The dangers of plastic waste

plastic-recycling-dangers
Photo of plastic recycling plant fire in Birmingham (2013) courtesy of West Midlands Fire Service Photographic 2017

I wish someone had told me about Plastic Free July before August arrived. But hell, it’s never too late to start learning new tricks, eh!

In case you missed it too, this is a global initiative started in Western Australia. From its humble beginnings in 2011 with 40 people in Perth, Plastic Free July has now spread across the country and around the world. In 2016, 100,000+ Western Australians and more than 1 million people worldwide took part.

Every bit of plastic ever made still exists and in the first 10 years of this century the world economy produced more plastic than the entire 1900’s.”

The initiative aims to educate people to cut down on their consumption of single-use plastic. The main thrust is to get people to stop using disposable shopping bags. Australians already have an incentive, in that there is already a ban in Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT.

About a third of the plastic consumed in Australia ends up at recycling plants to be ‘down-cycled’ into other products. Plastic, as we know, lasts forever, unless of course it catches fire, in which case it burns as fiercely as oil or natural gas. Fire is an ever-present risk at waste and recycling plants because of the highly combustible nature of the stored materials.

In mid-July, a major fire broke out amid stockpiles of paper and plastic at the Coolaroo Recycling plant north of Melbourne. The political fall-out from this fire spread further than the smoke plume, sparking a class action threat and a move by the Victorian government to audit all recycling plants in the state.

Victoria (and other States) would probably want to avoid something like the UK’s record of fires at waste and recycling plants (300 per year), including the one depicted (above) at a recycling plant in Birmingham. 

Meanwhile back home…

No-one knows for sure how many recycling plants there are in Australia because many are private companies licensed by their respective Councils. However, Deakin University environmental science lecturer Trevor Thornton, writing in The Conversation, quoted 2013 figures from the Department of Environment and Energy which estimate there are 114 waste recycling plants in Australia.

Thornton says the industry needs a national registry, updated annually. Governments need to provide tax breaks so plant operators can upgrade their equipment and also provide manufacturers with an incentive to use recyclable material in their products.

“At the same time, we should consider penalising businesses which use non-recyclable packaging when alternatives exist,” Thornton said. He cited retailers who sell goods in multi-material packaging like polystyrene and plastic without providing an alternative.

I was musing about all of this and more after realising I need to break a habit of asking for bags at the supermarket. I’ve been kidding myself that they are being re-used at home as rubbish bags. Just because a plastic bag gets used twice or even three times doesn’t make it any better for the environment.

Major supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths have already made a commitment to phase out single-use bags within a year. Woolies has revealed it uses three billion bags a year. Coles has not released data but it is probably of a similar scale.

Plasticfreejuly.org says six out of 10 Australians are already refusing single-use bags and using a variety of alternatives, all of which involve bringing your own container when you go shopping. But it’s not just a shopping problem – cling wrap, plastic water bottles, drinking straws, plastic takeaway containers and plastic cutlery are all potential sources of pollution. But as we’ll read later, it’s not as simple as chucking everything into the yellow bin.

​The Waste Authority of WA says Australians use one million tonnes of plastic a year (most of it packaging) and 320,000 tonnes of it goes to landfill. But even the refuse, reuse, recycle mantra won’t be enough to hold back the tide of plastic garbage which is engulfing oceans.

Some plastic ends up in waterways and the ocean – where scientists predict there will be more tonnes of plastic than tonnes of fish by 2050.

​The Plastic Oceans Foundation says the world is producing nearly 300 million tons every year, half of which is for single use. More than eight million tons is dumped into our oceans.

As for the oceans becoming a massive plastic rubbish dump, how in hell does plastic end up there? Some of it is microbeads from the manufacturing and recycling process which finds its way to the ocean via drains and runoff. Containers carrying plastic product to foreign ports fall off ships. The best-known example is the container full of thousands of yellow toy ducks lost at sea in 1992. You can read more about this phenomenon and how ocean currents play their part by browsing this educational website created by clever people at the University of NSW.

Data from plasticoceans.org underlines the impact of this pollution on the planet (plastic manufacturing uses 6% of the world’s fossil fuels). Every year 500 million bottles and one trillion bags are discarded as waste (not to mention 24.7 billion disposable nappies). On the scale of things, it’s good that a third of this waste is recycled.

While Australia seems on track to phase out single-use  bags, we need to do something about our addiction to bottled water. A Choice Magazine story in 2014 highlighted the fiscal folly of choosing bottled water over tap water. If you drink two litres a day from the tap, you’ll pay about $1.50 a year, Choice said. Drink the same amount from single-serve bottles you could be looking at more than $2,800 a year.

The Australasian Bottle Water Institute says ours is a $500 million a year industry selling the equivalent of 600 megalitres (600,000,000 litres) of water a year, 60% of which is sold in single-serve bottles.

If we do use plastic, then we should at least know how to sort the different types of waste for recycling. The ABC’s Amanda Hoh, following up on the ABC’s popular War on Waste TV show, interviewed Brad Gray of Planet Ark for some tips.

Gray says the most common mistake is that people throw soft plastics such as bags, food packaging or “scrunchable” plastic in with containers. These soft plastics get caught in the conveyer belt and the whole recycling system has to be stopped so they can be removed.

“All “scrunchable” plastic including shopping bags, plastic food packaging, fruit netting and dry cleaning bags can be recycled, although most often not via your home recycle bin,” says Gray.

“The best method is to bundle all your plastic bags into one bag and take it to a REDcycle bin located in most metro and large regional supermarkets. These plastics are then recycled into plastic school furniture.”

So now I have finished this week’s FOMM, it’s hi-ho to the supermarket and co-op, sturdy hemp shopping bags in hand. Well, that’s the goal.

 

Funeral costs a trap for the unprepared

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Photo of Shetlands war cemetery by Joanna Penn https://flic.kr/p/ri73H3

If there’s one thing that can put an unexpected dent in the household budget, it’s paying for a funeral. A new study by Finder shows that the average cost of a funeral in Australia ranged from $6,131 (Canberra) to $7,764 in Perth. Of course those who can afford it and deem it necessary pay $20,000 and more for a formal send-off.

Finder’s Money Expert Bessie Hassan says one in five Australians don’t have enough money set aside to cover a $500 setback.

“So if an unexpected death of a family member does arise it could cause significant financial stress.”

Finder analysed Funeral Planner’s survey of some 2,000 adults, which showed that 60% of Australians either haven’t thought about their funeral costs or are expecting relatives to foot the bill. The other 40% have probably gone the whole hog and pre-paid for their funeral, and/or the cost is covered under a life insurance policy.

Invocare, a listed company, owns major funeral businesses in Australia including Simplicity Funerals, Guardian Funerals and White Lady Funerals. Invocare’s 2015 annual report shows it has $422 million in funds under management, derived from pre-paid funeral contracts.

Trends are emerging that show a growing number of Australians are seeking out practical and affordable funeral offerings. Invocare found that more clients were choosing direct ‘committals’ without requiring a traditional funeral service. The other popular choice was to combine a church service with a committal service at a cemetery or crematorium.

There is growing demand too for “Green Funerals” which shun embalming and use biodegradable coffins or shrouds. This seemingly morbid topic reminded me of the darkly comic TV drama, Six Feet Under (2001-2005). SFU explored the dysfunctional lives of a family of undertakers. Every episode would start (spoiler alert) with someone dying (the essential plot element, in that it supplied the necessary corpse). After a season or two, the writers got better at building suspense so the by-now predictable death would still come as a shock, as the person who would soon pop his clogs succumbed to unlikely events including a lightning strike.

I’ve been to a few unconventional funerals/memorial services in recent years. There were a few where the body was cremated in a private family service then the ashes scattered later in a more public forum. A couple of memorial services have been held in locations loved by the dearly departed. So no coffin or wreaths, not even an urn with ashes. People whose loved one had gone to meet their maker spoke passionately and fondly of them. On one or two of these occasions, God never got a mention, nor did Buddha or Allah.

This trend may have something to do with the 30% of Australian who profess to be irreligious. In the 2016 Census (6.93 million people) described themselves as having “no religion”.

My old Scots Dad was fond of saying (apropos of dying) “Och, just roll me up in a carpet and put me oot with the rubbish.”  You probably have friends who say similar things, often bracketed with “if I get dementia just put me out of my misery.”

In practice this rarely happens. When the time came (1991), there was a wee church service and a piper played Over the Sea to Skye. Dad’s ashes were inserted into a memorial wall at the local crematorium, next to “Winnie” who died in 1966.

Don’t ask me what it cost because (typical family experience), everyone is so distressed at the passing that they surrender to the blandishments of the dark-suited undertaker.

The plot thickens

The argument against burial is increasingly to do with the finite supply of burial plots. Local governments are understandably reluctant to offer land to be locked up for perpetuity. Burial plot prices have increased dramatically in the past five years, as a result of pre-paid contracts. In Sydney a plot can cost between $4,000 and $52,000.

Nevertheless, She Who Has a Plan wants to be buried and has a burial site in mind. As always, she is more organised than me. I have a will but there is no fine print about what happens to my mortal remains. Whenever cremation is mentioned, I mentally replay that scene in the Coen Brothers cult movie, The Big Lebowski. John Goodman’s character Walter Lobchak, accompanied by The Dude (Jeff Bridges), climbs to a windy clifftop, ready to distribute his friend Donny’s ashes.

(video contains expletives)

More than 50% of Australians who die are cremated, with more people choosing direct cremation. This means you pay only for the body to be disposed of: there is no service and nobody in attendance when the mortal remains are set alight. Later, the family may hold a memorial service, usually in a place that held significance for the departed.

In Australia, a direct cremation starts at $1,500, though most pay around $2,900. That’s considerably cheaper than a burial organised by a funeral director. Just so you know I did some homework on this, it is legal to scatter ashes at sea or on land (with provisos). If you scatter ashes on private land you need the permission of a landowner. Ashes scattered at sea must be dispersed beyond the three-mile (4.82 kms) limit. If you are scattering in a state forest or national park, you need permission.

Some of the information in this essay was gleaned from this website which has a searchable tool on its website where you can shop around for the cheapest funeral option (if that is what you want).

A thorough investigation last year by Choice magazine left few coffin lids closed. This article by Allison Potter is available online

Choice answers the most obvious question; do you have to engage a funeral director? Choice could not find a law that says you have to, although you will find advice to the contrary. Laws differ from one jurisdiction to another, but it’s best to disbelieve those who say it is legal to bury Aunt Bridget near her favourite peach tree. In theory, a DIY back yard planting is possible, but only if the private land is larger than 5ha and the local Council agrees. In any event, burying a body changes the zoning to cemetery. Your neighbours may not be impressed.

This is an ex-parrot

Monty Python’s euphemism-laden sketch aside, Six Feet Under remains the benchmark for kick the bucket humour. From the opening episode to the ‘we’ll all go together when we go’ finale six series’ later, SFU set out to test the boundaries of many taboos. It is full of dark one-liners about the different ways individuals manage grief.

One fine example (from a list compiled by www.pastemagazine.com) comes from episode one. Ruth, matriarch of the Fisher family, flings Christmas dinner to the floor on hearing the news of her husband’s abrupt demise.

She tells her son Nate: “There’s been an accident. The new hearse is totalled. Your father is dead. Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined.”

You will note that, despite the show’s title, Ruth does not employ any of Wikipedia’s 128 euphemisms for death (obscure ones include Ride the Pale Horse, Tango Uniform, Hand in One’s Dinner Pail, Wear a Pine Overcoat and Assume Room Temperature).