We know that plastics clog our oceans, lakes and the stomachs of marine animals, but a first-of-its-kind investigation from Orb Media found the pervasive material in tap water supplies around the world, too.
Orb, a digital media nonprofit, worked with researchers at the State University of New York and the University of Minnesota and analyzed 159 drinking water samples across five continents over a ten-month period. The results indicated that plastics are just about everywhere—83 percent of the samples tested positive for the presence of tiny plastic particles, aka microplastics.
"Microscopic plastic fibers are flowing out of taps from New York to New Delhi," the study states. "From the halls of the U.S. Capitol to the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, women, children, men, and babies are consuming plastic with every glass of water."
The U.S. tied with Beirut, Lebanon for the highest plastic fiber contamination rates, at 94 percent. U.S. samples were collected from 33 sites, including the U.S. Capitol complex, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the Trump Grill in New York.
Notably, an EPA spokeswoman told PRI that the U.S. doesn't have a safety standard for plastic in drinking water, nor are plastics on the agency's Contaminant Candidate List of unregulated substances that are known to appear in tap water.
European nations including France, Germany and the UK tested lowest for contamination, but were still at 72 percent.
The Orb research points out that people are surely consuming these non-biodegradable pollutants in our water and food, and calls on scientists to study what eating plastic could mean for human health.
Previous research shows that plastic chemicals can be absorbed by the body—93 percent of Americans age six or older test positive for BPA (a plastic chemical). Some compounds in plastic have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
Earlier studies have revealed how microplastics are pervasive in the environment. Microfibers come from many sources, including synthetic fabrics like polyester, rayon and nylon, which can release up to 700,000 fibers per wash load, researchers at Plymouth University found. A 2011 study found that microplastics make up 85 percent of human made debris on shorelines across the globe. A recent study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin found that the Hudson River in New York is thoroughly contaminated with the material, and could be sending about 300 million clothing fibers into the Atlantic Ocean each day.
Hudson River Dumps 300 Million Microfibers into Atlantic Ocean Daily https://t.co/mcQdulacjy @HealTheBay @savingoceans— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1504648512.0
"This should knock us into our senses," Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, said about the Orb investigation. "We knew that this plastic is coming back to us through our food chain. Now we see it is coming back to us through our drinking water. Do we have a way out?"
"Since the problem of plastic was created exclusively by human beings through our indifference, it can be solved by human beings by paying attention to it," Yunus added. "Now what we need is a determination to get it done—before it gets us."
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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