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By Rachel Kaufman
Humans produce hundreds of millions of tons of plastic every year. As much as 12.7 million metric tons of it ends up in the ocean, where it can transport pathogens, or be mistaken for food by hungry animals.
Some is visible to the naked eye—but not all plastic pollution is obvious.
The ocean is full of microplastics 5 millimeters or smaller, about the size of a pencil eraser. At those small sizes, it can be difficult to identify where the plastic came from. Was that tiny chunk part of a water bottle or a fishing lure?
A new project at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, aims to find out. Knowing what types of plastics are most common in the ocean could help prevent the pollution in the first place.
More than 60 percent of the debris swirling through the oceans is plastic. But plastics are not all the same. They're made of different chemical building blocks and have different densities. Plastic bags are made of polyethylene, margarine tubs are made of polypropylene. Both are lighter than seawater, so those plastics float. Other plastics are heavier, so they can be found deeper in the water column or sink to the bottom.
It's not just their densities that are different. Different plastics absorb contaminants and disease-causing microbes differently and can have different toxic effects. Knowing which types are most prevalent in what parts of the ocean, "will help us find out what is polluting the environment," said Ashok Deshpande, a research chemist at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center whose team is among the first to chemically identify ocean plastics using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The technique identifies materials based on their component parts, with the goal to create a reference library of plastics, so that scientists can identify contaminants when they're found.
Armando da Costa Duarte, a chemist at University of Aveiro, Portugal, who co-edited an academic book on chemistry and microplastics that included a chapter on mass spectrometry, said that the method is "relatively new" for ocean plastic, but that others have been working toward it. It is "a well-established method of analysis that can bring complementary information" to other techniques for chemically identifying plastic, he said by email.
It's another tool in scientists' toolbox to figure out just what's out there—and what to do about it.
So far, the NOAA project has identified various plastics from the Gulf of Mexico and beaches in Hawaii, Alaska and New Jersey. Nigel Lascelles, a NOAA Educational Partnership Program scholar, worked on the initial analyses.
The team successfully identified all but one of the scraps of collected plastic, and then some—the researchers also detected toxins like phthalates, commonly used to soften some plastics, flame retardants and—no joke—cannabidiol, a naturally occurring component of cannabis. "I don't know how that would be on plastic," Lascelles said.
Next, the team plans to examine the contents of a sea turtle's stomach and samples from seabirds that ate microplastics. The chemical analysis could help identify which plastics wildlife are consuming most often. The NOAA scientists are also hoping to determine the origin of ocean microplastics by looking at additives. "Products used for human consumption may not have additives like flame retardants," Deshpande said, which could help differentiate a tossed soda bottle from an industrial component like an aircraft interior.
The work is more urgent than ever, with research showing upwards of 236,000 metric tons of microplastic particles floating on the surface of the ocean, a tiny fraction of all the plastic out there. Sea life eats a lot of it. A recent study found that baby sea turtles are dying by ingesting tiny pieces of plastic that cause intestinal blockage or nutritional deficiency. Another study, from 2017, found that small fish like anchovies are eating microplastic but possibly surviving long enough to be eaten by larger predators. That's a problem since plastics—and their associated chemical contaminants—could build up in the bodies of larger fish. Knowing more about where the plastics came from and what they are made of can help improve habitat management for fish and other marine life.
What remains clear is that when it comes to plastics in the ocean, our knowledge is just scratching the surface. "What science has analyzed so far," Deshpande said, "is a fraction of the total plastic waste into the ocean."
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By Ilana Cohen
Four years ago, Jacob Abel cast his first presidential vote for Donald Trump. As a young conservative from Concord, North Carolina, the choice felt natural.
But this November, he plans to cast a "protest vote" for a write-in candidate or abstain from casting a ballot for president. A determining factor in his 180-degree turn? Climate change.
Fractures Among Young Climate Conservatives<p>While young conservatives have united around the urgency of climate change, they remain divided over how to bring their concerns to the ballot box. Some embrace right-wing <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-attacks-republican-convention/2020/08/24/434e5b46-e66d-11ea-970a-64c73a1c2392_story.html" target="_blank">attacks</a> painting Biden as a "tool of the left" and find his climate agenda "radical." Others can't find a way to justify voting for Trump, even if it means breaking with their party.</p><p>Patrick Mann from Orange County, California, voted for Trump in 2016. But today, he's leading Aggies for Joe at Texas A&M University and is co-founder of Texas Students for Biden. </p><p>Mann grew up watching wildfires ravage his home state, nearly forcing his family to evacuate in 2017. The GOP is failing to "meet the moment" for climate action, Mann said. He's hoping Biden will deliver on a promise to "<a href="https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/caucus/2020/01/06/joe-biden-democrat-president-iowa-caucus-restore-soul-our-nation/2806422001/" target="_blank">restore the soul of our nation</a>." </p><p>Taylor Walker from Pensacola, Florida, is also determined to make her voice heard on climate, including by casting her first-ever vote for president—but not for Biden.</p>
A False Equivalency<p>Young climate conservatives may fear climate denial and delayed climate action, but more than that, they fear the growing political momentum around the Green New Deal, the massive spending it entails and <a href="https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/" target="_blank">Biden's citing of it</a> as a "crucial framing for meeting the climate challenges we face."</p><p>Many don't want to split with their party to support a Democrat whose <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/09/03/757220130/joe-biden-on-bipartisanship-gun-control-and-regrets-over-inaction-after-a-traged" target="_blank">allegedly bipartisan intentions</a> they doubt. If stymieing what they consider a radical green agenda means re-electing a climate change denying president, so be it. </p><p>"I'm scared of climate change, but I'm also scared of the Green New Deal and what it means for America," said Ben Mutolo, a republicEN spokesperson and junior at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. </p><p>Mutolo felt encouraged by former Ohio Governor John Kasich's <a href="https://www.rollcall.com/2020/08/17/kasich-speech-to-democratic-convention-follows-years-of-building-conservative-credentials/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appearance</a> at the Democratic National Convention, but he still struggles to see himself voting for Biden. Though the candidate paints himself as a <a href="https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-08-12/harris-biden-different-generation-similar-political-instinct" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">centrist,</a> Mutolo believes he's "cozying up to the ultra-progressive left." </p><p>Mutolo, who wants to see market-based climate solutions like a carbon tax, feels torn between a candidate whose climate plan relies on taking an "<a href="https://joebiden.com/environmental-justice-plan/#" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">All-of-Government approach</a>," and one with no efforts to reign in global warming at all. <span></span></p><p>Leiserowitz said he appreciated how a conservative might feel Biden's climate plan "doesn't jive with their limited government, free-market approach."</p><p>But he sees a strong distinction between voting for a presidential candidate with a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan</a> that includes large renewable energy investments, which have <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/politics-global-warming-april-2020/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bipartisan support</a>, and a candidate trying "to take the country in the opposite direction, towards more fossil fuels."</p>
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By Gloria Oladipo
In the face of dangerous heat waves this summer, Americans have taken shelter in air conditioned cooling centers. Normally, that would be a wise choice, but during a pandemic, indoor shelters present new risks. The same air conditioning systems that keep us cool recirculate air around us, potentially spreading the coronavirus.