Are you washing your face with plastic?

TeaTreeHave you ever read the ingredients list on the back of your facial scrub?  Do you understand what all those technical and chemical ingredients are and do?  Do you really know what you are using to scrub away your facial or body skin cells?

A lot of cosmetic companies these days have been using a synthetic, non biodegradable plastic as the main abrasive in their scrubs – Polyethylene or PE micro beads!

Previously, the exfoliant was crushed shells like walnut or almond, salt or sugar.  Completely natural and completely biodegradable and harmless.

Because of the size of these micro beads it is extremely difficult to remove them from waste water treatments once they have gone down our sinks.  The end point for many plastic micro beads is the ocean and seas where they are known to be ingested by filter feeding organisms.  Whilst in the ocean these micro beads have the potential to absorb and concentrate toxic pollutants from the surrounding water.  We don’t want these in the food chain.

Most people are completely unaware that these products may contain plastic micro beads. Take for example the product above.  On quick glance it appears the scrub uses wholly natural ingredients.  The back of the bottle marketing spiel says “Superdrug Tea Tree & Peppermint Exfoliating Cream Wash contains natural walnut shell granules to gently exfoliate and cleanse your skin…’ But the ingredients list tells a different story.  Number 7 on the ingredients list is Polyethylene whilst lower down (ie with less volume) at number 12 is Juglans Regia (walnut) shell powder.

Plastic Free Seas contacted Superdrug about this explaining how Polyethylene  was not a good choice of exfoliants due to the environmental harm the micro beads cause but their response was “…we have no plans to replace Polyethylene Beads with natural or naturally derived alternatives at the moment…”

DarlieDarlie on the other hand were of a different opinion.  Did you know the blue flecks in this brand of toothpaste are plastic?  It is quite shocking really to think that tiny pieces of plastic have been added to a toothpaste.  When  Darlie were contacted their response was “The blue speckle used in All Shiny White toothpaste is safe for use. As a continuous improvement effort, the blue speckle will be replaced by hydrated silica in near future.”  Great news! 

Plastic Free Seas is part of a global campaign with US based 5 Gyres Institute (http://5gyres.org/how_to_get_involved/campaigns/) and in Europe the Plastic Soup Foundation (http://plasticsoupfoundation.org/eng/) to raise awareness and affect change in the cosmetic industry to phase out plastic micro beads.  There have been some pretty big successes so far with Unilever taking the lead in 2012, followed this year by Colgate-Palmolive, The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Beiersdorf and Procter & Gamble.  Only Unilever and The Body Shop though have committed to a phase out date (2015).

The pressure is on in the UK & Asia.  A couple of companies have a big market share here and are difficult to penetrate.  But we are persisting!

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So what can you do?  Always read the ingredients list to see if your scrub contains polyethylene.  Don’t assume because it is expensive it won’t – the most expensive scrub to date I have seen was HKD $390.

Refuse to buy scrubs containing plastic.

Tell everyone you know about plastic in body care products.

Get on to social media sites and ask these companies when they are going natural?  And write directly to the companies too.  The more pressure we can apply the quicker they will change their formulas.

‘Like’ the Plastic Free Seas Facebook page to keep up to date with campaign news and read the Plastic Free Seas website page on Micro beads to learn more about this issue.

Plastic Free Seas has written to the HK Government to expand the Product Eco-Responsibility Ordinance to include products that contain plastic micro beads.  It is being raised in LegCo on June 18th.

Plastic micro beads are designed to pollute – together we will stop the bead!

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Plastic Bag Levy to be extended to all retailers in HK.

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After the initial success of the introduction of the HKD 50c plastic bag levy in July 2009 the government has announced that it plans to increase this levy from the 3300 initial businesses (mainly supermarkets) to include all retailers that give out plastic shopping bags.

In mid-2010, one year after the initial levy was introduced,  the total number of plastic shopping bags being disposed of in Hong Kong landfills was about 4.44 billion per annum, of which over 96% were non-levied plastic bags i.e. those that were available free.  This equates to about 634 plastic shopping bags used per person per year – after the supermarket levy was introduced!  Sound unbelievable?  I guess if most people are shopping almost daily in a wet market that is easily 3-4 shopping bags there.  Followed by a trip to a retail store for a body care product (in another bag), a takeaway drink in a bag, a newspaper in a bag … it all adds up.

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The government landfill survey reveals that plastic shopping bag disposal attributable to retail sectors outside the scope of the levy scheme rose by 6% between mid-2009 and mid-2010. This means the problem of excessive use of plastic shopping bags remains serious  and is not something that will decrease without a widespread actionable force.

Through the polls conducted by the Central Policy Unit to assess the effectiveness of the levy, 80% of respondents considered the Plastic Shopping Bag (PSB) Levy Scheme has helped them develop a Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) habit.  By disincentivising the use of plastic bags, people respond positively.  An extension of the levy to include all plastic shopping bags is part of the Government’s comprehensive waste management strategy and follows the international trend to restrict the sale and use of plastic shopping bags.  Estimates of a reduction by 90 % have been quoted.  From personal experience on the beaches, the plastic bags we see now are more likely to be those not covered by the 50c levy scheme.

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Flat-top bags (i.e thin film clear bags without handles) will also be subject to regulation. This proposal will help deter the problem of excessive use of flat-top bags not solely for food hygiene purposes which is increasingly reported.  These thin film bags are routinely used to cover frozen goods or refrigerated goods to shield the inevitable condensation from other products.  By placing like items (i.e. all cold goods or all frozen goods) in one reusable shopping bag removes the need for individual product separation through use of a thin film plastic bag.

As for the plastic shopping bag manufacturers, they may suffer some loss in business when the proposal successfully achieves its target of further reducing plastic shopping bag use.  But in view of the growing awareness of environmental conservation over the past years worldwide, they have already been facing strong market forces to phase out less eco-friendly products and align their business with products that will cause less environmental harm.

It is great to see the government taking this levy one step further.  Our beaches, parks and waterways will be much cleaner as a result and we will all benefit from this.

For further reading

http://www.epd.gov.hk/epd/psb_extension/en/legco.html

What will our legacy for our children be?

Today I was down the beach walking with my 8yr old son when he turned and said to me excitedly  “Mum I found a secret way through the bushes to get to a rocky outcrop.  All you have to do is follow the polystyrene path!”

He said this in such a matter of fact way … just follow the polystyrene path.  As I scrambled through the bushes following Finn on the path that really was mostly made up of decades old broken pieces of foam I tried to recall my secret hideouts as a child.

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Of course there was some litter, in the bushland we would find rusting tin cans, some broken glass and some bits of plastic.  There were things that people threw carelessly out of car windows and littered the highways but luckily I grew up just before this massive addiction to plastic, especially bottles.  So when we found a secret river it was not already littered with detritus that had blown or floated in mass quantities.

One thing I do remember that was littered in abundance though was the detachable ring pull from the aluminium cans.  We used to find them everywhere but then they redesigned the cans so the ring pulls now stay attached and are recycled.

What will Finn think of when he looks back on his childhood?  Will he remember walking on beaches covered in trash, playing manhunt in bushes full of styrofoam?  Will plastic trash be a part of his childhood that he just accepts unquestioningly?  Or will things be so different in the future that a trashed beach will be an oddity?

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Will we have started a real movement away from the creation of all this waste?

I hope when he and I look back in 20 years he will say to me …  Remember when we lived near that beach that was always covered in trash and I used to hide with my friends in the bushes that were so full of polystyrene pieces?  I’m glad people don’t use so much plastic now.  We used to pick up hundreds of bottle caps each beach cleanup.  Thank goodness they made them recyclable.  Oh and wasn’t it weird how everyone paid for single use bottles of water every day.  I can’t imagine not using a reusable bottle and refilling it when I need to.   And plastic bags hahaha remember how people used them for everything!  Even when they could just hold an item in their hands.  I remember seeing a girl drink a McDonald’s softdrink that was inside a small plastic bag, when she sucked on the straw the plastic scrunched in her face … that was so funny!  Why did people do that?

Free Stuff

plasticbagTwo weeks ago I was half of a duo guest speaking to 100+ year 6 students at a Hong Kong school.  Halfway through the talk one of the boys raised his hand and exclaimed incredulously “Do you know they charge you 50c now for a plastic bag?” I said “I know, isn’t it great!” He obviously thought I hadn’t heard properly because he said again “No, you have to pay for it! 50c! You have to buy a bag!”

I said I agreed with the concept and actually thought it would be good to extend it to cutlery, straws and takeaway containers too. There needs to be a monetary value placed on these ‘single use disposable’ items to encourage people to appreciate them as a resource. They are not really free. They are made from precious resources and it costs to manufacture as well as dispose of these products (wherever that may be in the end).  And sometimes it isn’t just a monetary cost if the plastic items harm marine or wildlife.

I tried to explain that it was his personal choice to pay for a plastic bag or not.  He can choose to bring his own bag and keep the 50c.

What got me thinking about this conversation today with the boy was the sight of discarded tissue packets amongst all the other plastic detritus on the beach this afternoon. These mini packets of tissues are such a common sight in Hong Kong, often given out for free with certain purchases.   Not only are they are used for their intended purposes but they are also the cloth du jour for wiping sweaty faces in the humid summer. Every day they are used and discarded in their thousands.  The evidence was here, on the beach.  They were everywhere!

photo (150)In 30 minutes I collected 153 empty plastic packets. Now most of these were obviously purchased but amongst them was a significant amount of the freebie packs that you are offered when you buy a newspaper from Circle K, or were promotional gifts (seems to be popular with phone companies strangely!)

The 2 big questions I have for today are …

Does anyone use handkerchiefs anymore?

Can these pesky plastic packets be made from paper?

153 picked up from one stretch of one beach, how many are on all the beaches in Hong Kong and how many are floating aimlessly through the South China Sea and beyond? And for how long will these plastic packets continue to float around?

This is something that could easily be solved from a design point of view. We need the companies to be more responsible with this packaging.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

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This was my roof top yesterday, 90 pairs of gloves washed and drying after a beach cleanup.  The commonly repeated mantra Reduce Reuse Recycle popped into my head when I took this photograph.  It summed up the event quite nicely.  We Reduced the amount of rubbish that was on the beach.  We Reused the gloves from previous cleanups and reused rice bags to collect plastic bottles that were then Recycled.

But it feels like the whole point of the 3Rs was missed.  And it feels like that a lot here.  Too often I hear people say ‘oh its ok to buy a water bottle every day because I can just recycle it’.  The recycle part gives people carte blanche to feel good about buying something plastic.  Recycling isn’t a perfect process, especially in Hong Kong where 99% of our recycling gets sent to China.  Does it get recycled? We hope and expect so but who actually knows?

At the beach yesterday there was a significant amount of plastic waste.  The beach had actually been cleaned that morning by contract cleaners but what surprised me most was the type of litter.  It was all thin film labels, packaging and bags.  There were a few straws but there were no bottle caps, bottles, styrofoam containers and the usual assortment of plastic odds and ends that usually washes up.  It was a strange waste separation act, sorted by the currents of the sea.

seaweedcrackersI walked along and was struck by how many bottle labels there were on a short stretch of beach – 27 in as many metres.  Why so many labels?  Where were the bottles?  Where were the lids?

labelsIt brought back to my mind the Reduce Reuse Recycle message.  In many parts of the world in regards to plastic drink bottles, the bottle caps and labels being made from different plastic to the commonly used PET of the bottles, are not recycled but are ‘waste plastics’.  In Hong Kong they are collected as low value scrap and if the price is right on the day they are sent to China, if not they are sent to landfill.

We have to get away from this idea that recycling is the answer to waste.  It clearly is not.  To recycle 1 out of three component pieces of a plastic bottle is not successful recycling!

What happened to reduce being the most important of the 3 Rs?

We all have a part to play in reducing our waste.  We cannot wait for the government to do something about our near full landfill sites before we act.  We should all be looking at our own consumption and do what we can to make bigger, more effective changes.

Why should the companies that produce all this waste (that they know can’t be recycled) get away with contributing to the trash all around us?  They are making money from this, they have a responsibility too.

Imagine if businesses really adopted this Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra, things could really be different.  Businesses have a long long history of changing to suit the market requirements and its time they took  the market’s message of waste reduction seriously.

If only they changed their practices to use sustainable materials with minimal packaging that was completely recyclable and reusable.  If the whole lifecycle of their products was considered in the production methods and costs (Cradle to Grave manufacturing) then we would see huge changes in the waste we make, use and have to dispose of.  We would see less of the thick plastic soup of floating plastic that makes our beaches unpleasant and unsafe for us and the marine life that live there (that we eat!)

floatingplasticSo here are my words I would like to see more commonly spouted than just Reduce, Reuse & Recycle …

Rethink, Refuse, Repair, Regulate, Research, Redesign, Responsibility

Last year, New Year, Next Year

DSC030562012 was a pretty important year in Hong Kong for plastic pollution.

We had the world’s biggest documented plastic pellet spill occur on our beaches in July which grabbed Hong Kong’s attention and forced the government to face the growing plastic pollution problem.  Everybody got involved in the clean up,  from people on the streets that rarely go to beaches, to people who usually only go to gazetted (or government) cleaned beaches, business leaders and of course the government themselves.

The timing worked in favour of triggering long term action on this problem too as our government was newly elected and they saw how many thousands of people got out and were cleaning pellets and trash and saying loudly ‘we want clean beaches’.  It was a united voice talking plastic pollution in Hong Kong for the first time.   Now, new policies are being developed and next week at the Chief Executive’s January 16th Policy Address we will see what big changes they have come up with. Fingers crossed.

It was a great year for me too.  I recieved incredible personal support (thank you, thank you, thank you!) from so many individuals, organisations and businesses to help achieve my goal of raising awareness of the problem of plastic pollution.  The Journey to the Plastic Ocean trip in June was a great platform to use to say ‘Hey! Our daily consumer habits are trashing our beaches, and whats more, all that rubbish is ending up in the middle of the ocean, corrupting our food chain!’.  It made people listen & then inspired many to act.talkinggyres

And now we are well into 2013.  I have quite a few resolutions (one I broke just 21 hrs after I had made it!) but a few that I intend to keep and make them habits.

Like my reusable cutlery in a pouch.

I have a couple of sets of cutlery in there (including 2 stainless steel straws ) so I can eat out with a friend and not have to use disposable cutlery, thus creating less waste.  It feels a bit like a drop in the ocean but every time I use them I notice people looking, then realising the sense in my simple act. I am determined this year to carry it with me always, it is smaller than my wallet so I have no excuse.

My other resolution is to challenge everyday ‘plastic’ habits of convenience or tradition when they make no real sense.  For example, I’m talking to supermarket managers and asking them politely if they can reduce waste by taking simple measures in their store.  One of the things that has really irked me for ages in the supermarkets is the sushi grass in the trays.  My kids eat a lot of sushi and for a while I could take my own container for them to fill as their sushi making coincided with my school run.  It was completely waste free sushi and it was great.  sushi

This plastic is completely unnecessary and a waste for the company and the environment.  So I asked the manager if it was possible to stop putting it in when they made up the sushi in the morning.  He said he would look into it and he did!  Very happy to see that it was so easy to make a small change.  A thank you card is in the post to them …

These personal actions are all small, I know.  But it is more about individuals taking responsibility for their own usage of plastic, being consciously aware of what we ‘need’, use and can avoid.  It is about what we all can do so easily to start turning the tide on our habits of consumption and waste.  When everyone mindlessly uses so much disposable plastic we get phenomenal amounts of waste.  When people start refusing cutlery, unnecessary packaging, over packaging, water bottles, plastic bags, straws, coffee cups … this mountain of waste will start to recede.  We won’t see it littering our beaches and our streets and and we will feel good that we are changing our habits so easily.  It is all small steps but these small steps will take us somewhere better.

Happy New Year to you and I hope all our good new habits will continue through this year and the next.

Mooncakes & Glowsticks

The Mid-Autumn Festival this Sunday is one of the most important holidays in the Chinese calendar and traditionally, family and friends would gather in the evening to celebrate by eating festive fruits and mooncakes.  In Hong Kong a lot of people head to Victoria Park after dinner to marvel at the festive lantern scenes (pictured above) or go to one of the many beaches to enjoy the Harvest Moonrise.

Traditionally the Mid-Autumn Festival  featured mooncakes, lanterns and candles.  Nowadays we see a modern twist on these festival items.  The traditional egg yolk & pastry mooncake now also comes in chocolate form (yum!), paper lanterns are being replaced by tacky battery powered nylon and plastic that don’t even last the night, candles still proliferate but glowsticks are now  the number one ‘must have’ item.

What was once a celebration to give thanks for a good Autumn Harvest, now seems to be a night for waste & excess.

Very low quality lanterns, candles and glow in the dark toys are readily available in supermarkets and convenience stores, nothing but plastic, crepe paper and cheap batteries.  All designed for one night’s use and then to be thrown away in a landfill.

The packs shown above contain 40 glowsticks (also sold in packs of 100) with at least 20 attachment pieces for joining sticks together.

The chemicals inside the glowsticks are not something you want to leach out onto your child’s skin.  Yes the labels are printed stating the product is ‘non-toxic’, ‘non-flammable’, and thank goodness … ‘non-radioactive’  but it doesn’t mean they are safe.  Some of the chemicals used for the chemiluminescense in the past were known to be carcinogenic and depending on what is in them now (and who really knows??) could still be.  The glow stick contains two chemicals (hydrogen peroxide and diphenyl oxalate) as well as a suitable fluorescent dye (which could be a fluorophor or sensitizer – the sensitizers are polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons; an organic pollutant that can be highly toxic).  When the 2 chemicals mix they also release phenol.  All of this is not nice for kids to play with and certainly from an environmental point of view, not nice when the plastics breakdown on the beach, in the sea or in landfill seeping chemicals into the water, sand or earth.

The morning after the celebrations the beach is always covered with hundreds of glowsticks.  Many are already floating off in the sea.  Some are buried in the sand and a huge number are dumped in bins.  Not recyclable or reusable, fun for the kids for the few hours they last but at what long term cost?

Hundreds of plastic bottles litter the beach, mooncake tins filled with candle wax and sand are left, lighters galore, broken lanterns, food wrappings, glass bottles, bamboo mats and paper everywhere.  It is a sad sight coming down the beach the next day.  The attitude of some people that it is ok to create so much waste and take no responsibility for it is dreadful.  What does this teach kids?  They learn about the lantern festival in schools and then they celebrate like this?

We are lucky in Discovery Bay, sitting on the beach watching the moon rise over Hong Kong is very special.  But how can you appreciate the beauty of the night and then leave a scourge on the earth after.  It makes no sense.  I am all for celebrating and having fun and don’t want the kids to ‘miss out’ on anything but celebrating responsibly can’t be too difficult surely.

Buy less.  Does one child need 40 glowsticks?  Take your child’s own handmade lantern.   Use quality rechargeable LED torches.  Take your rubbish away when you leave and recycle what you can.  Don’t bury wax in the sand.  Pick up extinguished candles.  Buy mooncakes with minimal packaging.  Remove a bit extra rubbish off the beach when you leave and set a good example.

This is a modern problem and we need a modern attitude to fix it.

Wishing you and your family a happy Mid-autumn Festival  祝你和你的家人中秋快乐

www.plasticfreeseas.org