Dave Garforth: "We need to differentiate between plastics and the plastic problem."

Turning the tide on plastic waste in aquaculture

Proper disposal and recycling of plastic is something that must be addressed by all industries, including aquaculture, and one organisation that can help is the Responsible Plastic Management (RPM) Program, a not-for-profit social enterprise and membership organisation set up by certification and sustainability experts to tackle the plastic pollution crisis.Ahead of a webinar on the subject organised by the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), Dave Garforth, program manager for the RPM Program, outlines what the aquaculture industry is already doing and how it can go further.

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There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability, but for every industry, the underlying theme is the sense of urgency needed to tackle the threat of climate change. Reducing waste is one significant part of the puzzle, with plastic in particular continuing to contribute to current levels of pollution worldwide.

Across the UK, the amount of shoreline litter has increased consistently for the last 20 years, and local authorities spend an estimated £18 million each year removing waste - including considerable amounts of plastic - from beaches.

However, the reality is that for many industries plastic is of fundamental importance. In fact, it is indeed essential in sectors such as aquaculture, supporting companies to operate efficiently and safely. Plastic is commonly used for floatation equipment, for example, due to its buoyancy. It is also a key material in seafood packaging, essential for food safety in ensuring the chill chain is maintained, keeping the fish and shellfish fresh on the journey to our supermarkets and homes.

Plastic is not the enemy

Importantly, we need to differentiate between plastics and the plastic problem: realising that the former does not necessarily cause the latter. Problems can arise if plastics are mismanaged, but it is not the enemy – so long as we are being responsible with it.

A particular challenge for aquaculture lies in managing plastics used at end of life. The sector is by no means starting from scratch, though, and already has a solid foundation on which to build. In coastal communities, for example, seafood producers are often well organised when it comes to plastic waste and are known to look after their own stretch of shoreline to keep beaches and piers clean.

Another great example is the replacement scheme for barrels used in mussel longline farming in Ireland. These barrels were traditionally made of non-recyclable plastic, but a replacement scheme has been put in place encouraging farmers to switch to barrels made from high density polyethylene (HDPE) - a recyclable plastic. New barrels are also specifically designed for a long and sustainable lifespan, with the ability to repair them rather than needing replacements.

Despite the progress being made when it comes to plastics in aquaculture, there are still a number of myths and misconceptions circulating. For instance, it is often believed that the nets used are one of the greatest threats to the oceans, yet most of them are made from nylon, which can already be recycled.

Biodegradable plastic is another material that often comes under the spotlight. Many industries made the switch to biodegradable plastic to help manage their waste, but in reality, it is not recyclable and requires industrial grade anaerobic or composting facilities. If placed in the recycle stream they cause contamination and reduce the quality of recycled plastics.

To secure a more sustainable future, particularly in terms of plastic management, collaboration is crucial and there needs to be an open discussion. If we can share best practice and new initiatives through communities like the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre’s consortium, we can create momentum and unlock further opportunities to drive change.

Annual audits

Another way for producers and businesses in the supply chain to demonstrate their commitment is through the Responsible Plastic Management (RPM) Program - a first-of-its-kind initiative designed to verify and provide assurances of businesses’ approach to plastic procurement, use and waste. With an improvement framework and annual audits from independent certification bodies and the formalities of the program, plastic management becomes a much easier message to communicate to stakeholders, partners and customers.

What’s most important, however, is taking the first steps: whether that’s signing up to a formal scheme or starting with an internal initiative. Being proactive around the management of plastic can only support the sector’s journey to becoming ever more sustainable, protecting the environment and securing the future of one of Scotland’s most valuable exports.

The Responsible Plastic Management (RPM) Program is being spotlighted as part of a SAIC-hosted webinar next Thursday, September 23, with the aquaculture industry invited to join the discussion about responsible use of plastics in aquaculture. Sign up for the event here.