Plastic remains as one of the biggest hurdles in the path of circular economy in Europe

As European economies have flourished and developed along the last 50 years, the use of plastic has intensified enormously. According to recent estimations, plastic production has become 50 times bigger in this time period, and it is supposed to stay on growing.

While this can make sense to a certain extent since population and consumption has also increased during this period, what remains unbearable is how little is being done to switch to a more circular approach: nowadays, only 7% of the plastic produced is recycled. Furthermore, Europe is exporting part of that recycled plastic to countries like China, because the inner demand is not high enough.

Although the image of used bottles and bags can be the more visual representation of plastic waste, truth is technology has taken this problem to a whole new level. Specifically, the existence of microplastics (tiny pieces of plastic materials of less than 5mms) makes it so that a lot of the plastic we throw away is undetectable also for us: from hygiene products to clothes, many of the products we use on daily basis include almost undetectable traces of plastic, making it really hard for the average user to know the damage he is causing by using those products.

According to studies, the highest damage by plastic waste is done in the oceans. All those microplastics slowly tear apart and go down the sink to end in the waters of all around the world. For instance, rain takes microparticles of the car tires away, which finish in the sea. We have another example in the washing machines: recent evaluation suggests that around 10% of the microplastic present in the oceans comes from its use.

And why is this so important? Well, for a start, it is much easier to tackle the problem while the waste is still on land. Even when the plastic particles are already into the sewer system, it is possible to apply different filters to capture it. In this sense, the company SUEZ has developed new technology to filtrate the microplastics that pass through different plants for water treatment.

Nonetheless, the full circle of the circular economy does not close just with the increasing capability of collection. As Jean-Marc Boursier, one of Suez’s senior executives affirms, “it does not make much sense to ask people to increase their efforts on separating their waste to facilitate the recycling process when, for instance, most of the plastic collected in Europe ends up in China because the internal demand is not high enough”. “It’s a matter of political will” he adds.

European Commission is trying to take some steps in this direction. Recently, a proposal was raised to change the relation with plastic, materialized on the goal of recycling at least 90% of disposable bottles by 2025. While on paper it may seem ambitious enough, reality keeps on pushing us to make bigger efforts: it has been forecasted that by 2025 the oceans will bear a plastic waste/fish ratio will be 1:3. The time to raise awareness is falling behind, and now is the time to take actions.

Pros and cons of Daylight Saving Time: do we still want that?

Daylight Saving Time (DST) has a long and controversial history. After being introduced in an essay by Benjamin Franklin, the idea was adopted in 1916 by Britain and Germany. The goal was to reduce the domestic consumption of coal and to give factories daylight hours to work, in order to aid the war effort.

The functioning of the system is simple: clocks go forward one hour in the summer and back again in the winter. In this way, we can enjoy extra evening daylight in warmer months and extra morning daylight during the winter.

Nowadays, most areas in North America and Europe, and some areas in the Middle East, observe daylight saving time (DST), while most areas of Africa and Asia do not. In South America, most countries in the North of the continent near the equator do not observe DST, while Paraguay and southern parts of Brazil do.

How does DST affect people’s life?

The effects of this switch strongly vary depending on the geographical location of a country: the closer you are to the North Pole, the more noticeable they are. For example in Iceland, from mid-May to mid-August the sun only sets for around three hours a night and there are only around five hours of effective daylight during the winter months.

There are both positive and negative effects due to this practice. However, sometimes it is difficult to understand whether the positive ones prevail over the negative ones, or vice versa.

Thanks to DST during the winter time, people don’t have to go at work or school in the darkness and this strongly reduces the number of traffic accidents and makes streets a safer place. At the same time, people do not adapt so smoothly to changes and this can also raise the risk of health-related issues, mostly due to the disturbed sleep cycle. A 2016 study found that the overall rate for stroke was 8% higher in the two days after the change, while  the risk drops off in the following days because our bodies and circadian clocks gradually adapt. Moreover, the Monday and Tuesday after daylight saving time in the spring have also been associated with a 10% increase in heart attacks, according to a 2012 study at the University of Alabama Birmingham.

Are DST really effective for energy saving?

Originally, DST was aimed at reducing the energy consumption. However,  there is surprisingly little evidence that it actually helps to save energy. Matthew J. Kotchen and Laura E. Grant (2008) proved that DST increases residential electricity demand, approximately by 1% (also by 2-4% during the fall). That results in a higher cost both in terms of electricity, but also for the pollution emissions.

Disagreements among European countries

The relevance of the DST related effects gave rise to several doubts about the effectiveness of the system, mostly in the North of Europe. Last year, over 70 000 Finnish citizens signed a petition in order to press EU for end to daylight saving time. The issue has a strong relevance at the European level, since all EU members must follow the same timetable to keep trade and travel running smoothly between the internal market.

The European consultation: we can have a voice!

The European Commission has launched a consultation on the daylight saving time clock changes in order to evaluate whether or not the rules should be changed. Europeans and interested organizations have until August 16th to give their opinion (the consultation and more background information are available here).

The EC is assessing two main policy alternatives: keep the current summertime arrangement or discontinue the changes and ban periodic switches, leaving each state to choose between permanent summer, winter or a different time. Repealing the current directive would not automatically abolish summertime across the EU. It would just end EU-wide harmonization and allow individual states to decide the issue.

Global warming threatens pollination dynamics

While politicians keep on debating the best approach to tackle climate change and the industry slowly moves towards more sustainable practices, the consequences of our footprint on the planet stay on their raising trend. Last April, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (San Diego) claimed that for that month the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 410.31 parts per million (ppm), which represents a 30% increase in CO2 concentration in the global atmosphere since 1958, as well as an all time record.

One of the most straight-forward consequences of climate change is the general increase in temperature, and together with it comes the asynchronism between flora and fauna. And what represents better the symbiosis between those two worlds than the process of pollination?

For instance, the butterfly expert Marion Jaros claims that the warm temperatures have accelerated the hatch of several pollinating species, while the flowers where they get the nectar from are not responding in sync. This means not only fewer nourishment possibilities for the insects, but also a major setback in the collection and dispersion of pollen, a key stage in the reproduction of plants.

Like this, a group of scientists have documented this effect regarding the Osterluzeifalter, a rare species of butterflies settled in Austria. They affirm that with the increase in spring temperatures have led the butterflies to come out of their cocoons weeks earlier before their host plants were ready to offer both nectar and pollen, with the added problem that some of those plants relied on the butterflies for pollination.

 

 

 

This is not a particular phenomena happening in Austria. According to Anthony Davy, an ecologist from University of East Anglia, the climate disruption that’s happening due global warming is plausibly a key factor in the decline of pollinators throughout whole Europe. Again, the consequences of this affect fauna too: for example, Davy has observed how a type of rare orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) from the United Kindgom that highly relies on bees to reproduce has been struggling to do so because the delicate time sequence between flowering and pollination is changing at a different rhythm than bees are used to, which ultimately leads to reproductive failures.

Europe has been trying to catch up on this matter. The threat that global warming represents for pollinators was recognized by the European Comission earlier this year, trying to slow down the descent on pollinator’s population that’s taking place in whole Europe. Some steps are being taken, such as the proposal of banning the pesticide neonicotinoid, or the possibility of creating safe habitats for the preservation and restoring of pollinators.

Still, the proposed measures do not seems to properly meet the dimension of the problem has not been yet fully acknowledged. Considering that about 80% of all wild plants rely on insect pollinators, and that a third of all butterfly and bee species are declining (10% of pollinating insects are on the verge of extinction already), it seems it’s about time that the institutions start giving to this matter the appropriate weight. Balance on nature comes from the little things, and we are slowly but steadily losing them.

 

 

Link to European Proposal: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/pollinators/