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Sequins in our seafood: NZ’s plastic problem revealed

A report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor envisages a future with much less plastic, where all of what we use is recycled or dealt with responsibly in New Zealand. One day, says PMSCA Juliet Gerard, teenagers will look at you strangely if you don't carry your own food container.

We know there are tiny traces of plastic in New Zealand's water, soil and seafood, but we don't know how widespread the problem is or how it's affecting our health.

We do know that scientists find tiny particles of the stuff virtually everywhere they test for it. Even lettuces have shown they are capable of accumulating micro-plastics, although so far only in the artificial environment of a laboratory. 

Until we learn more, we’d better be cautious about the spread of plastic, says a new report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Juliet Gerard.

Meanwhile, we know that wasted plastic is killing millions of sea creatures.

In the future, says Gerard, teenagers will look at you funny if you don’t carry your own reusable food container. We will see fewer and fewer bits of washed up fishing rope, and all the plastic we use will be recycled in this country, biodegrade, or go to a leak-proof landfill, stopping toxins reaching the environment.

But getting there is going to require regulation, and better information, the report says. Right now, we don't even know how much plastic New Zealanders purchase each year, let alone the best alternatives.

Rethinking Plastics is based on work by a panel of 11 experts, covering every part of the plastics chain. If you don’t have time for the full 264 pages, here are some surprising findings.

1. Sequins are terrible, but not for fashion reasons.

Some of us have only just recovered from learning that polar fleece, objectively the snuggest fabric, is terrible for shedding micro plastics into the ocean every time you wash it.

This report delivers a new blow: Sequins and glittery clothes also shed copious plastic, and washing them on a delicate cycle only makes matters worse. That's because the delicate wash uses more water and so, presumably, releases more plastic-laced wastewater. “Recent research showed that the delicate wash releases on average 800,000 more microfibres than other cycles,” Rethinking Plastics informs its readers.

These microfibres and micro-plastic fragments often end up in the sea, because wastewater treatment plants can’t filter them out properly.

Long-term, the report says, the clothing industry needs to change how it manufactures synthetic clothes.

Short-term, we need to find ways to stop particles reaching the environment from the glitzy clothes we have, not to mention our polar fleece dressing gowns. Built-in washing machine filters and special wash bags are one option, as well as upgrading water treatment plants.

The issue is bigger than sequins and onesies. One third of plastic consumption globally is by the textile industry, the report says, and, currently, there’s almost nowhere people can recycle textiles. ”1 billion tonnes of polyester, polyamide and acrylic fibres have been produced since 1950.”

Merino, linen and cotton don't shed plastic -- but Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke, the research analyst and writer in the PMCSA's office who wrote Rethinking Plastics, knows not everyone can or will ditch synthetics. “We can’t just shift everyone to one or two fabrics, so it’s about tackling it on a few fronts – manufacturing it so it sheds less, using a washing machine filter, and then another step (of filtering) at the wastewater plant,” she says.

An even worse culprit than clothing, globally, is tyres. 

Globally, the report says, tyres leak around 1.5 million tonnes of micro-plastics each year. It may be harder to capture these particles from roads than it is to filter wash water. One European Union study that found taking certain types of tyres off the market would reduce the problem by about 33 percent, but better solutions are clearly needed to stop so tiny tyre bits getting to the ocean.

2. These sequin and tyre particles might be in our seafood

Some of what happens when plastic gets in the ocean is easy to see. The report notes that Kaikoura fur seals have some of the highest reported entanglement rates in the world, and thousands or millions of sea birds, turtles, fish and other species are killed by being tangled in plastic, or eating it.

But there's much less certainty -- and visibility -- when it comes to human health effects. Humans are unlikely to get tangled in old fishing net, but we can unwittingly eat tiny plastic particles found in water and soil.

The effects of this are still being researched, says Chiaroni-Clarke. It may turn out that plastic itself is harmless to ingest, but that chemical additives found in certain plastic products pose a danger. Hazardous additives found in some plastics can leach into food or the environment, and some are already known to disrupt hormonal processes of people and animals, though people's actual level of exposure to these problems is less clear. One pitfall is that, in the race to remove these additives, manufacturers will replace one toxic substance with another, which even less is known about. 

One place plastics can end up is in seafood.

Rethinking Plastics cites research from the University of Auckland’s Institute of Marine Science identifying that 33 out of 34 commercial fish species had evidence of ingested plastic across four locations in the South Pacific, including Auckland. Out of the eight most common species specific to Aotearoa, only one did not ingest plastics. While plastics in the guts of fish would not be eaten by humans, plastic or chemical contaminants in tissues could be, it says.

Shellfish may be more of a risk, because people eat the whole animal. Rethinking Plastics takes a stab at working out how much plastic we’re eating in shellfish. At the average New Zealander’s yearly mollusc consumption of 440g per capita per year, multiplied by the average micro-plastic load detected in mollusc species, the average person’s dietary exposure to micro-plastics via shellfish might be around 924 to 4620 fragments per capita per year. That’s a very rough estimate, based on limited data. The report says the Ministry for Primary Industries is looking into the level of plastics in New Zealand shellfish and how the particles respond to cooking. For now, there's no suggestion sequin-laced scallops are hurting us, even if we're eating them -- but we need to know more about the local situation, the report says.

There are even tinier particles in seafood that we know less about than micro-plastics. Microparticles can break down into even smaller nano plastics, which people can ingest or inhale deep into their lungs. We know less about these nano-plastics and their effects than we do about micro-plastics, the report says. 

“Seafood has been identified as a potential route of micro-plastics and associated chemical pollutants into the human diet, with a growing body of literature demonstrating the presence of nano‐ and micro-plastics in commonly eaten marine species, such as mussels, oyster, fish, sea cucumbers and lobsters," the report says.

In short: "Further investigation is required."

3. Plastics could hasten the antibiotic apocalypse

For the natural worriers among us, it's always nice when two different threats combine into one, big, connected worry. The news that antibiotic resistance might be worsened by plastic waste allows us to do that. 

While research on the relationship between the two is still emerging, the report says there are early indications that ingesting plastics colonised with microbes may help spread new or invasive pathogens, including, potentially, antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

The risk is this: Plastics floating across the ocean can carry microbes to far-flung ecosystems where they otherwise mightn’t have made it. They may also bring bacteria and other organisms into contact with substances that can make them antibiotic-proof. A microbial gunk that clings to floating plastics, known as biolfilm, might attract both microbes and traces of antibiotics or other chemicals that foster drug resistance, bringing the two together to make superbugs.

In the report's words: “There is emerging evidence that the biofilm environment established by microbes on micro-plastics is one that can support the spread of antimicrobial resistance, if it also attracts antibiotics or other chemicals that select for resistance.”

The report says that not much is known about this threat, or how serious it is; it's another area where we need more research.

4. Reducing plastic is not always good for the climate

Plenty of us enjoy a vague feeling that, when we use our re-useable shopping bags, we are also helping the climate.

It’s an admirable idea, but possibly not true. The report makes clear that reducing plastic is not always the best thing for the climate.

Glass containers, for example, are heavier, so they take more energy to transport than plastic. Ditching plastic for glass packaging might help the climate, but only if the methods used to make the glass and recycle it - combined with the distance the product must travel, and the method it travels by - result in lower greenhouse gas emissions overall. We are not only talking about how we bottle tomato sauce -- airplane parts made out of plastic rather than metal can cut the amount of fuel a plane uses, and cut carbon emissions. “This is something I didn’t realise before I started this process. Weight is really important,” says Chiaroni-Clarke.

That’s not to say that tackling climate change can't be done while cutting plastic, just that the two aren't always in tune.

We'll need to find a balance, because shrinking plastic use is required to combat climate change. Rethinking Plastics says plastics contribute to emissions at every stage of their existence, from leaks and emissions caused by extracting fossil fuels to make virgin plastic, to manufacturing plastic products, to recycling or incinerating them when they're no longer needed. It’s been projected that the world's increasing plastic use will increase the global carbon footprint of plastic to up to 15 percent of the world’s total ‘carbon budget’ by 2050, unless we turn the trend around. Using less virgin plastic, more renewable resources, and more recycled plastic, could help us stay within our carbon limits.

But this is where things get complicated. A whole range of things need to be factored in before shoppers can make good decisions about whether to buy cardboard, glass, cotton, traditional plastic, bioplastic or something else – and right now, the information available to people is seriously hole-y.

For example, Chiaroni-Clarke says most lifecycle assessments of different products' greenhouse gas footprints have been done overseas, where there’s a heavy reliance on electricity from fossil fuel. Here most of the electricity used for manufacturing and recycling comes from rivers, geothermal sources and wind energy. Yet we don’t have many New Zealand-specific studies to tell us how various materials stack up. “Where New Zealand brands have done assessments, they are often commercially sensitive,” says Chiaroni-Clarke.

We also need to find a way to factor in the impact of disposable plastics that can end up in the marine environment, she says. “Brands trying to make a decision about what’s the most sustainable material need guidance. A lifecycle analysis (tallying only greenhouse gases) might be good if you’re making something that something lasts for years, but if you’re making something that is likely to end up on the beaches, you might move away from plastics (regardless).”

5. We don’t know how much plastic we buy

As the shop shelves groan with novelty Santas, plastic toys and embossed clothes, people might be wondering how much their Christmas shopping is contributing to the plastics problem.

We don’t know the answer, because New Zealand doesn’t track how much plastic enters the country in products and packaging. We track how much raw plastic New Zealanders import each year to turn into other products (575,000 tonnes) but nobody tracks the stuff imported ready-made for sale.

“That’s a massive problem,” says Chiaroni-Clarke. “All the packaged products and plastic goods, and all the stuff we don’t seen on the shelves -- all the shrink wrap that’s on products when it arrives, that is removed behind the scenes – that data isn’t held somewhere where it can be easily accessed. I suspect most businesses would have an idea, if they audited their supply chain, but there’s an issue with commercial sensitivity. We need someone to gather it in a way that respects that commercial sensitivity.”

Any system that covered the biggest retailers – Foodstuffs and Progressive supermarkets, The Warehouse, Farmers and the like – could probably get enough information without needing to burden small retailers, she said.

One thing we know is that we’re wasteful. “According to the World Bank’s 2018 global review of solid waste management, Aotearoa New Zealand is one of the most wasteful nations in the developed world, disposing of an estimated 159 grams of plastic waste per person each day, and ranked number 10 globally for municipal waste generation per capita. Our waste per capita is well above the OECD average and is projected to remain so for the foreseeable future unless significant changes are implemented,” says the report.

It's not entirely our fault: our small, dispersed population makes it hard to achieve onshore recycling at an economic price. Now that Asian countries are refusing to process our plastic, we need to get on top of this, it says. 

One crucial part is ensuring there’s a New Zealand market for recycled plastic. That may mean changing what we buy to favour mostly plastics that companies actually want to recycle. Clear plastic is better for this, since the colours can turn grungy when mingled. The most recyclable kinds of plastic are types 1, 2 and 5, but, right now, only about 7 percent of the raw plastic brought into New Zealand is Type 1 PET, the most easily recyclable. “If there is more guidance out there for brands, there will be economies of scale to use better types. If no one is buying the recycled plastic, there’s no point," says Chiaroni-Clarke.

6. We indirectly use a lot of plastic that we never see

Plastic lids on our coffee cups and cellophane on our cucumbers are fairly conspicuous uses of plastic, but there's a big proportion of plastic that we never see. This plastic is still indirectly use to make things for us, it's just that it's disposed of before we purchase a finished item.

Fisheries waste is one obvious issue. Although the fishing business doesn’t use a high proportion of plastic, it is a significant contributor to plastic getting into the ocean. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fishing gear are lost or dumped overboard each year – and New Zealand has an outsized patch of ocean to protect, because of our enormous Exclusive Economic Zone.

The report lists some things that governments can do now, such as making it free for boats to dump waste plastic at the port, to reduce the financial incentive to get rid of waste at sea. Disposal or recycling could be paid for by a levy on all fishers, as has happened in parts of Europe, the report says. More fishing equipment could be made from biodegradable plastic, that would break down if it fell in the ocean.

Some seafood companies are already leading the way, the report says, but waiting for voluntary compliance by everyone is unlikely to be enough. Instead it suggests regulating, to make the habits of the best companies, standard.

There are other industries, too, where Chiaroni-Clarke says that making the best practice normal would go a long way

Agriculture, for example, uses 15 percent of New Zealand’s domestically-made plastic (only plastic products that are made here in the country). Bundles of hay are plastic-wrapped to keep them dry. Kiwifruit and grape vines are protected with netting secured by plastic clips. Often, plastic farm waste is burned or buried at the end of its useful life.

There are plenty of solutions. The Plasback scheme has started helping farmers voluntarily return their bale wrap. Meanwhile Zespri has been trying a biodegradable vine clip, which will break down after it falls on the ground. Getting these kinds of schemes used by everyone would make an enormous difference, says Chiaroni-Clarke.

She says that in some ways industries’ use of plastic is easier to solve than household use, even though industries use more. That’s because industrial plastic tends to be less contaminated, easier to collect and more straightforward to get to the right destination. “Commercial plastics are greater in volume, but if they are collected, they are easier to recycle. Kerbside plastic is less volume but more problematic, because it's mixed and often contaminated,” says Chiaroni-Clarke.

Bioplastics is a good example. A container made from vegetables sounds fabulous, but when people use biodegradable bioplastic at home, they sometimes throw it in the kerbside recycling bin and contaminate other plastic – causing more problems for the environment than if they’d just used a high grade traditional plastic, such as PET 1. On a kiwifruit orchard, however, this isn’t a problem – the clips just fall on the ground and degrade there. “I can imagine bio plastics being used when they will end up in in the environment, for example on farms, and being biodegradable, whereas your recyclable food packaging is the stuff you’d take home and put in your kerbside recycling bin,” says Chiaroni-Clarke. Part of the trick will be getting the right plastic, for the right activity.

7. There are lots of good solutions already

Patchy information makes it hard for people and businesses to make ethical decisions. Not only is good, local research scarce, recycling labels are confusing and every council operates a slightly different system. But there are some things New Zealand could do now to make decisions easier, the report says.

Australia has devised a labelling system that spells out in obvious terms how to dispose of each part of a product or its packaging, in much clearer ways than the numbered symbols New Zealand has currently. Joining forces with Australia would give New Zealand more buying power, and more leverage with overseas companies who make most of what we buy, says Chiaroni-Clarke. “Labelling is a massive, massive issue,” she says.

At the other end of a product’s life, the Ministry for the Environment is trying to make it more expensive to dump plastic, using measure such as raising the landfill levy. Right now, the cost of processing wasted plastic falls on ratepayers, through their local councils, regardless of who profited from the product. But the Ministry is consulting on new product stewardship rules that would make product sellers more responsible for the end destination of their products and packaging. A Scandinavian-style container return scheme for bottles is also under discussion.

Already this year, New Zealand has successfully ditched plastic shopping bags at the supermarket. It's too soon to know if the change is helping clean up our coastlines, but the change got people thinking about other plastic waste, says Chiaroni-Clarke. “One of biggest benefits of the whole process was raising awareness of single use products and challenging that whole culture of convenience,” she says. She credits the bag ban with boosting the voluntary use of reusable coffee cups. Brands such as Ecostore are rolling out re-filling stations for their products, meaning people don't need new containers each time.

Chiaroni-Clarke says the range of good solutions that are already out there was one of the biggest lessons. “There are a lot of great ideas and solutions out there and brands doing best practice, and it should be expected of everyone,” she says. 

There's one more thing we know today, without needing any new lifecycle studies. Whatever a product is made of, the best thing for the environment is to keep using it as long as you can and avoid buying new ones."All products have an impact,” says Chiaroni-Clarke. "So the best thing you can do is re-use them."

There might be one exception though, for garments featuring sequins. Only once you have a special washing machine filter can you justify repeat-wearing those items for the planet. 

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