I’m on holiday (finally!), so Dr Martin Cooke has kindly agreed to write an article for me; thank you Martin.
My name is Martin Cooke and I’m the Director of Postgraduate Studies in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences (where Lauren works) at Newcastle University. My job is to make sure she works hard, so my job is easy. I am a geologist who specialises in environmental pollution and remediation, specifically the links between human health and pollution. Before this, I worked in the food industry, in cake and chocolate factories, before moving to the environment industry.
Recent news stories about the amount of plastic waste in the oceans have rightly caused concern. People are asking “why did we allow this to happen?”, looking for reasons and organisations to blame. The reason is quite simple, people are messy, and always have been. It may not be what you want to hear, but we did this. Whether it was individually, or as operators of large companies and organisations who provide the products we use, and ultimately throw away.
Since Mesolithic times (20,000 to 8,000 years ago depending on where in the world you are from), humans have discarded their waste in heaps called middens. Archaeologists discover huge amounts of information on civilisations by excavating middens. The oldest ones are full of seashells, animal bones and discarded flint. However, as civilisation advanced, the contents of these middens changed to reflect society and the items that were discarded. One of the most dramatic middens is Monte Testaccio, in Rome. It is a 600,000m3 hill made entirely of smashed amphorae (i.e. the food packaging of the ancient world). Monte Testaccio is both a tourist attraction and an archaeological goldmine (seen below).
The practice of throwing stuff away continues today. As the global population got richer and healthier, we wanted more stuff and more food. We are no longer content with buying almost all our food when it was in season and within a day’s cart journey from our house; instead we want strawberries at Christmas, and lemons in our G&T’s throughout the year. Such things must be shipped from around the world and protected during this journey. Single use plastics are ideal for this. For example, the humble cucumber; it comes wrapped in its own protective skin, so why does it need a shrink wrap? Simply put, shrink wrap extends a cucumber’s shelf life three-fold, enabling it to be transported large distances to the supermarket, to our fridges and finally, our Pimms before it goes off. Overall, this reduces food wastage and cost. The transport of such foods around the world comes with carbon footprint issues, but that is for another day.
Now for the good news. We understand these problems more than ever, and we are very good at fixing them. With the rise of industrialisation between the 18th – 20th centuries, environmental pollution got worse with large scale pollution from factories and cities contaminating our air, land and rivers. We have now mainly fixed pollution issues associated with the legacy of industrial pollution.
I used to work remediating such contaminated land; this involved understanding the industrial history of the location, digging holes over the site to assess the nature of the ground, taking samples for chemical analysis to identify the pollution on the site (almost all pollution is invisible), and writing a risk assessment based on the current state of the site and its intended use. We would then work out a strategy to clean up the site. The best part was the site excavation, and we took great joy in uncovering the relics of history which had been buried. Middens still exist, but they now contain bottles and bits of old factory.
The Clean Air Act (1956) and the Environmental Protection Act (1990) ensured that we cleaned up the air, land and rivers, but there are still issues associated with traffic pollution. However, as a nation, we have almost eradicated contaminated land sites which require clean-up operations, and our rivers are thriving again.
History tells us we won’t learn to be less messy, so we must make our waste less damaging. One problem with oil derived plastic is that almost nothing digests it, hanging around in the environment accumulating. We will fix the ocean plastic problem; we just need to change the materials that disposable packaging is made from. Obvious swaps include replacing plastic straws with waxed paper ones and plastic cutlery with wooden, but this also includes new and exciting ideas which will drive industry in the next 30 years. For example, the replacement of oil derived plastic with plant derived materials such as seaweed, and other plant materials which can be broken down by enzymes in the environment. Even this solution creates a problem though. Our demand for these materials will result in large areas of productive farmland switching from food to packaging production. Every solution creates a new problem, and we must fix these as we discover them.