The problem of plastic bags

Plastic bags are an environmental menace from their very origins (as the finite resource of oil, the extraction and processing of which has its own problems) to the difficulties in recycling the product, “responsible” disposal in landfill and the irresponsible littering of our terrestrial environments, freshwater bodies and oceans with these eyesores. Clean Up Australia reports that “Plastic has remained the most common category of rubbish picked up on Clean Up Australia day over the last 20 years. In 2009, it made up 29% of all rubbish found. Of the plastic rubbish found, 17.6% were plastic bags with an average of 40 plastic bags being found at each Clean Up site.”

Modern life presents us with many opportunities to increase convenience, but at cost to the planet. Richer countries of the world are mostly responsible for the largest impacts, with Brits using about 300 bags a year each , Australians use 200 a year and the NRDC reports that Americans take home 1500 a year, which works out to be four a day, each. This represents a ludicrous waste of precious resources in the name of convenience or laziness by people who will probably never see the problems these unnecessary pollutants cause firsthand.

The third of July was International Bag Free Day. This initiative is something the Europeans do exceptionally well. Awareness of waste and pollution is high in Europe. The giving of free plastic bags at point of sale in supermarkets was not as culturally ingrained in some areas of the continent as it is in other parts of the world and has been banned in some countries. The environment is afforded higher status in Europe than it is elsewhere and surplus and refuse are not far from the minds of those that grew up with wartime rationing and a culture of repairing and reusing. That’s not to say that Europe doesn’t produce plastic waste – it does; and lots of it. But we still have a lot to learn from initiatives such as the Spanish creation of “International Bag Free Day” which was largely overlooked by Oceania and the Americas (although it should be noted that some areas are improving the situation, such as the City of Fremantle).

The consumers of Northern Europe have been subjected to measures to reduce plastic bag waste and programmes of plastic waste reduction have been successful. Since 2002, a plastic bag from a supermarket in Ireland has incurred a levy (originally 15 Euro cents, the tax has since increased, and will likely continue to increase, but is currently capped at 70 c). The result is a 90% decrease in the use of those bags. Perhaps more exciting is that reports of stakeholder feedback have been very positive. The reasons for this include education of the public into the problems that plastic bags cause. The Irish example shows the importance of a cultural shift as well as the introduction of legislation.

In lieu of government action to this very serious problem, we can all take immediate action to reduce the production, consumption and disposal of the unsustainable plastic carrier bag. Regular use of reusable bags (particularly ones made of natural fabrics, not plastic) is an easy and immediate mitigation measure. Avoid excessive plastic packaging on foodstuffs and keep an eye open for biodegradable alternatives. Also, when given the opportunity, do as the Irish do and spread the word about reducing plastic bag waste.



From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Asministration, USA

Photograph from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA. Plastic bags imitate food items to marine creatures, leading to massive problems associated with the ingestion of innappropriate material. For shocking examples of the consequences, see:


Bahri, G. (2005). Sustainable Management of Plastic Bag Waste. The Case of Nairobi, Kenya.

Convery, F., McDonnell, S., & Ferreira, S. (2007). The most popular tax in Europe? Lessons from the Irish plastic bags levy. Environmental and Resource Economics, 38(1), 1-11.

Davidson, J. Explanatory Memorandum to the Single Use Carrier Bag Charge (Wales) Regulations 2010.

Hawkins, G. (2001). Plastic bags Living with rubbish. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 4(1), 5-23.

Khoo, H. H., & Tan, R. B. (2010). Environmental impacts of conventional plastic and bio-based carrier bags. The international journal of life cycle assessment, 15(4), 338-345.

Poortinga, W., Whitmarsh, L., & Suffolk, C. (2013). The introduction of a single-use carrier bag charge in Wales: Attitude change and behavioural spillover effects. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 240-247.

Verghese, K., Jollands, M., & Allan, M. (2006, November). The litterability of plastic bags: key design criteria. In Fifth Australian Conference on Life Cycle Assessment (pp. 22-24).



Fish need protection too

Recently, the news has been full of reports of Culum Brown‘s article published in Animal Cognition asserting fish as sentient (to all intents and purposes, feeling) and they should be afforded the same protections and respect of other vertebrates. It seems that we are less keen to include fish on our moral compass because they do not tick charismatic macrofauna boxes. Yet evidence is increasingly showing that there is more to fish cognition than we previously thought. It is now widely accepted that fish have effective memories and even count numbers. Fish are aware of pain, even if they don’t experience it as we do (the lack of a neocortex means that they experience a feeling probably closer to what we experience as stress or fear, not pain). Although largely subjective, all this information implies suffering. In other words, fish suffer when subjected to something that humans would experience as pain.

Brown’s review came hot on the heels of a report by the ABC that a Ph.D. thesis produced by Miriam Sullivan of The University of Western Australia that suggests that pet fish do not have the love and care they require or deserve. Because they live in water and are covered in scales, it appears that fish are generally considered less significant. Sullivan encourages people to be more aware of the welfare of their pet fish. Historically fish have been considered something of a disposable pet; a first lesson in animal care for young children and a matter of little concern if their wellbeing is compromised. None of this will be of any surprise to anyone that has ever won a goldfish at a fair, or flushed one down a toilet (not recommended).

With or without sentience, the ability to feel pain, emotion and stress levels, fish are vital components of our aquatic and marine ecosystems. Fish comprise large amounts of biomass in the oceans and throughout our freshwater systems. They partake in food webs that span terrestrial and aquatic environments, they store chemicals and alter the chemical composition of the waters in which they live and they alter the physical conditions of their habitats. Fish are hugely influential in their environments and therefore hugely influential in our environments. Fish influence our daily lives, whether we are aware or not. Our own sentience could be considered in question to fishes…

Fish are an important source of protein for hungry mouths around the world, yet they are also a delicacy for greedy gastronomes that bypass the sustainable fisheries advice produced by the likes of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. Our palates are considered more important than the ecosystem and struggling fishermen desperately collect the very last individuals from ever remote areas. Orange roughy is frequently found on the fish shelves of supermarkets, despite the evidence that shows the extreme threat to the species by fishing (briefly, they are long-lived, late maturing large fish, the populations of which have been known to crash dangerously in the past). Tuna is another popular food fish, eaten frequently, over-exploited constantly. Eaten by the rich and spoilt. Easy to overlook, given that fish live in water and are covered in scales.

I will close with a couple of images. This one produced by WWF:

And even more powerful, credited to Sea Shepherd*:
Panda2 Accessed 29/06/2014

Agrillo C, Dadda M, Bisazza A (2007) Quantity discrimination in female mosquito Fish. Animal Cognition 10:63–70

Brown, C. (2014). Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics. Animal Cognition: 1-17 (online early)

Rose, J. D. (2002). The neurobehavioral nature of fishes and the question of awareness and pain. Reviews in Fisheries Science 10(1), 1-38

Zion, B., Karplus, I., & Barki, A. (2012). Ranching acoustically conditioned fish using an automatic fishing machine. Aquaculture, 330, 136-141

*I could not find this on their website, but it is reproduced on many other websites, unanimously crediting Sea Shepherd.

What they said:

Cane toads were introduced to Australia against the advice of multiple scientists. Why do we struggle so hard to learn?!

From today’s Conversation:


Why is our wildlife in trouble? Because we’re ignoring science

By Emma Burns, Australian National University

From reef dredging, to shark culling, to opening old-growth forests to logging, environmental policies are leaving Australia’s wildlife exposed to threats. The reason, we propose, is that society and government are often ignoring science – particularly ecology.

In a recently published book, more than 80 Australian environment professionals looked at what we have learned from studying ecosystems.

This book is based on long-term field research in numerous ecosystems. From this research, there are examples of science both being used and ignored in management and policy.

There is some good news. Forest studies have led to more sustainable forestry in Tasmania, and potentially soon in Victoria. And new restoration techniques are being trialed to protect endangered woodlands in the Australian Capital Territory.

But there’s still a long way to go. Here are three examples where science is seemingly being ignored by current environmental policy.

Alpine grazing

Under a trial approved by the federal government, cattle are now once again grazing in the Alpine National Park.

There is no scientific case for the trial. Since the 1940s scientists have been monitoring the alpine ecosystems.

For instance we know that hard-hooved animals such as cattle, sheep, horses, deer and pigs have significant negative impacts. These include changes to species composition, ecosystem dynamics, and fewer herbs such as Billy Buttons and Snow-daisies.

These studies also clearly demonstrate that grazing by domestic livestock does not reduce the frequency or severity of fire in the Australian alps, and can actually increase the risk of fire, as grazing encourages growth of flammable shrubs.

As a consequence of these studies, grazing of sheep and cattle had been phased out of most alpine areas. It poses a clear threat to the alpine ecosystem and natural heritage values of Alpine National Park, and we know that when grazing stops, the alpine ecosystems recover — albeit slowly, and future recovery is unlikely to be as robust as past recovery because environmental conditions are changing.

Alpine Billy Button
Photo by Henrik Wahren

Culling fruit bats

Queensland and New South Wales are currently culling fruit bats, despite evidence that culls do not reduce health risks or work.

The threatened spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus), targeted as part of the culls, also falls under conservation regulations and provides free services for human society, such as dispersal of pollen and seeds. But many humans fear them because of Hendra virus, and dislike them because urban camps are smelly and noisy, and because they damage commercial fruit crops.

Spectacled Flying-foxes
Photo by A. McKeown

Regular calls are made for their conservation status to be downgraded and for management interventions such as camp removal and culling to be adopted. But a ten-year study that we referred to of the habits of spectacled flying foxes demonstrates that apparently simple solutions like moving or destroying camps will ultimately fail because the species is nomadic — naive individuals are always arriving at camps meaning that camps easily re-establish at the site or nearby.

The often repeated claims that flying-fox populations are exploding are also not supported by the research.

Forest management

Recently Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested that too much forest is locked away from logging and blames “green ideology” for this. We don’t need ideology driving decision making about forest management but more science would be good.

Research on the effects of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria shows that a decline in hollow bearing trees, which is leading to declines in some fauna, has been linked to these high severity fires and a long history of timber harvesting. On the basis of this research, as well as economic factors, there is a public campaign to change this area’s land tenure from State Forest to National Park.

Professor David Lindenmayer proposes a Giant Forest National Park

However this research is specific to forests in Victoria, and the story may be different in other forest systems. Each system in question needs independent research.

How do we get more science in policy?

Environmental scientists, researchers and policy-makers have a “social imperative” to increase scientific knowledge in policy. Alongside our work on ecosystems, we developed a policy handbook to guide policy makers. And we encourage more ecologists, and their institutions, to distill and communicate their science in similar ways.

It’s not too late, but scientist and policy-makers need to work together and act with the urgency, scale and intelligence needed to meet our environmental challenges.

The book and policy handbook referred to in this article were supported by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network. TERN has catalysed collaborations between researchers dedicated to ecological research but who would have been unlikely to work together without support from TERN.

The Conversation

Emma Burns’ position is funded through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN). The Long Term Ecological Research Network (within TERN), of which she is the Executive Director, receives funding from the Australian Government.

Ary Hoffmann receives funding from Australian Research Council and the Australian Government through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network

David Lindenmayer receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Australian Government through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network and the National Environmental Research Program

Dick Williams is associated with activities funded by the Australian Government through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

ALL creatures great and small

There is significant bias in conservation. Every grant or proposal we write tries desperately to explain why the species or community in question is more important than the cute fluffy ones, the large obvious ones, or the charismatic familiar ones.

Sadly is is all too common an occurrence and I suspect that at the root of the problem there is not enough money to go around. Here is an excellent example of how and why the bias is applied.

Do your bit for your own good

Everyone (and I mean everyone) can make a difference to the world. Difference does have to be expensive (in temporal or financial terms) or showy. Improvements not have to be complicated. Just a shift in the attitude of good people to “I am going to help where I can” is all that is needed. Most of the time, environmentally sensitive decisions are good for our pockets, because frequently (although probably not sufficiently), the value of things is reflected in money.

There are some very easy ways to reduce your footprint, for the benefit of all:

  • Take a walk or cycle instead of driving – cost effective exercise
  • Turn things off at the wall when not in use – save on your electricity bill
  • Reuse “grey water” (e.g., water your plants with old bathwater) -save on water bills
  • Cut down on meat consumption – vegetarian is often healthier and cheaper
  • Reduce reuse recycle – no one likes having to clean out their house of all the acquired junk!

My view on the subjects described in the article below have often got me labelled eccentric. That I may be, but the combined importance of the issue, the ease with which every person on the planet can do their bit and the benefit to everyone and everything makes it significant and topic-worthy.

John Krebs on the UK Badger Cull

Lord John Krebs is a scientist for whom I have the utmost respect. This interview is definitely worth a listen. It starts by talking to Lord Krebs about his career and then asks his professional opinion of the badger culls. He raises some very interesting points about sample size and unreported data (namely the effect of the culls outside the study area).

All in all, this harks back to my original point that with or without badger culls, more has to change to help prevent diseases and improve conditions in farming methods everywhere.

Chinese carbon cuts

An argument I used to frequently hear was that there was no point in the arguer (usually a Brit, American or Aussie), doing anything about environmental issues, as long as China [and other developing countries] continued on their paths of environmental destruction.

Well, now there’s this:

A Chinese city has gone one better than the whole of Australia!

This is good news. Good news that even communities desperate for money are doing their bit and showing the rest of the world that environmental responsibility is everyone’s issue.