Plastic pollution is a perennial problem. The Plasticology Project aims to be part of the solution.
Today, I'm talking to Dr. Paul Harvey. He's an environmentalist. He's a scientist. He's an author. He's a speaker. Paul, welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Thank you for having me, Anthony. Great to be here.
Well, let's start off. Tell us a bit about your journey as an environmentalist so far.
Yeah, so it's a long journey, although maybe not as long as some. I decided, sometime during my high school years I suppose, that I really had an interest in understanding more about the environment and the world around us, and I wanted to pursue that as a career interest. And so, I think-
In fact, you did a bachelor of environment, didn't you? And then after that you've done a PhD in environmental chemistry.
Yeah, that's right. A lot of the work that I've done as an undergraduate and then a PhD student was, in fact, looking at environmental pollution and trying to understand how us, as humans, impact the world around us in terms of our footprint from the resources that we use, and then, perhaps, misuse in many instances.
In fact, you've said that our legacy for future generations will be plastic pollution.
What do we do about that and how serious is it?
We're basically now at a position where we are at a crossroads. We have a few different paths that we can take. One of which of course is do nothing, which is absolutely not the one that I recommend. There are some other options. We have a huge body of international research now that shows us that plastic pollution is a problem. We know anecdotally, from ourselves, that plastic pollution is a problem. If we go to the beach, or to the river, or wherever is local to our homes within only a few seconds you'll be guaranteed to find some sort of plastic pollution in that environment. So from that, we can educate ourselves. We can be active as individuals, or we could be active as a collective, as a group.
Being a collective also requires a bit of strategic thought and action, a bit of motivation, a bit of encouragement and a real drive and a real passion to make a change from all levels of society, from the individual to small community groups, larger community groups, organisations that have funding and a bit of thrust behind them, all the way through to governments, both at the national scale and then on the international platform, as well.
Now we can all get together. We can go down to the beach, we can take our sacks and we can pick up all the bits and pieces of plastic on the beach and clean it up. But is that really going to solve the problem?
This is something that I touched a little bit on in the book and I often get this question. What we have to be doing is thinking about how we use and manage plastic as a resource. There are some plastics in this world that we can't live without, and in the book I give some examples of medical uses of plastic. Of course, we want to be able to use sterile syringes, as an example, when needed, at place of need, in a hurry. We don't want to be going back to the old days of glass syringes and what have you that have to be sterilised. It's a long laborious process. There are plastics that we absolutely 100% need.
But there are other plastics that, ultimately, in the modern world that we live in, we don't need, we can do without. Say for example, you go into a local supermarket and oranges are wrapped in a plastic container with plastic film, with a plastic sticker around them. We don't need those sorts of plastics in our world, in our lives. And it's only in the last 50 years or so that we've really seen this trend in plastics emerging in that way. To get to your question-
Plastic in the Environment
Okay, well look, if we control that single use plastic, then that makes a step towards preventing the situation from getting worse. What do we do about the vast amounts of plastic that we already have in the environment? And that's far more than just the bits and pieces that you see on the beach, isn't it?
Yeah. It's my belief that every little bit that we do matters, and every little bit that we do helps. We have individuals that their bit to help is to go down to the beach and pick up plastic. And for some people that feels like a bit of a losing battle, because it's week after week, year after year. But by that person, or that group, going to the beach and collecting those plastics, they are having an impact, because they're collecting, maybe over the course of the year, somewhere in a few hundred kilograms of plastic. And that stops that then entering into the ocean. That's of course, on the micro hyper local scale, if you like.
You can then upscale that to become a national movement, where a lot of people go out routinely on weekends and collect a few hundred kilograms across a year each. And then that ends up being a few thousand kilograms, or a few million kilograms, of plastic. We can work together at scale to have an impact from something as simple as going out to the beach and picking up a straw that you see caught in the sand. Now, of course-
Are there worst places though? Some of the worst places are developing nations, where there are vast amounts of very visible plastic pollution. But people there are scratching a living in many cases, and they haven't got the time or the interest to go and bag up plastic. So what can we do on a global scale?
Yeah, absolutely. Some of the challenges that, particularly, the developing world faces is that countries, like Australia for example, export a lot of the plastic waste that is generated. And the original reason why that was happening was because that there was perceived to be a market somewhere overseas that could return those plastic items into something or other else, whether that's through recycling or some of the means. There was perceived to be a market there for them. However, that didn't quite work out as planned in the actuality of it. So a lot of the plastic that we've generated, Australians have generated, have ended up in parts of Southeast Asia, for example. And that then becomes a burden for the people of Southeast Asia to manage, as well as the plastics in their own lives that are being generated. And again, it goes back to what do we need versus what can we live without?
And so, a lot of the time, the plastics that are being generated are those single use unnecessary plastics, the food packaging, for example. Go back to the good old ways of shopping. Go to the local market, and rather than having everything individually wrapped in plastic, take a reusable bag, or take one bag, and use that as your means of taking your stuff home. We need to change, as a society, as a global society, to move away from having the expectation that everything will be prepackaged and produced right there for us to walk into the supermarket, or walk into the market, pick it up off the shelf, go home and it's all there done nicely for us. We have, as humans, a bit of an innate laziness, and our brains are really well wired to receive messages about this product here being packaged the way that it is makes your life so much easier because all you do is open it, reheat it, eat it, then you can get on with your next task. If we think about-
How can we turn it round?
Yeah, okay. If we control that, as we've said though, that will stop things getting worse. But we're in a situation where the oceans are full of plastics, and they're full of micro-plastics. And these micro-plastics are not only sitting on the surface and are absorbed by the fish and the animals that live close to the surface, but they're also sinking to the very depths of the ocean and they're polluting life forms, which we hardly know anything about down there. We are fairly thoroughly polluting the ocean with these micro-plastics.
Now, okay, if we stop single use plastic, we might stop it getting worse. But it's got to the extent that it's got into the food chain that, I think, every person has got micro-plastics in their bloodstream, or even within their body. Now, correct me if I'm wrong on that. How are we turn that around, or are we going to turn that around?
Lead for Example
The thing with environmental contaminants, and environmental pollutants, is that if you stop the flow into the environment, there will be a point at which you start to see a reduction in the detection limits of that particular pollutant into the environment over time. And a great example of this is lead. Lead for many, many, many years was used as a fuel additive throughout the world. Lead has now been removed from the fuel. There's no longer an emission source, or a contribution to the environment of lead that is, essentially, ubiquitous as it has been described. Now, we are seeing that those people that previously had very high blood lead concentrations, blood lead concentrations that were significant enough to cause neurological damage and other impairments, those populations no longer have those high blood concentrations of lead, because the source supply has been cut. And I believe it's the same with plastic pollutants.
If we can stem the supply of plastic pollution going into the environment, and if we can do our bit to clean it up a little bit along the way by beach cleans and other bits and pieces, then there will be a time, I hope, that we won't see plastic in marine life. We won't see the chemical signatures, the telltale signs, of plastic being in an organism being spread through the food chain, because the supply of plastic, and the supply of those compounds, those ingredients, if you like, aren't being entered into the environment. Exactly the same as the way lead has been phased out.
Now, you've published a book, or you're about to publish a book. It's out early next month called The Plasticology Project. Tell us about The Plasticology Project.
The Plasticology Project
Yeah. The Plasticology Project is about all these things that we're discussing. First of all, it's a discussion about what plastic actually is, why we need it in the world, and some of those plastics, of course, that we do versus don't need in our lives. It talks a little bit, as well, about where we are seeing some of the biggest problems, in terms of plastic pollution in the global environment. And then at the back third, I suppose, of the book is all about the solutions and those people, groups, organisations, governments, that are really being active in the space of reducing plastic pollution, whether that be at the source, or whether that be at the back end, about how we manage the cleanup and the recovery of the environments that have been very heavily impacted by plastic pollutants.
You're inviting people to sign up on your website. What are you intending to generate? A group of like-minded people to follow these principles, or what's what's behind this?
The Plasticology Project is all about drawing together a community of like-minded people, people that want to take action, and that really want to see a world that is not burdened by plastic pollution. And there's absolutely no reason why we, as a global community, as a global society, can't change the current state of plastic pollution in our world. If we all work together, and we all set ourselves a common goal, we will be able to achieve what seems to be, at the present time, an unachievable task, which is taking the plastic pollution out of the global environment.
I spoke about lead a minute ago, but if we think about the CFCs, the chlorofluorocarbons that generate the ozone, or that generated the ozone hole, that's something, of course, being here in Australia, we're very well aware of because it was a significant thing growing up, being told be careful of the sun. By removing the CFCs from things like refrigerators, and preventing that particular gas from being released into the atmosphere, we've managed, as a global community, to shrink that hole that had formed in the ozone layer. So that's another great example of what we can do if we all put our minds together, our collective good intentions together, and drive for a change.
And that's exactly what The Plasticology Project is all about. It's bringing people together, creating a community, generating action, generating momentum, and driving for a change on an international global scale, because we all have to work together in order to make the world free from plastic pollution.
How do we make a difference?
Paul, you sound reasonably optimistic. If I may quote you, you've said, "I believe that we can end human environment conflicts by changing our relationship with science, the environment, and the world around us." So with that in mind, what should people listening to this podcast, what should they do, tomorrow, to make a difference?
Share Information: Pick Up Plastic
I'd say we need to make a change in the way that we have a relationship with science and the way that we share information. Because over the last decade or so, shall we say, the way that science has been produced and conveyed, particularly through the media, there has been a lot of struggles from the perspective of a scientist trying to speak the truth in terms of data and get information shared to the wider world. So I think it's really important that we rephrase the narrative. We change the way that we talk about science and the data and the facts, and the way that we deliver our messages, so that it can be better consumed by a wider audience, better understood by a wider audience. In terms of what people can do tomorrow, it's very simple. They can take one simple action. One, go down to a beach, go down to wherever, whatever is local to you, pick up some plastic.
Do your little bit in that little part of the world to remove some of the plastic pollution burden that is there. But if you're already doing that, then you can take another step. Maybe you can invite a friend along, somebody who hasn't already been part of this space, hasn't already been active. Invite them, educate them, share that knowledge. They then might share it with another person, and so on the education sharing goes. You might also be able to engage with local members of government, perhaps national, perhaps on an international scale, create a platform for conversation. Find out who is already doing what in this space, get on board with them. Be a voice for the change and build that community. And of course, The Plasticology Project is that community. That's where people can come together, see what other people are doing, see where their opportunities are, how they can be involved in this, in order to make that global change.
Published 3rd July
Well, Paul, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and ideas with the Sustainable Futures Report. Now, the book, The Plasticology Project, is published, I believe, on the 3rd of July. Is that going to be published internationally outside Australia?
Yes, it will be published online internationally, so it'll be available everywhere. Yeah.
Okay. I shall put links to your website on the Sustainable Futures Report website. And thank you again for taking part in this interview.
Thank you very much. It's been great.
Paul Harvey, and his book, The Plasticology Project, is published on 3rd July.
There’s no Sustainable Futures Report this Friday but there will be another Wednesday Interview next week. I’ll be talking to Michael Kyriakou from Gaias Farming Company about producing a milk substitute from hemp. The following week it’s the turn of Daniel Coleman from iov42 to explain their system for assuring the integrity of the timber supply chain. The next magazine edition of the Sustainable Futures Report will be on 8th July.
That’s it for the moment.
That was the Wednesday Interview from the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Have a good week.