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Blogs and articles written by Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv) and Registered Environmental Technician (REnvTech) registrants, as well as Honorary Fellows of the Society (HonFSE).

 

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Plastics and Recycling – Attitudes are Changing! - Dr Peter Matthews CBE HonFSE CEnv

Posted By Phil Underwood, 26 February 2018
Updated: 26 February 2018

Plastics and Recycling – Attitudes are Changing!

I have worked in environmental management for 53 years and I have never seen a time like this! Attitudes towards plastics and recycling are definitely changing.  

Until recently, many of my friends and relatives made relatively quick and independent judgements while deciphering what waste went into which bin. Any more detailed thinking and strategizing about this was simply viewed as “that sort of thing Peter does for a living.” But things have changed and I’m now persistently asked questions about these matters. But, to be quite frank, I’m not sure of the right answers.

The recycling information on packaging is often difficult to find, in very small print and it’s inconsistent and confusing. Which bin should the cling film that’s been soiled in use go into? Am I supposed to help solve the ‘Pringle tin problem’ by attempting to separate multi-material packaging? These are just some examples of the head-scratching that’s going on in many kitchens now.


The 25 Year Environment Plan

I was delighted to see recycling and plastics as well as many other popular issues picked up in the recently published 25 Year Environment Plan (YEP). It’s headline target of reducing avoidable plastic waste by 2042 is not the sort of commitment I would have expected a year ago. And, whilst there’s been some negative media focus on the Plan’s delayed publication, my own view is that the document is very welcome and it is comprehensive, perhaps more so for having incorporated issues that have come to the fore over the last couple of years. 

I think many initial reactions to the Plan had been given without detailed study of it alongside the Industrial and Clean Growth Strategies or perhaps because of the information-overload of this lengthy document with multiple goals and policies. Indeed, a standalone summary of these goals and policies would be helpful. 

Overall, though, I think the Plan does well to address and tie together people’s day-to-day worries and big, strategic themes. 

Media Influence

It’s interesting that the avalanche of media and public attention on the impact of plastic bags, food packaging, single-use bottles and coffee cups, straws and even tea-bags and glitter (!) is often attributed to the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, which is actually filled with images of turtles ensnared in plastic fishing nets, beaches strewn with things like discarded ropes and even a whale with a plastic bucket in its mouth. I talked about this kind of plastic waste in a previous blog, terming it ‘ersatz-plankton’ and arguing that, even with rigorous domestic litter control, there will inevitably be plastic waste that ‘leaks’ into the environment. 

We must prevent the continued ‘survival’ of these persistently problematic plastics, and I’m pleased to see the 25 YEP address their biodegradability. Seeking alternatives to synthetic plastics in the so-called ‘bioplastics’, such as starch- and cellulose-based products like bamboo fibre and cellulose micro beads, will also be absolutely crucial.  

There are, of course, many unanswered questions, such as whether such bioplastics are robust enough for products such as ropes and buckets and how easy these will be to reuse rather than recycle. Again, I’m pleased to see the 25 YEP recognise the opportunities for this kind of technological development alongside strategizing around the bioeconomy. Indeed, there are several strategies that underpin the Plan, such as on chemicals, biodiversity, waste and resources, litter and clean air. 

It seems to me, though, that there’s a missing piece in this jigsaw: a Plastics Strategy. Given how high-profile the topic is, it seems odd that there isn’t a specific strategy around it, and I advocate one. If strategies work for other parts of our green economy, then this should work for plastics. 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Society for the Environment. 

Tags:  25 Year Environment Plan  25YEP  Bioeconomy  Blue Planet  CEnv  Chartered Environmentalist  Clean Growth Strategy  DEFRA  HonFSE  Industrial Strategy  packaging  Plastics  Pollution  Recycling  Waste 

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All at Sea: Coping with Litter and Ersatz-Plankton

Posted By Peter Matthews, 31 July 2017

Blog written by Dr Peter Matthews CBE OBE HonFSE CEnv, following his attendance at the Mott McDonald Ocean Plastics Conference on the 29th June 2017.


Photo credit: Alamy

I have rarely seen a topic grasp the imagination of both the scientific community, lay media and public concern as quickly as this topic, and I was pleased to be able to go to this [Ocean Plastics] Conference in Cambridge in my capacity as Chair of the Society. Although I could not stay for the whole event, I found it stimulating and enlightening.

I think that there still needs to be some greater clarity in the wider community on what the problems are and how we might set about resolving them. It is a classic case of ‘humanity cannot be green by regulation alone’.

 

Litter

The physical consequences for wildlife such as suffocation, strangulation, ensnarement, beach pollution and marine landscape despoilment. Marine plastics are then part of a bigger problem of litter management which embraces land as well as sea. Turtles can strangle as easily on abandoned rope nets as well as synthetic ones for example. But, synthetic nets may have different dispersion and flotation characteristics and will survive much longer, being less biodegradable. Plastic bags are a particular problem but may disintegrate in a marine environment. These problems can be controlled by litter management techniques on land and at sea, and is part of wider efforts on waste management including packaging.

Physical Degradation

Litter may break down physically in the marine environment, but the debris can cause physical and physiological problems to wildlife and marine landscape by the creation of adventitious small particles, particularly micro particles including microfibers. Therefore, plastic products have either got to be biodegradable or be sufficiently robust that physical degradation is slow enough to allow litter recovery before long term harm is caused.

Discharge into the Marine Environment - Microbeads

Planned use of micro particles added to products particularly plastic microbeads, then contributed adventitiously through waste discharges into the marine environment. A full ban in all products and shift to biodegradable beads will be the answer.

Discharge into the Marine Environment – Micro Particles

Other micro particles which are not added to products, but arise through other adventitious routes – particularly fibres from synthetic clothes in washing waters – and then discharged into the marine environment. This is a new issue and this may need some innovation in wastewater treatment technology. Changes in clothing materials will be really difficult.

Nano Particles

As far as I can see, there is less known about these than microbeads. But, concerns have been expressed about the use of TiO2 in cosmetics and ointments for example (not a plastic admittedly) and then discharged to the marine environment in waste water. It may well be that a ban on the use of these materials, except in the most essential medicines, would assist. And what about paint decoration products?

Biodegradation Products

We need to ensure that these are not ecotoxic.



The Way Forward

So, it seems to me that there are four key ways forward:

1...

The reduction of waste and litter in the first place including even more attention to packaging. For example, biodegradable wipes come in non-biodegradable sachets, and some food canisters have too many materials to recycle, greater attention to use and disposal by changing our habits, and tougher litter control. These might be helped by deposit schemes as we used to have and is now being trialled on bottles by Coca-Cola.

2...

The notion of biodegradability should move to being the norm rather than being the alternative to plastic. In the case of plastic bags, biodegradability is the notion which provides exemption from the levy. It raises the issue of whether we need a statutory direction or whether it would be left to behaviour. If we had an outright statutory or voluntary ban on plastic there could still be a levy on biodegradable bags to encourage the use of ‘life bags’. Biodegradability should apply wherever practicable to all plastic products. Biodegradability must come in two parts – land based decomposition and aquatic decomposition.

The slow progress on standard methodology leads one to muse as to whether there is a need to have a fresh look at the roles of BSI and the Standing Committee of Analysts in these matters. We await the outcome of the on-going review by Defra on methodology in the context of carrier bags. 

3...

We need a review of all household and personal products with a risk rating in terms of micro and nanoparticles and consideration being given to a registration system. This might need a review of how REACH will work post Brexit and whether new tests and regulated conditions are needed for consents to discharge industrial effluents in future legislation post the Great Repeal Act. I welcome the role of the Hazardous Substances Committee, in the context of microbeads, in the announcement of the forthcoming statutory ban next year.

4...

New insights are needed on the ability of detergents or similar chemicals (with no ecotoxicity obviously) to form microfiber micelles, which would then be more susceptible to being removed by conventional or modified used water treatment.

 

A Final Thought

One final thought about the small particles whether macro, micro or nano; they disrupt the marine food chains either by entering alongside phytoplankton in consumption by zooplankton or by co-ingestion alongside zooplankton. Either way they are artificial contributors to plankton and so I am proposing the formal title of ersatz-plankton.

The presentation slides from the Mott McDonald Ocean Plastics Conference can be downloaded here.

Tags:  CEnv  Conference  Ersatz-Plankton  HonFSE  Ocean  plastics  pollution  Sea 

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CIWEM Magazine Articles by Dr Peter Matthews CBE OBE HonFSE CEnv

Posted By Phil Underwood, 28 July 2017

Over the last few months former Chair of the Society for the Environment, Dr Peter Matthews CBE OBE HonFSE CEnv, has been providing insightful articles for the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) magazine 'The Environment'. 

We are pleased that CIWEM have given us permission to share these articles on our website for the wider environmental professional community to view. These articles touch on a broad range of environmental subjects, providing interest to environmental professionals working in many sectors.

Each article is listed below - please feel free to share with your colleagues and interested contacts. 

March 2016
Aspiration to Regulation

April 2016
From Paper to Practice

May 2016
What is the Role of Arm's Length Bodies?

June 2016
The Question of Independence

July / August 2016
Practical Regulation and the Community

September 2016
Getting to the Routes of Regulation

October 2016
Origins - Green Myth and Iconography

November 2016
Creating an Environment for Change

December 2016 / January 2017
What Will Brexit Mean for Environmental Regulation in the UK?

February 2017
Making the Best of Brexit

March 2017
Passionate Truth, Not Post Truth

April 2017
An Age of Environmental Chivalry

May 2017
Evidence Based Practice in Environmental Decision Making

June 2017
Behavioural Sciences Can Help Us

New articles will be added to this blog post when available. For more information about the magazine, please click here.

Tags:  Articles  CEnv  Chair  CIWEM  Environment  HonFSE  Magazine  REnvTech 

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