Saturday 27 July 2019

Plastics and health

The Royal Society has a short report out on plastics. I don't think the takeaways I've gotten from it are quite what they'd have wanted.

My takeaways:
  1. Plastics in the ocean are bad (duh).
  2. Synthetic fibres and fragments coming out of polyester and such in the laundry - I'd never thought of this before. Similarly, tyre wear winds up in storm drains and then to the ocean. No obvious ways of dealing with this. 
  3. Well-constructed landfills are the absolute safest place for plastics. When we send plastics abroad for recycling, they risk blowing off the boats into the ocean, or being dumped and winding up in the ocean. I take from this that it is strictly better to put my plastic waste into the council rubbish bag for the landfill rather than risk its heading into recycling streams that may head overseas. 
  4. Cruddy old legacy landfills are a problem, so it makes sense both to ensure that new ones have an appropriate post-closure plan, and that councils keep an eye on old ones that might be in need of some love. 
  5. The report could have been far more helpful. There's tons of information on global flows of plastic into the ocean, and on NZ consumption of plastic, but little on how much NZ waste plastic makes it into the oceans instead of into well-managed landfills. How many landfills are out there like the long-closed one that spilled into Fox River during a flood? No mention. Odds that any current landfills under current regulatory setting could ever have that outcome? My prior is that the likelihood is exceptionally low, but again, no mention. It does note that much of the plastic pollution that accumulates here is lost equipment from the local fishing industry - but again, no numbers. It almost feels like the report wants people to draw inferences from global averages so have folks here worried about plastic consumption per se rather than the volume of plastic that winds up in the ocean. Some of the details are there if you're paying attention to what you're reading, but it feels like the report's authors were aiming for different inferences to be drawn. 
I was surprised by this quip from the incoming President of the Royal Society on the report launch:
“We have all seen the piles of plastics in rivers and on beaches or seen images of the immense ocean garbage patches. Through reading this report, it is incredible to learn that we have only been creating plastics in any quantity since the 1930s."
Emphasis added.

I wouldn't have thought it incredible to learn that plastics didn't really get going until the 1930s. I don't keep any detailed history of this stuff in my head, but I'd thought that everybody knew that commercial plastics of any significance didn't really get going until Bakelite (remember the old radios and telephones at the museums? Bakelite.). And that was early 20th century, Art Deco stuff. So if you'd gotten the card "Bakelite telephones" in a game of Timeline, you'd pick 1920s/30s for the Art Deco styling. Not really incredible.

Would it be incredible to learn that nylon didn't really pick up until the Second World War, or that oral contraceptives have only been around since the 60s? I guess folks are surprised by different things.

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