Archive for category Climate Change

All the plastic ever made, still exists – where does it go?

Stories on the environmental impact of plastics, particularly on the marine environment, have been all over the news, of late. Harrowing tales of the impacts on charismatic creatures like whales, sea turtles, seabirds, and even adorable seal pups are regularly published, and a recent BBC documentary showcased the scale of the problem. The attention has helped foster policy momentum, and 2018 has seen the launch of the EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, with the aim that all plastics will be recyclable or compostable by 2030, as well as global environmental policy and action. Domestically there have been a range of initiatives, including the UK Plastics Pact, in which businesses, government and NGOs have agreed to a series of ambitious targets by 2025. At the same time, some organisations like the British Plastics Federation, a manufacturing trade body, have argued that plastics are not actually bad for the environment, and that banning single use plastics or requiring the use of alternative plastics could actually harm the environment and people (e.g. through additional carbon emissions). Marine plastics, they argue, are a problem with a foreign source, citing a statistic from a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation report that 98% of this waste comes from outside the United States and Europe.

Ellen Macarthur Foundation infographic shows that US and Europe only contribute 2% of ocean leakage of plastic

So does this mean that all this action on plastics will have unintended consequences? And can we in Europe and America feel ethically superior, absolving ourselves of responsibility for dealing with this global environmental challenge? That would be really handy considering that plastic seems to be lurking everywhere, even in surprising places like tea bags, clothing and tyres. I covered these issues in a segment on a recent episode of Skeptics with a K, and we also discussed them on a plastics panel at the recent QED conference. But for those keen to do more reading, I am writing a 2-part blog post addressing two key questions: 1) who is responsible for this problem, and 2) what harm do plastics alternatives cause? Today I will focus on responsibility.

A sketch by @Kemp_Matt of the QED panel: Re-use of Refuse: the facts about single use plastics

A sketch by Matt Kemp of the QED panel: Re-use of Refuse: the facts about single use plastics

Whose leakage?

Most marine plastics pollution originates on land. Estimates of how much plastic waste is produced outside of the US and EU as a proportion vary, but it is true that most of the countries with mismanaged plastics waste are outside of these areas (although the US is #20 of the top 20). A paper in Science and research by the Ocean Conservancy found that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are dumping more plastic into oceans than the rest of the world combined (55-60%).  While that may seem to support the idea that we don’t have responsibility, these statistics hide a few important issues.

That number above is known as “leakage”, a term referring to unmanaged plastics waste that reaches the ocean. It would not differentiate between domestically generated waste and waste imported from other countries. In reality, those “leakage” numbers could also include US and EU waste. A recent article in Science Advances, states that OECD countries have been exporting 70% of their plastics waste to China, with an estimated 45% of all plastics recycling being imported by China since 1992. Not all of that gets recycled, and much of it actually contributes to that leakage. That’s because China is not just the top country for plastic recycling, but also top of the global list for mismanaging their plastic waste. But in 2017 they passed their “National Sword Policy”, which bans imports of plastics waste, as well as tightening up the rules on permissible levels of contamination in recycling imports. While it is too early for us to know the impact of this ban, it is reportedly causing waste to pile up in the US and so far it seems Europe and America are instead exporting waste to other countries with high leakage rates. It may be that this will lead to more innovation and better strategies to deal with waste within our own borders. But for now, when we refer to this waste as their leakage, we are neglecting the fact that we are partially responsible for it. This does not mean that we shouldn’t advocate (and support) improvements in waste management in countries with high levels of leakage, but it does suggest that we have an ethical obligation to act domestically as well.

Whose responsibility?

Responsibility for the plastics pollution problem is not just about leakage, but also about consumption, both historic and contemporary. The best estimate we have so far, from research in the journal Science Advances, is that only 9% of the plastics have been recycled since mass production began 60 years ago. Plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade, so that means all of the plastic that has been made still exists. Nearly all the plastics you have ever used still exist in some form, which is a sobering thought, really.

There is also a massive discrepancy between per capita plastic waste generation. The average European person produces 31 kg of plastic waste per year according to Eurostat [insert infographic]. This dwarfs plastic waste generation rates for the countries where leakage rates are high, but where consumption is low and per capita waste generation may be just 10% of the average American or European. As the infographic from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation earlier demonstrates, the US and Europe are home to the headquarters of the vast majority of companies producing consumer goods for which these plastics are made.

An infographic from Eurostat and statista charts shows that EU citizens generate between 30 and 39kg plastic waste per year in almost all EU countries

Ultimately, I think an adaptation of the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle is relevant here. This principle is based on notions of fairness and has been used since the dawn of global climate change policy. It recognises that historic and cumulative emissions disproportionately came from a small handful of countries, acknowledges that the world’s most developed economies have more resources to combat climate change, and encourages the world’s poorest countries to focus first on poverty eradication.

Policy Solutions

When it comes to plastics, this doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything about the ongoing problems with leakage in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, and we have already seen China and other countries taking action. Fostering circular economies in these countries can also bring benefits to per capita GDP and living conditions in those countries. This is where the “common” aspect of this principle comes in.

While in Asia the focus should be on improved waste management infrastructure and practices, in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, the solutions will need to focused on reduced consumption and alternatives to conventional plastics. There is plenty of research on “willingness to pay” that suggests consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that are more sustainable or even pay a tax on single use plastics. In the UK, the Treasury found that there is high support for taxing single use plastics at the point of sale, and there are plans to complement tax reform with changes to manufacturing.

Bans of specific products such as straws are already happening and spreading across the globe. Bans have already been flagged as problematic for disabled people. We also need to be careful not to create a black market, as happened with plastic bags in Rwanda or in relation to other products, like incandescent bulbs. It’s important to point out that no one is actually calling for the ban of all plastics. One suggestion from a consortium of environmental groups on the Treasury’s consultation was that policy interventions be targeted according to a hierarchy considering the necessity of the product and the necessity of including plastic. Their categories were “pointless”, “replaceable”, “problem”, “harder to replace” and “essential”. There can also be exemption for certain uses and/or for certain groups.

Plastics are arguably among the most transformative innovations of the 20th century; and despite their potential ills, they have also made our lives better in many ways. They are also probably here to stay. The question now is how we reduce their use, reduce the harm caused by their production and disposal, provide viable alternatives, and ultimately transition to a circular economy. In my next blog post on the topic, I will turn to the question of alternatives and whether their use could have unintended consequences.


Dr Sarah Clement

Sarah is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning within the School of Environmental Science at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on environmental governance, science-based policy, and nature-based solutions. She is particularly interested in how reforming policy and practice can enable better ecological, socio-economic, and democratic outcomes, particularly during periods of rapid environmental and social change.  Sarah has worked in the field of environmental science and policy for 16 years as an environmental consultant, researcher, and environmental policy advisor in Australia, the UK, and the USA. She is also on the board of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. She spends most of her spare time hiking in nature, travelling, lifting heavy things, adoring her cat, and documenting all of these in pictures. She tweets as @DrSarahClement, and posts said pictures on IG @umsfromumbridge.

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Science, Music and The Beauty Of Nature: Polar Live!

If you’re stuck for something to do this weekend, I strongly recommend you check out Polar Live, right here in Liverpool. It’s an awesome-looking project, where the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will be playing over a beautifully-shot documentary about life at the poles, which will be shown on a HUGE screen in HD. Essentially, it’s going to be unique, unusual and utterly beautiful, I think.

Don’t just take my word for it though – here’s a clip which gives you a taste of what it’ll be like:

I can’t wait to go myself, it looks really brilliant – something of a stirring, wonder-filled way of saying ‘this is the only planet we have, and we’d damn sure better look after it’.

The whole thing is being organised by a brilliant chap who goes along to the Greater Manchester Skeptics, who explained the show to me:

As Jacques Cousteau said, it’s easier to protect what we love. Polar is, first and foremost, a great night out. The rest is there for the audience to discover, if they so wish.

Tickets are still available if you move fast. I have mine already, and I really can’t wait.

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Climate Change In Canada

In its continued exploitation of the oilsands of Alberta, Canadia may have recently surpassed even the US in its ability to ignore climate change science in the name of making economic gains.  It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to find an opinion piece published in the Globe and Mail, a Canadian national newspaper, supporting the work of scientists as “square-jawed heros” of current crises.

Effectively a firm rebuttal of the idea that just because of a few poorly-worded emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia the entire climate science paradigm (or even the broader scientific establishment) has collapsed, the author highlights the vital work of scientists and the robustness of the system within which they work.

In the Hollywood version of how science influences policy, the brilliant scientist has a eureka moment in the lab and calls the president, who promptly dispatches a square-jawed hero to save the day. In the real world, both science and politics are enormously more complicated.

It is in this real-world context that we must place the imbroglio surrounding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s research. Breathless media claims that the scientific consensus supporting the reality of climate change and its causes has collapsed are simply untrue.

At its heart, the debate centres on the role and process of science in creating a platform for human progress. If anything has been “revealed,” it is the challenge of communicating complex science to a media world that requires scientists to reduce their research to a sound bite.

I highly recommend reading the full article.

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Are Green Beliefs Equal to Religious Ones?

Last year, Tim Nicholson, a sustainability officer with the property company Grainger plc, was dismissed from his job. His boss, Rupert Dickinson, maintained that Nicholson’s redundancy was solely driven by the operational needs of the company during a period of market turbulence. Nicholson, however, claims he was dismissed because of his strong views on man-made climate change, which his boss viewed as simply a lifestyle choice.

In a recent landmark court ruling on the issue, Mr Justice Michael Burton ruled that environmentalism had the same weight in law as religious and philosophical beliefs and granted Nicholson leave to appeal. Nicholson’s solicitor, Shah Qureshi, said:

“Essentially, what the judgement says is that a belief in man-made climate change and the alleged resulting moral imperative is capable of being a philosophical belief and is therefore protected by the 2003 religion or belief regulations.”

I can’t help feeling that this is a strange judgement. I can understand that Nicholson may feel that he was unfairly dismissed from his job, and taking this to court would be appropriate for him in that regard. What I struggle with is why he is happy for his environmental views to be put on a par with philosophical or religious ones. If the evidence for man-made climate change was vague or sparse then his belief could possibly be seen in this way. However, there is a huge amount of evidence out there, and Nicholson’s belief is simply a rational one. Don’t get me wrong, the evidence is not 100%, and there are some dissenting voices – but there is evidence none-the-less. Nicholson’s stance on man-made climate change is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to arrive at. Labelling it as a religious – or even a philosophical – belief implies a ‘choice’, a ‘decision’ to believe something for which you cannot claim to be objectively true. Nicholson didn’t just decide that he liked the environmental ‘philosophy’, he came to a conclusion based on evidence. It’s not like the evidence is hiding either. It’s not buried in the mists of time with only a few manuscripts to shine a light on its possible existence. It’s happening here, now. Read the rest of this entry »


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Public Opinion On Science: Who To Trust And When?

MSS-member and recent émigré to Canada Chris Hassall takes a look at how public perception of science is distorted, and the role of skepticism in  combating the distortion.

People go about their daily lives making decisions on the basis of beliefs about the way the world works. Their epistemological framework is a complex architecture of foundations and interconnecting supports on which rest concepts held to be “true”. While some beliefs may have little consequence for the person holding that belief, others have the potential to seriously impact the lives of both the believer and, through the actions that those beliefs precipitate, the rest of mankind. When we come to examine issues of such magnitude, we see a difference between the beliefs held by the general public and those which are held by the majority of experts in the respective fields. To understand why this is the case, it is informative to consider two claims that have been made in recent years and the variation in the reception that each has received from the public.  Read the rest of this entry »

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101 Ways to Save the Earth

Earth is good to us. Like a kindly stable owner in Bethlehem, it gives us a comfortable place to stay in a cold, harsh universe that wants us dead. All it asks is that we don’t pollute or mine it too much, and in return it stops us floating about in the vastness of space and dying like this.

It is a simple deal that works greatly in our favour, yet humans in our infinite wisdom like to casually piss on it. Much like the bloke that stopped his car in the centre of my road yesterday daytime, got out and relieved himself on his own car, then got back in and drove on. This isn’t relevant by the way, it just pissed me off (no pun intended). Back to my original point… Depending on which climate experts you speak to, we’re either on the verge of messing up our planet, or are pretty much already in the red. The time to do something about it is right now, not tomorrow or when the mood strikes: right now. We might not be able to completely reverse the effects, but there’s still the chance to lessen the effects. There are, of course, self-proclaimed ‘sceptics’ claiming it’s all a bit of a mountain made out of a molehill and that everything will be fine some undetermined time in the future (when we’re all dead, probably). I would claim that the evidence for severe and destructive climate change is nigh on conclusive, and that the nay-sayers are simply burying their heads in the sand like environmentally averse ostriches, but then I’m not a scientist. However, the information is out there for all to find, and it’s building all the time. Seek and ye shall find. Who do you think I am, Al Gore? Read the rest of this entry »