The dangers of plastic waste

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. 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 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.


Idea for a fireworks display

Darling Harbour low res
Darling Harbour fireworks April 2014 by Derek Keats

Not everyone oohs and aahs about firework displays. Some go into curmudgeon mode, grumbling about the expense, the air and noise pollution, the way it upsets dogs and budgies. Some even suggest the money could be given to the needy.
The eclectically musical among you may have noticed the Tom Waits reference in the heading. I’m not even sure we’re allowed to do that, which of itself would be a travesty since Tom has not much to do with this essay at all. Apart from a song of his forever lodged in my lizard brain that tells of a man who “came home from the war with a party in his head”.

For years I thought the first line in Swordfish Trombones was “He came home from the war with a parting in his hair.”
I was technically wrong too with a Twitter/Facebook post on January 1 which suggested the $7.2 million which ‘went up in smoke’ for Sydney’s New Year celebrations could have been better spent. I did the sums and suggested the money spent on celebrating New Year in Sydney could have bought 35,000, $200 food vouchers.
This spontaneous aside sparked enough commentary to suggest the topic was worth further exploration. If you want to be pedantic, only $905,000 went up in smoke (the actual cost of the fireworks contract with pyro-technicians Fodi Fireworks).

So where did it all go?

I asked Sydney City where the other $6.3m went – (a lot of it went in wages and the 15-months of planning that goes into an event of this size).
A spokeswoman told FOMM that as well as designing and producing two major fireworks displays, the City produced entertainment on the harbour and managed seven vantage points around the foreshore, which included implementing road closures, installing fencing and hundreds of toilets, and organising security.
The City is also responsible for cleaning up after the event, which by some reports generated 60 tonnes of garbage.
Ian Kiernan of Clean Up Australia thinks the annual fireworks display is old-fashioned and bad for the environment. He told Radio National it was time for a greener approach – bigger, better and brighter light shows and such. RN rightly pointed out that record crowds were voting with their feet (1.6m this year) adding that the New Year event generates economic benefits for New South Wales.
Kiernan called this “selling the environment for commercial benefit” and he has a point, as our Sydney waterfront jogger reckons people were still cleaning up the New Year detritus days later.


Research by Destination NSW found New Year’s Eve has a direct economic impact of more than $133 million, so the City thinks it is money well spent.
“Sydney New Year’s Eve is Australia’s largest public event and one of the biggest and most technologically advanced fireworks displays in the world. It showcases our great city on a global stage,” a spokeswoman said.
“The event attracts more than a million people to Sydney Harbour and is watched by millions across Australia and more than a billion worldwide.”
The major issue with fireworks is that they are not so far removed from the military world of missiles, RPGs, artillery shells and various explosive devices. One of the reasons firework displays are expensive is that there is much red tape and expense involved in acquiring a pyrotechnics license and permission to use said skills in specific locations. Not to mention public liability insurance.


There’s a fair bit of upcityship where New Year celebrations are concerned. Sydney is pushing the boundaries of its annual budget, this year edging close to burning up $1 million worth of fireworks in two co-ordinated displays lasting a total of 20 minutes. The Australian Financial Review said this boils down to $45,000 a minute. Last year, the fireworks budget was just $650,000, but the City is happy to keep upping the ante because of the international focus on Sydney, the first city in the world to celebrate New Year. Nevertheless, Sydney’s bunger spend was almost three times that of Melbourne ($340,000), with the Sunshine State a distant third.
Conversely, London spent 1.8 million pounds ($A3.68 million) on its 11-minute display, which, if you don’t mind, gave ratepayers relatively better value.
Kuwait and Dubai have been jousting with each other over the coveted entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Kuwait took the gong in 2012, reportedly spending $15 million, only to be upcityshipped by Dubai in 2014. If watching lavish videos of fireworks displays is on your to-do list, check out YouTube.

Tourism schmoorism

One of the reasons cities vote to burn up money in short-burst fireworks displays is the opportunity to attract the ever-fickle tourist dollar.
“So tell me, Irina from Iceland, what prompted you to visit Sydney and are you sorry you brought your fur coat?”
“Ha?!” (Icelandic interjection loosely translated as WTF).
“On TV last year we see the firework and the Opera House all lit up like Christmas, also people surfing on beach, playing batball, drink beer in the sunshine. Maybe we will see koala too, no?”
The multiplier effect ensures that billions of dollars, pounds, euros, króna, roubles or shekels get burned up every New Year’s Eve, every 4th of July, every November 5th, every whatever your national day is and, though on a smaller scale, every agricultural show held anywhere in the world. Even in tiny Allora on the southern Darling Downs, the local show society welcomed in the New Year with a modest fireworks display. In Warwick, where we spent NY 2016, the far away pop-pop noise of fireworks in the showground started a ‘trigger dog’ effect.
It does not take too much thinking about this subject, tens of thousands of cities and towns around the world burning money for a few minutes of oohs and aahs, to turn a man into a socialist. And I’m not the only one.

Sign here

An online petition started by Lisa Nicholls under the banner urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to spend the equivalent amount of money helping struggling farmers. Last we heard she’d attracted 33,784 signatures. Go on, you know you should.

Something for nothing

While we might grumble about ratepayers’ levies being spent on such frivolities, the hard economic fact is that private enterprise is loath to invest in fireworks displays. How do you get people to pay for the entertainment, which is outdoors and visible from vantage points up to 10 kms away? I guess you could hire an army of people to wander around among revellers shaking donation tins. Human nature being what it is, people are unlikely to start paying for something they have been enjoying for nothing, year after year.
The New Year fireworks upship of state will be hard to turn around. As the City of Sydney implies, planning for 2017 started in October 2015.

Ah well, only 19 more sleeps until Australia Day. Now, if only I can get the dog out from under the couch.