On Wednesday 7th March 2018, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) hosted the ‘Plastics in the Ocean: Challenges and Solutions’ conference. Professor Dame Jane Francis got the conference underway. She welcomed all to BAS explaining what they do as an organisation and then briefly touched on the problem that was responsible for bringing us all together at this event. Next up was the chief executive of NERC, Duncan Wingham, he explained about the funding programmes they have to offer to bring the consequences of plastic pollution to the people’s attention. He finished by encouraging the audience to use the conference to help address the issues we are currently facing.
Professor Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth, started the morning session by asking the question of whether there is a solution to this global environmental problem. He started by explaining the extent of the problem, that plastic is the predominant type of litter found globally which means that it is almost impossible to walk along a shoreline without stumbling across litter. He stated that there isn’t just one solution there are many to help the fight against plastic pollution. We need to keep gathering evidence and start making good progress towards solutions. Plastics as materials are not the cause of the problem because they bring benefits since they are lightweight, durable, inexpensive and help to reduce food waste. What we need to focus on is balancing the benefits with the environmental harm by simply doing things differently. The starting point to tackle marine litter would be single use items. We need to design products for life and end-of-life to minimise accumulation of plastic waste. Richard ended his presentation by warning that unless we change our ways it may become an even bigger problem.
The next presenter was Giles Harvey from Sky Ocean Rescue. He explained that this campaign was launched to raise awareness to help save our oceans and to inspire positive actions. They aim to remove all single use plastic from their business by 2020. They have made progress with this by removing single use water bottles from their offices and launching the Sky Soundbox which had single-use plastic free packaging. To start an impact on the supply chain they ensured awareness and commitment amongst the team. They then started to understand the scope within the global supply chain and the size and scale of the task ahead. Once they had achieved this they could them prioritise their activities and be clear on decision criteria, remove, replace and reuse. If the item cannot be reused it must be recycled, all the time tracking their progress. Giles then explained the challenges that they face when fighting against plastic pollution. One being funding alternatives to plastic. Third party companies and the supply chain which delivers products to Sky are still shipping their products with unnecessary plastic and haven’t yet joined the fight against plastic pollution but by working together a real difference can be made.
Before a quick coffee break Professor Tamara Galloway from Exeter University explained bioaccumulation and biological effects of micro and nano plastics. The average person consumes 11,000 particles per year from seafood, but we have no idea if it causes any harm to our health. When studying plankton, it was found that the more microplastic that was added to the culture then the less algae they would feed on. This reduced fecundity after 10 days, changes faecal pellets altering the carbon cycle in the ocean and transported contaminants to the ocean floor. . When focusing on microplastics we are underestimating the number of particles that can be found as when a smaller net is used more plastic particles (nano plastics) are found. From a study using oysters, at 3 days old they preferred the nano plastics but once they reached 24 days old their habits had changed. This makes us unaware of what animals are at risk to different shapes and sizes of microplastics. It was found that the nano plastics were moving from the gut into the tissues because they were being processed differently.
Rowan Byrne from Mott MacDonald gave a presentation entitled ‘Are there marine plastic solutions in many sectors?’. Mott Macdonald are a global engineering, management and development consultancy focused on guiding clients through many of the planet’s most intricate challenges. The common theme within the sector is plastics. He then focused on the waste water treatment works. There are opportunities for research and development for investigations and coastal transmissions of plastics to marine species, mapping flow of microplastics through the environment through WWTW sites and identification of the main types of plastics seen at these sites.
Barry Turner from the British Plastics Federation spoke about industry and stakeholders working together on marine litter. He started by identifying the sources of marine litter and that even though it is a global problem the solutions need to be more localised. Different solutions are needed in different parts of the world such as a lack of waste management systems, careless disposable packaging or waste lost at sea. An event by the British Plastics Federation was held at the beginning of February where retailers and NGOs work together with the industry to create an appropriate plan to significantly reduce leakage of litter into the marine environment. This was the creation of the pledge on marine litter. They hope that the pledge will lead to co-ordinated actions on education, littering, waste and behavioural change. For those items most likely to be littered examining whether there are better alternatives. Ensuring future producer responsibility is more strategic in directing funding and supports the changes we all need to see. Promoting effective interventions in waste management to developing nations as well as in the UK.
Before breaking for lunch each of the organisations in the solutions showcase were invited to give a 90 second pitch about either their product or solutions the company has produced. The Cambridge institute for sustainability leadership work with government, finance and business to help create solutions for eliminating the future use of plastic in packaging from the soft drinks supply chain. Alice Horton explained the UK Microplastics Network, a platform created in November 2017 to share knowledge between academics and stakeholders. Results from research carried out by academics doesn’t always reach the people who need it. Iotic Labs have created a software database in which all types of data can be accessed and shared with others. Envirocomms are an organisation that campaign to inspire change. One campaign is to ensure correct recycling, helping the public to have a better understanding of what items to put in each bin. Richard Lampitt from the National Oceanography Centre explained their microplastic research. Working with Atlantos they tried to answer the fundamental questions about the extent and fate of microplastic pollution in the Atlantic Ocean. They used Spatio-temporal sampling of microplastics from water column and sediments. The Seabin project was launched to help clean the oceans. The seabin floats in the surface to remove any floating debris from ports and mariners. Recycling technologies provide a machine and a service which turns most end-of-life plastic back into a low sulphur hydrocarbon called Plaxx. A company based in Cambridge called BeeBee Wraps have created reusable beeswax food wraps offering a sustainable alternative to plastic packaging. It is similar to clingfilm, can be replenished in the oven and lasts up to a year. As polystyrene is a main pollutant and expensive to recycle a new product using mycelium fraction has been produced. This fungal-based biodegradable packaging is lightweight, shock absorbent and water resistant. An upcycling company, Flute, demonstrated how they manufacture a variety of products from waste with an everlasting life. Once a consumer no longer wants the product they recollect it and resupply it. Milkdispensers was designed to remove plastic packaging from milk as recycling milk bottles is made difficult by the different coloured lids used for the different milk types.
The afternoon session consisted of an open panel discussion on science policy challenges in polar conservation and management. This is part of the workshop series from the British Antarctic Survey and Cambridge Conservation Initiative. It was designed to discuss key topics with experts working in different regions and disciplines. Things discussed was the need to transform the linear system to a circular system. How more bans or taxes should be introduced as from previous ones it is clear that they are making a difference. The need for ideas on how to fix the problem rather than move away from plastic and ensuring that global, national and corporate are aligning in the same direction. The concluding statement was that due to a surge in interest it is important that we don’t waste this opportunity to make a change. Unless we work together to identify paths to go down and the quickest way to solve the problem as this opportunity could be wasted.