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Why recycling alone will not clean up the planet’s plastic pollution problem

Plastic is making a permanent (and unwelcome) home on Planet Earth, and both scientists and campaigners are calling for the ‘wonder material’ to be confined to a closed-loop system, and for ‘disposable’ plastic to become a thing of the past.

The plastic island

Henderson Island has recently hit global headlines, for all the wrong reasons. The remote, uninhabited UNESCO World Heritage site in the South Pacific Ocean has the highest known density of litter in the world.

The nearest inhabitants are 115 km away on Pitcairn island, which is home to only 40 residents, and to find any industrial facilities or major human habitations, you would need to travel over 5,000 km. The beaches of Henderson may not bear the footsteps of humans, but mankind’s fingerprints are all over the island, in the form of 17.6 tons of debris items, which have washed up from the sea.

A 2015 expedition carried out by the University of Tasmania and bird protection charity, the RSPB, found nearly 38 million pieces of plastic washed up on the island’s beaches, 68% of which was buried beneath the sand. While the figures are alarming, scientists say this is a drastic underestimate, as the research excluded anything buried deeper than 10 cm. They were also unable to include tiny particles known as micro- and nano-plastics.

Much of the litter has been washed onto the island from the nearby South Pacific Gyre - a gyre is where ocean litter accumulates to become a ‘floating island of junk’ due to circular currents created by wind patterns, the rotation of the planet, and landmass. The scientists say that Henderson, and islands like it, act as reservoirs for the world’s waste.

Every day, somewhere between 3,000 and 13,000 items of debris are being washed up on the island’s North Beach. Dozens of dummies, bike pedals, fishing lines and buckets all make up the grim scenery, and a hefty rope spanning several metres, likely from a cargo ship, leaches green dye into the surrounding sand as the material disintegrates. The shear size of this last item means it too was excluded from the research figures, as it was too big to analyse.

Hundreds of purple hermit crabs are making homes of pots and bottles found in their natural forest habitat, which is now completely coated in the plastic pushed up from the sea. Green turtles are getting tangled in fishing lines, and the layer of waste on the beach is preventing females from laying eggs, in what is the only known nesting site in this island group.

The lead researcher, Jennifer Lavers, says that some areas of the beach are more plastic than they are sand. After seeing the level of discarded rubbish on an island so far from human life, she says: “It really shows the connections between even the remotest corners of the ocean and our metropolitan centres.”

Rubbish on Henderson Island - photographer Jennifer Lavers
Crab in plastic pot on Henderson Island - photographer Jennifer Lavers

Jennifer brought Henderson to the world’s attention in order to highlight the enormous scale of the plastic problem. A clean-up of the island is not only unfeasible, but would in any event only be a superficial solution, she says, since more waste would continue to wash onto the island and replace whatever had been cleared away. Instead, the answer, say scientists, is to rethink the role of plastic entirely.

“We need to stop, pause, and reflect on ourselves and realise that the solution does not lie with some tropical, far-flung island and cleaning it up once or twice, but in turning off the tap here in our cities and breaking our addiction to plastic, regardless of how difficult that may be,” she says.

A waste of paradise

Tuvalu was once an island paradise in the South Pacific. However, left-over packaging took up residency after the nation gained independence in 1978 and introduced foreign imports, which left a sprawling heap of debris.

With a lack of infrastructure to deal with the waste, it became destined for the island’s “borrow pits,” which cover 8% of the land. These pits are a leftover from World War II, when coral was dug out and used to build airstrips for allies. To support a growing population on the island, homes were built in amongst the rubbish.

The filmmakers behind the documentary A Plastic Ocean travelled to Tuvalu, and saw the impact the litter-filled borrow pits were having on human lives. They met with Marao Apisai, who has been living in one of the borrow pits for 25 years - her entire life. She described the level of illness inflicted on the residents, and the problems some of them have had conceiving. In amongst the debris, the people were raising livestock and burning some of the waste, breathing in dangerous fumes.

As part of an aid programme in the Pacific, the New Zealand government commissioned the Tuvalu Borrow Pit Reclamation Project, filling in the borrow pits to return the environment to a habitable state and improve community public health.

More than 250,000m3 of sand was dredged from a local lagoon to fill the pits. The waste from the filled-in pits was transferred to one large borrow pit in the north of the island, and work was officially completed in April 2016.

According to Calibre Consulting, the team who put the project into action, there have already been positive impacts. More land is available, livestock and humans can be separated, and there is better access to recreation. (Now, volleyball is regularly played in the evenings and weekends.)

Andrew Ioatana from the Funafuti Falekaupule (Council of Chiefs) in Tuvalu said in a letter sent to those behind the work: “The project will be treasured by the community for its entire life and we cannot express in words our appreciation for this assistance.”

Tuvalu may have been restored to its former island paradise, but the question of incoming waste still hangs above the island. Its location makes exporting recycling expensive, and there is limited space for refuse on the island.

Peter Ollivier, the project director, says the borrow pit project was not about waste at all, but had been implemented to improve health and living conditions, as well as to restore scarce land for social and community use.

The problem of excess waste in Tuvalu is not an isolated problem, and according to a new report from the awareness-raising charity Plastic Oceans Foundation and Brunel University, 80-90% of waste is not collected or safely disposed of in some of the world’s poorest communities.

Turning full circle

The waste responsible for devastating these islands is part of a linear economy, where plastic items are made, used, and disposed of. However, there is a more sustainable way for plastic to co-exist peacefully with the planet. In a circular economy, plastic is kept in use for as long as possible, resulting in waste reduction. Repairing, reusing, re-purposing and recycling resources are key components in keeping the life-cycle of plastic circular.

Significant steps are being made towards a circular economy in the UK, according to the

latest report from Wrap, an organisation that is striving towards a world which uses resources sustainably. Plastic bottle recycling has increased, mixed recycling collections are on the rise, and manufacturers are using lighter-weight plastic. But it is not enough, and a considerable amount of material is not suitable to be recycled.

Of the plastic that does make it into the recycling bin, a limited life-span awaits. After two or three cycles of being re-purposed, the quality diminishes so much that the plastic becomes useless.

Plastic without borders

The ocean is littered with eight million metric tonnes of plastic each year, and it is thought that 80% comes from the land. According to a Plastic Oceans Foundation and Brunel University report, the top four contributors to marine litter are China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, where there is limited waste management infrastructure, and excess waste material can become destined for the ocean. Much of this waste is originating overseas.

And waste is big business. In 2015, the UK exported 791,000 tonnes of plastic recycling, and the top destination was China, where money can be made from processing and reselling materials. While a large proportion of waste may be entering the ocean in Asia, it may have first been thrown away in the UK, Europe, or the USA.

In a bid to deal with surplus waste that cannot be recycled, China launched Operation Green Fence in 2012, putting limitations on the waste imports the country would accept. Some experts say this has forced the originating countries to think more carefully about the waste they are creating. Now, China has announced that it will no longer accept recycling from overseas, the impact from which is yet to be seen.

In 2015, the European Commission’s Circular Economy package set a target for 55% of all plastic packaging waste to be prepared for reuse or recycling by 2025, but is recycling enough?

Jennifer Lavers, the Henderson Island expedition lead scientist, has a message for all consumers: “Don’t sit in hope that your government passes legislation, don’t hope that your neighbour starts recycling, get out there and do something. Set an example - challenge yourself and your family to tackle plastic alternatives one by one.”

Global governments may be taking steps towards tackling the plastic problem, but redesigning our relationship with plastic will involve a huge cultural shift, and the role of individuals will be crucial to making and sustaining this shift in how we use and dispose of plastic.

Photography of Henderson Island courtesy of Jennifer Lavers.

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