthesised from fossil fuels. Bioplastics, by contrast, are synthesised from biomass. In order to highlight their green credentials some companies will make a song and dance about the plastic in their products coming from maize or flaxseeds or a host of other potential options. These claims are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Why? A 2015 United Nations report sums it up quite succinctly:
Once the polymer is synthesised, the material properties will be the same, whatever the type of raw material used
Essentially, this means that plastic is plastic regardless what you make it from. Don’t be fooled by bioplastics.
Plastics that are capable of being broken down into carbon dioxide, water and minerals by natural processes (microbes, sunlight and hydrolysis) are considered to be biodegradable. In order to officially sport a ‘biodegradable’ label, products have to conform to a national or international set of standards. In Europe, the EN 13432 standard applies which mandates that:
- the plastic must not contain high levels of heavy metals
- 90% of the plastic must break down into CO2 within 6 months of exposure to biological action
- after 12 weeks of exposure, 90% of the leftover plastic must be able to pass through a 2 x 2 mm mesh
- the resultant material should not prove toxic to plants
The rate at which the plastic biodegrades, however, is highly dependent on the type of plastic and the receiving environment. For many biodegradable plastic products, the biodegradable certification criteria will be met only within an industrial composting facility where the temperatures vary between 50°C and 70°C – a temperature that is never achieved in the ocean.
In the ocean, plastics break down primarily through UV radiation, helped along by wave action. This means that plastics on the shoreline break down more quickly than elsewhere in the marine environment. It is estimated that only 4-5% of ocean plastics are to be found on beaches and shorelines. Once plastics become submerged in deeper water, become covered in biofilm or are buried in sediment, the rate of fragmentation decreases greatly. Whenever fragmentation does occur in the marine environment, microplastics are eventually produced.
Studies also show that labelling a plastic product as ‘biodegradable’ may actually encourage littering due to the misconception that the product will harmlessly decompose in the natural environment. Biodegradable plastics are not a solution to marine litter.
Compostable plastics are essentially plastics whose biodegradable credentials have been verified by a competent independent third party organisation. The verifying organisation also agrees to monitor the product on the market to ensure it continues to maintain its ‘biodegradable’ status. The extra level of scrutiny allows producers to label such plastics as ‘compostable’. Since these plastics are simply monitored biodegradable plastics, once they end up in the marine environment they pose all the same problems as other biodegradable plastics. There is no compost in the ocean.
How then do we prevent plastic pollution?
First and foremost – cut down on the amount of plastic we produce and use. I still remember when toilet rolls were wrapped in paper rather than plastic. Coconuts and bananas don’t need plastic wrappers. We’re drowning in examples of immediate changes we could make to reduce our plastic footprint. We need to keep up the pressure on supermarkets and producers to make these simple changes. Once the low-hanging bananas have been picked though, what else can we do? How about we start by tackling the 3 types of Bad Plastic?
Bad Plastic #1 – Single Use
There is no place in any economy for single use plastic. Not only is it harmful to the environment, it is also a terribly inefficient waste of resources. Approximately half of all plastics produced are used for single use lightweight packaging. There are a number of social media campaigns aimed at eradicating single use plastics (e.g. #saynotosingleuse; #zerowaste; #passonplastic) – get involved. Besides pressuring industry to change, we can all cut down on single use plastic. I know it’s difficult but we need to vote with our wallets and purses.
Bad Plastic #2 – Unrecyclable
A large percentage of the plastic products we use cannot be recycled. Most government policies aimed at reducing the amount of plastic waste that goes to landfill, fail to address this fundamental issue. You can’t increase recycling rates for a product which can’t be recycled. This is fundamentally a problem of product design. In most cases, the problem arises due to the mixing of materials which can’t be easily separated again.
Disposable coffee cups are a prime example – the paper and waterproof plastic lining can’t be separated at a recycling facility so the whole thing ends up in landfill. There are many other lesser known examples – sandwich packaging is made from paper, laminated in plastic and lovingly finished off with a little transparent window made from an entirely different kind of plastic – a recycling nightmare. Ironically, older style sandwich packaging made entirely from a single type of plastic is potentially more environmentally friendly as it can actually be recycled. Pouches used for pet food, soups and juices like Capri-Sun consist of so many different materials that it will cost more energy to separate them out for recycling than its worth. These pouches replaced food tins and aluminium cans both of which can be easily recycled in perpetuity.
Size can be a barrier to recycling – items like straws which are small and lightweight will likely never be recycled as the cost of separating and collecting hundreds of thousands of straws would exceed the value of the reclaimed plastic manyfold. The colour of the plastic matters too – white and clear plastics are more similar in composition to virgin plastic and thus easier to recycle than darker coloured plastics. Biodegradable plastics are considered a contaminant in plastic recycling facilities and have to be separated out from the rest of the plastics before recycling lest they compromise the recycled material. This drives up recycling costs.
When you consider that most plastics can be recycled 7-9 times, the practice of creating products that are unrecyclable by design is both wasteful and silly. Using fewer different types of plastics and designing simpler products would instantly improve recycling rates.
Bad Plastic #3 – Not Recycled
Of all the plastics ever produced, only 9% have been recycled. Some plastic has been burned in energy capture plants but nearly 80% of the global plastic product has ended up as landfill, litter or marine litter. What’s the use of creating recyclable products if they are not, in fact, recycled? For years, large coffee chains have marked their cups as ‘Recyclable’. In theory this is true as there are one or two dedicated recycling facilities which are able to recycle the cups. In reality, 99% of the cups are thrown away and never recycled – there is not enough capacity to recycle them and doing so is not cost effective.
‘Recyclable’ is a meaningless label unless the product is actually recycled after being used. Why should companies which benefit financially from using cheap plastics, not be held financially accountable for recycling that waste – either directly or through the implementation of a ‘plastic tax’? Supermarkets in the UK pay £18 per tonne towards recycling, whereas in other European countries, businesses pay up to £133 per tonne for recycling. To broaden our minds as to what’s possible, consider Germany, where producers pay 100% of recycling costs. Extended Producer Responsibility schemes have to play a part if we are to stop the plastic tide.
As municipalities, we also have a responsibility to ensure that both waste collection and recycling are optimised. Waste needs to be managed better so that every plastic item entering the waste stream is actually recycled after use.
Feeling overwhelmed by the information overload? Here’s a flowchart which might help you to identify Bad Plastic.
Onward ocean soldiers!
The European Commission’s Plastics Strategy is currently being debated in the EU Parliament. KIMO participated in the stakeholder consultation process during the drafting of this document and will continue to lobby for an ambitious plastics strategy to cut off the flow of plastics into our seas. In the meantime, there is a lot we can all do. Let’s not get sidetracked by bioplastic and biodegradable plastic. They are not a solution to marine litter. Instead, let’s get involved on social media, let’s put pressure on both government and industry to eliminate Bad Plastic. Let’s lead by example and cut Bad Plastic out of our lives. Let’s not squander this opportunity to make things right – we may only get one shot.