sustainability

Plastic Soup a Hard Meal to Swallow

This is a guest post by Nicole Mertens. 

A few weeks ago, I was walking down a beach on the Mornington Peninsula. It has been many years since I visited this beach, but having recently made the move back to Melbourne it was a pleasant and nostalgic experience. Strolling past colourful bathing boxes, occasionally dipping my feet into the crystal blue water, enjoying the sunshine… it was perfect, but for one little thing. Well, lots and lots of little things.

I’m talking about plastic debris.

As we walked I couldn’t help but pick out colourful shards of plastic amongst the sand. The little lids from sushi sauce bottles and flashes of silver film from chip packets long dead. At first glance this beach was pristine; white sand littered only with colourful shells for as far as the eye could see. But up close was a different story, and it’s one shared by most urban beaches in our country and across the world.

Chances are you already know about coastal and marine debris, and in particular the impact plastic litter has on our marine life. Recently, news that a beached whale in Norway had over 30 plastic bags in its stomach reached outlets worldwide. Scientists concluded that the animal was starving as it simply could not eat any real food, and speculated that the bags may have been mistaken for squid. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Aside from whales, many marine turtles unwittingly fill their stomachs with plastic bags, which also do a very good job of imitating jellyfish.

The green sea turtle is one marine species that fills their stomach with plastic bags resembling jellyfish.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

The green sea turtle is one marine species that fills their stomach with plastic bags resembling jellyfish. Image: Cathy Cavallo

But plastic fragments and microplastics (pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size) are just as dangerous. Microplastics can be mistaken for scraps of algae or fish eggs. Apart from the risk of ingestion, many plastics can entangle marine life and can even release harmful chemical compounds (such as the endocrine disruptor BPA) into the surrounding waters (or intestines) as they start to degrade.

Conventional plastics are not biodegradable. That is, they are not broken down by living organisms; instead they photodegrade, slowly breaking down into their smaller, petrochemical-based components through exposure to light. Given that we have only been mass-manufacturing plastics for less than 200 years and that it is estimated it will take over 650 years for a plastic water bottle to break down in the environment, it is no wonder that our oceans are filling up with plastics.  A recent study estimated that there are 5.25 trillion particles of plastic floating on the world’s oceans, weighing a total of nearly 270, 000 tonnes. And that’s just at the surface.

If we want to stop plastic accumulating in our oceans we need to know where it’s all coming from. Marine debris surveys allow researchers and volunteers to sample the number, weight and types of debris along our coastlines. It shouldn’t shock you by now that plastics make up more than 80% (and over 90% in some cases) of all marine debris recovered from our beaches. According to the CSIRO, the vast majority of plastic on Australian beaches is derived from local sources, making its way out to sea via rivers, creeks and stormwater systems. This goes to show that it is we, the everyday consumers, who are having the biggest impact.

Once plastics and other litter enter the stormwater system, they are destined for the coast.  Image: Nicole Mertens

Once plastics and other litter enter the stormwater system, they are destined for the coast. Image: Nicole Mertens

So, what can be done?

Well, ongoing monitoring is important, as it can help shape policy. Results comparing Australian states show that their cash for containers scheme is keeping plastic drink bottles out of South Australian waterways. If you want to help in a hands-on way, you should keep an eye out for calls for volunteers to conduct marine debris surveys with both government and non-government organisations and community groups. Otherwise, the Tangaroa Blue website allows you to register and enter your own data from your local beach (using their free survey resources) onto the Australian Marine Debris Database.

Scientists are trying to find solutions too. Like their first iterations, some consumer plastics are now made from cellulose (plant fibres) and are therefore actually biodegradable. Innovations such as this acknowledge our society’s reliance on the convenience of plastic, but also our responsibility to reduce its impact on our natural environment. As consumers, I think we can also find a middle ground - it may not be possible for a busy household to go zero waste, but we can all make small adjustments for the better.

Choose less plastic packaging where possible, reuse plastics where you can, and recycle what you can’t reuse. Reduce, reuse, recycle - and in that order (remember, recycling is more efficient than making things from scratch, but it does still use resources and create emissions). The last, simple request I can make is that when you walk past plastic rubbish on the footpath or in the gutter, pick it up. It might not be “your” mess, but it’s still you that has to deal with it further down the line, whether it’s through the sad reminder of our carelessness on an otherwise beautiful beach or the increasing impact on our marine life as plastic becomes harder and harder to avoid.  


Nicole Mertens

Nicole is a marine biologist who has spent the last five years engaging school children and community members in environmental education and conservation. She is interested in exploring how citizen science can be used as a tool to benefit both researchers and the broader public.


Banner image courtesy of NOAA.

Living Next to Nature

The single most difficult thing about nature conservation is changing habits. Many of us might visit and enjoy natural areas around Melbourne and Victoria, but a significantly smaller number of people are actively changing the way that they care for the environment.

Dog owners might love spending time outdoors with their furry friend, but do they walk them on a leash? You might enjoy gardening in your own backyard, but did you know that many weeds that invade bushland originally escape from gardens? A new home owner might be excited about landscaping their property, but have they considered planting native vegetation? And cat owners… well, we’re a stubborn bunch and many more of us need to be diligent about keeping our pets indoors (to say the least).

Tailoring your garden to attract native bird species is a great way to increase native habitat.  Image:   http://www.bendigonature.org/

Tailoring your garden to attract native bird species is a great way to increase native habitat. Image: http://www.bendigonature.org/

The Victorian National Parks Association, supported by the Greater City of Bendigo, recently produced a small but informative booklet regarding Bendigo’s native bushland, and how both locals and visitors to the area can learn to live next to nature. This fantastic initiative is based on the idea that people are the solution, and not simply the problem. Encouraging a greater sense of stewardship towards natural areas can lead to their protection, and in turn allow humans themselves to live more fulfilling lives.

Victoria is officially the most cleared state in Australia - a terrible fact in so many ways but it’s also what makes Bendigo’s bushland so special. Often referred to as ‘Box-Ironbark’ country, the forests of Bendigo were ‘significantly altered and reduced in size’ in the 1800s, when Victoria’s gold rush occurred. The local bushland is home to a variety of wildlife, with the ‘shrubby nature’ of some locales making it the perfect habitat for a large diversity of woodland birds. Winter and spring see beautiful displays of ‘showy yellow wattles and pea plants, beautiful wildflowers and orchids.’ It isn’t difficult to see why it is a great place to both live and visit.

Bendigo's Natural Treasures Map is included in the Living Next to Nature booklet and website.  Image:   http://www.bendigonature.org/  

Bendigo's Natural Treasures Map is included in the Living Next to Nature booklet and website. Image: http://www.bendigonature.org/ 

Titled ‘Living Next to Nature: Being a good neighbour to Bendigo’s Bushland’, the booklet briefly describes the human history of the area, why its natural environment must be better cared for, and some of Bendigo’s most beautiful ‘natural treasures’. Arguably the most important sections, though, are when the reader is asked ‘What can I do?’ Featured throughout, these snippets of advice are simpler than you might think. Love ‘tremendous trees’? Then ‘lop don’t chop’. Like ‘going with the flow’? Then try to ‘be water wise in the home and garden’ or, better yet, ‘install a water tank or grey water system’. Want to create a garden for native wildlife? Then ‘visit your local native plant nursery for advice’ or install nest boxes for bats and birds.

The release of 'Living Next to Nature' was coupled with an exciting launch event in November to celebrate the initiative.  Image: VNPA

The release of 'Living Next to Nature' was coupled with an exciting launch event in November to celebrate the initiative. Image: VNPA

And, finally, get out into nature! It might seem a no-brainer, but if you’re not already experiencing it, then you might struggle to see the benefits of caring for it – and believe me, there are many! Improvements in memory, stress relief, and increased concentration are just some of the happy side effects of spending time outdoors and in green spaces.

A rapidly growing city, Bendigo’s increasing population means that the local environment is under strong pressure to sustain more and more inhabitants. It is therefore now more important than ever that we put greater effort into conserving the local parks and bushland of the area. Of course, things are always easier said than done. But sometimes a nudge in the right direction is all some people need to plant that native species in their backyard, or be more vigilant about keeping pets on leads or indoors. Naturally, such advice is not only applicable to the Bendigo area, but more widely across Victoria and Melbourne, too.  

Being in nature is just as important as protecting it.   Image:   http://www.bendigonature.org/

Being in nature is just as important as protecting it. Image: http://www.bendigonature.org/

Ultimately, though, habits are a product of choice. Every day, most of us must choose between what is easy and what is difficult; what is cheap and what is expensive; what is convenient and what is healthy. These are not always simple decisions to make, but in the end make them we must – and the environment factors into more of them than you might think. So how will you choose to live next to nature?

For your own copy of this free booklet, contact the VNPA office on (03) 9341 6500 or email vnpa@vnpa.org.au.

The content of the booklet is also accessible online at http://www.bendigonature.org/


Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.


Banner image courtesy of http://www.bendigonature.org/

 

 

Sustainability on Set

Late last year I directed a short film that was shot over several days in the Victorian Alps. Since being a part of nature is one of the key themes of the film, we took the potential environmental impact of our shoot seriously. The huge international film and TV industry is not known for its environmental consciousness on the whole, but there are exceptions. The team behind the environmental disaster film The Day After Tomorrow planted enough trees to cover their carbon emissions to ensure that their production was not undercutting the film’s message. If you’re planning a shoot in Victoria, there are plenty of ways you can make sure your film leaves no footprint on its setting.

The first thing we made sure to do was keep our crew minimal. With two cast members, director, cinematographer, producer, sound, lighting and an assistant, we could still fit ourselves and our gear comfortably into two cars. This meant less mouths to feed, less people to transport and less energy used to cook in, heat, and light our accommodation.

Image: Meegan May

Image: Meegan May

Since our fairly remote locations around Mt Buller weren’t accessible by public transport, we used two cars to transport the cast and crew to and from the accommodation and the locations. One car would almost certainly have been needed anyway to transport the equipment – hauling it onto a train wouldn’t have been an option – so it made sense to make the most of the space we had.

We were fortunate to have access to a house in which we could both shoot the interior scenes and accommodate the whole crew. Everyone opted to be vegetarian for the week, saving both money and emissions from transport and farming. Our menus were planned well in advance and our food sourced from local suppliers in Melbourne before we made the four-hour trip to the mountains.

Recycling our waste was a big part of the effort. Scripts, call sheets and other notes were all printed or written on recycled paper, which were recycled again after the shoot. Even the toilet paper we brought to the accommodation was recycled! We minimised our food waste and recycled all packaging.

Image: Meegan May

Image: Meegan May

Our exterior locations were on the summit of Mt Buller and beside the Delatite River, so having a ‘leave no trace’ policy on set was essential, ensuring that we left nothing behind. We only set out into these locations at times of day when we were unlikely to disturb wildlife with noise and movement. As some of our locations contained the habitat of the endangered mountain pygmy-possum and our motive was primarily to gain experience in our industry, we also opted to donate any profits the film may make to Zoos Victoria’s Mountain Pygmy-possum Recovery Program. Now we can only hope that the film does make some money for the program!

It was always a priority for us to eventually offset the shoot’s carbon emissions. Using an online carbon calculator we were able to estimate the emissions caused by our transport, accommodation and eating habits, which came to less than one tonne. This was not only easy but cheap to offset with our chosen non-profit, which protects vital areas of forest around the world. Next time we will probably choose to offset with a more locally focused group.

Image: Meegan May

Image: Meegan May

Every step to reduce this film’s impact was simple and met with no resistance; in each case it seemed like the obvious thing to do. How many films have awed us with the beauty of their natural settings? Titanic mountain ranges, wide-open skies, dark magical forests – these places inspire us and we want to share them with the world. If, in doing so, we contribute to their destruction, then haven’t we undermined our purpose? It’s our responsibility to leave no trace on these places that feed our creativity and, where possible, to make a positive impact on their futures. 

For more information on the short film Gaest, visit their Facebook page.


ALEX MULLARKY

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape. 

You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra


Banner image courtesy of Meegan May. 

Unless Someone Like You: Remembering the words of the Lorax.

The Lorax is often viewed as one of the greatest environmental children’s stories of all time. Another of Dr Seuss’ many classics, it is the tale of the ‘Once-ler’ and the development of his clothing business that fashions jumper-like ‘Thneeds’ out of the local ‘Truffula trees’. This children’s book shares much in common with Dr Seuss’ other works, complete with silly words, enjoyable rhymes, vivid illustrations, and, most importantly, its astounding ability to reveal truths that an adult’s reality too often hides. In this case, as may already be obvious, Dr Seuss portrays the struggle of protecting our natural world and its beauty.

The Once-ler, a creature who is at first appreciative of the natural wonders of his new home, is quick to turn this appreciation into greed. The Lorax is a creature who ‘speaks[s] for the trees’, and shows no hesitation in scolding the Once-ler as he slowly but surely destroys not only the habitat of the native animals, but also his one source of income – the Truffula trees. The boy, a clear representation of us, the reader, hears this story from the now regretful Once-ler, the last pages showing him as a failure, every single tree having been cut down and used in the production of many Thneeds, every single animal having departed the area, and his only means of living to now demand payment from those wishing to learn the story of himself and the Lorax.

Although clearly relevant on a global scale, how exactly is Dr Seuss’ message more immediately applicable to Australia? I doubt I need to inform most of you of the many environmental problems currently plaguing our nation, ranging from habitat destruction and species extinction, to broader issues such as climate change and the economy’s reliance on natural resources. A country born out of mining booms and farming, it is obviously difficult if not impossible to completely remove our country’s need to utilise many natural elements in order to live and prosper. However, I think it is important to distinguish the terms ‘utilise’ and ‘exploit’, as this story also does. By illustrating the sadness of the Once-ler as he notices that there are ‘No more trees. No more Thneeds. No more work to be done,’ Dr Seuss suggests that perhaps if the Once-ler had been more prudent in his use of a natural resource, his business would have remained sustainable and the wildlife reliant on the trees would not have been as drastically affected. This could not be a more profound message in the current age, with many businesses and their means of production failing or predicted to fail in the near future, as certain unrenewable resources rapidly head towards utter depletion.

As well as demonstrating profound observations of the way humans treat the environment, Dr Seuss also seems to be exposing the ridiculousness of consumer culture – an issue that has a significant amount to do with our species’ exploitation of the natural world. When the Once-ler first produces a Thneed, the Lorax exclaims:

                                                ‘Sir! You are crazy with greed.

                                                There is no one on earth

                                                who would buy that fool Thneed!’

The very next passage in fact proves the Lorax wrong, depicting a (very human-like) character purchasing a Thneed, with the Once-ler boasting:

                                                ‘…“You poor stupid guy!

                                                You never can tell what some people will buy.” 

This very statement alludes to our often obsessive purchasing of seemingly useless commodities that are advertised as must-haves. Although humourous, it is both sad and frustrating to think that we are sacrificing our natural resources for items that are neither necessary nor appealing (and it’s not like I or many other lovers of the environment can talk - we are all enticed at some point or another by the allure of certain products presented to us by extremely effective marketing campaigns).

We therefore can no longer afford to view ‘economy’ and ‘environment’ as binary opposites because we now know that this is not the case. In the wake of losing countless aspects of our natural world, Australia’s economy will undoubtedly suffer, as business and production will as well. It is also not always a case of pointing the finger (although that can be gratifying), but is rather a case of educating. It is understandable that a fashionable item of clothing may be more attractive than the trees that we all drive past every day in our rush to earn a living. It is also understandable that leaving it to someone else to protect those trees is the easier option to take when we’re all so busy doing other things that may seem more immediately important. But garnering an appreciation for nature is something that I think everyone should take part in  - not just so that we can protect finite aspects of our beautiful and unique country and not just because it will in the long term strongly benefit our economy, but because - most significantly - we know that it is good for us. The health benefits of immersing ourselves in green and natural surroundings have been repeatedly shown in various studies and, just like in appreciating a good film or a well-written book, it does not do us any harm – it instead enhances our lives.

Having learnt the effects of the great deal of destruction he has caused, the Once-ler finally understands that appreciation is needed for nature to return to its former glory. The final words left by the Lorax on a pile of rocks simply read ‘UNLESS’. As the Once-ler hands the young boy the final Truffula seed, it becomes very clear that:

                                    “UNLESS someone like you

                                    cares a whole awful lot,

                                    nothing is going to get better.

                                    It’s not.”