The Minderoo Foundation’s recent $4.5 million grant to the University of Queensland is part of a carefully planned granting strategy to change our plastics industry before it’s too late.

The prognosis for the health of our planet is grim.

This month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the most comprehensive climate report ever released and the news is terrifying. Without urgent and global change from governments, industry and consumers, we have a one-way ticket to environmental destruction and natural disasters that put our people and planet in catastrophic danger.

We’re running out of time. The report leaves us in no doubt of that. Perhaps now is a good time to also mention deforestation, loss of biodiversity, overpopulation, overfishing, oceanic dead zones and pollution?

It’s a lot. And it’s difficult to know where to begin. But doing nothing is not an option.

So, let’s break it down and start with plastic pollution.

Because it’s HUGE.

Time for some very scary numbers

380 million tonnes of plastic are created annually, the same weight as the entire human population. 50% of this plastic is single-use only.

An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year and this is expected to triple by 2040.

70% of debris sinks into the ocean’s ecosystem, 15% floats, and 15% lands on our beaches. In other words, what we see at the surface is just a fraction of the real problem.

Eight billion metric tonnes of plastic have been created since production began and most of it still exists. That’s one metric tonne for each person on the planet – think of the weight of one elephant per person, in solid plastic.

Roughly two thirds of all plastic ever produced has been released into the environment and it’s staying there.

Australians produce more plastic waste per person than any other country in the world. Yep, you read that right. A whopping 60 kilos of plastic waste for each of us, every year – that’s 25 million human-size piles of plastic junk, used once, thrown into our oceans and creating havoc for eternityYou could fill the seats of the MCG with our plastic waste 250 times over. Every year.

Plastic and plastic chemicals are everywhere (construction, transport, agriculture, packaging, household and electronic goods, medical and pharmaceutical products, personal care items… the list goes on) and in some surprising products such as waterproof cosmetics and sunscreens, baking paper, dental floss, popcorn containers, shopping receipts, paint, carpets and clothes.

Recycling is failing. Only 7 – 10% of Australia’s plastic is recycled and a quick Google search serves up an array of articles that tell us 91% of the world’s plastic is not recycled. In other words, recycling is not and cannot be, the only answer to our global plastics problem.

Efforts to tackle plastic pollution have been disrupted by the pandemic. The prolific use of personal protective equipment, temporary closure of recycling facilities and the suspension of government-backed environmental programs have exacerbated the issue. Should we also mention that, here in Australia, our own government is woefully behind in prioritising matters of the environment?

So, where to go when inspiration and morale feels thin on the ground? It’s time for some mountain-top thinking.

Minderoo’s mountain tops

At the top of the Minderoo Foundation’s mountain is Andrew Forrest AO. His stratospheric success in the metals industry throughout the 1990s and 2000s, predominantly as the leader of the Fortescue Metals Group (first as CEO, now as Chairman) earned him billions. His vast wealth has enabled Andrew to become Australia’s most active philanthropist, rewarded with the Office of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2017, amongst other accolades.

In 2001, Andrew and his wife, Nicola Forrest, established the Minderoo Foundation which they co-chair. To date the couple have donated more than $2 billion across Australia and the globe. Mountain-top thinking no doubt touches every part of Andrew’s commercial and philanthropic work. His empire feeds his highly supported and exceptionally resourced foundation, equipping it with the clout and means to pursue projects and relationships of mountain-sized scale.

The foundation has several key initiatives (or mountain tops!) that address some of the world’s most challenging issues. Initiatives include ending modern slavery, creating employment parity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, developing a long-term, evidence-based strategy to ensure all Australian children have the best start to life, building technology that empowers people, returning our oceans to a healthy thriving state, lifting Australia to be the global leader in fire and flood resilience by 2025, accelerating research and improving prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer, and identifying projects that will benefit arts, culture, environment and community.

They have worked hard to build an internal structure of experts who complement their outward-facing objective of taking universities, research partners, NGOs and, eventually, the public, government, and industry on a collaborative evidence-based journey to solve major global challenges.

The final initiative in the foundation’s extensive list is ‘No Plastic Waste’. The mountain top? To eliminate plastic pollution.

Sounds huge, doesn’t it? But the Minderoo Foundation are no strangers to taking on some of our biggest problems and in this article, we’ll share how they plan to scale this particular (plastic) mountain.

The initiative’s strategy includes identifying the main industry players, reducing the cost of recycled plastic, generating transparency across the plastics supply chain, and developing technologies and innovations that will offer alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastic.

And, a focus on one particular element of the mammoth plastics problem – its impact on human health. In 2020 the Minderoo Foundation’s Plastics and Human Health initiative was established. The program is delivering an exciting body of ground-breaking research that is growing our understanding of the impact of plastics on our bodies.

Leading the Plastics and Human Health program

At the forefront of this research is Professor Sarah Dunlop, PhD, Director, Plastics and Human Health at the Minderoo Foundation.

That Sarah’s role exists at all within the Minderoo Foundation team speaks to one of the organisation’s first elements of success; building a highly experienced team that goes beyond grant makers. Take one look at the team structure on their website and you’ll see a large group of skilled researchers, analysts and experts alongside the funding and partnership roles you would normally expect. The foundation proudly shares that research underpins and informs everything it does, as evidenced by their dedicated Research & Innovation team.

Sarah tells us, “Authoritative, high-quality research and credibility are our very cornerstones. We must also have impact, otherwise, what is the point?”

Excellence and diversity are also critical within the Plastic and Human Health team’s expertise including medical researchers, clinical practitioners, scientists with diverse backgrounds that span chemistry, agriculture, statistics and computing software and, critically, communications and change management.

At the core of Sarah’s team are three pillars, designed to successfully achieve change in the plastics industry. Pillar number one, the logical starting place, is the team’s pursuit of evidence that already exists in scientific literature. Next, they identify where the gaps in evidence exist and build infrastructure and capacity to fill those gaps. Finally, they are focused on growing a global network of stakeholders who will work with them to actually turn the dial.

How the Minderoo Foundation is bringing experts on board

First, let us tell you about Sarah’s journey to the Minderoo Foundation, which is fascinating in itself. After obtaining a BSc in Zoology and PhD in heavy metal toxicity at the University of London, Sarah emigrated to Australia to pursue a research career in neuroscience funded by the National Health & Medical Research Council at the University of Western Australia (UWA).

The university asked Sarah to become Head, School of Biological Sciences and it was here that she first met Andrew Forrest. Actually, it’s Dr Andrew Forrest and herein lies the foundation’s second element of success: Andrew isn’t just a philanthropist and businessman with vast wealth, he’s educating himself in the issues he cares about and surrounding himself with highly skilled people.

With his passion for the ocean, Andrew undertook a PhD with world-leading marine ecologists Professors Jessica Meeuwig, UWA, and Daniel Pauly, University of British Columbia, with Sarah as his coordinating supervisor. In addition to Andrew’s thesis work on fish populations, Sarah became aware of his deep concern about the amount of plastic in the ocean. This resulted in a review article on plastic pollution and the circular economy and, given Sarah’s clinical research background, included the impact of plastic on human health as part of the jigsaw. And so, the scene was set for Sarah to join the Minderoo Foundation and establish the Plastic and Human Health team in early 2020.

A brief lesson in micro and nano plastics

Plastic is made from repeating monomers, which create polymers. “Polymers are pretty useless on their own,” explains Sarah, “so you need to add other chemicals to make them flexible, light but strong and able to resist breakdown from UV light, heat and microbes.”

There are tens of thousands of these chemicals in plastics. They are not strongly bound to the polymers and so leach out and get into our bodies.

Many of them are endocrine (hormonal) disruptors that, worryingly, have been found in bodily fluids such as urine, blood, breast milk, amniotic fluid and seminal fluid. Research has established these endocrine disruptors are linked to problems before and after birth, including miscarriage, changed anogenital distance, low birth weight, reduced IQ, ADHD, childhood obesity and skin and respiratory conditions. Later in life, evidence points to reduced sperm quality, adult obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“The frightening thing about these chemicals is that science has only managed to study a fraction of them. We cannot keep up with this trillion-dollar chemical industry.” Sarah warns. “Some of the work we’re doing at Minderoo is to find out, of the tens of thousands of plastic chemicals that exist, how many and which ones have been studied in humans.”

There are two distinct, but interrelated problems. Firstly, we have chemicals from plastic seeping into our bodies (either by themselves, or within plastic particles). Then of course, plastic itself breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces and makes its way into our bodies.

This leads us to another terrifying statistic.

“Current best estimates suggest that, on average, an adult consumes around 1,000 plastic particles a day through food, water and air,” says the University of Queensland’s Professor Kevin Thomas, a key player in Minderoo’s strategy to reach the mountain top and eliminate plastic pollution.

“We think that the smaller the pieces of plastic, the further they can spread throughout our bodies.  Although we can measure micro plastics, we don’t yet know how to measure the tiny virus-sized nano plastics,” says Sarah.

We know that we eat, drink and breathe in plastic particles. What we need to know is: where do they go?

Because, as Professor Thomas explains, “Understanding exposure is one of the key steps in determining potential health risks of plastics and associated chemicals.”

And we can’t understand where the plastic goes, and the exposure our bodies are subject to, until we can measure the tiny nano plastic particles. Enter a very special partnership.

The Minderoo Foundation and University of Queensland

In order to find plastics in the human body, Sarah needed to find researchers using very specific techniques, including mass spectrometry, which measures the mass of very small concentrations of different molecules within a sample. The University of Queensland (UQ) has experts in these techniques, a substantial research team and ranks as one of the best research institutes in the world. So, Sarah “struck gold” when she met two of UQ’s scientists (including the aforementioned Professor Kevin Thomas) and, from there, a transformational relationship began.

She led the foundation’s recent decision to award a $4.5 million grant to UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS), bringing them in as research partners.

The grant will help researchers to develop techniques to measure nano plastics and understand if they, and the chemicals that leach out of plastic products, are found in the human body.

Let’s loop back to the program’s three pillars and how this partnership is helping the Minderoo Foundation scale the plastics mountain.

Existing evidence, explored by the Minderoo Foundation, indicates that plastic, and plastic chemicals, are making their way into our bodies. Current evidence, and the unexplained escalation of certain childhood and adult health issues, suggests these plastics and chemicals act as endocrine disruptors that have a profound effect on human health. Where UQ comes in, is by filling the gaps in evidence through research that measures the volume of micro/nano plastics and plastic chemicals in human bodies.

The foundation’s partnership with UQ and a global network of stakeholders will provide irrefutable evidence of damage to the human body alongside awareness and advocacy, with the objective of driving a redesign of plastic that is safe for consumers, does not harm the environment and offers a viable market alternative for industry.

As part of its grant, the foundation is supporting some of UQ’s leading scientists, postdoctoral researchers and PhD students.

Sarah describes the relationship between the Minderoo Foundation and UQ as very open and honest, and it is the perfect illustration of the foundation’s granting strategy.

The granting strategy

Sarah is no stranger to the precarious nature of research funding in Australia, which is short-term, and over-prescriptive, with renewals that are far from guaranteed.

“The attitude to research in Australia must be shifted so it is viewed as a benefit, not a cost, with the freedom to do pure, discovery research as well as applied research. We have a system of constantly having to apply for research grants – in my own career I was looking over the edge of a cliff at the end of every four years. Many grants are much shorter, some are only a year. At the Minderoo Foundation we have the extraordinary privilege of being supported,” says Sarah.

Then there’s the overarching question of whether research funding in our country falls well short of the mark. Funding for Australia’s main research councils, the National Health & Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council has plateaued in recent years. While it’s not up to philanthropy alone to solve this issue, the Minderoo Foundation do believe they have a role in filling the gap.

The foundation offers a less arduous funding application process than government. Their focus is on identifying partners and asking – ‘what is the question you’re asking, who are you doing it for, what’s the impact and how are you going to turn the dial?’.

They therefore don’t encourage unsolicited applications. Instead, their philosophy is to establish granting relationships as part of international networks that have combined strength to address some of the world’s greatest issues.

Further to its partnership with UQ, the foundation is busy establishing relationships with other research institutes, universities and NGOs – both in Australia and internationally. This demonstrates diverse funding in a global brain trust that provides the best chance of changing the plastics industry. This emphasis on partnerships is part of their overarching grant strategy.

“We’re not going to solve this huge problem of plastic pollution by working in individual silos and projects,” Sarah says.

Any partners and projects must align with the foundation’s goals and values, which Sarah described as gravity – unseen but very much there, driving and shaping the foundation’s thinking and actions every day. Living by these values allows Minderoo to stay focused on the bigger picture, funding in a holistic and collaborative way.

How can industry be part of the solution?

Despite all of the readily available and terrifying statistics around plastics, the dial has not turned to date (as is sadly the case with climate change – perhaps also in drastic need of mountain-top thinking).

“We’re really trying to put humans at the centre of the problem and the solution because although we see all this visible plastic pollution, we still haven’t managed to stop it. But if you make people realise that the plastic they can’t see – the invisible plastic chemicals and micro/nano plastics – is actually affecting their own body, then you can drive a bigger change,” Sarah tells us.

By shifting the focus to human health, the Minderoo Foundation and their research partners aim to:

Strengthen chemical regulation. We need to reverse the burden of proof; the onus should be on industry to prove that plastic chemicals and products are safe before they are released, not on scientists to prove what damage the chemicals and products are doing after their release. We need a much better regulatory framework, and it must be global; pollution is blind to international boundaries.

A redesign of plastic. Plastic is hard to recycle – and even when it is, recycled plastic is still plastic with its toxic effects. Plastic therefore needs to be fundamentally re-designed to be two things: first, safe and second, sustainable with materials feeding a circular economy with constant flow around a ‘closed loop’ system, rather than being used once and then discarded.

And this must be cheaper than current plastic. “Until you’ve got an economically viable alternative, industry’s not going to change,” says Sarah.

A re-evaluation of who pays the price of plastic pollution. Because right now, plastic is incredibly cheap to produce, but the full cost is being paid by the environment and our health. For example, estimated costs of endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure exceeds €150 billion annually in the EU. Industry needs to ‘pay’ the price by designing products that are better and safer, so our environment and bodies don’t pay instead. The consumer’s responsibility is to demand them.

Redesigning plastic and valuing it properly will give us a viable alternative to the status quo – and offering solutions and alternatives is the only way to engage industry.

The mountain top

“With privilege and autonomy comes huge accountability. We must drive impact,” says Sarah of the Minderoo Foundation.

“We have to do something pretty spectacular because the industry is so gargantuan. We all have to realise that if we pollute the very planet we’re living on, our very life support system, we won’t have an economy!” Sarah rightly points out.

The extent of plastics pollution may seem like an unscalable mountain, the summit far out of reach. But as the Minderoo Foundation builds skill and expertise, grows global knowledge networks, invests heavily in research that fills evidence gaps and builds a case that industry, governments and consumers can no longer ignore, there is hope.

 

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