From plastic to seaweed: having nature as an industrial partner

The EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted in January. The strategy addresses the challenges posed by the use of plastics throughout their life cycle: that is, from the initial stages of production until the end of their useful life. This strategy lays the foundations for a new plastics economy, where the design and production of plastics and plastic products fully respect reuse, repair and recycling needs, resulting in more sustainable materials being developed and promoted.

One of the problem areas is that of single use plastics, that is plastic products which are thrown away after being used just once, increasing the amount of the waste generated and going to landfill exponentially.

In those countries which appreciate the value of research, efforts are under way to encourage the identification of alternative sustainable materials. In this respect, being sustainable signifies not only reducing the waste produced and thrown away but also ensuring that the waste generated by the alternatives identified is minimised and possibly eliminated. Wishful thinking?

One such alternative material being currently researched is seaweed. A start-up company based in London is pioneering the use of natural materials extracted from plants and seaweed, thereby aiming at creating packaging with a very low environmental impact. The use of seaweed as a raw material could possibly create waste-free alternatives to plastic bottles, cups, plates, knives, forks ……….

Bio-based news quotes the researcher thus: “You use a coffee cup for half an hour maximum and then it’s going to be in the environment for probably 700 years. That’s a big mismatch in terms of use and shelf life”.

The coffee cups we use are lined with oil-based waxes in order to prevent liquids from seeping out. This creates difficulties when the cups are thrown away as they take a long time to decompose. Using a seaweed-based extract creates a sustainable alternative as it can decompose in about four to six weeks: compare this to 700 years! Moreover, seaweed is cheap and easy to harvest. It is also easily available along and not far from our coastline. In addition, it is one of the fastest growing organisms on earth. Some types of seaweed can grow up to fifty centimetres per day!

What are we waiting for? Some apparently are not aware that we have an abundance of seaweed in Maltese waters!

Isn’t it about time that we have a sustainable industrial policy? That is, an industrial policy which encourages the environmentally friendly production of goods.

Our industrial policy should work in tandem and be synchronised with a sustainable development strategy seeking to create wealth hand in hand with the protection of nature. This article focuses on one tiny example which, if properly dealt with, could have considerable impacts. I list a basic three: a sustainable use of our natural resources, addressing plastic waste in particular single use plastic, laying the foundation for a sustainable industrial policy.

Unfortunately, the politics of sustainable development is being ignored. Cabinet Ministers do not have an idea of the dormant potential of nature. Is it not about time that our economic activity works in tandem with nature instead of against it? What is the use of having interminable speeches on the circular economy, the blue economy and sustainable development if we cannot translate words into action? Nature is our industrial partner kept waiting at the doors of opportunity.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 25 November 2018

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Karmenu Vella and the plastic tax

Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment, is enthusiastic about the possibility of a plastic tax being introduced throughout the EU. In his view, this tax – if properly designed – could be one of a number of tools for delivering environmental objectives as well as providing budgetary income. Planet Earth is drowning in plastic.

Vella made these comments in an interview published on Euractive last week on the subject of the EU’s new plastics strategy.

We have been there before and maybe it is time to consider the matter once more in Malta. Some 10 years ago in Malta we had an environmental tax which was known as an “eco-contribution”. It was a valid proposal, badly designed and arrogantly implemented. The lessons learnt from that exercise could, if properly analysed, lead to the development of effective policy tools addressing the generation of waste in the Maltese islands. Policies should be well thought out and not developed as a result of panic – as is clearly the case with the current government incineration proposal.

Ten years ago, the eco-contribution tried to address the generation of plastic waste including “single-use plastic”. This is one of the primary targets of the EU plastics strategy published on the 16 January.

Its title is very clear : A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. Plastic is ubiquitous: it is present in all aspects of our economy and our daily lives. The plastics we use must be such that they can be re-used rather than thrown away. It is an important resource which can be put to good use rather than thrown away or incinerated.

It is for this purpose that the newly-published plastics strategy lays the foundations for a new plastics economy where “the design and production of plastics and plastic products fully respect reuse, repair and recycling needs and more sustainable materials are developed and promoted”.

A plastics economy would definitely not send “waste plastic” to the incinerator to be converted into energy. Even Malta’s latest version of the Waste Management Strategy, approved in 2014, emphasises that our approach to waste must be one based on the sustainable use of resources and, in line with the EU waste hierarchy, gives priority to recycling over incineration.

In fairness, it has to be said that our government’s advisors on incineration have already sounded the alarm. Apparently this has not, as yet, been understood – either by the government or by the Opposition. It would be pertinent to point out that the Special Assignment Report by Jaspers dated 23 February 2017 on a Waste to Energy (WtE) project in Malta specifically emphasises that “it would be difficult to justify a WtE facility that is not based on low waste growth and high recycling”.

Rather than talking about incineration, it is about time we discussed in detail the implementation of our Waste Management Strategy in order to identify why it has not to date succeeded in increasing Malta’s recycling rates. What initiatives need to be taken in order that the waste generated in Malta is minimised?

Malta’s waste management strategy, now complemented by the EU’s Plastic Strategy, is definitely a much better roadmap than the documentation encouraging incineration. And what about our commitments to encourage a “circular economy” : gone with the wind?

Karmenu Vella’s plastics tax is food for thought.

It is about time that Wasteserve is managed properly. As a first step, it should stick to its brief and seek to implement carefully the Waste Management Strategy, which establishes the year 2050 as the year when we should achieve a “Zero Waste Target”. This target will not be achieved through the use of incineration but through a policy encouraging waste minimisation as well as recycling.

This is not just a task for the Minister responsible for the Environment. The Minister responsible for the Development of the Economy also has a very important role to play in achieving a successful implementation of the Waste Management Strategy.

Unfortunately he is apparently completely absent.

Zero waste municipalities in Europe are continuously indicating that an 80 to 90 per cent recycling rate is achievable. The fact that Malta’s recycling rate is, at best, estimated at around 12 per cent, is a clear indication that there is room for substantial improvement – with or without Karmenu Vella’s plastics tax.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 28 January 2018

 

Towards a Circular Economy

circular economy

In a recent interview EU Environment Commissioner Januz Potočnik stated that the European Union is en route to the circular economy. A step which he described as being essential in ensuring the EU’s competitiveness.

The circular economy, in contrast to the linear economy is one which respects nature and seeks to utilise the earth’s resources in a sustainable manner.

The linear economy is based on a take-make-waste model, extracting raw materials from the earth and dumping the resulting waste after use.  This is a cradle to grave path for raw materials. The EU’s waste management strategy in conjunction with its Roadmap to a Resources Efficient Europe seeks to decouple the generation of waste from economic growth thus nudging the EU towards a new path: one of green growth.

This is also the basic philosophy of the Waste Management Strategy proposed by the Environment Ministry in Malta and currently subject to public consultation.

Malta’s proposed Waste Management Strategy advocates a policy of waste minimisation, that is, we must make an effort to avoid use of resources whenever possible. In addition it then advocates recycling the waste which is generated. This is done by tackling different waste streams in a manner most appropriate to the materials used in that specific stream. 2050 is the Malta target for achieving a Zero Waste society. An achievable target only if we get down to business immediately.

Waste separation is  an essential prerequisite in order to ensure that effective recycling takes place.   As a result of recycling, the waste from a specific product or process feeds a separate process. This is the manner in which nature functions. Have you ever noted how a tree sheds its leaves? How these leaves slowly decompose and nourish the soil, micro-organisms, insects and plants and actually feed the surrounding eco-system?

We have a lot to learn from nature. Biomimicry, imitating nature, is in fact a branch of study which seeks to apply nature’s lessons to solve many modern day problems. Discarding our throwaway attitudes is one such basic lesson.

Modern manufacturing is characterised by a cradle to grave design. It is the result of a society accustomed to throw away products once their useful life ends.

Applying nature’s lessons hence signifies manufacturing products whose life cycle is no longer one which leads from the cradle (production) to their grave (disposal). Instead of being discarded at the end of its useful life a product gives birth to something else through recycling. Just like nature does when dealing with the tree’s leaves. The cradle to grave cycle needs to be transformed into a cradle to cradle cycle.

This obviously has an impact on the manner in which products are designed.  In their  book  Cradle to Cradle, remaking the way we make things, American Architect William McDonough and German Chemist Michael Braungart explain that life cycle thinking, instead of filtering out the undesirable substances and toxins in a product at the end of the manufacturing process filter them out at the beginning, that is on the drawing board.

A waste management strategy which is based on a resource management approach is linked to these long term aims. It is a long process but one which is finally rewarding.

By separating our waste we facilitate its recycling. When recycling takes place we reduce the take-up of the earth’s resources and consequently avoid using the energy required to extract more resources from the earth.

All this shifts the focus from economic growth linked to activities which harm our surroundings to economic activity which enhances them. This leads to the creation of  green jobs.  It shifts our thinking to one which links prosperity with environment protection.

Resource efficiency is at the core of Europe’s 2020 strategy. It does not only mean doing more with less, that is, being eco-efficient. It requires also being eco-effective, that is ensuring that the consideration of long term impacts features in all our decisions. That means designing the present with the future in mind.

A waste management policy based on resource efficiency is an essential tool in this respect. This is just one example. Plenty of other examples can be found in appropriate policies to manage our water resources, our land use, our heritage.

All this leads back to the circular economy which is not just a green way of organising our economy.  It is a different way of life. A way of life which is not antagonistic to our surroundings but one which is in harmony with them.

This is what sustainable development is all about. It seeks to redimension the manner we think.. Having just one Earth we must realise that we cannot have another try if we succeed in ruining the present one.  There is no Plan B.

The circular economy is an adequate tool which can set us back on track.

published in The Times, Saturday November 2, 2013