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Albatross CarcassThe remains of an albatross carcass taken on Midway Island by an award winning cameraman who went to live on an island inhabited by the birds.
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Albatrosses on Midway Island
The plight of plastic on Albatross birds on Midway Island, an Island on the North Pacific Ocean, 2000 miles from the nearest continent. The island is littered in plastic, which the inhabiting albatross population ingests, causing a shocking and painful death.
Plastic packaging gets a bad press among environmentalists. They see the material as the main cause of marine litter. Granted, it’s difficult to argue against their case. Most waste plastics are not biogegradable and careless disposal by consumers and poor practices by waste management companies and councils (for example not sealing their vans properly or providing poor recycling facilities) does create an environmental problem.
By its very nature, most plastic packaging tends to float in water and blow in the wind, so it collects in hedgerows and runs off in rainwater into rivers and lakes, and eventually finds its way into the sea. Reports of plastic soups—which are collections of partly degraded plastic molecules in the sea and lakes, affecting wildlife, beaches and harbours—provide ammunition for activists to take easy pot shots at plastic manufacturers.
But other materials contribute to the problem, including processed metal (meshes and wires), cardboard and glass, especially drinks containers like aluminium cans, cardboard take away soft drink cups (coated to prevent degradation in contact with water) and beer and wine bottles. None of these degrade quickly.
This week I watched this video about a cameraman who spent some time living on an island inhabited by albatrosses. There are no people on the island. He captured shocking footage, assuming it is not staged, of the birds dying as chicks and adults. The autopsies of these birds show excessive presence of waste rigid litter in their stomachs. Much of the litter was plastics—mainly bottle caps—but there was plenty of metal in there, including a wire mesh or two, as well as old cigarette lighters composed of metal and plastic.
Watching this video made me really think about the issue at hand here. In the past, there have been many admirable attempts by industry leaders to tackle the problem.
But looking at it realistically, I think the industry is doing all it can. Degradable plastics are available to packaging manufacturers and options for bio-based products are growing apace. Recycling technologies are a fast mover in the waste industry right now, although, as I explain later, there are still some areas for improvement in terms of how well reclaimers are controlling litter on their wagons. Packaging manufacturers are offering a growing range of options to improve resource utilisation rates, like thinner walls, to make products lighter in weight by using less plastic material. Injection mould design engineers and machinery manufacturers have contributed to enabling this technology, thanks to improvements in injection power available to allow thinner walls to be moulded in higher volumes.
Plastics are also being used extensively in manufacturing to replace heavier materials like metal, glass and wood to make products lighter, also known as “lightweighting”. This has an environmental benefit, especially when used in vehicles, in terms of parts being lighter thereby improving fuel efficiency. Also, the amount of fuel used in transporting these parts around the world during manufacture is less. Plastics are also enabling “green” technologies, such as renewable energy (eg resins used in wind farms and polymer films for photovoltaic arrays). These measures are recognised as helping to reduce overall carbon emissions.
At the same time, however, our society is becoming more and more driven by consumerism. And, as consumers, we are all looking for better quality products at lower prices, particularly when it comes to fresh food and drink produce.
It occurred to me that perhaps the problem is less of an issue of the plastics industry, but more one of general litter. Surely looking after litter is the responsibility of local and national governments, not the manufacturers who make the material in the first place, and if litter dropped in communities is running into lakes and ultimately oceans, this is an issue for international government representatives.
Furthermore, politicians are looking for us, as consumers, to increase our levels of spending—in a sustainable way, it must be said—to help recessive Western economies recover. A significant proportion of this spending will be on fast moving consumer goods (FMCG), which will generate a high volume of waste.
But if the issue of litter goes under the radar throughout the recovery and into sustained economic growth, negative vibes from environmentalists towards the plastics industry may hamper the packaging industry’s success. It seems only fair that if the government is looking towards manufacturing to help us grow, it should also provide sufficient support in terms of infrastructure, educational support and penalties for litterers to enable our consumers to dispose of waste responsibly.
Without firm commitment from the government, it is very difficult to draw a line as to who should carry the flag. The last company to see the products which cause litter are the retailers, before them, manufacturers of FMCGs, and before them packaging companies. Then moving upstream, the next companies to handle the materials are film and sheet converters (metal and plastic), polymer resin and aluminium manufacturers, petrochemical feedstock suppliers and ultimately oil and natural gas and mining companies.
If the plastics companies were dumping large loads of plastics waste as part of their production processes, like used to happen on oil platforms where waste water contaminated with chemicals could sometimes end up in the sea, or where through accidental oil spillages scores of marine birds would be caught, then it would be fair to point the finger at the producers of thermoplastic polymers, packaging, and FMCG for irresponsible manufacturing operations.
But in almost all situations this is not the case. That said, I do sometimes see industrial culprits “leaking” litter on the motorway. Just this week, during my 40-mile journey home from work, I saw waste plastics flying out of two waste reclamation wagons because the wagon driver had not put his cover properly. The situation reminded me of a plane releasing water over a forest fire, but instead of water the wagon was steadily releasing waste plastic throughout the journey unknowingly leaving a steady stream of litter on the carriageway ready to be washed away into the nearby Mersey estuary.
On the way to work this morning I saw a large number of unused paper cups strewn across the motorway with a number of pieces of ripped blue plastic sheeting blowing around the hard shoulder. It looked like a lorry carrying disposable packaging products had shed some of its load.
After watching the video of the albatrosses, numerous questions began to circle. Is it reasonable for the plastics industry to be expected to clean up after consumers? What happened to penalties and fines for littering and the nationwide Keep Britain Tidy campaign that, as a child of the 1970s and 1980s, was drummed into me at school and via television adverts? Has the plastics industry become a scapegoat for litter in general? Has litter become socially acceptable? Can manufacturers of plastic packaging do more to protect themselves from criticism and bad press by lobbying governments to take better control of litter? How can stakeholders come together and work on a coordinated and long term solution to the problems? Can we learn any lessons from other sectors whose products have led to unintended environmental problems, perhaps the oil industry?
I posed these questions to the newly elected president of the British Plastics Federation (BPF), Mike Boswell. Mike is managing director of UK polymer distributor Plastribution, whose customers include a wide range of plastic packaging manufacturers. Just this week Britain’s plastics industry was identified by UK Prime Minister David Cameron as playing a “vital role in our everyday lives” and contributing to a “green economy” in a personalised letter to the BPF congratulating the association on its 80th anniversary.
Commenting, Mike said: “Litter is a serious issue of massive environmental concern. The fact that the plastics industry is sometimes forced to accept a degree of blame from environmentalists is unfair, and a real shame. UK manufacturers are some of the most environmentally conscious processors I know. But they have no control over what happens to plastic parts once the products they contain have been consumed. Recycling of plastics packaging has moved ahead fast while the amount of plastic being used is being reduced through lightweighting.”
Emulating the point that not all litter is caused by plastic materials, Mike said: “Walking around my local park I regularly see empty soft drink cans, cigarette packets, alcohol containers and crisp and sweet wrappers—these are not direct products of the plastics industry, more of big manufacturers of fast moving consumer goods and their retailers.”
To solve the problem of litter on land, and the run off of this litter into rivers, lakes and ultimately the oceans, Mike says we need more effort from the government in terms of education, infrastructure and law enforcement.
He adds: “It’s not good enough insisting that fast food companies install bins on their own land. I live 6 miles from the nearest fast food restaurant and I regularly pick up litter with the restaurant’s logo on it from outside my house.”
I asked Mike whether he thought enough was being done at government level to tackle littering. “Not at all,” he responded. “We need more momentum for campaigns like Keep Britain Tidy, TV ads, more litter bins and joined up thinking across manufacturers, environmentalists and local and national government to help manage litter on land and prevent it flowing into the sea.”
For me, litter is a real problem in the UK, especially compared to Germany and Scandinavia. It’s a sensible guess that much of the plastic, metal and cardboard which ends up in the sea and harms marine life was discarded on land. The point is that if, as an industry, the plastics industry attempts to solve it on its own, it is inadvertently taking responsibility for the problem without much hope of success—it’s too big for us to handle on our own. And, more importantly, litter is the responsibility of the government and the general public.
A parallel situation is the issue of carbon emissions from energy companies, where it is the parties responsible for the emissions who are charged, not the producers of the fuels which are burnt.
But the difficulty for people supporting how to take a firmer approach to litter control will be just how high up the priority list the issue is for politicians and how much damage the environmentalists can cause to our industry.
Carbon emissions have been shown to cause global warming. Litter is harming marine wildlife, and potentially fish stocks. But as it stands there is not a great deal of evidence that shows it has a direct effect on our health, apart from it being an ugly eyesore.
Closing, Mike said: “Plastics are essential for sustaining human life. All stakeholders—including society, governments, NGOs, producers, processors, users, retailers and consumers—must work together to solve the issues relating to plastics litter and the problems that are caused in the environment. The solutions exist; it is more a case of the will to engage them. And it is not a task that the plastics industry should be left to tackle on its own as this would inevitably result in failure.”
The British Plastics Federation is a supporter of Keep Britain Tidy. It also operates a loss prevention initiative called Operation Clean Sweep, the goal of which is to help the plastics industry reduce the loss of plastic pellets to the environment. The initiative includes a manual with guidelines to help manufacturers and a pledge signed by companies who have made a commitment to a clean environment.