By Hom Dhakal
Plastics are very useful materials. They've contributed significant benefits to modern society. But the unprecedented amount of plastics produced over the past few decades has caused serious environmental pollution.
Packaging alone was responsible for 46% out of 340 million tonnes of plastic waste generated globally in 2018. Although plastic recycling has increased significantly in recent years, most plastics used today are single-use, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable.
The demand for food will double by 2050. This will probably increase the amount of waste from food and its plastic packaging, putting poorer countries under tremendous pressure to manage waste disposal.
To tackle the issues of environmental damage, we need more sustainable materials that we can recycle or that biodegrade. There's been a surge in plant-based plastics, but many of these can only be composted using industrial processes, not by people at home.
Now researchers at the University of Cambridge have found a way to make plastic from abundant and sustainable plant proteins. Inspired by spider silk, the film works in a way similar to other plastics, but it can be composted at home.
Types of Plastic
Synthetic and non-biodegradable plastics commonly used for food packaging include polythene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS) and crystalline polythene terephthalate (CPET).
There are some processes in place for disposing of PET – namely mechanical and chemical recycling techniques – but most plastic around the world is still sent to landfills. PET can take hundreds of years to decompose and it's non-biodegradable. This means it can continue to pollute the ecosystem for many years.
Making plastic requires lots of energy. Then, when plastics are thrown away, they cause environmental damage, including global warming, greenhouse gas emissions and damage to marine life.
On the other hand, there are some biodegradable plant-based plastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), polycaprolactone) (PCL) and polyhydroxyalkanotes (PHAs), which are friendlier to the environment than non-renewable polymers.
PLA polymers are produced from renewable resources and have the advantage of being recyclable and compostable. This makes PLA a much more environmentally friendly material than PET, PS and CPET. However, their long-term durability and stability are lower than their synthetic counterparts.
The New Material
The new research has investigated the potential use of a biodegradable and renewable polymer, such as soy protein, to make a new material that could be an alternative to other plant-based plastics.
The researchers created a plant-based plastic and added nanoparticles – particles smaller than one millionth of a metre. This meant they could control the structure of the material to create flexible films, with a material that looks like spider silk on a molecular level. They've called it a “vegan spider silk."
The team used various techniques, including scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy to study the structure of the film.
They analyzed important properties, such as barrier properties and moisture absorption. They found the nanoparticles helped to increase the various properties – strength and long-term durability and stability – significantly.
By creating a plastic with a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process, made from sustainable materials itself, a significant amount of energy can be saved. This is one of the most exciting parts of this study.
This new material could help solve some of the problems that plastic pollution has caused to the environment – by introducing a material from renewable source with enhanced properties suitable for many engineering applications, including packaging.
The study could help to scale up the production of sustainable packaging materials, using natural resources and less energy consumption, while reducing the amount of plastic going into landfill.
Disclosure statement: Hom Dhakal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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To many middle school students, gum is a hot commodity. But, what many people, fully grown or not, fail to consider is, what is gum made of? Although technically not ingested, gum is still edible. Consumers probably know that the sticky, breath-freshening substance is often made with artificial flavors and color. However, not many seem to have asked the question, am I chewing on plastic when I chew my gum?
The short answer is yes, there is plastic in gum. An ingredient listed as "gum base" in many gum formulas is plastic, and it's the aspect of the gum that gives it its chewiness. Most supermarket gum's gum base is a mix of plastic and different chemicals, including polyethylene, which can be found in plastic bags and bottles, according to plasticchange.org.
According to an Iceland-commissioned study, 85% of people didn't know there was plastic in gum. Unsurprisingly, the plastic in gum can have a negative impact on the environment. The small stains left from gum that used to be stuck to the sidewalk contain microplastics, that can then end up in drains that filter into the ocean according to a report from Metro. Littered gum became such a problem in Singapore, that in 1992, they banned chewing gum, according to BBC.
People have been enjoying the oral fixation of gum for centuries. The ancient Greeks chewed on resin from the mastic tree, called mastiche. Later, in the aftermath of World War II, chemists developed synthetic rubber, replacing natural rubber which was previously the base for chewing gum, according to The Ecologist.
Around 374 billion pieces of gum are produced each year, a market worth $5 billion. Fortunately, there are eco-friendly alternatives for gum-lovers who don't want to chew on plastic.
Audrey Nakagawa is the content creator intern at EcoWatch. She is a senior at James Madison University studying Media, Art, and Design, with a concentration in journalism. She's a reporter for The Breeze in the culture section and writes features on Harrisonburg artists, album reviews, and topics related to mental health and the environment. She was also a contributor for Virginia Reports where she reported on the impact that COVID-19 had on college students.
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Many homeowners can benefit from installing solar panels, harnessing the sun's energy to help reduce or even eliminate their dependence on traditional utilities. Although solar panels can be expensive, solar loans make residential systems more accessible to homeowners.
Indeed, if you live in an area that gets consistent year-round exposure to the sun, solar panels can be an effective way to lower your home's energy costs while minimizing your environmental footprint. The biggest obstacle to solar adoption is the initial cost of solar panels.
All in, solar panel installation costs typically range from $10,000 to $35,000. In this article, we'll explain how solar loans can make that initial investment much easier to handle.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on for and is not intended to provide accounting, legal or tax advice.
Solar Loan Basics
So, how do solar loans work, exactly? Well, they're similar to home improvement loans, or any other type of purchase loan: They enable you to buy a residential solar system and pay it off over time.
There are plenty of solar loan options to choose from. For example, to finance solar panels, you can typically choose from any of the following:
- An unsecured personal loan
- A home equity loan or line of credit
- In-house financing through your solar installation company
For the most part, the terms and conditions of solar loans mimic those of any other standard loan. Specifically:
- Getting a lower interest rate means having a lower overall cost to borrow.
- A shorter loan term generally means higher monthly loan payments but a lower overall cost to borrow.
- Loans are available in a wide array of interest rates, term lengths, loan amounts, credit requirements, etc.
An important thing to note is that homeowners who finance their solar energy systems with a loan are still eligible for the federal solar tax credit. This gives you a credit worth 26% of your total solar installation costs.
How to Choose the Right Solar Loan
As you seek the best solar loan for your situation, there are a number of factors to keep in mind. These include:
- Monthly payment amount: If you end up choosing a shorter loan term (i.e., a loan that you must pay off in a shorter amount of time), your monthly payments will probably be higher. The overall cost of the loan will be lower, but it's nevertheless important to consider the impact on your household budget.
- Down payment amount: Depending on the loan you choose, you may or may not be required to put down a payment on the solar panels. Generally, larger down payments will mean lower interest rates and a more affordable loan overall.
- Fees: Some solar lenders may charge prepayment penalties or monthly fees in addition to your monthly principal and interest payments. Always make sure you get fee information upfront, so as to ensure there are no surprises on your loan statement.
Secured Vs. Unsecured Solar Loans
Another important factor to consider is whether you'll get a secured solar loan or an unsecured solar loan. Here's what homeowners should know about these two options:
- Secured loans are usually connected to some piece of collateral, such as a piece of equity in your house; this provides the lender with some protection. If you fail to make your payments, the lender can claim their piece of collateral. Because the lender has some insurance, secured loans usually offer lower interest rates and more favorable terms overall.
- Unsecured loans do not have any collateral or security provisions for the lender. They represent a greater risk on the lender's part, and thus usually come with higher interest rates and less favorable terms.
Ultimately, the decision about which type of loan to seek comes down to this question: Do you have enough equity in your home to take out a secured loan? If so, and if you are willing to use some of that home equity to pay for solar panels, then a secured loan may be the smarter choice overall.
How to Get Low Interest Rates for Solar Loans
In addition to choosing the right type of loan, there are other steps you can take to keep your interest rates manageable when you finance a solar panel system:
- Shop around: It's usually best not to go with the very first lender you find. Spend some time shopping around and comparing rates. Most lenders will give you a free quote that's good for a number of days while you compare offers from other companies.
- Have someone co-sign: Having a co-signer on your solar loan — especially one with excellent credit — creates extra assurances for the lender and will usually result in more favorable rates.
- Improve your credit score: There are several ways to improve your credit score to get a lower interest rate on a solar loan. For example, you can pay down old debts and credit card balances, be on time with monthly bill payments, and ensure you don't open any new credit cards as you apply for your solar loan.
Also be aware that there are things you can do to pay less over time other than getting a lower interest rate. Examples include choosing a shorter repayment period, looking for discounts like paperless or auto-pay discounts, avoiding loans with high fees and, if applicable, making a more substantial down payment.
Local Solar Loan Programs
Homeowners who are interested in going solar should also know about Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loan programs. According to the Department of Energy, PACE programs "allow a property owner to finance the up-front cost of energy or other eligible improvements on a property and then pay the costs back over time through a voluntary assessment." What makes these programs unique is that the assessment is tied to the property itself, not to the individual.
PACE financing legislation exists in some form in 36 states plus Washington D.C. A handful of states have separate loan programs for homeowners interested in solar. Here are some current programs worth knowing about:
|State||Solar Loan Program||
|Connecticut||Energy Conservation Loan Program||$25,000||0% to 7%||12 years|
|Louisiana||Home Energy Loan Program (HELP)||$6,000||2%||5 years|
|Michigan||Michigan Saves Home Energy Financing||$50,000||4.44% to 7.90%||15 years|
|North Carolina||State-regulated municipal loan options||Varies||Up to 8%||20 years|
Energy Conservation for Ohioans
3% APR reduction
on bank loans
Additionally, certain municipalities and local utility companies may offer low-interest solar loans. We recommend researching your specific area before turning to banks or credit institutions.
Where to Get a Solar Loan
If your state doesn't have its own solar energy loan program or you're not eligible for enrollment, there are plenty of other places to get solar loans. Some of the best places to check include:
- Credit unions
- Lending institutions
- In-house financing through your solar installer (which will come from a third-party solar lender)
Again, it's crucial to shop around and compare rates before deciding on which solar lender is the best fit for your needs. To get started with a free quote and find solar loan information from a top solar company in your area, you can fill out the form below.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Loans
Are solar loans worth it?
There are various factors to consider as you decide whether getting a solar loan is worth it. Solar loans help you increase the value of your property, lower utility bills, minimize your impact on the environment and potentially claim some tax incentives. Then again, financing does decrease your overall savings, and extends the break-even point for your residential solar system.
Do banks do solar loans?
Some banks do offer solar loans, though often with interest rates that exceed what you'd pay elsewhere. It may be worth checking with your local bank, but always remember to shop around and compare.
What is the best way to finance solar?
If you have sufficient home equity, a secured solar loan is often the most cost-effective approach. If you don't have sufficient home equity, an unsecured solar loan can work just fine.
What type of loan is a solar panel loan?
Solar panel loans are generally considered to be a type of personal loan, similar to a home improvement loan.
Can you buy a solar battery with a solar loan?
Most often the answer is yes, but make sure you double-check the terms of your loan.
"When you have plastic piling up and piling up, it creates this insulation layer – it rapidly raises the temperature to a point where it is likely unsuitable for most animals," Dr. Jennifer Lavers from the University of Tasmania's Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), who led the new study, told The Guardian.
The research, published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials last week, looked at the extent and impact of plastic pollution on the beaches of two remote islands: Henderson Island in the Pacific and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean. The researchers found a lot of plastic on the islands — up to three kilograms per square meter — even on beaches that were uninhabited. Further, they found that the plastic was having a measurable impact. They took daily temperature readings of beach sediment in six locations on the islands and found that the plastic had increased daily maximum temperatures by 2.45 degrees Celsius and decreased daily minimum temperature by 1.5 degrees Celsius.
"Sandy beaches have not been a focus previously, so this is the first time real-world in situ data on circadian thermal fluctuations of beach sediment has been collected – and it reveals that accumulated plastics increase daily temperature extremes," Lavers said in an IMAS press release.
This increase in temperature could have serious impacts on marine life, Lavers explained, especially on animals known as ectotherms. These are animals that rely on outside temperatures to regulate their body heat, and many have adapted to very specific temperature ranges.
Beach-dwelling ectotherms include crabs and sea turtles. For sea turtles, warmer temperatures have been linked to an increase in female offspring. While this has previously been blamed on the climate crisis, Lavers told The Guardian that plastic pollution could be a contributing factor in some locations.
The hotter beaches could also harm meiofauna, small animals that live in beach sediment and are an important part of coastal ecosystems, as well as an important food source for migratory birds.
"They're the equivalent of earthworms," Lavers told The Guardian. "They're basically the creatures that turn the soil over."
This isn't the first time Lavers has looked at the impact of plastic pollution on Henderson and the Cocos islands. In 2017, her team found that the uninhabited Henderson Island had the highest density of human-made debris anywhere on Earth. In 2019, they further found 238 tonnes (approximately 262 U.S. tons) of plastic on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, including 977,000 shoes, mostly flip-flops, and 373,000 toothbrushes. The same year, they also found that plastic on the two islands was killing hermit crabs by the hundreds and tens of thousands as they mistook it for shells in which to make a home.
Lavers said the problem is only likely to get worse unless something is done to stem the plastic tide.
"With global plastic production currently doubling almost every decade and much of the plastic debris that accumulates in our oceans eventually making its way onto beaches around the world, the low and moderate debris loads we observed on Henderson and Cocos are likely to transition to high debris over the next few decades," she told IMAS. "Clearly further study into the physical impacts of plastics on ecosystems is needed to understand the severity and scope of these issues, but we also need to make significant shifts in how we produce and manage plastic waste – and we need to do it urgently."
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A chemical-laden ship sank off the coast of Sri Lanka Wednesday, after burning for nearly two weeks.
The accident has already led to one of the worst marine disasters in the country's history, as tons of plastic pellets from the burning ship have already contaminated its fishing waters and washed up on its shores, Reuters reported.
"This is probably the worst beach pollution in our history," Sri Lanka's Marine Protection Authority (MEPA) chairman Dharshani Lahandapura told AFP.
Situation Update: Latest pictures of the "X-PRESS PEARL" vessel. Footage was captured by the SLAF Bell 212 a short… https://t.co/kYjrizUJj9— Sri Lanka Air Force (@Sri Lanka Air Force)1622629339.0
The ship, a Singapore-registered container vessel named MV X-Press Pearl, caught fire May 20 after an explosion while it was anchored off of Sri Lanka's western coast, according to Reuters. It was carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 metric tons (approximately 28 U.S. tons) of nitric acid and other chemicals. Some of these chemical-filled containers fell overboard in the fire. However, it is believed that most of the cargo was destroyed in the flames, according to AFP.
Up until now, the biggest devastation from the incident has been the plastic pellet pollution. The government moved Wednesday to suspend fishing along 50 miles of Sri Lanka's coastline, grounding 5,600 boats, according to Reuters.
"I have never seen anything like this before," Dinesh Wijayasinghe, a 47-year-old who works in a hotel in the coastal town of Negombo, told The New York Times. "When I first saw this, about three to four days ago, the beach was covered with these pellets. They looked like fish eyes."
This pollution is devastating both for the region's marine life and for the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. Microplastics and other charred remains from the ship have been found as far down as two feet deep in the sand, according to AFP. There are fears the pollution will harm mangroves and coral reefs and make it harder for fish to breed in shallow waters.
"No one is able to say how long we will have the adverse effects of this pollution," 30-year-old fisherman Fisherman Lakshan Fernando told AFP. "It could take a few years or a few decades, but in the meantime what about our livelihoods?"
At the same time, the plastic pollution could have a lasting impact on human health.
"The pellets can soak and absorb the chemicals from the environment," marine biologist Dr. Asha de Vos told The New York Times. "This is an issue because when we eat whole fish, we will also be eating these chemicals."
#Debris and cargo that were on board the #Container Vessel #XPressPearl have been spotted along the beach in the “… https://t.co/aomHN9Ceez— Kanchana Wijesekera (@Kanchana Wijesekera)1621994271.0
The ship began to sink on Wednesday, according to Reuters. A salvage crew tried to drag the ship into deeper waters, but the attempt was ultimately unsuccessful.
There are now concerns an oil spill could make the environmental disaster even worse, CNN reported. The vessel has 350 metric tons (approximately 386 U.S. tons) of oil in its tank. This could reach a 30-kilometer (approximately 19 mile) stretch of coastline, including pristine beaches.
Fisheries Minister Kanchana Wijesekera tweeted that there was a plan in place to deal with any potential oil spill.
"Booms and skimmers will be used around the vessel and strategic locations, spray to be used to disperse Oil Slick," he said.
MEPA has formulated a strategic plan in case there is an #OilSpill from the #XPressPearl. Booms and skimmers will b… https://t.co/POhTfEwGrO— Kanchana Wijesekera (@Kanchana Wijesekera)1622648155.0
Sri Lankan authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the ship's crew, The New York Times reported.
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By Sharon Kelly
The Dow Chemical Company ranks second, the report finds, with the Chinese state-owned company Sinopec coming in third. Indorama Ventures — a Thai company that entered the plastics market in 1995 — and Saudi Aramco, owned by the Saudi Arabian government, round out the top five.
Funding for single-use plastic production comes from major banks and from institutional asset managers. The UK-based Barclays and HSBC, and Bank of America are the top three lenders to single-use plastic projects, the new report finds. All three of the most heavily invested asset managers named by the report — Vanguard Group, BlackRock, and Capital Group — are U.S.-based.
"This is the first-time the financial and material flows of single-use plastic production have been mapped globally and traced back to their source," said Toby Gardner, a Stockholm Environment Institute senior research fellow, who contributed to the report, titled The Plastic Waste Makers Index.
The report is also the first to rank companies by their contributions to the single-use plastic crisis, listing the corporations and other financiers it says are most responsible for plastic pollution — with major implications for climate change.
"The trajectories of the climate crisis and the plastic waste crisis are strikingly similar and increasingly intertwined," Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president, wrote in the report's foreword. "Tracing the root causes of the plastic waste crisis empowers us to help solve it."
The world of plastic production is concentrated in fewer hands than the world of plastic packaging, the report's authors found. The top twenty brands in the plastic packaging world — think Coca Cola or Pepsi, for example — handle about 10 percent of global plastic waste, report author Dominic Charles told DeSmog. In contrast, the top 20 producers of plastic polymers — the building blocks of plastics — handle over half of the waste generated.
"Which I think was really quite staggering," Charles, director of Finance & Transparency at Minderoo Foundation's Sea The Future program, told DeSmog. "It means that just a handful of companies really do have the fate of the world's single-use plastic waste in their hands."
Meanwhile, the report suggests that public policy responses to the threats posed by plastic pollution have focused further along the supply chain, where things become more fragmented.
"Government policies, where they exist, tend to focus on the vast number of companies that sell finished plastic products," the report finds. "Relatively little attention has been paid to the smaller number of businesses at the base of the supply chain that make 'polymers' — the building blocks of all plastics — almost exclusively from fossil fuels."
While there are about 300 polymer producers currently operating worldwide, just three companies — ExxonMobil, Dow, and Sinopec — combined are responsible for roughly one out of every six pounds of single-use plastic waste, the report concludes.
In 2019, for example, more than 130 million metric tons of plastic was used just once and then discarded. ExxonMobil, the report concludes, was responsible for creating 5.9 million tons of that single-use plastic waste in 2019, with Dow right behind it, generating 5.6 million tons that year.
Neither ExxonMobil nor Dow responded immediately to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, 20 of the world's largest banks lent nearly $30 billion that was used for the production of new single-use plastics, the report finds. That funding represents about 60 percent of the commercial finance that funds single-use plastics. An additional $10 billion in investment in new single-use plastics has come from 20 institutional asset managers, like Vanguard and BlackRock.
"Through our Investment Stewardship program, Vanguard regularly engages with companies on issues that are financially material to their long-term value and sustainability, including climate issues and environmental matters," Vanguard spokesperson Alyssa Thornton said in an email to DeSmog. "We expect company boards to oversee climate and environmental risks and provide investors with clear disclosures of their risk oversight and decision-making processes. Importantly, we do not dictate company strategy, or operational or financial decisions; rather, we hold company board's responsible for being aware of such risks and opportunities as part of a foundation for making the most sustainable long-term decisions."
Barclays did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Virtually all single-use plastic comes from fossil-fuel based feedstocks, the report adds.
"One of the key findings of the report is that single-use plastics today is 98 percent fossil fuel-based," Charles told DeSmog. "And that in itself is really, we say, the source of the plastic waste crisis. And that's because if you're only making new plastics from new fossil fuels, you're taking away the commercial incentive, you're undermining the commercial incentive to collect this plastic and to turn it into recycled plastic products."
The report grades plastic manufacturers based on their preparation to transition away from fossil fuels and towards recycling — and found that most of the largest producers not only have made very little progress in that direction to date, they haven't even set targets that would push them towards a "circular" model involving recycling.
"Over 50 of these companies received an 'E' grade — the lowest possible — when assessed for circularity, indicating a complete lack of policies, commitments, or targets," the report found. "A further 26 companies, including ExxonMobil and Taiwan's Formosa Plastics Corporation, received a 'D-' due to their lack of clear targets/timelines."
In fact, fossil fuel producers appear to be counting on that failure to move towards recycling. "Two of the biggest markets for fossil fuel companies — electricity generation and transportation — are undergoing rapid decarbonization, and it is no coincidence that fossil fuel companies are now scrambling to massively expand their third market — petrochemicals — three-quarters of which is the production of plastic," Gore wrote. "They see it as a potential life raft to help them stay afloat, and they're telling investors that there's lots of money to be made in ramping up the amount of plastic in the world."
In a statement on the report, the American Chemistry Council pointed to the use of plastics in products like solar panels and wind turbines to highlight the role that plastics — though not single-use plastics — play in renewable energy. "The world needs plastic to live more sustainably, and America's plastic makers are leading the development of solutions to end plastic waste," the Council said. "We're innovating and investing in efforts to create a more circular economy, where used plastics are systematically remanufactured to make new plastics and other products. In the last three years, the private sector has announced $5.5 billion in U.S. investments to dramatically modernize plastics recycling."
Meanwhile, the plastics industry remains on track to continue rapidly increasing the amount of new plastic it produces each year, meaning more fossil fuel use — even while other industries are seeking to trim or eliminate their reliance on fossil fuels.
"Our numbers suggest a 30 percent increase in capacity compared to 2019," Charles told DeSmog. "Now that is not out of line with the historical rate of growth, it's about 5 percent per year. But if we are to see 5 percent growth in fossil fuel-based, that is a real threat towards the growth of circular plastics and recycling. So I think that's a real cause for concern."
Marine debris collected on Midway Atoll. Holly Richards, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
As of 2019, plastic producers had created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic — and 91 percent of it was never recycled, according to one peer-reviewed study. Even from the start, a NPR and PBS Frontline investigation found, industry insiders were skeptical that recycled plastic could compete against new production, with one industry insider warning in a speech — in 1974 — that "There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis."
So where does the money for all this come from?
The financing of single-use plastics is complex, involving not only lending and investment by Wall Street fund managers and big banks, but also privately held companies. The report's list of the top 10 equity owners of polymer producers includes not only state actors and massive asset managers like BlackRock but also private individuals like James Arthur Ratcliffe — co-founder and majority owner of INEOS, a UK-based petrochemical company.
"Transitioning away from the take-make-waste model of single-use plastics will take more than corporate leadership and 'enlightened' capital markets: it will require immense political will," the report says. "This is underscored by the high degree of state ownership in these polymer producers — an estimated 30 percent of the sector, by value, is state-owned, with Saudi Arabia, China, and the United Arab Emirates the top three."
The report calls not only for more disclosures from companies and financiers about their ties to plastic production, it also calls for global action to respond to the plastic pollution crisis — starting with a focus on the companies most responsible.
"A Montreal Protocol or Paris Agreement-style treaty may be the only way to bring an end to plastic pollution worldwide," the report says. "The treaty must address the problem at its source, with targets for the phasing out of fossil-fuel-based polymers and encouraging the development of a circular plastics economy."
That's in part because the plastic waste crisis and the climate crisis share one other thing in common — their impacts are global in scope.
"The plastification of our oceans and the warming of our planet are amongst the greatest threats humanity and nature have ever confronted," Dr. Andrew Forrest, chairman and founder of the Minderoo Foundation, said in a statement accompanying the report. "And we must act now."
Reposted with permission from DeSmog.
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Let's state the obvious: Your favorite time of the month isn't when you get your period. The cramps don't help, but buying loads of pricey products isn't a blast, either. But another aggravation arises for those who try to live sustainable lives: the environmental cost.
According to multiple sources, North American women are believed to use — and, subsequently, dispose of — 12 billion single-use menstrual pads and tampons every single year.
To help reduce the sheer volume of period products tossed in the trash, LastObject, a Danish brand of reusable personal care products, recently began crowdfunding a rewashable menstrual pad they call LastPad.
The company, which says it has "made hundreds of prototypes and samples that have been tested and feedback collected to improve on the design," claims each pad will last 240 uses.
While LastPad likely isn't the last attempt to make period care more sustainable, it's also not the first as more people think about the environmental impact of the products they need during their periods.
When Did We Start Using Single-Use Period Products?
Many developed countries switched to disposable menstrual care products decades ago. Kotex began selling the first disposable pads in 1920, The Cut explains, taking advantage of the same style of bandages used to treat soldiers during World War I.
About a decade later, a "modern" tampon consisting of a paper insertion tube filled with compressed cotton on a string was invented, according to Tampax, an international purveyor of period products. Several years later, the patent was sold to Tampax's founder, a woman named Gertrude Tendrich.
Once Tendrich actually began selling disposable tampons in 1936, Tampax says demand for their products took off as millions of women entered the workforce to fill in for departing soldiers during World War II. Yet despite the need for products designed for on-the-go women, taboos and sexual stigmas around tampon use persisted. By 1941, common information about such products lagged, causing the still nascent company to launch a traveling "Tampax Ladies" education team that toured colleges, schools, trade shows and conventions. The women helped eradicate the taboos and provide information.
Still, it would be decades before tampons would stop being considered "indecent" for regular use, according to a NARAL Pro-Choice America state affiliate. But other options did exist for women for whom tampons weren't an option.
In the late 19th century, suspenders and belts were commercially available to hold "bandages," aka pads, in place. But it wasn't until 1957 that a Black female inventor named Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner filed a patent for a sanitary napkin "belt" that seems to have been more reliable than earlier iterations. The invention allowed women to venture out of the house during their periods more comfortably, maintain personal hygiene and avoid tampons if desired.
While the need to find a solution for menstruation-related bleeding is as old as humanity, the commercial period products obviously were not. Before modern tampons or pads were widely available, all variety of inventive solutions were concocted to prevent menstrual leaks, including rolled-up paper, grass, and moss.
Some Commercial Period Products Marketed for Sustainability
Westend61 / Getty Images
Reusable pads are a far cry from the used rags and cloths that people had to resort to before the advent of disposable tampons and pads. Like disposable pads, most reusable versions are typically secured onto the part of panties right below the vulva.
But many of these types of pads market the lack of disposable plastic involved in manufacturing — an important consideration, given that internal Natracare research shows that three mainstream disposable pad brands consist of enough plastic equivalent to roughly five plastic shopping bags.
In addition to LastObject's planned LastPad launch, commercial brands like Rael sell reusable pads, a huge variety of small-time brands and shops also sell them.
Reusable Menstrual Cups
Menstrual cups are similar to tampons in that they are inserted into a vagina and then removed with a small cord, but that's generally where the resemblance ends. Unlike tampons, menstrual cups don't absorb blood but instead act as a levee until the wearer can hygienically remove it and dispose of the blood.
Disposable options are commercially available, but the many brands of reusable cups can be washed in the sink and reinserted repeatedly, avoiding the need to repeatedly spend money on disposable options that later fill up landfills.
Menstrual cups can last up to ten years but, according to The Lancet, tend to be "made of medical-grade silicone, rubber, latex, or elastomer."
"Medical grade silicone menstrual cups are not recyclable through any conventional methods and cannot be placed into your recycle bins," states Period Nirvana, an online period product marketplace and educational site. The site adds that one brand, the DivaCup offers recycling through Terracycle, although that company was recently sued over claims it misleads customers about what can be recycled.
Have you worn underwear before? Great — you know exactly how to wear a pair of period panties, no training necessary. Just like underwear not made to absorb menstrual blood, period panties come in a variety of styles, from thongs to boy shorts.
But it's important to keep in mind that not all period panties are designed to replace other period products but are intended to serve as a back-up. Additionally, like most menstruation products, period panties aren't regulated, leading to questions about the chemicals used to make the garments.
Similar to other reusable period products, some types of period panties can eliminate the need for disposable products like tampons. Brands offering period underwear include Goat Union, Thinx, Trendix and Bambody.
Bridget is a freelance reporter and newsletter writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. She primarily writes about energy, conservation and the environment. Originally from Philadelphia, she graduated from Emerson College in 2016 with a degree in journalism and a minor in environmental studies. When she isn't working on a story, she's normally on a northern Maine lake or traveling abroad to practice speaking Spanish.
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Plastic pollution is entering the ocean from more sources than previously thought.
A new study published in Science Advances Friday found that 80 percent of the plastic that enters the world's oceans via rivers comes from more than 1,000 waterways. That's as much as 100 times the number of rivers previously estimated, study leader the Ocean Cleanup explained.
The Ocean Cleanup is a nonprofit launched by Slat with the goal of using technology to remove 90 percent of the plastic waste floating in the ocean. As part of that goal, the organization funded three years of research into how and how many rivers were significantly contributing to plastic pollution.
Their findings upended some previous assumptions, as National Geographic explained. In 2017, two studies concluded that 90 percent of the plastic that enters the ocean via rivers was contributed by a small fraction of the world's rivers — 10 in one study and 20 in another. Further, these rivers were large rivers that traveled a long way, such as Egypt's Nile or China's Yangtze. However, the new study has found that the biggest culprits are actually smaller rivers in urban areas. The 16-mile Pasig River in the Philippines is now considered a greater contributor to ocean plastics than the Yangtze, which flows 3,915 miles and was formerly ranked the most plastic-polluted river.
The new insights are based on an increased amount of data and new modeling.
"One big difference from a few years ago is we don't consider rivers mere conveyor belts of plastics," lead author Lourens J.J. Meijer told National Geographic. "If you put plastic into the river hundreds of kilometers from the mouth, it doesn't mean that that plastic will end up in the ocean."
While the results give would-be cleaners more rivers to focus on, Ocean Cleanup is still confident that it can use the data to help remove plastics.
"While this number is much higher than previous estimations (100 times), it is only 1% of rivers worldwide, which means solving the problem is feasible," Meijer wrote for Ocean Cleanup. "By collectively taking a global approach with various technologies to target these most polluting rivers, we can drastically reduce the influx of plastic into the ocean."
To that end, the Ocean Cleanup launched the Interceptor, a solar-powered device that gobbles up plastic carried on a river's current. The devices are already at work on some of the world's most polluted rivers in Southeast Asia and the Carribean, according to National Geographic. In 2019, the nonprofit announced a plan to install the devices in 1,000 rivers within five years, though the pandemic has slowed down the rollout somewhat.
"We hope to be operational in 10 rivers by the end of the year," Slat told BBC News. "And what we truly believe is that if we do 10 rivers really well, that forms the foundation to do the next 100. If we do 100, we can also do 1,000."
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By Tim Lydon
You're right if you think you've been hearing a lot about container ships lately. One off the coast of Sri Lanka that was carrying 25 tons of nitric acid and other cargo suffered an explosion after containers caught fire on May 20 and burned for more than a week, littering the beaches with plastic pollution. And in March all eyes were on the Suez Canal, where a 1,300-foot-long container ship turned sideways and gummed up international trade with a six-day-long traffic jam. Maybe you've also had your shoes, bike or other online purchases delayed because of backed-up ports near Los Angeles.
But less attention surrounded a spate of container-ship accidents in the Pacific Ocean this past winter. It included one of the worst shipping accidents on record, which occurred near midnight on Nov. 30 as towering waves buffeted the ONE Apus, a 1,200-foot cargo ship delivering thousands of containers full of goods from China to Los Angeles. In remote waters 1,600 miles northwest of Hawai'i, the container stack lashed to the ship's deck collapsed, tossing more than 1,800 containers into the sea.
Some of those containers carried dangerous goods, including batteries, fireworks and liquid ethanol.
"This is a massive spill," says oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, who has tracked marine debris from container spills for over 30 years. The ONE Apus lost more containers in a single night than the shipping industry reports are lost worldwide in an entire year.
More photos from the ONE APUS, set 4 https://t.co/DAbmXln0hA— Maritime Cyprus Intl news forum (@Maritime Cyprus Intl news forum)1607433139.0
It was also only one of at least six spills since October that dumped more than 3,000 cargo containers into the Pacific Ocean along shipping routes between Asia and the United States. They include the loss of 100 containers from the ONE Aquila on Oct. 30 and 750 containers from the Maersk Essen on Jan. 16. Both ships encountered rough weather while delivering goods to the United States.
Experts say these types of spills, which tend to fly under the public's radar, put containers into the sea that pose potential hazards to the health of the ocean and put everything from mariners to wildlife at risk.
"They're like time capsules of everything we buy and sell, sitting in the deep sea," says Andrew DeVogelaere, NOAA research coordinator at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in California. Those lost containers may harm wildlife and ocean health, he says, by crushing aquatic habitats or introducing new seabed features that change biological communities or even aid the spread of invasive species. They can also release hazardous cargo such as the 6,000 pounds of sulfuric acid that went into the sea when the Maersk Shanghai lost containers off of the North Carolina coast in 2018.
Despite that potential for danger, no one is tracking the lost containers in the Pacific and opinions vary about where they will come to rest. Many are likely on the ocean floor, but an unknown number may have ruptured and disgorged their contents, which typically include many thousands of consumer items made of plastic. They could float for years in the ocean or wash ashore in Alaska, Hawai'i or other locations.
To date, the only debris known to come ashore from this winter's accidents are giant waterlogged sacks of chia seeds, which hit Oregon beaches in December following the loss of six containers from a ship near the California coast. Federal biologists were still cleaning smelly globs of the seeds from threatened snowy plover nesting habitat in April.
The accidents come at a time when the container shipping industry we all rely on is under unprecedented strain. In April the National Retail Federation reported a 10th consecutive month of record-high imports from Asia to the U.S. West Coast, driven by skyrocketing online shopping tied to the pandemic.
It's led to backed-up ports, delayed deliveries, and shortages of empty containers, conditions that are forecast to continue. But in a trick of the pandemic tied to both U.S. shopping patterns and Chinese factory schedules, it also put more cargo ships on the water during fall and winter, the stormiest time of year in the Pacific.
Some experts say the changes may represent a new normal for trans-Pacific container shipping. If that's true, more spills may lie ahead — prompting calls for greater transparency and accountability from shippers.
Decades of Debris
"I'm considered persona non grata by the shipping industry," Ebbesmeyer says when asked if he knew anything about what was aboard the ONE Apus or where it might be headed. "They blackballed me years ago. They didn't like me shining a light in a dark place."
That dark place is the inside of a shipping container. Back in the 1990s Ebbesmeyer began applying his oceanography skills to tracking debris from what seemed like an ever-increasing number of container accidents. One year it was 28,000 rubber bath toys shaped like ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs that spilled from a single container lost in the North Pacific. Another year it was 61,000 Nike sneakers from a handful of containers, also in the Pacific.
With a friend at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, he calculated how far the flotsam would travel. Over close to a decade, beachcombers around the world confirmed their predictions with reports of debris from Texas to Australia to the United Kingdom.
"As an oceanographer, I want to know how the ocean works," Ebbesmeyer says. Following the debris helped him understand ocean currents and the destination of the marine debris that even by the 1990s was on the rise. But as Ebbesmeyer's work gained notoriety, he says the industry went mum. And what little light had been shed inside shipping containers flickered out.
But the accidents didn't stop. In 1997 a single container lost from a ship in near England spilled 5 million Lego pieces, which still wash ashore today.
There were 8,100 of these Lego links or 'axles with eyes' in the shipping container that fell off the Tokio Express… https://t.co/xytVGgUokE— Lego Lost At Sea (@Lego Lost At Sea)1620630653.0
In the early 2000s, it was computer monitors landing on beaches from California to Alaska. Ebbesmeyer says the shippers seldom disclosed how many items were lost, and he suspects the same silence will surround the ONE Apus and other recent spills.
"If they'd share what's in the containers," he says, "we might predict where the debris will land and possibly organize a response." Spilled goods travel the waters differently depending on their weight and materials; if the scientists know those details, they can anticipate where the products will eventually land. By tracking this trash, oceanographers could learn more about where currents and winds carry other debris, too. And, says Ebbesmeyer, it might compel shippers to help pay for cleanup, an expense coastal residents and agencies usually absorb today.
But shippers seem as tight-lipped as ever. Beyond reporting the presence of certain hazardous materials, they have not released details about the 3,000 missing containers.
Who's Minding the Ship?
According to the industry trade group the World Shipping Council, 6,000 container ships traverse the oceans every day, moving 226 million containers annually. The ships sail a dizzying array of routes among more than 200 ports and are registered in countries around the world. But because they spend much of their time on the high seas outside any one nation's jurisdiction, governance is a mix of regulations and voluntary best practices that don't require tracking or recovering debris from lost containers. That only happens when losses occur in nearshore waters where the United States or another country claims jurisdiction.
The Panama-flagged Ever Given causes disruptions in the Suez Canal in March. National Ocean Service Image Gallery
"We usually read about it in the news," says Catherine Berg, scientific support coordinator at NOAA's Emergency Response Division in Alaska. Berg says no formal mechanism is in place for reporting high-seas shipping container accidents like the ONE Apus to the U.S. government. And no funding exists for NOAA scientists to track the debris, although they occasionally perform informal modeling.
Officers with the U.S. Coast Guard Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Honolulu, Hawai'i, tell a similar story. They say shippers report container spills as a courtesy but that the agency lacks authority or funding to investigate, unless containers directly threaten U.S. shores. Instead, following the ONE Apus spill, the Coast Guard issued a notice to mariners about the hazard of floating containers, which some sailors call "steel icebergs" for their deceptively low profile on the water. The notice expired after a couple of weeks, with the assumption containers had sunk, ruptured or dispersed.
On the open seas, the shipping trade is primarily governed by the International Maritime Organization and other United Nations groups. Among their primary tools is the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) treaty, originally signed in 1914. It was last amended in 2016 with new rules on weighing of containers, intended to lessen spills.
In 2014 the IMO also endorsed an updated code of practice for cargo ships, which addresses packing, stacking and lashing of containers. Although shippers frequently blame losses on rough weather, as happened in each of last winter's Pacific Ocean accidents, investigation often reveals underlying problems in lashing and other practices that occur before a ship even leaves port. That happened in May 2020 when the APL England lost 43 containers near Australia, forcing popular Sydney beaches to close as authorities cleaned a debris field of appliance parts, plastic boxes and face masks.
The updated code of practice is only voluntary and does not include provisions for tracking lost containers or revealing their contents. But continued cargo accidents may be forcing a change.
In 2019, when the MSC Zoe lost 280 containers in heavy weather between Portugal and Germany, volunteers and Dutch troops spent months cleaning Wadden Islands' shores of toys, furniture and smashed televisions. Following the accident, which investigators also blamed on poor lashing, the Council of the European Union submitted a draft proposal for a new IMO rule requiring better reporting of containers lost at sea. If passed, and depending on the rule's terms, it could one day address Ebbesmeyer's decades-long concerns over shipper transparency.
Also following the MSC Zoe, the Dutch government commissioned a review of shipping practices and technologies that could aid in tracking containers, including equipping them with satellite tags. Echoing Ebbesmeyer's experiences, the report said it is "hard to track down" what lies within lost containers and that improvement would require industry cooperation and investment.
Industry support may be gaining. The World Shipping Council, which has supported past amendments to SOLAS, is a cosponsor of the proposed new rule, according to the organization's spokesperson Anna Larsson.
"We really support all and any fact-based measures to improve safety," Larsson said in an email.
Although springtime's calmer weather has replaced the winter storms that battered cargo ships, it's likely whatever debris from recent spills that has not sunk to the bottom of the Pacific is still floating out there somewhere. But with so little known about the containers and their contents, it's unclear where the debris is headed.
"Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it's on the seafloor," says Ebbesmeyer.
He gives the example of a container full of plastic telephones in the likeness of the comic-strip cat Garfield that spilled from a ship along the European coast in the 1980s. For decades, cables and shards of orange plastic mysteriously washed ashore from the phones. The mangled container that once held them was finally discovered in 2019, wedged deep in a French sea cave that's underwater much of the year.
Thousands of other containers must lie on sea bottoms along the world's shipping routes, says NOAA's DeVogelaere.
In what is possibly the only study of its kind, DeVogelaere keeps his eye on a shipping container lying in 4,000 feet of water at the Monterey Bay sanctuary. It was one of 24 that toppled from a Taiwanese cargo ship in 2004 and was serendipitously discovered by one of NOAA's remotely operated vehicles conducting unrelated research. Since 2011, DeVogelaere has monitored ecological change around the container, noting colonization by species not typically found in the immediate area. This year his team will investigate whether the container's anti-corrosive paints, which can be toxic, may also have an ecological effect.
"We're impacting an environment that we haven't even begun to understand," he says of the seafloor.
DeVogelaere's container, which has so far remained latched shut, holds more than 1,100 steel-belted radial tires. He knows this only because it happened to land in a nearshore federal sanctuary, putting it under U.S. jurisdiction. Through a lengthy legal process, NOAA won a $3.25 million settlement from the shipper.
Such settlements take time but can occur when containers spill in nearshore waters. For instance, when the Hanjin Seattle lost 35 empty containers near Canada's west coast in 2016, officials won a modest settlement to help pay for removal of foam insulation that littered wildlife habitat along miles of national park and First Nations beaches.
After the Svendborg Maersk lost 517 containers in the Bay of Biscay in 2014, French officials ordered the company to map sunken containers to identify commercial fishing hazards. And a settlement following the 2011 wreck of the MV Rena in New Zealand, which also caused an oil spill, included cleanup of tiny plastic beads that still wash ashore today.
Those beads, like the Legos, computer monitors and Garfield phones, hint at the unknown contribution of container spills to marine plastic pollution, which is increasingly understood to harm birds, whales, fish and other animals through both ingestion and entanglement.
Although the World Shipping Council tracks cargo accidents, which it says lose an average of 1,382 containers annually, no one knows their true ecological impact.
But Ebbesmeyer remains concerned. He likens each spill to dumping a big box store into the ocean.
"That plastic never goes away," he says. "It drifts around in the water or flies overhead in the stomachs of seabirds. It haunts you over time."
Tim Lydon writes from Alaska on public-lands and conservation issues. He has worked on public lands for much of the past three decades, both as a guide and for land-management agencies, and is a founding member of the Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation. His writing has most recently appeared in The Revelator, Yes Magazine, Hakai Magazine, The Hill, High Country News, and elsewhere.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
A recent study published in Science of the Total Environment has the answer for this question, at least in the Spanish city of Barcelona. It found that the environmental toll of bottled water was 1,400 to 3,500 times higher than that of tap water, while drinking only tap water would only take an average of two hours off a resident's life.
"Our findings suggest that the sustainability gain from consuming water from public supply relative to bottled water far exceeds the human health gain from consuming bottled water in Barcelona," the study authors wrote.
A Tale of Two Assessments
The study is notable for being the "first attempt" to integrate two kinds of assessment for evaluating the health and environmental impacts of drinking water choices, study co-author and postdoctoral research at the Technical University of Catalonia Marianna Garfi told EcoWatch in an email.
The first is a health impact assessment (HIA).
"HIA provides a framework and procedure for estimating the impact of an intervention on a selected environmental health issue for a defined population," Garfi explained.
In this case, the researchers considered the risk of exposure to trihalomethane (THM), a by-product of the water disinfection process that is present in tap water and has been linked to bladder cancer. They then calculated years of life lost, years lived with disability and disability adjusted life years based on this exposure.
The second assessment is a life cycle assessment (LCA), which identifies the environmental impacts of a product from manufacture to disposal. In this case, the researchers focused on materials and energy used and waste generated.
They then used these assessments to consider the health and environmental impacts of four scenarios:
- Current drinking water patterns in Barcelona.
- What would happen if everyone switched to tap water.
- What would happen if everyone switched to bottled water.
- What would happen if everyone switched to filtered tap water.
The researchers focused on Barcelona because they were based there and had the data available. It also has THM levels and bottled-water consumption habits that are similar to those of other countries in Europe, which makes it a useful point of comparison.
The results indicate that bottled water is much worse for the planet than tap water. As of 2016, bottled water was the primary source of drinking water for 60 percent of Barcelona's population. The current state of affairs costs the planet around $50 million in resource extraction and 0.852 species a year. If everyone in Barcelona were to shift to bottled water, these costs would jump to $83.9 million and 1.43 species per year. However, in the scenario in which everyone drank only tap water or filtered tap water, the environmental costs were negligible. When compared to the all tap-water scenario, the all-bottled water scenario had 1,400 times more impact on ecosystems and cost 3,500 times more in terms of resource extraction.
The all-bottled water scenario did have a slight advantage for the health of Barcelona residents only. Currently, about 93.9 years of life across the city are lost due to tap water consumption. In the all-tap water scenario, this would jump to 309 years total, which equates to two hours of life lost per person. It would fall to 35.6 years lost if the city switched exclusively to filtered water and even further to 2.2 years lost if everyone drank bottled water.
However, the health outlook changed when the researchers considered how bottled-water production would affect people living outside Barcelona.
"The production of bottled water to meet the drinking water needs of [the] Barcelona population was estimated to result in 625 DALYs (disability-adjusted life years) per year in the global population," the study authors wrote. "This burden would be reduced to 0.5 DALYs if only tap water, or filtered tap water were consumed."
The reason that bottled water is so costly for the environment, Garfi said, came down to the making of the bottles themselves.
"Indeed, raw materials and energy required for bottle manufacturing accounted for the majority of the impact of bottled water use," she said. It was responsible for as much as 90 percent of the bottles' impact.
While this particular study found less impacts in terms of plastic waste, Barcelona's drinking habits are already harming its beaches and coastline. César Sánchez, communications director of recycling organization Retoma told EcoWatch in an email. He said that plastic bottles of all types accounted for 80 percent of the volume and 35 percent of the weight of litter gathered from the city's beaches. Farther out to sea, there are as many as nine million bits of waste floating per every square kilometer along the coast.
"Beyond that, in my personal experience sailing with fishermen of the area, I have had the chance of corroborat[ing] this situation," he said. "They say they already live in 2050 because they are getting more waste than fish out of the sea right now."
Both Sánchez and Garfi argued that the city of Barcelona should take steps to promote tap water over bottled water.
On a city-wide level, Garfi said that Barcelona could promote tap water through public information campaigns, as well as take steps to improve tap water quality and keep pollution out of local water sources. Sánchez further suggested setting up more public fountains and obliging bars and restaurants to offer free tap water to customers.
Individual consumers also have a role to play, Garfi said.
"Be aware of the impacts caused by the use of bottled water and try to find another solution," she advised, such as using a home filter to improve the taste of tap water.
Finally, to address the waste issue, Sánchez recommended a bottle deposit scheme.
"In all countries with deposit and return systems in Europe, more than 90% of beverage containers are reused or recycled, so it is the most effective tool to end... the littering problem," he said.
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By Andrew Blok
A record-setting fish was pulled from Hamilton Harbor at the western tip of Lake Ontario in 2015 and the world is learning about it just now.
The fish, a brown bullhead, contained 915 particles—a mix of microplastics, synthetic materials containing flame retardants or plasticizers, dyed cellulose fibers, and more—in its body. It was the most particles ever recorded in a fish.
"In 2015 we knew a lot less about microplastics and contamination in fish. I was expecting to see no particles in most fish," Keenan Munno, then a graduate student at the University of Toronto, told EHN. Every sampled fish had ingested some particles. Munno's 2015 master's work has spun out into six years' worth of research, including the new Conservation Biology paper that reports these findings.
The findings point to the ubiquity of microplastics and other harmful human-made particles in the Great Lakes and the extreme exposure some fish experience—especially those living in urban-adjacent waters. While direct links between microplastics and fish and human health are still an issue of emerging science, finding plastics within fish at such high amounts is concerning.
Great Lakes Plastics Problem
Researchers collected fish from three locations in both Lake Superior, Lake Ontario and the Humber River (a tributary of Lake Ontario). In all they gathered 212 fish and 12,442 particles.
In Lake Ontario, besides the record-setting bullhead, white suckers from Humber Bay and Toronto Harbor had 519 and 510 particles, respectively. A longnose sucker from Mountain Bay in Lake Superior had 790 particles. In the Humber River even common shiners, minnows which rarely get to eight inches long, had up to 68 particles.
"It was obviously concerning," said Munno, now a research assistant at University of Toronto. She extracted and counted all the microplastics and other particles from the fish's digestive tracts by hand. That includes all 915 record-setting particles.
"You feel bad for the fish that's eaten that much plastic," Munno said.
Of the human-made particles found in the group of fish, 59% were plastics in Lake Ontario, 54% in Humber River, and 35% in Lake Superior.
This new study is part of a growing and concerning body of research on plastics in the Great Lakes.
In a 2013 study, researchers sampled Great Lakes surface water and found an average of 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometer. Near major cities they measured concentrations of 466,000 microplastics per square kilometer.
Recent research estimated that Great Lakes algae could be tangling with one trillion microplastics.
"Globally, 19-21 million tonnes of plastic waste were estimated to enter aquatic ecosystems in 2016," the study's authors wrote. That number is expected to double by 2030.
Microplastics' Impacts on Humans
Beach plastic litter in Norway. Bo Eide / Flickr
"I've been studying microplastics for a long time and this is the study that blew me away," Chelsea Rochman, a coauthor on the study and University of Toronto professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, told EHN.
Rochman began her microplastics research in the trash gyres in the ocean. There she'd find microplastics in one out of 11 fish and usually only a couple of pieces in a single fish. While the findings were concerning, some people said the threat to animals was well into the future.
"We're finding that there are concentrations of microplastic in certain areas in the environment where the concentrations are so high that the animals might be at risk today," Rochman said.
Still unpublished research from Rochman's lab by a colleague of Munno's will show that microplastics can travel from the digestive tract to the fillets of the fish.
Microplastics in fish fillets could be one way they get to humans.
While research hasn't drawn robust links between microplastics and specific health problems in humans, they've been connected to neurotoxicity, metabolism and immunity disruption, and cancer in other laboratory tests, Atanu Sarkar, a professor of environmental and occupational health at Memorial University of Newfoundland, told EHN. Microplastics accumulate in the organs of mice exposed to them.
Even if they're not eaten by people, fish used as fertilizer or pet food can spread microplastics throughout the environment far from aquatic ecosystems, he said.
Rochman has worked to mitigate plastic pollution in Lake Ontario with the U of T Trash Team. The Trash Team and its partners have installed filters on washing machines to capture plastic microfibers and sea bins, which capture microplastics in the lake.
"In one sea bin sample—a 24-hour sample, one bin—we find hundreds of microplastics," Rochman said. The laundry filters likely capture one million in a month.
While microplastics continue to flood the Great Lakes, each one caught and removed is a small step in the right direction.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
A research team at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC), Berkeley has found a way to make biodegradable plastics actually disappear.
While biodegradable plastics have been touted as a solution to plastic pollution, in practice they don't work as advertised.
"Biodegradability does not equal compostability," Ting Xu, study coauthor and UC Berkeley polymer scientist, told Science News.
But by studying nature, Xu and her team have developed a process that actually breaks down biodegradable plastics with just heat and water in a period of weeks. The results, published in Nature on Wednesday, could be game-changing for the plastic pollution problem.
"We want this to be in every grocery store," Xu told Science News.
What's the Problem?
Humans have tossed 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s and only recycled 600 million metric tons, leaving 4.9 billion metric tons sitting in landfills or otherwise polluting the environment, BBC Future reported. Plastic waste is a problem because it does not disintegrate, but only breaks apart into tinier pieces known as microplastics, which have infiltrated almost every part of the planet — and our bodies.
- They get missorted and contaminate recyclable plastics.
- They end up in landfills, where the conditions are not suitable for plastic breakdown, so they last as long as forever plastics.
- When they are composted, they don't entirely degrade and still leave microplastics in the soil.
Xu told Science News that she had found supposedly biodegradable plastics in compost.
"It's worse than if you don't degrade them in the first place," Xu said.
To create plastics that do disappear, Xu and her team studied nature.
"In the wild, enzymes are what nature uses to break things down — and even when we die, enzymes cause our bodies to decompose naturally," Xu told Berkeley Lab. "So for this study, we asked ourselves, 'How can enzymes biodegrade plastic so it's part of nature?"
The researchers focused on a polyester called polylactic acid, or PLA, which is used for most compostable plastics. Berkeley News explains how the process works:
The new process involves embedding polyester-eating enzymes in the plastic as it's made. These enzymes are protected by a simple polymer wrapping that prevents the enzyme from untangling and becoming useless. When exposed to heat and water, the enzyme shrugs off its polymer shroud and starts chomping the plastic polymer into its building blocks — in the case of PLA, reducing it to lactic acid, which can feed the soil microbes in compost. The polymer wrapping also degrades.
The researchers found that as much as 98 percent of their modified plastics converted into small molecules, leaving no microplastics behind. At room temperature, the plastics degraded by 80 percent after about a week. In the high heat of industrial composting conditions, plastics degraded even faster. They also disappeared after a few days in warm tap water.
Aaron Hall, another study coauthor and a former UC Berkeley doctoral student, has founded a company to commercially develop these plastics.
Xu also thinks the process could apply to different types of polyester plastic and various recycling problems, such as developing compostable glue for electronics.
"It is good for millennials to think about this and start a conversation that will change the way we interface with Earth," Xu told Berkeley News. "Look at all the wasted stuff we throw away: clothing, shoes, electronics like cellphones and computers. We are taking things from the earth at a faster rate than we can return them. Don't go back to Earth to mine for these materials, but mine whatever you have, and then convert it to something else."
The 8.7 million species that inhabit this Earth did not evolve in a world dominated by human activity, and this can cause problems when climate change or pollution transforms a previously advantageous environment into a perilous one.
This is the case for juvenile sea turtles, a study published in Frontiers in Marine Science this month has found. The animals' natural development strategy puts them at greater risk of swallowing some of the eight million tons of plastic that enter the world's oceans every year.
"Once hatchlings leave the nesting beach all but one species enter in ocean currents to develop in open ocean areas," study lead author Dr. Emily Duncan of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall explained in an email to EcoWatch. "In the past this strategy was beneficial due to lower predator numbers and an abundance of food items. However now these are areas of high plastic accumulation therefore exposing them to higher ingestion risk."
What happens to juvenile sea turtles is what the study authors call an "evolutionary trap." This, the study authors explained, is the word for situations in which large numbers of a species are attracted to a particular resource or habitat that ends up harming them.
"This phenomenon occurs when organisms rely on environmental cues to make life history decisions, however, due to modern anthropogenic disturbances the environment is being altered rapidly and former reliable cues may no longer be associated with conditions favouring adaptive outcomes," the study authors wrote. "Human-induced global environmental change is capable of rapidly creating a diverse array of ecologically novel conditions to which animals have not evolved. Therefore, organisms become 'trapped' by their evolutionary responses."
This can be especially damaging for species like sea turtles that take a long time to develop, because they lack the ability to adapt to new circumstances in the moment.
That young sea turtles tend to frequent parts of the ocean where they are more likely to encounter plastic is not a new observation, Sea Turtle Conservancy Executive Director David Godfrey, who was not involved with the research, told EcoWatch. Conservationists have been aware of the problem for at least 30 years. However, much of this awareness is based on anecdotal evidence, such as when large numbers of young turtles wash up dead after a storm.
"It's a hard thing to study," Godfrey said.
A Systematic Approach
That difficulty is part of what makes the new research so important, according to Duncan. Her team was able "report the high incidence of plastic ingestion in this vulnerable and difficult to study life stage," she wrote.
They did this by examining 121 stranded and bycaught juvenile sea turtles from Queensland Australia, which borders the Pacific Ocean, and Western Australia, which borders the Indian. Their sample included members of five of the world's seven sea turtle species: green, loggerhead, hawksbill, olive ridley and flatback turtles. They then recorded what percentage of each species had plastic in their stomachs, and which ocean they were found in. The results are as follows.
- Loggerheads: 86 percent
- Greens: 83 percent
- Flatbacks: 80 percent
- Olive ridleys: 29 percent
- Flatbacks: 28 percent
- Loggerheads: 21 percent
- Greens: nine percent
The only species that did not contain any plastics was the hawksbill turtle, but the researchers noted that they only had a sample size of seven individuals to work with.
In general, the Pacific Ocean turtles were more exposed to plastic and the type of plastic found inside the turtles varied by ocean, with the Pacific Ocean turtles ingesting more hard plastics and the Indian Ocean turtles ingesting more fibers.
"Some of the most populous developing countries in the world surround the Indopacific," Duncan wrote, explaining these differences. "Rapidly developing economies, coastal migration and poor waste management will all play their role. Therefore there will be differing inputs and levels of plastic waste entering the ocean. Current movement will also impact the distribution of these throughout."
Godfrey said the new study was "a bit more systematic" than what he and others have observed over decades of conservation work. But, while the new study focused on the Indian and Pacific Oceans, his experience does suggest that the problem is not limited to these bodies of water. He described one incident along the Florida coast in which nearly 100 young turtles washed up dead and all of them had plastic in their stomachs.
"I've been in the operating room with little hatchlings spread out and their guts opened up and seen the just voluminous amounts of colorful plastic that they're pulling out of these turtles," he said.
Does eating all this plastic harm the turtles? Duncan said that some of the turtles in her study had clearly been directly harmed by the plastic they consumed. In one case, a starving green turtle from the Indian Ocean that had eaten 343 pieces of plastic was found to have its stomach damaged by its meal. However, she said more research was needed to determine how plastics might indirectly harm the health of young turtles, by, for example, exposing them to toxic chemicals.
Godfrey noted that plastic is only one of the many threats facing sea turtles. The species is also especially vulnerable to the climate crisis for four main reasons:
- Higher beach temperatures can cook eggs in the nest or result in more female than male turtles being born.
- Marine heat waves can harm turtle habitat by bleaching coral reefs or killing off seagrass.
- Climate change can impact their food sources.
- Sea walls built to defend coasts from sea level rise can actually destroy the sandy beaches turtles need to nest.
Added to all this is the problem of artificial lights along the coast, which can confuse young turtles when they leave the nests, causing them to wander inland instead of out to sea. All of this can have a "cumulative impact" on growing turtles that plastic only compounds, Godfrey said.
"Far fewer turtles reach the water, and those that do are weaker, they've burned energy going the wrong direction on the land, and then they get out into the marine environment and now they need sustenance, and half of what they find and eat is plastic," he explained.
Duncan said the best way to protect young turtles when they do reach the open ocean is to work together to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean to begin with and to improve waste management.
This, Godfrey said, requires policies like plastic-bag bans, business initiatives like restaurant chains swapping out plastic takeaway containers for paper ones and individual choices to use less plastic.
"You want readers of an article like this to know that we all have to make changes," he said.
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