ethical dilemmas

Micromanaging plastic waste

Thames, South bank, London Eye, plastic pollution, Thames21, PLA
Each year Thames21 and the Port of London Authority remove 200 tonnes of waste from the Thames. How much more gets washed into the sea?

Five items make up 2/3 of all lightweight identifiable waste collected from the Thames each year. These items make their way either through being dropped, sometimes deliberately littered, or through another path, into the river where, without litter picks, they are eventually washed out to sea. Part of the estimated annual ~10m tonnes of plastic waste entering into the oceans, they end in one of the gyres of the oceans, vast expanses of sea covered by floating rubbish.

Only much of this waste doesn’t. Or at least not as much as we think should do and we don’t know why. Despite the fact that there is an estimated 250 000 tonnes of waste floating in places such as the North Pacific Gyre, this is not as much as is expected. In fact, the visible waste makes up only a few percent of the waste that is expected to be there. Where is the rest of the waste, and what does it have to do with physics, or indeed coffee?

One of the ‘top 5’ items found in the Thames (coming in at number 4) is take away cups. This is followed closely by take-away containers. This means that our behaviour on leaving cafes, restaurants (and pubs) is affecting the litter that ends up in the river. And this is without counting the fact that food wrappers and drinks bottles (including water bottles) are two of the other worst offenders. It is not necessarily that people are deliberately throwing the items onto the pavement as they walk (though there is that too of course). The charity Thames21 that organises river-side clear ups and litter picks also thinks that some of the waste is coming as a result of people trying to put items into over-filled bins or so-called “tidy litterers“. But the truth is, they don’t really understand the route that many of these items take before entering the river system.

Discarded litter, can holder, litter
Some litter that finds its way into the oceans is merely discarded like this 6 pack can holder. Reducing this getting into the oceans is helped by fewer people littering, more people picking up what they see discarded and changes to the product itself.

It is a significant problem for us now as many of us are trying to support local restaurants or cafes by ordering take away and even when a place has drink-in space, often it is single-use disposable cups that are used. Part of this is understandable. There is a hygiene concern, even if there are counter-arguments that re-usables are safe to use in these times of Covid-19. But I don’t want to trivialise this concern, partly because people are making very hard decisions about how to keep their businesses going or earn enough to pay the next set of bills. If there is any doubt about the safety, it needs to be considered holistically by those running and working in the businesses and not those like me able to work from home and able to get delivery or pop-in and pop-out (and, in fairness, it is easy to see from a barista’s point of view that handling an untouched single-use cup and giving it in a contactless way to a customer is safer than receiving their re-usable container in whatever state of cleanliness it is presented in).

This part seems a question of balance. Balancing the need for economic support with the concerns of the single-use plastic problem. Do the places that you frequent use recycled (and recyclable) plastics or compostable ones? If the latter, is there a compost bin within the cafe to help with the disposal of these? Ultimately, is your take-away coffee going to help the business or are there other items that you can purchase that don’t require the same amount of packaging.

These are considerations with no easy answers which leads to the second approach that you could take. In non-Covid times, charities such as Thames21 are always looking for volunteers to help with clean ups and to get involved in counting the types of litter that find their way to the rivers. Becoming a ‘citizen scientist’ in this way helps to quantify the amount of waste entering our rivers but it also helps Thames21 and the river authorities to understand how the waste gets there in the first place. Why are our river banks so filthy?

Coot nest, plastic waste, Grand Union Canal, litter, plastic pollution, effect on wildlife
A coot building its nest with twigs and litter, including plastic litter, on the Grand Union Canal in London in 2019.

But then the last question. If we know that so much waste is getting into our river, and we know that this is being replicated around the world, why is so little of it making its way to the gyres? What is happening to it?

This affects, to some extent, what we do about our plastic behaviour – the decisions we ultimately make about whether to have a take-away coffee or whether to buy a disposable or re-usable face mask (or even make one). One of the explanations is that the majority of the plastic is becoming micro plastic (<5mm size pieces) or even nano plastic and so sinking into the seas rather than floating on the surface. These micro plastics are the result of the break-up of larger items by UV and micro organisms at sea and also the direct pollution of micro plastics into the sea by clothes being washed or from cleaning products etc. Indeed, the Thames21 citizen scientists discovered micro plastic pollution at 20 out of 21 sites along the river bank in a recent litter survey. A different explanation is that the plastics that are entering our seas today take years, even decades to reach the gyres which are made up of plastics from the 1970s and similar aged pieces. Both explanations mean that we need to stop the pollution at source, but if it is the former, there is not so much point in cleaning up the gyres by pulling the large litter out – the majority of the plastic that is in the oceans is actually underneath what is visible.

Refill station
Water stations and refill bottle. Many of these have been designed to avoid any contact between your reusable bottle and the tap allowing a safe way of travelling with reusables.

How can we determine what plastic waste goes where? Well, we can increase the modelling of ocean currents to improve our ideas about how waste is transported from source to gyre, but we can also try to have a look from space, from the satellites that are monitoring other aspects of our behaviour on Earth. Now it turns out that it is not easy to see plastic from space because with many of the techniques we would use, such as radar, plastic and water ‘look’ very similar. But one thing that that the satellite data has shown is the fact that there are peculiarly calm regions of sea near the gyres. Calm sea looks different from choppy seas in the same way that the light reflected off your coffee looks different if you are sitting with it calmly or if you are running with it and it is sloshing around the cup. But the connections go a bit further than this. The reason for the calm is because of surfactants on the surface of the seas. These surfactants (like soap) ‘calm’ the waves in much the same way as oil calms the waves. It doesn’t take much surfactant to cover the surface of a large area of water as a consideration of how much oil covers the surface of your coffee can tell you.

The surfactants are produced by microbial activity, the result of small bits of plastic (micro plastics) having been colonised by microbes before it sinks. The calm regions of the sea may therefore be indicating areas of hidden micro plastics and demonstrating the depth of the problem of single use plastic waste.

What does this mean for your take-away coffee, your Deliveroo order or your disposable mask? A recent study suggests that it is imperative that we take a combined approach, both as consumers, and as producers, reducing, reusing, recycling and changing the system. But on a personal level of course, some answers are clearer than others. Having an idea of the size of the problem, and the things that we can do to mitigate or understand it, may help us to navigate this plastic minefield.