The Kritic

Harmful Plastics

Much of Australia’s waste plastic is ending up in the ocean, and in fish.Photo: John Schneider

Each square kilometre of Australian sea surface water is contaminated by around 4,000 pieces of tiny plastics, according to our study published today in journal PLOS ONE and data repository Dryad.

These small plastic fragments, mostly less than 5mm across, are loaded with pollutants that can negatively affect several marine species, from tiny fish and zooplankton to large turtles and whales.

Plastic pollution hazards to Australian species and ecological communities are therefore likely broader than those officially recognised.

Understanding the plastic pollution issue

Unfortunately, part of our plastic waste winds up in the oceans. Plastics can be transported from populated areas to the marine environment by rivers, wind, tides, rainwater, storm drains, sewage disposal, and flooding, or can directly reach the sea from boats and offshore installations.

Throughout their marine journey, plastics break down into increasingly smaller pieces mostly due to the effect of sunlight and heat.

These plastic fragments, commonly called microplastics when smaller than 5mm, represent the vast majority of human-made debris present at beaches, seafloor, and in the water column.

The effects of plastics on food webs and ecosystems have become focus of concern over the last decade. It is now known that over half of our plastic objects contain at least one ingredient classified as hazardous.

To make matters worse, plastics that enter the oceans become increasingly toxic by adsorbing oily pollutants on their surface. When plastic is ingested, these concentrated toxins can be delivered to animals and transferred up their food chains.

This biomagnification of toxins is more likely to occur when plastics are small enough to be ingested by low trophic fauna, such as small fish and zooplankton.

These tiny ocean plastics may affect the health of entire food webs, which include humans. For instance, little plastic pieces were found in the stomach of some Southern Bluefin tuna captured off Tasmania and destined for human consumption.

What kind of plastic and where does it come from?

Until now, plastic contamination in Australian waters was mostly inferred from beach clean-up reports. There was no at-sea survey focused on sampling plastic debris in waters around this country.

I wanted to fill this gap. During my PhD research, I went on seven transit voyages aboard three Australian vessels: RV Southern Surveyor, RV Solander, and Comac Enterprise.

During these trips, I used a net called Manta Net to catch floating plastics at the ocean surface.

Small fragments of hard plastic were the most common type, but soft plastics, such as fragments of wrappers, and strings (mostly fishing lines) were also common.

Harmful Plastics Graph

Size and types of marine plastics collected around Australia. Examples of each plastic type are shown in the photos. Image: PLOS ONE

These plastics were mostly made of polyolefins (polyethylene and polypropylene). These polymers account for 52% of our plastic production and are typically used to make throwaway packaging. They are also used for manufacturing fishing equipment such as crates, nets, ropes, and lines.

Our overall mean sea surface plastic concentration was 4,256.4 plastic pieces per km2. This mean value is higher than those reported for other regions, such as the Caribbean Sea (1,414 pieces per km2) and Gulf of Maine (1,534 pieces per km2).

However, in the subtropical gyres, plastics tend to accumulate due to converging ocean currents, and mean plastic concentrations are higher: from 20,328 pieces per km2 in the North Atlantic Gyre, to 334,271 pieces per km2 in the North Pacific Gyre. The Mediterranean Sea is also a global hotspot for plastics: it has around 116,000 plastics per km2.

We observed higher plastic concentrations close to major Australian cities (Sydney, Brisbane) and industrial centres (Karratha) as well as in remote areas where ocean currents converged (such as south-west Tasmania).

Harmful Plastics Concentrations

Marine plastic concentrations in waters around Australia. White crosses indicate location of major Australian cities. Image: PLOS ONE

These observations, along with our ocean current modelling results, indicate that marine plastics reach Australian waters from multiple sources: domestic and international populated areas, as well as maritime operations.

Solutions

Plastics, made mostly of oil and gas, are cheaper than the natural materials they replace for the manufacture of many objects, such as packaging and fishing gear.

As a result, incentives to re-use or recycle every-day items have decreased over the last few decades. Meanwhile plastic production has increased from 1,700,00 tonnes in 1950 to 280,000,000 tonnes in 2011.

In Australia, 1,476,690 tonnes of plastics were used in 2011-2012, of which just 20.5% was recycled. Most of these plastics (around 37%) were used for manufacturing single-use disposable packaging, including plastic bottles, cups, and bags.

Marine plastic pollution is a global issue caused by our massive production of plastic waste. The solution for this recent environmental problem is not simple.

We believe there are three important steps. First, decrease plastic waste: this could be achieved by reducing production of single-use plastic packaging. Second, improve our plastic disposal practices on land at an international level. And last, better enforce the laws prohibiting dumping of plastics at sea.

Disclosure Statement

Julia Reisser is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, and receives funding and support from the University of Western Australia and CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship.

Charitha Pattiaratchi does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
By Julia Reisser, University of Western Australia and Charitha Pattiaratchi, University of Western Australia
Read the original article.

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Balloons Blow

Balloons BlowPhoto: Balloons Blow

In August 2012 I introduced readers of The Kritic to the problem with balloons and their affect on the environment. In today’s blog I have asked Danielle and Chelsea of BalloonsBlow.org to write about their specific fight against the insidious balloon.

Balloons Blow was created by two sisters who got sick of finding balloons everywhere while out in nature. We’ve been cleaning the beach with our parents all our lives & started to notice an increase in balloon pollution (along with plastic, of course). When we went online and realized the only information on the internet was balloon industry propaganda, we created BalloonsBlow.org so people would have a place to get accurate balloon information. It is the only site dedicated to educating people and compiling information about balloon pollution.

We both have full time jobs, but Balloons Blow keeps us busy every day. The Earth and its wildlife will continue to inspire us to stay strong and continue our work toward a sustainable society that is aware of the impacts daily actions have on the planet. We are constantly motivated by our animal friends who need our help & the people around the world who have been inspired to also clean up whenever, wherever.

Balloons Blow has grown more than we ever imagined & is now a non-profit organization. We are awaiting our 501c3 approval, but most everything has been funded out of our own pockets. We just want people to quit littering with balloons!

To combat the balloon industry’s false claims of latex balloons biodegrading ‘as fast as an oak leaf’ or ‘up to six months’, we started our own backyard biodegradability test using two latex balloons that washed in to us while we were at the beach on December 24, 2011. Those balloons are still in our backyard and haven’t changed much since we brought them home from the beach over 23 months ago. We take pictures of the balloons monthly & believe our test is much more accurate than the single study touted by the balloon industry, which was done by a man paid by the balloon industry who frequently manipulated the balloons including the use of drying ovens, etc.

Biodegradability Test

Backyard Biodegradability TestPhoto: Balloons Blow

23 months since floating onto the beach from the sea partially inflated. Tied to a fence post & left to endure the extreme weather conditions of south Florida, these latex balloons have changed little since deflation & are definitely NOT biodegrading. Although their color is fading & they have plant matter stuck to them, they are still here. Changing from dry & stiff in the heat, to pliable & supple in the humidity. The attached plastic ribbons are becoming brittle & breaking apart.

Balloons are being released everyday by people and organizations all around the world. It is up to each one of us to educate each other. Sometimes it only takes a single e-mail or call to stop a mass littering event.

There are often many challenges when attempting to change people’s minds and actions. People can be very passionate about balloons. Some people can be very defensive.

Balloon releases are becoming popular with awareness group events. This is perplexing to us because awareness groups usually deal with an issue that affects life, whether it is human or another species. Not only can balloons themselves directly destroy life, but the helium that the balloons are filled with is being depleted at an alarming rate. Helium is a finite resource and is used in the medical field for a variety of procedures. Our society needs Helium to save lives, but it costs about ten thousand times more to get helium from the air than it does from rocks and natural gas reserves, and our supplies of Helium are being used at a “unimaginable” rate and could be gone within a generation according to Robert Richardson (Nobel Prize winner in 1996 for his work on superfluidity of Helium). Balloon releases are bad for everyone.

Our favorite alternative is planting trees and flowers because both support existing life and help create new lives. Ribbon dancers & bubbles are also fun!

There are a handful of states and cities around the globe that have balloon release regulations. Unfortunately, many of these laws are often unenforced and unknown. They also frequently allow for a certain number of balloons to be released and only penalize a fine for releases that exceed the limit. The legality of balloon releases is a tremendous obstacle. This multi-billion dollar industry spends big bucks lobbying to keep this littering legal. Creating laws regulating balloon releases may be a difficult and lengthy process, but their enactment would be concurrent with litter laws.

Having respect for the Earth in the simple act of refraining from littering and releasing balloons can lead to more environmentally conscious and sustainable actions.

Many people ask us, why balloons? After explaining the complex web of this question as it is directly related to released balloons (industry propaganda, lack of public awareness, encouragement of wastefulness, effects of wildlife, etc.) it always comes around to the big picture; sustainability. Throwing something ‘away’ takes it out of your sight, but not off of the planet. Recycling is a great alternative to throwing something ‘away’, but is becoming a bandage over the deeper wound. We are all victims of our society and are often coerced into buying more oil based plastics; but by coming together & (making) more conscious choices we CAN make a difference! We all have the power to control our actions and in the end change the course of history.

BALLOONS BLOW… DON’T LET THEM GO!

Balloonsblow.org

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From the blog of Over Our Dead Bodies – Written by Ben Pennings.

Over Our Dead Bodies logo

Big Coal? We’re talking the biggest. The Galilee Basin is the biggest proposed coal complex in the world. The numbers are staggering, frightening; well past the point of insanity.

The great news is that the nine mines planned are very marginal economically. The ‘quality’ of coal is low, the price of coal is low, and the debt levels of many companies involved are high. However, a company called Aurizon is planning to bail out the debt-ridden company GVK, allowing them to dig up the first 2 mines. These mines alone would be responsible for carbon pollution 6 times that of the UK.

A broad cross-section of the mainstream environment movement have signalled their intentions towards Aurizon, but thus far been pretty much ignored. Millions of emails have gone unheard. Aurizon continues unabated towards investing billions to mine the Galilee Basin, before solar makes it completely economically unviable.

The Over Our Dead Bodies campaign is adding a new dimension to the decision-making processes of Aurizon, and has garnered significant interest from both the company and police. Aurizon now face sustained direct action and civil disobedience strategies, on top of the increasing pressure from mainstream groups. The campaign is blatantly honest, starting to document the number of activists in Australia and globally who will do whatever it takes to stop Aurizon.

Activists started the campaign by stealing a ‘carbon bomb’ from their offices, visiting the CEO’s mansion (twice) and messing with their football sponsorship. All in one weekend. While also hunger striking! But the real deal is still to come.

How can activists be honest with Aurizon about what may be on the way? Go along to their AGM of course! I was one of twelve activists who bought enough shares to attend and ask questions that were not the usual fare. For the first time in AGM history (as far as we know), activists asked audacious questions to directly challenge a company about the security, insurance, industrial action and recruitment costs related to direct action by environmental activists – providing an honest warning to shareholders of risks the company has thus far refused to disclose.

A multi-organisation protest was also held outside the AGM venue. Police inside and outside the AGM outnumbered protesters two to one – uniformed, plain clothes, photographers and high-ranking officers. Walking from our briefing to the venue, the anti-terrorism police made their presence known, greeting me by name. As did other officers throughout the morning. Nice to be loved! Here’s one of the anti-terrorism police ‘Aaron’ (real name is Bruce) talking to an activist on the day.

DSCF6840-med

Activists know they can’t stop Aurizon’s plans through appealing to their ethics or values. Those who have tried have failed. The chair of the board John Prescott confirmed this belief when answering the first question:

“The fundamental business of this company is transportation, the majority of it by heavy haul rail systems, and a key part of that is certainly the carriage of coal… it is a fundamental part of this company’s business to carry coal for interested customers. It is a perfectly legitimate activity and it is one that to withdraw from would not be in the interest of shareholders, customers, employees, and the communities in which we serve.”

He also admitted to shareholders in this first exchange that Aurizon “have not made any estimates” when asked about the costs of activism by organisations with many millions of members. This is an important admission but the point needed to be laboured. The next question about their security strategies got right to it:

“It seems to me that Aurizon are very vulnerable to direct action strategies from environmentalist groups. Given you have thousands of kilometres of rail line and have difficult to secure facilities around the country, what strategies do you have in mind to secure what seems to be in-securable?”

After questions about climate change, water and the future of coal, it got serious with a question about targeting the board and executives:

“As Aurizon’s planned investment in the coal mines in the Galilee Basin (involves releasing) truly massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, threatening life as we know it on this planet, such a radical step calls for a radical response. Are you aware that over two hundred activists from one group alone have thus far committed to use direct action against the Aurizon Board of Executives to remind them of their personal responsibility regarding runaway climate change; and given they claim to have home addresses of most of the board members and senior executives, and considering activists have already visited the CEO’s home twice, are you concerned that executives and board members will leave the company if they are seriously challenged in their homes and neighbourhoods about these responsibilities, their responsibilities beyond Aurizon, responsibilities to the future of all of our children, our grandchildren, the community, country and the world we live in?”

Despite protestations, a further audacious question was asked, this time about stopping trains with cardboard boxes:

“In 2011, an activist stopped a coal train in New South Wales using a lightweight box contraption. Now he was inside that box, but it’s easily conceivable that you could stop a coal train with an empty cardboard box. Now given you’ve got thousands of kilometres of track, how do you envisage oversight over those tracks and managing that; I can see it would be quite easy for activists to stop coal trains and get away with it scot free. So is there a cost each time a train is stopped like this, and have you factored those kinds of costs into your business plans?”

Just by chance, this happened to be outside the building when shareholders left the meeting.

Train Stopper

You can imagine the company (and some shareholders) were not too happy with such questions. The chair of the board said repeatedly that they would not divulge security strategies, but it seemed reasonably clear such strategies did not exist. But the shareholders did respond with applause to the question about coal dust, public health, and the excessive salary of the CEO:

“My question is to Lance Hockridge, CEO, and my concern is about dust. I’ve been reading a bit in the media the last few months about coal dust coming from wagons and about the particles, and the doctors and health experts’ concerns about the dust particles; the larger ones and the smaller ones which can get lodged in the lungs and in the bloodstream and the concern, particularly for children… My question, given that Aurizon has so far refused to cover the coal wagons and that there is quite a bit of public outcry about this issue is, Lance, you earned $6 million more than the average Australian last financial year, would you personally be willing to donate some money to stop the damage to public health, and if not, would you personally live on a railway line and breathe in what you transport?”

That question was bound to be popular but this question hit a different nerve:

“Are you concerned that once environmental activists start direct action strategies that your unionised staff will undertake industrial action due to perceived safety risks? Have you factored in these potential massive costs to your investment in the Galilee?”

A shareholder responded to this, saying she was “absolutely appalled at the suggestion that lives would be put at risk because of ideological beliefs.” I jumped up to defend this activist before question time ended. It is Aurizon in fact who are putting millions of lives at risk over an ideological belief, the belief that profit by any legal means trumps ethical considerations, or a liveable planet for that matter.

After the AGM some shareholders spoke freely with activists. Many were concerned about climate change, coal dust, and the shortening future of the coal industry. Aurizon have since sent a strongly worded legal letter, threatening a Supreme Court injunction against Generation Alpha, Over Our Dead Bodies and their ‘members’. What a shame that Generation Alpha is a Facebook page, Over Our Dead Bodies is a website, and neither have members!

Aurizon write that they are ‘disappointed’ in us, and if we do what they say we’ve threatened, we’re in big trouble! But now they just have to wait and prepare, knowing they can do little to stop the next move by the 221 (and counting) activists who have said “Over Our Dead Bodies”

Written by Ben Pennings. Please consider supporting the campaign with your time or money here.

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