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Plastic waste: How can we do better?

Plastic waste: How can we do better?

Plastic waste has been in the news for a few months now, following revealing footage of Blue Planet showing the catastrophic impact on marine life of plastic bags and other debris floating in the ocean.

The media coverage that ensued has triggered a debate all the way up to government level; however, measurable goals have not yet been set and no legally binding measures have been implemented to significantly curb the current trend of pollution.

Here, Ground Control’s Ecologist, Martino Ginepro gives his view on plastics, the detrimental effect on the environment, and how we can work towards a more sustainable and safer future.

“Having worked on several construction projects over the past 2-3 years, I have experienced first-hand the high level of waste that occurs on site. By flagging issues up with site management and through “observation cards”, we hope to make significant changes, but of course there are still concerns, as with all environmental issues.

Such concerns which continue to drive unnecessary waste and pollution include the use of disposable boot covers. Made of thin polyethylene they can tear and shred after a single use when worn over boots, leaving remnants of plastic fragments being windborne elsewhere, with high potential of eventually reaching a watercourse.

Polystyrene cups are still so common and easily available when fully compostable paper alternatives are available on the market. In addition, I have noticed an incredibly high use of cable ties which is often preventable. They are used to hold up signs, join Heras panels which often already come with metal clips, and even to link barriers that are actually designed to be joined together without the need for additional material. Needless to say, when it comes to removing them, they are generally cut and left to fall on the ground.

Then we have the issue of spreading litter already in situ while undertaking certain operations; as an example, this happens on a regular basis when flailing/mulching hedges and grass verges along the highway. I have raised this on multiple occasions, asking why a coordinated effort wasn’t being made to ensure that the road verges were litter picked before the commencement of de-vegetation works, but it seems that the bureaucracy involved is too challenging to make this possible.

It’s not hard to conclude that, when flailed, litter is shredded into much smaller fragments which are difficult to collect and are likely to be wind dispersed and/or to run off into the watercourse during heavy rain.

There are also issues with litter disposal on site. This can range from lack of adequate bin coverage, to staff disregarding segregation, putting general waste into recycling bins or even discarding it on the ground. Needless to say, I always address such behaviour whenever I come across it in person but the issue is often played down with arguments such as “it’s going to landfill anyway” or “this place is a dump”. My answer would be that even if the place is a dump, we’re not there to make it worse and that, instead, we should try and clean it up a bit. I routinely hand-pick litter when I am out on site, which means that quite often I end up walking around site with my pockets full of plastic until I find a bin!

While we wait for the government to progress from declarations of good intentions to legally binding agreements aimed to disincentive wasteful practices (including the sale of single use, disposable plastic items), it does not mean that we cannot anticipate rules and regulations and be at the forefront of this much needed “revolution” aimed at drastically reducing the use of disposable plastic in our day to day activity. Here are a number of actions that anyone who runs or manages a works site can take to raise awareness and make a difference:

  • Educating staff – we need to make a stronger emphasis on the requirement to prevent pollution; mention it in starters’ briefings before commencing works; hold people accountable if found littering, the same as we would if they were spotted walking around site without a hard hat; curb the idea that things that are not paid for directly can be wasted without thought.
  • Avoiding disposable, single-use plastic materials (i.e. boot covers or cable ties to name a couple, unless their use is fully justified) – we need to minimise the use of disposable plastic on site and look for alternative materials that last longer and can be recycled at the end of their life.
  • Looking into ways to store left-over material so that it can be reused on other sites; by doing this, not only we would be reducing waste but we could possibly make higher margins too.
  • Providing adequate facilities for waste disposal on site – at the end of the day, however hard we may try, waste will still be generated and needs to be collected to avoid dispersal

I am conscious that, when working as subcontractors, it is always difficult to drive significant changes; however, when we are in charge of a project, we can and we must strive to deliver work to high environmental standards.

To conclude, I think that we need to prompt our workforces to think about the impact that our routine actions have on waste generation and, where necessary, make individual efforts to reduce our level of consumption. When put into perspective, the sacrifices to be made are often risible and the sense of doing something good would outweigh them by far. But most importantly, I think that there is a strong case for self-preservation as if we turn the planet into a landfill, there won’t be much left for us to live from.”

Martino Ginepro, Ecologist