The Grumpy Old Man

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....Plastics: an Environmental Crisis....

....Our Love of Plastic and Particularly Single Use Items is an Environmental Disaster in the Making....


Note:this grump was originally published in September 2017, and now updated in November and December 2018

I see in The Times newspaper that discarded fishing nets are destroying rare and endangered pink sea fans by ripping them from the seabed. These beautiful endangered corals are normally found in the UK counties of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.

A recent programme on the television visited a beach in Mumbai. It was so covered in plastic trash that you could not see whether the beach was sand or shingle. This rubbish was being washed in twice a day on the tides. A typical cleanup produced four kilotons (1 kilo equals 1000) of plastic trash in a single year. As a further example of how widespread this tide born plastic is becoming, a beach in Arrochar, Northern Scotland is at the mercy of one of these toxic tides. A single thirty minute cleanup operation collected over 30 kg of plastic rubbish.

Recent newscasts of war-torn areas around the world frequently show children scavenging on rubbish tips. It is significant that these rubbish tips seem to comprise of discarded plastic.

Living near the sea, I frequently pass apartments built 12 or 15 years ago. These have been fitted with plastic windows which salesmen claim never need maintenance and will always look good. That's rubbish, the 12-year-old plastic windows I see are now a disgusting shade of yellow and streaked with rust from improper internal fixings. A neighbour's experience is that, over time, his plastic windows have distorted, discoloured, don't close properly and let drafts in during the winter.

So, let's look at some basic facts on this love of plastic. Currently, plastic production has topped at least 350megatons (mega equals millions), with some figures suggesting 450 megatons. Historically this figure has grown by 4% per annum. This means that by the year 2050 we could be producing between 1300 and 1600 megatons of plastic. In fact, current estimates suggest that, by 2050 the oceans will carry (by weight) more plastic than fish.

Most current plastics use crude oil as feedstock mixed with highly toxic, poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals, albeit in low concentrations, to turn the oil into plastic. Approximately 4% of the worlds crude oil is currently used by the plastics manufacturing industry. (As an aside, since it is claimed that we have already passed "peak oil", a shortage of crude oil may, just may, provide a stimulus to limit the production of this rubbish).

It is appalling and frightening that 40% of all of this plastic are "single use" items, being discarded within a matter of minutes. Some may last for as long as a year, if it is lucky.

So what happens to this discarded plastic? It is estimated that one rubbish cart's worth of trash is discarded every minute. It is also estimated that between ten and twenty megatons of plastic are discarded into the ocean annually. Much of this discarded plastic is reputedly accumulating in remote oceanic areas of the planet. Due to circulatory currents it is believed there are five major accruals of plastic in the North and South Pacific and Atlantic and one in the southern Indian ocean.

These disposals of waste plastic are not the only source. As an example, Thames Water remove between 4 and 500 tons of discarded plastic from the River Thames alone every year. This comes from the whole of the water catchment area of the river. Any piece of litter or plastic discarded in that area will eventually get washed into a ditch, on into a stream and ultimately the Thames. (As an aside many of us use wet wipes and nappy liners, did you know that these are plastic, not paper and therefore are not biodegradable? Flush them down the loo and they get into the sewers which they eventually block.)

So how long does this plastic last? Like many stupid inventions of man, nobody knows, although some current estimates start at 450 years and possibly longer. Grumpy accepts that abrasion and rough handling may cause a certain amount of plastic disintegration but at best this can only be down to micro-plastic size (defined as less than 5 mm across and colloquially called 'a nurdle'). Clearly these nurdles will have the same life as the basic originating piece of plastic. It is pertinent to ask what happens to these nurdles? Post-mortems on dead fulmars frequently found their gut to be so full of nurdles that there is no room for food, consequently the bird starved to death. One such example found eighteen nurdles with a total weight of half a gram in the bird's digestive system. Extrapolating these figures suggest the fulmars living in the North sea have consumed six tons of nurdles. Larger seabirds have been found with larger plastic items in their gut, including toothbrushes and even golf balls! If the seabirds are eating them, I've no doubt the fish that we eat will also be ingesting them as part of their diet and therefore ultimately they will be part of our diet.

It is clear that nurdles are very close to the human food chain (if not already in it). As a warning, laboratory tests have already demonstrated that smaller versions of nurdles have crossed from the gut to the human bloodstream. As usual we have no idea whatsoever, what the accumulated long-term effect of nurdles could be having on both wildlife and mankind.

We should all start thinking about what we're doing and how it affects all life on the delicate planet Earth

For many years I have been hearing stories about dolphin, tuna and turtles getting caught in "mist nets". These nets are made from very fine transparent plastic and when deployed stretch for kilometres. In addition to this, living near the beach, I frequently see large and small sections of this netting, cavalierly discarded by fishermen, and washed ashore. One only has to pick it up to see just how strong it is. It is no wonder that dolphin or tuna who become entangled in this would be unable to free themselves. Being unable to move through the water they slowly drown.

So, Grumpy asks, can anything be done about this problem? Of course it can with a concerted effort (QV) I am sure that a multifaceted solution to the problem can and must be found.

Many people site as a solution to this conundrum the use of biodegradable plastics. There are two basic classes of plastics, those derived from renewable "bio" raw material and those plastics made from petrochemicals containing biodegradable additives.

The "bio plastics" are made from grown material which is claimed to "bio degrade" (in the natural environment the indigenous microbes will "eat" the plastic and break it down into matter very similar to compost that plants can reuse. However this process still takes years rather than days. After all, even a discarded banana skin will need between one and three years to rot down completely. Although these materials do break down into compost they are clearly only suitable for certain single use items such as food packaging, some agricultural products (plastic sheeting or bags) and perhaps some medical applications which will break down within the body.

But even these bio-plastics need the right conditions to degrade, i.e sunlight and oxygen. In the wrong conditions (inside your average landfill) they produce the greenhouse gas methane, which is over 20 times worse than carbon dioxide, as they break down. Given the right conditions, however they will break down into carbon dioxide, water and some "biomaterial" i.e. compost, with no nasty chemical leftovers, these conditions being normally found in a rarely found proper "composting" facility.

As with all solutions there is a huge downside to this approach. If one makes 250 megatons of this plastic and on an annual basis use it to replace conventional (crude oil based) plastics, then over 700 megatons would need to be diverted from the world's food supply at a time when global warming is already known to be reducing tropical farm productivity! With the increasing frequency of food shortages and man's inability or unwillingness to indulge in meaningful population control, such a "hole" in a basic world food resource makes over use of this route ridiculous and unthinkable.

Many people claim their oil derived plastics are biodegradable. This is normally achieved by additives causing them to decay more rapidly, again in the presence of sunlight, oxygen, moisture and heat. (Not the conditions found in your average landfill) One of the problems with these "degradable" plastics is that they produce tiny fragments of plastic (micro-nurdles) that do not continue to degrade, regardless of the environment.

However, it is claimed that bacteria have been identified with the ability to degrade plastics. As an example, two types of nylon eating bacteria were found in 1975 and in 2008. It was reported that a 16-year-old boy had also isolated plastic consuming bacteria. So it's clearly not rocket science. Neither of these "solutions" seem to have been followed up sufficiently to make any sort of impact on the problem. Perhaps because there is no profit for the plastics manufacturing companies to do so. As against this head in the sand approach it is pertinent to remember that we are already past peak oil consequently the feedstock for this plastic will become increasingly scarce and expensive. And one must also ask what happens when the plastic breaks down to the toxic chemicals that were used to turn the crude oil into plastic?

But all is not lost. A positive difference can be made by everybody actively reducing the amount of plastic the use. Grumpy accepts that this is not easy nowadays after all, when was the last time you saw milk being sold in a glass bottle?

It is believed a positive difference can be achieved if we utilise a reusable cotton bag, buying our goods loose and actively discouraging shopkeepers from over wrapping already wrapped goods. I see from the Daily Telegraph that plastic free shopping aisles are being proposed in some supermarkets. When you see these, use them.

Buy your fruit and vegetables loose, positively avoiding prepackaged items. Again discourage the checkout from re-wrapping stuff.

Use long-lasting items rather than disposable ones.

If an item is broken, repair it, ask yourself "is purchasing new absolutely essential?" Not so long ago repair was the only option, so if you can't repair it do without.

Personally reuse plastic items such as ice cream containers for storage, waxed vending machine cups can be reused as plant pots and even plastic supermarket bags can be used for the collection of rubbish. Better still, don't buy takeaway items. Sit down in the cafe and use proper pottery or china cups and saucers!

When buying items search out goods made from recycled materials rather than brand spanking new.

One day we may have perfect plastics that breakdown, currently, that is not the case so we need to be far more intelligent in our use of plastics and how we dispose of them.

Separate and recycle as much of your plastics as possible. The recycling industry is still in its relative infancy and regularly complains that some plastics are difficult to recycle because there are frequently contaminated. By increasing the volume of plastics offered for recycling I am sure they will find ways to reuse it.

Encourage governments both local and national to derive ways (deposits is but one example) to make recycling more attractive.

For those who wish to do something active, group cleanups can be organised. As an example a survey is currently being carried out, using drones, to analyse selected seashores from John O'Groats to Lands End. It is estimated this survey will produce 30,000 some photographs. It is proposed that the organisation (The Plastic Tide) carrying out this survey will upload them onto "Zooniverse". This is a website where volunteers assist scientists in processing the vast quantity of data. Keep your eyes open and get involved!

Avoid "carryouts" that serve their goods in plastic containers or issue plastic forks. Grumpy is not a great "carryout" user but has noticed many a Chinese "carryout" uses foil containers and the disgusting concoction sold as pizza is invariably sold in a cardboard (compostable) container. On this topic I am reminded of something my Pappy used to say and that was "don't walk down the street making a noise or eating your dinner, both of those are the mark of the less salubrious amongst us".

These represent a few examples of what can be done. The more people follow this route the sooner a hole will be made in the problem.

Grumpy believes there is still time to stem the flow. (Certainly a reduction in the amount of single use plastic items produced would help) Mankind has been faced with a potential environmental disaster in the not too distant past. This was the hole in the ozone layer.(The ozone layer is a band of ozone in the Earth's upper atmosphere which shields life on Earth from the sun's UV radiation. Exposure to this UV radiation is known to cause melanomas or skin cancers). In the 1950s ground-based data suggested that this ozone layer was thinning and in some areas had developed holes. By the mid-1980s physical tests showed that the amount of ozone in the upper atmosphere had fallen and a hole had formed over Antarctica. The size of this hole peaked in the year 2000 at some fifteen million square miles. Recent experimental data has shown that the size of this hole has now shrunk by one point seven million square miles (about 18 times the area of the United Kingdom). Extrapolation of this reduction suggests the hole will be fully repaired by 2050. So how has this been achieved? Quite simply by identifying the cause and a united front of scientists and industry responding appropriately. Chlorinated fluorocarbons were being released into the atmosphere causing chemical reactions as they reached the upper atmosphere. The reaction produced oxygen (not an effective UV shield) from the ozone. Due to concerted scientific pressure and the Montréal Protocol of August 1987, the use of chlorinated fluorocarbons particularly in aerosol cans, refrigerators and air conditioning plants was banned with alternative solutions being found. Since then the amount of ozone in the upper atmosphere has stopped falling, and is now rising back to its earlier levels.

This example proves that environmental problems identified by the scientific community can be resolved by a united front with everyone working together can mitigate the problem.

It also warns that the timescales involved for the resolution of these problems is extensive and thus a high degree of faith in the solution must be held.

Grumpy doesn't normally advertise other websites but there is much further information and contact data if one searches twitter for #oceanrescue and in addition to that you can visit sky oceanrescue.com by clicking here .

About a month after writing this grump I came across a fascinating short piece that gives a glimmer of hope, if only that somebody somewhere is doing their bit to try and combat the long-term effect of the almost infinite life of this plastic trash. Read about this possible solution to the problem by clicking here .

For once there is something positive to report and that is the work being done in Holland designing a device for cleaning up the Ocean Garbage patches. It's first trial, as far as I can ascertain, is slated for 2018. For more detail on this fantastic development click here .....read more.....

Finally, there is a common theme running through this and other grumps. Click here to .....read more......

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Note:this grump was originally published in April 2017, but was been updated in November 2018

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Originally when I started this update exercise, much of the information I had gathered suggested the problem was still very bad and rapidly getting significantly worse, particularly when one considers we are still dumping a rubbish truck of plastic into the oceans every minute of every day of the year. This clearly is not sustainable as many recent television programs have shown. Some recently filmed in Indonesia showed where the amount of rubbish washed in from the sea looked thick and solid enough to enable you to walk across the bay without getting your feet wet.

Recently the press has reported analysis of samples from over 1000 people showing every single one had plastic micro-filaments (or nurdles) in their gut. This had obviously come from ingested food and drink.

It is fairly common knowledge that much of the waste plastic generated by the developed countries is being shipped to the Far East, namely China, for recycling. However, the whole plastic disposal chain was recently thrown into disarray when the Chinese authorities admitted that they had more plastic than they could use in a number of years and would therefore accept no more.

As recently as last weekend a British newspaper reported at least one UK District council was unable to get rid of the plastic laboriously separated for recycling as it is too costly to dispose of, consequently they are now storing it on a disused airfield. So far there is currently 50,000 tons of plastic stored in this manner and it would cost £6,400,000 to process. There is so much, that it can be seen on satellite photographs. Not surprisingly, local residents are, like the plastic, revolting, as the rubbish heap is getting quite aromatic and attracting vermin to the area. Grumpy has also heard reports of other local councils mixing their landfill and recycling rubbish and dumping it all together in landfill!

But it is not all gloom and doom as there appear to be a number of initiatives coming to all sorts of fruition. (Having said that, there is absolutely no time for complacency as time is desperately short and many initiatives will take a lot of time to become fully effective) Some of these initiatives are novel, some of them are obvious, some are long-term and some can, with a right impetus, be implemented very quickly.

In solving the problem it is important to examine it from two aspects. I recently read an analogy pointing out that if you were in the situation where your sink was blocked and flooding the kitchen, the first thing you would do, would not be to rush around with a mop and bucket cleaning up the water, but you would go to the sink and turn the tap off. This trivial analogy is actually very close to the way the problem must be tackled. The first thing to do, is to cut off the source before you start to clean up the mess. It is interesting that people are only just beginning to "turn off the tap". As an example of this, the British government has announced their intention to ban plastic drinking straws, stirrers and plastic cotton buds, (I have seen suggestions that Scotland has already banned the sale of the cotton buds). Reports suggest legislation could come as early as 2019. Mind you, in Grumpy's view even that is cutting a bit fine.

Gordon Bennett, what a trivial start! I've no idea how much plastic is involved in these products but I cannot see it making much difference to the truckload per minute of plastic being dumped in the sea. I must, once again, ask about single use plastic items so loved by carryouts and even many "eat ins". And what about all the drinks containers, one would think we lived in the Sahara Desert the number of people I see walking around the prom in our little seaside village frantically carrying a plastic bottle of water. (Tests on many of these so-called "high purity" mineral waters show they contain far more nasties than the average tap water). If it is not a plastic bottle of water, then it is a waxed paper cup, with a babies drinking spout, containing a dark liquid masquerading as "coffee". After a weekend, I see the local council have to field two men to clear up these articles that have been idly discarded. (They also have cardboard pizza cartons to collect, but then that is a different grump).

The time must come when all of these items, together with a huge plethora of other single use plastic items, such as containers for milk, squash, yoghurt.............must cease to be made! Legislation can't come fast enough. Although doing little more than scratch the surface, it is a start. Grumpy has always said that given a problem, it can be likened to a huge cube, each corner, no matter how small, knocked off the cube makes it smaller and a slightly different shape and becoming easier to manage.

I am sure that other governments around the world are taking similar action to reduce the amount of plastic going into the oceans. But having started to at last stifle the "supply" of plastic what is being done to remediate the damage already done to our environment?

In my original grump 12-2 (.....read more.....) I referred to a device being designed by Dutch company to remove plastic from the oceans. I recently read that in September of 2018, a prototype of the equipment completed manufacture in California and was under test in the Pacific ocean to investigate how it stood up to being towed (after all it will need to be towed some thousand miles also into the ocean to reach the Pacific garbage patch), and how it is likely to perform in the collection of garbage. Do bear in mind that, if successful, it is estimated that a number of these devices will be necessary and they will still take up to 10 years to clean up all the rubbish. But at least something is progressing on the clean up front, albeit still some way from "deployment in anger"

But what are we going to do with all this pesky landfill? I came across an article reporting discussions at the recent World Economic Forum. Not only was it interesting, but it really made me cross. It stated that an economic case can be established for the "mining" of some landfill sites. It was stated that a lot of material of economic value has been dumped in landfill sites. Tests show that sufficient exists there to make extraction a viable economic proposition. The article went on to say that, executed properly, the process could be self financing. Material to be targeted were plastic and metallic products like aluminium, copper together with many other materials particularly used in the Electronics industry. (This reminded me of my horror when I saw my faulty television literally thrown into a skip, particularly when I'd paid a recycling fee! On asking the shop what would happen to it, they just laughed and said it goes into landfill. If I'd known that, I'd have retained it to see if I could repair it. In the end it was far superior than the flatscreen crap, squirting the sound out backwards, that I finished up buying!) Overall, what made me wild, was the question "if it's economic to 'mine' it now, what the hell is it doing in landfill in the first place?"

You might ask "is this worth doing?" I would counter by saying, we cannot avoid doing it, there are 500,000 landfill sites in Europe alone. These fall into two categories, that is newer "sanitary" sites that are usually sealed against ground leakage and have emitted gas collection (the gas is usually methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases) and the "non-sanitary" sites that have no ground sealing or emitted gas disposal. These are usually the "historic" sites. The task of mining the sanitary sites is relatively simple. For health reasons the "non-sanitary" sites must be remediatied. As part of that remediation the valuable material can be extracted. Of course this would also reduce the volume of material eventually finishing up in landfill, to say nothing of providing raw material, thus reducing the pressures on earth's rapidly depleting natural reserves.

It is heartening on two fronts, firstly, that something is being done (however small it's a start) about the source of these plastics. However it is accepted that to the stamp out the problem completely will take years and be an uphill task as many users will complain that their costs are being increased. Grumpy's view is that this is far superior than have the life strangled out of the oceans which are known to be an effctive carbon sink, alongside the proven fact that plastics are severely detrimental to our own health.

On the second front, it is reassuring that steps are being taken to clear up the mess that we have made. I must say though that I am very concerned at the speed with which the plastic has mounted up in just one place in the UK, compare that timescale with the time taken for remediation.


Note:this grump was originally published in September 2017, has already been updated but here we go again with a further update in December 2018


It is gratifying to see that a number of nations are beginning to take the plastic pollution problem seriously. In this instance I cite Peru which has banned all state organisations from using non-degradable plastics, including Styrofoam, PET bottles, plastic plates and cutlery etc. What is interesting is that this ban was imposed with a 30 day warning of its effective date. In addition to this, the use of plastic bags, the like of which are used in supermarkets have been banned but this time with a lead time of 3 years to allow them to be phased out.

In addition to this, I see that many other places for example San Francisco, Karnataka, (in India), Kenya, Chile (coastal cities), Australia and China have introduced total bans on nonreusable plastic bags. Many other countries have introduced a tax on these plastic bags, some taxes being quite punitive and have resulted in a reduction in plastic bag use by up to 95%.

The use of Styrofoam either formed into cups, " carry out" clamshells or even just as small particles for packaging has been banned in a number of American cities and states (for example, New York City (and several other cities in New York State), Takoma Park, Seattle, Washington DC, Miami Beach, Freeport, Nantucket, Minneapolis, Portland, (and several other Oregon cities), Los Angeles County and San Francisco, (and other cities and counties in CA), which only goes to prove that even if the Head of State is a climate change denier, there is no reason whatsoever why the rest of the public can't attack the problem themselves.

I am sure the places above represent a small proportion of legislatures large and small who are starting "to stand up and be counted" doing what they can to tackle the problem. It is important as total bans completely preclude the possibility of these items entering the garbage disposal chain.

I note a recent Daily Telegraph article makes reference to changes being made in the UK garbage disposal system. From this it is clear that something needs to be done double quick before the whole situation gets totally and utterly out of hand. However, the proposals that have been described, Grumpy believes, demonstrate that the Environment Secretary, although knowing that something needs to be done is great, he has demonstrated little capability of joined up thinking in producing a cost-effective and sensible solution. Either that, or his advisers (the civil servants) have actually not thought through the logic of the problem either.

So far as I can ascertain, the proposals make mandatory the household separation of plastic rubbish from organic matter (which is great if it can be turned into compost/fertiliser). It is proposed that the plastic rubbish is then sent off for "recycling". Here is the flaw in their argument. I have already identified above in this particular grump that a number of local councils in the UK are already overloaded with "recycling rubbish". So for one Council it is being stored on a disused airfield. There is such a large quantity that the rows of bales of rubbish can be seen on satellite photographs! To further exacerbate the problem Far Eastern countries, who until recently, accepted plastic for recycling have progressively stopped accepting overseas plastic as they have more than enough themselves.

It is clear that the most sensible solution to this dichotomy is that the UK should take steps to reduce the amount of plastic going onto the " garbage conveyor ". Once that has been done it is absolutely crucial to invest in a plastics recycling plant. Having said that, much of the recycle plastic seems to go into making garden furniture, although the UK is a great nation of gardeners, there is only so many gardens that can use this plastic furniture. Other uses must be found to utilise the output from the recycling plant. Perhaps with careful design, the plant good separate the PET such that when shredded it can be used as feedstock for making, how about plastic bottles? (A recent BBC newscast showed one such separation plant and suggested that they cost £40 million).

It is clear the UK government must rethink its strategy regarding garbage and garbage disposal. Much that is now being discarded into landfill can be reused and Joe public should be encouraged to do so. With such action, reducing the amount of plastic being discarded in that environment, coupled with the ocean cleanup machines currently being tried and developed, there is perhaps hope that something is at last beginning to be done to sort out this man-made problem.

Finally, a word of warning from Grumpy, this is just the beginning. The fact that recovery steps have started is no reason for complacency, the impetus must be maintained and grown. The ocean garbage patch cleanup machines are reckoned to have a good 10 years work, after "deployment in anger". The benefits from the packaging bans outlined above will take time to feed through the system and stifle the supply of this type of plastic garbage.

However there is no reason for complacency, as there are other sources of plastic pollution that Grumpy believes are far more insidious than those identified above particularly as the pollution they cause is of such small particulate size. These bits are sometimes called nurdles, but there are still smaller particles that are found not only on the beaches but in the digestive tracts of animals in the food chain and even in huge proportions of the human population. These small particles come from all fabric made from man-made fibres. I would be very surprised if anybody reading this is not wearing a number of articles of clothing made from man-made fibres. These clothes are now known to shed the small plastic in threads during wearing and the washing process. None of these threads are currently caught by even the most modern of sewage processing plants and hence get flushed away into the watercourses and ultimately the sea where they are ingested by fish and other sea living creatures.

Consequently, although much is being achieved there is still an absolute shed load of work to be done and we should steel ourselves to the thought that, like the ozone layer holes problem, the task of resolving this plastic problem will take decades. However, a start has been made.