I get asked a lot of questions about this issue. I don’t always have the answers but I try my best.
Here is some questions and answers I recently did for Neutraliser Surfing Magazine:
What is plastic?
The word plastic comes from the Greek word plassein that means to mould or shape. When we talk about conventional plastic we’re generally referring to the stuff that is made from non-renewable fossil fuels that won’t be around forever. The first plastics were made from plant cellulose in the mid to late 1800’s but it wasn’t until chemists started experimenting with synthetic derivatives in the 1920’s that the true merits of what plastic could achieve were realised. New technologies are now emerging that are again using natural materials such as starch to make plastic that can biodegrade but more needs to be done before this can be a viable alternative. Plastic is an incredible substance that through the addition of a range of different chemicals can take on a range of properties to become flexible, soft, hard, heat resistant, thin, clear, translucent etc. Plastic has allowed our civilisation to flourish, try and go five minutes without touching plastic. You’ll probably find your shirt or your underpants are made from nylon or polyester, your phone, your computer, your car, the lining on your take away coffee cup, your toothpaste tube… plastic is literally everywhere. I’ve been labelled a hater of plastic; this is far from the truth… I don’t hate plastic, I love it too much to be wasted in single use items we use for a matter of moments before throwing it away as trash. If you’re intrigued by plastic I suggest you read the book, ‘Plastic: A Toxic Love Story’ by Susan Freinkel (2011).
Is there a way to ever dispose of plastic completely?
Not really. Every molecule of synthetic plastic ever created is still in existence somewhere on the planet (unless it was incinerated). That’s pretty frightening when you think that we use around 1.5 million tonnes of it in Australia each year (2008). It works out that each Australian is responsible for 69 kilograms of plastic every year, that’s a lot of stuff for our waste stream to deal with. With that kind of consumption it’s inevitable that some of it escapes our clutches and ends up in the environment. That’s where my major focus comes in, trying to prevent it getting into our waterways and the ocean where it causes havoc on wildlife, makes beaches look like rubbish tips, causes problems for shipping and ends up getting into our food chain. One of the big problems in our oceans is that larger plastic items break apart through solar photo-degradation (sun damage) and from being thrown around in a turbulent sea. The items break apart into hundreds and thousands of smaller pieces of plastic, which is why our oceans are starting to resemble a plastic soup in some areas. They break apart but they do not biodegrade.
Are plastic bags and bottles the main litter culprit in our beaches and oceans?
The single most littered item worldwide is cigarette butts. It confuses me so much when I see people who would otherwise be pretty environmentally conscious flicking their cigarette butts out a window, discretely stomping them under their shoe at the pub or burying them in the sand at the beach. Do people somehow think these items are exempt from being litter? The butt of a cigarette is made from synthetic cellulose acetate so even if it swells up and falls apart the tiny fibres still don’t biodegrade. The other major culprit is beverage containers, it has been hypothesised that up to a third of marine debris has come from the beverage industry. This is madness. In many parts of the world citizens still buy beverages in reusable and refillable bottles that are returned for a refund and cleaned/ refilled for sale. This results in zero waste. For some reason we have been fed the idea that it’s better, easier, even healthier to drink beverages out of disposable toxic plastic bottles instead of reusable ones, it’s insanity. 20 years ago if you’d told me that people would be paying $3 to drink re-branded tap water out of a single use plastic bottle I’d have thought you were mad but bottled water has now surpassed sales of softdrink to be the number one beverage sold in the world. In Australia we have perfectly good water from the tap yet we prefer to buy it and drink it from a plastic bottle laced with chemicals…it’s crazy. Ditch the bottled water people, get a reusable container made from glass or stainless steel and choose sensible. To support the nation wide adoption of a beverage container deposit system please visit www.boomerangalliance.org.au and show your support for a system that will bring about a huge decrease in the amount of bottles littered each year.
Plastic bags are a major problem because they are highly pervasive, meaning they can and do travel great distances to pollute the environment. We didn’t have plastic bags prior to the 1970’s yet many people get upset when we talk about banning them now. How do you think your parents survived? They used reusable bags, boxes, trolleys and whatever else they could find. In my mind I can’t see any justification for the use of plastic bags anymore. In particular I am focussed on putting an end to the ultra thin shopping bags you get from the major supermarkets, the ones that rarely make it back to your pantry before they’re already torn to pieces – what a waste. We use in Australia between 4-6 billion plastic bags per year, many of these escape on the wind and end up in our ocean where they are a major threat to endangered species including sea turtles and have been implicated in the deaths of animals including whales. To sign a petition calling for a ban on plastic shopping bags in NSW please click on the link:
How many countries/cities have the plastic bag ban?
All around the world many countries, states, counties and communities are banning plastic bags. Perhaps the most surprising was that the global powerhouse of China banned the bag in 2008 and reportedly reduced consumption of bags by 40 billion in the first year alone! Many European countries have had a fee on plastic bags for a long time and increasingly we are seeing counties in the USA come on board with bag bans. In Australia we now have three states with bag bans: South Australia in 2009 and now in 2011 we have the Northern Territory and ACT with bag bans implemented. Australians were assured under former Environment Minister Peter Garrett that we would have a nationwide ban in 2009 but it never happened. We have to tell our legislators that we want it back on the agenda. Please sign the petition:
Do you think Australia will ever stop using plastic bags? Should they?
Yes I think we will see a global trend away from plastic bags in the future. Of course it will take time but it will definitely happen. I would like to see the Australian Government take a leadership stance on the issue of plastic pollution instead of sitting around and waiting for global pressure to ‘convince’ them that it’s time to change. Australia’s greatest asset is our beaches and our pristine environment, investing in initiatives to combat the threats facing our best assets should be embraced.
Can you describe The Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, and raising awareness with your sailing trip from Hawaii to Vancouver?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has long been recognised as resembling a floating ‘island’ of trash in the North Pacific Ocean. This is very untrue. As I stated earlier, most plastic items break up over time in the ocean so what we are finding in these ‘garbage patches’ is mostly tiny pieces of plastic that doesn’t just float on the surface, it also descends down into the water column. It is more akin to think of these patches of gigantic plastic soups. I spent three weeks in July 2011 sailing 5000km from Hawaii to Vancouver to document and research the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with a team of scientists, activists and film makers from around the world. It was frightening to see the impact the debris was having on Hawaii before I had even left on the boat. As Hawaii sits in the middle of the North Pacific Gyre it receives a daily dose of trash from the sea, it is literally deposited like a relentless conveyor belt on the windward facing beaches on every tide, swell and storm. For a full account of my voyage read this ABC Science Online story:
How extensive is the area of rubbish, is it mainly plastic?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is huge. It is the central accumulation zone of a much larger network of currents known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. This Gyre stretches over an area twice the size of Australia. Unfortunately the North Pacific Gyre is not unique, there are five major Oceanic Gyres in the major oceans of the world and all contain high concentrations of plastic. It is very apt to say that plastic exists in every square mile of ocean and is present on every beach in the world from Antarctica to the Arctic. Yes it’s pretty much all plastic. It’s also worth pointing out that up to 70% of debris that enters our waterways and oceans actually sinks so what we’re seeing floating on the surface of our oceans is actually a small indicator of what else is in there. Even if debris sits on the bottom of the sea it’s still not inert.
How is this affecting us?
Marine debris costs us a lot of money through the impact it has on shipping, fishing, tourism and costs of cleaning it up. In the Asia Pacific region APEC estimates marine debris costs over $1 billion per year. Over 265 species of marine wildlife are directly impacted by marine debris through ingestion (eating plastic) and entanglement (getting caught in it). Rough estimates suggest over a million seabirds may die each year and up to 100, 000 marine mammals and turtles. If the impact on our back pockets and on precious marine life isn’t enough we now know that many species that form the basis of the human food chain are eating this plastic soup. From the plankton at the bottom of the food chain right through to the top pelagic predators that we love to eat like tuna, plastic is being discovered in these creatures. We might eat a fish that has eaten a dozen other fish and as each of those specimens breaks down in the stomach of the bigger fish it releases those toxins from the plastic into the fatty tissue of the next trophic level. The bioaccumulation of toxins through the ocean food chain is just starting to be understood and if it goes the way science is suggesting it will then our reliance on the ocean as our key source of global protein may be in jeopardy. It isn’t hard to look at the increases we are seeing in human health conditions like ADHD, autism, diabetes, cancer, gender neutrality etc and see that they perfectly correlate with the immense increase our generation is having to exposure to synthetic chemicals that were never around 60 years ago. I feel like we are a test tube generation being exposed to thousands of chemicals that we don’t know anything about.
What was the most peculiar thing you saw in the plastic soup?
When we were around 2000km from Hawaii we pulled up our scientific trawl and discovered a toy plastic gorilla, the kind you might find in a happy meal. He was extremely weathered and disorientated. In the same trawl was a toothbrush, two pen caps, a spray can nozzle, dozens of tiny plastic pieces and some plastic resin pellets called nurdles. Nurdles are the building block of plastics and are being discovered on beaches all around the world showing there is a major flaw in the supply chain of plastic pellets. Nurdles perfectly resemble fish eggs and are notoriously good absorbers of persistent organic pollutants (POP’s) making them toxic pills for any animals that inadvertently consume them.
Can the plastic soup ever be cleaned-up?
In my opinion no. The fact that it is a soup and that it doesn’t just float on the surface makes it physically impossible to think about ‘scooping’ it up. Within the soup lives all the organic life that we rely on for survival; the phytoplankton that give us half of the oxygen that we breathe, the zooplankton that form the base of the food chain. We must instead focus our energy on stopping this plastic from getting there at the source. I feel we can on occasions clean up some items from the ocean like abandoned fishing nets and rope (known as ghost nets) as these items will keep on fishing for hundreds of years if left in the sea. They are particularly hazardous to endangered species like sea turtles and monk seals as well as whales and dolphins. We could also develop some techniques for targeting bigger items in the sea when they are know to accumulate together. For example we are learning now of up to 18 million tonnes of debris heading towards Hawaii and North America as a result of the Japanese tsunami, surely there is a way we can collect large items from the sea immediately following events like this. It makes you also think about the levels of debris that enter the ocean after flood events like the recent Bangkok floods as well as the 2011 Brisbane floods.
You are motivating people to collect three pieces of rubbish they find on the beach with Take 3, an initiative you co-founded. Do you believe people are actually doing it?
Not only are new Take 3 recruits joining every day but we are also getting lots of praise from people out there that have been taking 3 for decades. Many people who love the beach automatically feel inclined to reach down and scoop up some trash off the shoreline on their morning walk, dog run or dash from the surf. Our main objective is to instil in the broader community the satisfaction that can come from doing such a simple gesture. The beauty of Take 3 is that you can do it anywhere, anytime and it won’t cost you time or money. We feel like we have national and global appeal because no matter where you are you CAN make a difference by picking up some rubbish. Every river leads to the sea and the ocean is downhill from everywhere so it doesn’t matter whether you live in Bourke, Brooklyn or Bhutan – that rubbish you collect and put in the bin will no longer get washed away by the next storm and possibly end up in the ocean. Our goal is to change the image of trash on the ground from inert and ‘someone else’s problem’ to a threat to wildlife and something that you CAN pick up even though you didn’t put it there.
If prevention is the best cure, what else can people be doing besides picking rubbish off the beach?
We need a complete culture shift away from our dependence on single use disposable plastic items. I have no problems with plastic in general but we need to start realising that plastic is way too precious to be using in items that are used for a fraction of time and then discarded. More often than not our plastic packaging, wrapping and containers is not even recyclable. We are fed the idea that it’s ok to consume and consume and consume because when you’re done you just put the item in your recycling bin and it just goes away. You might believe that ‘away’ is a happy place where old items get a fancy new makeover and return as new items but it’s just not the case. Too often plastic items aren’t truly recycled as we’re led to believe. They may often be down-cycled into other materials like the filling for your sofa or a new t-shirt or some outdoor furniture but they are not then able to be feasibly recycled again. Glass and paper/ cardboard can theoretically be recycled over and over again in a closed loop but the vast majority of plastics that we use cannot. It is my vision to start unveiling the curtain on consumption and waste and show the world that at current levels IT IS NOT OK! We need to be made aware of the situation with the goods we choose to consume and encourage people to make better solutions. A great way to get your eyes open is to watch the Story of Stuff series by Annie Leonard. Annie has developed a great range of short films that everyone can digest and take away from: www.storyofstuff.com/
Studies are proving that degradable and even biodegradable bags although better than plastic bags, may not be safe the environment, what do you think?
I’m a bit torn on the issue of biodegradable plastics. I think they have a niche but I am very firm in saying they are not by any means an alternative to kicking the single use disposable habit. Kicking our dependence on this nonsense disposable mentality is the first step. In those very rare situations where single use disposable items are required (eg. large scale events like sporting festivals, concerts) then by all means we can look into fully biodegradable plastic items. But…let’s not just throw them into landfill afterwards. The idea behind the fully biodegradable products is that they were designed to be composted in an industrial composting facility where they can in essence biodegrade back to their base compounds. If they go off to landfill then we may have just used standard plastic items instead that probably required less energy to create in the first place. Studies are showing that bioplastics that end up in landfill are causing more impacts as they degrade and let off gases like methane faster than other products meaning no systems are in place fast enough to capture the gases. In addition, if bioplastics are wrongly deposited into the recycling stream then they will contaminate batches and cost these facilities money. Thirdly, if a biodegradable plastic bag makes it into a waterway or the ocean it still poses a major threat to marine life. It doesn’t just dissolve like a tablet, it may break down into thinner pieces faster but it still is a threat. To accommodate bioplastics we need the relevant infrastructure in place such as that in San Francisco where home and business composting is the law and huge industrial composting facilities are set up to ingest bioplastic. An interesting point on this is to tell any retailers selling the bags that use ‘30% biodegradable content’ to wake up to themselves. All this means is that the bag will break apart faster in the environment where 30% of the bag will decompose leaving 70% to last forever. If you are seeking a biodegradable plastic alternative make sure it is 100% biodegradable and compostable.
Are there safer plastic than others that you suggest using?
We have solid scientific data showing that some additives to plastic are harmful to humans namely Bisphenol – A (BPA) and the phthalate family of chemicals. These are two examples of the hundreds if not thousands of chemicals that are added to plastic to change it’s texture and properties. These chemicals are endocrine disruptors and will inhibit the normal production and levels of hormones in our body. I strongly encourage people to reduce exposure to these chemicals by finding alternatives. Our government in Australia has an authority managing the presence of chemicals in the products we use but it is really up to you to make the decision. You can visit the Product Safety authority at the following link:
Personally I am not happy to use too much plastic in my life directly and always try to find alternatives, this can be very challenging in many situations. There are some great people out there in the blogosphere who are telling their story of trying to live without plastic and are great places to start learning about living a life less plastic. Beth Terry write My Plastic Free Life (
provides great alternatives for sale.
Hey Tim, thanks for answering these, is their anything else you can think of to add?
We must first reduce our dependence on single use disposable items. Choose reusable items instead. There are great alternatives out there like reusable bags, bottles, coffee cups, take away containers, cutlery etc. We must redesign items to be made from recycled content and able to be fully recycled. We need to improve infrastructure and legislation to make sure items ARE recycled. Deposit systems like those used in the beverage industry in South Australia are a great start for this. We need to put the responsibility of dealing with the waste generated by these pervasive products back onto the producers of these items. Imagine if when you went and bought your new computer and were able to go and take all the ridiculous amount of packaging like plastic sleeves and Styrofoam back to the store where they sent it back to Apple or whoever to reuse it. Imaging if when your computer died you took it back to the manufacturer to get a deposit back and they then used it to make new products by recycling the content. Imaging if products were made to last a long time and to be upgradable instead of being made for the dump so you keep forking out thousands of dollars every year just to stay on the cutting edge of technology. Imagine if we could legislate against these things so that corporations were MADE to follow the rules. Imagine if corporations were like people and had to accept things don’t always go our way instead of using money, political power and lobbying to forcibly convince governments to bend rules.
There are so many tiers to this crisis we are facing but the change can start with you. You can choose the impact you have on the environment. Whether you choose to stop using plastic bags, buy a reusable coffee cup, Take 3 next time you’re at the beach or the park or perhaps write a letter to your government asking them what they are doing to combat this problem. It’s a massive cliché but remember that we are lucky enough to live in a democracy and that means the power should start with us, if it’s not then we have to take it back or it will never get better.
I am available to visit communities and participate in events where I can give a talk and presentation about this issue. I have also been screening a fantastic documentary about this issue called, ‘Bag It’ and would love as many people as possible to see it. You can buy it on the website www.bagitmovie.com or you can also check my website for upcoming events where I will be presenting and showing the film www.timsilverwood.com/events
Please be in touch if you have any ideas about how you can help Take 3 and make sure you join our facebook page at www.facebook.com/take3.a.clean.beach.initiative