Negative impacts of plastic under the microscope, from ghost nets to microplastics

News 2019-03-27 at 17:16
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Plastic is currently one of the hottest topics of discussion all around the world. In Finland, this discussion has lead to the preparation of a national Plastics Roadmap, which proposes measures towards reducing the environmental impact of plastics. Solutions to the plastic problem are also being sought by way of research into biodegradable plastics, the sources of the plastic waste in the Baltic Sea and ghost fishing nets.

Finland’s Plastics Roadmap, prepared by the Ministry of the Environment, was completed last October. The aim of the Roadmap is to mitigate the problems caused by plastic waste and promote the recovery, recycling and product development of plastics. Furthermore, the aim is to facilitate new circular economy innovations and investments and to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The Plastic Roadmap highlights specific solutions and actors while also encouraging citizens and cities, among others, to boldly adopt various solutions towards reducing the generation of waste and unnecessary consumption. Companies are also encouraged to reduce the use of single-use packaging and overpacking with so-called Green Deals.

“Current plastic recovery schemes already include some packaging plastics, but the aim is to increase the recycling of other plastics as well through various pilot projects, for example,” says Ministerial Adviser Merja Saarnilehto from the Ministry of the Environment.

The plastic problem is also being tackled by the European Commission with the help of a new directive on single-use plastics. The proposed directive targets the ten single-use plastic products most often found on European beaches, as well as lost and abandoned plastic fishing gear. In addition to this, the European Chemicals Agency ECHA is preparing the publication of a proposal that would ban intentionally added microplastics in cosmetics and detergents in the EU. At the same time, the European Commission is aiming to increase research data on the negative impacts of plastics on the environment and human health.

More effective recycling of construction and agricultural plastics

The construction industry is one of the most notable consumers of plastics. In spite of this, information on the plastics used in buildings is scarce. In order to rectify this, the Ministry of the Environment has launched an investigation into the amounts of plastics used in buildings. In addition to this, the investigation will examine the recycling possibilities of these plastics and the implementation of recycled plastics in buildings.

As regards agricultural plastics, investigations are currently underway into the potential utilisation of bio-based and fully biodegradable materials in roofing, for example. At the same time, the mechanical recycling of plastics is being supplemented with chemical recycling, which will enable the utilisation of difficult to recycle, contaminated and mixed plastics.

Biodegradable and bio-based plastics in the marine environment

The Finnish Environment Institute has several ongoing projects focusing on plastics and water bodies. The UBINAM project aims at assessing the environmental risks caused by new biodegradable plastic materials in the Baltic Sea marine environment. The subject is topical, as up to 90% of the waste found in the Baltic Sea consists of plastic. The promotion of bio-based and biodegradable plastics is also one of the aims of the Plastics Roadmap published by the Ministry of the Environment.

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“The problem is that we do not currently know how bio-based and biodegradable plastics behave in a marine environment. The biodegradability of these materials is usually verified in industrial composting, not in an environment where temperatures and organisms vary, which will most likely result in different rates of biodegradation,” says Senior Research Scientist Hermanni Kaartokallio from the Finnish Environment Institute.

According to a study conducted as part of the UBINAM project, Finland currently produces approximately 600,000 tonnes of plastic products per year. Of this amount, approximately one per cent is estimated to consist of bioplastics, which includes both bio-based and biodegradable plastics. According to preliminary results, it would appear that the biodegradation rates of bio-based plastics are different in marine and laboratory conditions. The degradation rate is also affected by the quality of the material and factors such as the thickness of the film.

The project has also involved testing the accumulation of harmful substances in different plastics. According to preliminary results, the concentrations of harmful substances in plastics were lower than in the surrounding test substrate.

Biodegradable waste plastics cannot be recycled along with traditional plastic waste, and they have been found to hinder the gassing processes of biogas plants. As such, there is a clear need to take recyclability into account in the development of bio-based and biodegradable products in the future.

Sources of plastic waste in the Baltic Sea being investigated

The ongoing Roskat pois! project involves conducting a comprehensive assessment of the amounts of waste in shore areas and the marine environment, as well as evaluating the most notable sources of marine waste and their transmission paths.

The project will also assess the adverse effects of littering, its impact on marine life and the resulting health risks to humans. The project has involved visits to transfer stations considered to be potential sources of waste and the identification of various measures for preventing littering. The project has also involved interviews with supervising authorities.

“According to surveys, waste management is not considered to be a significant source of marine waste, as the waste ending up in the seas and oceans is carried there by other means. Exceptional circumstances, such as fires, may also cause waste to spread to the environment,” says Senior Research Scientists Helena Dahlbo from the Finnish Environment Institute.

Ghost nets under discussion

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The aim of the Finnish Environment Institute’s KAPYYSI project is to determine the amount of ghost nets in Finland’s marine areas in collaboration with the Finnish Fishermen’s Association. At the same time, the project will involve testing the suitability of available ghost net recycling methods for Finnish conditions as well as examining the re-utilisation and waste management of ghost net material. Furthermore, the aim is to promote public discussion about the ghost net problem.

Ghost nets are lost and abandoned fishing nets, trawls and other net-based traps. They are part of the marine plastic waste problem. Ghost nets cause negative impacts for the fishing industry, the environment and seafaring. In addition to this, they continue to function, i.e. catch fish, for long periods after being abandoned.