A fly in the ointment
Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my plastics soup! In today’s free press, we are faced repeatedly with shock headlines about marine litter and the role that packaging plays in it. The reality that is often overlooked in this all-encompassing tidal wave of anti-packaging sentiment is that the top-five countries contributing to the world’s ‘plastics soup’ are in East Asia.
It is estimated that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand are responsible for up to two thirds of plastics waste entering the oceans.
While the EU is perhaps relatively ‘innocent’ of this marine scourge, it could help to stem the so-called plastics tide by encouraging East Asian countries to setup or upgrade their waste collection networks by using financial or direct infrastructure aid.
But what else can the EU do to help? Well, it could help those countries improve their environmental education. Meanwhile, at home it could, and should, increase investment in infrastructure for separate collection and recycling.
This is already happening, even if it’s rather piecemeal at the moment. In the UK, for example, research has revealed that there are 39 different sets of rules for what can be put in plastics recycling collections, while some parts of the country do not collect plastics at all.
While some will say that local authorities need to be more uniform in how and what they collect across the four UK nations, others will say that the problem stems from the use of too many different plastics in packaging production. It’s probably fair to say it’s a bit of both. Putting fewer ingredients in the soup could make it easier to digest, I guess.
A more efficient recycling system in Europe would also reduce the amount of waste sent to Asia – China excluded – for ‘recycling’, which may well find its way into the oceans.
One company certainly capitalising on the renewed interest in recycling is Tomra, a Norwegian multinational involved in recycling systems and the largest supplier of reverse-vending machines in the world. Indeed, it has been linked with a potential deposit scheme system being considered in the UK.
The company expects to hire up to 2,000 employees over the next five years across its Tomra Collection Solutions (TCS) and Tomra Sorting Solutions (TSS) businesses, as more countries look at implementing deposit schemes.
All of this comes on the back of a European Commission proposal in May 2018 for EU-wide rules that oblige member states to collect 90 per cent of ‘single-use’ plastics drinks bottles by the year 2025. The EC suggested the use of container-deposit schemes to achieve this goal. In December 2017, the UN also called for container-deposit schemes in a resolution to slow the growth in marine litter.
Tomra has a relatively captive audience. Of the 110,000 reverse vending machines worldwide, Tomra claims to have supplied 82,000 of them. “We are at a point where our niche industry is beginning to grow,” commented Aleksander Mortensen, head of TCS Digital.
More than half of Tomra’s reverse-vending installations are connected and the company is hoping to leverage the real-time data received from these machines to extend and develop value-added packages including what it thinks will be more exciting recycling experiences for consumers. I’m intrigued to find out what these ‘exciting experiences’ will be.
An extension of the marine litter debate is the current obsession (ahem, interest) in microplastics, which is a topic I discussed at the start of this year on the back of a controversial university study. A story in The Guardian last month claimed that microplastics can escape from polluted waters on flying insects and threaten birds that eat the insects. Meanwhile, a study by another university claimed that microplastics were found in the nesting sites of turtles at a number of beaches.
Tellingly, in both cases it was admitted in a by-line tucked away at the bottom that more research is needed to investigate what effects, if any, microplastics have on animals, humans or turtle eggs.
The Plastic Soup Foundation (yes, it is a real thing, look it up!) has partnered with VU University Amsterdam on a three-year project to analyse the direct effects of plastics and additives in plastics. Microplastics is an umbrella term for particles smaller than 5-microns in size. Currently there is no evidence to suggest that microplastics cause any harm at all.
Even if a chemical or material is deemed as potentially harmful, it is often down to dosage, as supporters of bisphenol-A (BPA) will testify after a long-term consumer backlash against the chemical. After all, even drinking too much water can be fatal.
This sort of backlash reminds me of the current drive by the UK government to halt the rapid decline in child vaccinations, which is thought to have caused the re-emergence of illnesses such as measles and whooping cough in recent years, with the US currently suffering from a massive rise in cases of both.
As medical experts will tell you, the amounts of scary sounding chemicals in a vaccine are well within FDA approved guidelines. People are afraid of what they don’t understand, yet they will eat products like salt, which are made up of two of the most-deadly elements on earth, sodium and chlorine. Certain chemicals, such as mercury, get flushed out of the body, just as microplastics are thought to.
In the medical industry, Andrew Wakefield authored a study that claimed a link between autism and vaccines. Although it was later discovered that he fudged the data, had his medical license taken away and filed a patent for his own version of an MMR vaccine, the damage was already done, and he is deemed by anti-vaccine proponents as a martyr. The fear campaign is an ongoing arms race against the facts.
Each time science has proven critics wrong, they simply change their stance to something else. I made this very point earlier this year when discussing the attacks on the plastics packaging industry; if we don’t act now as a packaging industry then it’ll move on eventually to metal, to glass, to paper. We’ve seen bisphenol-A effectively disappear from plastics packaging, despite a lack of scientific evidence to support the scaremongering, so it’s important that science fights its corner more fervently than ever in the packaging industry going forward.
The marine litter crisis has, if anything, served as a wake-up call for the packaging industry to look after its environmental credentials more and focus its efforts better. And if it forces governments to help out too with better collections and sorting, then it can only be a force for good.
“Waiter, waiter, there’s still a fly in my plastics soup!”
“Don’t worry sir, he’s so small that he won’t drink much of it.”