On Wednesday, the 2nd August, the University of Newcastle hosted a talk on plastic pollution in the Asia Pacific region. The Asia Pacific Research Centre (APRC) Symposium was jointly organised with the Environmental Plastic Innovation Cluster. The hour and a half talk was hosted by Professor Frank Agbola, Director of the APRC. Associate Professor Thava Palanisami, (Director, Environmental Plastic Innovation Cluster (EPIC), CESE), also attended in person with the remaining professors attending via zoom: 

  • Professor Salom Vincent (University of Kerala, India), 
  • Dr Geetika Bhagwat-Russell (Research Associate UON), 
  • Professor Francesco Paolucci (Assistant Dean International UON), 
  • Mr Malelli Rokomatu (UON-SPREP Pacific PhD Candidate UON). 

 

The first speaker, Professor Francesco spoke on plastic pollution… I assume. I could not hear him due to technical difficulties through zoom for the first half. When they finally figured it out mid-speech, his words discussed the transition from petroleum-based plastics to more sustainable ways of living through things like technological improvements, utilisation of resources, increased reliance on solar energy, and local/regional connections with local healthcare systems. “The next phase in this transition is to become more self-sufficient and sustainable.” Francesco said. So, you know… nothing new. 

Professor Vincent: ‘Marine plastic debris in the southwest coast of India: challenges for sustainable management’: 

Vincent showed a visual comparison of waste generated per person and inadequately managed waste. India has low waste generation but high mismanagement. Australia is low on both! One step closer to a sustainable future, go Aussies. Vincent then discussedSuchitwa Sagaram: clean sea mission”, a program that aims to clean up ocean debris and “educate the minds” through school talks.

The groups collect the plastic debris (from clean-ups or door-to-door collection), clean the waste, sort it, then pack it to be taken to material collection facilities or resource recovery facilities where it can be recycled, e.g shredded for road tarring. The main plastics collected: grocery bags 36%, wrappers 15%, fishing items 4%, and packing materials 9%. Exactly 29% of the plastics were classified as LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene), items like plastic bags, plastic wrap, wrappers, etc. 

Since the 2020 single-use plastic ban in Kerala (two years before Australia), biodegradable plastics and local products have been used to transition. 

Professor Palanisami: ‘Plastic Pollution: Problems and Solutions: 

More than 142 countries have now adopted new policy changes e.g banning single-use plastics. Palanisami’s key points: 

  • Reducing plastics in the healthcare sector: only 15% of medical waste is classed as hazardous but the remaining 85% non-hazardous plastic medical waste is a little more dangerous than household waste. This is where the reductions should occur. 
  • Plastics contain toxic chemicals and absorb chemicals which is a major health concern.  
  • Recycling plastic keeps it in the environment and increases exposure to chemicals. Recycling plastic also results in high carbon emissions due to the coal-powered factories required to recycle them. 
  • By 2050, the plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish. Author note: this fact is insane and deeply disturbing to me. In two years. In just two years, our stupid human waste will officially amount higher than fish. Australian government hope to eliminate single-use plastics by 2025, Palanisami points out. 
  • Solutions: Technology to make compostable packaging. Also, products made locally and have verification of sustainability credentials and certifications. The lab verifies if it is compostable plastic, or not, and slaps on a logo to let you know if it is.  
  • Established loop to move away from plastics: raw materials sourced from Australian farmers→ zero-waste local manufacturing creates jobs→ sustainable and compostable products are made→ compostable products renew environment by turning into nutrient-rich compost.  

     

    Summary of goals:  

    • reduce annual volume of plastic entering our oceans by 80% 
    • reduce greenhouse gases by 25% 
    • create 700, 000 additional jobs 

Dr Bhagwat: understanding microbial biofilms and their role in determining the environmental fate of plastics’:  

With a more scientific approach, Bhagwat explains how microbial biofilms are bacterial microorganisms that attach themselves to living or non-living surfaces. Exactly 70% of biofilms attach to plastic and this increases toxic contaminants exposed from plastics. Marine and freshwater zooplankton and other life are at risk. Because of Bhagwat’s scientific approach, although trying her best to offer some understanding, it was quite a difficult presentation to follow (at least, personally). The key takeaway seemed to be however, understanding diversity later dictates interaction of plastics physically, chemically, etc. and technological developments are needed for sustainable development. 

Mr Rokomatu: ‘Fiji: occurrence and distribution of microplastics in Fiji and its implication to human health’:  

Developing countries with financial constraints such as Fiji are massively affected by the issue of plastic pollution. South America and Indonesia are massive contributors to water waste in the Asia Pacific region. Fiji’s waste consisted of more plastic bags, whereas Australia had more clothing fragments.  

fish

Research on fish shows microplastics in their gut, with Fiji at 50.8% of microplastic-ingested fish and Australia at 83.6%. That’s right, you eat plastic all the time. The microplastics in these fish are also completely our fault. They are due to land-based activities including wastewater mistreatment, littering, synthetic fibre washing from home, and spills by industrial activity (which contributes 80% of land-based exposure of microplastics), and marine based activities like commercial fishing, shipping, oil sectors, and recreational boating. “The main objective is to inform the gaps in scientific knowledge in Fiji and south pacific and how we can go about… in terms of policy changes and control in plastic pollution.”, Mr Rokomatu concludes.

At the end, a quick Q and A revealed: 

  • not all bioplastics are biodegradable, not all traditional plastics are not biodegradable. They don’t use the word bioplastic, instead they use compostable plastic.  
  • Short long-life plastic and short life plastic do not exist.  
  • The best behaviour is to reduce plastic use. 
  • With governments, there are a lot of loopholes to use even with the single-use plastic ban such as containers of plastic, thirty or forty micron plastic bag thickness, etc.  
  • Compostable plastic is only compostable if composted instead of thrown away. Recycling plastic is not the right way. It doesn’t account chemical risk. 

Sami Peters

Sami Peters

Hi, I’m Sami Peters and I am the Environment and Global Change Reporter for Opus. I study a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English and Writing. I love reading, writing, dancing, and the beach. I have a lot of passions but to combine two of my favourites: the environment and writing… that’s the dream.

Sami Peters

Hi, I’m Sami Peters and I am the Environment and Global Change Reporter for Opus. I study a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English and Writing. I love reading, writing, dancing, and the beach. I have a lot of passions but to combine two of my favourites: the environment and writing... that’s the dream.