Dorset drone survey finds 123,000 bits of litter dropped in one week

What a rubbish view! Drone survey of Dorset coast finds more than 1.5 TONNES of litter including glass bottles, wet wipes and cigarette butts dropped in just ONE week

  • Drones found over 123,000 litter items in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole
  • The AI-powered tech scoured the skies over seven days during May bank holiday
  • BCP Council is rolling out fun initiatives to encourage the public to bin their litter
  • These include glow-in-the-dark bins, ‘ballot bins’ and the world’s first ‘disco bin’

A coastal survey using drones in Dorset has laid bare the scale of the UK’s litter problem.

The drones flew over beaches in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole across seven days in the May half term this year. 

Eighteen sites along the seafront in the region were monitored between May 27 and June 2, covering an overall area of 475,000 square metres.

The technology found more than 1.5 tonnes of rubbish left behind by visitors – a third of which were glass bottles when measured by volume. 

In all, more than 123,000 items were identified, up from 22,266 in a drone survey of the same areas during the March lockdown – marking an astonishing 454 per cent increase due to relaxing lockdown measures. 

The top three items littered in terms of number of items were cigarettes (47,467), paper including receipts and napkins (32,678) and plastic fragments (6,578). 

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DRONES IDENTIFY MORE THAN 123,000 LITTER ITEMS

More than 123,000 items were identified over the seven days of the May half term, up from 22,266 in the March survey (454% increase). 

The top three items littered (in terms of number of items) were: 

 -Cigarettes – 47,467 

– Paper (such as receipts and napkins) – 32,678 

– Plastic fragments (bits of plastic bottles, corners of confectionery wrapping, plastic that seagulls have pulled apart) – 6,578 

– Family-related items –  6,977. This included 370 toys, 342 wet wipes and 147 juice cartons. 

More food sachets (1,677) were identified than plastic bottles (1,530). 

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In all, 6,977 items of litter (5.7 per cent of the total) were family-related items, including 370 toys, 342 wet wipes and 147 juice cartons. 

Surprisingly, personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks and disposable gloves only made up 0.7 per cent of the total litter.  

But the volume of litter was said to have been caused by just 20 per cent of the visitors on the beach during the half-term week, as the vast majority had taken their rubbish home with them. 

All the different items were identified thanks to the drones’ artificial intelligence (AI) software, created by tech firm Ellipsis Earth

The software can classify types of waste while it flies over – from different plastic types, like PET and styrofoam, as well as other specific items and named brands. 

Data gathered from the drones will help inform street cleaning schedules as Dorset prepares for a busy summer. 

‘We’re using drones, fixed cameras and mobile and vehicle technology to create detailed litter maps, identify hot spots and build an understanding of how the litter is travelling,’ said Ellie Mackay, chief executive and founder of Ellipsis Earth.

‘The data we provide is not only highly accurate but also extremely detailed, allowing us to develop specific, targeted recommendations for BCP Council to be able to focus their efforts with maximum effect.’   

The drones use artificial intelligence (AI) software created by tech firm Ellipsis Earth that can classify different types of waste

The drones use artificial intelligence (AI) software created by tech firm Ellipsis Earth that can classify different types of waste

Ellipsis Earth launches a drone on Bournemouth seafront. The technology previously used in the UK in March

Ellipsis Earth launches a drone on Bournemouth seafront. The technology previously used in the UK in March

The project is led by BCP Council and environmental charity Hubbub, and includes funding from McDonalds, as well as the fast food giant’s suppliers Britvic, Seda and Huhtamaki.

Hubbub has also rolled out a range of creative initiatives to make Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole’s bins more engaging and noticeable. 

These initiatives, launching today, include glow-in-the-dark bins and the world’s first disco bin that lights up and plays music.

There are also ‘ballot bins’ where you can place a vote using your rubbish – such as whether Jack Grealish or Raheem Sterling is more worthy of a start in England’s next Euro 2020 match against Germany on Tuesday. 

Is football coming home? Hubbub is rolling out ballot bins across Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole that let you have your say on current topics, including Euro 2020

Is football coming home? Hubbub is rolling out ballot bins across Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole that let you have your say on current topics, including Euro 2020

There will also be a Catch of the Day spoof fishmonger stall that will pop up at weekends to raise awareness of plastic pollution. 

And in a bid to crackdown on litter on the seafront at the resort, electronic signage will lead people to the next nearest bin if one is full. 

‘The litter survey has provided us with fascinating insight into where litter is being dropped and when across the region,’ said Trewin Restorick, Hubbub CEO and co-founder. 

‘The challenge now is to get more people noticing and engaging with the bins. 

‘We’re trialling a range of ideas, experimenting with messaging, colour and playful interaction – such as installing voting bins where users cast their vote on a changeable topic.’ 

However, BCP Council is also urging both residents and visitors to help do their part to keep the litter levels down and protect the environment. 

A spoof fishmonger's stall in Bournemouth will help increase public awareness of the pollution problem

A spoof fishmonger’s stall in Bournemouth will help increase public awareness of the pollution problem 

Ellipsis Earth used the drone technology in the Italian town of Sorrento last summer, where it was hailed a huge success – enabling authorities to reduce litter by 45 per cent and cigarette butt waste by 69 per cent. 

Based on the data collected this was done through communication campaigns with visitors and business owners and strategically placing new litterbins and ash trays across the town.

The technology was previously used in the UK in March, but the scale of the problem was far less pronounced as the public was still in lockdown. 

A further survey in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole will take place in August to assess the effectiveness of the new anti-litter initiatives.

McDONALD’S ACCOUNTS FOR HALF OF ALL FAST-FOOD LITTER IN ENGLAND: 2020 REPORT 

By brand, McDonald's was the most common source of waste, accounting for coffee cups and discarded food packaging

By brand, McDonald’s was the most common source of waste, accounting for coffee cups and discarded food packaging

McDonald’s packaging accounts for half of England’s fast-food litter, while Coca-Cola makes up one in five discarded non-alcoholic drink containers, a 2020 study found.

The US fast food giant’s used food wrappers make up 52 per cent of all discarded inner food packaging, environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy said. 

Also contributing to England’s mass of discarded food packaging are companies like Greggs, KFC, Subway, Domino’s and various supermarket home brands. 

Meanwhile, Coca Cola accounted for 22 per cent of non-alcoholic drinks waste, followed by Red Bull, Pepsi and the discount caffeine drink Euro Shopper Energy.  

Brands making up the greatest proportion of litter overall are large household names, with McDonald’s emerging most frequently, followed by Coca-Cola and Wrigley’s gum. 

But of the 75,551 items of rubbish picked up by the charity, cigarette butts made up a third in terms of number of items dropped. 

Plastic bottles, meanwhile, make up the biggest proportion of the country’s rubbish by volume, accounting for a quarter of all rubbish discarded on streets, parks and beaches.

Small plastic bottles commonly used to contain non-alcoholic fizzy drinks accounted for just under 25 per cent of discarded waste by volume in 2019, Keep Britain Tidy said.

But in total, 75 per cent of all litter by volume was drinks containers – not just plastic bottles but also cans, glass bottles, coffee cups and cartons.  

 

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Groups Renewing Call For Plastics Ban In National Park System

Groups are renewing a call for the National Park Service to ban disposable plastic bottles in the park system/Kurt Repanshek file

The change of administrations in Washington, D.C., has led to a renewed call for a ban on disposable plastic bottles in the National Park System, along with a commitment from the agency that plastic wastes in the parks be reduced by 75 percent over the next five years.

While the Obama administration allowed individual parks to ban sales of the disposable bottles, the Trump administration reversed that move, with then-acting National Park Service Director Michael Reynolds saying “it should be up to our visitors to decide how best to keep themselves and their families hydrated during a visit to a national park, particularly during hot summer visitation periods.”

This week Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, GreenLatinos, and Beyond Plastics launched a campaign to prompt the Park Service to renew the ban and work toward a larger effort to reduce plastic wastes in parks. The campaign also includes a petition for the general public to sign on in support of the ban.

According to the groups, plastic bottles are the single biggest component of park waste streams. Yellowstone National Park staff and others “estimate that plastic bottles constitute fully half of its entire trash load,” the groups said.

“Besides the cost of hauling that trash away, the volume of plastic bottles sold in parks consumes large amounts of energy and adds to the carbon footprint of park operations,” they added. “In addition, parks are contributors to the growing plague of plastic pollution afflicting the planet.”

More than 2 million pounds of microplastics, the equivalent of 123 million plastic bottles, settle on national parks and other public lands in the West each year, adding to the growing pollution loads these protected areas carry, according to a 2020 study released by Utah State University researchers.

During the fall of 2019, a U.S. Geological Survey report cited microscopic plastic particles found in high-country lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. While Gregory Wetherbee was studying nitrogen pollution in the park, he found that more than 90 percent of his samples contained colorful plastic particles. Some turned up in a lake above 10,300 feet in elevation.

During the Obama administration, nearly two dozen parks, including Grand Canyon and Zion, barred sales of plastic water bottles. A Park Service study released in 2017 claimed the ban prevented upwards of 2 million 16-ounce bottles from entering the waste stream on an annual basis.

Using an environmental benefits tool crafted in part from peer-reviewed calculations used by the Environmental Protection Agency and data from the National Association for PET Container Resources used to “promote the use of PET and facilitate its recycling,” the Park Service concluded that the 23 parks were responsible for removing 1.32 million-2.01 million 16-ounce bottles from the waste stream. That, in turn, cut between 73,624-111,743 pounds of PET from landfills, resulted in energy savings of 2,209-3,353 million British thermal units per year, and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 93-141 metric tons, the report stated.

“As parks continue to implement their (bottle bans), these numbers and the resulting environmental benefits are expected to grow,” the report said.

According to PEER officials, the bans were opposed by the International Bottled Water Association, led by Coca Cola, the maker of Dasani bottled water.  

“The plastics industry has been dictating park policies for too long,” said PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse. “The conservation mandate for national parks should extend through all their operations, including their concessions.”

Besides implementing a system-wide ban on single-use plastic water bottles, the rule would reinstitute a goal of reducing plastic usage throughout the park system by 75 percent in the next five years. A similar goal had been draft policy for the National Park Service but had been dropped after hefty charitable donations by Coca Cola, the groups maintained. The proposed rule also requires parks to post their annual assessment of the size, composition, and costs of their waste streams. 

“President Biden has declared that combatting climate change and addressing environmental justice should be a government-wide priority,” said Mark Magaña, the founding president & CEO of GreenLatinos, an active comunidad of Latino/a/x environmental and conservation champions. “If the federal government hopes to go ‘green,’ a realistic first step and one of the most important places to start is with our national parks.”

“I urge the Biden Administration to review the petition and direct the National Park Service to prevent the sale of single-use plastic bottles at their facilities,” said Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Administrator and President of Beyond Plastics. “Single-use plastic bottles pose an unnecessary threat to our National Parks, our environment, and our health.”

These bottles are made from plastic recycled by enzymes

The enzymes break down plastic to the molecular level, making it easier to use different kinds of plastics to make new bottles.

These bottles are the first made from plastic recycled by enzymes
[Photo: Jérôme Pallé/courtesy Carbios]
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Inside landfills, researchers have found rare but naturally occurring enzymes that break down plastic. By tweaking one of these enzymes, scientists at Carbios, a France-based startup, have figured out how to make the process happen faster—and now they’ve made the first prototypes of food-grade, enzymatically recycled bottles out of the material.

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The tech makes it easier to recycle plastic that might otherwise be trashed. Currently, traditional recycling involves chopping up plastic, then washing and melting it. For a drink company, it’s only possible to recycle other old drink bottles; even if other items are made out of PET, the material used to make bottles, it might be contaminated with non-food-grade material.

“What that means is we’re not able to use quite a lot of other waste [PET] material which is out there in the world, which would otherwise just go to landfill,” says Ron Khan, vice president of beverage packaging at PepsiCo, which is part of an industry consortium working with Carbios to help scale up the technology. “This new technology allows us to use all those materials which we normally wouldn’t otherwise be able to use.” Traditional mechanical recycling also eventually “downcycles” the plastic into a lower-quality material.

[Photo: Jérôme Pallé/courtesy Carbios]

Instead of breaking down plastic into tiny pieces that are melted, the new process breaks down the material into its basic molecular building blocks. By “depolymerizing” the PET, “we get back to the exact chemical molecules, which come from fossil fuels,” Khan says. “Those exact molecules are sort of plug and play for the PET manufacturers.” The recycling process can happen repeatedly without a loss in quality.

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PepsiCo—along with L’Oréal, Nestlé Waters, and Suntory Beverage & Food Europe—has been helping the small startup with R&D so it can move faster. Each company is also testing the recycled material in the new bottles to make sure it meets quality standards for their various products, from soda to makeup.

For brands, the new technology could help with supply of recycled plastic. Pepsi is shifting to 100% recycled PET for its drink bottles in Germany, Spain, and some other European countries this year, and others next year. Globally, it plans to hit a target of 25% recycled content in all plastic packaging by 2025. (The company is also working on some other alternative materials and new models, like refillable bottles with products like SodaStream.)

In countries where PET recycling rates are high—like Norway, where more than 90% of bottles are recycled—it isn’t challenging to use traditional recycling. In other areas, being able to recycle more than bottles can help fill a gap. Anything made from PET, from polyester clothing to carpet, could be safely turned into new plastic.

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Building new recycling facilities at the necessary scale will be challenging. Carbios plans to begin building a demonstration plant this fall, and to launch an industrial facility by 2025. At scale, Khan says, the new plastic could compete in cost with traditionally recycled plastic.

Lego found a way to build its bricks out of recycled plastic

A single one-liter bottle can be recycled into material for around 10 standard two-by-four Lego bricks.

Lego just figured out how to build its specialized bricks out of recycled plastic
[Photo: Lego]
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Inside a lab in Billund, Denmark, down the road from a Lego factory that makes around 100 million bricks and other toy pieces every day, dozens of materials scientists and engineers are working on one of Lego’s biggest challenges—how to make its toys without oil-based plastic.

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By 2030, the company aims to make its signature bricks from recycled or renewable materials that can also be fully recycled. But it’s not as simple as just sourcing recycled plastic for its factory.

“For us, the challenge comes from needing materials that are durable and safe enough to be handled by children day in, day out, and can be molded to the accuracy of a hair width to ensure bricks produced today fit with those made over 60 years ago,” says Tim Brooks, vice president of environmental responsibility at the Lego Group. “Most existing recycled materials don’t meet these criteria. We either can’t use them or need to modify the material to ensure it fits the safety and quality requirements for LEGO products—essentially, we need to find entirely new materials for our products.”

[Photo: Lego]

Today, Lego announced some progress: After years of testing more than 250 different formulations of PET, the type of plastic commonly used in water bottles, the team now has a recycled PET prototype that performs well. After more testing and tweaking, it could eventually be used in production.

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A single one-liter bottle can be recycled into material for around 10 standard two-by-four Lego bricks, which are currently made from another type of plastic called ABS. If the process stopped there, the bricks wouldn’t meet Lego’s quality standards. But the team designed a new formulation that makes recycled PET stronger so it’s more durable. The designers also had to make sure the material had the right “clutch power”—meaning it snaps together well and pulls apart easily. It can’t change shape over time, even if it sits in a hot car. The material has to have an even color when it’s made and the right shine. The bricks even have to have a particular sound. “There’s a lot of things we’re trying to replicate,” says Brooks. The source of the recycled material also had to be traceable to ensure it’s not contaminated, so the company turned to food-grade PET.

[Photo: Lego]

The team will continue to test the new material for at least a year before deciding whether to begin pilot production. They’ll also continue testing other materials, both for toys and for the company’s packaging; by 2025, Lego plans to phase out single-use plastic in packages. On any given day, around 150 people in the lab run tests to see what it takes to break, puncture, or melt various materials; how the material performs in machines pumping out a high volume of bricks; and how it performs in all of the company’s 3,000 shapes. The material also has to work well with other materials, like the plant-based plastic Lego has used for a handful of pieces. (Plant-based plastic is only used for softer pieces, and can’t be used for hard bricks, at least in its current formulation.)

[Photo: Lego]

The new material has one challenge—because of the change in the formulation to make it more durable, it can’t be recycled like regular PET. But new advanced recycling technologies that break down plastic differently could be able process it. Lego’s aim is for its bricks to stay in use as long as possible, and in one program, it asks customers to send back old toys for donation to other children. The bricks are durable enough to last for decades, so the company can’t rely on old Legos to provide enough material to supply its factory. But there is a large supply of recycled PET.

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A switch to recycled plastic can help with the larger challenge of plastic waste, and it can also help reduce the company’s carbon footprint. Materials are responsible for nearly a third of Lego’s greenhouse gas emissions, and recycled materials have a 70% lower emissions than conventional materials. “Not only is it good to keep that plastic out of landfills and out of nature, it’s also a good climate footprint,” Brooks says.

Drones are helping to clean up the world's plastic pollution

The problem is so far-reaching it’s hard to know where to start cleaning it up. But UK-based startup Ellipsis Earth believes it can help.
Using drones fitted with cameras, Ellipsis maps the location of plastic pollution. Through computer software and image recognition, it’s then able to identify the type of plastic, its size, and in some cases, even the brand or origin of the trash. This data can be used to inform solutions.
Ellipsis uses image recognition software to map trash. (courtesy Ellipsis Earth Ltd)
“We would be able to find out that ‘Beach X’ has a ton of fishing nets and discarded lobster traps, whereas ‘Beach Y’ has a ton of hygiene and sanitation wet wipes,” says Ellie Mackay, Ellipsis founder and CEO.
For the Beach X scenario, “we need to speak to the fishing industry and get some regulation around dumping of ghost nets,” she tells CNN. Whereas for Beach Y, “it’s about educating people not to flush things down the toilet and speaking to local sewage outlets.”
The technology allows Ellipsis to carry out a survey in a matter of minutes — much faster than the typical method on foot.

Mapping the world

The startup, which was officially founded in 2019 following several years of research and development, has undertaken projects all over the world — from the UK coastline to the banks of the Ganges river in India.
The project that hit home most for Mackay was in the Galapagos Islands, roughly 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador. “There are coastlines there that have not changed since [Charles] Darwin set foot on those beaches, all those years ago,” she says. “The only difference — the only evidence that man exists — is in the plastic all over the beaches.”
Data gathered by Ellipsis in 2017 and 2018 found that on one of the most remote beaches in the area, you are never more than 43 centimeters (17 inches) away from a piece of trash, says Mackay.
But such shocking data has led to action. Since the Ellipsis baseline survey, Mackay says that Galapagos authorities have introduced a ban on single-use plastics, including Styrofoam takeaway containers and plastic bags, across the archipelago. While the majority of plastic that washes up on the islands’ shores comes from elsewhere (most of the islands are uninhabited and the population is only around 25,000), the ban extends to tourists and service providers.
Another Ellipsis project based in Sorrento, Italy, surveyed cigarette butt littering, leading to an education campaign and more strategic placement of bins and ashtrays across the town. According to Ellipsis, the campaign has resulted in a 70% reduction in cigarette littering.
A 'Bubble Barrier' is trapping plastic waste before it can get into the seaA 'Bubble Barrier' is trapping plastic waste before it can get into the sea
Meanwhile, the startup’s ongoing project in Bournemouth, UK, will inform the local council of trash hotspots, so that it can provide extra bins or alter street cleaning schedules.
Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology and director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth in the UK, says that this solution-based approach to gathering data is vital.
While there is plenty of evidence to prove that plastic pollution exists worldwide, there is still a lack of targeted data that can be used to inform effective solutions, he says.

Tech evolution

The use of aerial imagery to map plastic pollution is not new. Thompson recalls a time before drones, when scientists experimented with sending up balloons with cameras attached to take aerial photos of beaches. More recently, the European Space Agency used satellites to identify plastic pollution.
“But what’s happening here is that the technology for drones and also the image resolution has improved quite substantially over time, making it much more viable,” says Thompson.
Ellipsis Earth CEO and founder Ellie Mackay is a drone pilot who has traveled the world for research projects.Ellipsis Earth CEO and founder Ellie Mackay is a drone pilot who has traveled the world for research projects.
Mackay agrees. “Drones are a game changer for environmental monitoring. They allow us to survey an entire stretch of coastline … in a few minutes,” she says, adding that Ellipsis technology can automatically detect 47 categories of trash items with more than 95% accuracy.
However, there are limits to what the Ellipsis technology can detect. Microplastics — plastic particles smaller than five millimeters, of which at least 14 million metric tons are estimated to be sitting on the ocean floor alone — cannot be identified.
But Mackay argues that by focusing on tracking and mapping larger plastic items they are helping to solve the problem at its root. “If you collect one plastic bottle, that’s 25,000 potential microplastic pieces in the future,” she says.
Blue Nature Alliance aims to restore 7 million square miles of ocean in five years Blue Nature Alliance aims to restore 7 million square miles of ocean in five years
Thompson believes this is the right approach. He says the majority of plastic entering the ocean is in the form of bigger waste items that later break down. “That’s really the place where you want to intervene and the place where you want the data. It’s far simpler to count and identify the microplastics of the future,” he says, adding that different techniques will be required to quantify plastic particles — such as microbeads from cosmetics — that are already small when they enter the environment.
Ultimately, Mackay’s goal is not to stop the use of plastic altogether — she recognizes what an “amazing” and useful material it is — but rather to improve management of it.
“By mapping trash around the world, we’ll be able to target our solutions effectively,” she says, creating a “lasting impact through behavior change and education, (so) that we’ll be able to minimize the amount of mismanaged waste.”
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Lego develops first bricks made from recycled plastic bottles

Lego has unveiled its first bricks made from recycled plastic bottles and revealed that it hopes to include the pieces in sets within two years.

The Danish company, which takes its name from the Danish words for “leg godt”, meaning “play well”, makes billions of bricks a year, most of them from a plastic called ABS which gives them “clutch power”, helping them to grip together.

The prototype 4×2 bricks have been made from PET plastic from discarded bottles with additives to give them the strength of standard Lego parts, and are the result of three years of experiments with 250 variations of materials.

On average, every 1-litre plastic bottle used in the process provides enough material for 10 4×2 Lego bricks.

The process will be tested and developed further before the toymaker decides whether to move to the pilot production phase. The next part of testing is expected to take at least a year.

Lego has more than 150 people working on making its products more sustainable and said it would invest up to $400m (£286m) over three years in achieving that aim.

It has already announced plans to remove single-use plastic from boxes, and since 2018 has been producing parts from bio-polyethylene (bio-PE), made from sustainably sourced sugarcane. These parts are bendy pieces, such as trees, leaves and accessories for figurines.

It said the pigments used to dye bricks were not oil-based, but it was working to make them more sustainable.

Tim Brooks, vice-president for environmental responsibility at Lego Group, said the biggest challenge was “rethinking and innovating new materials that are as durable, strong and high quality as our existing bricks – and fit with Lego elements made over the past 60 years”.

He added: “We’re committed to playing our part in building a sustainable future for generations of children. We want our products to have a positive impact on the planet, not just with the play they inspire, but also with the materials we use. We still have a long way to go on our journey, but are pleased with the progress we’re making.”

Environmental campaigners welcomed the use of recycled plastics, but said it should not be the “default solution” to the plastics crisis.

Camilla Zerr, plastics campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Children deserve to grow up in a world free of pointless plastic pollution, so initiatives where toys can be made using recycled plastics are promising, and others in the industry should follow suit.

“But it’s really important that recycling isn’t hailed as the default solution to the plastics crisis. Manufacturers must ensure toys are made to endure many years of use, so they can be handed down and reused from generation to generation.”

Zerr said the government could “take bolder strides” by setting laws on plastic pollution in its environment bill.

The plastics you throw away are poisoning the world's eggs

Eggs eaten by some of the world’s poorest people are being poisoned by plastic waste from rich countries like Canada and the U.S., new research has found.

A suite of harmful chemicals are added to plastic and food packaging to give them desirable traits, like grease resistance or flexibility. When they burn or break down, these chemicals contaminate the surrounding environment and animals living or feeding nearby.

Chickens can absorb the chemicals by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated worms and insects. Eggs are particularly sensitive to containing toxic chemicals and are commonly consumed by people, according to the report produced by the International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN), a global coalition of environmental organizations.

The problem is most acute for people in low- and middle-income countries at the receiving end of the multibillion-dollar global trade in plastic and electronic waste. According to the recent study, which was not peer-reviewed, people eating free-range eggs raised near 25 plastic waste dumps and recycling centres in 14 low- and middle-income countries are exposed to levels of toxic chemicals far beyond safe limits to human health.

“I’m really impressed,” said Max Liboiron, a professor of geography at Memorial University who specializes in plastic pollution. (Liboiron was not involved in the research.)

“These folk are looking at the mixing of plastic and e-waste in the actual conditions that the waste occurs, they’re looking at the way people actually eat eggs … and they’re looking at a range of chemicals (that) exist in the real world.”

It’s a “really, really rare” approach, Liboiron explained, as most research into the toxicity of plastics only looks at a select few chemicals in a laboratory setting. That can make it difficult to assess the full impact plastic waste disposal and recycling have on human health and the environment. The problem is exacerbated by the chemicals’ tendency to change — and often become more toxic — when exposed to heat, light and other chemicals and metals.

“The chemical that goes into plastic isn’t necessarily the same chemical that comes out. It can change when you expose it to air, water, different pH, different salinities,” explained Imari Karega Walker, a PhD candidate at Duke University studying the environmental impact of plastic additives.

Those factors can create a suite of chemicals that fly under industry and government safety checks on new plastic products, yet pose a danger to the environment and human health, she said. The IPEN study looked at some of those compounds in its broad assessment of persistent organic pollutants, like carcinogenic dioxins and biphynols produced from burning plastic waste, for instance.

The study’s choice to assess recycling sites as well as open landfills is also important, Liboiron noted. For years, the global plastics industry has promoted recycling as a sustainable and safe way to dispose of harmful plastics. The findings point out that those promises may not be accurate.

Furthermore, they highlight the ongoing problems arising from rich countries’ waste exports to the developing world.

Eggs eaten by some of the world’s poorest people are being poisoned by plastic waste from rich countries like Canada and the U.S., new research by @ToxicsFree has found. #PlasticWaste

“A lot of our waste management systems rely on exports … the U.S., U.K., Europe (and Canada) don’t have a functional waste infrastructure,” Liboiron explained. “(We’re) implicated, because it’s quite literally our waste.”

Earlier this year, Canada officially entered into the Basel Convention’s plastic agreement, a global treaty restricting the international trade in plastic waste. However, critics have noted that in fall 2020, the federal government quietly signed an agreement with the U.S. to allow the free flow of plastic waste between the two countries.

Roughly 93 per cent of Canada’s plastic waste exports go to the U.S., according to data by the Basel Action Network (BAN), an environmental organization. Because the U.S. isn’t a signatory to the treaty, it can export Canadian plastic garbage to poorer countries.

Each month, about 25.7 million kilograms of plastic waste — mainly low-quality, unrecyclable plastic of uncertain origin — leaves U.S. shores for countries like Malaysia, Mexico and Vietnam, BAN reports. While countries have in recent years tried to stem some of the flow, which is technically illegal, many have had trouble stopping the import of trash from overseas.

In theory, if the receiving country has signed the Basel Convention — as 188 countries have — it can’t accept the waste without a bilateral agreement with the U.S. However, economic pressure and a lack of enforcement can make it nearly impossible to stem the flow, according to a December investigation into the issue.

“The whole thing can be understood as waste colonialism,” Liboiron said. “It’s our export of waste to other places, but the reason they import our waste is because of existing colonial legacies where we’ve taken out anything else of value already, and now their most viable choice is to import our (trash).”

Nick Dormon: How can we redesign pill packaging to be accessible and sustainable?

Blister packs were a major innovation when they debuted, but it’s time to acknowledge that they’re hard for some people to open and that they create enormous amounts of waste. There has to be a better way.

How can we redesign pill packaging to be accessible and sustainable?
[Photos: Anastasiia_Guseva/iStock, khuntapol/iStock]
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When the blister pack was conceived in the 1960s, it revolutionized unit-dose drug administration by providing a cheap, light, tamper-proof barrier that preserved product integrity. But it was also a fine example of packaging design that facilitated user compliance. Through assigning the days of the week to each pill on the blister packs, a simple container became a handy memory aid for regular pill takers—a critical mechanism for those on the contraceptive pill where one missed day could result in an unplanned pregnancy. Moreover, the design deterred mass pill consumption in a way that pill bottles did not, providing an additional barrier for safety.

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But today, not much has changed. Some 12 million people older than 65 in the U.K. and 40 million in the U.S. take five pills per day to manage ailments, and their risk of overdosing or under-medicating is very real. Current packaging design, at the hands of the frail and near of sight, is not just impractical but potentially dangerous. And this danger doesn’t just relate to older individuals; it relates to the planet at large.

At the prime of health, we think nothing of popping a pill out of its blister. Sharp eyes and dexterous fingers make the simple act almost effortless. But what appears like second nature to the intermittent aspirin taker becomes a fiddly and frustrating task for those who are elderly and infirm struggling with shakes and arthritis. It is not democratically accessible.

Then there’s the sustainability issue. Blister packs comprise a multilayer of different materials: One to form a rigid structure, and the other to provide a pierceable membrane, making it a nightmare to recycle. Its very design requires the consumer to separate layers into mono-materials before they can be discarded into their respective recycling bins. If 12 million people in the U.K. are consuming, on average, five pills per day and the standard pill pack has around eight pills, that alone equates to approximately 2.7 billion pill packs tossed into landfills every year.

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Pill bottles meanwhile present a different yet equally frustrating set of problems. Child- and tamper-resistant safety caps with a depress-and-twist-off mechanism are as much of a deterrent for older adults as they are for the children they are designed to protect. Security seals at the neck of the bottle that show the cap intact are tiny and removable only by considerable force. Then there’s the dispensing issue, with a design that works against the forces of gravity that practically invites the contents to spill everywhere.

Senior patients have for too long fallen prey to unempathetic design. What can be done about it?

Rethinking accessibility

The problem requires lateral thinking. Perhaps the solution lies not in a redesign of medication packaging itself but in creating altogether new ways for the drugs to reach the patient.

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There has been some innovation in this space. PillPack, the online pharmacy acquired by Amazon in 2019 for $753 million, organizes medications into individual paper packets that are labeled with the date and time they should be taken and mailed to the patient. The dispenser box administers packs sequentially, making it clear if you’ve missed a day, while on the side of the box itself is an illustrated list of pills that allows you to cross-check that you’re taking the correct medication. However, fine print on the packets and on the box itself still leave the same challenges for people with visual and/or cognitive impairments. Inaccessibility has not been designed out.

And although the solution simplifies the management of complex drug plans, many issues have been raised around the compromising of product integrity in the name of convenience. A cursory glance of reviews shows that some patients have received incorrect medication or broken pills, highlighting how critically vulnerable the supply chain is to human error.

We might be able to forgive the odd erroneous or absent ingredient present in meal boxes we’re subscribed to and can still cook a meal with little consequence (give or take a slight variance in taste). But the same error in the dispensing of our prescription medications can have very grave consequences.

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Hero is another innovative example of technology revolutionizing medication management. Its at-home pill dispensers organize medication and prompt patients to take the correct pills at the right time. But the system requires manual loading, leading us to the same cumbersome interaction with pill and blister packs.

A circular system for drug administration

These innovations are a step in the right direction but in order to be truly inclusive, not least to the burgeoning population of elders, it’s critical that these design flaws are ironed out. The design solution could be a fully integrated system in which pre-organized units of drugs, prepared according to prescription, are encased in containers that can be delivered to the home and loaded directly, like a cartridge in a printer, into a child-proof drug-dispensing machine designed inclusively with physically, visually, and cognitively impaired users in mind.

The organizing and compliance features of a Hero or a PillPack could be counterbalanced by a system that is structurally durable, preserves product integrity, is considerate of transportation and supply chain issues, and limits plastic use.

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For example, a container molded from pressed medical-grade steel made compatible with an auto-dose appliance could feasibly store and dispense the correct medication at the right time while including safety features that do not rely on physical strength and dexterity to operate—rather, just adult-size hands. Structural design can be employed for simplified transportation, creating packs that are easily connectable, thus being economical on space. The containers themselves could be deconstructed with a specialist tool for cleaning, providing an additional barrier against tampering.

By looking holistically at the problem of accessibility and sustainability and redesigning its delivery and packaging infrastructure, the pharmaceutical industry will not only be able to manage costs better but also improve its user experience and lessen its considerable environmental footprint.

Tech innovation is not a panacea to a complex health and aging crisis. But human-centric, empathetic design can be optimized by technology to alleviate the user experience issues that degrade a senior adult’s quality of life.

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It’s amazing to think how a seemingly innocuous blister pack can compound our everyday life and even endanger it when we’re at our most vulnerable. Interacting with it can feel like an everyday petty humiliation—an object that goads us and mocks our disability. But imagine a better alternative having a positive transformative effect on our experience, going even as far as giving back some quality and meaning to life when these two most important freedoms start to evade us in old age.

Can drug packaging really do all that?

If it can worsen, even threaten, our lives, then why can’t it improve them? We have the capability and resources to make that vision a reality—and it all begins from that empathetic, person-centered space. In the face of these looming social time bombs, that work must begin now.

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Nick Dormon is managing director of brand design and innovation agency Echo.

Target will design all its own branded products for circularity by 204

The company will also aim to be fully net zero by the same year.

Target will design all its own products for circularity by 2040
[Illustration: FC]
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At Target, you can buy compostable cutlery, cleaning products in glass bottles (easier to recycle than plastic), and shoes that can be sent back to the manufacturer to be recycled into new products—all examples of ways to avoid adding waste to landfills at the end of a product’s life. And in the future, the company hopes its customers don’t end up trashing anything they buy from a Target-owned brand. By 2040, Target aims for 100% of its own products to be designed for a circular future.

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That goal is part of a larger sustainability strategy by the retailer called Target Forward, which has three main objectives: to design and elevate sustainable brands, to eliminate waste, and to push for equity and opportunity across the company and in its communities nationwide. Within that plan, Target aims to be zero waste in its U.S. operations and net zero in terms of scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions by 2040, and increase its Black team member representation across the company by 20% by 2023.  The Target Forward initiative builds on sustainability steps the company has already taken, such as committing to source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.

Target’s goal for its own brand products—including Good & Gather, Up & Up, Room Essentials, and more—to be designed for circularity doesn’t necessarily mean “circularity” in the most rigorous sense. Not all those items will have a second life as something else you can buy, in the same way that you can send back your Target-purchased Okabashi shoes to be turned into something new. Instead, that goal is about creating products that are “more durable, easily repaired, or recyclable,” and using materials that are regenerative, recycled, or sourced sustainably. Amanda Nusz, Target’s senior vice president of corporate responsibility and president of the Target Foundation, points to current examples that serve as a foundation of that work, including the Universal Thread apparel line, which uses “more sustainably sourced” cotton and recycled polyester, and the Everspring cleaning line, which includes bio-based hand soaps and compostable cleaning wipes.

That effort will include some customer-education components as well, to inform shoppers about what to do with an item instead of tossing it in the trash. “A great example is packaging,” Nusz says. “What we think about is how to deliver packaging that is compostable, recyclable, or to just remove the packaging, and make sure that the guests understand by the label the packaging they ended up [with].” Shoppers can also bring things to Target stores to be recycled.

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When it comes to reducing waste, Nusz says Target already diverts 80% of its waste today, and its efforts like the Beyond the Bag initiative to “reinvent single-use plastic bags” will further reduce that waste. For its Target Forward sustainability strategy, the retail company worked with partners including Business for Social Responsibility and Brands for Good, and suppliers like Unilever and Lego.