An ESR scientist says Yuletide traditions could be contributing to a hidden tide of plastic making its way into our environment.
Dr Olga Pantos says although decorating the home and office is still a much loved seasonal activity for many Kiwis – glitter in particular is finding its way into wastewater, and ultimately into the environment
“The majority of decorations now seem to be plastic and a lot of those seem to be covered in glitter, which rubs off quite easily. A master’s student project looking at Christchurch wastewater is finding glitter along with synthetic fibres and fragments.”
Dr Pantos along with Dr Grant Northcott of Northcott Research Consultants is leading a national research programme to determine the impacts of microplastics in New Zealand. The two scientists are heading a $12M collaborative project to understand the levels, distribution and impacts of microplastics in the environment.
Microplastics, which include beads, fibres and fragments like glitter, are a globally significant environmental pollutant.
Dr Pantos has recently returned from MICRO2018, an international microplastics conference in Spain.
“There are still a lot of questions and research to be done to understand the impacts of microplastics on our environment. We are only just starting to scratch the surface of the problem.”
She says there are many practical steps we can take to reduce the amount of plastic entering the environment, including using reusable wax wraps and plastic containers rather than disposable plastic food packaging.
Although there are some food items, like meat, which need packaging for food safety reasons, she says people can still choose to clean and recycle the trays rather than putting them in the bin.
“My advice is to avoid plastic as best you can and then remember that if you do have to use it, then clean it before you put it out for recycling. If it’s dirty it’s not going to be recycled.”
Five ways to combat plastic pollution – watch out for the nurdles!
Presents and Toys. Dr Pantos recommends choosing something that has the least amount of pointless plastic packaging and decorations. Avoid plastic wrapping and laminate plastic. She says a hidden source of plastic are cuddly toys, many of which are stuffed with “nurdles” – small plastic pellets about the size of a lentil that can make their way into environment if the toy is damaged or disposed of without care.
Fresh Produce. She was surprised recently when a family member returned from shopping with peppers on a plastic tray, wrapped in plastic. She prefers to use reusable cotton produce bags and buy from bulk bins where possible.
Fruit labels. Avoid fruit labels where possible and if you are using home composting remember to remove the labels before putting your scraps and peelings. She is encouraged to see Hawkes Bay school students working on developing a degradable fruit label. She says some fruit companies have these kinds of products available for overseas markets.
Tea-bags. Some may be surprised to hear that the humble tea bag is a source of plastic pollution but Dr Pantos says many conventional square tea bags are sealed with plastic based products.
Avoid Cling-Film. Use plastic containers, reusable silicon zip-lock bags or wax wrapping rather than single-use plastic cling wrap which can’t be recycled. She also warns that not all soft plastics can be recycled and it is important to check what can and can’t, and what the packaging is made from. For example, compostable, degradable and biodegradable packaging can’t be. Dr Pantos says more and more food items are coming in compostable plastic packaging but it is hard to tell sometimes. She also encourages people to avoid buying mini-packs of snacks. It produces additional unnecessary waste.
Remember the 4 R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle. Refusing and reducing are key. Recycling should be the last resort.