This is a great idea and contribution from my good friend Toralf Igesund, from Bergen, Norway. Toralf has written three more important blogs about social change and waste management, the linkages of consumption growth with waste legislation, and the rise of big data sets in waste management. In his new post, he proposes to officially characterize microplastics as hazardous substances – I think such an idea has a great potential and it is in line with the recent dialogue that is in progress. Enjoy it.
“Nature has very limited ability to degrade plastic. Ultraviolet sunlight will break plastic down to ever smaller microplastics, but it will not disappear. The smaller the particles get, the more toxic it is, and the more it accumulates in biological tissue. The consequences of polluting our food chain are catastrophic. Microplastics should be defined as POPs with all the international legislation that follows. Marine littering must be prevented by international cooperation, like global warming. International concerted effort is needed to reduce production of plastic, prevent littering and clean up the rivers, shores, and oceans.
My previous blog posts have talked about how the waste curve in my city, Bergen in Norway, reflects our changing society. After WW2 the society changed quickly as new industries emerged, many of them employed women. This led to more double income families, with less time for cooking, which increased the demand for more processed food like conserves etc. The waste curve started to rise in this period because of more packaging, but also because of a generally increased wealth led to increased consumption. Mass-produced plastic entered the waste in Bergen around 1960.
On January 28th 2017 a whale hit the shore outside Bergen, Norway. The small tooth whale (Ziphius cavirostris) feeds on octopus and can dive down to 3,000 m depth. Concerned people helped it loose, but it stranded again. After repeated attempts to help the whale, one decided it was sick, and it was killed. An autopsy by the University of Bergen shocked the biologists; the stomach was full of plastic foil. The poor whale had no traces of food left in its guts; the blubber, the fat layer under the skin was thin. This whale normally locates octopus with its sonar in the deep. Why it had eaten sheets of plastic is not clear. Did its instincts tell that plastic foil was jellyfish or octopus? Did it find it on the surface or in the deep? Only 5% of the plastic in the oceans float on the surface, the rest is in the free water or on the bottom.
The whale had slowly starved to death. The story hit a nerve and went viral:
http://www.skynews.com.au/news/world/europe/2017/02/04/whale-s-stomach-clogged-with-plastic-bags.html Sky News is currently filming a documentary about the whale and cleaning of the shores.
An autopsy of the whale: http://www.uib.no/universitetsmuseet/104906/uib-forskere-fant-sjelden-hval-full-av-plast See pictures and other links under the article.
This “plastic whale” has fueled the ongoing debate about dealing with marine litter. But there are so many other stories. Scientists from Institute of marine research in Bergen recently found that four of ten cods fished in the fjord outside Bergen had visible microplastics in the guts. Then we have the fulmar, a northern small relative of the albatross, who lives its entire life on the sea. It stays on the shore only for breeding. Dead fulmars have been examined and their stomachs are full of plastic. Fulmar is now an endangered species.
It took mankind only 60 years to pollute the oceans, it will take much longer to clean it up, but there is no alternative
There is also micro plastic that is so small it is invisible. You spit it out every morning when you brush your teeth. You wash it out when you wash your fleece, and it is in your modern oil-free paint. Another main known source of microplastics is car tires.
Toxicologist Mette Haave, University of Bergen, believes microplastics should be classified as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP). The smaller particles of plastics, micro- and nanosize, have a large surface to volume ratio and contain much more hazardous substances. These particles are persistent (degrade slowly), they can accumulate in biological tissue, and they are toxic. All properties for POPs. Plastic can contain hazardous additives from production or it can absorb and accumulate it in the sea. A more detailed documentation is available at the Plastox project that clearly shows the link to toxicology.
So why should we not apply legislation for hazardous substances to microplastics? For me personally, this is a game-changer. We have ignored littering of our shores for decades, but we can`t ignore POPs entering the food chain, and poisoning our fish and mussels. This will call for more drastic measures.
How did we get here?
Plastic was invented one hundred years ago, but the petrochemical industry developed after WW2 and around 1960 a series of synthetic products entered the market under the common name of plastic. Plastic is the common name for manmade synthetic organic polymers. This cheap, versatile, formable product started its journey to conquer the world. Nylon was introduced on the market just after WW2 as a replacement for silk. Nylon (polyamide) stockings created sensation and became very popular. Consumers have learned the names of several new materials: PVC, bakelite, polystyrene, polyethylene, plexiglass, polyamide, polyurethane, and so on. The cheapest way to make most polymers is from oil or petrochemicals. The properties of the polymers can be changed by adding “additives” often complex organic chemicals like phthalates (will make PVC soft, but alter your hormone balance) or brominated flame retardants (hazardous). While the plastic industry refers to additives, recyclers refer to hazardous substances. When the plastic industry proudly tells their customers that they will tailor their plastic product exactly to what they need, the recycling industry realizes that there are millions of recipes for plastic, many containing hazardous organic compounds or heavy metals. Recycling of plastics is important and should be limited to pure qualities of plastic to uphold quality recycling. Contaminated plastics should be energy recovered.
So what can we do?
The obvious priority is to limit plastic entering the nature and the oceans. Good collection and recycling programs on land combined with fishing for litter and cleaning of beaches. The cost of producing, using and littering with plastic is so low and does not cover the cost of harming our environment. In economic terms, one would say that the external costs or negative externalities caused by marine littering are not considered. To do so is a political challenge of global scale. I will propose a general environmental tax on all plastic products. The tax can be differentiated: high for plastic with hazardous substances, low for recycled plastic. Better legislation is needed with improved implementation. EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) schemes and design for recycling combined with more sustainable production. Improved collection and recycling, while polluted plastic should go to WTE-plants. Washing machines and sewage treatment plants should be upgraded to filter out microplastics. Rivers should be filtered before they run into the oceans. Microplastics in cosmetics etc. should be banned. Fishing for litter etc. should be financed.
These are drastic measures, but marine littering must be prevented by international cooperation, like global warming. International concerted effort is needed to reduce production of plastic, prevent littering and clean up the rivers, shores, and oceans. Less developed nations will need assistance to improve their waste management and reduce their contribution to polluting the oceans.
It took mankind only 60 years to pollute the oceans, it will take much longer to clean it up, but there is no alternative – we depend on life in the oceans and the marine ecosystem is vital to us in so many ways.