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01:12 Opportunities for a global reset
03:42 The waste space
07:06 The fight against single-use plastics continues
08:50 What’s happening around the world with waste
09:16 Changes to the podcast
“…we've got more and more retailers and businesses trying to use compostable products. However, we don't actually have the composting infrastructure and resources to support that, which means that people may be buying products that are being used, that is still ending up in landfill even though they're trying to do the right thing.” – Dr. Denise Hardesty
Dr. Denise Hardesty is a principal research scientist and team leader with CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere. Her current research projects focus on plastic pollution and illegal fishing. For the past several years she has been leading a portfolio of marine debris projects which has resulted in global recognition of Australia’s role in cutting-edge plastics pollution work of high value and impact. She provides an expert opinion on marine debris related matters to the federal government, to non-government organizations, to industry stakeholders and NGOs within Australia and internationally, and to other audiences focused on marine debris impacts at a multitude of spatiotemporal scales. She has also been a key player engaging in national and international workshops with government, industry, fisheries and other stakeholders aiming to reduce the trans-boundary ghostnet issue.
Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Jambeck Research Group
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Kim: There is no denying that single-use plastic has been a lifesaver in the fight against COVID-19, especially for frontline health workers. And it’s helped with social distancing, by enabling home delivery particularly food. And it may have helped to curb transmission, by replacing reusable coffee cups and shopping bags in many places over fears that the virus could stick to them.
But the World Economic Forum says, “If we are not careful, short-term thinking during the pandemic could lead to an even larger environmental and public-health calamity in the future.”
Of course, the proliferation of plastic waste already was a major concern before the pandemic. So, has COVID-19 pushed back any progress. I checked in with research scientist Dr. Denise Hardesty.
Dr.Hardesty: I don't think it's pushed things back. I actually think that there's an opportunity for some really thoughtful, local opportunities and solutions to grow new businesses and industries as we come out of COVID, as we look at post-COVID recovery. Excuse me. And I suppose that's what I'm hopeful about at the moment. At the same time, we have seen and heard reports from around the world that there are more wild animals being observed and coming out. We're seeing cleaner air, cleaner seas, and things like that. As a result, people are associating that with COVID, with a lack of air travel, with people staying closer to home, with people not commuting in cars and not taking as much public transportation. So I would actually view this as a real opportunity for a local, regional, and global reset. And I realize I'm quite an optimist. That would be something I would be pleased to see whether or not it eventuates, time will tell.
At the same time, we just had a paper come out last week where we estimated how much microplastic is on the bottom of the seabed floor. And we estimate that there are somewhere between 8 and 14 million tons. And that's just the little tiny stuff, of microplastic, from some work that we did off the Great Australian Bight and 3000 meters in depth and hundreds of kilometers offshore. And people are like, "Wow, that's so much." I'm like, "Yes, it is a lot." That's also equivalent to how much plastic is dumped into the ocean each and every year based upon Jenna Jambeck and colleagues' work with estimates from a decade ago. So you could say it's an awful lot, or you could end up saying, "Wow, it's a drop in the ocean," so to speak.
Kim: Pardon the pun. Yeah. The planet certainly has enjoyed us being on pause, but according to earth.org, academia should be aiming to educate manufacturers, rather, and policymakers on how to make more environmentally friendly decisions. Do you know of anything specific that has happened as a result of the pandemic?
Dr. Hardesty: Well, I can't say that there's something specific that I know about that's happened as a result of the pandemic, per se. At the same time, there's a lot of innovation, I think, that's happening, and opportunities in the waste space. And I think we also want to be both thoughtful of those opportunities and mindful of unintended consequences. Like right now, we've got more and more retailers and businesses trying to use compostable products. However, we don't actually have the composting infrastructure and resources to support that, which means that people may be buying products that are being used, that is still ending up in landfill even though they're trying to do the right thing. I would also say that the other area of increase in terms of plastic waste during COVID is around single-use takeaway containers as restaurants have been closed, but have still been open for takeaway meals.
And so I think there's some great innovation that I had already seen happening pre-COVID that would be great to see happening during and post-COVID if and as it's safe to have those sorts of things. So there are some communities where restaurants participate and consumers who want to participate with these particular restaurants, you pay basically a deposit for your tea for a takeaway container that's reusable. So it may be metal, or it may be a heavy-duty microwave-safe PBA-free plastic container that your food can come in. And when you finish it, you actually return it or it can come with the next Uber driver or similar who's providing that delivery service. So those are some things that I have seen happen. They are not happening, or I am aware of those happening pre-COVID. Although, I know that there are some health and safety concerns for people, and rightly so, around particular types of items that could be used when people are trying to be very mindful of, and to be very cautious about what materials they're using and ensuring that we don't end up with disease transmission.
As I'm sure you and your listeners are aware, it has also been noted that plastic is one of the surfaces that COVID is likely to last longer or remain viable for longer on rather than other types of materials. And so while we have seen an increased focus from some industries on we need to be using more single-use plastic, the flip side of that is will plastic may actually not be the best material for COVID safety, given the longevity of the virus on the surface of plastics.
Kim: And what do you know of worldwide? Do you have any figures from the US or China, from the World Health Organization on the escalation of disposable PPE production or waste?
Dr.Hardesty: I don't have those facts and figures at hand. I haven't gone on WHO to look those up. We are seeing a reported increase, but again, I don't actually have those numbers at hand. Sorry.
Kim: That's okay. That's certainly something that we can source, but still, a long way to go in the fight against single-use plastics.
Dr.Hardesty: Yeah, I think we've also seen some really good changes happen. It's funny. Cotton swabs are one example where we've seen a change. It's really what... I've been calling it when old school becomes cool. When we've gone back to paper straws in the instances where straws are required. We've gone back to paper, cotton buds, and things like that. And I think we're seeing that return to more reusable, more sustainable types of items, many of which are what we have historically used that were much more in accordance with environmentally friendly practices. It's now commonplace again for people to bring their own bags to the supermarket, to bring their own cups to get a drink.
Dr.Hardesty: I think that a lot of those changes are coming about as a result of the increased public awareness and the public request, and then the public demand to see some changes in practices. And I think that's a really positive example of how people can support, require, enable the changes that people in society really want to see.
We're seeing the multinationals stop putting plastic microbeads in face products, in toothpaste, and things like that in advance of legislative requirements to do so. And so I think it's worth acknowledging and celebrating the power of the consumer in today's market. And I think that each step that we can make towards increased sustainability is going to be to our betterment as a society and better for the planet as a whole.
Kim: In the US, curbside recycling pickup has been suspended in many places. In the United Kingdom, illegal waste disposal has risen by 300%. And according to the Thailand Environment Institute, plastic waste has increased from 1,500 tons to 6,300 tons per day.
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