Could a Solution to Marine Plastic Waste Threaten One of the Ocean's Most Mysterious Ecosystems?
By Ute Eberle
In May 2017, shells started washing up along the Ligurian coast in Italy. They were small and purple and belonged to a snail called Janthina pallida that is rarely seen on land. But the snails kept coming — so many that entire stretches of the beach turned pastel.
An unusual wind pattern had beached the animals. And for the people who walked the shore, this offered a rare encounter with a wondrous ecosystem that most of us have never heard about: The neuston.
The neuston, from the Greek word for swimming, refers to a group of animals, plants and microorganisms that spend all or large parts of their life floating in the top few centimeters of the ocean.
It's a mysterious world that even experts still know little about. But recently, it has been the source of tensions between a project trying to clean up the sea by skimming plastic trash off its surface, and marine biologists who say this could destroy the neuston.
The Ligurian coast has been swept by snails turning its color pastel.
A World Between Worlds
The neuston comprises a multitude of weird and wonderful creatures.
Many, like the Portuguese man-of-war, which paralyzes its prey with venomous tentacles up to 30 meters long, are colored an electric shade of blue, possibly to protect themselves against the sun's UV rays, or as camouflages against predators.
There are also by-the-wind sailors, flattish creatures that raise chitin shields from the water like sails; slugs known as sea dragons that cling to the water's surface from below with webbed appendages; barnacles that build bubble rafts as big as dinner plates; and the world's only marine insects, a relation of the pond skater.
They live "between the worlds" of the sea and sky, as Federico Betti, a marine biologist at the University of Genoa, puts it. From below, predators lurk. From above, the sun burns. Winds and waves toss them about. Depending on the weather, their environment may be warm or cool, salty or less so.
Sea snails can make up the neuston.
Velella velella jellyfish living on the surface of the ocean.
But now, they face another — manmade — threat from nets designed to catch trash. A project called The Ocean Cleanup, run by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has raised millions of dollars in donations and sponsorship to deploy long barriers with nets that will drift across the ocean in open loops to sweep up floating garbage.
Collecting With the Current
"Plastic could outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. To us, that future is unacceptable," The Ocean Cleanup declares on its website.
But Rebecca Helm, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina, and one of the few scientists to study this ecosystem, fears that The Ocean Cleanup's proposal to remove 90% of the plastic trash from the water could also virtually wipe out the neuston.
One focus of Helm's studies is where these organisms congregate. "There are places that are very, very concentrated and areas of little concentration, and we're trying to figure out why," says Helm.
One factor is that the neuston floats with ocean currents, and Helm worries that it might collect in the exact same spots as marine plastic pollution. "Our initial data show that regions with high concentrations of plastic are also regions with high concentrations of life."
Waste collection in the Pacific Ocean heralded by The Ocean Cleanup.
The Ocean Cleanup says Helm's concerns are based on "misguided assumptions."
"It's true that neustonic organisms will be trapped in the barriers," says Gerhard Herndl, professor of Aquatic Biology at the University of Vienna and one of project's scientific advisors. "But these organisms have dangerous lives. They're adapted to high losses because they get washed ashore in storms and they have high reproductive rates. If they didn't, they'd already be extinct."
Helm says they just don't know how quickly these creatures reproduce, and in any case recovering from passing storm is very different from surviving The Ocean Clean Up's systems which could be in place for years.
The Ocean Cleanup invited Helm to a symposium on the topic in December, where both sides presented their points of views and didn't seem to find much common ground. Since then, direct communication between them has stopped, says Helm. "They're not interested in talking to me anymore."
Both sides agree that much is still unknown about the neuston. But one thing that has been established is that most of the oceans' fish spend part of their lifecycle in the neuston. "More than 90% of marine fish species produce floating eggs that persist on the surface until hatching," Betti says.
The Ocean Cleanup has undertaken one of the few studies into this ecosystem, collecting data on the neuston on the relative abundance of neuston and floating plastic debris in the eastern North Pacific Ocean during a 2019 expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where plastic pollution has accumulated on a vast scale. But it is not yet sharing what it has found. The information was being prepared for publication in an as of yet unspecified journal, probably some time next year, an Ocean Cleanup spokesperson said.
Helm believes the best way to tackle the marine plastic problem would be to position the barriers closer to land — across river mouths and bays — to catch garbage before it reaches the sea.
"Stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean is the most cost-effective — and literally effective — way to ensure that it's not entering our environment," she says.
As for the plastic already floating in open waters, she does not believe it is worth sacrificing parts of neuston and wants to see more research first.
The Ocean Cleanup has made barriers across rivers a part of its mission. But it is also going ahead with its original vision of pulling trash from the open water. In late 2018, the project deployed a 600-meter, u-shaped prototype net into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The system ran into difficulties, failing to retain plastic as hoped, and needing to be brought shore for repairs and a design upgrade, after which Ocean Cleanup says it gathered haul of plastic that it will recycle and resell to help fund future operations.
Over the next two years, the project hopes to deploy up to 60 such barriers to collect drifting flotsam. Helm isn't the only one concerned about these plans.
"We should think twice about every action we take in the sea," Betti says. "In nature, nothing is as easy as we think, and often, we've done a lot of damage while trying to do a good thing."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
This Earth Month, Starbucks is experimenting with a circular economy.
From March 30 to May 31st, customers at five Seattle Starbucks will be able to order their drink in a reusable cup that they can then deposit themselves at a contactless kiosk or have picked up for them by area recycling service Ridwell.
"Promoting reusability is an important part of Starbucks goal to reduce waste by 50% by 2030," Starbucks Chief Sustainability Officer Michael Kobori said in the program announcement. "We understand the interdependency of human and planetary health, and we believe it is our responsibility to reduce single-use cup waste. We will lead the transition to a circular economy."
Borrow A Cup
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
The Borrow A Cup pilot works like this.
Step 1: Customers will order their drink in a reusable cup and pay a refundable $1 deposit.
Step 2: When they are done, customers will return the cups to a contactless kiosk in the store's lobby or drive-thru. They can then scan the Starbucks App for a $1 credit and 10 Bonus Stars.
Step 3: The cups will be collected and professionally cleaned by GO Box and returned to circulation within 48 hours.
Starbucks said each reusable cup would prevent as many as 30 disposable cups from being wasted.
The new pilot is not the first time the company has experimented with ways to reuse cups, a Starbucks spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email. The company has offered a discount for customers bringing their own containers since the 1980s and has long sold its own reusable thermoses and mugs at its stores. However, the idea of offering cups that can be returned to the store later is rather new. In 2019, it launched a month-long reusable cup trial at London's Gatwick airport and another test in the Bay Area. To prepare for the current trial, it ran single-store tests in the Seattle area during the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021.
"Those tests were intended to explore operations and logistics for our partners, and used our standard reusable traveler cup, usually available at the cash register," Starbucks explained. "This pilot will explore the scalability of the concept and equipment."
Starbucks did not say exactly how, when, or where the project would be expanded if it succeeds.
"We are optimistic about this program and we look forward to customer feedback as we explore scalable options to reduce single-use cup waste," the company spokesperson said.
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
One unique feature of the Seattle pilot is the partnership with Ridwell. Ridwell is an innovative Seattle-area company that grew out of a father and his six-year-old son's search for a place to safely dispose of batteries, according to the company website. Once they found their answer, they offered to take their neighbor's batteries, too.
The company's mission ignited from this initial spark. Ridwell picks up hard to reuse or recycle items from Seattle homes and finds a way to keep them out of landfills. This made partnering with Starbucks a natural fit. During the trial, the company will pick up the reusable cups from customers' homes.
"Our mission is to make it easy to waste less – just as easy (and hopefully more delightful!) than throwing things away. Offering our members the ability to return their reusable Starbucks cups without leaving their homes or needing to remember to bring them back to the store is a fantastic example of simplifying potential friction in reuse and circular programs at scale," a Ridwell spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email.
Ridwell said it would like to engage in more partnerships like this if the Starbucks trial succeeds.
"We are excited about expanding partnerships that enable a more earth-friendly way for our members to consume the things they enjoy (like a coffee!)," the spokesperson said.
A Tale of Two Markets
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
Environmental campaigners said that the Starbucks pilot is a step in the right direction.
"Greenpeace supports the model that Starbucks is exploring, through which customers essentially rent a reusable container for a deposit that is returned to them when they bring the container back," Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar told EcoWatch in an email. "That container is then washed and cleaned and reused many times, as with other dishes in restaurants we frequent. Not only can this model help our environment and health, it can create new jobs and save businesses money in the long run."
However, Greenpeace argued that Starbucks could be moving faster with implementing this model across the U.S., something that seems to be supported by Starbucks' actions abroad.
The day before Starbucks announced the Seattle pilot, it also said that it would phase out all single-use cups from its South Korea stores by 2025. This will begin with a launch of reusable cups in certain stores in the city of Jeju this summer that will then expand to additional locations over the next four years.
"If Starbucks can eliminate all single-use cups in South Korea by 2025 and shift entirely to reuse, it can do more than implement a trial program here with a goal of reducing waste by 50% by 2030," Hocevar said. "Starbucks' goal should be to eliminate all of its disposable coffee cups as quickly as possible and scale up these reusable programs across all of its markets."
Starbucks, for its part, said that local conditions determined how quickly it could roll out new ideas in different places.
"In some cases, market level conditions allow us to move quickly than others, which in turn allows us to share those learnings in other markets," the company said.
But Greenpeace noted there is another key difference between the U.S. and South Korea. The latter passed a law in 2018 banning disposable cups at sit-down restaurants, and the Environment Minister further revised rules in February to cut down on plastic and other disposable items.
"It definitely appears as though South Korea's recent actions against single-use plastics, particularly for dine-in options, has influenced Starbucks to act with greater urgency there," Hocevar told EcoWatch. "This is part of the reason we need to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act [in the U.S.] and develop a global plastics treaty to move toward reuse urgently."
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As California enters its second consecutive dry year and braces for what could be another devastating wildfire season, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency on Wednesday, in just two counties. The declaration targets Mendocino and Sonoma counties, known for their wineries and grape growing, and where conditions are desperately dry.
Standing in the dry bottom of Lake Mendocino, Newsom said, "Oftentimes we overstate the word historic, but this is indeed an historic moment, certainly historic for this particular lake, Mendocino," according to AP News. The lake is at about 40 percent of its normal capacity. Lake Sonoma, another local reservoir, is only about 62 percent full.
Here in Lake Mendocino, we should be 40 ft. underwater but it’s dry. This is climate change. Today, we declared a… https://t.co/ISsasLAihB— Office of the Governor of California (@Office of the Governor of California)1619034124.0
According to the California Department of Water Resources, this is the state's fourth-driest year on record, especially in the northern parts of the state. At the beginning of the month, state officials announced that snow accumulation in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Cascades was about 40 percent below average levels, The Guardian reported.
Newsom's declaration has already faced criticism from state officials and farmers in the Central Valley, who say the governor's approach isn't sufficient to address the drought that impacts almost all parts of the state.
"(T)he Central Valley can't afford to be overlooked," state Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno) said in a statement, according to The Mercury News. "We need a statewide emergency declaration immediately in order to deliver more water to farmers and growers in the Valley."
To others, the governor's regional approach "sounds like a good idea," Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, told The Mercury News, who added that the governor should not declare a widespread drought too early, to avoid "crying wolf."
Currently, California is in a similar situation to what it experienced six years ago when former Gov. Jerry Brown declared a water emergency. But state officials say today's current drought will be unlike anything seen before, requiring innovative measures, according to CalMatters.
Although the governor has yet to declare a state-wide emergency, officials have been warning Californians of the drought. In March, the California's State Water Resources Control Board, for example, "sent early warnings to 40,000 water rights holders urging them to start conserving," AP News reported.
"If you're in a different part of the state, you probably need to know that this will one day happen to you," Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said of the drought declaration, according to AP News.
In early April, a group of state legislators sent a letter to Newsom urging him to declare a drought emergency, CalMatters reported. "This is the slowest, most foreseeable train wreck imaginable," said Sen. Borgeas, who helped write the letter.
Newsom's reluctance to declare a state-wide emergency may have something to do with his looming recall campaign, set for later this year, according to political strategist Dan Schnur, The Mercury News reported.
"It's hard to think of another explanation about why he'd be tiptoeing around such a critically important issue," Schnur told The Mercury News. "He's clearly very sensitive about pushing voters too hard on water usage in the aftermath of the pandemic restrictions."
Regardless of whether the declaration covers their county, some local water districts are already taking matters into their own hands. In Marin County, for example, adjacent to Sonoma, water officials voted Tuesday to require residents to reduce water use by measures such as not washing vehicles at home or filling backyard pools, AP News reported.
As the state continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and a sluggish economy, scarce resources and the threat of another wildfire season will only ignite further tensions. Acknowledging that water is a "politically fractious issue" in the state, Gov. Newsom urged people not to resort to "old binaries" like urban vs. rural, The Mercury News reported.
"This is California," he said. "We are Californians."
- California Faces 'Critically Dry Year' - EcoWatch ›
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Much of the conversation surrounding the ecological benefits of tropical rainforests focuses on South America's Amazon. However, the forests of Central Africa are just as important. While the Amazon is the largest contiguous rainforest in the world, Central Africa's rainforests are the world's second largest, Nature reported. They store more carbon per hectare than the Amazon and host a higher concentration of large trees than any other continent.
They are also under threat. A new study published in Nature on Wednesday maps the different forest types present in Central Africa and pinpoints which are most vulnerable to the climate crisis and human activity.
"Africa is forecasted to experience large and rapid climate change and population growth during the twenty-first century, which threatens the world's second largest rainforest," the study authors wrote. "Protecting and sustainably managing these African forests requires an increased understanding of their compositional heterogeneity, the environmental drivers of forest composition and their vulnerability to ongoing changes."
To accomplish this goal, a France-based research team examined data concerning six million trees from more than 180,000 field plots in Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, AFP reported.
The team mapped the forests based on where different plants thrived.
"The forest area of Central Africa is far from being a homogeneous green carpet. It is home to a wide variety of forests with different characteristics, including their own particular carbon storage capacity," Maxime Réjou-Méchain, study lead author and French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) ecologist, said in an IRD press release. "This diversity can be explained by the different types of climate (humidity, temperature, evapotranspiration rate, amount of rainfall) and soils, as well as by the history of the African flora and the degree of human activity that has disturbed the forests for thousands of years, such as shifting agriculture."
The researchers identified 10 types of forest, according to Nature. These include Atlantic coastal evergreens in Gabon and semi-deciduous forests at the northern edge of the Central African study area. The researchers then compared their map with projections for how the region's climate is likely to change by 2085.
Because the various forest types have evolved over time to thrive in different climate niches, the rise in global temperatures might mean that some trees will be less able to adapt to a changing climate.
"[T]he forest margins in the north and south of the region, the Atlantic forests and most of those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to more than half of Central Africa's forests, are among the most vulnerable," Professor Bonaventure Sonké, study coauthor and University of Yaoundé 1 botanist, told IRD.
However, the research also presents a guide to conserving the particular biodiversity of these forests.
"These results must now be used and applied to develop land use plans that preserve forest characteristics while maintaining connections between protected zones through sustainably managed timber production forests," Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury, study coauthor and CIRAD forest ecologist, said in the press release.
While human activity threatens the forests, they are also key resources for the people who live in and near them.
"[R]ainforests in Central Africa and the ecosystem services they provide are intertwined with people's livelihoods and food security," Marion Pfeifer from Newcastle University's School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and Deo Shirima from Tanzania's Sokoine University of Agriculture wrote in Nature. "Developing sustainable management plans that recognize the diversity of the ways in which people interact with and depend on these forests will be a huge challenge. It will require concerted cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral efforts that move beyond national boundaries."
The Race to Save the World is releasing on Virtual Cinema this Earth Day. Instead of focusing on paralyzing facts and numbers this inspiring feature takes a unique approach by following passionate activists, ages 15-72, who are in the trenches fighting for a livable future. These brave climate warriors put their lives on the line to push for change, regardless of the personal cost.
Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Gantz brings an urgent and intimate portrait of the protests, arrests, courtroom drama and family turmoil these activists endure as they single-mindedly focus their attention on the goal of creating a more sustainable world for future generations. "The Race To Save The World" is an inspiring and energizing call-to-action to quit waiting on the sidelines and make our voices heard.
Watch the exclusive Earth Day preview above.
For more on "The Race to Save the World" read Olivia Rosane's article "3 New Films to Watch This Earth Week."
Where to Entire Film Watch: Virtual Cinema
Forty leaders from the world's top greenhouse gas-polluting nations where hosted by the Biden administration on Thursday for an all-virtual summit to discuss the global climate emergency and the pathways — including individual emission reduction goals — that governments must take to stave off the worst impacts of global warming and runaway destruction of the planet's natural systems.
Just ahead of the gathering, President Joe Biden announced new U.S. commitments to meeting the goals set forth in the 2015 Paris climate agreement and said that the nation will now aim to reduce annual carbon output by 52% compared to 2005 levels.
"Our clean energy plan will create millions of good-paying union jobs, ensure our economic competitiveness, and improve the health and security of communities across America," Biden said in a declaration released ahead of the summit. "By making those investments and putting millions of Americans to work, the United States will be able to cut our greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030."
While the most ambitious target ever set forth by an American president — and a total reversal from the destructive policies of his predecessor Donald J. Trump — climate scientists and advocacy groups have been outspoken to say that even Biden's stated goals are simply "not enough" to meet U.S. obligations or keep the world from less than 1.5ºC of warming this century.
Watch the summit above.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.