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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Barely scratching the surface

The Noise White Paper, just published for public consultation, identifies the need to coordinate the existing fragmented administrative structures as its first target. This is being done in the belief that it will eventually lead to a smoothening out of administrative inconsistencies. Better coordination could also ensure that, in the long term, issues in respect of which the authorities have, to date, been reluctant to act upon can be addressed in an appropriate manner. Hopefully.

The White Paper deals with the abatement of neighbourhood noise. Its reach should have been much wider. It postpones dealing with the noise generated by fireworks and village feasts to some future date. Cultural aspects and tradition are reasons used to justify this postponement. In reality, the government at this time cannot withstand the anticipated reaction of the fireworks lobby, which has yet to come to terms with restrictions based on safety as is evidenced by reactions to the findings and recommendations of the November 2011 inquiry report on accidents in fireworks factories. Clearly, the government considers that now is not the time to regulate excessive fireworks noise. On the eve of a general election, votes are considered to be a more important consideration.

We have been informed (correctly) that the EU Environmental Noise Directive is not applicable to our airport because the traffic it handles is below the established threshold.

The White Paper does not address the issue of noise generated by aircraft approaching or taking off from Malta’s only airport when flying over residential areas. In particular, the impact of approaching aircraft on Birżebbuġa’s residential area at all times of the day (including during the night) comes to mind.

Now, to be fair, one must state that the airport cannot be transferred to any other site. The flight paths leading to the airport are fixed and their use is determined by the prevalent winds. Malta needs its only airport to be operational. Yet, its operation must be such that it does not cause unnecessary hardship to residential areas along the approaches to and around the airport.

This leaves only one option: regulating the airport’s operating times to restrict aircraft movements during the silent hours as is done at Heathrow, Brussels and Fiumicinio, to mention three airports with which readers are familiar.

The airport authorities need to encourage the use of less noisy aircraft through the determination of differentiated aircraft landing charges dependent on the noise generated by the aircraft. It is about time that the airport authorities start respecting the surrounding communities. This is a missing but essential element of the airport’s sustainable development strategy.

The Noise White Paper draws up a list of those authorities that are empowered to regulate some aspect of noise control. One would expect that the police, the Malta Tourism Authority, the health authorities and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority coordinated by the Noise Control Board to now be in a better position to ensure that commercial outlets (particularly those in a mixed use area) are no longer a nuisance to residents in the vicinity.

It should also be less problematic to deal with nuisance caused by air conditioners fixed in the most awkward places.

But noise does not only impact the health of human beings. It also has a health impact on flora and fauna. This is partly regulated through the Habitats Directive of the EU, which is an integral part of Maltese law.

It is positive that the Noise White Paper recognises this and emphasises the need to ensure its implementation. This should now place more onus on Mepa to ascertain that open-air activities generating excessive noise are immediately brought to order. Examples that come to mind are open air discos at Buskett, Paradise Bay and Ta’ Qali. The first two impact biodiversity in Natura 2000 sites and the last is too close to residential areas, particularly Attard. The aborted Mistra “Spin Valley Disco”, which the Nationalist Party and its stooges at Mepa defended before the 2008 election, would also fall foul of these provisions as it was sited right in the middle of a special area of conservation.

Excessive noise also has a damaging impact on the welfare of animals, both farm animals and pets. The impact of noise on farms and agriculture is completely ignored by the White Paper.

Fireworks regulations, for example, are only concerned with residential areas and the distances to be observed from areas that serve as a residence for more than 100 humans.

Excessive noise in agricultural areas severely impacts agricultural production (like milk, poultry, eggs, rabbits…) and can have a considerable economic impact.

It is up to the minister in question to decide whether to prefer the fireworks at the expense of negative impacts on animal husbandry. He may not worry unnecessarily as animals do not vote!

While the White Paper on Noise Prevention is welcome, it barely scratches the surface. We need to go deeper and tackle areas ignored by the White Paper because noise pollution is an issue that has been neglected for far too long.

 

This article was published in The Times of Malta , April 14, 2012

 

on the same subject on this blog :

7th February 2009 : The value of silence

7th November 2009 : When pigs are able to vote