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Impact of microplastics on human and planetary health

To mark Global Climate Change Week 2023, UOW put microplastics under the microscope. The discussion tackled a range of topics such as what microplastics are, how are they produced, how do they impact human and planetary health and add to climate change and what can we all do to reduce these impacts. 

Speaker 1 Hi everybody. And it gives me great pleasure to welcome you to today's seminar. My name is Karen Charlton. I'm a professor of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Wollongong and am interested in a sustainable, healthy and equitable food system. So this topic is of great personal interest to me. Today, we're going to hear from some experts in the field how microplastics impact both our environment, but also the impacts that these microplastics have on our bodies through environmental contamination. It's also a pleasure to welcome you here today as part of the Global Climate Change Week. And before we start and I introduce our wonderful panel, I would like to acknowledge the country of which we are meeting on today.

Speaker 2 We know is that country for Aboriginal peoples is an interconnected set of ancient and sophisticated relationships. The University of Wollongong spreads across many interrelated Aboriginal countries that are bound by this sacred landscape and an intimate relationship with that landscape since creation.

Speaker 3 From Sydney to the Southern Highlands, to the South Coast. From freshwater to bitter water to salt. From city to urban to rural.

Speaker 2 The University of Wollongong acknowledges the custodianship of the Aboriginal peoples of this place and space that has kept alive the relationships between all living things. The University acknowledges the devastating impact of colonisation and our campuses' footprint and commit ourselves to truth telling, healing and education.

Speaker 1 So thank you. And to all of those that are just joining the chat function is open. So perhaps you'd like to say hello and tell us where you are joining from, which country are joining from? I'm joining from the lands of Dharawal, Wodi Wodi and Yuin Nation. I'm pleased to be here today. So just a few housekeeping points. In terms of today, what we're going to do is encourage members of the audience to submit any questions they have to any of the panellists using the Q&A function. The chat function will be switched off in a couple of minutes. And so if you'd like to put your questions forward, we will have time at the end to address as many of these as possible. This webinar is being recorded and will be shared with with everybody at the end of the webinar. So if you wanted to go back and have a look at the recording, you will be welcome to. So today we welcome thought leaders for a one hour conversation to really drill down to the impacts of microplastics on human and planetary health. All of our panellists are driven by initiatives to tackle climate change, and they're all passionate about the increasing impact that microplastics have on climate change. So today we're going to discuss how microplastics form, what they are, the impact that they have on the environment, and importantly, what governments and individuals can do to better protect our health and our planet. So it gives me great pleasure to introduce our esteemed panel. We have Karen Raubenheimer. Karen is a senior lecturer at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, otherwise known as ANCORS, based here at the University of Wollongong. Do you want to give us a wave. Karen. There's Karen. We have Michael Stapleton. Michael is a University of Wollongong graduate, and he's also a current UOW PhD candidate in environmental engineering. And his PhD is focusing on sustainable waste management practices. Give us a wave, Michael. Thank you. And we also have Emeritus Professor Sarah Dunlop, who is the head of plastics and Human Health at the Minderoo Foundation. And Sarah's joining us from the University of Western Australia. So thank you to all panellists. So the format of the rest of the webinar will be a series of questions that I will pose to each of the panellists. And as I said, if you have any questions, please do put those in the Q&A function and we we'll get to those at the end. We're also going to have three polls throughout the webinar and these will appear on your screen and you'll be asked a question and please give your response and then we'll have a look at that and that may introduce us into to the topics that we're going to discuss. So I think the first poll is going to come up in a second. Here we go. So you'll have a few minutes to think about the answers to this. And please submit your response and we'll see how we go with this. On a global level, what percentage of plastics do you think are recycled? All right. So we have a fairly informed audience because the correct answer is 10% of new plastics are recycled. Now, I don't know about you, but this statistic is pretty scary, I think. I was reading today that the first production of plastics originated around 1950, when the annual production was about 2 million tons. By 2015, this production had increased to 380 million tons per year. So if only 10% of that is recycled, there is a lot of plastic waste on our planet. So that brings me to the first question. And this is directed to Sarah. Sarah, could you tell us what are plastics and how are they made? 

Speaker 4 Good start. Thank you, Karen. And it's a really important question because if you want to understand the harm from something, you need to understand what it is and where it comes from. So plastic is essentially a complex material that's made almost entirely from fossil fuel. 99% of all plastic at the moment is made from fossil fuel, and two thirds of that comes from coal and the remainder, oil and gas. And you mentioned the very large numbers, and I would like to emphasise that beginning because back in 2014, only about 4 to 6% of all fossil fuel was used to make plastic. And look at the damage that we see from that already, and that's predicted to increase to about 20% by 2050, mainly as a result of the fossil fuel industry pushing away from using fossil fuel for energy as green energy stocks come on board and they want to make even more plastic. And whichever way you look at it, it's a really steep curve in production. More than half has been produced since 2002. Those 8 billion tonnes in 2015 represented one tonne for every single person on the planet. That's a lot of plastic and that's about a Volkswagen Beetle car. And by 2015, sorry, 2050 the anticipation is 34 gigatons, that's 34 billion tonnes. And just to give you an idea what one gigaton is, it's equivalent to 10,000 fully laden U.S. aircraft carriers. So it's very sobering with only 10% being recycled. Yes, most ends up in the environment. So how plastics made? Well, as I said, it comes from fossil fuel and the large molecules in the gas. and the oil need to be broken down and chemically transformed into a whole lot of much smaller molecules that are the feedstock for plastic manufacture. And there are large chemical plants called crackers, which do this, and they're very large numbers of these being built still around the world. It's very energy intensive, which is a concern for the, you know, the climate change that we are focusing on this week. 90% of the fossil fuel is actually used as energy and only about 10% is used for the starting blocks. And there are two very broad categories of starting material. There are the things called monomers and then the additives. And we know that in total, about somewhere between ten and 13,000 different types of chemicals used to make plastics. So it really is complex. And we've actually mapped this out recently and we launched the plastic health map, which looked at about 1500 of these chemicals and whether or not they were in humans, they were in humans. We found massive gaps with only about a quarter of those that we looked at actually being studied to the extent in humans. So there's a lot of concern. So going back to how you make plastics, you smash up the large molecules, you make monomers such as ethylene and propylene, and everyone will have heard of those because they then polymerase to make long chains of repeating elements of monomers. So that would be polyethylene, polypropylene and so on. But those polymers are useless on their own. You have to add a whole load of other chemicals to give them the utility that we need. And those can include plasticisers to make them flexible, flame retardants, to stop them bursting into flames because it is, after all, a fossil fuel we're talking about. You have to give them stability so that they don't break down in the light, well and on the shelf for a living and used colourants and the suchlike. And there's another bunch of chemicals that are used in actually making the chemicals. So. So you start making the plastic. Then that's converted into little things called pellets or nurdles. And then those are conglomerated and shaped, moulded, cut sanded whatever it is, into the products that we use today. So that's a really fast car of what plastic is and where it comes from.

Speaker 1 Thank you. So I think what I took from that is that it is very fossil fuel dependent. And so. That's plastics. But our focus today is on microplastics. I might turn to Michael to explain to us what exactly are microplastics. We hear about, you know, little beads in cosmetics and so on. But I'm sure it's a much broader explanation. So if you could perhaps talk us through microplastics and explain to us what these are and where they might be found.

Speaker 4 Thank you.

Speaker 3 Yeah. So microplastics, any type of plastic that is less than five millimetres, that's just the standardised size that's come across in the literature. There's also nano nanoplastics as well, and that's come across just in recent terminology because this is a new area of research, relatively new. There is all these new terminologies coming out. Nano plastics are in size range that is less than one Micrometre and I'm sure you'll hear more about that later on because these are the plastic particles that can have more issues in the human health. But when going back to the microplastics, you can have there's multiple different forms. You can have, you know, pellets, you can have fibres, fragments or, you know, foams. And then how microplastics are made. You can have primary microplastics or secondary microplastics. So, primary microplastics are made in the size range of five millimetres or less, whereas secondary microplastics is where you have a macro bit of plastic and then it downgrades into that smaller size range. As the issues around microplastics are still relatively new, there is still a lot of research in this space to be done. A lot of the focus is on finding sources of pollution, finding how it is affecting animals, how it's affecting sealife, how it is affecting humans. How we can recapture the microplastics from the environments and for when we going back to the sources of microplastics, the most known sources of plastics is from that macroplastic fragmentation. So that can occur through abrasive forces through just simple tyre wear products wearing down on the roads. You also have your washing machines or your a lot of the synthetic clothes these days. When you put them in the washing machine, they're going to make microfibres and that's an easy release into the environment. You have your tyres, which I said this before, and then you also have nurdle spills. So as Sarah was saying, you have the nurdles, which is the precursor to most plastic products. They melt that down into the new plastic product they're getting shipped around that's shipped around the world all the time. And it is quite common for a shipping container to fall off a ship filled of nurdles and then that's now in the environment. So those are the main sources of microplastic pollution that we have. But there is also emerging sources and there is this list which will just continue growing as more and more research occurs. So we've even found tea bags are a source of microplastic pollution, soft falls in playgrounds. That was a good solution for tires. They recycled that into soft falls, but now they're finding that that little crumb rubber is now escaping into the environment. And we just did some research at UOW recently, and we also discovered that plastic recycling facilities are actually a potentially large source of microplastic pollution just because of the way the process is as a shredders involved. And they're making all this microplastic dust and all these small contaminants. So we keep talking about what are microplastics. So that's what we're going to get through into this conversation here. But there is a wide range of issues associated with microplastics and how they can affect human health and our environment. So we'll dive a bit deeper into that. And that's what a microplastic is.

Speaker 1 Thank you, Michael. So what I take away from that is that a lot of microplastic comes from degradation of primary plastic. But what really is frightening to me is that even recycling is not the overall solution to getting rid of plastic in our environment, because that in itself can reduce, can can lead to further microplastics. So let's now get into a little bit of nitty gritty about what is the impact of microplastics on humans. And for this, I'll go back to Sarah, if that's okay. Perhaps you could just give us an overview of if microplastics are harmful to humans.

Speaker 4 And continue the conversation that Michael started. It was an excellent overall description. And everywhere we look, we find microplastics. And the thing that I think is perhaps most alarming carrying on from your comment is that the destiny of every single piece of big plastic that's sitting out there in the environment in a rubbish dump forever is to become micro, and then the plastics is to break up into smaller and smaller pieces of itself. It won't break down into its constituent components, it will break up into an infinite variety of particles. So this has been described as a toxic debt that we need to face in the future unless we can somehow clean it up in some way. So how do microplastics impact humans? That's, again, a really important question, and our knowledge is pretty limited, I'm afraid. And what we need to do is distinguish the two different size ranges. And the reason you need to do that is because the measurement techniques that we use for each of them is pretty different. But regardless, and some are more, you know, better developed than others, particularly for the microplastics, the nanoplastics is proving to be a real challenge. But we will get there. And we've set up a lab at the University of Queensland to do just that. And there are others around the world that are using a special technique called spectroscopy. So it must be spectroscopy, spectrometer, spectrometry. I'm sorry. So this is it's a it's a work in progress, but there is a lot that we can say already and I think the main take home message, apart from not knowing in a lot of detail, I think one of the main take home messages here is the smaller the size of the plastic, the more likely it is to penetrate more deeply into our bodies because that small size would enable it to cross biological barriers, whereas the bigger pieces will be kept by various mechanisms. So what do we know? We do know that exposures, measurements, the ranges of exposures that have been suggested in the literature are highly variable in their range. Some estimates range from about 0.1 to 5 grams a week. That's a lot of plastic to as few as a two to as low as just a few micrograms per week. And not surprisingly, the two main areas we know about from inhalation, breathing in the microplastics from the air as well as ingesting microplastics in our food and suchlike. So and Micahel has giving a really good description of the sorts of sources of microplastics. I mean, they break up everything. Building materials, furnishings, clothing, and the suchlike. So thinking about the lung, the best evidence we have, actually, is for a group of people who are very highly exposed to microplastics in their work environment. And those are textile workers who make synthetic fabrics, the coal flockworkers. So soft material that sheds lots of particles when you touch it. And there's been a lot of attention in that space. And we see very clearly an increased a large number of different respiratory diseases, much poorer lung function, as well as stomach and oesophageal cancers, because they're also not only inhaling it, but also ingesting it inadvertently from from the air. And just to reiterate the point about the size, the smaller those particles are, the more likely they are to go deeper into the smaller and smaller compartments of the lung. But we don't know. There are no epidemiological studies about humans in everyday exposure and lung health yet, and we need to get the measurement techniques really right. And contamination free, contamination is a huge problem in this area and one that you need to be very careful about because if you've got a false positive in your sample, you don't really know what you're talking about. So the other areas, it mentions the gut and there are lots of sources from our food as well as food storage, plastic containers, drink containers and all the rest of it, will shed microplastics when you open them, takeaway cups, tea bags, etc. etc.. And we know we ingest microplastics because we find them in stools. And I think every one of us on this webinar participating, if we were to look, we would find them. There's been an interesting study showing that the load of microplastics is actually linked. The higher the load is actually linked to inflammatory bowel disease. But you've got to be really careful there because it was a fairly small study, but it might have been that the patients that were looked at who had that disease and therefore leaky guts were more susceptible to uptake of the plastics from the gut in the inside of the gut. So, you know, this this science is very much at the beginning in terms of human epidemiological, observational studies, which we desperately need. There's a lot of effort worldwide to get these going. But even though there is an absence of evidence, it does not mean there is no harm. There's no reason whatsoever to think that they're safe because there's plenty of lab based studies either in tissue culture or in animals, which shows real reason for concern from fairly controlled conditions. And whichever cell types you look at, there seems to be damage in the sense that you get a lot of inflammation in those cells. You get oxidative stress and also energy dysfunction in the cells just aren't able to work properly. And the same is true if you're notched it up a bit and look at organ levels there's evidence of toxicity in the liver, the gut the lung and possibly also the brain as well. And a gut is really interesting. So we have our gut microbiome and there's evidence that microplastics are changing that as well, and that's absolutely critical to our health. Another factor we need to think about is that is children, because they have behaviours which predispose them to high concentrations, I mean they might stick everything in their mouths so that in fact it's been found that they do have exposures that are an order of magnitude higher than adults. So probably not a good thing in a developing body to be loading them up with microplastics. So the short answer is we really don't know about the direct impacts, that there's virtually no evidence, but we have every reason to be concerned and there's no reason why we should not be acting right now to limit our exposure to microplastics and get it out of the environment.

Speaker 1 Yeah. Thanks, Sarah. It takes me back to when you talk about children putting things in their mouths to the issues of lead poisoning when children's toys were painted with lead containing paint. And that's obviously being removed from the environment now. But it seems now we have the the microplastics and especially, I was reading something about microplastics in sand. And we know that kids love to dig in the sand and, you know, it just kind of puts a whole new sort of perspective towards us. While we're still on the topic of human health. You have touched on microplastics in the food chain, and we hear a lot about fish and marine animals and bioaccumulation in those larger fish, particularly. So there is a sort of common conception that microplastics in the diet is mainly from water sources or marine sources, but that's not necessarily the case. Do you want to just expand a little bit on that? Sara?

Speaker 4 It's a really again, it's a really interesting and pretty complex area and I just want it really defined biomagnification. So for biomagnification to occur, you need transfer from one species to the next and an increase in the concentration. And by and large, there's not a lot of evidence for that happening because the microplastics. Well, I mean, it depends on which route you're going through. If you are looking, what you would need to see for us when we eat fish, we gut the fish and most of the microplastics are going to be in the gut. Not many of them will have got into the flesh, although it is a possible exposure route. But I would like to mention a fascinating study before I go on to the rest of the food chain, because it's a really important question, again, Karen, about a study that looked at the amount of microplastics that we would eat or consume during a week while eating mussels that have been cooked in a house. And these were this was three three meals of mussels a week. I wouldn't normally three meals of mussels a week, but this was an experiment. And the intriguing finding was that the number of microplastics consumed that were estimated to be taken in was actually ten times higher from the room it was cooked in than from the muscles. And that's something where we do eat the gut. So but there is certainly a lot of work that needs to be done here. And I want to step back to the bottom of the food chain because we're so and the ocean, because we are so critically dependent at the bottom of the food chain is is sourced by plankton, phytoplankton. And so plankton. And there's some interesting work. And they're really important for us as a as a carbon sink. They take in carbon dioxide and they release oxygen. Every other breaths we take comes from the ocean. And it's really important not to damage the bottom of our food chain. We don't, there is some evidence that microplastics are taken out by plankton and interestingly, actually, because it's in their guts, it actually makes them lighter so they don't sink as well. They form something called marine snow, which sink to the bottom of the ocean, which produces nutrients for other species in upwelling that occur in these amazing ocean currents. So we think that that is being interrupted and both from the point of view of the the the circulation of the the energy source within the food chain and also the ability to act as a carbon sink, then you move up to the filter feeders on the chain and there's plenty of evidence that they do accumulate large numbers actually of microplastic, particularly under lab conditions. If left to their own devices and you put them in a clean dish without any microplastics and they will do a really good job at excreting those microplastics, getting them out of their bodies. So that's the good part. In an ocean which is heavily polluted, they will constantly be exposed and therefore taken up. So and there's no doubt that we that all of the fish that have been looked at and it's something that's over 1500 species, plastics and microplastics are found in them, certainly in their guts. The extent to which that actually translocate into the flesh of the animal is less certain. But even if we don't get any of it that way, it doesn't matter. We are damaging our very food chain on chain, which the livelihood of 2 billion people and us, everyone. We are totally reliant on the ocean. We are the ocean. We came from the ocean, oxygen comes from the ocean. Lots of other things come from the ocean. So look after it. And plastic working its way into the food chain, I think is is a really major threat, if not directly for humans and certainly indirectly because of the direct impacts on all those species in this amazing food web.

Speaker 1 All right. Well, thanks, Sarah. I think we could talk about the food chain for the rest of the webinar, but we're not going to because we're going to move on now. And that's a really good segue way to talk about our planetary health. So I'm going to move to Karen for this one. And Karen, I'd like you to perhaps tell us how microplastics impact on our planet and why why microplastics are an issue for climate change.

Speaker 3 Yes, I think Sarah's touched on that with the the plankton phytoplankton. So to talk about this, I think you probably need to separate between the primary microplastics and the secondary microplastics as well, because the primary microplastics would really go more upstream in the life cycle. And they obviously we have a lot of greenhouse gas emissions during the production of those pellets that we referred to earlier. And so just getting to that point initially to creating the first form of microplastics has massive impacts on greenhouse gas emissions from the entire lifecycle of plastics. And then Michael mentioned some of it at the end of the lifecycle, the incineration, etc., and even the choice of resin. Some of them need to be heated up to much higher temperatures, which takes on more energy than in the primary microplastic production side, which has an impact. And then I guess the breakdown of all of those, whether they probably start off as a primary end up and end up as a secondary, has quite a few negative feedback loops, both in the terrestrial and the aquatic environment. So those potentially amplify climate change as well. Some of that is around soil respiration, so it affects the ability of plants to grow, etc. and therefore absorb carbon. As Sarah mentioned, the phytoplankton and they're all in as a carbon sink, which is reduced. And then there's also should these microplastics sink into sediments they know to release methane as well. But I guess there's a number of other links between plastics and and climate change in that, you know, plastics, yes, they can contribute and amplify climate change, but as climate change increases, we're going to need more plastics in some areas, in some sectors, because particularly farming. So if land gets dryer or we having to move into drier areas, we're going to need more irrigation, which means more plastics. Those are all deployed directly into the environment and so they're likely to release microplastics straight into into the soil. And, you know, as we get more and more very severe weather events, we need to go in with food and water to help people after that. All of that gets left in Pacific Islands. Those plastic bottles get left there and they have to go into landfill because there's no other place for said breaks down there again. So as as we're getting more and more extreme events, we're having more and more sort of rescue food and water going in. And so we've got this link between climate change and plastics that the one feeding the other and that one of them in turn feeding on need for plastics in those areas as well. So, yes, I guess it's a complex situation.

Speaker 1 Thank you. Pretty sobering. All right. So I think we're going to have another poll now. And this time the poll is going to be about biodegradable plastics, because often we think if we use plastics that are biodegradable, that might be an ultimate solution. So we'll just wait for that poll to come up and see how we go with that answer. It's a little time to load.

Speaker 1 All right. So, again, we have a pretty informed audience today. So it is false. Biodegradable plastics are not the ultimate solution. And this is because Michael has already told us they require specific industrial conditions to break them down. And that might might make it impractical, impractical from the waste management point of view. So, Michael, I'll put this over to you now. Let's think about ways that we could reduce our consumption of plastic and better manage plastic waste. are there solutions, first of all. And if so, what are these?

Speaker 3 Yeah. So plastic isn't really going anywhere too fast. So we do have to look at ways we reduce our own consumption of plastic waste. And one of the easiest ways that everyone here in the room can do, but on the web right now can do is to stop using anything that single use plastic. That's a main one. We are seeing this phase out of single use plastics, but then we would have seen in New South Wales there is a phase out of regular like oil based plastics and then replaced of biodegradable plastics as if you put that biodegradable plastic straight into landfill. That's not going to have the right conditions for that biodegradable plastic to break down. And it's still essentially a plastic no produced microplastics and still has all those problems that are associated with it. There is the positive of moving from oil based plastics to some biobased plastics just so that we're not so dependent on the oil products. So in the future, we may see that shift occur. A lot of education is required to the communities getting the understanding of how to properly manage your waste like your plastic waste, putting it in the correct bin, making sure it's ending up at recycling. Even though I mentioned recycling plants, are creating microplastics. They are also reducing greenhouse emissions by not requiring that need for those virgin plastics as virgin plastics, as Karen was saying, do require a lot of energy to create. So we just need to look more at what can we replace it with, but how or not? Just what can we replace plastic with, but more look at how we can better manage the plastic waste. Because even if we look at plastic alternatives, if you're looking at timber, for example, you're going to look at deforestation issues. If you're looking at steel, you're going to look at mining issues. There's issues associated with every type of material that we use in the world. You do have to focus on how we better manage the waste. And once we start to better manage the plastic waste by collecting it from the environment, by putting it where it belongs, we will hopefully see less effects from these microplastics. Unfortunately, though, once microplastics are in the environment, they're pretty hard to bring back. So. It's a difficult loop that one too.

Speaker 1 Thank you. Karen, did you have anything you'd like to add in terms of bioplastics?

Speaker 3 Yeah. Well, firstly, the term bioplastics is a complicated term and it includes many things like bio based. So Michael mentioned making plastics from plant material and that has been touted as an as a solution. But again, if we not only using by-products from existing agricultural processes, we might be moving into new territories to grow those, which again is going to require more plastic to irrigate those those new bio based feedstocks. So I guess we just have to the idea is to reduce consumption and reduce everything. So I guess you could you could start trying to buy locally as well so that you're not having to transport every time you buy something from overseas. It needs packaging, it needs to be flown over and then there's just everything around these products that that contributes to climate change. And I guess we just have to be careful of the solutions as well.

Speaker 1 So I'm hearing that plastic is not our friend.

Speaker 3 And it is our friend. It is our friend in many ways. We just have to learn to manage it properly.

Speaker 1 Okay, Now we're going to move to our last poll, which is about recycling since we're on this topic. So we're going to bring that up. If everyone just recycles properly, we wouldn't have a problem. True or false?

Speaker 1 Well done to us. 100% correct. So that is correct. Recycling can help cause the solution, but it's not the ultimate solution. So I'll go to Karen for this one. We know that there are some policies here in New South Wales and elsewhere around the production and use of plastics. Can you please highlight for us what governments could do to help reduce the impact of plastics on the environment? And what do you think about these policies as they stand how they've been designed? Could they be better designed? So perhaps if you could talk us through what our government and perhaps others are doing to address this issue of plastics.

Speaker 3 Yeah. Thanks. I guess traditionally a lot of the approach has been around trying to improve waste management. And then after that, we started banning a few things. It's really difficult to ban products, so we we're not going to be able to do much of that further beyond what we've done now. So it's difficult. So I guess the other approach is to try and change the design of products, and that's really where the biggest impact is going to happen. So yes, we can do all our reduction type of approaches first, and that includes perhaps the reuse and refill. As I mentioned, that's not necessarily the best solution for plastics themselves. They're not the best material for that. But it could potentially move to glass and other things, which needs a good lifecycle assessment to really say that's the solution. But design is the is the is the important part here and that will enable us to firstly recycle or if we can reuse and refill, which goes to the reduction of the need for new plastics. And actually we have to try and reduce that rate of growth as much as we can, that we haven't been very good at anywhere. And there's a lot now trying to be done and I'm not sure if you're aware everyone, but we are negotiating a new global plastics treaty and we're moving into the third negotiating meeting of five. And there we're trying to tackle the design because that needs a global approach. For one country to tackle design isn't really going to help us across the world because our value chain is so global, and particularly non-manufacturing countries, they need this global agreement to help with the design of the products coming in into their markets that they have to import because they don't manufacture locally. So the strength of this agreement really is around design. And aside from all of that is things like energy efficiency and moving to green energy, which by itself is going to need more plastic too to transition. But if we can reduce the energy around the or the energy emissions, that will help with the plastics lifecycle significantly as well. But that's a long process. And as I said, it's going to need more plastic tubes. So really, if we can if we can get to the design and we're trying to work on criteria, what is good design, then we can start really making things that will work in a circular economy and it's going to take some time. What do we do with the stuff that doesn't meet those criteria? Yeah, what about the stuff that's on the market that will only become end of life in 20 years or 30 years. We almost like we need two waste streams, one for the old waste and one for the new waste that might or that might have been designed correctly. So it's it's it's a very complex situation in Australia. We have tried, we're lucky. We have good infrastructure, we have good collection services. But it really boils down in developing countries to why bother collecting this? So it needs value or it's not going to be collected. And at the moment most of our plastic doesn't have much value and it's expensive to recycle. So we're just sitting with a really bad situation and this is what we hope to fix with the global agreement. But we've never tackled design at the global level or anything. So it's new ground and we only have five meetings to fix this.

Speaker 1 Well, good luck to you if you on the third meeting. Hopefully this will happen relatively quickly. And I think the global approach is is absolutely the way to go. So that sort of brings us to the end of our formal questions. But I'm pretty sure we have a number of questions that have come from the audience. So just have a look at those and we can direct those. So the first one is to Michael. Michael, I know places like South Korea and Germany recycle a lot more plastics than we do. Do they have solutions to the breakdown of microplastics and are they countries that we should be looking to for more advanced techniques?

Speaker 3 So in regards to the recycling industry, because it is a relatively new topic, they haven't actually really thought about it in their processes. But there is many processes outside the recycling industry that can capture micro-plastics, like whether it's in wastewater treatment plants that like free filtration devices, coagulation, etc., that that just needs to be brought in to the recycling industry. But without external pressure through either like government regulations on monitoring microplastic pollution, the recycling industry might not feel pressured to implement those devices because it will be an extra cost to them. And unless there's someone on the outside telling them they have to do this, they might not implement it. So the technologies exist in Australia and all around the world and there's even. But the scientific community is obviously a global community, so it's working with different nations. So we don't need to look specifically at a country with better technology. We just have to make sure we implement it into the recycling industry.

Speaker 1 Okay. Thank you. So we have a question from Barbara. And Barbara's question is, she would like to know what is being done to reduce microplastics through washing. Are companies being required to build washing machines with filters? There are other options, such as a cora ball. I'm not sure what that is to reduce the problem, but these aren't available here in Australia. So if this is such a major contributor to microplastics, why are we not doing more? And I'm just going to open this up to anybody that would like to respond. So it's about washing, washing machines.

Speaker 3 So let's take a look at the start. Is the Cora Ball is is made from recycled plastic, but it does also give off microplastics itself. And it's not as effective as some of the filters and some of the filters as well you need to be careful that you're going to wash the filter under the tap because then it just goes down the drain again anyway. So the filters, they do work. Some of them are quite useful. It also depends on whether the device that's capturing the microplastics is is can be reused multiple times. So there's complexities within the filters themselves. As far as regulation goes, we are not regulating at this point. I think Australia is considering it. I think Japan has had it for many years where they have regulated filters are built into washing machines. So it is something that doesn't really take in a huge focus at the global level and at the global level. What they talking more about is the intentionally added microplastics, which is an easier thing to regulate than the breakdown of plastics, which goes to design. How do you redesign your car tyres and your clothes so they don't give off microplastics? Whereas those that we are intentionally adding to products we can regulate a lot more easily. Yeah. Australia in their national plastics plan, they're aiming by 2030 to start phasing it in Ah 2030. So you know it loosely on the words, but whether or not they follow through later on. We'll see.

Speaker 4 Okay. Sorry. Thanks. On the textiles, there are ways of making the threads in the first place, which involve a much tighter wrapping of the fibres. It's a bit more expensive, but it does result in a much lower shed rate from the textiles. So if we could encourage the better quality fabrics compared to the poorer quality ones, I think that would make a big difference.

Speaker 1 I'm going to take the Chair's privilege of just adding another question on textiles while we're here. I bought a pair of jeans made out of recycled plastics. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Now, I don't know if it was good. No.

Speaker 4 No they will still shed microplastics. And the thing we haven't talked about at all today is the chemicals that are hosted by the plastics that you're wearing. And we do know that that does harm human health. Well, I think a lot of recycled material there on the market, in the shops. And I don't know what it's made of.

Speaker 3 Just might get into Lycra. Lycra pants. So I think I sent Sarah a paper from the EU on that. And the Lycra pants that use recycled plastics have got lots of chemicals in them from those recycled plastics. Plus it needs to say post-consumer recycled plastics because the factories in China, that way they make the plastic bottles and they just take them straight through to the next one, which makes the recycled clothes or clothing made out of recycled plastics. They're not even using the bottles. So it's got to say post-consumer. And otherwise we don't know where it came from.

Speaker 1 So we have a question from Cath Blakey from Wollongong Council. I think it's to Karen. Why do you think a global plastics treaty will work when the Climate Conference of Party summits has had such limited impact?

Speaker 3 Well, big question. Yes. Well, when we talk about negotiations, we have what we call the High Ambition Coalition. And then there's a few of the low ambition coalitions who are fighting to have an agreement similar to the Paris Agreement, where it's really up to countries to decide what they do. And they just have to report and tell the world what they're going to do. So, you know, it's it's pointless. And that's why I think we've had such little success there. Where we trying to get to this what is not that type of scenario. So where there are certain obligations to to reduce primary production, to make products that are more circular and to reduce the micro-plastics as well. So we need to be fighting at that. We need design criteria, we need all sorts of things which are not going to happen if we have a Paris Agreement style of agreement for plastics.

Speaker 4 And if I could just add that Australia is part of the High Ambition Coalition, which is great. There's a I forget the number of countries that come, but 50 odd. I was going to say 58.

Speaker 1 You know, this is a global problem. I mean, our waste ends up in other people's backyard and vice versa. So it's not just one country. We're getting on to some practical questions. And so somebody asked, should we be drinking from metal, reusable drink bottles and use glass containers to hold and reheat food? And we haven't spoken about the reheating of food and cling film. I don't know if you call it cling film here or gladwrap or, you know, the plastic wrap around food. Is this harmful to health? What should we be doing in the kitchen? And is metal better than glass or. What are the answers? What should we be doing?

Speaker 4 Michael to take that or some of his time.

Speaker 3 You can go on that one Sarah.

Speaker 4 So I've never heated anything in plastic. I just just. And when you open, if you do look at plastic containers that have had heated food and that you can see this staining and pattern on them, which accumulates with time. So here we're talking about more probably the leaching of the chemicals from the plastic. I didn't mention the beginning, but they're not strongly bonded to the polymer and they very readily leach out and they harm our health. So I would recommend not eating anything in plastic, avoiding kitchen utensils that are plastic and storage that is plastic. It's hard. And I think that's less than being able to use reusable containers in the home. What's really hard is when you buy the stuff in the first place and you go to the supermarket and things are so wrapped in plastic again, I do my best to avoid what I can. I don't always succeed, but I'm very conscientious about it and I think, yeah, good idea. Don't use plastic, avoid it where you can. Metal and glass are great alternatives.

Speaker 3 They just to come in on that? I might I mentioned lifecycle assessments earlier and it really depends on how many times you use that glass. And you really need to use it and make sure you use it and not have 20 aluminium bottles in your car for mining and heating etc.. Is it really is about reusing it? Many, many, many, many times.

Speaker 1 Oh, we've got so many excellent questions. But unfortunately, we're going to have to wrap up. Some of the panel are trying furiously to type in answers to some of the questions we haven't got to. So thank you to the audience for being so participatory and it just shows us that we hopefully have answered some of the questions, But there are a whole lot more out there. So it's really given me a perspective today on what we can do ourselves to go forward in trying to reduce our use of plastics. I'm going to ask each of the panellists just to wrap up and give us a one minute takeaway, what you think is the most important message to get out there. And then I'll I'll have to close. So we'll go. Sarah, Michael and Karen, if you don't mind. Just quick takeaway.

Speaker 4 We need to use far less plastic.

Speaker 1 Far less plastic. Michael, what's your take away?

Speaker 3 Don't be afraid of plastic. Just know that we just need to manage it properly.

Speaker 1 Manage it properly and Karen.

Speaker 3 Campaign your politicians. That's where the power lies in fixing this.

Speaker 1 The power of the people. I love that. That's what we're going to end on. The power of the people. We have the power. So a big thank you to our three wonderful panellists, Sarah, Michael and Karen. Thank you for giving up your time. To the audience, we hope you'll join us for more of our events. We've got planned for UOW, Climate Change Week, Global Climate Change Week, and I've been asked by the alumni organisers to they're going to put up a survey that'll take just 2 minutes to complete. And if you wouldn't mind popping that on your screen and completing that at the end of this webinar. And it's 4.59 pm so I'm going to let us close. I think we have some links in the chats to people's LinkedIn's. Otherwise I'm pretty sure you'll be able to find them.

Speaker 1 And target your questions directly to them in whatever format you want to. So thanks very much, everyone. Really appreciate it. And good evening to everybody. Thank you.


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