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Plastic Pollution Interview with Vonica Perold

in Eco & Green, Plastic Polution December 7, 2018

Since the invention of plastic in the early 1900’s, it has become completely ingrained in our society. So much so that we, the general public, have completely missed the impact this material is having on our health and the natural environment. As we all know, a healthy natural environment is critical to our own health and, basically, the survival of our species. Since we have become more aware of the issue of plastic pollution, it has become clear that our disposable, “throw-away” society has had a large negative impact on our planet. In the interest of finding out more, we turned to scientist Vonica Perold. Vonica has a Master’s degree in Zoology and has spent a year on Marion Island studying seabirds. She started working at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and has been involved in various research projects on plastic pollution. She is also passionate about creating awareness of this issue, so we asked her a few of our burning questions about plastic pollution.

Q: What type of plastic-related research do you do and how did you become involved?
V: “My journey into the world of marine plastic pollution started in 2015 when the opportunity to assist in a long-term research project along South Africa’s coastline came about. It was a complete eye-opening experience to see the amount of litter present on our beaches, even in the most remote areas. My curiosity to determine where the plastic comes from and where in ends up has led to various interesting research projects. I’ve been very fortunate to study the distribution of marine plastic pollution in the Indian, Atlantic and Southern Ocean. A part of my research also focusses on plastic ingestion in marine animals like turtles and seabirds found in South African waters. Our research is also used to create awareness of the issue via community outreach and provide information to relevant stakeholders in government and industry.”
Q: Besides micro-plastics, what are the plastic litter items most often found in the ocean?
V: “The most common items by masswould be discarded fishing gear like nets and ropes. In the Western Indian Ocean we often found shoes, specifically flip flops. Water bottles, pieces of polystyrene and plastic bags are also frequently observed. However, plastic earbud sticks, lollypop sticks, cool drink lids and straws are the items most commonly washed up on our beaches.”
Q: In general, what does plastic pollution do to our environment?
V: “Plastic pollution has a host of environmental impacts. Animals can mistake plastic for food, or become entangled in it, often leading to slow painful deaths. Plastic ingestion impacts all levels of the marine food chain, from microscopic zooplankton all the way up to whales. Plastic litter also has the potential to act as a vector in the spread of invasive species and diseases across our oceans.  It can also cause diseases in coral reefs that are already under severe pressure from a suite of anthropogenic impacts. Plastic pollution also has severe economic impacts as valuable resources must be allocated to cleaning beaches and rivers.”
Q: What are the human health implications of plastic pollution?
V: “Microplastics are pervasive in our everyday lives, and research shows that we are now ingesting microplastics more than ever. It has been found in our drinking water, salt, seafood and even the air we breathe. Some plastics contain chemical additives like flame retardants or plasticisers and most can accumulate persistent organic pollutants and toxins like a sponge while floating at sea. These chemicals and toxins have the potential to cause hormonal imbalances, birth defects or cancer, but the truth is that we still do not know what the real implications are for human health. Due to the ubiquitous state of plastic pollution, studying the impacts on human health is difficult because there are almost no unexposed subjects left to act as controls. However, it is certainly not beneficial to our health.”

“Plastic pollution also has severe economic impacts as valuable resources must be allocated to cleaning beaches and rivers”

Q: What does the word “biodegradable” really mean? How does “biodegradable” differ from “compostable”?

V: “The words “biodegradable” and “compostable” are often used interchangeably but shouldn’t be. Biodegradable means something can break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time, often from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms. For example, PLA is a plant-based plastic used to make “biodegradable” disposable products like straws and take-away coffee-cup lids. They have the potential to decompose faster than conventional plastics but only under very specific temperature and humidity conditions at purpose-designed industrial composting facilities. If not disposed of in a controlled environment, they can take just as long as normal plastics to break up in landfills, adding to the problem. Compostable refers to a product that can break down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate similar to paper, leaving no toxic residue and basically produces compost. Be careful of companies trying to “greenwash” their products by using these terms interchangeably.”

Q: The V & A Waterfront recently banned plastic shopping bags. Do you think this will make a difference? How important do you think it is to #banthebag?
V: “Although plastic bags aren’t the items most commonly found washed up on our beaches, I believe that banning the bag is a great strategy to enforce and promote more environmentally conscious habits, likely resulting in a roll-over effect to other parts of our daily lives.”
Q: So, I don’t live near the ocean… Why should I still care about plastic pollution?
V: “Mismanaged waste finds its way into rivers, often transporting litter into the ocean. So even if you do not live near the coast, the plastic waste you produce can still contribute to the growing amount of plastic found in our oceans.”
Q: What would you like to say to people who say “It’s too much effort to live plastic-free”?
V: “It really isn’t. Just start small. Take your own bag every time you go shopping. Leave extra bags in your car so you don’t have an excuse. Use your own re-usable veggie bags when buying loose fruit or veg, and politely refuse those thin flimsy barrier bags often forced upon you at the cashier. Buy a re-usable water bottle or coffee cup. You’d be amazed at how much waste you will reduce by just making these small changes in your daily life. And once you do it, you will often wonder how you could ever have lived with your old ways.”

And we totally agree! Re-usable shopping and produce bags are one of the easiest ways to start reducing your plastic impact. It has been well documented that plastic bags in the ocean are mistaken for food by whales and sea turtles. A quick search on YouTube will tell you all you need to know. Some retailers will tell you their shopping bags are biodegradable, but we now know that plastic will not degrade into its original elements, but only break up into microplastics which will continue to poison our water for centuries. From our own observations we can certainly agree that plastic bags, straws and bottle caps are some of litter items often found on beaches.

Therefor we would like to make it easier and more affordable for everyone to use re-usable organic products, instead of disposable plastic products that end up on over-flowing landfills and in our oceans. For more information on our plastic-free products please visit our shop.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, you might also like this News 24 segment on Vonica’s research: https://www.news24.com/Video/SouthAfrica/News/plastic-tide-on-the-front-lines-in-the-war-against-marine-pollution-20180228

We also recommend getting your hands on a few documentaries to become aware of the impact of waste, such as A Plastic Ocean(https://plasticoceans.org/about-a-plastic-ocean/),Straws(http://www.strawsfilm.com/home/),Trashed(http://www.trashedfilm.com/) and Plastic Paradise (http://plasticparadisemovie.com/).

If you have any questions for us or for Vonica, please feel free to send them to info@hug-tree.co.za.

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