A man collects plastic bottles to sell for recycling, in a landfill of Managua, Nicaragua, on January 11, 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Scientists buried biodegradeable plastics for three years, found it doesn't degrade

Common method of making plastic "biodegradeable" seems to be useless, in some types.

Gardeners beware - those "compostable" bin bags might not so readily turn into soil. A study published in Environmental Science & Technology has found that many common biodegradeable plastics, aren't - and that recycling is a much better bet.

There are typically two ways to make plastics degrade faster than they otherwise would: either add stuff to them to make them break down faster, or make them out of biological materials like vegetable oil or corn starch. The researchers, from Michigan State University, were specifically interested in the first set, and did what has to be done when testing how fast something rots - they buried a bunch of different plastics, for three years, and then dug them up again to see what had happened. The results don't bode well for the efficacy of additives.

Typically, plastics made from petroleum can take hundreds of years to decompose, yet getting precise estimates for the timeframes involved can be difficult. After all, most modern plastics haven't been around anything like the amount of time we think they'll take to break down - and the thing that makes plastics so useful as packaging, that they're unappetising to bacteria, makes them also an environmental terror. It's not just about plastic bags caught in trees; the plastics that form the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast gyre of debris, form an ongoing natural disaster that is entirely human-made.

Recycling is, of course, one option to prevent the problem in the first place; another is making plastics biodegradeable, so that they either break down into other, harmless molecules, or into something small enough that bacteria might consider it food. But designing material that is able to maintain its strength and durability during everyday use while also breaking down when exposed to sunlight is a challenge, as is creating a material that breaks down in both landfills (airless, warm, dark, compressed) and stuck in a hedge or river (light, airy, varying temperature).

For this study, the researchers looked at two specific types of plastic - polyethelene, and polyethylene terephthalate, both of which are extremely ubiquitous as packaging material, especially for containers like plastic bottles - with five different additives (that supposedly improve biodegradeability) in three different environments: buried with oxygen (as in compost); buried without oxygen (as in a landfill); and simply bured in soil.

No matter the additive, and no matter the environment, they didn't find anything that appeared to have made the plastics decompose quicker than without. In a statement, the authors recommend "the proper management of waste plastics" instead - which means, for now, if you want to do the right thing by the environment, either use something known to degrade properly, recycle it before it gets into the ground, or (and possibly the easiest option in many situations) not using plastic at all in the first place.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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