Plastic not so fantastic

Recently it might have come to your attention through one media format or another that there is growing pressure to ban plastic bags. The concern comes as awareness of its damage in the environment and in particular the marine ecosystem where dissections of dead marine life for the purpose of autopsy have increasingly found animals stuffed full of plastics. And as the viewing/reading public have reacted in horror to the photos, questions have arisen about why plastic is so bad and what can be done about it.

I could do a simple Q+A session here, but I think you are intelligent enough to figure a lot of it out for yourselves. Instead, I am going to look at some of the more toxic elements in plastics, how they affect us and what is (not)being done to address the issue.

Bisphenol is a group of chemical compounds with hydroxyphenyl functionalities. Its most common type Bisphenol A (B.P.A.) is commonly used in plastics and epoxy resins, as a lining on food and beverage cans among other uses. In 2015 4 million tons of B.P.A. was manufactured for use around the world.

B.P.A. has a chequered reputation. Whilst some studies suggest that it might be tentatively linked to cancer in general terms, none have concluded this decisively. Links to neuroblastoma are somewhat stronger. But it has been linked to asthma, potential changes in how aquatic species and in particular fish reproduce, grow and develop.

Although B.P.A. is the most commonly used it is not the only potentially toxic chemical in plastics. Polyvinyl Chloride (P.V.C.). After polyethylene and polypropylene it is the most heavily used plastic polymer in the world. It has widespread industrial applications that range from being used in bank cards, electrical cable insulation, inflatable products among others.

Calls have been made to introduce a levy on plastic bags. Others want to go further and ban plastic bags outright.

I personally support a vast reduction in plastic bags and try to reduce my own use of them. One of the steps I have taken is taking reusable ones from home to the supermarket with me, or if it is one or two items only, simply carry them. I am not totally for a ban though because plastic bags do have their uses, such as being somewhere to put the dog’s poop that you have just scooped off the footpath; used to line rubbish bins among other not so glamorous, yet important functions.

I am in two minds about banning plastic bags. Sure we have just seen some of the toxic elements in our bags, and that dead marine life being found full of plastics is not a nice sight, but would not a N.Z.$0.50c levy per bag act as a good incentive to voluntarily give them up? Not wanting to pay another $4 on the supermarket bill, one might be surprised at how effective the deterrent would be.

A better requirement would be to introduce compulsory recycling points at all large chain stores. This would give people a place where they can safely dispose of their excess bags and get an accurate fix on the severity of the problem. Although I have concerns about the potential environmental emissions that would result from it, there are industrial uses that could be considered also for our excess baggage. Whilst I am not sure that New Zealand construction standards would permit the use of recycled plastic in roads as a way of cutting down on the asphalt, it is something that has been tried in India.

The long story short: Plastic is not fantastic, but there are alternative uses that people have developed. We just need to stop humming and harring and get on with deciding how to take a problem that does not biodegrade.

Oil companies need to be held to account in New Zealand

Recently it emerged that New Zealanders pay up to 30 cents more per litre of product than the company importing the petroleum paid after tax. This came after a study found that the retail petrol market has features that make it not consistent with a working competitive market.

But should we be surprised? Not at all.

It has been a priority of this Government to permit oil and gas companies more exploration space in our waters. To ensure it has been able to go ahead without environmental protesters getting in the way, it even passed under urgency, laws attempting to criminalize the peaceful assembly of protesters on the high seas, permitting the Royal New Zealand Navy to be used as an arresting force.

Past Ministers for Energy and Resources have shown little inclination to act on concerns about petroleum companies conduct in terms of being fair players before the New Zealand Commerce Commission. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear that the current Minister of Energy and Resources, Judith Collins has demanded a report that should have been called for some time ago.

New Zealand has a few major players who take out most of the retail fuel market. They include Z, which entered the market in 2010 and acquired the old Shell stations. The other major players are B.P., Caltex and Mobil. Independent players such as Gull and Allied occupy significantly smaller parts of the market pie.

Part of the need for bringing petroleum companies to account for themselves deals with social and environmental pressures. Whilst oil companies in New Zealand might not commit environmental and human rights abuses as they do in places like Nigeria, the perceptions of improper ethics and legal conduct certainly do.

These, but also due to growing concerns about climate change, the Government needs to take the lead and set an example for the oil companies to follow. Part of it to make them realize that biofuel will need a lot of the infrastructure that is currently used for petroleum production. Thus refining and transporting is still going to be needed, as is a company to market the product.

One of the ways it could do this is to establish a national biofuel programme with buy in from the companies. To start the process a cross party working group should be established with three separate tasks:

  • Establish the economic feasbility of a biofuel progamme
  • Determine potential fuel sources with emphasis on waste stream product
  • Determine acceptable standards of biofuel for New Zealand motor vehicles

There are elements of the New Zealand political spectrum who see no future for petroleum. The sheer number of vehicles on the road, both here and abroad means there will probably always be a need for petroleum and in supplying that, there will also be a need for companies to supply the product to the New Zealand market. And at the other end there are politicians who see only the monetary and commercial gains to be had from petroleum, where the dollar blinds them to their social and legal responsibilities.

So whilst we might be reaching peak petroleum and the companies that sell this might be getting criticized for products that are increasingly being linked – rightfully or wrongfully to climate change – there is still a place for them in the future, but they need realize there is a life beyond petroleum.

Greens/New Zealand First bickering a boon to National

Today I heard that Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei had called out New Zealand First leader Winston Peters on the immigration policy of his party. In an interview with T.V.N.Z. journalist Jessica Mutch, Ms Turei said that Mr Peters’ party policy was racist. Mr Peters was quick to respond, saying that the Greens should not think there would be no consequences for making those remarks.

Whether you agree with Ms Turei or Mr Peters, ownership of water is something no one person has. Water is collectively owned by everyone. We have a vested interest due to the physical characteristics of the water cycle in ensuring that the water that we use depart our usage in as good quality as that which we received it.

Maori and non Maori both place values consistent with their upbringing on natural resources. Maori may view themselves as kaitiaki (guardians)of the resource. Non-Maori may disagree as I am sure many do. A fisherman will want the water to be clean so that the fish s/he is catching is healthy and able to reproduce and if being caught for consumption, obviously safe to consume. An urban area, town or dwelling will likewise want good water quality so that their occupants can safely use the water for cooking, washing, drinking and so forth.

But back to two parties immaturely bickering. After a torrid few weeks, Prime Minister Bill English will no doubt be quietly delighted at the sudden burst of bickering between New Zealand First and the Greens. The National strategists will be looking for ways to exploit it.

The spat is likely to be bothersome for both parties, given that they need to co-operate against a party that is still doing very well in the polls, whilst Labour is still in the doldrums. Labour will be hoping the strategists and the politicians in both parties quickly see the light and calm down. In an election with huge implications for New Zealand’s future, the last thing the centre-left can afford to be seen doing is fighting among itself.


Tyre scheme a win for both business and environment

It is with considerable interest that I read of a planned investment of N.Z.$13.6 million into technology at a cement plant that uses shredded old tyres to make its products with.

There are significant issues with tyre dumps at large and include (but are not restricted to):

  • Aesthetically displeasing to look at from the road, or air
  • Tyre leachate includes highly toxic elements such as cadmium and zinc
  • Tyre burning releases toxic smoke, which can be a health hazard downwind

New Zealand has been somewhat behind other countries in dealing with waste tyres. It is understood that tyres are generally useless for recycling purposes after about 10 years.

It is therefore important that New Zealand develop a policy framework that enables the recycling of tyres and encourages transport businesses to develop tyre recycling programmes in conjunction with local councils. Although this is apparently underway, the large number of old tyres in dumps, in makeshift storage facilities and other locations around New Zealand mean that there should be a sense of urgency about finishing the framework. Investments such as this where a large number of tyres can be used up – this would take out about 62% of our total annual tyre wastage, and leave about 38% or 1.9 million tyres still needing some sort of recycling.

Tyres also have oil in them. If one thinks a few steps beyond this, what is the feasibility of getting the oil out of unwanted tyres? Whilst not being certain of the answer, certainly it becomes a focus point for a potential future study to be done. Of course, this in itself then raises another set of questions such as whether or not the oil can be refined to a usable state.

A business was set up by a Neil Mitchell in 2014 calle Tyreless Corporation Limited. It was intended to be a processing plant that could extract oil from the thousands of waste tyres in the Hawkes Bay region. Unfortunately just over a year later it was put into insolvency.

A University of Waikato law professor, Alexander Gillespie, believes that the solution to New Zealand’s tyresome problem is to pass costs onto producers. This would act as an incentive for them to redesign their products.

I am not sure if Professor Gillespie means through a Pigovian tax that is designed to act as a disincentive to breach environmental standards. If so, this could only happen if a standard were developed for tyre disposal. It would be debatable whether or not fines would not be a better financial measure as some are dumped deliberately.

So, I await with interest to see where this goes, being aware that past attempts to deal with New Zealand’s tyre problem have not always worked out.

Trump quits Climate Accord; World forges ahead

Yesterday I mentioned the role of the gases linked to climate change in causing acidification of the oceans and how it could wreck the food chain. I mentioned the potential economic consequences in Queensland of not doing more to protect the oceans.

Now United States President Donald Trump has walked away from the Paris Climate Accord. Citing the supposed economic toll to the United States if it continues working on the Accord, the United States Government has shown its preference for fossil fuels at a time when major in roads are being made into renewable fuels, more efficient methods of electricity generation and the rise of the electric car. Mr Trump has demonstrated a callous disregard for an environmental crisis where the overwhelming majority of scientists believe gas emissions from excessive fossil fuel burning is the cause of a major rise

But not all is lost. Even as the United States Government refused to have any more to do with it, a revolt is spreading across America. 61 cities decided to support the Paris Climate Accord anyway. On the world stage other big players including China, the European Union and even Australia – better known for deriding the Paris Climate Accord and the preceding Kyoto Climate Protocol – stepped up and indicated they would honour their commitments.

In New Zealand, despite the mediocre efforts made by this Government to date and the inability of the Opposition to gain traction in Parliament, the commitment to reduce our contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions equation has not changed.  In terms of going forward, I believe there are a significant range of energy sources that New Zealand could be significantly investing more into. Namely:

  • Biofuel
  • Tidal power
  • Solar

There are also a number of steps that could be taken to reduce the power footprint in New Zealand.

A Green audit done over a decade ago suggested that between 15-20% of New Zealand’s power usage was avoidable. If that is still the case today, with an installed generation capacity of 9637 megawatts, between about 7700 and 8200 megawatts would be needed if all of this could be saved.

Another step that could be taken is retrofitting. Retrofitting all large facilities such as hospitals, University buildings, airports with energy saving mechanisms such as automatic sensors which turn lights out after a certain time. If this were done with an incentive such as being able to keep the savings made by such investment, these would pay for themselves fairly quickly.

A third step that could be taken is enabling individuals who want to contribute power to the grid to do so without punishment. In January the Electricity Authority ruled against Solar Energy New Zealand, which had complained about the tariffs imposed by Unison Network Limited on retailers with residential customers on S.E.N.Z.’s network.

But overall there needs to be a blue print that could have been finished by now for looking forward into the future. We as a nation need to reduce our gas emissions just as we need to tackle the acidification from the ocean that is also aggravated by these gases.