Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The War on Plastic



By Ian Lowe

Our present epoch has been called the Anthropocene because of the dominance of human activity, but perhaps it should be called the Plasticine.

Our present epoch has been called the Anthropocene because of the dominance of human activity, but perhaps it should be called the Plasticine.

Waste is an increasingly important problem in Australia. For several years, the issue has been avoided by sending much of our waste to China, but that avenue has now been closed. The ABC program War on Waste has exposed the issue of plastic waste. Almost 80% of the huge amount of plastic used in Australia is dumped, either in landfill or in our waterways. That is a special problem because of the durability of most of the polymers used for these throw-away items.

I gave a presentation to the plastics industry 30 years ago, urging them to take advantage of the long life of their materials. I said they should be trying to shift the industry away from making cheap products to be used briefly and then discarded. Unlike iron, which rusts, and aluminium, which corrodes, and glass, which shatters, a plastic item could potentially last for centuries. So the industry would be making a positive contribution by making high-quality goods that would be treasured for generations. That shift has not happened. Most items made from plastic materials have a very short life before being, literally, thrown away.

The ABC program paid special attention to the disposable containers used for bottled water. This product is surely one of the great marketing scams of the modern world. Several years ago, the consumer group Choice analysed bottled water and concluded that it was generally no better than tap water. The ABC enlisted a Griffith University colleague to analyse six popular brands of bottled water. He came to the same conclusion and noted that one brand had such a similar profile to tap water that it probably was just that. He also warned about one other brand that is so acidic it poses a similar risk to tooth enamel as carbonated soft drinks!

So consumers are conned into paying about $3 a litre for a product that is no better than their tap water, for which they typically pay $1–2 per kilolitre, and in some cases is actually worse than tap water. If we drank reticulated water, we would usually take it from a permanent drinking vessel of some kind rather than buying throw-away bottles.

The cumulative impact of plastic waste on our oceans is frightening. It has been estimated that the weight of plastic in the seas will exceed the weight of living fish by 2030. That is a scary prospect. Our present epoch has been called the Anthropocene because of the dominance of human activity. Dr Patricia Kelly has suggested it should perhaps be called the Plasticine!

There is some good news on the waste front. A pilot plant in the Queensland coastal town of Gladstone is being funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to the tune of nearly $12 million. It will use a thermoconversion process to turn biosolids from wastewater treatment plants into a synthetic crude oil. This will be further processed to provide diesel and possibly aviation fuel, using equipment now used to reprocess used oil. The demonstration plant will process the solids from Gladstone’s water treatment system and also take waste from Melbourne’s Werribee facility.

Launching the project recently, the Commonwealth Minister for Energy and Environment, Josh Frydenberg, noted that Australian sewage treatment plants produce 300,000 tonnes of biosolids per year. There is an obvious problem with the idea of a Ministry of Energy and Environment, as many forms of energy supply and use are environmentally harmful, so it is good to see one instance where the two arms of the ministry can work in harmony.

We have known for decades that Australia would face serious liquid fuel security problems as our domestic oil supply dried up, leaving us totally dependent on imports from politically unstable regions. We are now in that situation, with perilously small buffer stocks our only safeguard against supply interruptions. A 2015 Senate inquiry found that Australia does not meet the International Energy Agency target of having 90 days supply in reserve. Turning what is now an environmental problem – huge amounts of solid waste from our sewage treatment plants – into a resource for producing liquid fuels locally is a great idea.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.