28 Dec 2018 - The Guardian's guest scientists pick the breakthroughs and discoveries that defined their year, from insights into human evolution to our first trip aboard an asteroid.
The world took action to combat plastic at last
Among the tsunami of bad news about plastic waste this year, there was a small piece of good news. This was an agreement in April by those responsible for more than 80% of the plastic packaging in the UK to make all plastic packing 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. This pledge, called the UK Plastics Pact, is significant because it has emerged not from government but from a consortium of companies and organisations including supermarkets, coffee chains, brands, manufacturers, waste disposal companies and local authorities. Thee organisationsy have clubbed together to solve this problem largely because they are under massive public pressure. They propose to create a circular economy of plastics, a seismic shift in the way companies engineer and use them. It is a big win for the environment of the UK, but it will also have a global impact, because many of the companies involved – such as Coca-Cola, Unilever and Procter & Gamble – are multinational corporations that sell products all over the world. Once the UK creates a non-polluting circular economy of plastic packaging, the likelihood of it being rolled out by these companies in the rest of the world is high. There is an enormous amount of work to do, but I hope when our children look back at the environmental catastrophe of the 20th century, they will see 2018 as the year plastic pollution started its decline.
Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society at University College London
Remote high seas found new defenders
Most people don’t think much about the high seas. Far beyond the horizon, they begin where national control ends, 200 nautical miles from the coast, and cover 61% of the ocean and 43% of the Earth’s surface. Few laws restrain fishing here; countries can opt out of those that exist, and much activity is in any case hidden by remoteness. But 2018 may signal the beginning of the end of freedom to plunder fish and slaughter wildlife caught alongside them. This year Global Fishing Watch lifted the veil on the high seas, exposing fishing vessels and companies to scrutiny for the first time. Their tool tracks ship movements based on satellite transmissions from vessels, and uses machine learning to determine what a vessel is doing from its behaviour. We learned this year that high seas fishing contributes only 4.2% of wild fish catches, that 64% of the spoils go to just five rich countries, and that much of this fishing would not be profitable without public subsidies. In September, the UN began negotiations for a new treaty to protect high seas wildlife, paving the way for marine protected areas that Global Fishing Watch can help to police.
Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York