Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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That's the conclusion of a new report released Tuesday from the UN Environment Program and ocean justice non-profit Azul, titled Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Plastic Pollution.
"Plastic pollution is a social justice issue," report coauthor and Azul founder and executive director Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš said in a press release. "Current efforts, limited to managing and decreasing plastic pollution, are inadequate to address the whole scope of problems plastic creates, especially the disparate impacts on communities affected by the harmful effects of plastic at every point from production to waste."
The report provides several examples of how plastics harm vulnerable communities, according to UN News.
Production: Plastics come from oil, and oil extraction can be a highly damaging and polluting process. Indigenous communities are displaced for oil drilling, fracking pollutes drinking water and oil refineries pose a health risk to the African American communities along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Use: Women are more likely to be exposed to toxins from the use of plastic, which is predominant in domestic and feminine products.
Disposal: Improperly disposed of plastic ends up in marine ecosystems, where it threatens the livelihood of those who rely on fishing to survive and threatens the health of those who consume it by mistake in their seafood. In addition, people who make a living waste picking are disproportionately exposed to its toxins.
"The impact of plastics on vulnerable populations goes well beyond inefficient and sometimes non-existing waste management systems," report lead author and senior research fellow at the Center for the Blue Economy Juliano Calil said in the press release. "It starts with issues related to oil extraction, through toxic environments and greenhouse gas emissions, and it even impacts water distribution policies."
The report authors noted that plastic use had only increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and was becoming part of a "triple emergency" along with the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, UN News said.
To address these problems, the report favored several solutions. These included more studies into the health impacts of plastic; better monitoring of plastic waste; bans on single-use plastics; and more investment in waste management, recycling and reuse.
In a press call announcing the report, authors also spoke in favor of an international treaty to bring plastic pollution and production to an end, as Gizmodo reported. David Azoulay, the director of the Center for International Environmental Law's health program who did not help write the report, said its emphasis on human rights could help provide a framework for such a treaty.
"Considering rights-based approaches," he told Gizmodo, "is a very important step to developing a treaty that actually develops solutions."
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
The state of Virginia is taking a stand against single-use plastics.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order Tuesday designed to phase out the use of non-reusable plastics at state institutions, including colleges and universities. The order comes the same week that Northam signed a law banning polystyrene food containers in the state, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
"From landmark investments in renewable energy to bold action to tackle the climate crisis, Virginia is at the forefront of innovative efforts to protect our environment, and addressing the problem of plastic pollution is an important part of this work," Northam said in a press release announcing the order. "As a large producer of solid waste, the Commonwealth must lead by example and transition away from single-use disposable plastics to create a cleaner, more sustainable future for all Virginians."
Many plastics are not actually recyclable, as comedian John Oliver detailed just this Sunday in a segment reported on by EcoWatch. In the U.S., less than nine percent of plastics are recycled, while 91 percent end up in landfills or incinerators, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics. This is a problem in Virginia specifically as well, where the amount of solid waste either burned or landfilled has increased from two million to almost 23 million tons a year since 2011.
To reverse this trend, Northam is requiring all state agencies, colleges and universities to stop the use of unnecessary single-use items within 120 days. These items include plastic bags, food containers, plastic straws and cutlery and water bottles. In addition, state agencies will need to submit plans for phasing out all other non-medical single-use plastics by 2025. There will be short-term exceptions for plastics necessary for medical or public safety uses and long-term exceptions for medical or emergency plastics.
The order was announced as part of the 31st annual Environment Virginia Symposium hosted by the Virginia Military Institute. One of the major concerns about plastics is that they can enter rivers and oceans when improperly disposed of, harming marine life and eventually working their way up the marine food web back to humans. The group Clean Virginia Waterways found that plastic made up 83 percent of the trash found on the state's beaches.
"This bold leadership from Governor Northam's administration to phase out single-use plastic items from the Commonwealth's state agencies and universities will go a long way to setting an example on how to reduce a major source of waste and pollution in Virginia's coastal waters as well as our streams, rivers and agricultural fields," the group's executive director Katie Register wrote in a statement.
In addition to merely phasing out plastics, the order targets solid waste in other ways. It tasks the state Secretary of Natural Resources with investigating ways to keep waste out of landfills period, through measures such as increasing composting and innovative forms of recycling.
"Nobody wants to live next to a landfill, and historically, they have been sited in places that disproportionately impact underserved populations and communities of color," Director of the Department of Environmental Quality David Paylor said in the press release. "This is a significant environmental justice issue, and the less waste we produce, the fewer landfills we will need."
Outside environmental organizations also touted the environmental justice benefits of phasing out plastics.
"Virginia cannot protect the health of Virginians and ensure environmental justice without eliminating its reliance on plastics. Single-use plastics cause long-lasting damage to our environment and waterways and impacts the health of vulnerable communities and people of color the hardest," Sierra Club Virginia Director Kate Addleson said in a statement reported by CBS19. "Executive order 77 is an encouraging first step to combat the issue of plastic pollution at its source. Virginia should continue to embrace policies that phase out SUPs in order to preserve our climate, safeguard our water, and protect the health of Virginians."
To this end, this week also saw the signing of House Bill 533, which mandates the phase-out of all polystyrene food containers by 2025. Virginia follows Maine, Maryland and Vermont in passing such a measure; a New York state ban will also go into effect in 2022, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
"Our leaders have chosen to put the planet over plastic," said Elly Boehmer, state director of Environment Virginia, in a statement responding to the bill's signing.
Instead, Oliver argued, this is a narrative that has been intentionally pushed by the plastics industry for decades. He cited the ionic 1970 Keep America Beautiful ad, which showed a Native American man (really an Italian American actor) crying as a hand tossed litter from a car window. Keep America Beautiful, Oliver pointed out, was partly funded by plastics-industry trade group SPI.
"Which might seem odd until you realize that the underlying message there is, 'It's up to you, the consumer, to stop pollution,'" Oliver said. "And that has been a major through line in the recycling movement, a movement often bankrolled by companies that wanted to drill home the message that it is your responsibility to deal with the environmental impact of their products."
Oliver pointed out several problems with contemporary recycling programs. He cited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistic that only 8.7 percent of the plastics produced in the U.S. are actually recycled, and investigated why this is.
For one thing, most municipalities do not actually have the capacity to recycle most of the numbers inside the "chasing arrows" symbols on the back of plastic packaging. Numbers 1 and 2, representing PETE and HDPE, are more commonly recycled, but that leaves numbers 3 through 7, which include things like plastic bags and cups. We have the capacity to recycle less than five percent of these, Oliver said.
"Out of the seven numbers, only two are really much good, and that is a pretty bad ratio for a group of seven," Oliver said.
Here’s our segment from last night about plastics and ugly, ugly fish: https://t.co/IowfWnfDyi— Last Week Tonight (@Last Week Tonight)1616428805.0
In fact, it is cheaper for companies to produce virgin plastics than to recycle existing ones. Despite this, they have lobbied for the "chasing arrows" symbols to appear on their products, as well as for the existence of curbside recycling programs.
If anything needs to change in consumer behavior, it is in our willingness to believe this myth.
"Lies go down easier when you want them to be true," Oliver said.
He even showed a clip of a recycling plant director who coined a new term for the consumer habit of putting non-recyclable items in the recycling bin: wish-cycling.
"Here's an umbrella," Martin Borque, the director, said, lifting the item out of the materials he had to sort. "I wish it was recyclable. It's not."
Removing these items causes extra work for recycling plants, and can even end up contaminating plastics that could otherwise be recycled and reused.
Oliver said that consumers shouldn't stop recycling, though they should be sure to only blue-bin items their local plant can actually process. However, the major change needs to come from industry and policy, he said.
He spoke out in favor of Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, which puts the burden of dealing with waste back on the company that makes it. The U.S. is one of the only wealthy countries without an EPR law on the books, though legislators have been trying to change that with the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which was introduced last year and is set to be introduced again in 2021.
"The real behavior change has to come from plastics manufacturers themselves," Oliver concluded. "Without that, nothing significant is going to happen."
Oliver's segment won approval from activists working to pass EPR legislation in the U.S. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group thanked the TV host on Twitter for calling attention to the issue."Makers of single-use plastics shouldn't escape the costs to our planet and public health," the group wrote.
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By Andrew Blok
Researchers found that one type of algae, which has greatly expanded its range within the Great Lakes and is one of the most abundant algae by weight there, could catch up to one trillion pieces of microplastic in the Great Lakes.
"It's just a massive amount of these microscopic particle pollutants that are now part of our environment," Julie Peller, a professor of chemistry at Valparaiso University whose recent research revealed the microplastics-algae dynamic, told EHN.
Peller and colleagues say the study may offer insight into how we can stop the microplastic pollution — any plastic debris less than five millimeters long — from getting into the lakes. However, in the meantime, algae are often used as shelter for freshwater species at the bottom of the food chain, so the findings suggest that these microplastic hiding spots could be contaminating Great Lakes fish — and the people that eat them.
The Hiding Spots for Great Lakes Plastic
There are a lot of microplastics in the Great Lakes, one of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems and the drinking water source for 30 million people. While less well understood than ocean plastics, the tiny bits of plastic are pretty much ubiquitous throughout the five lakes. Research shows they're in tap water and beer brewed with water from the Great Lakes. Surface water samples show huge numbers of microplastics, but statistical models always predict more microplastics are in the lakes than are found by sampling.
Finding them in algae helps close some of that gap.
"I think that we found one of those reservoirs where some of the microplastics have been, for lack of a better word, hiding," said Peller, whose recently published study in Environmental Pollution documented the close interactions between algae and microplastics.
This study examined the most abundant group of algae in the Great Lakes: Cladophora. Cladophora, which looks a bit like green hair, readily tangles up with plastic microfibers, which are shed from synthetic clothing, carpets, and other cloth.
Nearly every penny-sized sample of Cladophora collected from the lakes contained at least one microfiber, Peller said. Even samples from apparently pristine locations, like near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, contained microplastics.
Peller's team also took clean, living Cladophora samples and added plastic microfibers to them. Plastic microfibers quickly adhered to the algae in a process called adsorption, in which two substances stick together because of a molecular attraction.
"The affinity between microplastics and Cladophora may offer insights for removing microplastic pollution," Peller and colleagues wrote in the study. In fact, adsorption already plays a major role in stopping microplastic pollution.
Attracted to Sludge
Synthetic fabrics shed microfibers when washed, so microfibers are often most abundant near populous areas where they enter the environment through treated wastewater.
Even without special plastic screening technology, removing 90 percent of plastics is not only possible, but probable, Heng Zhang, the assistant director of monitoring and research at Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, told EHN. Studies of wastewater treatment plants around the world put the removal rate as high as 98 percent.
A main goal of wastewater treatment is removing particles of organic waste by screening and settling out waste into a sludge. Because microplastics tend to attach to these particles, like they do to algae, a lot of it is captured by processes designed before microplastic pollution started gaining attention.
"I have to admit, it wasn't designed. It just happened by chance or by nature or the characteristics of the stuff," Zhang said.
Removal rates of 90 percent or higher still leave a lot of microplastics in the Great Lakes. Some researchers estimate 10,000 metric tons (or about 11,000 tons) of plastic pollution enters the Great Lakes each year.
But regulation will likely dictate when new microplastic removal technology is developed.
"I don't see any EPA guidelines that says we need to start looking at the technology to remove that," Zhang said. "It looks like microplastics is down to the very end of the priority list."
Until then, wastewater treatment plants are likely to focus on other areas, Zhang said.
Pollutants like metals, nutrients and emerging contaminants like improperly disposed pharmaceuticals take precedence now.
If or when microplastics become a focus of wastewater treatment it makes sense to "start with what has worked," Zhang wrote in a follow-up email. There would still be questions to answer about efficacy, cost and consequences — such as safe disposal after microplastic is collected.
Plastics at the Base of the Food Web
Cladophora is a genus of freshwater algae that has increased in the Great Lakes with the arrival of invasive mussels. Filter-feeding zebra and quagga mussels have spread throughout the Great Lakes basin, sucking light-blocking algae and plankton out of the water. As the water cleared and sunlight could reach greater depths, Cladophora expanded its range to deeper waters.
Cladophora is different from the toxic blue-green algae that has caused problems for some Great Lakes water supplies. But there's so much of it now it's become a nuisance, Meredith Nevers, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and a co-author of the new study, told EHN.
The sheer amount of long, stringy Cladophora in the lakes — up to 129,000 tons, according to one estimate — means it's likely playing a significant role in microplastic's fate in the Great Lakes.
"If there are microfibers and microplastics in the lake, there's no question they're going to get tangled up in filaments of algae," Nevers said.
Great Lakes fish don't eat Cladophora, but it provides shelter for zooplankton and other invertebrates, which are a major food source for some prey fish. The mingling of microplastics with natural fish food could be one entry point for microplastics into the food chain. Further, by catching microplastics, algae may be keeping them suspended in the water for longer where they're more likely to be eaten.
"It wouldn't surprise me to have microplastics enter food webs through the invertebrates that live in and graze on Cladophora," Eric Hellquist wrote in an email to EHN. Hellquist is a professor of biological sciences at State University of New York Oswego.
Once microplastics enter a food chain, they can make their way up to fish species that humans eat, research shows.
Hellquist and his students surveyed prey fish — such as alewife, sculpin, and invasive round gobies — in Lake Ontario and found that 97 percent of 330 fish had microfibers in their digestive tracts. The majority of microplastics found were microfibers, he said.
Higher up the food chain, microplastics were present in most animals, too. In 40 chinook salmon, Hellquist found that 92 percent had microplastics in their digestive tract. Of 33 coho salmon, 82 percent had ingested microplastics. Hellquist's students found, on average, 3.5 to 4 pieces of plastic in each salmon.
Research is beginning to show harmful effects on fish from microplastics. Microplastics are often found in their gills and digestive systems, but also within muscle tissue. When ingested they've been found to have harmful effects on fish digestion, metabolism, growth and brain function. They've also been associated with higher levels of toxic substances in fish.
Research suggests that fish consumption could be one way that microplastics get into people.
'It's Just So Huge'
The study of microplastics in the Great Lakes is still a relatively young field and a lot of questions need to be answered.
One thing is clear: the amount of microplastics in the Great Lakes is huge.
"It's hard to think about because it's so large," Peller said.
However, Peller thinks the stickiness of algae might inspire better removal technology.
"I think that a lot of times when we look for solutions to problems that we as humans have created, we often find a lot of insight into nature's natural mechanism for cleansing itself," she said.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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Editor's note: This article has been updated with correspondence from the Basel Action Network and the Center for International Environmental Law
The majority of the world is working together to reverse the massive plastic pollution problem. But, the world's leading producer of plastic waste, the U.S., isn't on board and isn't following the rules.
In 2019, 187 countries voted to amend the 1989 Basel Convention to include plastic waste in the definition of hazardous materials and to strictly limit how that trash is traded internationally. The binding framework aims to make global trade in plastic waste cleaner, more transparent and better regulated. It went into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
According to Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), a nonprofit organization that lobbies against the plastic waste trade, the motivation was to use the existing tool of the Basel Convention to "grapple with the lifecycle plastics crisis we are in."
UN officials hoped the agreement would curb ocean plastic within five years. The only free trade that is allowed under the amended convention is the legitimate recycling of plastics that are high-quality, clean and sorted. Anything else would be banned from trade, a move hoping to prevent the incineration, dumping and dirty or incomplete recycling that currently is used to process lower quality plastics, Puckett told EcoWatch.
Supporters expected the implementation of the new regulations to curb the "uncontrolled trade" in low-quality and hard-to-recycle plastic waste, the majority of which currently results from trash collected in the global North being exported and then "recycled" in a "substandard, incomplete and polluting" manner in the global South, Puckett said. They also believed the convention would level the industry's global playing field by allowing developing nations such as Vietnam and Malaysia to refuse such plastics before they were shipped from developed nations, a UN transboundary waste chief told The Guardian.
At the start of the year, when the new rules were just being implemented, the fact remained that the U.S. had not ratified the amendment to become a Party to the Basel Convention despite producing most of the world's plastic waste. Proponents held that the amendment would still apply to the U.S. anytime it tried to trade plastic waste with any of the participating 187 countries, many of which are poor and developing nations, CNN reported.
According to David Azoulay, senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law, participating nations are prohibited from trading waste with countries that have not ratified the Basel Convention, including the U.S. This creates an effective ban on plastic waste trade between the U.S. and most of the world.
"Legally, there's nowhere waste from the U.S. can go, so right when it gets on the high seas, it becomes illegal," Azoulay told EcoWatch.
Despite these new rules, U.S. Customs data from January shows that optimism about the convention's effectiveness may have been premature. According to The New York Times, American exporters continue to ship plastic waste overseas, despite the fact that receiving countries have agreed, per the Basel Convention, not to accept it. In fact, the new report showed that American exports of plastic scrap to poorer countries have barely changed and that overall exports of scrap plastics even rose.
The Times reported that environmental watchdog groups viewed this as evidence that exporters are either ignoring the new rules or following their own interpretations. American companies are justifying waste shipments as being legal even though recipient countries legally can't accept them. The former is using the logic that because the U.S. never ratified the global ban, the rules don't apply to originating shipments.
"The U.S. is walking a very fine line here," Azoulay explained. "Even though it is not technically illegal to send the plastic waste, allowing its traders to send waste knowing there is nowhere for it to be accepted is a form of defeating the object and purpose of the convention. The U.S. has an obligation under international law not to do this because it is a signatory to the convention, even if it has not yet ratified. Doing so is a lack of respect of international law by the U.S. and a misinterpretation or evasion of the rules."
The Maritime Executive also noted that America's plastic waste shipments continue to be associated with "uncontrolled dumping" in developing countries and that much of the plastic waste collected in the U.S. under the guise of recycling actually ends up in overseas landfills and the oceans. In fact, a new Woods Hole study found that the U.S. is likely the world's third-largest source of ocean plastic, not just because it is the world's largest producer of plastic waste, but also because recyclables being sent to the developing world are often mishandled and discarded into the ocean.
"This is our first hard evidence that nobody seems to be paying attention to the international law," Puckett told The Times regarding the new trade data. "As soon as the shipments get on the high seas, it's considered illegal trafficking. And the rest of the world has to deal with it."
Azoulay offered up some stopgap solutions. Because waste is hard to send back once accepted, recipient countries need to be "more forceful" in border control and enforcement of what comes in, he said. The illegal traffic in low-quality plastics must be prosecuted as criminal.
On the U.S. side, the easy solution would be to prevent the shipments from going out in the first place, Azoulay added, and for the U.S. to respect international law.
He and Puckett both have called upon the Biden Administration to ratify the Basel Convention now, which would create the obligation for the U.S. to criminalize illegal trading. This also, ironically, would facilitate the trade of legitimate U.S. waste, Azoulay said. It would just need prior informed consent before sending and could only send high-quality, recyclable plastics.
As a more permanent solution, Azoulay and Puckett both also advocated for a mindset shift by consumers and manufacturers. Puckett said, "We will never recycle our way out of the plastic lifecycle crisis. We need to all stop using single-use plastic in our lives and demand that our markets also reduce the consumption and use of single-use plastics (such as packaging) as soon as possible."
Azoulay agreed, saying, "We're talking about waste trade because we're producing waste….The less plastic you use, the less ends up as waste, the less has to be sent or managed, and the less you have to dump. This works for everyone."
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bpperry / Getty Images
By Tara Lohan
Each year the amount of plastic swirling in ocean gyres and surfing the tide toward coastal beaches seems to increase. So too does the amount of plastic particles being consumed by fish — including species that help feed billions of people around the world.
A new study published in the journal Global Change Biology revealed that the rate of plastic consumption by marine fish has doubled in the last decade and is increasing by more than 2% a year.
The study also revealed new information about what species are most affected and where the risks are greatest.
The researchers did a global analysis of mounting studies of plastic pollution in the ocean and found data on plastic ingestion for 555 species of marine and estuarine fish. Their results showed that 386 fish species — two-thirds of all species — had ingested plastic. And of those, 210 were species that are commercially fished.
Not surprisingly, places with an abundance of plastic in surface waters, such as East Asia, led to a higher likelihood of plastic ingestion by fish.
But fish type and behavior, researchers found, also plays a role. Active predators — those at the top of the food chain, like members of the Sphyrnidae family, which includes hammerhead and bonnethead sharks — ingested the most plastic. Grazers and filter‐feeders consumed the least.
Blue shark at Cape Point, South Africa, 2016. Steve Woods / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
"Overall, the likelihood of plastic ingestion decreases with depth," the researchers found.
Although bioaccumulation of plastic and its associated chemicals can cause health problems, this isn't causing noticeable fish population problems — yet. The research revealed that the majority of the species they found to have ingested plastic remain abundant.
But at the same time, 35 species were listed as threatened or near threatened. Another 26 species are vulnerable to overfishing. The authors identified the blue shark, Atlantic bluefin tuna and chinook salmon as "species of high concern due to their threatened status, vulnerability to overfishing and frequent plastic ingestion."
Meanwhile the researchers found that three-quarters of commercially fished species ingested plastic, including ones common in recreational fisheries and aquaculture that "have the highest likelihood to be part of the supply chain." Common sole was found to be "most worrisome."
Even more troubling is that there's still a lot we don't know because some areas are better studied than others.
Some nearshore areas are among those where research is lacking. "Only four studies were conducted within the continental United States' Exclusive Economic Zone, despite more marine plastic originating from the United States than any other developed nation," the researchers wrote.
Oceanic gyres, those swirling eddies of plastic in the open ocean, are also a black hole when it comes to research. "We uncovered no studies from the Indian, South Atlantic or western North Pacific gyres though there is extensive knowledge of surface debris accumulation in these regions," they found. "Similarly, there was a paucity of data from high‐latitude seas and none from the Southern Ocean, even though the polar oceans are a sink for microplastic debris with new fisheries developing in these regions as ice retreats and climate changes."
By comparison, coastal waters — including estuaries — are well studied, as are the seas surrounding Europe. And they found a "recent flurry of studies" from East Asia.
Even with a growing amount of research, the scope and severity of the problem is likely still underestimated.
Filling in these knowledge gaps will be crucial to better understand the extent of the problem, but the researchers say we'll also need to study top predators more to learn how plastic bioaccumulates in the food chain and how these mobile predators may redistribute plastic across the ocean as they travel.
Little is known about how ingested plastic affects fish and marine ecosystems, and even less about how human health could be affected when plastic-eating fish end up on the dinner table.
"Current evidence for humans ingesting plastic directly from fish remains scant, but there is growing concern," the researchers wrote. "In particular, the continued aggregation and analysis of information on plastic ingestion by marine fish is vital as these data are inextricably linked to ecosystem and human health."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
Wisdom hatched her latest chick on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial, home to the world's largest albatross colony where millions of birds return each year to nest in the same place and, usually, with the same partner.
"Each year that Wisdom returns, we learn more about how long seabirds can live and raise chicks," Dr. Beth Flint, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologist, said in a USFWS Pacific Islands post announcing the birth. "Her return not only inspires bird lovers everywhere, but helps us better understand how we can protect these graceful seabirds and the habitat they need to survive into the future."
🚨Cute baby alert! Wisdom's chick has hatched!!! 🐣😍 Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan albatross) and world’s oldest known, ban… https://t.co/Nco050ztBA— USFWS Pacific Region (@USFWS Pacific Region)1612558888.0
Laysan albatrosses typically live 12 to 40 years, BBC News reported. Wisdom, however, was first banded in 1956 by biologist Chandler Robbins, according to The Guardian. She has gone on to outlive him and likely her first mate. In that time, she has also hatched 30 to 36 chicks, according to USFWS. Since at least 2012, her mate has been a male albatross named Akeakamai.
"At least 70 years old, we believe Wisdom has had other mates," Flint said. "Though albatross mate for life, they may find new partners if necessary — for example if they outlive their first mate."
Wisdom is among the 70 precent of mōlī that nest on Midway Atoll, one of the oldest atoll-type islands in the world, located at the northern end of the Hawaiian island chain. In addition to mōlī, nearly 40 percent of kaʻupu (black-footed albatross) and endangered makalena (short-tailed albatross) breed there, along with more than 20 other bird species.
Albatrosses arrive on the atoll beginning in October. Their eggs hatch around January or February following a 65-day incubation period, and the baby birds begin to fly in June or July. Wisdom laid this year's egg in late November. The Midway gathering can be a family reunion of sorts. In 2018, she nested a few feet away from a chick she had in 2011.
Albatrosses hatch one egg at a time, but don't lay eggs every year.
"Because she only nests every two years, the international bird community looks forward to see if she's been able to come back and nest," Sean Dooley, BirdLife Australia's national public affairs manager, told The Guardian. "The odds are stacked against them so much, whenever it happens it's always a cause for celebration."
"The changes in water temperate and the changes in currents in water and winds means... the extent they have to fly to find food increases as their prey species seek out colder water — it's a big looming threat that sea birds are facing, albatross in particular," Dooley explained.
Feeding their chicks can also be dangerous. Male and female albatrosses share incubation and feeding duties, USFWS noted. To feed their young, the birds catch squid and fish eggs that are rich in fatty acids and regurgitate them into their chicks' mouths. However, sometimes the parents bring home plastic instead, the Smithsonian reported:
Many birds accidentally eat plastic and other marine debris floating in the ocean, mistaking it for food. But the problem is intensified in Laysan albatrosses because of the way they catch fish, squid and other seafood: by skimming the surface of the water with their beak. Along the way, they accidentally pick up a lot of floating plastic, which they then feed to their chicks. Adults can regurgitate plastic they've swallowed, but chicks are unable to, so it fills up their stomachs.
"There's something so archetypal about these legendary birds and seeing bright colors of ocean plastic against dead sterility is a powerful symbol for our human culture right now. We're in a state of emotional bankruptcy," Jordan told The Guardian in 2018.
It is hard to know exactly how much plastic impacts the birds. Lead poisoning poses another threat to Laysan albatross chicks on Midway, the Smithsonian reported, so it can be difficult to determine their cause of death. However, more than 97 percent of dead albatross chicks found on Midway in recent years had plastic in their stomachs, according to The Guardian.
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The world's oceans and coastal ecosystems can store remarkable amounts of carbon dioxide. But if they're damaged, they can also release massive amounts of emissions back into the atmosphere.
The report was the first of its kind to quantify blue carbon -- carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere from ocean ecosystems -- across the 50 UNESCO Marine World Heritage sites. The report found six marine World Heritage Sites in Australia hold 40 percent of the estimated five billion tons of carbon dioxide stored in mangrove, seagrass and tidal marsh ecosystems within these sites, Edith Cowan University wrote in a statement.
"We know Australia contains some of the world's largest stores of blue carbon due to the enormous size and diversity of our marine ecosystems," the report author and ECU research fellow Dr. Oscar Serrano said, according to ECU. Included in these six marine World Heritage sites are Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo Coast and Shark Bay World Heritage areas, which together contain a majority of Australia's blue carbon habitats. "However, here in Australia and around the world, these ecosystems are under threat from human development and climate change," Serrano added.
These threats include pollution, like plastic litter, and climate change, UNESCO reported. This is an increasing problem not just in Australia, but among marine World Heritage sites globally, including ecosystems like the Sundarbans mangroves in India and Bangladesh, Everglades National Park in the U.S., the Wadden Sea in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, UNESCO noted.
Although blue carbon ecosystems represent less than one percent of the global ocean area, they store about half of the carbon dioxide via the world's oceans, absorbing carbon 30 times faster than rainforests, ECU wrote in a statement. But if these blue carbon ecosystems are not conserved, they could increase global carbon emissions.
"While they're healthy, blue carbon ecosystems are excellent stores of carbon dioxide, but if they are damaged, they can release huge amounts of carbon dioxide stored over millennia back into the atmosphere," Serrano added, according to ECU.
In 2011, for example, nine million tons of stored carbon dioxide were released following a marine heatwave that killed about one-third of the area's seagrass in the Shark Bay, The Guardian reported.
To avoid similar events, the report's authors call for conservation efforts like blue carbon strategies, where countries could earn carbon credits for restoring damaged ecosystems that store carbon, UNESCO reported.
"By quantifying the carbon value of these sites and recommending specific blue carbon strategies to conserve them, UNESCO's research findings point the way for countries, regions, and local communities seeking to conserve these areas and pursue blue carbon strategies," UNESCO wrote in a press release. This could mean including assets, like investing in the restoration and conservation of blue carbon ecosystems, into Nationally Determined Contributions, each country's pledged actions in the Paris agreement.
Currently, the Australian government is leading by example, developing a system to create carbon credits for restoration projects on increasing blue carbon stocks in marine ecosystems, The Guardian reported.
"There are significant opportunities for both the Great Barrier Reef and Shark Bay to be protected and restored to ensure they survive and thrive in the future," Serrano added, according to ECU.
India's New Delhi has been called the "world air pollution capital" for its high concentrations of particulate matter that make it harder for its residents to breathe and see. But one thing has puzzled scientists, according to The Guardian. Why does New Delhi see more blinding smogs than other polluted Asian cities, such as Beijing?
To answer this question, scientists looked at the chemical composition of the region's smog and found that its density is likely linked to the burning of plastics. The specific chemicals released by this burning and other industrial processes are responsible for around 50 percent of the low visibility, the study authors wrote.
How did they reach this conclusion? The study, published in Nature Geoscience in late January, measured the chemical composition of the particulate matter in the cities of Delhi and Chennai. These are both cities in the Indo Gangetic Plain, a region blanketed in dense smog, particularly in December and January, a PTI story published by The Indian Express explained.
The researchers found that the smog in both cities, though particularly in Chennai, had high amounts of chloride. The researchers then looked at which chemicals also spiked along with the chloride, and found it matched what would be released by the burning of plastic, The Guardian explained.
"We realised that despite absolute PM2.5 mass burden over Delhi being much less than other polluted megacities around the world, including Beijing, the pollution and atmospheric chemistry of Delhi is much more complex to understand," lead author and IIT Madras Department of Civil Engineering associate professor Sachin S Gunthe told PTI. "This work put forward importance of measurements and modelling approaches to scientifically conclude that half of the water uptake and visibility reduction by aerosol particles around Delhi is caused by the hydrochloric acid (HCl) emissions, which is locally emitted in Delhi potentially due to plastic contained waste burning and other industrial processes."
The low visibility is a deadly and costly problem for New Delhi, the study authors wrote. It increases car accidents and flight delays. Particulate matter in general caused 12,000 excess deaths in New Delhi in 2017, according to one estimate. But the burning of plastics poses other, unique risks, The Guardian explained. It can release highly toxic dioxins that contaminate the food chain and react with smog to increase levels of ground-level ozone, which have been linked to crop yield reductions of 20 to 30 percent.
However, the study's findings have one bright side.
"Given that we find plastic burning as a potential cause of the reduced visibility, we hope these findings will help policy makers to efficiently enforce and implement policies that are already in place towards regulating open burning of plastic contained-waste and other potential chlorine sources," Gunthe told PTI.
Still, the problem of plastic waste is larger than two cities in India. Around 90 percent of waste in low income countries is either left in dumps or burned outdoors, according to The Guardian. The emissions from the burning of plastics can also contribute to the climate crisis. This means the ultimate solution needs to be a global one.
"Better waste management needs to be a priority but eliminating plastic pollution also requires a rethink of global plastic production and use," Gary Fuller concluded for The Guardian.
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By Douglas McCauley
This article is part of The Davos Agenda.
The year 2050 has been predicted by some to be a bleak year for the ocean. Experts say that by 2050 there may be more plastic than fish in the sea, or perhaps only plastic left. Others say 90% of our coral reefs may be dead, waves of mass marine extinction may be unleashed, and our seas may be left overheated, acidified and lacking oxygen.
It is easy to forget that 2050 is not that far off. Kids we see building sandcastles on the beach today might be gaining traction in their jobs and perhaps starting their own families. The possibility that our children may inherit from us such a broken and diminished ocean is hard to accept.
Such a future, however, is not yet written in stone. A healthier, more whole, and maybe even more profitable future ocean may still be within reach – at least for a little while.
Here are 10 steps that could take us towards a more desirable ocean future:
1. Freeze the warming. Stopping climate change is the hardest but most important step we can take for ocean health. It is good news to have the US back in the Paris Agreement. However, we now need ambitious national commitments to achieve carbon neutrality from all signatories of the Agreement. Recent actions by China, the EU, Japan and the UK are also positive.
2. Walk the talk. We need to make these carbon neutrality commitments real. This will require massive new investment in renewable energy sources, including some more experimental solutions (such as fusion), plus potentially looking with open minds into making older low-carbon energy solutions safer and more viable (such as traditional nuclear). We need to fast-track the development of sustainable next-generation batteries to store this energy intelligently across our grids. This includes major needs for marine energy infrastructure. A future, for example, with electrified ports and low-emission ships would help eliminate the epidemic of deafening ocean noise, address environmental injustices associated with pollution in ports, make oil spills a thing of the past, and significantly reduce global emissions.
A NASA model showing CO2 (the yellow/red swirls) moving across the globe.
3. Blue revolution. The "green revolution" – a massive ramping up of food production on land in the 1950s – has belatedly reached the sea. Ocean farming, or aquaculture, has increased by more than 1,000% in the ocean recently. The green revolution was sloppily executed, and the first baby steps of the blue revolution have included similar stumbles: chemical pollution, genetic pollution and habitat destruction. But the blue revolution can still clean up its act. Farming in the right places, with the right species, and the right practices could make aquaculture a win for human and environmental health. Ocean food research (into plant-based and cell-based seafood, for example) could also help us meet growing demand for seafood sustainably.
4. 30 x 30. Parks protect some of our most important chunks of nature on land – our Yellowstones and Serengetis. We are vastly behind setting up parks in the sea. We need to follow through on calls to protect 30% of our ocean by 2030. This must be as much about quality as quantity. We need to use intelligent planning algorithms and the intelligence of local and indigenous people to select the very best 30% of the sea to protect. Then the hard work begins. We must develop and deploy new technology to monitor and protect the living assets we put in these ocean savings accounts.
5. The other 70%. An ocean industrial revolution is beginning. Human industry is growing at exponential rates in the sea. Even if we succeed in protecting 30% of the ocean, we must still intelligently zone and manage this accelerated anthropogenic growth in the majority of our unprotected ocean. We largely missed that boat on land. Proactive steps to sustainably onboard an ocean industrial revolution include responsibly managing wild capture fisheries (and making more money in the process), carefully zoning what marine industries go where, eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies, and coming to grips with the fact that some new marine industries, like ocean mining, are simply too dangerous to be allowed into the ocean.
6. Big cracks in the sea. Most of the ocean belongs to us all. This includes the two-thirds of the ocean in the high seas that lies beyond all nations' ocean borders and the marine regions surrounding Antarctica. Protection of biodiversity and equitable sharing of resources has slipped through antiquated governance gaps in these international ocean spaces. But a proposed new UN Treaty for high seas biodiversity – and negotiations to sustainably manage and protect Antarctic waters could help.
7. End plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is the ocean's new cancer. We need to ban unnecessary plastics and tax other single use plastics, finally making them valuable materials we want to recover and helping to pay for the full cost of their environmental impacts. We need research and tech to prevent plastics from leaking into the sea, to overhaul our recycling systems, and to design economically viable alternatives to plastics. This progress may be accelerated by a proposed international 'Paris Agreement' for plastic pollution.
8. Land. We can help the ocean by first setting a few things right on land. We must massively increase our ambition to save our forests, thus locking up a huge chunk of carbon dioxide. We need to stop wastefully spilling megatons of costly fertilizers into rivers that are creating hundreds of marine dead zones. Precision agriculture that optimizes fertilizer use, coupled with other farming reform practices can help.
An algal bloom seen in Lake St. Clair, between Michigan and Ontario, in 2015. NASA
9. Wired ocean. We need more ocean data. This includes new tech to detect illegal fishing and connect sustainable fishers to consumers. We need tech to help endangered marine wildlife co-exist with ocean industry and fleets of environmental sensors above and below the water to better study our rapidly changing ocean.
10. Ocean equity. To build a healthy ocean, we must ensure all people have a fair stake in its success and that they are no longer unevenly harmed by ocean health risks. The fate of the ocean will affect people in all communities. Thus, we need people from all communities in ocean science, management, and policy.
Fulfilling the apocalyptic predictions for a 2050 ocean will be all too easy. Altering that ocean future may be one of the hardest things we've ever collectively achieved. But the consequences of inaction will be even harder to shoulder – for us and our ocean.
Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.
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Nzambi Matee is an entrepreneur with an incredible goal -- to turn plastic destined for the landfill into sustainable, strong building material. Her company, Gjenge Makers, uses the plastic waste of commercial facilities to create bricks that can withstand twice the weight threshold of concrete.
Gjenge Makers is based in Nairobi, Kenya, where plastic waste pollution has become a severe problem. A study supported by the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) found that more than 50% of cattle near urban areas in Kenya had plastic in their stomachs. To combat this issue, the Kenyan government outlawed the use of plastic bags in 2017, and imposed a ban on all single-use plastic in protected natural areas last year. However, these bans only address the issue of consumer single-use plastic. Commercial waste is still a deep-seated problem within the country.
Nzambi Matee told reporters she was "tired of being on the sidelines," and decided to create a solution of her own for commercial plastic waste. With a career in materials engineering, she was able to design a brick made of recycled plastic and sand, compressed and heated to create a strong and sustainable alternative to concrete. The fibrous structure of the plastic makes it not only more lightweight but also less brittle than concrete.
"Our product is almost five to seven times stronger than concrete," Matee told Reuters about the current line of Gjenge Makers pavers and bricks. While she purchases some plastic from recycling companies, she also receives free shipments of plastic waste from local packaging factories. Currently, the Gjenge Makers factory can produce up to 1,500 bricks each day, according to Reuters.
The company offers pavers for residential and commercial uses. The heavy-duty 60 mm paver is strong enough to be used for parking lots and roads, while the 30 mm light-duty paver can be used for household patios and walkways. The light-duty paver is twice the strength of concrete and comes in a variety of colors.
Gjenge Makers Ltd.
The factory is only in its beginning stages, but it has already recycled 20 tons of plastic since 2017 and created 120 jobs in Nairobi. In addition, Gjenge bricks are also one of the more affordable options on the market. They cost approximately $7.70 per square meter, as opposed to $98 per square yard for concrete produced in the U.S.
However, it hasn't been an easy road. Matee says about the founding of her company, "I jumped in, off a cliff without even a parachute. I was building it as I was falling down. But isn't that how great things are done?"
With entrepreneurs like Matee, there is a beacon of hope for the worldwide plastic pollution crisis. To learn more about Gjenge Makers process and impact, you can visit their website or YouTube channel. Or, read this to learn more about ways you can help fight against plastic pollution in your community.
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