20 May 2018 - Industry is being driven by consumers to take action after decades of plastic waste leaking into the seas, causing unknown damage to the environment and health. Anne Zammit reports on PolyTalk 2018, an international forum held in St Julian’s last month and sponsored by the World Plastics Council.
Disturbing images of floating plastic waste islands in the media are whipping up strong emotions among consumers, pushing leaders in the plastics industry to act.
Their insistence is for “science-based solutions” for what they admit is the unprecedented problem of marine plastic litter worldwide.
The scientific community is calling for plastic products to be better designed for recycling. Conservationists promote alternatives, but in some cases the impact on the environment of other materials can be greater than using plastics.
Addressing a recent international conference on ocean litter held in Malta, marine biologist Richard Thompson said little was known about the potential impacts of plastic on human health and ecosystems, or how to separate the impacts of plastic from other impacts.
“There are some applications where we didn’t need plastics,” said Prof. Thompson, co-author of the European Union Marine Strategy Framework Directive text on marine litter.
Plastic waste accounts for around 80 per cent of all litter found in the oceans. But deciding how to manage multiple types of plastic is complex.
Experts at the conference described how the enclosed Mediterranean Sea is especially vulnerable, as debris becomes trapped. The seabeds offshore of towns and cities are covered in plastic litter.
And beach and underwater cleanups may only be scratching the surface of the problem.
In a keynote speech, European Commissioner for the Environment Karmenu Vella referred to marine litter as “a global problem of enormous dimensions”. He alluded to new legislation proposing a phase-out of single-use cups in vending machines and water fountains.
“The Mediterranean Sea must not be endangered by something as avoidable as plastic litter,” the Commissioner said.
The chief executive officer of ENI subsidiary Versalis, Daniele Ferrari, listed the benefits of plastic, describing how vehicles could be made lighter, lowering their carbon footprint.
As recently appointed president of Plastics Europe, Mr Ferrari declared that the association of the region’s plastic manufacturers viewed the European Commission’s strategy for plastic in a circular economy as “a challenging opportunity” requiring efficient reuse or recycling while preventing plastic from finding its way into oceans.
Researchers at the conference complained of a lack of information on some additives in food packaging which may have an adverse effect on human health as the plastics break down once released into the environment.
“Corporations are turning to universities to find packaging solutions, but we need financial support and political will to solve the problem,” said commenter Helmut Schmitz of the Green Dot system.
The OECD Global Forum is seeking “a shift in sustainable chemistry thinking at the pro-duct design stage” to reduce the environmental and health impacts of plastic litter.
While a portion of marine plastic items may be collected and sorted for reuse, scientists have grave concerns over pervasive microplastics.
Malta’s newly appointed Ocean Ambassador, marine biologist Alan Deidun, told the conference of some of the work done at the University of Malta to develop an algorithm for scanning microplastics.
Plastic pellets, flakes and powders used in manufacturing escape into the marine environment at many points along the distribution chain. Examples were given at the conference of how Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port contains spillage of microplastics into the sea.
Larger items of plastic debris break down into increasingly smaller particles over time but never actually disappear. International standards still define biodegradability “within commercial conditions”, where it is sold or used, rather than in environmental conditions.
It’s more critical than we thought and it has a chance of ending up on your plate
Sounding the alarm over microplastics in the ocean, Prof Thompson of Plymouth University admitted: “We don’t know how to assess them.
“They are reaching locations far away from where they are used. There is cause for alarm today… the warning signals from the natural environment are there. In 10 or 20 years with business-as-usual, the harm may be greater.”
Urging industry representatives to take steps to reduce the harm caused when fish mistake plastics for prey, Prof. Thompson also called for the redesign of plastic bottles so that their value can be recovered through recycling. Most descend to rest on the ocean floor, where marine species also feed.
About half of marine plastic waste is lost fishing gear of a quality suitable for recycling in the clothing industry.
Recycled coffee grounds can be used to revive odour-freshness in garments.
A senior manager at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said pellets in the Arctic may be interfering with the formation and melting of sea ice. Microplastics in the food chain are portents of “unforeseen consequences for life,” he explained.
“It’s more critical than we thought and it has a chance of ending up on your plate,” observed Heike Imhoff from the German Federal Ministry for the Environment.
Work by marine eco-toxicologists on the sources and harm of nanoplastics is a priority of the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, according to project manager Francois Galgani. The Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association of the Arabian Gulf region reported on projects around the world to prevent litter getting into the oceans.
And in Italy, plastic cotton buds are to be banned next year and the microbeads found in personal care products in 2020.
Microplastics which attract pollutants may be in for an eco-audit, but the plastics industry sees better waste management rather than product bans as the way forward.
Research is ongoing to produce fuel from plastic waste by pyrolysis and gasification with less greenhouse gas emissions than incineration. Pyrolisers on ships could address waste generated at sea, which accounts for one-fifth of all marine litter
It took the debilitating waste crisis of the Lebanese war to push Cedar Environmental CEO Ziad Abichaker into making compressed panels for rooftop farming and vertical green walls from old CDs, car bumpers and discarded toothbrushes.
According to Jim Seward, chairman of the World Plastics Council, the situation could become catastrophic when the collection and management of land-based waste breaks down, as it did on the shores of the South Mediterranean.
The council, wary of trade-offs between the economy, environmental health and convenience, calls for “a balancing of the pros and cons of legislation”.
Libya has started providing Plastic Odyssey, an Italian marine litter collection and recycling project, with data of litter on its beaches since last month.
Private intervention is needed in Southeast Asia, where marine litter is particularly bad, since reliance on local governments has not been enough.
The Plastic Soup Foundation has been a partner in developing the My Little Plastic Footprint app launched at Nairobi’s United Nations Environment Assembly last December.
Stefanie Werner, scientific officer for the marine protection unit within Germany’s environment agency, noted that plastic had been “a market failure from an environmental point of view”, since life cycle analysis does not consider oceans as the final sink, or plastic as a pollutant.
No to Plastics Malta, a local non-governmental organisation, was started up by Edward Sultana, a former mechanical engineer in plastic injection-moul-ding. Mr Sultana informed the conference that he had started to see “the darker side of plastics” when he took up diving.
Mr Sultana believes that most people lack basic knowledge about the environmental effects of plastic but feel that they have few alternatives.
He is campaigning for Maltese beaches to be declared “plastic-free” and says that the public needs clearer guidelines regarding what is truly recyclable.