“Plastic waste and pollution pose serious social and environmental risks. When we design solutions to address the plastic problem, we cannot only have a singular goal like ‘reduce pollution’ – we need to think about plastics as a system, and what a sustainable plastics system would look like. If we only focus on one goal, we might miss how our solution causes other problems.” – Levi Helm
Plastic waste management strategies designed to manage or modify the current plastic system are not without their own impacts. In this newly published review, led by PhD student Levi Helm, we evaluate the state of the literature regarding these impacts, based on categories informed by the Sustainable Development Goals. Our review demonstrates that there are many strategies to improve plastic waste management, but impacts of each strategy should be carefully evaluated in the specific context of implementation – that is, the social, economic, and environmental risk profile of the location for the proposed management strategy. We found that there are significant gaps in the literature. Therefore, further studies designed to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of plastic waste management strategies and their impacts are needed to better inform plastic pollution mitigation policy. Accounting for the externalized, or indirect, impacts of PWMS is imperative for designing just, equitable, and sustainable policy for future plastics use in society.
Plastics pose a serious social and environmental threat, requiring significant action.
Strategies to manage plastic also have impacts to sustainability
In our paper, we review the literature the impacts of plastic waste management outside the scope of waste and pollution.
We find that there many of these “external” impacts associated with plastic waste management, some are positive, some are negative, some are context dependent.
The research considers certain impacts, usually those that are easier to measure, more than others. Whether the impact is positive or negative might depend on how the intervention is enacted.
To develop plastics interventions that are socially and environmentally sustainable, we need to broadly consider the trade-offs involved: who or what benefits, and who or what is harmed within the specific context of implementation.
In December 2019, I tweeted these words “I’m having a hard time at the moment. The hard where there is a knot in your stomach all the time, where at the end of the day you weep for no reason, where you wonder what the point of anything is at all…” – pretty dark really.
It was the first time I had acknowledged out loud that there was more than just a vitamin D deficiency – Canada doesn’t get enough UV in winter to keep up with our daily needs apparently. It was also the first time that I really started to think about what I was going through.
I have burnout. But my burnout has aggregated with my ecological anxiety to create a monster I have valiantly named #BurningEcoAnxiety. I’m hoping there is a cream for it.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.
Eco-anxiety is the chronic or severe anxiety related to humans’ relationship with the environment and fear of environmental doom.
For as long as I can remember, I have watched the world burning, wildlife being exterminated, people displaced and enslaved to serve the greed of a few – it’s only getting worse. Our governments twiddle their thumbs, not wanting to disrupt the all important dah dah dahhh “ECONOMIC GROWTH” of capitalism. Politicians accumulate retirement funds, and holiday homes in exotic locations from lobbyists willing to sell their souls to the devil. The 99% work tooth and nail just to survive. Society is a veritable feast of ecological dystopia – that in fact, is our reality.
You might think it’s strange that I have actively sought out this view of the world. But although I ache with every single horror deep in my bones, if I ignore it then I am another complicit participant in the atrocities. So I made it my career to work towards making a difference.
I started my environmental science training 10 years ago. I was curious and thirsty for knowledge, hungry to contribute something good – protecting nature. It was easy to spend all of my time gorging on the horror stories of ecological destruction, extinctions in the news and in conservation journals – growing my expertise in ecocide. Until the weight of it all smashed into me like a 10-tonne truck in December.
Why on earth would anyone do this?
I did this and I will continue to do this because I still see the beauty in the world. I still see the wonder. I can close my eyes and feel the crisp, cold air of Campbell Island in the Southern Ocean, hundreds of kilometres from concrete and steel. I can hear the wind rippling across the feathers of a Northern Royal Albatross, the breeze touching my face as it glides above my head. I can see the infinite blue oceans through the eyes of the albatross as they cruise above the rolling waves. I can smell the ocean air. I can still see the smiles of happiness in the faces of friends, and strangers who embrace immense joy from the ‘little things’.
I still have hope…
I am beginning to accept that this state of being – this BurningEcoAnxiety – has become my homeostasis – to use a biological term. It is my bedfellow. I wouldn’t be the kind of human I want to be if it wasn’t a constant condition, because of what I know. Now it is a part of me that needs to be cared for and managed so that it does’t take control. And if it does, as it inevitably will, I have to be kind, and treat it with a healthy dose of nature and love.
When I sent that ‘pretty dark’ tweet, my tweeps (friends and colleagues) – many whom I have never met in person – showered me with support and solidarity. I cried. But instead of despair, I cried with relief – I was not alone. My wise sister had told me that it might be cathartic to reach out to my community – and she was right. As I talk to more people about it, I realised that I am part of a large community who are afflicted with BurningEcoAnxiety. In reaching out, and in saying out loud what I have been hiding – by defining it – I can find ways to manage it.
So, what happens now?
We stick together, this community of BurningEcoTrauma Fellows. We turn our anger and rage at the inequities of the world into action. We fight. We fight like hell, because there is no other option. And when I am not fighting, I will hold my loved ones a little closer, say kind words to everyone I know and meet, and be compassionate to myself. I will also keep searching for a cream that heals my BurningEcoAnxiety.
**On a final note – I deleted that tweet, the ‘pretty dark’ one. I deleted it because I felt ashamed. Ashamed to admit to falling into this trap – I can intellectualise this trap, I can tell others how to avoid it, I thought I was clever enough to keep clear of the trap. But it turns out I have been operating from the BurningEcoAnxiety trap for longer than I know. I know I am not alone, and I gain strength from others who speak openly about our struggles – Thank you for your courage. So, I hope that my words offer some sense of solidarity to others who are in the trap too. I see you. Don’t be afraid to say it out loud, it turns out its harder than it should be to get help sometimes – persist & I am here if you want to talk @PetrelStation.
Seabirds are top predators, making them crucial indicators of the health of a marine ecosystem. And, they are sending us an alarming message–seabird populations have declined faster than other bird taxa over recent decades. Shearwaters and petrels are one of the most endangered groups of seabirds. These remarkable species are characterized by long ocean journeys for migration and feeding, and a dependence on islands to safely breed and raise young. This dual lifestyle places them at risk from many human-generated pressures.
These pressures on land and at sea have led to a poor conservation status for many of the 124 species of petrels with 52 (42%) threatened species and 65 (52%) suffering population declines. In our review in Frontiers in Marine Science, 38 petrel researchers from 34 institutions and 10 countries reviewed the future directions in conservation and research on petrels and shearwaters.
The study looked at information gaps that must be filled to improve the conservation and management of petrels. The researchers found crucial knowledge gaps on basic information required for their conservation, such as the location of breeding or wintering areas, or their migratory routes.We found that six main threats are the drivers behind global seabird declines.
“These seabirds are highly adapted marine animals as they are found across all the world’s oceans. But they must return to land to breed, usually on isolated and inaccessible islands. This isolation alone has not been enough to protect them from the global threats that are deteriorating the state of health of the seas” says Dr Andre Chiaradia, another leading author in this study from the Phillip Island Nature Parks, home of 1.4 million of short-tailed shearwaters.
The researchers believe that improving conservation status is possible if we can reverse some of the main six threats. “Some of these measures are the elimination, control and prevention of invasive species, restoration of breeding habitats, improvement of policies and regulations at the global and regional level, and the participation of local communities in conservation efforts such as seabird rescue campaigns” adds Dr Rodriguez, the lead author on the study.
“These results provide hope for these two globally important seabird groups. Knowing the primary threats allows us to take action to prevent further decline and save these species from disappearing forever. Invasive species like feral cats and rats are a key threat at breeding colonies. By removing invasive species like feral cats and rats from seabird islands, we can ensure safe breeding habitat and the opportunity for these remarkable species to once again thrive,” said Dr. Nick Holmes, a co-author on the paper and Director of Science at Island Conservation.
The clear message that emerges from this review is the continued need for research and monitoring to inform and motivate effective conservation for seabirds at the global level.
[citation] Rodríguez A, Arcos JM, Bretagnolle V, Dias MP, Holmes ND, Louzao M, Provencher J, Raine AF, Ramírez F, Rodríguez B, Ronconi RA, Taylor RS, Bonnaud E, Borrelle SB, Cortés V, Descamps S, Friesen VL, Genovart M, Hedd A, Hodum P, Humphries GRW, Le Corre M, Lebarbenchon C, Martin R, Melvin EF, Montevecchi WA, Pinet P, Pollet IL, Ramos R, Russell JC, Ryan PG, Sanz-Aguilar A, Spatz DR, Travers M, Votier SC, Wanless RM, Woehler E and Chiaradia A (2019) Future Directions in Conservation Research on Petrels and Shearwaters. Front. Mar. Sci. 6:94. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00094
Plastic pollution has the potential to cause the worst damage to seabirds in the seas around Aotearoa New Zealand, where many of them come to feed and breed.
Aotearoa boasts the greatest diversity of seabirds in the world. Of the 360 global seabird species, 86 breed here and 37 are endemic, which means they breed nowhere else.
Some 90% of New Zealand’s seabirds are threatened with extinction. They (and many other marine species) are under pressure from pollution, climate change, and overexploitation of marine resources. Plastic pollution could be the final nail in the coffin for many seabirds that are already struggling for survival.
A 2015 study suggested that 99% of seabirds would be ingesting plastic by 2050. The authors also predicted that seabirds in our backyard, the Tasman Sea (Te Tai o Rēhua) would be the hardest hit, because of the high densities of seabirds foraging in the region, and the overlap with plastic. This not that surprising, given that the earliest observations of Aotearoa’s seabirds ingesting plastic go back to 1958.
Sentinels of ocean plastic pollution
Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to ingesting plastics because most species feed at or near the ocean surface. They forage along eddies and oceanic convergence zones – the same areas where marine plastics accumulate. The impacts of plastic on seabirds and other marine wildlife include death by entanglement. Ingested plastic can inhibit a bird’s feeding capacity, leading to starvation or internal ulcers, and eventually death.
Flesh-footed shearwater populations in Aotearoa may have declined up to 50% to around 12,000 pairs since the 1980s, and have gone extinct at some of their Hauraki Gulf breeding sites. These declines continue in spite of predator eradication and an end to harvesting on many of the islands where they breed.
Autopsies of birds caught in fisheries in Aotearoa’s waters show flesh-footed and sooty shearwaters are more likely to contain plastic fragments than other species. Plastic fragments found in New Zealand flesh-footed shearwater colonies showed a linear relationship between the number of nest burrows and plastic fragments, indicating that plastic ingestion may be a driver in their population decline.
Chemicals such as PCBs and flame retardants that are added to plastics during manufacture have been found in seabird tissue around the Pacific. High concentrations of toxic chemicals can retard growth, reduce reproductive fitness and, ultimately, kill.
Sooty shearwater (tītī) chicks, which are harvested and consumed by Māori in Aotearoa, have a high potential for ingesting plastic, given evidence of plastic ingestion in shearwaters from Australia and anecdotal evidence from harvesters on Stewart Island (Rakiura). The closely related short-tailed shearwater, which breeds in Australia, has also been show to consume plastic. In one study, 96% of chicks contained plastics in their stomachs and chemical loads in their tissue.
Ocean health and human health
Few, if any, studies have specifically looked at contaminant loads derived from plastics in any species of seabird in Aotearoa. However, Elizabeth Bell from Wildlife Management International is now collecting samples of preen glands, fat and liver tissue for analysis of toxic chemicals in bycatch birds found with plastic inside them. This research is crucial to understanding the implications of the transfer of toxins to people from harvested species that ingest plastic.
Seabirds are the sentinels of ocean health. They tell us what we can’t always see about the health of the oceans and its resources that we rely on.
Plastics are sold to us on the perceived benefits of strength, durability and inexpensive production. These qualities are now choking our oceans.
In a few decades, we have produced an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes. The expedited pace of production has not been met with adequate waste management and recycling capacity to deal with it all. As a result, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic pollute the environment each year.
Plastic pollution is a ‘wicked problem’ – that is ‘a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point’. We can see action on stemming the flow of plastic into the ocean is gaining traction, but we need to recognise the problem is already here. So, how do we manage species conservation in a plasticene world?
I recently co-authored a paper in Science of the Total Environment (PDF here) about why and how we need to be better at linking plastic ingestion research with wildlife conservation, so that we can build tools to better manage the impacts of plastic ingestion on vulnerable species, like seabirds.
Plastic is an increasingly pervasive marine pollutant. Concomitantly, the number of studies documenting plastic ingestion in wildlife is accelerating. Many of these studies aim to provide a baseline against which future levels of plastic ingestion can be compared, and are motivated by an underlying interest in the conservation of their study species and ecosystems. Although this research has helped to raise the profile of plastic as a pollutant of emerging concern, there is a disconnect between research examining plastic pollution and wildlife conservation. We present ideas to further discussion about how plastic ingestion research could benefit wildlife conservation by prioritising studies that elucidates the significance of plastic pollution as a population-level threat, identifies vulnerable populations, and evaluates strategies for mitigating impacts. The benefit of plastic ingestion research to marine wildlife can be improved by establishing a clearer understanding of how discoveries will be integrated into conservation and policy actions.
Figure design by Jessie Borrelle @Moreorlessie http://www.creativecause.com.au/
When I vote, when you vote, when we vote, our individual voice is captured and aggregated in the representatives we choose to empower. Our votes divine how we choose to treat our most vulnerable peoples, and care for our environment. In the simple action of voting, we formalise our aspirations for our future and for the future of our children – to the best of our abilities given the options.
The reason I, a woman, am able to vote in elections, to be a part of the discourse on the way our society is constructed and run is because of the women in history who marched in the streets for equality of rights. Our democracy has come a long way since the suffragists began this march for equality, but it is naive to believe that we have progressed as far as we would like to think.
What does this have to do with marching for science?
One of the most incredible things about the human species is consciousness and reflection, which not only enables us to carry out the scientific method of discovery, but change and grow our minds in response to new information.
As a society, we have achieved things that were once thought of as fanciful – people have walked on the moon, we see beyond our galaxy, we have cured debilitating and deadly diseases, and the rest….our quality of life is the highest in history (for most) – thanks to the scientific method.
Scientists are people. People make societies; societies are constructed, run and improved by evidence-based knowledge,but only when all citizens are the beneficiaries of diverse and inclusive advances. Science and society are a big beautiful interconnected network. If there is inequality in science, our science isn’t the best it can be, and if science is ignored, society suffers, we suffer.
In these current political climes, we are reminded daily that knowledge is powerful, and those that hold knowledge hold power. We see the best evidence of this under the Trump administration. The 45th president’s policy appears to be: holding truth hostage, blatantly refusing to give science a voice in policy, shutting down international scientific programs, and muzzling scientists from sharing publicly funded science with the community (particularly climate change, women’s health and vaccines). This socio-political experiment has frightening implications. We are not immune in New Zealand – you only have to look at the Land and Water forum to open the discussion about the governmentignoring the advice of scientists on the sad state of water quality due to dairy intensification. The transition from evidence-based to value-based policy can a subversive and quiet one. The question is then – are we as New Zealander’s willing to close our eyes while a few individuals make the rules according to their own needs, based on their own values, ignoring the scientific evidence and the bigger picture? Are we willing to waste the progress that the suffragettes and scientists – our Hidden Figures: Beatrice Hill Tinsley’s, Rosemary Askin’s, Kathleen Curtis’, Edith Farkas’, Constance Helen Frost’s et al – fought for, to lose the inroads they made towards equality in science and in society? I’m joining my predecessors in taking to the streets to to march for equity and reason.
I am marching for science because inclusiveness for all peoples and inclusion of science in society and governance is a common sense double down.
I am marching for science because we are science – ever-evolving experiments in understanding.
Cross posted at http://sciblogs.co.nz/guestwork/2017/03/28/march-science-nz-march/
Millions of dollars are spent on removing predators from offshore islands in the aim of protecting seabirds and island biodiversity. However, post-eradication monitoring is limited, so our understanding of how and if seabirds and their island habitats recover is also limited. In this paper, we investigated the recovery of seabirds to islands in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand to try and contribute to understanding these recovery processes better. The paper was published in the journal Oryx and you can find a PDF here!
Protecting seabirds is a global conservation priority
given that 29% of seabird species are threatened with extinction.
One of the most acute threats to seabirds is the
presence of introduced predators, which depredate seabirds
at all life stages, from eggs to adults. Consequently, eradication
of invasive predators has been identified as an effective
and commonly used approach to seabird conservation.
Seabird recovery following the eradication of predators is influenced
by complex and interacting environmental and
demographic factors, and there are gaps in our understanding
of species-specific responses. We reflect on the recovery
of seabirds on islands cleared of predators, drawing on the
equilibrium theory of island biogeography, and synthesize
key influences on recovery reported in the literature. We
present a regionally specific case study on the recovery of
seabird colonies (n = 98) in the Hauraki Gulf, New
Zealand, which is a hotspot of seabird diversity (27 species),
with a long history of eradications of invasive predators. We
found that on islands cleared of predators seabirds recover
over time, and such islands have more diverse seabird assemblages
than islands that never had predators. Recovery
appears to be influenced by a suite of site- and species-specific
factors. Managers may assume that given enough time
following eradication of predators, seabirds will recolonize
an island. Although time is a factor, proximity to source
populations and human activities has a significant effect
on recolonization by seabirds, as do demographic traits, colonizing
ability and habitat suitability. Therefore, integrating
expected site and species-specific recovery responses in the
planning of eradications should help guide post-eradication
If seabirds spend days, months or years at sea, how do they sleep? I talked to Jesse Mulligan at Radio New Zealand to answer that question and more about the fascinating lives of seabirds that make our country home. You can listen to the full interview here:
I’ll admit, initially I felt a little out of my element…. I am conditioned to conservation scientists, who, in all honesty are a bunch of ridiculously fun nerds. No, here there are educators, teachers, lecturers, and students [who are also a bunch of ridiculously fun geeks, just different]. It’s a rag tag bunch of folk who are undoubtedly the most important people in the world. I state that boldly, because these educators are at the coalface of hope for the future. They teach environmental literacy. Inspiring the next generation of scientists, architects, business people, and the rest about the wonder of the natural world. Informing the world’s students what in means to be alive on this planet today.
Why was I there then? well, I presented to the education world the Global Changeapp. A little project myself and some colleagues have been working on about plants, carbon, water and climate change – my aim is to give stomata the 15 minutes of fame to which they are so deserving of. The app was well received and there were lots of interesting and insightful conversations about the environment and the state of education and how tools, such as the app can enhance learning pathways.
I left the conference with a renewed sense of hope, there is an enormous community of educators, researchers, scientists and students working to improving environmental literacy. The next generations of students will have greater understanding, connection and appreciation for the natural world thanks to this community. It was an honor to be in the company of such a wonderful group of people.
An article was published today following a national survey of how New Zealanders felt about our waterways (read the full report here: http://goo.gl/IRtmg3). Admittedly, the survey was aimed at people who are interested in fresh water fisheries – trout, salmon, and game bird hunting (it was initiated by Fish & Game), it turns out that 9 out of 10 respondents wanted to have swimmable, clean waterways, and 70% believed that the expansion of dairy farming has degraded our waterways. I am not really surprised by that, I mean, who really wants to go for a fish or a picnic in /near a filthy cow pooped stream?
We have a lot of rivers in New Zealand, which is pretty neat, so neat in fact that when you make a map of all of the rivers in New Zealand, it resembles, well, New Zealand. I made a map to show you:
The spatial extent alone makes me think that if over 52% of our waterways are contaminated, we are in trouble and we desperately need stronger legislation and action to protect the other 48% before it’s too late. Apparently, the majority of New Zealanders agree.