After a year of extensive research, veterinarian Steph Stubbe has launched her first collection of dog collars and leads made from recycled plastic.
The inspiration came to her during a study placement where she found herself treating wildlife injured as a result of plastic waste.
“It was just very heartbreaking. The more you start reading, the more you learn how dire the situation really is,” Dr Stubbe said.
CSIRO’s principal research scientist, Dr Denise Hardesty, said plastics were ubiquitous, impacting the ecosystem and organisms throughout the food chain.
“By 2050, 99 per cent of all seabird species in the world will have been shown to have eaten plastic,” she said
It is not just the oceans — estuarian areas are also subject to waste.
“Plastic is being lost into the environment along our rivers and waterways and it’s been flowing ultimately, out to the ocean,” Dr Hardesty said.
Dr Stubbe grew up on a farm in Albury that backed onto the Murray River and with periodic flooding, the waters would recede revealing a deluge of plastic and other litter.
Upon realising her dogs’ collars and leads were made from plastic, the very product causing harm to marine life, Dr Stubbe decided to be more proactive than just focusing on animal treatment.
“If we can somehow reduce the numbers of wildlife that come into clinics suffering as a consequence [of plastic] then that would be amazing,” she said.
Use of plastic outweighs reuse
Dr Stubbe’s first collection was made by a Taiwanese company using recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is commonly used to make plastic drink bottles and containers before it can then be turned into plastic pellets and yarn.
Managing director of the Plastics Circle, Trish Hyde, works in creating ‘plastics circular’ economies and said Australia needed to do more about giving plastics a second life.
She said that while Australians recycled well, having adopted it as a core behaviour, the initial use of plastic far outweighed its reuse.
Before the ban on imports of mixed recycled materials, Australia had been sending waste to China for decades, with the latest available data showing that 1.2 million tonnes of waste was sent in 2016 -2017.
“Where we lack infrastructure is actually to recover that plastic ourselves and make new products and packaging from it,” Ms Hyde said.
“We do a little bit but not nearly enough.”
While there are companies such as recycling giant Visy making plastic bottles from 100 per cent recycled PET and HDPE (high density polyethylene) Ms Hyde said there were still about 43,000 types and combinations of plastics on the market.
“Ninety per cent of plastic consumed each year [globally] does not get recovered,” she said.
Ms Hyde said there needed to be a high profile coordinated effort across the world, between governments and all players in the industry, from designers to manufacturers.
“Technically all plastic is recyclable, but economically it’s prohibitive so unless someone buys it, it’s just a very expensive way to get it to landfill,” she said.
Recycling fishing nets
Ultimately Dr Stubbe would prefer plastic waste was collected, processed, and recycled in Australia but she said she was unable to find an Australian company that could manufacture yarn from recycled plastic pellets.
However, she said her next collection would be manufactured in Australia from imported plastic yarn after finding a company that could work with the product.
Not content to source materials from overseas in the long-term Dr Stubbe is also exploring recycling fishing nets.
Working with global recycling company Vanden, she is hoping to find solutions for the tonnes of fishing nets in Port Lincoln in South Australia that are destined for landfill.
“I think it will be about whether we can get the support to get the labour to separate the nets,” the company’s managing director Simon Van Leuven said.
“If we’re able to separate them at source, and they don’t go into a massive pile, then that at least gives us half a chance.”
Fishing nets can be recycled to produce clothing and carpets, however most fisheries around the world have a lack of disposal options and only a few companies worldwide are capable of producing yarn on a large scale.
Introduce a plastic levy
While Dr Hardesty would like to see a reduction in the amount of plastic consumed, she said the most significant game changer in reducing plastic waste would be to put a levy on plastics.
“That reflects the entirety of the lifecycle and the impact that plastic losses into to the environment have on our wildlife, on our economies, and in society,” she said.
Container deposit legislation is incredibly effective, according to Dr Hardesty, and just like aluminium and copper, are seen as valuable commodities.
She believes a fee on plastic would help with investing in manufacturing industries.
“When we start to value plastics and the cost to society and the true cost of making and producing and shipping it to make all these products that we call ‘cheap’, then we would start to see a significant change,” Dr Hardesty said.
“Then we would have a high level of recycling and of re-manufacturing.”