One of the most detailed studies of the plastic pollution crisis was released Thursday, and the picture it paints is not pretty.
<div id="40a9c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0f96e644e6c90548b1173ee8a9cd766e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1286383255906848771" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Even immediate, significant efforts to reduce plastic pollution could leave Earth with 710 million metric tons by 2… https://t.co/On7Kbnj8xf</div> — Science Magazine (@Science Magazine)<a href="https://twitter.com/ScienceMagazine/statuses/1286383255906848771">1595532642.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="4f36b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ab51ae97c53e1cc7fe2bea88f78cac5b"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1286364594966007808" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">New plastics report is out now! Developed by @SYSTEMIQ_Ltd and @pewtrusts and supported by @UniofOxford… https://t.co/YnQupiP9Hv</div> — SYSTEMIQ (@SYSTEMIQ)<a href="https://twitter.com/SYSTEMIQ_Ltd/statuses/1286364594966007808">1595528193.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
In 1997, Charles Moore was sailing a catamaran from Hawaii to California when he and his crew got stuck in windless waters in the North Pacific Ocean. As they motored along, searching for a breeze to fill their sails, Moore noticed that the ocean was speckled with "odd bits and flakes," as he describes it in his book, Plastic Ocean. It was plastic: drinking bottles, fishing nets, and countless pieces of broken-down objects.
"It wasn't an eureka moment … I didn't come across a mountain of trash," Moore told Mongabay. "But there was this feeling of unease that this material had got [as] far from human civilization as it possibly could."
Captain Charles Moore looking at a piece of floating plastic in the ocean. Algalita Marine Research and Education
Moore, credited as the person who discovered what's now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, returned to the same spot two years later on a citizen science mission. When he and his crew collected water samples, they found that, along with larger "macroplastics," the seawater was swirling with tiny plastic particles: microplastics, which are defined as anything smaller than 5 millimeters but bigger than 1 micron, which is 1/1000th of a millimeter. Microplastics can form when larger pieces of plastics break down into small particles, or when tiny, microscopic fibers detach from polyester clothing or synthetic fishing gear. Other microplastics are deliberately manufactured, such as the tiny plastic beads in exfoliating cleaners.
"That's when we really had the eureka moment," Moore said. "When we pulled in that first trawl, which was outside of what we thought was going to be the center [of the gyre], and found it was full of plastic. Then we realized, 'Wow, this is a serious situation.'"
Captain Charles Moore holding up a jar of plastic-filled seawater from a research expedition in 2009. Algalita Marine Research and Education
Since Moore's discovery of the plastic-swirling gyres, there's been a growing amount of research to try and understand the scale of the plastic pollution issue, including several studies from 2020. This new research shows that there's actually a larger quantity of plastic in the ocean than previously thought, and that the plastic even enters the atmosphere and blows back onto land with the sea breeze. Recent studies also indicate that plastic is infiltrating our bodies through food and drinking water. The upshot is that plastic is ubiquitous in the ocean, air, food supply, and even in our own bodies. The new picture that is emerging, scientists say, is of a biosphere permeated with plastic particles right down to the very tissues of humans and other living things, with consequences both known and unknown for the lifeforms on our planet.
How Much Is Really in the Ocean?
In the past 70 years, virgin plastic production has increased 200-fold, and has grown at a rate of 4% each year since 2000, according to a 2017 study in Science Advances. Only a small portion of plastics are recycled, and about a third of all plastic waste ends up in nature, another study suggests.
While new research indicates that plastic is leaking into every part of the natural world, the ocean has long been a focal point of the plastic pollution issue. But how much is actually in the sea?
Moore says it's "virtually impossible" to get an accurate estimate because of the ongoing production of plastic, and the tendency for plastic to break down into microplastics.
"This count is constantly increasing, and it's increasing at a very rapid rate," he said. "It's a moving target."
One commonly cited study, for which Moore acted as a co-author, estimated that there are more than 5.25 trillion plastic pieces floating in the ocean, weighing more than 250,000 tons, based on water samples and visual surveys conducted on 24 expeditions in five subtropical gyres. But even at the time of publication in 2014, Moore said he knew "that was an underestimate."
A more recent study published this year, led by researchers at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, indicates that there's a lot more microplastic in the ocean than we previously thought. When taking samples from the ocean, most researchers use nets with a mesh size of 333 microns, which is small enough to catch microplastics, but big enough to avoid clogging. But the team from Plymouth Marine Laboratory used much finer 100-micron nets to sample the surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the English Channel.
"Our nets clogged too, so we used shorter trawls and a specialized technique for removing all the plankton — microscopic plants and biota — from the sample to reveal the microplastics," Matthew Cole, a marine ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and author of the study, told Mongabay in an email. "This process is quite time-consuming, so it'd be challenging for all samples collected to be treated this way."
The research team at Plymouth Marine Laboratory collecting water samples. Matthew Cole
The researchers found there were 2.5 to 10 times more microplastics in their samples compared to samples that used 333-micron nets.
"If this relationship held true throughout the global ocean, we can multiply existing global microplastic concentrations ascertained using 333-micron nets, to predict that globally there are 125 trillion plastics floating in the ocean," Cole said. "However, we know these plastics keep on degrading, and these smaller plastics would be missed by our smaller 100 micron net — so the true number will be far greater."
Another team of researchers delved down to the seafloor in the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Mediterranean to take sediment samples. They found that microplastic accumulated at depths of 600 to 900 meters (about 2,000 to 3,000 feet), and that certain spots in the ocean, termed "microplastic hotspots," could hold up to 1.9 million pieces per square meter — the highest level ever to be recorded on the seafloor. The results of this study were published in Science in June 2020.
"We were shocked by the sheer number of [microplastics]," Ian Kane, the study's lead author, told Mongabay in May. "1.9 million is enormous. Previous studies have documented much smaller numbers, and … just talked about plastic fragments, but it's fibers that are really the more insidious of the microplastics. These are the things that are more readily consumed and absorbed into organisms' flesh."
A water sample containing plastic. Algalita Marine Research and Education
While these studies shine light on the fact that there's definitely more plastic in the ocean than we think, it still doesn't complete the picture, says Steve Allen, a microplastic expert and doctoral candidate at the University of Strathclyde in the U.K. Large quantities of microplastics still appear to be "missing" from the ocean, he said. For instance, one study suggested that 99.8% of oceanic plastic sinks below the ocean surface layer, making it difficult to detect, but Allen says this doesn't fully explain what's happening to all of the plastic that enters the ocean.
"We're finding some of it," Allen told Mongabay. "But we're … trying to explain where the rest of it went."
Allen and his wife, fellow scientist Deonie Allen, also from the University of Strathclyde, have been working to find their answer, or at least part of it, in an unlikely place: up in the sky.
‘Microplastics Are in Our Air’
As the ocean churns and breaks waves, air is trapped in tiny bubbles. When those bubbles break at the sea's surface, water rushes to fill the void, and this causes tiny, micro-sized particles, like flecks of sea salt or bacteria, to burst into the atmosphere. A new study, published in PLOS ONE, suggests that microplastics are entering the air in the same way.
"[Bubbles] act a little bit like velcro," Deonie Allen told Mongabay. "Rather than the bubble going through the plastic soup and coming to the surface and not bringing any of the plastics with it, it actually collects [the plastic] and hangs on to it as it comes up. And when it bursts, the energy from the creation of the jet to fill the hole that's left in the sea … is what gives it the force to eject the plastic up into the atmosphere."
A lot of previous research on plastic pollution in the ocean has assumed that plastic remains in the seawater and sediment, or gets washed ashore. But this study takes a pioneering step to suggest that ocean plastic is entering the atmosphere through the sea breeze.
"This was just the next logical step to see whether what we're putting into the ocean was actually going to stay there, or whether it would come back," Steve Allen said.
A device used to collect air and mist samples to test for microplastics. Steve Allen
To obtain the necessary data for this study, the research team collected air and sea spray samples on the French Atlantic coast, both onshore and offshore. They found that there was a high potential for ocean microplastics to be released into the air, and suggested that each year, 136,000 tons of microplastics were blowing ashore across the world, although Steve Allen said this number was "extremely conservative."
This study specifically looked at microplastics, but the much smaller nanoplastics are likely going into air by the same means, according to the Allens. But detecting nanoplastics in the water or air can be challenging.
While this is the first study to look at the ocean as a source of atmospheric plastics, other research has examined the capacity of land-based plastics to leach into the air. One study, authored by the Allens and other researchers, found that microplastics were present in the air in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, even though the testing site was at least 90 kilometers (56 miles) from any land-based source of plastic, such as a landfill. This suggests that the wind can carry microplastics over long distances.
"We know that microplastics are in our air everywhere, from the looks of it," Deonie Allen said.
More research needs to be done to understand the implications of atmospheric microplastics on human health, but according to the Allens, it can't be good for us.
A "cloud catcher" used to collect data for research on microplastics in the atmosphere. Steve Allen
"Microplastics are really good at picking up the contaminants in the surrounding environment — phthalates, flame retardants, heavy metals," Deonie Allen said. "That will get released into the body, relatively effectively."
Enrique Ortiz, a Washington, D.C.-based ecologist and journalist who writes on the plastic pollution issue, says that this evidence should be a "wake up" call to humanity.
"The oceans are picking up the plastic that we throw in it, and that's what we're breathing," Ortiz told Mongabay "And that's the part that really … amazes me."
"But it's not just happening in coastal cities," he added. "No matter where you go, [even] in the middle of the Arctic … the human imprint is already there."
We're not just inhaling microplastics through the air we breathe — we're also getting it through the water we drink and the food we eat.
‘Our Life Is Plasticized’
Plastic waste isn't just leaking into the ocean; it's also polluting freshwater systems and even raining or snowing down from the sky after getting absorbed into the atmosphere, according to another study led by Steve and Deonie Allen. With microplastics being so ubiquitous, it should come as no surprise that they are also present in the food and water we drink.
Drinking water, including tap and bottled water, is the largest source of plastic in our diet, with the average person consuming about 1,769 tiny microplastic particles each week, according to a 2019 report supported by WWF. Other primary sources of microplastics include shellfish, beer and salt.
A new study published this year in Environmental Research found that microplastics were even present in common fruits and vegetables. Apples had one of the highest microplastic counts, with an average of 195,500 plastic particles per gram, while broccoli and carrots averaged more than 100,000 particles per gram.
"The possibility of plastics in our fruit and vegetables is extremely alarming," John Hocevar, ocean campaign director for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement. "This should prompt additional studies to assess how much plastic we are consuming through our produce each day and examine how it is impacting our health."
"Decades of plastic use have contaminated our air, water, and soil," Hocevar added. "Eating just a bite of an apple could now mean eating hundreds of thousands of bits of plastic at the same time."
Through normal water and food consumption, it's estimated that the average person consumes about 5 grams of plastic each week, equivalent to the size of a credit card, according to the WWF report.
"Plastic is everywhere," Thava Palanisami, a microplastics researcher at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and contributor to the WWF report, told Mongabay. "We live with plastic and our life is plasticized — that we know. But we don't know what it does to human health. That's the biggest question mark."
While it's not entirely clear how plastic affects human health, research suggests that the inhalation of fibrous microplastics can lead to respiratory tract inflammation. And another study, referenced in the WWF report, shows that fish and other marine animals with high concentrations of microplastics in their respiratory and digestive tracts have much higher mortality rates. Another study, published in 2020, indicates that plastic accumulates in the muscle tissue of fish.
"If you look at what happens, for example, in fish — it [plastic] stays in their muscles," Ortiz said. "It's scary. If you look at the numbers, you're eating something in the order of one kilo of plastic every three years. I wonder, in our lifetime … if a percentage of our weight will be plastic that is still in our muscles."
"The problem is serious," Palanisami said. "We've got to stop using unwanted plastic and manage plastic waste properly, and … work on new plastic alternates."
Stemming the Tide
Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at WWF, and leader of the organization's packaging and material science program, says the key to curbing the plastic pollution issue is making sure that plastic doesn't leak into nature in the first place.
"If you had a leaky faucet, would you bring out the mop first, or would you turn off the water?" Simon told Mongabay. "We're trying to stem that tide of plastic flowing into the ocean and into nature in general … but at the same time, trying to identify the different root causes of that leakage."
While Simon says there are various ways to try and stop plastic from entering the natural world, such as well-managed recycling and composting programs, she also said that large companies can play a critical role in helping to reduce plastic waste. WWF is currently spearheading a new program called ReSource, launched in 2019, that helps analyze companies' plastic footprints in order to work toward sustainable solutions. The program's website says 100 companies could prevent 50 million tons of plastic waste.
"We have three targets that we're looking at when we're partnering with companies," Simon said. "One, get rid of what you don't need. At the end of the day, we do need to reduce our demand for virgin nonrenewable plastic. Once you get rid of that, you think about the stuff that you do need — the things [for which] plastic is the right material choice. Where am I sourcing that from? Am I getting it from recycled content? Am I getting it from a sustainably-sourced bio base, or is it virgin non-renewable [plastic]? And then finally … how are you, as a company … making sure it comes back? Are you designing it in a way that it's technically recyclable into the places that it's ending up?"
Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore. Susan White / USFWS
While recycled plastic may seem like a satisfactory alternative to virgin plastic, a new study, published in July 2020, showed that children's toys made out of recycled plastic contained high levels of toxic chemicals, comparable to levels found in hazardous waste.
Moore, who has been studying plastic pollution since his discovery of the floating debris in the North Pacific Ocean, says he doesn't believe there's an easy fix to this issue, especially when it comes to the businesses that are producing large amounts of plastic.
"There's no change that corporations can make under the current system that will successfully combat plastic pollution," Moore said. "There is no technical fix to the plastic problem. It's not in the corporate portfolio to reduce sales of your products — the corporate portfolio is about increasing sales. The idea that [corporations] can be convinced to reduce their production and sale of the products that they make is a fantasy."
However, Moore says a solution could be found in "radical change," and that this moment of time, with the Black Lives Matter movement spreading across the world, could provide the opportunity for that change.
"Now is the time when a world historical revolution would be possible, when the people of the world could unite to change the system as a whole," Moore said.
"There won't be a techno fix and science won't develop … a new product that will get us out of the problem of plastic pollution," he said. "It will only come with the world as a whole agreeing to charter a new course towards a non-polluting future."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Brian J. Love and Julie Rieland
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the U.S. recycling industry. Waste sources, quantities and destinations are all in flux, and shutdowns have devastated an industry that was already struggling.
Goodwill's Canton, Mich. site looks overwhelmed on June 16, with an oversupply of donations and little immediate chance for resale. Brian Love / CC BY-ND
Recyclers Under Pressure<p>Since March 2020, when most shelter-in-place orders began, sanitation workers have noted massive increases in municipal garbage and recyclables. For example, in cities like Chicago, workers have seen up to <a href="https://chicago.suntimes.com/coronavirus/2020/4/7/21212543/coronavirus-chicago-garbage-pickup-streets-sanitation-masks" target="_blank">50% more waste</a>.</p><p>According to the <a href="https://swana.org/" target="_blank">Solid Waste Association of North America</a>, U.S. cities saw a <a href="https://swana.org/news/swana-news/article/2020/06/17/swana-submits-statement-on-recycling-challenges-for-u.s.-senate-hearing" target="_blank">20% average increase</a> in municipal solid waste and recycling collection from March into April 2020. Increased trash can be attributed partly to spring cleaning, but most of it is due to people spending greater time at home. Restaurants struggling to survive under COVID-19 restrictions are contributing to the rise in plastic and paper waste with <a href="https://theconversation.com/using-lots-of-plastic-packaging-during-the-coronavirus-crisis-youre-not-alone-135553" target="_blank">takeout packaging</a>.</p><p>Although higher volumes of recyclables are being set on the curb, budget deficits are squeezing recycling programs. Many municipalities are struggling with <a href="https://www.ketv.com/article/omaha-mayor-health-officials-to-provide-covid-19-update-friday-afternoon/32498068#" target="_blank">multimillion-dollar shortfalls</a>. Some communities, such as Rock Springs, Wyoming, and East Peoria, Illinois, <a href="https://resource-recycling.com/recycling/2020/05/27/budget-shortfalls-threaten-local-recycling-programs/" target="_blank">have cut recycling programs</a>.</p><p>And these stresses are testing a business already faced uncertainty.</p>
While bottle deposit stations remain closed, recyclables pile up in basements and garages. David Rieland / CC BY-ND
Turmoil in Scrap Markets<p>The global recycling economy has suffered since 2018 as first China and then other Asian nations <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-more-developing-countries-reject-plastic-waste-exports-wealthy-nations-seek-solutions-at-home-117163" target="_blank">banned imports of low-quality scrap</a> — often meaning improperly cleaned food packaging and poorly sorted recyclable materials. As in any business, the value of raw recyclables is linked to supply and demand. Without demand from nations like China, which formerly took up to 700,000 tons of U.S. scrap annually, recyclers have scrambled to stay in business.</p><p>The pandemic has boosted prices for some materials. One industry leader told us that between February and May 2020, prices doubled for recycled paper and tripled for recycled cardboard. These shifts reflect higher demand for tissue products and shipping packaging under shelter-in-place orders.</p><p>However, he also reported that prices for the most-recycled categories of reclaimed plastics — PET (#1) and PE (#2 and #4) – were at 10-year lows. An influx of cheap oil has driven the raw material cost of oil-derived virgin plastics to their lowest levels in decades, <a href="https://millerrecycling.com/oil-prices-recycling#:%7E:text=Higher%20oil%20prices%20can%20also,robust%20market%20for%20recycled%20plastic." target="_blank">outcompeting recycled feedstocks</a>.</p>
Difficult Economics<p>Ideally, revenues from recycling offset municipalities' costs for collecting and disposing of solid wastes. However, given worker safety concerns, low market prices for scrap materials, a slowed economy and cheaper alternatives for disposal, many communities and businesses across the U.S. have <a href="https://www.wastedive.com/news/recycling-mrfs-prison-labor-suspensions-coronavirus-covid-19/574301/" target="_blank">temporarily suspended</a> collection of recyclables and bottle deposits.</p><p>Meanwhile, as the commercial sector slowed, the distribution of waste generation changed. As people have spent more time producing waste at home, waste collectors implemented <a href="https://www.wastedive.com/news/coronavirus-covid-waste-recycling-safety-collection-mrf/574359/" target="_blank">new procedures</a> to protect their employees from infection.</p><p>Recycling is a very hands-on process that requires workers to manually sort out items from the collection stream that are unsuitable for mechanical processing. Workers and waste collection companies have <a href="https://www.wastedive.com/news/coronavirus-covid-waste-recycling-safety-collection-mrf/574359/" target="_blank">raised many safety questions</a> about recycling during the pandemic.</p><p>Precautions like social distancing and use of personal protective equipment have become commonplace among waste collectors and sorters, though concerns remain. Sorters are increasingly relying on automation, but implementation can be costly and takes time.</p>
Collections on Pause<p>Based on monitoring since 2017 by the trade publication <a href="https://www.wastedive.com/news/curbside-recycling-cancellation-tracker/569250/" target="_blank">Waste Dive</a>, nearly 90 curbside recycling programs had experienced or continue to experience a prolonged suspension over the past several years. About 30 of these suspensions have occurred since January 2020.</p>
Like many bottle deposit programs, Kroger's Ann Arbor, Mich. drop-off center shut down on March 23. Michigan bottle deposits across the state resumed on June 15, 2020 with new safety protocols. Brian Love / CC BY-ND<p>On a broader scale, it's not clear how much more waste Americans are currently producing during shutdowns. Commercial and residential waste aren't directly comparable. For example, a granola bar wrapper thrown away at the office is tallied differently than if discarded at home.</p><p>It is also challenging to quantify the effects of the pandemic while it is still unfolding. Historically, waste output from the commercial and industrial sectors has far outweighed the municipal stream. With many offices and business closed or operating at low levels, total U.S. waste production could actually be at a record low during this time. However, data on commercial and industrial wastes are not readily available.</p><p>At the California-based <a href="https://resource-recycling.com/recycling/2020/04/28/city-data-shows-covid-19-impacts-on-recycling-tonnages/" target="_blank">Peninsula Sanitary Service</a>, which serves the Stanford University community, total tonnage was down 60% in March. The company attributes this drop to reduced commercial waste, particularly from construction. Similarly, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, noted a <a href="https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/metro-vancouver-garbage-decrease-covdi-19-1.5544942" target="_blank">10% decrease</a> year over year of waste collection levels for April.</p>
Expected sectors of plastic waste increase due to COVID-19, based on 2018 plastic usage distribution data from PlasticsEurope and Klemes et al., 2020. Brian Love and Julie Rieland / CC BY-ND
More Plastic Trash<p>As cities and industries reopen in the coming months, new data will show the pandemic's effects on consumer habits and waste generation. But regardless of total volume, the mix of materials in household wastes has shifted given the new ubiquity of single-use plastic containers, online shopping packaging and disposable gloves, wipes and face masks. Many of these new staples of pandemic life are made from plastics that are simply not worth recycling if there are any other disposal options.</p><p>Today Americans are trying to balance their physical well-being against ever-mounting piles of plastic waste. At a time when reducing and reusing could be dangerous, and recycling economics are unfavorable, we see a need for better options, such as more <a href="https://theconversation.com/bio-based-plastics-can-reduce-waste-but-only-if-we-invest-in-both-making-and-getting-rid-of-them-98282" target="_blank">compostable packaging</a> that is both safer and more sustainable.</p>
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By Tanika Godbole
Southeast Asia is one of the biggest sources of plastic waste from land to the ocean, and Thailand is among the top five contributors. In January, Thailand placed a ban on single-use plastic, and was looking to reduce its plastic waste by 30% this year.
Food Delivery<p>One of the biggest contributors to the plastic problem is food delivery. As people have been housebound, their tendency to order food delivery has risen, resulting in increased usage of plastic containers and wrapping material.</p><p>Grab, a Singaporean food delivery app, saw a surge of 400% in orders. Other such apps like Line Man and Foodpanda Thailand, too, have seen a rise of 300% and 50% in their orders, respectively.</p><p>Waste from a single delivery could contain several plastic items such as containers, seasoning packets, beverage holders, chopsticks, spoons, forks and so on.</p><p>"Plastic containers for food are often contaminated, the waste separation and collection are not systematic, and there is no regulation on waste separation and enforcement," said Wijarn Simachaya, President of TEI.</p>
Waste Management<p>While countries across North America, Europe and Japan also contribute high levels of plastic waste, they have relatively efficient waste management systems in place.</p><p>The Thai government had released a "Plastic Waste Management Road Map," to phase out the use of plastic by 2030. One of the initiatives of this plan was the single-use plastic ban that has been enforced since January.</p><p>According to data released by the Department of Environment and Quality Promotion, an average person in Thailand uses about 8 plastic bags per day, which adds up to 200 billion per year.</p>
Widespread<p>Some say the pandemic has merely brought to the surface an already existing problem for the country. Experts believe that greater awareness and lifestyle changes among the masses could help address this issue.</p><p>The effects of plastic waste are long term. The pollution affects the oceans, aquatic life and also humans.</p><p>"Plastic pollution may also be contaminating the air that we breathe every day. Plastics do not biodegrade, therefore once they are introduced into an animal's system, they will stay there for a long time. Therefore, consuming these plastics leads to malnutrition, digestive blockage and slow poisoning effects due to plastic's heightened toxicity," Simachaya told DW.</p><p>While the pandemic may have been a setback to Thailand's struggle to eliminate plastic waste, Simachaya believes a change in awareness and habits will lead to a gradual decrease in plastic waste.</p><p>Thailand is slowly starting to ease lockdown rules. While it is too premature to say whether the plastic waste levels are expected to go down, some delivery outlets have started offering bio-degradable containers and cutlery. Some online shopping companies are also giving the option of receiving packages without the use of plastic.</p>
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By Jeannette Cwienk
When it comes to recycling and recyclability, very little, it seems is straightforward — even something as seemingly simple as orange juice can present a conundrum. In Germany, many smaller shops sell drinks in cartons or plastic bottles, both of which will end up in the yellow recycling bin. But how do their recycling credentials stack up?
More and More Multilayer Packaging<p>How easy is it to recognize multilayer packaging? With drink cartons, it's usually obvious that they're made from a combination of different materials, but with other products, such as candy wrappers, it's a different story.</p><p>Such packaging can be made from a complex mix of up to 10 different films of plastic, which as Joachim Christiani, managing director of German recycling institute cyclos-HTP, explains, is <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/germany-produces-record-amount-of-packaging-waste/a-51293541" target="_blank">invisible to consumers</a>.</p><p>"In recent years there's been a trend toward so-called multilayer packaging, which is extremely light and thin. It saves material as well as CO2 emissions during transport, but can't be recycled," Christiani says.</p><p>Because it is not possible to melt the different plastics together, or — at least for now — to separate the individual films from one another at recycling plants.</p>
Lack of Recycled Plastic<p>A 2017 cyclos-HTP study into the recyclability of conventional packaging waste concluded that a third of it was not recyclable, and only 40% of the remaining two-thirds was made into plastic recyclate. The rest was used as fuel <em>—</em> in other words it was incinerated.</p><p>"There was no economic or political pressure to recycle more than this amount," Christiani says. "The prescribed recycling quotas were met, and there were not nearly enough recycling plants."</p>
Room for Greenwashing<p>According to a 2018 survey by Germany's vzbv consumer protection association, most consumers would like to see more plastic recycling, especially when it comes to packaging.</p><p>Although some products come in packaging that is advertised as being "made from recycled material," Elke Salzmann, a resource protection officer with vzbv, says that can be misleading.</p><p>"It says nothing about how much recycled material the packaging actually contains," according to Salzmann. "And it also doesn't mean that the recycled plastic comes from collected plastic waste. It could just as well come from plastic leftovers created during the production of primary plastic."</p><p>The term "ocean plastic," which some textile and shoe manufacturers use to advertise the recycled plastic in their product lines, can also be misleading, Salzmann says.</p><p><span></span>"Plastic waste from the ocean is in much too bad a state to be recycled. Instead, they use plastic waste from beaches or riverbanks."</p>
Laws Against Plastic<p>Images of garbage choking our waters and <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/eurythenes-plasticus-a-deep-sea-crustacean-full-of-plastic/a-52663559" target="_blank">killing marine wildlife</a> have played a key role in giving plastic a negative reputation among the public, and politicians have started to act.</p><p>Many countries worldwide have introduced bans on single-use items, and in Germany, a 2019 packaging law stipulates a plastics recycling quota of 90% from 2022, up from 36%. That said, the quota only refers to how much material has to be fed into the recycling system, not how much ultimately needs to be recycled.</p>
Rethinking the Whole System<p>Although plastic is a very useful material, at the end of its life it causes many problems, EASAC environmental program director Michael Norton tells DW, adding that we have to rethink the whole system and completely change the way we use plastic.</p><p>Joachim Christiani says the packaging industry is starting to catch on. Around 70% of recycled mass can currently be generated from packaging, but that figure is expected to rise in the future.</p><p>"95% is quite feasible," says the engineer, adding that sorting facilities are currently undergoing improvements, while packaging design is also changing.</p>
Clear Plastics Are Easiest to Recycle<p>As things stand, PET bottles are easiest to recycle because they're not mixed with other materials. New bottles can therefore easily be made from the old ones and the recycling rate is high. But the color of the bottle can pose a problem.</p><p>Because plastic is sorted by type rather than color, if different colors of plastic are mixed, the resulting recyclate cannot be used for light-colored packaging, which many manufacturers want. The upshot is the introduction of new plastic instead.</p><p>Consumer and environmental associations have long called for recyclability, greater sorting purity and better sorting facilities, but their most important demand remains waste avoidance through reusable systems.</p><p>"Why melt down disposable bottles to make new disposable bottles when you can refill them up to 20 times?" Buschmann asks.</p>
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Tierra del Fuego is at the southernmost tip of South America and is sometimes known as the "end of the world." This windswept part of Argentina is home to seven penguin colonies which breed, nest and feed in the area.
A film by Aitor Saez<iframe scrolling="no" width="640" height="477" frameborder="0" align="middle" name="Penguin colonies suffer from plastic trash | DW.COM" marginwidth="0" marginheight="0" src="https://www.dw.com/embed/640/av-53424380"></iframe>
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By Brigitte Osterath
Yogurt pots, shampoo bottles, coffee-to-go lids, bubble wrap — plastic products are all composed of the same building blocks: long carbon chains.
Heating them to high temperatures makes the carbon chains crack into a mixture of shorter molecules, ultimately converting them back into crude oil, the resource from which the majority of plastic products were originally made.
Big Business<p>Several companies have made significant investments in chemical recycling, building facilities to test various ways of making what is allegedly more environmentally friendly oil. So far, it's still in the development and test stage.</p><p>In 2018, multinational chemistry giant BASF launched ChemCycling — a project that aims to generate a so-called pyrolysis oil from plastic waste. The company claims it can be used in the production of new polymers, which it says will save fossil fuel resources.</p><p>Austrian oil and gas company OMV has built a pilot plant which it says can process all common packaging material such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.</p><p>The plastics are chopped down, mixed with a high-boiling solvent and heated in a furnace at over 300 degrees Celcius (572 degrees Fahrenheit). Once the product has been distilled and the solvent filtered off, the company is left with synthetic crude oil, which it claims is "free of sulfur, lighter than fossil crude oil and with a higher hydrogen content — therefore of higher quality."</p><p>The product can be refined to make fuels such as gasoline, kerosene and diesel or petrochemical products.</p><p>The plant has the capacity to convert 100 kilos of waste each hour, OMV told DW. But a planned successor facility would be able to process 2,000 kilos hourly.</p><p>Similar pilot plants are being constructed in other countries across Europe.</p>
Behind the Hype<p>So, can chemical recycling solve our waste problem through the creation of fuels?</p><p>Roman Maletz, a researcher at the Institute of Waste Management and Circular Economy at the Technical University in Dresden, is not convinced.</p><p>The idea of recycling plastic trash by cracking it, he says, is neither new nor revolutionary. It has just never worked before.</p><p>"In the past, such plants always ran into problems when in continuous operation," Maletz said. "I don't see how these issues could suddenly be resolved."</p><p>Problems arise when the trash contains too many different materials or when it is too dirty.</p><p>"In that case, the quality of the product is lowered, and the whole process becomes economically unviable."</p>
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When beaches in Florida reopened last week, people flocked to them to absorb the sun, sand and water. Unfortunately, many forgot to take their trash with them when they left.
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By Stuart Braun
1.3 billion plastic bottles are sold daily around the world. And that's just the tip of the fossil-based plastic iceberg. Plastic preserves our food. It's in the nylon and polyester we wear, and it protects medical staff from the coronavirus.
1. Olive Pits<p>Countries that produce a lot of olive oil have a byproduct that can be used for plastic: olive pits. A Turkish startup called Biolive began creating a range of began creating a range of bioplastic granules created from olive seeds that result in bio-based, partially biodegradable products that can decompose in a year.<br></p><p>The active ingredient oleuropein found in olive seeds is an antioxidant that extends the life of the bioplastic while also hastening composting of the material into fertilizer within a year. </p><p>And since Biolive's granules act like fossil fuel-based plastics, plastic producers can simply substitute the conventional granules without disrupting the production cycle for industrial products and food packaging. </p><p>Biolive claims that by utilizing olive oil waste, production costs are reduced by up to 90% in relation to some existing bioplastics. This is important says founder Duygu Yilmaz, since starch-based bioplastics made from corn are often more expensive than petroleum-based plastics are therefore not a viable alternative. </p><p>In 2019, award-winning Biolive was chosen to represent Turkey at the United Nations Development Programme.</p>
2. Sunflower Hulls<p>Like olive seeds, the husks of sunflower seeds used for oil production is a waste product also being used to created bioplastics. And luckily, they're in near endless supply.</p><p>The German start-up Golden Compound has created a unique Sustainable Sunflower Plastic Compound bioplastic – referred to as S²PC. It's reinforced with sunflower hulls, which they claim are 100% recyclable.</p><p>The S²PC bioplastic is being moulded into everything from office furniture to recyclable transport and storage boxes and crates.</p><p>Golden Compound also produces a "green" bioplastic that is 100% biodegradable, GMO-free and can be fully composted at home. Products include award-winning, <a href="https://www.plasticsinsight.com/golden-compound-and-alpla-bring-a-world-first-biodegradable-coffee-capsule-compostable-at-home" target="_blank">world-first biodegradable coffee capsules</a>, plant pots and coffee mugs. </p><p>The German start-up attributes the success of its bioplastics to performance. "In the end, the only reason people will be willing to switch, is if it works," Marcel Dartée, General Manager at Golden Compound, told the <em>Plastic Today </em>trade publication.</p>
3. Fish Waste and Algae<p>The growing attempt to transform organic waste into plastic now includes fish processing refuse.</p><p>A UK initiative called MarinaTex is using fish skin and scales – 500,000 tons of which are generated annually in the UK alone – bound with red algae to make a compostable plastic alternative that can replace single-use plastics such as bakery bags and sandwich packs.</p><p>MarinaTex claims the biopolymer creates stronger packaging than a conventional plastic bag — flying in the face of perceptions that bioplastics lack strength and durability.</p><p>Lucy Hughes, who created the product in her final year at the University of Sussex, says MarinaTex's flexibility, strength and pliability was inspired by actual fish skin and scales.</p><p>"It kind of struck me that nature can make so much from so little, so why do we need to have hundreds of man-made polymers when nature has so many already available," she told the World Economic Forum in November. </p><p>MarinaTex, which won the 2019 James Dyson Award worth €35,000, describes its product as home compostable and says it can break down within four to six weeks.</p>
4. Plant Sugars<p>While PET is one of the most recyclable fossil-based plastics it takes hundreds of years to decompose. In response, Amsterdam-based Avantium has created a revolutionary "YXY" plants-to-plastics technology that converts plant-based sugars into a new biodegradable packaging material, polyethylene furanoate or PEF.</p><p>A trial of PEF biodegradability in the natural environment is showing promising signs.</p><p>"PEF degrades much faster than PET under industrial composting conditions," Caroline van Reedt Dortland, Director Communications at Avantium, told DW. Degrading in 250-400 days as opposed to 300-500 years is significant.</p><p>It is used as a textile, film, and has the potential to become a major player in the packaging of soft drinks, water, alcoholic beverages and fruit juices, having already collaborated with the likes of Carlsberg to create <a href="https://www.avantium.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/20191011-Press-release-Avantium-joins-Paper-Bottle-Project-final.pdf" target="_blank">a "100% bio-based" beer bottle</a>.</p><p>According to Hasso Pogrell of European Bioplastics, it's even possible to " recycle PEF together with PET, and it makes the PET recyclate perform even better than the original PET."</p>
5. Mushrooms<p>Gadget blog<em> Gizmodo</em> wrote back in 2015 about resilient and biodegradable fungal mycelia-based materials which, unlike oil-based plastic, "create no toxic byproducts."</p><p>One emerging brand utilizing fungi is Reishi, a sustainable, fine mycelium leather substitute created from a woven cellular microstructure derived from mushrooms. By emulating the collagen structure of animal leathers, Reishi fine mycelium is both sustainable and versatile.</p><p>Reishi creator MycoWorks has taken the water-resistant biomaterial to the next level, promising the performance, quality and aesthetics of leather or synthetic plastic materials, but with a negative carbon footprint.</p><p>Already utilized by a selection of European luxury and footwear brands, in late 2019 $17 million (€18 million) financing was raised to help deliver commercially viable non-plastic, non-animal Reishi materials to the market.</p><p>In terms of limiting fossil-based plastic consumption, the biomaterial aims to outperform existing "vegan leathers" that are created with unsustainable plastics. <br></p>
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By Daiane Scaraboto, Alison M Joubert and Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos
In eight years, US environmentalist and social media star Lauren Singer had never sent an item of rubbish to landfill. But last month, in an impassioned post to her 383,000 Instagram followers, she admitted the reality of COVID-19 has changed that.
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