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Solution to Ocean’s Plastic Waste Problem ‘Starts With Product Design’
By John C. Cannon
Solving the problem of the growing amount of plastic in the ocean requires rethinking how we use and design plastic products, a group of scientists said at the European Open Science Forum (ESOF18) on July 10.
To address the issue, we need to "properly consider the product's life and its end of life right from the beginning, from the design stage," said Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth in the UK.
Ocean cleanups, banning unnecessary single-use products, biodegradation, even recycling—none of these solutions alone will be enough to crack the problem, the researchers concluded. Interest has surged in tackling the problem of plastic in the ocean recently, but researchers have been studying the issue for years.
Microplastic particles inside a perch larva Oona M. Lönnstedt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
Thompson said that early on in his training in marine biology, he didn't expect that "rubbish" would be a central focus of his work. But in his explorations of the world's oceans, he found trash, especially plastics, everywhere, and in every size.
"It's very difficult to go anywhere in the world actually in a marine environment without finding items of rubbish," Thompson said. He and his team published an early paper on microplastics in 2004 documenting bits of plastic they found in sand that were "smaller than the diameter of a human hair."
Since then, the research community has published hundreds of papers cataloging the potential harm that castaway garbage can pose to some 700 species of marine life, from entanglement in "ghost nets" to infiltrating the diets of zooplankton. But plastics are also valuable for applications such as healthcare, food storage and manufacturing.
"They bring many benefits that could reduce our human footprint on the planet," he said.
The problem is that much of the plastic generated every year is produced with "an outdated and inefficient business model," Thompson said, one that isn't aimed at the circular use of plastics.
"Plastic in the sea is a symptom of a much wider problem about the rapid linear use of resource to waste," Thompson said.
Even though it's where so much of the plastic ends up, "[we] all agree on the fact that the solution is not in the ocean," said Jean-François Ghiglione, a microbiologist at the Oceanographic Observatory in Banyuls, France.
Some of the proposed ideas have struck the researchers as wrong-headed. Collection initiatives using nets to collect trash from the sea are "a real concern," said Alexandra Ter Halle, a chemist at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France. A project called Ocean Cleanup is planning to use "screens" attached to floating pipes up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) to skim plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
"There is no way to separate the [marine] life from the plastic," Ter Halle said. "Fishermen need authorization to go fishing at sea. But those cleaning initiatives, they don't need any authorization to put those big nets at sea."
Ter Halle led the 7th Continent expedition in the North Atlantic in 2015. From the team's surveys, she and her colleagues documented, for the first time, the presence of microscopic "nano-plastic" particles in the ocean. Their data is yet more evidence of how pervasive plastics are in the environment.
Ghiglione has been investigating bacteria that could degrade plastic. For some, it seems to be a favorite food source.
"They really love plastic," he said.
But are they plowing through the tons of rubbish in the ocean? "That's not the case," he said.
Thompson returned to the idea that we need to think about the source of all this trash. Indeed, he said, getting rid of non-essential packaging and materials needs to happen. For example, on July 9, Starbucks announced it would stop providing plastic straws in its stores by 2020.
"There are some plastics products that we didn't need in the first place," Thompson said. Going a step further than voluntary corporate commitments, he added, "I think we could have legislation to prohibit their use."
But, he said, policy and legal changes aren't possible for every type and use of plastic. And that proliferation of different forms of plastic, in many cases making their disposal too complex for the average person, is part of the problem, he said.
We could be recycling a lot more plastic than we currently are, he said. Only about 10 percent of what's produced gets cycled back into new products.
"Why is it so low?" Thompson said.
Again, it goes back to the forethought that must go into plastics before they're produced, he said: "If they're not being designed so that they can be recycled, we're wasting our time."
Editor's note: John Cannon received a fellowship from Nature Research to attend ESOF18. Nature Research had no editorial control over the selection of this story or its content.
John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East.
Republished with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.
Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.
Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.
SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.
It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.
Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.
In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.
The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).
"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.
The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.
"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
Ivory Coast's rainforests have been decimated by cocoa production and what is left is put in peril by a new law that will remove legal protections for thousands of square miles of forests, according to The Guardian.
By Karin Kirk
Greenland had quite the summer. It rose from peaceful obscurity to global headliner as ice melted so swiftly and massively that many were left grasping for adjectives. Then, Greenland's profile was further boosted, albeit not to its delight, when President Trump expressed interest in buying it, only to be summarily dismissed by the Danish prime minister.
During that time I happened to be in East Greenland, both as an observer of the stark effects of climate change and as a witness to local dialogue about presidential real estate aspirations, polar bear migrations and Greenland's sudden emergence as a trending topic.
Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market. Cirou Frederic / PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections / Getty Images
Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market, according to new research from the advocacy organization Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), which bills itself as an alliance of scientists, nonprofit organizations and donors trying to reduce exposures to neurotoxic chemicals during the first three years of development.
By Kerstin Palme
Creepy-crawlies are among the oldest life forms on this planet. Before dinosaurs ever walked the earth, insects were certainly already there. Some estimates date their origins to 400 million years ago. They're also extremely successful. Of the 7 to 8 million species documented on Earth, around three quarters are likely bugs.
But several insect species could disappear for good in the next few decades and that would have serious consequences for humans.
Volvo introduced its first-ever all-electric vehicle this week, kicking off an ambitious plan to slash emissions and phase out solely gas-powered vehicles starting this year.
The report, released Wednesday, found that almost every European who lives in a city is exposed to unhealthy air, Reuters reported.