Turning the tide on plastic pollution

The alumni making it their mission to fight against plastic.

Global plastic pollution is reaching crisis level. This has severe implications for our oceans, our environment, our wildlife and our health, now and into the future. But is it too late to end the plastic pandemic?

Plastic is a substance the Earth cannot digest.

According to the United Nations, we currently produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year - which is nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Half of all this plastic is designed to be used only once.

Single-use plastics have become an integral part of our lives. Every minute, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased globally. Every year up to five trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide.

This waste can remain in the environment for centuries, sometimes never completely disappearing but simply getting smaller and smaller. These tiny plastic particles - known as microplastics - are swallowed by farm animals or fish and eventually find their way on to our dinner plate. If current trends continue, it is estimated that by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by weight. A quick online search of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and it's not hard to believe this could be possible.

At a time when environmental issues are reaching crisis level, it's easy to become overwhelmed and desensitised. But there is good news. Governments, businesses and individuals worldwide are starting to address this global issue.

Three University of Wollongong (UOW) alumni have made it their mission to raise awareness and act in the fight against plastic pollution.

Art for change

Growing up surfing in Wollongong, Aristo Risi has always had a love for the ocean. Since graduating from UOW with a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Multimedia), Aristo has made his mark as a freelance photographer and videographer. His passion lies in using his art to raise awareness about environmental issues within the local community.

Aristo first learnt about the effects of climate change and plastic pollution on the ocean during a trip to Thailand to complete his professional diver training.

"I remember our boat pulling up next to a fishing boat," Aristo says, "and our captain traded a box of cookies for a blacktip reef shark. It was just thrown onto our boat in front of everyone. That really shocked me."

Aristo Risi at his debut multimedia exhibition with Ocean Space Collective UOW alumnus, Aristo Risi, at his debut multimedia exhibition, A Plastic Life. Photo by Paul Jones

It was the turning point that sparked a desire to dedicate his life to ocean conservation, completely shifting the focus of his photography.

Returning to Australia and inspired to begin his journey photographing marine life, Aristo discovered the reality was alarming.

"Whenever I went diving, I was finding more plastic floating around in the ocean than the subjects I wanted to shoot," Aristo says.

"I remember one day I was driving back from Newcastle and stopped in on the way home to go for a dive in Cabbage Tree Bay [on Sydney's Northern Beaches]. I swam down to about eight metres and looked into the distance and saw a cuttlefish. I was so excited, but as I started swimming towards it, I realised it was just a big black plastic bag.

"I've travelled all over the world, and the one constant, when I'm diving in new places, is the presence of plastic in our oceans."

These experiences shaped the foundations of his debut multimedia exhibition, A Plastic Life. Working in collaboration with other local artists, including Eliza Tame, Re-use Reefcycle and Shantel Cvetkovski, Aristo's vision for the exhibit, held at Wollongong's Ocean Space Collective, was to shine a light on the threat of plastic pollution and the damage being inflicted on marine life.

"Many people in the Wollongong region go for ocean swims, snorkelling, fishing and have a deep connection to the ocean," Aristo says. "It's important that everyone sees the true light under the water - not just the beauty.

"I think art can play a really important role in conversation because art makes people feel. And when you make someone feel something, they're more likely to engage and reflect on their own behaviour."

A sustainable app-etite

For the past 20 years, Paul Hellier has picked up garbage during his daily run along Port Kembla Beach.

"Back when I started doing it, people looked at me strangely," Paul says. "This was before social media where it's normal for people to post about being sustainable."

Paul Hellier picking up garbage on Port Kembla beach UOW alumnus and environmental scientist, Paul Hellier, picking up garbage on Port Kembla Beach. (Photo by Paul Jones)

Growing up in Wollongong, his passion for the environment began in high school when he volunteered for NSW National Parks and Wildlife. After finishing school, Paul worked as a lifeguard and continued to advocate for the environment, participating in beach clean-ups, rescuing pelicans with Australian Seabird Rescue and leading public bush walks with Wollongong council's Bushcare.

With a desire to pursue a career in environmental advocacy, Paul completed his Bachelor of Environmental Science at UOW and began working as a Natural Areas Officer for Wollongong City Council in 2009.

Then one day, Paul was jolted into action.

Walking along Port Kembla Beach, he stumbled across a hawksbill sea turtle lying upturned on the sand, barely clinging to life. After Paul contacted Seabird Rescue, the turtle was taken to the zoo and it was discovered that the creature had swallowed a tiny piece of clingwrap. The turtle, sadly, didn't survive.

"That was the final straw," Paul says. "I thought - there's got to be something else I can do. And I started thinking that technology had to play a part because everyone was on their mobile. You even travel to a third-world country and everyone's got mobile phones."

Paul on Port Kembla beach Photo by Paul Jones

Inspiration hit when he was looking to buy a takeaway coffee on the outskirts of Brisbane.

"I went to three cafes and none of them would give me my coffee in a ceramic cup," Paul says. "And I was just so frustrated that it kind of came to me - how good would it be if I could just go into an app and it would take me to a place that allows me to do that?"

And so Fair Food Forager was born - a mobile app allowing users to find ethical and sustainable food outlets based on their location.

The app uses 16 measures of sustainability to highlight how a business is following sustainable food practices, helping consumers filter by venues that match their values and find them easily with an in-built map.

Fair Food Forager's 16 measures of sustainability Fair Food Forager's 16 measures of sustainability

Businesses can apply to have their venue listed or users can suggest or check-in at food outlets they believe are ethical and sustainable. Like an Instagram for greenies, users can post their experiences, follow friends and venues, and use hashtags to spread the word on sustainable food.

Since launching in 2015, the app has grown to 6000 venues listed in more than 20 countries.

"When it comes to the environment, we can't keep telling people that they're not doing enough or that this massive problem is on them.

"We need to start celebrating the people that are making change and rather than berating everyone else because they're not at that standard, we need to help them make small differences over time."

Paul Hellier picking up plastic washed up on shore Photo by Paul Jones

Every action counts

When it comes to working towards zero waste, Paul says it's important to just make a start.

This philosophy inspired Paul to cycle through Southeast Asia in 2018 with videographer Jamie Lepre, documenting their travels and experiences in a place that often gets a bad rap when it comes to plastic.

The documentary film, Peloton Against Plastic, aims to address this misconception, as the pair meet with locals about their ideas and solutions to tackle the issue of plastic pollution. The film will be launched in Wollongong on Wednesday 31 July, with another screening in Warrawong on 9 August. Click here for tickets.

"We went there with five or six planned meetings across one month - we ended up not stopping the whole time. Every single night someone was texting us wanting to meet up. It's easy to say that nobody in Asia or some of these other countries care. But the fact is, they do. People all around the world are taking action on this," Paul says.

Raising global consciousness

Dr Karen Raubenheimer discovered her passion for marine conservation after acquiring her scuba diving certificate on a trip to the Caribbean. Inspired to weigh in on the removal and prevention of marine debris, Dr Raubenheimer undertook a Master of Environmental Management at the University of New South Wales, followed by completing her PhD at UOW's Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS). Her research examined the effectiveness of existing frameworks on the prevention of marine plastic pollution and whether this could be applied at the international level.

In 2016, Dr Raubenheimer was invited to present the results of her thesis at the United Nations New York headquarters. This piqued the interest of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who funded further research which she presented at the UN Environmental Assembly in 2017.

Karen speaking at the opening night of Ocean Space Collective gallery UOW alumna, Dr Karen Raubenheimer, speaks at the opening night of Aristo Risi's multimedia exhibition, A Plastic Life. (Photo by Paul Jones)

The plastic breakdown

Dr Raubenheimer has continued to dig deeper into how plastics could be governed at the international level and what that might look like.

"It's a complex situation," she says. "It's not something we can just ban. There are more than 44,000 types of plastics on the market, each with a different method of recycling or breaking down."

Contrary to popular belief, she says not all plastics are bad, and the world would be in a much worse situation if we didn't have them.

"I like to divide plastics into three categories. We have one category which is the unnecessary, avoidable plastics. To the other extreme, we have the plastics that are hazardous, so we either clean them up or get rid of them.

"In the middle is a big bucket of plastics that we need - they provide a benefit to society. We're not really going to get rid of them, so we have to learn how to manage them properly, and we're currently working on this at the international level with UN."

Encouraging a global groundswell

However, getting countries on board is a slow process. Even if consensus is reached, there are numerous complexities to address.

One approach is to look at the issue from a waste management perspective. This is particularly beneficial for developed countries, like the United States, who would prefer to manage their plastic waste than reduce their production.

"The issue is that the production of plastic is increasing at such a rate that our waste management is not going to catch up with it.

"You also have to consider that we currently have two billion people on this planet, over 25 per cent of our current population, that don't even have waste collection services in place. So they're dumping, burning or burying waste, which is a big issue."

An alternative approach is to implement policies around the design of products to ensure they are made of materials that are valuable and economically feasible to collect, sort, recycle and reprocess.

"Improving our waste management can be very expensive, so I looked at it trying to stop plastic at the source," Dr Raubenheimer says.

"At the international level this might involve introducing some guidelines and standards around the design criteria so that the products that are on the market globally can be collected and recycled correctly."

The global plastic crisis The global plastic crisis (Photo by Hermes Rivera)

Trading the problem

Whilst getting countries on board to implement change may be a slow process, there is some positive movement happening on the international level, particularly surrounding the trade of plastic waste.

In January 2018, China began enforcing its ban on the importation of recycled materials, including most plastics, under its National Sword policy. When considering China has imported 45% of the world's waste since 1992, this ban has left many countries, including Australia and the US, scrambling for alternatives.

"China was the first and it's now rippled through Southeast Asia and other countries," Dr Raubenheimer says. "It has really shifted the focus for developed countries because it was cheaper for them to export their waste than to deal with it themselves."

Following on from China's decision, changes in policy on the management of contaminated waste has occurred at the international level. In May 2019, 187 governments agreed to amend the Basel Convention to strengthen regulation of plastic waste within this legally-binding framework.

This landmark decision will make global trade in plastic more transparent and better controlled, whilst also ensuring that its end-of-life management is safer for human health and the environment.

Dr Raubenheimer scuba diving Dr Raubenheimer enjoys scuba diving and participating in underwater cleanups. Photo by Paul Jones

Owning our behaviour

While Dr Raubenheimer's work examines plastic pollution on the international level, she emphasises the important role that consumers can play in influencing industry and governments.

"I think the consumer has two primary roles," she says, "One is obviously being mindful of what they're consuming and how they dispose of it. On the other hand, I think it's really important for consumers to tell industry and governments what they want.

"If consumers let retailers know they don't want to purchase unnecessary plastic products or tell governments to improve collection and recycling services, then governments and industry are more likely to implement these changes, knowing they will have little resistance from the public."