Plastics used to be an aesthetics issue, we simply didn’t like the look of rubbish bags blowing around our streets, but now it has become a public health issue.
Plastics have been documented in marine life from the digestive tracts of whales to the respiratory systems of turtles. Plastics have entered the food chain and therefore, the human system.
Made from oil and with only 8% being recycled globally, tackling our plastic use is one hurdle in tackling climate change.
“We saw it (plastics) as an aesthetic problem, something that was displeasing to the eye and we didn’t like it and we tried to find a way around it.
“Now the problem is we are starting to hear that the plastics are in the human system, now it’s no longer an abstract pollution issue, now it’s a public health issue. It’s a major public health issue,” said Green Party senator Grace O’Sullivan.
“When the plastic is in the faeces of the human or in the stomach of the human, what is in this plastic? What are the chemicals that are used to harden the plastic? Who’s legislating around that? We know that hydrocarbon, so oil, is used to make plastic. Now we’re starting to question, what materials are used to harden it? Are there resins? Are there chemicals?” asked the senator.
Between 1964 and 2014 global plastic production increased 20-fold from 15m tonnes to 311m tonnes. Much of this is so-called single-use plastic like our coffee cup, which comes with a plastic lining, our water bottle, or our tray of tomatoes which comes in a hard container and covered in a soft film.
To understand plastics and the source of the problem, you just need to look at the oil industry. The oil and plastic industry are one and the same.
Mindy O’Brien, the co-ordinator of Voice (Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment), says plastics manufacture is only going to increase. She is an environmental attorney who worked in Washington DC before moving to Ireland more than 20 years ago.
“The price of recycled plastic is actually higher than the price of virgin plastic, so therefore, there is no incentive for the manufactures to buy recycled plastic so the uptake of the plastics is really low, and that’s 8% as well (only 8% of the world’s plastic is recycled),” she said.
Of all the plastic ever produced, only 30% is still in use. About 10% has been burned and 60% has ended up in landfill.
Climate change and environmental lobbyists not only criticise governments and industry, but they table solutions.
“You need to either tax virgin plastic to make it less attractive and you need to put mandatory recycled content requirements on products, so you create the market for that recycled plastic,” said Ms O’Brien, in regard to reducing the manufacture of plastic.
Senator O’Sullivan, who has been leading the charge on legislation in Ireland to ban micro-beads and single-use plastic, is really only interested in solutions at this stage.
“Now we really have to acknowledge that there is a huge, huge problem around plastic pollution and that’s where I start to go to the source. Who’s producing these plastics? Who is responsible for this? And what action can be taken to stop this crime against humanity?
“I am a strong believer in innovative solutions. I know already that companies are working on biodegradable types of plastic, so made from a whey product, when milk breaks down. The point is, that it’s not going to be like: ‘Oh my god how are we going to carry things around?’ No, it’s: ‘How are we going to get on with this? How are we going to come up with solutions?’” said Senator O’Sullivan.
While she believes in action at a personal level, the senator feels that only people pressure on government and industry is what will turn the tide now.
“There are a lot of strands of action, collective action that we can take, but at the moment I actually think we have to start mobilising support to push down on the industry,” she said.
While Ireland has its own draft legislation to deal with plastics, a new EU directive banning some single-use plastic items will probably kick in here first.
"The only way you’re going to do that is through a deposit-refund scheme,” said Ms O’Brien.
In an Irish context, the Government has promised to lead a “war on single-use plastics” by banning them from use by the public sector.
Minister for Climate Change Richard Bruton will outline plans early in the next few weeks to impose a total ban on unnecessary single-use plastics across the whole of the public sector, including all Government departments, State agencies, hospitals and schools.
Ms O’Brien believes that the world has now reached a tipping point in relation to environmental awareness and the willingness to act on that, because plastics, which take 400 years to break down, are entering our bodies. This is what should make people care said the lawyer.
“So why should I care? A — because it’s from oil. B — because it’s used once and it’s thrown away. C — the huge thing is the leakages in system. If you don’t care about animals, you care about yourself, it’s getting into our own bodies and we’re eating it, because it’s getting into the water,” said Ms O’Brien.
“I’ve been working on this for 20 years. We are at a watershed moment. With the internet you’re seeing birds with plastic on their heads, the turtle with a straw up its nose, whales dead because they’e been eating plastic bags thinking it’s squid. You have David Attenborough with his Blue Planet series. It’s finally made it into the popular consciousness.
“It’s everybody, it’s not just the Birkenstock-wearing hippies, it’s everyone saying: ‘There’s a problem out there.’ It’s on the news all the time. Climate change has become mainstream,” she added.
The Panda recycling centre in Ballymount, Dublin, is the largest recycling plant in the country and where your green bin goes to get sorted. Used nappies are regular sights on the picking line, where human beings hand sort through your bin, wearing just gloves, on eight-hour shifts.
Other things that make it into the recycle bin include dead animals, carpets, batteries and containers full of food, which contaminate everything around it.
Another nuisance is wet wipes.
According to the plant’s general manager, Liam Dunne, 36% of the recycled waste they receive every single day ends up getting burnt because it is not recyclable. This is either because of contamination, or because the wrong thing ended up in the green bin.
Of the other 64% that does go on to have another life, 40% of that is paper, 6% is cardboard, and 8% is made up of aluminium and mixed plastics.
While such a small amount of what actually gets recycled is plastic, the number thing in our green bin in now plastic. That is according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) December report on kerbside and household waste.
“In household bins plastic has taken over as the main product in the residual bin. Part of this is because organic waste has gone to the brown bin. Plastic has gone up considerably,” Stephen Treacy of the EPA told the Irish Examiner.
A total of 17.2% of Ireland’s household waste is now plastic. In the black, or residual bin, you will find 18.6% plastic, in the green, or receding bin, you will find 19.5% plastic and in the organic bin you will find 3.8% plastic.
“The most prominent category (in the household bin) was plastics averaging 17.2% of the total composition. Of this plastic waste, 70%
remains in the MRW collection,” reads the EPA’s December report.
According to REPAK, it funded the recycling of 64,805 tonnes of plastic packaging up until October of 2018. In 2017, it funded the recycling of 78,688 tonnes. These figures do not give a national figure.
Mr Treacy from the EPA said that blended plastics, your tray of tomatoes covered in a soft film, are hard to deal with and the solution is in the reduction of their manufacturing.
“Blended plastics are hard to recycle, especially the semi-soft packaging, clingfilm, and take-away containers.
“We need to reduce the amount of packaged waste being used and produced,” he said.
“For recycling it needs to be clean, dry and loose. Contamination seriously affects the value of recyclable material. Contamination is worse now than it was in 2008,” added Mr Treacy.
Items that can go in your recycle bin include hard plastics, cardboard, paper and aluminium tins.
More information is available at www.recyclinglistireland.ie.
Mr Dunne from the Panda recycling centre said that contamination means things such as containers filled with coleslaw or milk and dirty nappies. Small traces of food remnants or shampoo is not necessarily contamination.
From turtles to seabirds, and dolphins to whales, the effect of plastic on our environment is now indisputable, even to the most staunch of climate change deniers.
In Irish research, 100% of sea animals autopsied, were found to have plastics in their guts.
Large plastic items were found in all compartments of the digestive tract but with plastics most had them in their stomachs. Plastic bags were the most frequently recorded item found in deep diving whales.
A shotgun cartridge was found in one stranded True’s beaked whale, while ice cream wrapper and fragmented plastics were also found.
“Plastics getting into the food chain means we could have micro-plastics in our digestive systems. We have to have a wholesale societal change. Why are we producing plastic in the first place?” said Mr Berrow.
The IWDG study showed that while larger marine debris is widespread and consumed by nearly 10% of those individuals studied, the smaller fractions, known as microplastics are ubiquitous occurring in all whales, dolphins and porpoise examined
Meanwhile, Padraic Fogarty, of the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) focuses on birds.
“Entanglement is the biggest issue. Mirco-plastics getting into the food chain is another issue. There are toxins in plastics and fish are ingesting it and we are ingesting fish.
“Seabirds are also ingesting plastics. The bird population is under big pressure. Plastic is a very big problem,” he said.
More Irish research, this time from Galway and Mayo, support these statements.
Research at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) found that seabirds around the Irish coast regularly ingest plastic that they mistake for food. A total of 250 dead birds were examined, and 20% had plastic in their stomachs.
“In total we had 20 species collected and 14 of these had plastics.
“If plastic is abundant at sea and is just floating there they mistake it for prey, for food,” Dr Heidi Acampora of the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre of GMIT.
“If they have all of that in their stomachs there is very little space for food so they end up dying from starvation. They don’t get any nutrition from the plastic,” added Dr Acampora.
Other recent research conducted by researchers in NUI Galway into plastic pollution in the Atlantic Ocean found that over 70% of deep-sea fish had ingested plastic.