Turning the Tide on Plastic

with Denise Hardesty 06 May 2021 | Podcast

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Do you want to leave a lasting mark on the world? Throw a plastic bottle into the sea – and chances are that it will still be there well after you are gone. In this podcast, we discuss our global plastic addiction and what we can do about it. We spoke with Denise Hardesty, an expert on plastic pollution at CSIRO.

Åsa Borssén:
Do you want to leave a lasting mark in the world? Throw a plastic bottle into the se – chances are, it will still be there well after you are gone. Today we’re discussing plastic debris and what to do about it. I’m Åsa Borssén and this is Highgrade

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Åsa Borssén:
Welcome to Highgrade and the Natural Resources Podcast. Every year, 8 million tonnes of new plastic end up floating in the ocean. And that pales in comparison to the 400 million tonnes of new plastic we produce annually. Most of that plastic will still be around when your great grandchildren add their first plastic toy to the pile. I’m here with Denise Hardesty a global authority on plastic debris and principal research scientist at the Australian Government Agency CSIRO. Denise, thank you for joining me.

Denise Hardesty:
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Åsa Borssén:
Tell me, how did you end up fighting plastic?

Denise Hardesty:
Hmm, how did I end up finding plastic? Well, I have long been a biologist and one of my first field jobs, I was lucky enough to get to go out to work on a really remote island in the middle of the Pacific called Midway Atoll. And out there, I was setting up an albatross study. And I took slides back in the day, you know, and photos as well, much like those Chris Jordan photos that have made the rounds showing these dead birds with their stomachs full of plastics. And so, you know, that was really my first introduction to seeing that and seeing these beaches on this remote island in the middle of the Pacific that had cigarette lighters and fishing gear and just all sorts of little bits of hard plastic washed up and, you know, I guess kind of full circle years and years later, I’ve really come back to working on that topic is kind of a full time job. And in some ways, I guess it feels like you know, the world has come back around, as I’ve seen that increase in the amount of plastic that we use and the increase in harm that it’s causing for our wildlife, for our people in our communities.

Åsa Borssén:
There is a postulate in war strategy, saying that you need to win the hearts in order to win the minds. This speaks to the importance of people’s sentiments to achieve change. And evidently, there is an increasing amount of people concerned about plastic pollution, not least because of the pictures that you mentioned. But if we were to run a global survey, how many of us are truly prepared to ditch plastic for good?

Denise Hardesty:
I think that’s a really good question. And I think, you know, that statement, “you need to win the hearts to win the minds” really points to the fact that we as humans, we make decisions with our hearts. And we’d like to think that we make them based upon, you know, linear, evidence-based decision making. But really a picture’s worth 1000 words. So if we see an animal full of plastic, I think that has a really different influence or impact on people than reading about it. And if we asked a global survey asked who is prepared to live a life without plastic, I’m not. I don’t think anybody really is if we take that to, you know, 100% of what that means. Plastic has real value in real purpose. I think we just really want to change our relationship with plastic. And think about the products that we use, and you know, how we spend our resources with it. I don’t think most people would really be ready to ditch all plastics. So that means no more spandex. You know, in stretchy material; it means no more mobile phone, no more computer, no more chair that you’re sitting on. No more microphone, no more keyboard, you know, all these different things. No more ability to get food that comes from a supermarket and is safe and has a long enough shelf life to get from place to place much less. No more driving in that car to get you from place to place or your bicycle even that also has plastic on it. What would you say? Would you be prepared to completely ditch plastic?

“We as individuals are really, really powerful because we get to choose how we spend our money.”

- Denise Hardesty

Åsa Borssén:
To be honest, I think that I don’t even know how much plastic I’m using. As you say it’s hidden in the products that we use every day. In that sense. It’s a bit like mining. We’re not aware of how much metals and minerals we use in our everyday life.

Denise Hardesty:
Hmm, absolutely. It’s so, so purposeful, it’s so good for so many things. It’s lightweight, it’s enduring, it’s inexpensive, it, you know, allows us to send item A from place to place, you know. And it’s lighter, so it costs less to get there. So, oh, it also lasts a long time. And for many different types of plastics, they’ve been shown to be really useful.

Åsa Borssén:
When did we start using plastic?

Denise Hardesty:
Well, we started really using plastic in the 1950s. And that’s when it became such, you know, a huge growth product or a growth material that was created into and developed into so many different types of products. What we’re seeing, though, is that exponential increase in plastic production. We say that there’s a doubling time of plastic of around 10 or 11 years right now. And what that means is that from the 1950s, when plastic was first produced or developed until today, you know, we will make that same amount of plastics in the next 11 years, right. And that, in and of itself is pretty amazing when you think about it. And most of that is not in our textiles and automobiles and that sort of thing. The biggest part of that plastic is really in our packaging. So that’s the stuff that we use once and throw away,

Åsa Borssén:
As you say, plastic is everywhere, and not least because it is cheap, but there is a catch. And these are the negative externalities, nobody is paying for plastic pollution. In your view, who should be responsible for that? Is it the user or the producer?

Denise Hardesty:
Well, I don’t think it’s either or I think we all have a significant role to play with that, you know. I think that there’s an increasing focus on extended producer responsibility, or EPR, which is having the plastics manufacturers or producers be increasingly responsible for those negative externalities as you as you mentioned. You know, there’s also a really important role for the consumer. In fact, we as individuals are really, really powerful because we get to choose how we spend our money, what products we’re willing to spend our hard-earned money on. And so if we support those companies that have sustainability practices, or they’re using materials that are in agreement, an agreement really with our values, then that allows us to have quite a strong or powerful influence in terms of what will be made, what will be sold, you know, and what that feedback is that goes back to those companies. So I think there’s a real role for each and every one of us as citizens, as industry partners, you know, as governments etc.

***

Åsa Borssén:
We have all seen photos of birds choked to death by plastic debris, and islands of plastic as big as countries floating adrift. But are you prepared to live without plastic? You are listening to the Natural Resources Podcast in conversation with scientist Denise Hardesty.

***

Åsa Borssén:
The global conversation of plastic has gained a lot of momentum. And with all the talk, people may think that we must be making progress. Think again. Estimates suggest that global single use plastic has grown up to 300% during COVID. These are extra masks, COVID tests, takeaways, e-commerce. Denise, where does this end?

Denise Hardesty:
Well, I think the world is in quite a different place and quite a different space. And yes, indeed, there is an increase in single use plastic, as you’ve mentioned, particularly with takeaway food, with masks and those sorts of things. At the same time, we know that we can use masks again, we can use reusable masks, we can wash things, people are perhaps a little bit closer to their waste and to their trash. And so they’re seen the results of that which we are consuming because we’re not out just chucking it in a bin as we walk by we’re at home, which means we’re needing to see and deal with our own waste each and every day. And we’re certainly seeing an increase in gardening and people wanting to grow their own food. So hopefully that too, is seen a reduction in food miles and in plastics that we see associated with our food. You know, we really do have an influence and an effect on the ecosystem around us. How do I create an effect and influence the world in a way that’s important to me, without, you know, solely thinking about here and now and today in this moment? You know, what do I want the world to be?

Åsa Borssén:
In the last few years, we’ve heard lots about so called microplastic, particularly related to ocean pollution. How bad is this problem?

Denise Hardesty:
So microplastics, in case your listeners aren’t aware, it’s just small bits of plastic. So micro plastic means anything that’s smaller than five millimetres in size. So that plastic bottle, that bag that takeaway container, when it gets exposed to sunlight to UV radiation and things, it just gets brittle. You know, just like that lawn chair may get brittle as well, that’s been sitting out there in your garden for years and years. And what that means is that those bits of plastic can break into smaller and smaller pieces in the environment, it makes them harder to clean up, it means that they’re able to be accessed by a lot of different animals or wildlife out there in the coastal or marine environment, it means that we can end up with sort of a plastic snow and it’s raining down in, you know, on land or in the water. And so how bad is it. We also know that in terms of microplastic, there’s 25 to 35 times more micro plastic on the bottom of the ocean than there is even floating at the top of the ocean. And some years ago, there was an estimate that there’s trillions and trillions of pieces of micro plastic floating on the ocean surface. So I think that helps give you a little bit of a sense of scale of how big a problem that is.

Åsa Borssén:
We’ve covered the problem. So let’s start looking at the solutions. My editor tells me that when he grew up bottles were of glass and you got this vouchers, you could return them. And when I was a kid, every time I went to the market, I brought a cotton bag with me, which I still do, by the way. But today, even single avocados come in styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic, which makes it impossible for a consumer to make the right choice. How do we change this ridiculous trajectory?

Denise Hardesty:
Well, I suppose the first thing that you could do, and I think few people would feel really self-conscious about this at times, but it certainly happens in my community. Don’t take the polystyrene and don’t take the plastic home with you. Ask your supermarket to change their practices or buy local. That stuff is coming wrapped in all that material, because it’s coming from long distances. But who doesn’t love a yummy avocado, right? But one of the things that I’ve seen people do is to actually say, Okay, I’ll take this product, you know, I want these avocados, but I don’t want your waste, you keep your waste here supermarket and you get to deal with and manage your waste instead of me having to do that at home. And if you ask supermarkets, you are starting to see a change in some of the packaging that they are providing for the consumers. Because of that pushback. I mean, the other thing that’s crazy, right? Bananas being wrapped in polystyrene or plastic, they come in their own natural wrapper as do avocados. So, we we simply don’t need that additional packaging. And we can push back to our supermarkets. And if they do insist on having it, we can refuse to take it home with us. You can leave that at your supermarket and let them deal with it.

Åsa Borssén:
Some countries have banned plastic bags, for example, and some are starting to ban plastic straws, etc. Which is good, I suppose. But it feels a little bit like a case of too little too late, doesn’t it?

Denise Hardesty:
Well, I think really what that’s pointing to is the increased interest from the public in this topic and the public actually standing up and saying no, we don’t need this stuff. We don’t need micro plastic beads in our toothpaste in our facial care products, we’re going to push back to manufacturers for that. We don’t need plastic bags, because as you mentioned, we can, you know, go back to what I call ‘when old school becomes cool’, and we can go back to paper straws to you know, paper or cotton or cloth bags or baskets for our food. You know, I don’t think it’s too little too late. I actually think it’s a great indication of the public’s awareness of some of the, you know, unnecessary plastic items that we simply can get rid of in our society. You know, you can bring a metal fork and you know, a knife and spoon with you when you’re taking a picnic instead of getting a plastic takeaway container and takeaway cutlery that you’re going to use once and then chuck in the bin. So, I think those are some, you know, actions that if you’re interested in wildlife, in fact, you know, plastic bags and takeaway food and cutlery are listed as some of the potentially most deadly items to wildlife. So, some of those actually may make a difference if your focus is on you know, wildlife health and safety and losses to the environment, for example.

“Having industry and manufacturers and governments and citizens come together is how we're going to see that substantial change in our relationship with plastic.”

- Denise Hardesty

Åsa Borssén:
You mentioned recycling and my dad is the most meticulous recycler you will ever meet – and I try my best I do. But the truth is that less than 10% of the new plastic produced is recycled. And a lot of people feel, and myself included, that this is truly insignificant, almost a feel good practice. Is recycling the solution?

Denise Hardesty:
It’s certainly not the solution. It does have a role to play, and it is a solution. We need to as individual countries, and as a global community, do far better than having 10% of our plastic be recycled. And part of that can be by legislation, through having standards and requirements of products, that they must contain at least 35 or 45, or 65%, recycled content, particularly in areas where we know that it’s safe and smart to do. We’re starting to see an increase in recycled plastic content and a lot of our products, and there are targets for many or most of the multinationals. And I think using public will and legislation, you know, and really having industry and manufacturers and governments and citizens push for that together is how we’re going to see that substantial change that will really be an acknowledgment of changing that relationship with plastic. And perhaps that’s really by putting a tax or levy on virgin plastic material so that recycled plastic is less expensive for manufacturers to use. And again, that’s really treating that plastic as a commodity rather than waste.

Åsa Borssén:
This always comes down to a question of targeting supply or targeting demand. And a lot of the initiatives have focused on the demand side, the customers and in a way, blaming the customer is. A radical suggestion: why not just ban plastic production?

Denise Hardesty:
So if you’re going to say put a ban on virgin plastic. You know, there is a role in some places, and for some particular requirements, I think where we may need or want virgin plastic, but if we’re really, really selective about that, then we start to see that profound change in terms of using much more recycled plastic, increasing the plastic recycled content in particular products. We also want to make sure that it has the same shelf life and longevity, and, you know, all the properties that make plastic useful for us. And we can do that. And again, I think that’s a really good opportunity. And as you mentioned, you want to target the supply or the demand? I think we really want to target both. And I think we want to be working both up and down that entire supply chain, to really see that shift to really put a price on plastics so that we treat it as the commodity that it is instead of thinking of it as this linear product that we make use and get rid of that we throw away after just using once.

Åsa Borssén:
And what about alternative materials. Is biodegradable plastic, which sounds like an oxymoron, is that going to be part of the solution? Or should we simply go back to the past habits of our grandparents?

Denise Hardesty:
There’s a really strong utility to looking to the past to see what really worked well then. So yeah, the habits of your grandparents where you wrapped things in wax paper, and now we’re seeing people make beeswax wraps to put their food in, you know, again, I call it ‘when old school becomes cool’, we’re starting to see that shift back. And I think that’s really, really valuable. The other thing that I encourage us to do is to really design with a legacy mindset.

But to your other question about what about biodegradable plastics? I think one of the real challenges or concerns are there’s unintended consequences, and we think things may be biodegradable or compostable. But over what timeframe and what small bits may fall out into the environment anyhow? And is it really 100%, biologically degradable and over what timeframe? So often those biodegradable plastics have a component that is biodegradable, which means that they break down and they fragment quite quickly in the environment, which again means that they can be harder to clean up and those sorts of things. And I think we also need to think about what is the cost, you know, are we going to use our lands to grow, say, you know, corn starch cups and plates? Or are we going to use that land to grow food to feed the world’s population? Are we going to use our lands to grow packaging for the world? You know, I’m not sure that growing packaging for the world is ultimately going to be sustainable either.

Åsa Borssén:
These are truly such complex issues. But let me end with a future outlook. Are you optimistic about the situation we’re in?

Denise Hardesty:
Well, I am an eternal optimist, I definitely operate from the place of the cup being half full rather than half empty. And where we’ve come in terms of the public’s interest in increasing legislation and changes and opportunities around plastic around plastic waste and pollution, I think is really heartening. I’ve also seen incredible change in some countries in very, very short time periods. Do I think it’s challenging? Yes. Do I think we are making too much plastic and we can’t continue the way that we’re going? Yes. And at the same time, I really do remain optimistic that we will be better, that we will be smarter, that we will start to design with that legacy mindset. And that we will hopefully change our relationship with plastic and that will bring us towards a much better future.

Åsa Borssén:
Denise, it has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us.

Denise Hardesty:
My pleasure. Thank you so much for being interested in this work.

***

Åsa Borssén:
Plastic addiction is how Denise described it. The situation was already bad, and COVID has made it worse. How do we turn this around? Consumers have power – let’s use it and the industry will listen. ‘Old School is the new cool’, she says. So, bring out the cotton shoppers and leave those plastic bags behind.

This podcast was done with support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through BGR and the Inter-American Development Bank, make sure to subscribe to our channel on whichever podcast platform you are using. We will be back soon with more discussions on natural resources and development. Until then, so long!