When David Attenborough and the Blue Planet 2 team devoted an entire episode to look at the effect of plastic litter in the marine environment1 they captured the hearts and minds of millions of viewers, but perhaps even more importantly, it seems a tipping point had been reached.
The magnitude of the problem is horrifying. Currently the amount of plastic in the oceans is estimated at 150 million tonnes- about 1/5th of the weight of all the fish in the sea, and by 2050- if things go on unaltered, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea2. Jambeck, J. R. et al. (2015) using 2010 data estimate that 8 million tonnes of plastic get into the ocean every year- the equivalent of 5 grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world- and the authors warned that this figure could increase 10-fold by 20203. Ocean currents concentrate plastic waste into huge rafts away from the major land masses, and so bizarrely it is often the remotest of islands that are worst littered. One of these rafts has formed a few hundred miles north of Hawaii and is visible from space, being twice the area of Texas, and is said to be dense enough to walk across4. And plastics not just an environmental problem, there is a very strong possibility it threatens human health. The danger posed by plastic increases as it breaks down to tiny pieces in the ocean, increasing the ease with which it can be ingested by marine creatures. As the plastics degrades it more easily releases plasticisers and other chemicals embedded in the plastic, whether in the sea or inside the gut, and also the plastic is able to absorb scents and other natural chemicals in the ocean making the microplastic particles appear more like food to wildlife.
Recent studies have linked found sea bird carcasses stuffed with colourful ocean plastic that led to their starvation and ultimate death, and it’s been estimated that by 2050 all ocean-foraging birds will be eating plastic5. And it’s not just birds that consuming plastic. A 2012 study published by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity showed more than 600 species ranging from microorganisms to whales are affected by plastic in some way6. It’s already certain that plastic is in the intestines of the fish we eat, and has been consumed by much of our dietary shell fish7. No-one knows what the health implications for humans might be, so apart from environmental collapse we may also be poisoning ourselves.
But thankfully there is some good news. Recently the media has responded to public interest and is ablaze with images of beaches littered with mountains of plastic refuse, injured marine animals trying their best to pick a living on litter strewn beaches and choked oceans, and perhaps now there is a sufficient momentum to public pressure to bring about change. On this morning’s Today programme a spokesperson for the supermarket chain Iceland promised his company was moving away from plastic packaging and replacing these with modern, effective and sustainable plant based alternatives8 and it seems that this marks the beginning of a more widespread move towards ending the widespread use of plastics for packaging9. Social media campaigns by 38 Degrees, Surfers Against Sewerage, and Greenpeace and others are highly visible, and are playing a vital role in maintaining momentum. All of this must be music to the ears of companies developing non-plastic packaging. For years the economics of replacing plastics with biodegradable alternatives have been stacked against them, and without strong public pressure it is unlikely that any meaningful change away from plastics would happen.
However, going back to having your chops wrapped in grease-proof paper by the butcher is probably not going to happen. The public, whist demanding an end to plastic will also expect functional alternatives that allow them to shop in much the same way as before- and at no greater cost. Happily, there are now many options for sustainable non-plastic packaging10. For instance, why not return to widespread use of glass containers for drinks, bags and nets made from natural fibres for the sale of fruit and vegetables? Most supermarket queues are now comprised of shoppers who carry their own reusable bags, knowing they will be charged otherwise, and there has been an increasing move towards bags made of natural materials. Much of the food we buy however will still need to be shipped and sold in packaging that ticks the same boxes as the awful polystyrene trays and cling wrap we must replace. To this end there is considerable interest in the development of new bioplastics made from for example, keratin from chicken feathers, casein in milk, or polyesters produced by microbial fermentation. These new materials could be either recycled or burnt without the release of toxins, be designed to decompose to carbon dioxide and water rapidly in the environment at ambient temperatures11, have antimicrobial properties for safe food packaging12, and with proper consideration could be produced so as to be greenhouse gas neutral. An important consideration for legislators and policy makers to keep in mind, however, is that these new plastics must not persist in the environment as otherwise we merely substitute the current plastic problem with another.
At IBERs we are doing our bit to help this cause. The BEACON Biorefining Centre of Excellence at Aberystwyth, Bangor and Swansea Universities (beaconwales.org) has a long track-record of working with Welsh companies to develop sustainable technologies. BEACON staff at the BioComposites Centre on Anglesey, have pioneered the development of grass based packaging as part of the Sustainable Ryegrass products (STARS) project that is sustainable, easily composted, and is now used by Waitrose for the sale of fruit and vegetables13. Others research at BEACON is focused on developing novel fermentation processes using non-food plant feedstocks to make sustainable new materials, industrial chemicals and food ingredients, and it tempting to hope that the recent public concern over plastic in the ocean will do much to stimulate renewed interest in sustainable products and bioprocessing.
By Dr. Gordon Allison