Plastic problems and solutions

This guest blog is by an intern from the United States working with Michael Mobbs Sustainable Projects, Ed Weschler.

The Impact of Plastics, Humans and Solutions

•   United States intern, Ed Weschler

United States intern, Ed Weschler

From the Mountains to the Coast…

2 months ago, I went from 1,525 metres of elevation at Colorado State University to sea level in Sydney. As a Civil Engineering student with a minor in Global Environmental Sustainability, I’ve come here to work alongside Michael Mobbs on his Sustainable Projects throughout the Sydney area.

I’ve been provided this great opportunity through Boston based CAPA, a program that facilitates internships abroad. My work with Michael has been exciting, analysing rainfall collection, the effect of trees on urban heat, and impact of effective waste management/composting by local businesses. I have been utilizing Excel and AutoCAD to analyze and create .dwg files, and provide data for project site proposals.

During my first week working in Australia, I went to a café with Michael Mobbs. It was a cool, brisk day, with rain still hanging in the air, chilling Michael and I down to the bone. We ordered hot chocolates to lift the spirits and rid ourselves of the chill, and served in them were straws; wholly unnecessary in our eyes. Although they were paper, straws are representative of a much bigger issues in the global food industry: single use utensils.

• Urk

• Urk

Not all cafes have the presence of mind to use a compostable paper straw. Rather they choose the cheaper, more widely available plastic variety to serve in their iced coffees and other drinks. This is especially prevalent with the fast food and café chain, McDonalds, who’s shareholders voted this past year to keep using plastic straws in their restaurants. However, other major chains such as Starbucks have made the commitment to move away from straws. Instead they are providing customers with recyclable lids akin to a “sippy cup”. While this is still a single use plastic, it can be properly run through a recycling plant, unlike straws.

Since they are small, light, and easily airborne, straws perform poorly in recycling plants. They often fall through the conveyor belts cracks, are blown out of sorting machines, and end up on the floor of the plant, at which point they will be collected and moved out to a landfill. This is the fate of many thin or short (below 5 cm) plastics, which make up a majority of single use utensils.

Some parts of the United States are making efforts to outright ban single use plastics and takeaway containers. Colorado, located in the western side of the country, proposed bills in 2018 that would have required local cafes and restaurants to only distribute plastic straws upon request. However, due to a 1993 statute, no such bill can be put into place, as it would “prohibit the use and distribution of certain types of plastic”. Without the bill, local businesses aren’t legally required to stop using straws. However, local businesses in some smaller towns, such as Fort Collins, made anti-plastic campaigns this past summer. Restaurants opted for the more expensive paper straw option in cases where providing straws were necessary. Enough local businesses have caught on at this point that the local food vendor supplier has begun stocking more paper straws than ever before. While this is a step in the right direction, with local businesses leading by example, a larger effort needs to be made so a bigger impact can be felt.

• Amazingly awful plastic from us, we humans

• Amazingly awful plastic from us, we humans

The city of Seattle, Washington, provides an excellent example of the necessary “larger effort”. Beginning in 2010, a city wide ordinance required food service businesses to use compostable or recyclable utensils and take-away containers. Styrofoam was banned outright the year prior, as recycling facilities refuse to process them. However, due to a lack of compostable alternatives, straws and some other plastic utensils did not fall under that ordinance; that is until 8 years later when paper straws were introduced to the mainstream. Now, with local businesses using paper straws, an astounding 2.3 million plastic straws were kept out of the ocean in September 2018 alone. To enforce this adjustment towards more environmentally friendly business practices, shops that fail to comply with the ordinance face a $250 USD ($363 AUD) fine. However, local enforcement has focused on outreach and assistance to local business rather than fines for the year following the ordinance; they want to ensure businesses have the information and means necessary to make the transition rather than punish them outright.

Much like Seattle, other US cities such as Malibu have successfully banned plastic straws and other single use plastic utensils.

To help the environment in places where entire cities aren’t “on board” in the same way as Malibu and Seattle, attention should be turned to a common thread: Globally recognized companies. As mentioned before, companies such as Starbucks are already making efforts to stop distributing straws as soon as 2020. Other global businesses, such as the Walt Disney Company, have made similar pledges, with a goal to remove single use plastics from their locations around the world. By having these kinds of initiatives from household names, it pressures other “players in the game” to move in a similar direction. Hopefully, with enough time and pressure, food business giants such as McDonalds may refrain from providing non-compostable plastic straws and food utensils in their 36,000+ restaurants around the globe.

Recently, South Australia has made an effort to reduce the amount of these plastics entering the sea with their proposed plastic item ban. Leading by example, South Australia would become the first state in the country to outright ban single use plastic utensils, hopefully negating the amount of waste that finds its way into our oceans every year. They hope to implement their drafted legislation into parliament by 2020.

This could be the first of many steps to help reduce the high plastic usage in Australia. Currently, Australians use around 10 million straws every day, an unfortunate amount of which end up in its beautiful coastal beaches. Once straws, or other plastics, find their way to the ocean, their impact will be felt for decades or even centuries to come. The straw will degrade, forming what is referred to as microplastics, which are in the range of 0.33mm-1.00mm; small enough for most ocean wildlife to ingest them by accident. This ingestion can wreak havoc on the ecosystem, as it can choke an animal, or release BPA into its system. If a fish from these areas were to end up on our plates, that carcinogenic chemical could find its way into our own bodies.

Beyond the impact to our own health, it has been found that plastic plays a major role in the destruction of our coral reefs. It acts as an abrasive, like sandpaper almost, cutting into the coral allowing for infection. Plastic is even interfering with the next generation of wildlife, as it is preventing turtles from giving birth easily on beaches on Bremer Island. They have to “circumnavigate piles of plastic” to find a suitable location to have their offspring.

• Hard to imagine swimming in this, or this being your home

• Hard to imagine swimming in this, or this being your home

By effectively managing our own waste, be it plastic utensils, straws, or takeaway containers, we can play a part in a bigger movement to preserve the ecosystem around us. Small acts, like requesting no straw or supporting local businesses that allow you to bring your own takeaway containers that can be reused, will ultimately help motivate others towards more sustainable practices.