Friday, 25 October 2019

The Pervasive Plastic Problem

Speak to an archaeologist about some of the significant eras in the human population of these British Isles and it is likely that they will speak about the importance of the Bronze and Iron Ages. 

In history we also learn about the industrial revolution and how the use of fossil fuels to produce steam alongside important economic changes fundamentally affected society. 


But what about now?  What will define our contribution on Earth? When archaeologists look back at our current time period undoubtedly it will be known as the plastic age. (1). The plastic won’t be hard to miss. Any archaeological trench that gets dug will most probably contain pieces of plastic that originated from the significant number of items that our modern world demands. 


As I compose this article and look around the room I can see examples of plastic everywhere from my clothing, glasses, television, water bottle and even the iPhone that I am typing on, plastic has found its way into all aspects of our life. So much so that developed countries would struggle to survive without it. 

Horribly most of the plastic items that we use are disposable and all that plastic ends up in some shape or form in a bin. 


According to an article published by the National Geographic in December 2018 out of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic the world has produced a whopping 6.3 billion has become plastic waste with only 9% of it being recycled. The article goes on to say that ‘If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.’ (2). That is some statistic and really exemplifies the scale of the issue. In fact plastic is such a disposable commodity that a study by Professor Roland Geyer of the University of California at Santa Barbara concluded that half of all plastic currently used is thrown away within a year of production. (3).


Most of this plastic ends up in landfill sites where it will remain buried but a significant amount finds its way into the planets waterways, streams and rivers, and as a result into our seas and from there to every corner of the world causing environmental consequences that we are just starting to comprehend. 


To understand the issues regarding plastics it is useful to have a little knowledge of the chemistry behind these molecules. Plastics are an example of a group of molecules called polymers. Most are produced from chemicals called alkenes which are derived from crude oil, a non-renewable material that has its own environmental concerns. Under the right conditions these molecules (or monomers) can be encouraged to react with each other to join together to form long chains called polymers. By changing the monomers used, the conditions and incorporating different additives a huge range of plastics can be produced with a variety of properties for a myriad of uses. 

The polymers themselves have strong bonds between their atoms which require a large amount of energy to break them and additionally as these chemicals are not found in nature living things are unable to break them down. This means that the plastic molecules are non-biodegradable and once produced persist and pollute our planet. 


Evidence of this persistence has been witnessed in the last month when plastic waste was found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth at a depth of 11km, this is 2km deeper than Mount Everest is tall (4). However, you don’t have to go nearly that far to see plastic in the ocean. A trip to the nearest beach will provide ample anecdotal evidence of the issue.  


As a child I was lucky enough to spend many of my holidays on the beaches of Southern England and Northern France looking for crabs, shrimps and other creatures living in rock pools. 


I still love the beach and try to get to one whenever I can. Just today I spent a bit of time crouched over some rock pools on a North Yorkshire beach.  Looking carefully I could see evidence of an active ecosystem.  Under closer inspection the rock pool also contained an incredulous amount of plastic waste. The beach itself seemed clean. In fact the shoreline was incredibly clean, I saw no evidence of plastic bags, bottles or other litter. Indeed the beach itself had been awarded a 2018 blue flag award (5), however closer inspection revealed the real issue. 


Within one minute of looking through the rock pool I had found a handful of small pieces of plastic. Evidence that the sea is full of it. The fragments of plastic were of varying colours and were all of a size that could be eaten by a variety of sea creatures looking for a tasty meal -see photograph. 


This is the issue that has been highlighted by Sir David Attenborough, arguably Britain’s most famous naturalist (6). Plastic in our oceans is a huge problem. It is everywhere. Large pieces of plastic like bottles and bags are mistaken by predators such as dolphins for their prey and can kill these majestic creatures. 


The smaller and microscopic pieces of plastic are ingested by smaller animals and enter the food chain slowly poisoning the animals as the chemicals increase in toxicity in a process called bioaccumulation. This affects the fragile ecosystem from the bottom up slowly destroying the entire food chain. 


We are the problem, you and me, the consumers, the human beings who use plastic everyday and every day just throw it away without thinking. 


So what are the solutions?  How can we stop the damage that we are doing?

Well, we could stop using plastic altogether.  This is a pretty extreme response and would be difficult to do. As we have already considered plastic is pervasive it’s in nearly everything we use. Plastics have unique properties that we would struggle to replace with other materials. Currently without alternatives removing plastics from our lives would fundamentally affect how we live, it would be hard for society to make that change. 


How about biodegradable plastics?  They exist, they are already part of what we are doing, but are they the answer?  The jury is out. These plastics do breakdown naturally in the environment when they come in contact with oxygen and water but some evidence suggests that as they decompose they persist in the environment as micro-plastics continuing to poison the ecosystem (7). 

The third option is, as consumers, to be more aware of our consumption of plastic items and be responsible both as individuals and as a society of production, use and disposal of plastic items. Maximising the recycling and reuse of plastics will slow down further production and the release of these harmful polymers into the environment. 


The science will catch up. Eventually more effective biodegradable polymers will be designed that will be truly environmentally friendly. Perhaps some clever people will come up with a completely new alternative material. Until then all of us have a responsibility to help clean up our world and prevent the plastic age irreparably affecting our planet. 


We all need to be determined, on it all the time, to reduce the amount of plastic we consume.  We must consider our use and find alternatives where we can. When we buy items we need to take note of the packaging and avoid goods with excess plastic. 


Importantly, we all need to make a concerted effort to reuse plastic items; bags and bottles especially. And when these items have had their day we all need to dispose of them appropriately . This means ensuring that plastic waste that can be recycled is recycled. 


Simply put that’s the message. That’s what you, me, all of us can do. It’s an old message but an important one. 


Reduce, reuse and recycle. 


Not much to help save a planet!


Bibliography 


  1. Are we living in the plastic age?, Danny Lewis, Smithsonian.com, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/are-we-living-plastic-age-180957817/ last accessed 26th May 2019
  2. A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled,Lauren Parker https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/ last accessed 26th May 2019
  3. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law, Science Advances  19 Jul 2017:Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782.full last accessed 26th May 2019
  4. Deepest-ever dive finds plastic at bottom of Mariana Trench, Euronews, https://youtu.be/0CTbfy6R2iQ last accessed 26th May 2019
  5. Blue Flag Beaches,  https://www.blueflag.global/ last accessed 26th May 2019
  6. Global Cause, https://www.globalcause.co.uk/plastic/sir-david-attenborough-plastic-and-our-oceans/ last accessed 26th May 2019
  7. Biodegradable plastic ‘false solution’ for ocean waste problem,  Adam Vaughan, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/23/biodegradable-plastic-false-solution-for-ocean-waste-problem last accessed 26th May 2019

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Autumn Produce

So the summer is almost over and the long weeks of holidays, sun, lie-ins and barbecues are coming to a close. But with today being the first day if metereological Autumn there is still much to look forward to. 

The best time of the year for garden produce makes this the time to make preserves, chutneys and jams.   Even though we live in the city our garden is full of an abundance of fantastic fruits just ready to be stored and eaten. 

The apples on our two trees are perfect for picking and eating straight from the branches or peeled and sliced and mixed with blackberries picked from the local park to create arguably the best crumble filling ever considered. Just don’t forget the custard!



At the bottom of the garden our pear tree, which in previous years as been decidedly unproductive, has this year been dropping delicious pears every day for the last three weeks. Together with the addition of walnuts, sultanas and copious amounts of cider vinegar (with a little sugar for sweetness and undisclosed spices) these beauties have been transformed into a pear and walnut chutney which will accompany the Christmas cheeseboard in four months time. 

The damsons, always a highlight of our late summer harvest, have again not let us down. These little sweet and sour plum jewels are the star attraction in jars of damson jam, damson and cherry relish and plum ketchup. 

However this year the best is yet to come as from the beginning of April we have been cultivating from seed a bumper crop of tomatoes. Two varieties of tomatoes, San Marzano and Roma, grown specifically for sauces and ketchups have been carefully tended and are currently just becoming ripe in our vegetable beds. 

Due to the success of the original germination a large number of plants, probably too many for the space, were planted and then with watering, sunshine and seaweed extract has produced a bountiful supply of delicious looking plum tomatoes that are currently ripening on the vine.  Following timely advice from Monty Don on the BBC gardening programme the leaves have been cut back to ensure the tomatoes get the warmth of the late summer sun in them to help them ripen whilst providing ventilation to prevent the dreaded tomato blight. 



The next couple of weeks will definitely include the slow cooking of these beauties over a charcoal fire to produce a smoky, slow roasted base to make jars of delicious pasta sauce and bottles of homemade ketchup. 
These will help keep the summer alive as the nights draw in and the frosts begin. 

All we need now is a perfect recipe!

And my fledgling lemon tree to grow...




Friday, 9 August 2019

Dog Walking the Dachshund in Dorset

Bertie our three year old mini dachshund is always up for a walk. Considering the tiny legs that he has his stamina is something akin to Eddie Izzard running three marathons in one day. This is even more remarkable considering that he popped a disc in his spine whilst getting out of his bed 6 months ago leaving him paralysed and requiring an operation that literally saved his life. 
BertieHe likes a walk anywhere: in the woods, up to the kids school, in the park...but his favourite place to walk is across the beach and on the cliffs with the wind blowing his ears as he trots along sniffing out the smells of the sea air. 

For a little thing he can walk for miles and even when his human friends are exhausted he still finds the energy to go bounding up to a canine coming the opposite way woofing with the attitude that belies his small form. 

Today he was in his element. Bertie took to the South West Coast path in West Dorset from Abbotsbury to West Bexington and back.The wind was blowing 50mph, the air was full of spray from the breaking waves mixing with splatters of rain from the sky. Onward he trotted his ears flapping about in the breeze, faithfully following his family, as we sought out the tea and cakes at the cafe beyond. 


For him just a bowl of water which he stubbornly and characteristically refused. As I write this he has taken up his usual position asleep on the sofa dreaming of clouds scudding across the sky, sheep and seagulls. Tomorrow he will be back to the beach.