Initially, plastic was meant to be used over and over. Consider the plastic bag, for example. Plastic bags were originally created in Sweden in 1959 in order to save the environment by replacing paper bags, the production of which was propagating deforestation. The plastic bags were designed to be durable and long lasting, kept in one’s pocket for daily use. Only recently have we begun treating them as single use items, which has resulted in problems worldwide, taking the threat to sea turtles, who often mistakenly consume discarded plastic bags rather than jellyfish, as just one example.
Plastic is not only an environmental hazard once it is discarded, however; the life cycle of plastic is a multi-step process (from extraction, to production, to consumption, to disposal) which uses a large amount of energy, fossil fuels, and resources. Further, plastic production is only increasing; half of all plastic produced was made in the last 13 years. Much, though not all, of this plastic is designed to be single use. Now, there are thousands of different types of plastics, 99% of which are made from petrochemicals/fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal. This is because the properties of these synthetic polymers make them exceptionally useful (they can be transparent, durable, single use, etc).
At the BCSS station, we see the effects of plastic on the marine environment more often than we would like. Our Research Manager Karen Bowles often goes on beach walks to collect waste which has washed up on shore, and when diving, snorkeling, and swimming we see the effects of plastic on marine life, such as in these photos of a reef shark with a necklace of plastic packaging tape and this juvenile semicircle angelfish by a plastic water bottle. In the ocean, one of the most common outcomes of discarded plastic on marine life is accidental ingestion or entanglement, which can lead to death. In fact, and shockingly, 80% of marine debris is plastic.
At BCSS, we are keenly aware of the problems caused by material pollution, and are taking steps to reduce, and, hopefully, someday eradicate, our consumption of single-use plastics. In order to do so, we have implemented a waste recycling system to properly dispose of what we use and find on the island.
One aspect of plastic production which is often misunderstood is the way it is disposed of. This can be especially problematic in developing nations like Mozambique, which is still building the infrastructures and effective waste management systems needed to properly dispose of waste.
At BCSS, the team is working hard to reduce the use of plastics as well as properly dispose of those plastics that are used. To this effect, Karen Bowles has been exploring the waste sector of Mozambique, specifically the plastics value chain – that is, the process that begins when a material is thrown out, to when it is amassed by a waste picker, to when it is sold to an informal trader who can then take the material to a recycler, who will produce a new material to go back on to the market. In the process, Karen visited a Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF.
At the facility, plastic is sorted, cleaned, and then shredded. Following that, it is melted with specialized machinery, and finally cut into small plastic pellets called nurdles. These can come in all different colours. The nurdles are then used to manufacture new plastic products.
This study inspired the waste separation plan we now have at BCSS, which is overseen by Karen. BCSS waste, as well as waste collected from the beach during walks or organized beach clean ups, is cleaned and then sorted into separate containers depending on material type. Once enough waste is collected, it can be sent to an MRF to be recycled.
We have also implemented a collaborative community project, spearheaded once again by Karen Bowles, to help raise awareness and reduce plastic use in the Bazaruto Archipelago.
Further, BCSS has a long term Sustainability Strategy, which involves raising awareness amongst both ourselves and others through collaboration with researchers, students, and guests at BCSS. We have also taken, and are still taking, the following steps to maintain a lifestyle that is as sustainable as possible:
- We are powered by solar energy.
- We use local materials for building.
- We are working on a zero-waste plan, in which we hope that no waste will be sent from our facility into a landfill, incinerator, or other type of refuse disposal. This is an ambitious goal, which has many sub-goals to help get there. For example, we are working on our garden-to-table vegetable/herb garden in tandem with a Bokashi composting/food recycling system. We will try to adhere to the 3 R’s rule – that is, to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Reduce the amount of waste produced (for example, refilling condiment and soap bottles rather than buying new ones). Reuse what we have; every product, sustainable or green or not has an “environmental price tag” as it requires the materials to be sourced, produced, transported, and distributed before landing in your hands. Therefore, the best sustainable or green product one can have is a product that one already owns. Thus, before purchasing any “sustainable/green” products to replace other less sustainable ones, BCSS will make use of products it already has to the end of that product’s life. Finally, recycle all materials possible within Mozambique.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of plastics in the environment. The good news is that movements around the globe are offering strategic solutions and spreading awareness on this increasingly critical issue, from local bans on plastic or Styrofoam containers to redesigning problematic products. The key is to be informed about what you can do to decrease your own use of plastics, properly dispose of what you do use, and spread awareness to others. This is what we strive to do at BCSS.