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Currently showing: Funding longer lives > Health/medicine

08 Nov 18 06:56

Plastics are everywhere. They're in our food, water and air. A recent study revealed that 83% of tap water contains microplastics. Last week, researchers in Vienna published a study that estimates that more than half of the world population have microplastics in their stools.

A growing body of study suggests that this could have severe implications for human and animal health, and poses potential risks to marine and other ecosystems biodiversity and food availability. Plastics contain chemical additives and contaminants, including known endocrine disruptors that have been shown to be harmful to marine animals in extremely low concentrations. A study in 2017 showed plastic particles present in fish brains are causing brain damage and behavioural disorders.

Earlier this year, a working group of Regional Centres of the Stockholm and Basel Conventions and other scientists reported that, "The impacts of plastic litter in the marine environment, the food chain and human health, existing scientific evidence and concerns are already sufficient to support actions by the scientific, industry, policy and civil society communities to curb the ongoing flow of plastics and the toxic chemicals they contain into the marine environment."

So what could this mean for insurance? And what should the re/insurance industry do to help reduce the production and consumption of new plastic, and foster the broader and more efficient treatment of plastics? Yesterday I moderated four breakout sessions at Swiss Re's yearly Life & Health Forum to discuss just that with leading insurers from Switzerland.

I was surprised to find that while plastics are of huge personal concern to all those present, most insurers are not yet looking at the potential harm plastics can have on our health. There was broad consensus that we need more studies to assess the consequences that plastic accumulation could have on our bodies. There was also consensus that every single one of us needs to be the change we want to see in terms of plastics reduction and treatment.

We all agreed that, without immediate strong preventive measures, the environmental impacts and the economic costs will only become worse, even in the short term.

Continued increases in plastic production and consumption, combined with wasteful uses, inefficient waste collection infrastructures and insufficient waste management facilities, especially in developing countries, mean that even achieving already established objectives for reductions in marine litter will be a huge challenge.

What are you doing to address the plastics issue in your personal and professional lives? And what role do you think the re/insurance industry could play to help accelerate the changes required? Please comment below.

From my side, I've been trying to tackle the problem for years, reducing my own consumption while campaigning for better behaviours and legislation. Also, at Swiss Re, I teach yoga and donate 50% of proceeds at the end of the year to an ocean conservation project of our choice, which our yoga group chooses. Last year they picked the Ocean CleanUp Project, which I was particularly happy about as I've been supporting that amazing initiative since 2013. Proving that dreaming big and collaborating with the best can help us solve some of the world's biggest challenges, on October 19th they started cleaning up the Great Pacific Patch. Hooray!

Category: Funding longer lives: Health/medicine


Daniel Martin Eckhart - 8 Nov 2018, 7:54 a.m.

An excellent post and great seeing you at the event. With regard to plastic, yes, I wouldn't be all too surprised if, a hundred years from now, we look back to this period as the plastic-time that triggered more than one global disaster.

VisualPersist - 12 Nov 2018, 7:18 a.m.

Great title and IMHO the absolute state of play.
Perhaps the tragedy of humanity, and where we need to evolve, is our inability to conceive that we are a detriment to ourselves unless we have it proven by experts in triplicate using outdated statistical modelling past the moment of disaster. The scale of the problem can be simplified; lets say there are 7 billion people on the planet and we all use plastic every day and the typical response to this waste is to bury it. It inevitably enters our water, food, seas, natural systems and as we know, exposure to plastics can cause various forms of cancer and as plastic break down and interact with e.g. stomach acids, residual chemicals produced are likely to cause significant health problems.

i.e. raising the presence and increase of risk of exposure to dangerous hydrocarbons isn't rocket science so we need to stop. As part of my work, I'm proud to be an honorary research scientist with some incredible people at the University of Exeter's, Exeter Marine department and we work on similar results to the research you link to. However there is another societal trait problem and plastics are manifesting it very clearly, this is what I define as the behavioural response, "child ego state."

This global societal response relating to global issues of threat is a classic human response "finger pointing" as defined in the behavioural transaction theory of the groundbreaking psychoanalyst Eric Berne. In this case, and typically the finger pointing scenario arises with environmental crisis also such as climate change for example, there are loud voices pointing fingers at fisheries, claiming they are critically responsible for most of the plastics in our oceans through lost fishing gear. Indeed, it's true, fisheries do loose a lot of gear however, 1) actually they don't want to because it's valuable investment and 2) it's the tip of the iceberg because fishing gear floats and it represents a typical "I see it so I believe it" response to the problem.

In the meantime charities and NGO's, even collaborating with companies who are the greatest producers of plastic landfill jump on the bandwagon and finger point, alienating a demographic, fisheries, which often are very closely harmonised with stewardship of marine biodiversity. In the meantime, they jetset, instagram their single use bottles on holiday in the Bahamas, adopt contradictory diets and a host of other feel good factor lifestyle choices which produce aspiring online content which doesn't directly engage with the larger "invisible" non floating problem that the 7 billion plastic using populus are producing. I have a sinking feeling about this and the connection between marine plastics and fishers is a misguided 6'o'clock news cuddly turtle stick in a bad fishing net perception which is empowering the continuation of production of plastics which are entering our food chain, not only that of ourselves but also the cuddly turtle.

Marcela Bortolamedi - 12 Nov 2018, 7:51 a.m.

Thanks for sharing Alicia. I attended the Green is the New Black, Conscious Festival ( last weekend here in Singapore. This already 4 year old festival is a vibrant platform for environmentally mindful people and entreupeneurs, gathered by the same good objectives: take #LITTLEGREENSTEPS to #LIVEMORECONSCIOUSLY. Zero waste was big on the agenda, and being Singapore, plastic was centre stage. Singaporeans throw away around 825’000 yearly, of which up to 70% is single-use disposable items. Plastic waste comes first, followed by food and paper, and only 7% of it can be properly recycled (Zero Waste Position Paper, 2015). The rest is either incinerated or ends up in the sea and consequently, in our food chain. Like in many other countries, there are currently no regulations related to plastic use. I think it is up to all of us, consumers, to prioritise the word “refuse” to the already (for some) in-practice “reduce, reuse, recycle” principles. We need to be alert, make informed decisions and learn to simply reject options that don't fit the common well-being. Sustainability needs the collective courage to say #NOtoPlastics.

Mercedes Rosello - 12 Nov 2018, 11:06 a.m.

Hello Alicia, this is a really topical issue and one over which I've already seen a number of initiatives, although I feel most only address the problem partially and by way of 'fire fighting', rather than addressing the cause. As a researcher and campaigner on fisheries issues, I feel this is primarily a land-source problem: plastic production is out of control, and the absence of recycling systems means far too much ends up in the ocean where it breaks up, contaminating food chains. If left unattended, this might end up wrecking havoc in marine trophic chains, which might be even more damaging that the trickle down effect of plastics on our health. I think we are at the stage where serious at source solutions have to be implemented, whilst the fire fighting continues in the ocean. I understand the EU is considering banning single use plastic, and I think this is urgent (now overdue) and, if true, an initiative that should be followed elsewhere in the world, if it hasn't been implemented already. Additionally, education is necessary so that we all begin to incorporate alternatives into our lives. In terms of fire fighting, fishing vessels are in a perfect position to remove ocean plastic. I was in a conference recently where the idea of fitting fishing vessels with recycling facilities, or even technology to transform plastic into useful objects that could be traded in ports via 3d printing was discussed with representatives of the fishing industry in Europe. I think a good part of the industry would be game for trying this, and here I think the insurance industry might perhaps find ways to partner them in implementing solutions. Small projects have already commenced in Spain and the UK, but this is still at an embryonic stage. It think there is a lot of potential in such partnership, which would of course require also the partnership of public port authorities for participation. This might have sounded far fetched a few years ago, but there is now momentum for its development. Not a complete solution, of course, but worth mulling over. Best wishes, Mercedes.

Alicia Montoya - 13 Nov 2018, 7:02 a.m.

Thanks, @VisualPersist!

Yes, we're seeing this in many challenges we face. Just look at climate change: It's complex, interconnected and therefore hard to grasp and address. So we ended up measuring CO2 emissions for want a better, more holistic approach.

And here's the thing: Plastics can be good! They're light, they last, they have many great properties. It's the overproduction, misuse and complete failure at proper disposal / recycling that's the problem.

So we need to be specific and target our efforts towards the misuse: I would welcome regulation to target the overproduction of plastic (including single use bottles, take away cutlery and plates, packaging...) like we're seeing in an increasing number of countries. We need a behavioural change across the world to JUST STOP buying and dumping single use plastics everywhere. And finally, we need regulations that incentivize treatment and reuse of existing plastics.

At a minimum, I would like to see the introduction of deposits on plastic bottles, marginal taxes to fund recovery and recycling and, very importantly, budgets to promote *unbiased* research into alternatives and effects of existing plastics.

It was pretty shocking to be in a room full of Life & Health insurance experts in which nobody had a clue of what the consequences to our bodies might be, while we are all exposed to picture after picture, and documentary after documentary, of the growing plastic patches in our oceans and landfills.

Glad Exeter Uni seems to be looking at the problem. Tell me more and how can I help?

Alicia Montoya - 13 Nov 2018, 7:19 a.m.

Thanks, Mercedes. I love the idea of fishing vessels doubling up as plastic removers :)

And of course agree that while removing what's already there has to be done, we need to stop producing more in the first place.

All studies point to plastics production continuing their meteoric rise. Here are a couple of shocking stats to frame the issue, from this 11 page overview of the state of plastics, which we should all read:

"Only 9% of the 9 billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. Most ends up in landfills, dumps or in the environment."

"The most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers. These are the waste products of a throwaway culture that treats plastic as a disposable material rather than a valuable resource to be harnessed."

"The economic damage caused by plastic waste is vast. Plastic litter in the Asia-Pacific region alone costs its tourism, fishing and shipping industries $1.3 billion per year. In Europe, cleaning plastic waste from coasts and beaches costs about €630 million per year. Studies suggest that the total economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem caused by plastic amounts to at least $13 billion every year".

For those who want to go deeper, here's a great UN report from June 2018 that looks at the issue holistically and shares best practices:

Alicia Montoya - 13 Nov 2018, 7:26 a.m.

Agree, Marcela. Consumers are a large part of the problem... but also of the solution.

But let's not kid ourselves. Sometimes it's hard to avoid. I went around NY for a week saying no to all single use plastics. It meant no take away food, no drinks and fighting every establishment so as to refuse their offers for straws, cutlery, etc etc etc. Most service staff just looked at me in polite bemusement when I politely refused their straws, bags and bottles, adding "no, thank you, no plastic, please, as it will probably end up in the ocean choking a turtle". In some places in developing countries, if you want to eat, it's either served in styrofoam or you're not getting served.

Paritosh - 13 Nov 2018, 8:18 a.m.

Its just another case where we have to go back to basics, just like how we are moving back to organic food from food infested with chemicals.

Only plants and trees can rescue us. The more we go back to Bamboo, coconut, arecanut etc. trees for help, the more we will be saving our planet. From straws to spoons to plates. Nature has answer to all our needs and problems.

But the fact is this is only tip of the iceberg. The problem is huge and it involves immediate and mindless junking of old traditions/habits due to few marketing gimmicks.

Another example of such situation is where alternative therapy is used only as the last resort... Whereas for centuries it has been curing general diseases.

Consumers are just like babies, they'll use whatever is provided to them... Who can fight these super rich and better equipped manufacturers who employ world's best talents working for them?

Open source is the only way which can beat them all... People just need to know how to do it. Thankfully, we've still got our trees and plants around us which can still save us.... but not for long ...

Alicia Montoya - 13 Nov 2018, 1:48 p.m.

As if on queue, news from Indonesia today:

"The Indonesian government is set to make consumer goods manufacturers more responsible for managing the waste from their product packaging, in a bid to tackle one of the worst plastic trash problems in the world.

The regulation, expected before the end of this year, is part of a wider effort to cut Indonesia’s waste output by 30 percent by 2025 from current levels, according to Rosa Vivien Ratnawati, the environment ministry’s head of waste management.

The so-called extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulation will oblige producers and retailers to redesign their product packaging to have a higher proportion of recyclable material. It will also require that they take greater responsibility for the management of waste from their products."

Brilliant. Hope to see more "developed countries" adopt similar measures.

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