Plastic Pollution: Could We Have Solved the Problem Nearly 50 Years Ago?
By Erica Cirino
There's plastic in seabirds, in the middle of the remote Pacific Ocean, even in people. It's a challenge to turn to the news these days without reading or hearing the latest horror story about plastic pollution. These updates seem new and striking and scary, but in reality much of the fundamental information contained in these stories is actually far from fresh.
"In the last five years there has been more published research on plastics than in the previous 50 years," said Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute cofounder and research director, who's a well-known contemporary documentarian of microplastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other parts of the oceans. "In the past the public did not get adequate information, or the right information, early enough to act."
The Revelator took a deep dive into reams of historic plastic pollution research and uncovered that much of what's considered "new" today has actually been known by scientists for decades but was not well publicized in the popular media until recently.
That delay in spreading the news about the threats of plastic came with a major cost. In the time since scientific research on plastic pollution was first published in the early 1970s, billions of metric tons of plastic waste has been tossed in landfills and accumulated in terrestrial and marine ecosystems — and in the bodies of countless people and animals.
That scientists knew plastic pollution was a growing problem back in the Seventies begs two essential questions: What would the world be like if we had listened to early researchers much earlier? And what prevented us from listening?
The earliest peer-reviewed research on plastic pollution in the oceans was based in observation of how the materials were behaving in the environment.
One paper, published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies in 1972, identified the phenomenon of plastic consumer packaging washing up on isolated shorelines as an ecological concern. Written by University of Aston chemist Gerald Scott, the paper discussed the problematically slow biodegradation speed of plastic in the marine environment and outlined a "need for the acceleration of this process" to prevent further ecological harm.
That same year a scientist named Edward J. Carpenter, who now works as a professor at San Francisco State University, became the first to publish warnings about what would eventually be known as "microplastics." While posted as a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Carpenter published two landmark 1972 papers describing "plastic particles" in the Sargasso Sea and plastic spheres used for plastic production (called nurdles) that had absorbed PCBs in waters off Southern New England and were found inside several fish caught there.
The decades following Carpenter's initial work saw the publication of just a few dozen papers on marine plastic pollution. In fact, from the time Carpenter announced finding small plastic particles in the oceans, it took more than three decades for the scientific term "microplastic" to be published in major international publications. Today publication of these papers is much more frequent. A search of Google Scholar found 771 papers containing the words "microplastic" or "microplastics" published in 2018 alone.
Although plastic pollution wasn't making news headlines decades ago, the research did continue, with several important early findings made. This includes the 1973 discovery of small plastic particles accumulating in the bodies of seabirds (today we know more than 90 percent of all seabirds have eaten plastic at some point in their lives) and the identification of large quantities of plastic floating on the Pacific Ocean between California and Japan (where we now know the Great Pacific Garbage Patch lies).
Plastic found in one dead seabird's stomach.
Carol Meteyer / USGS
Early research suggests that scientists knew from the start that the biggest issue with plastic is that it never decomposes. It only breaks up into tiny pieces that can be ingested by marine wildlife and humans, with unclear — but almost certainly negative — consequences.
One major concern is toxins, which plastic can both absorb and leach out. While this issue has gotten significant amounts of media coverage in the past few years, some of the earliest plastic pollution researchers supposed that if ingested in small amounts, "consumed particles of plastic could release sufficient amounts of PCB's to affect seabirds," as Stephen I. Rothstein wrote in a 1973 paper on marine plastic pollution.
It took more than a decade after publication of the papers by Carpenter and other early researchers before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States' main ocean science agency, convened the world's top marine scientists to discuss plastic pollution. In 1984 the agency hosted the First International Conference on Marine Debris. As former NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center deputy director Jim Coe later recalled, the goal of the conference was to discuss whether or not marine debris, specifically lost and abandoned fishing gear, "was a problem worth people's attention."
They quickly agreed that it was. Scientists at the conference concluded that plastic was accumulating in the natural environment and called for more research to better understand what seemed to be a growing problem. They also made the earliest call for legal action to prevent pollution from ships, which prompted Congress to fund an early version of NOAA's Marine Debris Program called the Marine Entanglement and Research Program — which had a responsibility of facilitating research, publicizing data and minimizing the problem.
Plastic Industry Influence
During the early 1980s, plastic manufacturers continued to sell consumers on the utility of their products, specifically plastic bags, without publicly acknowledging that the materials were harming the environment. In fact, they tried to show the opposite by pushing ideas about plastic's abilities to be reused and recycled.
"Plastic bags can be reused in more than 17 different ways, including as a wrap for frozen foods, a jogger's wind breaker or a beach bag," the industry-backed Plastic Grocery Sack Council told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. A New York Times story published a few years prior lightly debates whether or not consumers would prefer using plastic bags to paper, given the industry's push to get them into grocery stores around the world — without mentioning any of the environmental consequences.
John Platt / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
But the real push for plastic started even earlier. Plastics-history expert Rebecca Altman recalls how a 1950s packaging magazine editor told industry insiders that "The future of plastics is in the trash can." Altman, who has deeply explored the human connection to plastic, says that the world had to be conditioned to carelessly consume. Prior to that time, "it was not in the culture to use something once and throw it away." Today the items most commonly found in nature are so-called "single-use" plastics.
Promoting public narratives about litter to focus on recycling as a solution has, for a long time, "been a way to deflect attention and responsibility for product design away from industry, and has been very effective," said Eriksen.
Despite this focus on recycling, recent research finds just 9 percent of plastics ever made have been recycled, and the large majority has either ended up in landfills or the natural environment.
A Plastic Cover-up?
Though contemporary plastic pollution scientists say they are aware of these past studies and their significance, they claim the public is not — due to insufficient news coverage of the issue and industry campaigns designed to keep them in the dark.
"Industry has aggressively defended themselves, manipulating public perception, and attacking scientists perceived as a threat," Eriksen said.
"For both papers in Science the Society of the Plastics Industry sent a representative (twice) to Woods Hole, basically to intimidate me," claimed Carpenter, the early plastics researcher. "I was not given tenure at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and I think the plastic papers hurt my career there."
That trade group is now known as the Plastics Industry Association. When reached for comment, it refused to confirm or deny Carpenter's claims.
But it's well known that certain industries have covered up the link between tobacco use and cancer, and fossil fuel use and climate change. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists' "Disinformation Playbook," corporations have followed a specific pattern when attempting to block legislation and minimize their liability for problems created by their products. The plastics industry appears to have followed the same predictable plays as other deceptive businesses: blitzing scientists who speak out with "inconvenient" results or views, diverting attention from scientific recommendations (to cut plastic use), and making strong attempts to block unfavorable policies (banning or restricting plastic use), among other strategies.
Besides industry silencing of research and shaping consumers' mindsets around waste, Altman suggests the media also played a part in the issue of global plastic pollution first being overlooked and then finally coming to the fore of global consciousness. It's a combination of plastic pollution worsening and the nature of media changing over time, Altman says. Today social platforms have the ability for anyone, anywhere, to share what has been ignored long enough to become an enormous and visually compelling story. Just think of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and all the media attention that's gotten in the past decade, she said.
"Culturally we focus on environmental problems of a spectacular nature, the kind of havoc that happens in a bewildering instant," she said. "It's hard to see the slow-moving disasters or tragedies that happen over time — the drip, drip, drip — until it's of a disastrous proportion."
Carpenter agrees, emphasizing the gap between the scientific discovery of plastic pollution in the oceans and publicity about the problem. "I believe that the Captain Moore TED Talk on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plus Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres, plus a video on dying albatrosses at Midway Island, plus the graphic video of the sea turtle with the plastic straw up its nose began to finally wake up the public," he said.
What’s the Solution?
Nonprofits like 5 Gyres are now pushing an agenda toward public awareness, corporate responsibility and the idea of a circular economy — an economy that focuses on keeping waste to a minimum while maximizing materials' use. NGOs' activism has also kick-started a spurt of municipal and national policies aimed at reducing use of plastic items worldwide in a bid to cut pollution. If people won't stop using plastic items on their own accord, recent research suggests rules limiting their use of plastic items by charging a fee for its use or banning it outright is the best way to get them to stop.
The plastics industry has actively fought such legislation, and despite the publication of research calling for a reduction in plastic use it continues to sell its products while pushing recycling as the best method to reduce waste and litter. In one recent example, major beverage corporations led by the Coca-Cola Company sent a letter of opposition last year to the European Commission following the EU's proposal to require that plastic bottles have tethered caps. Traditional bottle caps are commonly lost in the marine environment because they so easily separate from bottles. In the letter the corporations cite the efficacy of deposit return schemes and recycling in reducing plastic litter. They proposed increased efforts to "reinforce and incentivize [the] right consumer behaviors" in lieu of changing their product designs. Coca-Cola recently revealed that it produces 3 million metric tons of plastic packaging every year.
When asked about the issue of plastic pollution and how to best address it, the Plastics Industry Association sent a statement to The Revelator saying the association "believes uncollected plastics do not belong in the natural environment and that is why we partner with other associations, non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental authorities to coordinate efforts to strengthen recovery systems around the globe to prevent the loss of any plastics into the environment. Our members understand that our industry needs to be a part of the solution. We encourage education and call for the enhancement of our recycling infrastructure in order to encourage new end markets for plastics."
But experts say product redesigns and infrastructure don't solve the problem. "Ocean plastics are a symptom of poor upstream waste management, poor product design, as well as consumer littering behavior," Eriksen said. "It's a perpetuation of old narratives, where pollution is caused by consumers. Regulation of products and packaging must be fought for intensively."
The quick solution to the problem: Use less plastic.
As Carpenter pointed out nearly five decades ago, the more plastic we make and use, the more will end up in the natural environment. As he wrote in 1972: "Increasing production of plastics, combined with present waste-disposal practices, will undoubtedly lead to increases in the concentration of these particles."
That's a message we should have listened to decades ago, which still needs to be heard today.
"The public did not get adequate information, or the right information, early enough to act," said Eriksen. "Industry has been very effective at controlling the public narrative, but today they cannot control things the way they did in the past. Social media and mass communications have allowed people to organize." And that's starting to make a difference.
Erica Cirino is a freelance science writer and artist based in Copenhagen. She travels the world to cover stories about wildlife and the environment, specializing in conservation, biology and policy. Lately she has been very focused on the issue of plastic pollution. Her work appears in Scientific American, VICE, Audubon and other popular science publications.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
- Trader Joe's Phasing Out Single-Use Plastics Nationwide Following ... ›
- Whale Dies After Swallowing 88 Pounds of Plastic Bags - EcoWatch ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
- 18 Cookbooks for Building a Diverse and Just Food System ... ›
- 19 Individuals and Groups Building Stronger Black Communities ... ›
- 8 Cookbooks We're Reading This Fall - EcoWatch ›
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has expanded its list of potentially toxic hand sanitizers to avoid because they could be contaminated with methanol.
- Here's How to Clean Your Groceries During the COVID-19 Outbreak ... ›
- Why Hand-Washing Really Is as Important as Doctors Say - EcoWatch ›
- If You're Worried About the New Coronavirus, Here's How to Protect ... ›
- Vodka Won't Protect You From Coronavirus, and 4 Other Things to ... ›
By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
- 4 Exciting Dam-Removal Projects to Watch - EcoWatch ›
- Jump-Starting the Dam Removal Movement in the U.S. - EcoWatch ›
- Boom: Removing 81 Dams Is Transforming This California Watershed ›
- Sea Level Rise Is Speeding up Along Most of the U.S. Coast ... ›
- Protecting Mangroves Can Prevent Billions of Dollars in Global ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›
- 300 Million People Worldwide Could Suffer Yearly Flooding by 2050 ... ›
- Sea Level Rise Could Put 2.4 Million U.S. Coastal Homes at Risk ... ›
By Katie Howell
A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
- 7 Amazing New Fish Species Discovered in 2017 - EcoWatch ›
- Millions of Seahorses Wind Up Dead on the Black Market for This ... ›
Presidential hopeful Joe Biden announced a $2 trillion plan Tuesday to boost American investment in clean energy and infrastructure.
- Green New Deal Champion AOC Will Serve on Biden Climate Panel ... ›
- Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces Unveil Improved Climate Policy ... ›