99% of Seabirds Will Have Plastic in Their Guts Within Decades
By Lorraine Chow
The world's plastic problem may seem vast and incalculable, but its footprint has actually been measured. In a sweeping 2015 study, researchers calculated that 9 billion tons of the material have been made, distributed and disposed in fewer than 70 years. That's an astonishing figure, but it's also one that's hard to picture. Perhaps a better way to illustrate the problem of plastics is by looking at the damage that can be caused by a single drinking straw.
In 2015, a team of marine biologists in Costa Rica pried a plastic straw from the nose of a male olive ridley sea turtle. Footage of the excruciating, bloody extraction was posted online and viewed by millions of people around the globe. The video is powerful not only because it suggests the pervasiveness of plastics and shows the harm it can inflict on a vulnerable species, but it also strikes a much deeper chord within: shame.
"Subconsciously, people who watched the video knew that the straw in that turtle's nose could have been thrown away by any of us," Christine Figgener, the biologist who extracted the straw, wrote in a Medium post after the video went viral. "They saw their own actions reflected in its eyes."
Not long after saving that turtle, members of the same team of marine biologists in Costa Rica pulled a plastic fork out of the nose of another olive ridley, this time a female. A video of that disturbingly similar extraction was also posted online and viewed millions of times.
After that video came out, I spoke with George Shillinger, the former head of the Monterey, California-based conservation nonprofit called the Leatherback Trust, which works with the team in Costa Rica.
"It's just the tip of the iceberg," he told me. "This was an isolated incident involving a single turtle in a small area off a nesting beach in Costa Rica. Just imagine globally what's happening."
In 2015, a study by Australian and British scientists determined that 90 percent of seabirds living today have ingested some form of plastic, mistaking it for food. If plastic consumption continues at its current rate, 99 percent of seabirds will carry plastic in their guts by 2050.
Then can we assume, I asked Shillinger, that the same thing is happening to sea turtles? He replied without hesitation: "Totally."
Both turtles were released back to sea after the items were freed from their nostrils, but other aquatic creatures are not so lucky. In June 2018, a small male pilot whale that died in southern Thailand was found with more than 80 plastic bags crumpled in his stomach. The veterinary surgeon who carried out the necropsy told Sky News the animal was "emaciated," as the plastic likely stopped the whale from getting the nutrients he needed.
This is the key to understanding that aforementioned 9-billion-ton figure, which was calculated by researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Georgia and the Sea Education Association: Most of that plastic—roughly 7 billion tons—has been thrown away. Only 9 percent is recycled and 12 percent is incinerated, leaving the vast majority of plastic waste accumulating in landfills or in the natural environment, the researchers determined. If you think one plastic straw is bad, think what 7 billion tons could do.
The most eye-opening revelation in the research is how quickly plastics proliferated since the 1950s, when mass production of synthetic plastics first took off. Half of the world's plastic now in existence was made in just the last 13 years, with most of that for products used only once, discarded and forgotten.
If you think back to that first turtle, his encounter with a plastic straw is a distinctly modern problem. Paper straws were the standard until their non-degradable cousins took over in the 1960s and '70s. Today, about 175 million plastic straws are thrown out in the United States every day, the marketing analysis firm Technomics estimates.
There's no denying the incredible usefulness and versatility of plastic. The low-cost, durable material can be molded into everything from lightweight drinking tubes to insulation for our homes. We take for granted that plastic keeps our food fresh and encases the electronics we use every day. Modern medicine would not be possible without disposable syringes and plastic implants. However, its durability and widespread use around the globe are exactly why plastics are so pervasive in the environment.
Plastic waste that's discarded on land has three fates: recycling, thermal destruction and landfills. Each carries unique consequences.
Recycling is often promoted as a green ideal, but the small amount of plastics that do get recycled are mostly downcycled to a lower-grade material to make even more landfill-bound products such as synthetic fiber for clothing and carpets or takeaway food containers. Recycling also can't possibly keep up with the expected deluge of new plastics, as fossil fuel companies have plowed $180 billion to fuel a 40 percent rise in plastic production in the next decade.
Incinerating plastic certainly gets rid of it, and some suggest that burning the petroleum-based waste could be a fuel source. However, the process emits harmful dioxins in the atmosphere, potentially creating a public health risk.
That leaves us with the dump, where most plastics end up. Hundreds of millions of tons take up valuable landfill space and mix with other types of trash. During rainfall, water trickles through the landfill, creating a toxic, chemically laden stew called leachate. If the landfill is not properly lined, leachate can ooze into nearby groundwater, wetlands, rivers and lakes. Bisphenol A, a ubiquitous, endocrine-disrupting plastic additive also known as BPA, has been detected in landfill leachate at levels exceeding acute toxicity benchmarks, a 2015 study of Norwegian waste-handling facilities found.
Perhaps the biggest problem with plastics is when they escape into waterways. The same team of researchers who came up with the 9 billion ton estimate also put out another famous study in 2015 that found 8 million tons of plastic leach into the world's oceans every year.
This constant flow of plastic can seriously threaten marine life that accidentally eat or become entangled in the material. The United Nations estimates that more than 800 animal species have been negatively impacted by marine debris, which is mostly plastic.
Take the drinking straw found in the turtle's nose. How did the straw get there? I imagine that the straw was swept out of a landfill during rainfall. It trickled into a stream, flowed into a river, then was carried out to sea. Pushed along by winds and waves, the straw got drawn into a garbage gyre—one of Earth's five massive vortices of plastic soup—and floated among millions of other pieces of trash. Then one day, the straw was accidentally inhaled by our turtle.
Notably, the most prevalent type of plastic in aquatic ecosystems isn't easily visible. Bags, bottles, fishing gear and other ocean plastics break down from currents and sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, or microplastics. These tiny particles, which also consist of microfibers shedding off synthetic fabric during laundry, have been found in all corners of the globe.
A 2015-2017 study analyzed the abundance and distribution of microplastics and microfibers on 37 coastal National Parks and found the particles in every single one, even the most remote and secluded sites. Parks that were far away from urban areas—including sites in Alaska, along the northwest Pacific coastline and islands in the Pacific Ocean—clocked more than 100 pieces of microplastics per kilogram of sand.
"It doesn't seem to matter where you live," said Stefanie Whitmire, research scientist with Clemson University and the study's lead author. "Plastic is being found in rivers and lakes, not just in the middle of the ocean. Microfibers are found in the sea salt that I just bought from the grocery store."
Trouble is, scientists have documented all sorts of marine life gobbling up these plastics, including plankton, fish, mussels, oysters and even coral, but it's not currently clear what influence it has on the organisms' health.
"It's such a new area that scientists don't know everything about how it's affecting the organism," Whitmire explained. "But we know that plastics are made up of things that aren't great," such as BPA and other chemical additives.
New research from Loggerhead Marinelife Center and the University of Georgia suggests that ingesting degrading ocean plastics poses a risk to younger sea turtles because the pieces can cause blockages and nutritional deficiencies. This not only puts entire sea turtle populations at risk, since they can take decades to sexually mature, but degrading plastics can also impact the larger oceanic food chain, the researchers warned.
"If the level of mortality we have observed in post-hatchling sea turtles also occurs for zoo plankton, baby fish and crustaceans, then we will witness a complete disruption in our ocean life cycle," co-author Branson W. Ritchie of the University of Georgia explained in a press release for the study.
What's more, Whitmire pointed out that marine plastics can also absorb other toxins in contaminated environments, including persistent organic pollutants, fire retardants and organic pesticides, potentially posing an even bigger problem for ocean life.
So, what happens when contaminated plastics are ingested by an organism?
"That's one of the big concerns," Whitmire said. "Where plastics rank on how they are affecting wildlife, we don't know that whole story yet."
What we do know is that the globe's plastic footprint is only getting larger. The Ocean Conservancy's 2018 International Coastal Cleanup report found that the 10 most common items picked up by volunteers at beach cleanups around the world were all made of plastic.
It was the first time since the annual report's inception more than 30 years ago that plastics swept the top spots. Cigarette butts, which have plastic filters, were the most commonly littered item. Food wrappers, drink bottles, bottle caps, bags, drinking straws and foam food containers were also on the list.
A lot of this plastic is tossed after minutes of use, but its impact on wildlife and the environment can last for centuries.
Nicholas Mallos, director of the Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas program, noted that plastics crept onto the list over the years, displacing items like rope, beverage cans and paper bags.
"But this is the first year that all 10 of the top-10 items collected are made of plastic," he said in an issued statement. "Given that plastic production is rising, this could be the start of a long and troubling trend."
Although the problem with plastic is usually tied to its risks to waterways and wildlife, an August 2018 study found that commonly used plastics, such as grocery bags and plastic wrap, emit traces of methane and ethylene. The two potent greenhouse gases are known to exacerbate climate change.
"Considering the amounts of plastic washing ashore on our coastlines and the amount of plastic exposed to ambient conditions, our finding provides further evidence that we need to stop plastic production at the source, especially single-use plastic," lead author Sarah-Jeanne Royer said in a press release for the study.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
By Brian Bienkowski
Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.
Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?
By Laura Beil
Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."
Vitamin D<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Called "the sunshine vitamin" because the body makes it naturally in the presence of ultraviolet light, <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/vitamin-d-supplements-lose-luster" target="_blank">Vitamin D is one of the most heavily studied</a> supplements (<em>SN: 1/27/19</em>). <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-12/" target="_blank">Certain foods</a>, including fish and fortified milk products, are also high in the vitamin.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>Vitamin D is a hormone building block that helps strengthen the immune system.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections:</strong> In 2017, the <em>British Medical Journal</em> published a meta-analysis that suggested a daily vitamin D supplement <a href="https://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6583" target="_blank">might help prevent respiratory infections</a>, particularly in people who are deficient in the vitamin.</p><p>But one key word here is <em>deficient. </em>That risk is highest during dark winters at high latitudes and among people with more color in their skin (melanin, a pigment that's higher in darker skin, inhibits the production of vitamin D).</p><p>"If you have enough vitamin D in your body, the evidence doesn't stack up to say that giving you more will make a real difference," says Susan Lanham-New, head of the Nutritional Sciences Department at the University of Surrey in England.</p><p>And taking too much can create new health problems, stressing certain internal organs and leading to a dangerously high calcium buildup in the blood. The recommended daily allowance for adults is 600 to 800 International Units per day, and the upper limit is considered to be 4,000 IUs per day.</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin D and COVID-19:</strong> Few studies have looked directly at whether vitamin D makes a difference in COVID.</p>
Zinc<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Zinc, a mineral found in cells all over the body, is found naturally in certain meats, beans and oysters.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>It plays several supportive roles in the immune system, which is why zinc lozenges are always hot sellers in cold and flu season. Zinc also helps with cell division and growth.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6457799/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Studies of using zinc for colds</a> — which are frequently caused by coronaviruses — suggest that using a supplement right after symptoms start might make them go away quicker. That said, a clinical trial from researchers in Finland and the United Kingdom, published in January in <em>BMJ Open</em> <a href="https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/10/1/e031662" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">did not find any value for zinc lozenges</a> for the treatment of colds. Some researchers have theorized that inconsistencies in data for colds may be explained by varying amounts of zinc released in different lozenges.</p><p><strong>What we know about zinc and COVID-19:</strong> The mineral is promising enough that it was added to some early studies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug tested early in the pandemic. (Studies have since shown that <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/covid-19-coronavirus-hydroxychloroquine-no-evidence-treatment" target="_blank">hydroxychloroquine can't prevent or treat COVID-19</a> (<em>SN: 8/2/20</em>).)</p>
Vitamin C<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Also called L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C has a long list of roles in the body. It's found naturally in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus, peppers and tomatoes.</p><p><strong>Why it might help:</strong> It's a potent antioxidant that's important for a healthy immune system and preventing inflammation.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong>Thomas cautions that the data on vitamin C are often contradictory. One review from Chinese researchers, published in February in the <em>Journal of Medical Virolog</em>y, looked at <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jmv.25707" target="_blank">what is already known about vitamin C</a> and other supplements that might have a role in COVID-19 treatment. Among other encouraging signs, human studies find a lower incidence of pneumonia among people taking vitamin C, "suggesting that vitamin C might prevent the susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections under certain conditions."</p><p>But for preventing colds, a 2013 Cochrane review of 29 studies <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">didn't support the idea</a> that vitamin C supplements could help in the general population. However, the authors wrote, given that vitamin C is cheap and safe, "it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial."</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin C and COVID-19: </strong>About a dozen studies are under way or planned to examine whether vitamin C added to coronavirus treatment helps with symptoms or survival, including Thomas' study at the Cleveland Clinic.</p><p>In a review published online in July in <em>Nutrition</em>, researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium concluded that the <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vitamin may help prevent infection</a> and tamp down the dangerous inflammatory reaction that can cause severe symptoms, based on what is known about how the nutrient works in the body.</p><p>Melissa Badowski, a pharmacist who specializes in viral infections at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy and colleague Sarah Michienzi published an extensive look at all supplements that might be useful in the coronavirus epidemic. There's <a href="https://www.drugsincontext.com/can-vitamins-and-or-supplements-provide-hope-against-coronavirus/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">still not enough evidence to know whether they are helpful</a>, the pair concluded in July in <em>Drugs in Context</em>. "It's not really clear if it's going to benefit patients," Badowski says.</p><p>And while supplements are generally safe, she adds that nothing is risk free. The best way to avoid infection, she says, is still to follow the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts: "Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart."</p>
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By Elliot Douglas
In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."
The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.
“Rather than a Moonshot 🌕, we need Earthshots 🌍 for this decade.” Watch Prince William’s @Tedtalks talk in full:… https://t.co/m5NCj6TQzH— The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge)1602408749.0
But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.
With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?
'Count Me In'
"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.
Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.
"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.
"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."
Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.
German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.
"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"
"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.
Assessing Success Is Complex
But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.
"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.
Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.
"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."
A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.
"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.
Awareness Is Not Enough
Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.
"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."
But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.
"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."
However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.
Choosing the Right Celebrity
Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.
For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.
"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."
McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.
But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.
But Does It Really Work?
While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.
"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.
This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.
The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.
"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."
Reposted with permission from DW.
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