The Other 91%: The Limits of Recycling in an Age of Endless Waste.

The Other 91%: The Limits of Recycling in an Age of Endless Waste.

 Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced since the mid twentieth century, shocking figures now show only 9% has been recycled, as revealed in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances (Geyer et al. 2017).

Plastic is an incredibly useful material; it can be long lasting and durable but how we use it has become increasingly problematic. In a throw away society many of us have never had to think twice about the plastic plates and boxes and cups and cutlery we use once and throw away; we have never had to think about the plastic containers that hold food, drink, cosmetics or cleaning fluids that we use for a matter of weeks or even a matter of hours and then proceed to throw away. But plastic ,among other waste, that’s thrown away doesn’t exactly just go ‘away’.

Plastic ‘waste’ is just as long lasting as any other variant of the material and it can take over 400 years for a single piece of plastic to degrade. As only a small proportion of plastics are incinerated, much of it ends up in landfill but as landfill sites leak into waterways, plastic pieces of all shapes and sizes end up in the oceans as their final sink. This brings us into the unknown age of microplastics (pieces less than 5mm in length) as plastics break down into smaller and smaller fragments over time. Microplastics can enter the digestive tract of small marine animals low down on the food chain building up in concentration in both the prey species feeding on them and their predators, ultimately ending up in many wild fish stocks targeted by fisheries. The long-term consequences on human health of consuming these fish are not yet known.

I was spurred on to write this blog after watching the eye opening 3-part documentary series ‘War on Plastic’ that aired on BBC One this year in June. In a truly disheartening moment, it became clear that there was another way in which particularly developed countries, such as the UK, were dealing with their plastic problem; by making it another countries problem via exportation. The UK has contributed a 4.31% share to the cumulative plastic exports made by the top 10 exporters from 1988-2016 (Brooks et al. 2018) and whilst China may have banned the vast majority plastic imports in 2017, shocking documentary footage showed aerial views of huge dumping sites of ‘recycled’ British plastic waste in Malaysia.

As the energy and financial costs of recycling become clearer, we can see that recycling just isn’t feasible against the intense and ever-increasing level of plastic production. We as a society must change our habits and make better choices; we must stop prioritising short term convenience over the health and longevity of the natural world.

So, what can we do?

I believe that a solution-based response must come from both individual actions alongside political and industrial policies. There must be greater clarity in all boroughs and counties of the UK concerning exactly which plastics can be recycled to ease the task of separation and contamination at recycling units. The low-density polyethylene that plastic bags and food wrapping is comprised of tends to fail under the thermal and mechanical stress of recycling hence rendering those items non-recyclable. Structurally weak polystyrene that makes up take-out containers are also non-recyclable; this information should be effectively communicated to households across the UK to prevent ‘wishful recycling’ as the wrong items end up in the wrong bins. It then falls to local government and recycling organisations to ensure waste is properly disposed of and not exported out of sight and out of mind.

However, it is also my belief that we can and we must move forward and away from the damage our single use culture perpetuates. Reusable coffee cups, bags, cutlery and containers eliminate the need of their one-time-use counterparts and subsequently ease the pressure on the recycling process. Petitioning and lobbying supermarkets and government can spark change as unnecessary packaging and non-recyclable materials are phased out and policy, such as the successful 5p plastic bag tax, is rolled in.

What may seem like an impossible problem of plastic waste is one we have created and one that is now in our capabilities to solve; as Oliver Waddington-Ball put it, ‘waste is just a resource in the wrong hands’.

Thanks for reading! ~ Layla Sklar 😊

The Rain Forests of the Seas: Conserving the Corals of Our Coasts.

The Rain Forests of the Seas: Conserving the Corals of Our Coasts.

On the 8th of October 2018 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) published a long-anticipated report on the range effects of global warming by the end of this century within a temperature range of 1.5-2.0 ⁰C. The report flooded media headlines for weeks with one of the key messages it drove home; nations need to set climate change mitigation targets and meet them – and they need to be quick about it. The report forecasts alarming predictions should we fail to limit the warming of the planet to 1.5 ⁰C; in the oceans, even at 1.5 ⁰C of warming we could lose up to 70% of tropical coral reefs.

At 2.0 ⁰C of warming we could lose them all.

Unless one of the 275 million people living within 30km of a reef it can be difficult to truly understand the far-reaching significance of reefs, but occupying less than 0.1% of the ocean floor warm water corals are host nearly 25% of all ocean biodiversity. This makes the reefs ideal habitats for fisheries; in tropical countries and island nations coral reefs account for up to 12% of all fish caught. Reefs also act as breakwaters protecting shorelines from destructive tropical cyclones and storm surges. Lastly reefs bring the benefits of tourism to over 100 countries, as visitors are attracted to the beauty of such iconic marine environments, which in turn generates employment and economic benefits.

But these fragile ecosystems that have remained relatively stable for thousands of years are now finding themselves increasingly threatened under the intense fire of anthropogenic stressors. Local disturbances to corals caused by humans include unsustainable coastal development, pollution, nutrient enrichment from aquaculture and sewage effluence, and the overexploitation of coral fisheries; species are being harvested at a rate that exceeds their rate to replenish and reproduce, which decreases the species richness of the reef and begins to fray complex food webs. Yet any corals that display a resilience towards these stressors are then faced with the synergy of ocean warming and ocean acidification as consequences of the climate change caused by the spike in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels as humans civilisations continue to industrialise.

As high concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide contribute the warming green house effect, it is the oceans that then absorb much of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere. However, even small increases in sea temperatures can lead to mass coral ‘bleaching’. In periods of unfavorable temperatures corals expel the photosynthetic algae (zooxanthellae) they harvest in their tissues that are their primary source of nutrients and sustenance; without it the coral tissues become transparent exposing white skeletons of calcium carbonate underneath. Ultimately the corals starve and die. In 1998, one mass bleaching event lead to the death of 16% of all the corals on Earth.

The oceans are not only sinks for excess heat but also for the carbon dioxide itself as its pumped into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide reacts with sea water to produce carbonic acid which decreases the Ph and increases the acidity of the water which suddenly makes manufacturing calcium carbonate skeletons an incredibly difficult task for corals. This difficulty is further exacerbated as carbonic acid reacts with carbonate ions in the water to form bicarbonate ions meaning the carbonate ions become less available to corals who would otherwise combine them with calcium ions. As the corals growth rate is stunted and their calcite structures are weakened, they become only more susceptible to temperature related stress and disease. The disheartening result is the possibility that corals will shift from a state of reef building to net dissolution by the end of this century.

At present over half of the planet’s reefs are under medium or high risk of degradation; a clear indicator that we must either begin to undertake drastic actions to conserve the reefs in their abundance, or face the near future and a sobering reality of virtually lifeless coastal seas.

(figures and statistics taken from 2018 IPCC report)

Thanks for reading! 😊  ~ Layla Sklar .

Could Another Live Aid Tackle the Climate Crisis?

Could Another Live Aid Tackle the Climate Crisis?

“It’s twelve noon in London, seven AM in Philadelphia, and around the world it’s time for Live Aid.”

1985 saw the most monumental charity event in world history, with 172,000 people filling the stadiums of both Wembley and Philadelphia. The unforgettable concert also held the attention of almost two billion people across 150 countries all over the world.

Queen’s legendary guitarist (and part time astrophysicist) Brian May has proposed a second Live Aid to tackle the effects of climate change, but would this work? Debatable.

Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, who organised the event, set out to raise money for the Ethiopian famine and were very successful. News reports in the days after the gig declared that somewhere between £40 to £50 million was raised, however it is now estimated that around £150 million was donated due to the attention given to the crisis.

So, I think it’s fair to say that it was effective …or it could of just had something to do with Geldof shouting “give us your fucking money” but who knows? (same outburst triggered donations to come in at £300 a second (Krüger, 2015:190))

So, the first Live Aid was successful but will another one be as significant?

Similar concerts to Live Aid have been held in order to raise money for our home – for example, the ’Live Earth’ bash that took place in 2007. This was not as successful as the original Live Aid, possibly due to the performing acts that included Cameron Diaz (Fiona from Shrek).

Brian May told the Daily Mirror “It probably would take the younger generation to take that bull by the horns.” – meaning, if there were to be another concert on the same scale as 1985, it would effectively have to be us responsible for organising it.

“Young people are key actors in raising awareness, running educational programmes, promoting sustainable lifestyles, conserving nature, supporting renewable energy, adopting environmentally-friendly practices and implementing adaptation and mitigation projects.” (UNFCCC)

It is obvious that today’s youth have wildly varying music tastes, some would prefer members of the original line up: Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and Queen. However, others would rather introduce new artists who didn’t get a chance to perform in the original production (either because they were too young, or thought the entire concert would be a flop), I would name people but I (fortunately) fit into the first category so I can’t.

This contrast of interests would definitely affect sales and donations although it is comforting to think that maybe people would donate ‘just because’.

It is inarguably clear that our generation today care about the Earths future but few of us take action ourselves. It personally pains me to see single use plastics littered on school grounds and not only are students doing it, but government officials aren’t doing anything about it. Not to mention, Schools do not put the easily obtainable resources in place to prevent this from happening *cough* Recycling bins *cough*.

Horrifically (but slightly unsurprisingly), the money raised through Live Aid didn’t all go toward the crisis in Ethiopia but instead, to the corrupt communist government who used the funding to buy arms from the Soviet Union. Now, I’m not going to go as far as to say that global powers would use money raised to do something similar but my pessimistic ass would bet on that lack of action – even if the funding is there (See: Notre Dame fire)

So, to conclude, would another concert like 1985 help mother nature? Maybe, but the publicity would need to stretch far and wide – and it goes without saying that musical diversity in the lineup would be key.

Hang on (please)! There’s more you can do in the meantime: Reduce your use of single use plastics, buy a refillable bottle, tap water will not hurt you, metal straws, reusable coffee cups, bamboo toothbrushes, not buying produce in plastic packaging – one less thing killing the turtles.

   A group of North West London students can’t organise another live aid but we can do our bit to elongate our time on Earth.

Thank you for reading 🙂 – Sara Griffiths

Gender and Climate Change

Gender and Climate Change

by Ezra Sharpe

Climate change is warming our planet faster than Trump can point his finger at a CNN journalist and scream “fake news”. Third world nations are being impotently grasped in the fists of the climate gods, choking for air, whilst economically developed countries are merely opting to kick the can down the road. Take the British, for example, who are principally more interested in which imperious politician snorted what drug at a middle-class orgy than critical meteorological and climatic hazards, which appear to be in distant and almost alien continents. The Chinese are more tantalised by luring de facto satellite states and African nations into their jurisdiction than by the prospect of environmental restoration; the Americans see Iran as the most malignant threat to the existence of mankind, and the Russians, alongside the Canadians, are fixated on bolstering their profits through commandeering and resource exploitation in the depleting Arctic. There currently exists no profound impetus to stop the raging climate bull in its tracks which, undoubtably, is in the shadow of economic growth – contrary to what world leaders may purport to be the truth.

The impacts of climate change are somewhat universal, but are predicted to be significantly more impedimentary in poorer nations. Restated, the rich get warmer and inconvenienced, and the poor get hotter and incapacitated (Nagel p27). But gender? How does gender even vaguely relate to climate change? Doesn’t climate change affect everyone?

Climate change has very gendered impacts. In many countries, women’s devalued social position makes them increasingly vulnerable when disaster strikes. In the global south, more frequent and longer-lasting droughts are set to be one of the most menacing impacts of warming, with the IPCC reporting that there is “high confidence in surface drying”. Water conservation and collection is at the epicentre of gendered life in Africa, where this vital resource is not available in the home, or even in a community well. The burden of endeavouring for water is placed on women, who are taxingly tasked with fetching and carrying buckets of water for dozens of miles in a single day, including young children, who are forced to drop out of school to support their mothers. When drought strikes, and both water and food yields are significantly depleted, the arduous task of collecting water becomes exacerbated; increasing water competition extends potential walking distances up to 30km, meaning young children and women often have to start their trips before dawn. This expedition further imposes security issues, increasing the likelihood of being attacked by bandits or rapists belonging to local fiefdoms and clans. The already substandard social position of women, being precluded from most spheres of employment and labour, becomes underscored by this growing reliance on unpaid female manual labour, which often precipitates severe spinal injuries and pelvic deformities resulting from carrying repeated heavy weights. Various academics have identified a range of income generating activities which drought pressures thwart women from entering, such as education costs; young girls are forced to leave school, reducing the potential for employment. These economic freights force families to sell young girls as “drought brides”, where “a mother will take a 14-year old girl out of school and sell her to a man – even an old man – to generate money to give the other children food” (Nagel p37).

Sea level rise, and in turn flooding, is perhaps the most dangerous consequence of global warming, especially for densely populated coastal regions in Bangladesh, America’s east coast, southern India and the Yangtze Delta basin in China. Sea level rise represents both gradual and abrupt changes to our natural systems, including shoreline erosion, property damage and stronger storm surges. A number of these outcomes affect men and women in different ways: employment, physical health, and mental health. Bangladesh, located on the Bay of Bengal, is one of the most active and dynamic tropical cyclone regions in the world. In April 1991, “Marian”, a category 4 tropical cyclone, gained landfall with winds up to 210 km/h, displacing millions of people and leaving in its wake economic damage equivalent to $2 billion (History.com Editors). 140,000 were killed. 90% were women and children. Bangladesh is one of the few countries worldwide where male life expectancy exceeds that of women. This inequality can be attributed to cultural attitudes towards women, who are precluded from Bangladesh’s social and economic structures. At a young age, Bangladeshi females have less access to healthcare and nutrition than men, earn less than men, and many more live below the global poverty line. Less food, lower incomes and higher poverty levels all culminate to make Bangladeshi females more vulnerable to disaster when it strikes. These patriarchal notions lead to cultural expressions which prevent fully female efforts to resist and recover from disaster. For example, cultural expectations in Bangladesh prohibit women from learning how to swim (Nagel p60), and some are in ‘purdah’, which prevents women from leaving the home unaccompanied. When Bangladesh’s coastal communities inevitably flood, women are left isolated and uninformed, incapable of leaving the home or being able to swim to safety. When the storm water surged in 1991, thousands of women and children drowned.

One of the most poignant stories of the female experience of the 1991 “Marian” storm comes from a Bangladeshi mother named Begum. On the eve of the floods, she tied herself to a leveraged tree trunk (due to her inability to swim), pregnant and suffering from malnutrition. After a while, she was unable to stand, and the child in her womb stopped moving (Climate Change Adaptation Research Climate Change, Gender and Vulnerable Groups in Bangladesh Climate Change Cell Department of Environment (DoE) Ministry of Environment and Forests Component 4B, Comprehensive Disaster Management Program (CDMP) Ministry O).

And yeah, that’s about it. That concludes our first article on Gender and Climate Change – hope you enjoyed!

(all views held are my own)