Tag Archives: microplastics

Air Pollution: the Microplastics We Breath

 Scientists measured microplastics — tiny particles and fibers of plastic that can float in the air like dust — and found that over 1,000 tons a year are falling into wilderness areas and national parks in the western U.S.  Janice Brahney of Utah State University and her team identified samples of microplastics and other particulates collected over 14 months in 11 national parks and wilderness areas to create the study published in the journal Science, on June 12, 2020.  Pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in length, or microplastics, occur in the environment as a consequence of plastic pollution…

The presence of microplastics in oceans and water supplies has been a matter of concern for some time, but the impact of airborne microplastics is a relatively new area of study. Though microplastics are found nearly everywhere on Earth, the sources and processes behind their ubiquitous distribution, or the “global plastic cycle,” remain vaguely understood.  Initially overlooked, recent studies have suggested that long-range atmospheric transport plays an important role in carrying microplastic pollution vast distances and to remote locations

Examination of weekly wet and monthly dry samples from 11 sites allowed the authors to estimate that more than 1,000 tons of microplastics are deposited onto protected lands in the western U.S. each year, equivalent to more than 123 million plastic water bottles.

The ubiquity of microplastics in the atmosphere has unknown consequences for humans and animals, but the research team observed sizes of particles that were within the ranges that accumulate in lung tissue. Moreover, the accumulation of plastic in the wilderness areas and national parks could well influence the ecosystems in complicated ways.

Excerpts, VICTORIA PRIESKOP, Scientists Find Tons of Microplastics Polluting National Parks, Courthouse News Service, June 11, 2020

What the Naked Eye Can’t See: Nanoplastics in Food and Sea

Smaller plastic particles are especially dangerous, because they are easily ingested and can enter organs and body fluids of organisms and thus propagate up the food chain. The fact that these particles are also co-contaminated with various chemicals and other pollutants makes accurate assessments of the effects and toxicity of plastic pollution challenging. A group of scientists led by the IAEA has recently published a comprehensive review on the effects on fish of ‘virgin’ micro- and nano-plastics – tiny plastic particles such as resin pellets used in plastics manufacturing. The review, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in March 2020, revealed that in 32% of all studies assessed, such virgin plastic particles were indeed affecting biological functions in fish, such as their behavior and neurological functions, as well as their metabolism, intestinal permeability and intestinal microbiome diversity.

Plastic particles below 5 mm in length are called microplastics. The smaller ones, with a size equal to or less than 100 nm (1/10 000 mm) are called nanoplastics. They are so tiny that one cannot see them with naked eye or even with an ordinary optical microscope.

According to the UN Environment Programme, 8 million tonnes of plastic end up the world’s oceans every year, often carried there by rivers. If the trend continues, by 2050 our oceans could contain more plastic than fish Microplastic particles are accidentally consumed by marine organisms, which are then consumed by predator fish. Nanoplastic particles are even more toxic to living organisms as they are more likely to be absorbed through the walls of digestive tracts and thereby transported into the tissues and organs. Consequently, such plastic particles can interfere with various physiological processes, from neurotransmission to oxidative stress and immunity levels of freshwater and marine organisms.

Jennet Orayeva, New Research on the Possible Effects of Micro-and Nano-plastics on Marine Animals

Plastic Bags Back in Vogue: Blame COVID or Plastics Industry?

Plastic bags may make a temporary comback in some places because of COVID-19.
In a setback, albeit temporary, for efforts to combat plastic waste, many state and local governments have suspended plastic bag bans and are prohibiting the use of reusable bags to stem the spread of COVID-19. The plastics industry is pushing for such measures, causing environmentalists to cry foul. San Francisco, which has been at the forefront of single-use plastics restrictions, issued an order “not permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home” as a measure “to prevent unnecessary contact.” Maine is delaying enforcement of its plastic bag ban to Jan. 15, 2021, after originally planning to roll it out on April 22—Earth Day….

The plastics industry has been advocating for such measures. In recent weeks, Bag The Ban, an initiative sponsored by the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, has endorsed editorials in newspapers such as the Boston Herald and the New Hampshire Union Leader advocating use of plastic bags to protect grocery workers from COVID-19.

Writing to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Plastics Industry Association made a similar point. “Single-use plastic products are the most sanitary choice when it comes to many applications.” The association cited research on reusable bags, including a 2011 study from Loma Linda University and the University of Arizona that tested bags from shoppers selected randomly at the grocery store and found bacteria such as E. coli on 8% of them. It also pointed to a 2012 outbreak of norovirus in Oregon linked to use of a reusable food bag and cited a 2019 study from Portugal that found bacteria in bags.

Alexander H. Tullo, Plastic bag bans rolled back for COVID-19, Apr. 7, 2020

Genes that Atttack Plastic

A common fixture in refrigerators, furniture and footwear, polyurethane plastic is pretty much always in high demand. Humans worldwide cycle through millions of tons of the durable substance each year, sending the bulk of what’s not recycled to garbage dumps, where it leaks toxic chemicals into the environment as it very slowly breaks down. At least one of Earth’s organisms sees the stuff as a boon: a bacterial strain called Pseudomonas sp.TDA1. This polyurethane-munching microbe seems to thrive in waste dump sites. Studying the Pseudomonas strain and the chemical strategies it deploys could someday help researchers put a small dent in the world’s plastic problem, which has cumulatively saddled the planet with more than 8 billion tons of slow-degrading synthetic material.

Pseudomonas sp. TDA1 is one of only a few microbes known to be tolerant to polyurethane plastic’s typically toxic properties. What’s more, the bacteria doesn’t just withstand the plastic’s harsh ingredients: it uses some of them as a food source… But while the bacterium can metabolize a subset of the chemicals in polyurethane plastic, it doesn’t seem able to break down these products completely. In-depth studies of Pseudomonas sp. TDA1 will reveal the genes crucial to these plastic-attacking abilities. Understanding how these genes and their products work could help scientists engineer synthetic approaches to tackling plastic in the future.

Excerpts from Katherine J. Wu, Scientists Discover Plastic-Munching Microbe in Waste Site, SMITHSONIANMAG.COM, Mar. 31, 2020

Sunlight Can Make Plastics Disappear

Numerous international governmental agencies that steer policy assume that polystyrene, a sort of plastic  persists in the environment for millennia. 

Styrofoam Cup

In their research paper published in the Journal of  Environmental Science and Technology Letters, scientists show the  that polystyrene is completely photochemically oxidized to carbon dioxide and partially photochemically oxidized to dissolved organic carbon. Lifetimes of complete and partial photochemical oxidation are estimated to occur on centennial and decadal time scales, respectively. These lifetimes are orders of magnitude faster than biological respiration of polystyrene and thus challenge the prevailing assumption that polystyrene persists in the environment for millennia. 

Excerpt from Collin P. Ward et al, Sunlight Converts Polystyrene to Carbon Dioxide and Dissolved Organic Carbon, Journal of Environmental Science and Technology Letters, October 10, 2019

From Streets into Drains into Seas: Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts, the most littered items in the world, are posing an intractable trash problem for regulators and tobacco companies: Throwing them on the ground is a firmly entrenched habit for many smokers.  Regulators are taking a tougher stance on cigarette filter pollution amid concerns about the environmental impact of single-use plastic. Butts for decades have been made from cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, which takes years to break down. Studies show that butts—which often wash from sidewalks into drains and then waterways—can be toxic to fish.

About 65% of cigarettes smoked in the U.S. are littered, according to Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit whose cigarette litter prevention program is funded by the tobacco industry.  “That whole habit is so ingrained it becomes part of the ritual of taking the cigarette out of the pack, lighting it, smoking it, putting it on the ground,” said Christopher Proctor, chief scientific officer at British American Tobacco (BAT), whose cigarette brands include Kent, Newport and Camel. “Changing ingrained behavior is a really difficult thing to do.”

The European Union in May adopted new rules under which members must pass laws within two years requiring tobacco companies to fund the cleanup of filter litter as part of a broader crackdown on single-use plastics. A bill proposing banning filters has made its way through the California Senate and will be heard by the lower house next year.  In response, BAT and Japan Tobacco Inc. are testing biodegradable filters, while Philip Morris International Inc. is assessing the appetite for portable ashtrays. Companies also are tapping behavioral psychologists to understand what propels smokers to litter, hoping to forestall stricter regulation…

he World Health Organization says that when filters do break down they leach out some of the 7,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes, many of which are environmentally toxic.

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, The World’s Most Littered Item Comes Under Fire, WSJ, July 31, 2019

When Plastic Reached the Himalayas: India’s War on Single-Use Plastics

The daily plastic waste generated by the average Indian—while much lower than the average American—climbed 69% between 2015 and 2018, according to government estimates. Across the country, dumps are overflowing and drains are clogging with plastic, while cows—considered sacred—are getting sick after eating packaging….To get a grip, India has instituted some of the world’s strictest rules on single-use plastic, forcing companies to collect packaging that is often left as litter.
 

Nonrecyclable packaging is a problem globally, but particularly acute in countries with poor waste management. Many Indian households lack regular collection services so they burn trash or dump it on the side of the road. Much of the waste ends up in waterways. Of plastic found in the world’s oceans, 90% is traced to 10 rivers, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Eight of the rivers are in Asia and two flow through India.

Single-Serve Pouches

In emerging markets, products like shampoo and detergent are often sold in single-serve pouches similar to the ketchup packets that come with an order of fries. The resilient “multilayer” pouches protect against extreme temperatures and contamination, and, most important, are affordable for poor consumers. Single-serve packets make up over 80% of shampoo sales in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, according to Euromonitor….This type of packaging combines different types of plastic with materials like aluminum. That makes it nonrecyclable and of no interest to India’s waste pickers who trawl through trash looking for recyclables to sell.  Three years ago, India’s government said it would ban multilayer packaging by 2018, setting off alarm bells through the industry…

A consortium—including Nestlé, Pepsi and Mentos-maker Perfetti Van Melle SpA—tried for months to develop a recyclable alternative. After little success, they decided on a different approach.  Through street plays and workshops, the companies trained 1,500 waste pickers across eight cities to identify and collect multilayer packaging, paying them for what they brought in.  The pilot program amassed 680 metric tons of material in three months. In March 2018, New Delhi changed the law to allow the sale of multilayer packaging. The caveat is that companies must collect back the equivalent volume of what they sell and find other uses for it, like sending it to cement plants as fuel…

Despite such efforts, some government officials have accused companies of moving too slowly. E. Ravendiran of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board says companies only swung into action after being threatened with bans or having to pay a deposit on multilayer packaging sold. Executives say the target of collecting 100% of multilayer plastic by 2020 is unrealistic and that details on how the rule will be implemented are scarce.

Hassan, a former waste picker who manages a small team of waste collectors in Bangalore, says pickers aren’t financially motivated to bend down hundreds of times to collect a kilogram of multilayer plastic from piles of mixed waste or just off the street. Saahas pays him 27 rupees (around 39 U.S. cents) for one kilogram of plastic bottles, compared with just 4 rupees for one kilogram of multilayer packaging, which is much harder to collect.

Excerpts,  Saabira Chaudhu India Saddles Consumer-Goods Makers With Fixing Plastic Trash Problem, WSJ, July 5, 2019

Melted Plastic on the Shores: Madeira Island

‘Plasticrusts’ are see on the surface of rocks in Madeira island, Portugal. Researchers say they may have identified a new kind of plastic pollution in the sea, and they’re calling it “plasticrust.” Scientists working on Madeira, a volcanic Portuguese island off northwest Africa, have found small patches of what look like melted plastic encrusted on rocks along the shoreline. 

Excerpts from Scientists on Madeira see new ‘plasticrust’ sea pollution, Associated Press,
June 25, 2019

Keep it in Your Backyard Please! The Revolution against Recyclable Plastics

There is no point collecting recyclable waste unless someone is willing to buy it and actually do the recycling. Until late 2017 China was the world’s biggest importer of scrap by far.  All this came to a halt when the Chinese government banned the import of all but the purest scrap material in 2017, killing a trade worth $24bn a year. Waste dealers in the rich world had to scramble to find new buyers. South-East Asia soon emerged as the pre-eminent destination for foreign waste. Unfortunately, the region’s recycling industry is much smaller than China’s; its processing plants were quickly overwhelmed. Plastics from America and Europe have piled up in landfills. Lots of toxic rubbish has simply been torched.

South-East Asian governments are not pleased. They have begun to ban or crimp imports themselves, abruptly diminishing a booming business. On May 28th, 2919 Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s environment minister, complaining that “garbage [was] being traded under the pretext of recycling”, announced that her government would be sending back 3,000 tonnes of foreign plastic. Much of it was of poor quality, she noted, and hence unrecyclable.  Thailand plans to ban plastic-waste imports by 2021. Vietnam’s government has similar ideas. Kate O’Neill of the University of California, Berkeley, reckons these bans are motivated not only by environmental concerns but also by pride: Asia does not want to be the world’s dumping ground.  Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, recently threatened to go to war with Canada if it did not take back a shipment of plastic scrap. Canada agreed to take it away…

Excerpts from South-East Asian countries are banning imports of waste for recycling, Economist, June 15, 2019

Can’t Eat This! MicroPlastics Carrying Bacteria

The hard surface of waterborne plastic provides an ideal environment for the formation of biofilm by opportunistic microbial colonisers, and could facilitate a novel means of dispersal for microorganisms across coastal and marine environments. Biofilms that colonise the so-called ‘plastisphere’ could also be a reservoir for faecal indicator organisms (FIOs), such as Escherichia coli, or pathogenic bacteria such as species of Vibrio.

Nurdles on bathing beach

A study published in March 2019 looks into five public bathing beaches and quantifies their colonisation by E. coli and Vibrio spp. Nurdles [i.e., microplastics] were heterogeneously distributed along the high tide mark at all five beaches, and each beach contained nurdles that were colonised by E. coli and Vibrio spp. Knowledge of E. coli colonisation and persistence on nurdles should now be used to inform coastal managers about the additional risks associated with plastic debris.

Abastract from Colonisation of plastic pellets (nurdles) by E. coli at public bathing beaches

The Micro-Plastics Menance: Oceans

The IUCN report published in 2019 looked at primary microplastics – plastics that enter the oceans in the form of small particles, as opposed to larger plastic waste that degrades in the water – released from household and industrial products across seven geographical regions. Sources of primary microplastics include car tyres, synthetic textiles, marine coatings, road markings, personal care products, plastic pellets and city dust.  According to the report, between 15 and 31% of the estimated 9.5 m tonnes of plastic released into the oceans each year could be primary microplastics, almost two-thirds of which come from the washing of synthetic textiles and the abrasion of tyres while driving…Synthetic textiles are the main source of primary microplastics in Asia and tyres dominate in the Americas, Europe and Central Asia…. Synthetic clothes could be designed to shed fewer fibres, for example, and consumers can act by choosing natural fabrics over synthetic ones”

The World Health Organization is reviewing microplastics’ potential impact on human health after a study found plastic in 259 bottles of water from 11 different brands bought in nine countries. Microplastics have turned up in seafood, drinking water, beer, honey and sugar, according to studies, but the impact on human health is unclear.Research shows that ingesting microplastics can hurt the ability of planktonic organisms to feed and the ability of fish and marine worms to gain energy from food.  Pending bills in New York and California, if successful, would require labels on clothes made from more than 50% synthetic material to tell consumers that these shed plastic microfibers when washed.

Researchers also have zeroed in on how clothes are washed. Outdoor-apparel brand Patagonia found fabrics shed lots of microfibers on the first wash, but few in subsequent washes. That suggests pretreating garments before they are sold could potentially capture and recycle what otherwise goes down consumers’ drains.  It also found types of washing machines matter. Jackets washed in top-load washing machines shed seven times as many microfibers as front-loaders.

Excerpts from  Invisible plastic particles from textiles and tyres a major source of ocean pollution – IUCN study,Feb 2017; The Tiny Plastics in Your Clothes Are Becoming a Big Problem, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 7, 2019
 

Forever Dead Products

In a paper published in 2107 in Science Advances, Roland Geyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues put the cumulative amount of solid plastic waste produced since the 1950s that has not been burned or recycled at 4.9bn tonnes. It could all have been dumped in a landfill 70 metres deep and 57 square kilometres in area—that is to say, the size of Manhattan

If only it had all remained on land, or even washed up on beaches, where it could be collected. A bigger environmental worry is that much plastic has ended up in the ocean, where, dispersed by currents, the stuff becomes virtually irretrievable, especially once it has fragmented into microplastics. Computer models suggest that seas hold as many as 51trn microplastic particles. Some are the product of larger pieces breaking apart; others, like microbeads added to toothpaste or face scrubs, were designed to be tiny….

Even if the flow of plastic into the sea, totalling perhaps 10m tonnes a year, was instantly stanched, huge quantities would remain. And the flow will not stop. Most of the plastic in the ocean comes not from tidy Europe and America, but from countries in fast-developing East Asia, where waste-collection systems are flawed or non-existent. In October 2017 scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, in Germany, found that ten rivers—two in Africa and the rest in Asia—discharge 90% of all plastic marine debris. The Yangtze alone carries 1.5m tonnes a year

Trucost, a research arm of Standard & Poor’s, a financial-information provider, has estimated that marine litter costs $13bn a year, mainly through its adverse effect on fisheries, tourism and biodiversity. It puts the overall social and environmental cost of plastic pollution at $139bn a year. Of that half arises from the climate effects of greenhouse-gas emissions linked to producing and transporting plastic. Another third comes from the impact of associated air, water and land pollution on health, crops and the environment, plus the cost of waste disposal.

Exerpts from:  Plastic Pollution: Too Much of a Good Thing, Economist, Mar. 3, 2018, at 51

Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made (R. Greyer et al., 2017)

Trash Islands

According to a three-year study published in Scientific Reports on March 23, 2018, the mass known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is about 1.6 million square kilometers in size — up to 16 times bigger than previous estimates. That makes it more than double the size of Texas.  Ghost nets, or discarded fishing nets, make up almost half the 80,000 metric tons of garbage floating at sea, and researchers believe that around 20% of the total volume of trash is debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

The study — conducted by an international team of scientists with The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company — utilized two aircraft surveys and 30 vessels to cross the debris field.

Along with nets to survey and collect trash, researchers used two six-meter-wide devices to measure medium to large-sized objects. An aircraft was also fitted with advanced sensors to collect 3D scans of the ocean garbage. They ended up collecting a total of 1.2 million plastic samples and scanned more than 300 square kilometers of ocean surface.  The bulk of the pile is made up of larger objects while only 8% of the mass is microplastics, or pieces smaller than 5 millimeters in size.

The patch is so big that last fall environmentalists called on the United Nations to declare the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a country, called “The Trash Isles,” complete with its own passport and currency, called debris…Research scientist Britta Denise Hardesty, who wasn’t involved in this study, said while discarded nets may make up almost half of the findings, the problem may be more nuanced.  It’s estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost to the marine environment each year.

Excerpts from A massive garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is now three times the size of France, CNN, Mar. 24, 2018

The Love for Plastic Bags

Since their invention in the 1960s, disposable plastic bags have made lives easier for lazy shoppers the world over. But once used, they become a blight. This is particularly true in poor countries without good systems for disposing of them. They are not only unsightly. Filled with rainwater, they are a boon for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Dumped in the ocean, they kill fish. They may take hundreds of years to degrade. On March 15th Kenya announced that it will become the second country in Africa to ban them. It follows Rwanda, a country with a dictatorial obsession with cleanliness, which outlawed them in 2008…

As Kenyans get richer and move to cities, the amount of plastic they use is growing. By one estimate, Kenya gets through 24m bags a month, or two per person. (Americans, by comparison, use roughly three per person.) Between 2010 and 2014 annual plastic production in Kenya expanded by a third, to 400,000 tonnes. Bags made up a large part of the growth.

Kenya has tried to ban polythene bags twice before, in 2007 and 2011, without much success. This latest measure is broader, but few are ready for it. The Kenyan Association of Manufacturers says it will cost thousands of jobs. Some worry that supermarkets will simply switch to paper bags, which could add to deforestation. And then there is the question of whether Kenyan consumers will accept it. In Rwanda, since its ban was imposed, a thriving underground industry has emerged smuggling the bags from neighbouring Congo.

Excerpts African Rubbish: Plastic Bantastic, Economist, Mar. 25, 2016

Eating Plastics

The importance of multi-million dollar industries to Australia’s economy is hampering efforts to protect threatened species of marine life from plastics, a problem that has been described as on par with global warming, a government inquiry has heard.  An Australian federal parliament inquiry, sitting in Sydney on is investigating the threat of marine plastic pollution on animals and ecosystems, fisheries, small business and human health in Australia and its waters.…The inquiry heard evidence from scientists and ecologists that micro-plastics, or micro-beads such as those commonly found in common scrubs, face washes, soaps and toothpastes, can affect human health and health of marine animals.  Dr Jennifer Lavers from the University of Tasmania said the scale of marine pollution is on par with major environmental challenges such as global warming and sea level rise, however research was chronically underfunded.  “This is a very, very significant, ubiquitous threat that is rapidly increasing in pace, showing absolutely no signs of stopping,” Lavers told the public inquiry.  “Our understanding of the complex issues, including things like chemical pollution, is so incredibly poor, we’re really just starting at the basic level,” she added….Lavers suspected efforts to protect the threatened species will be continually hampered if they come up against industries worth millions of dollars to the Australian economy….”(Plastic) is a fantastic product … but it is a horrific waste material,” Clean Up Australia executive chairman Ian Kiernan told the inquiry.  “It is so durable, it is so cumulative. We have got to change our behaviour to address these problems.”

However until then, the conservative estimate of 56,000 tons of plastic entering Australia’s environment annually will continue.  And with 30 percent of marine fish in the world’s oceans considered to have plastic in their gut, Lavers said there is “no doubt we are eating residual plastic contamination.”

Excerpts from Industry interests hampering efforts to reduce marine plastics: Australian inquiry, Xinhua, Feb. 18, 2016

The Plastic in the Oceans

The steady build-up of garbage in the world’s oceans is a “tremendous challenge” and a growing threat to the planet’s marine ecosystems with the potential for “significant socio-economic consequences,” the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) heard today.  In the final day of the 16th Global Meeting of the Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans, held in Athens, Greece, scientists, policymakers and delegates gathered amid growing global concern over the accumulation of plastic waste in oceans and seas – a problem that could pose an estimated $13 billion in damage to marine life and habitats, and which demands a comprehensive remedy.

Addressing the meeting, Jacqueline Alder, Coordinator of UNEP’s Freshwater and Marine Ecosystem Branch, applauded the creation of a “visioning roadmap” seeking to chart a way forward for oceans governance in the coming decade, particularly in the areas of extraction, governance, impacts of a changing climate, ocean acidification, and pollution.

The meeting generated broad agreement among experts and policymakers regarding the issue of microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic less than one millimetre in size – which, they said, deserved more attention in order to better grasp their physical and biological impact on the marine ecosystems they pollute.  In addition, they advised a three-tier approach tackling marine litter at the national, regional and municipal levels as municipalities tends to have responsibility for solid-waste management….

The five garbage patches, or gyres, that have amassed in the world’s oceans as plastic waste and other jettisoned materials are carried by the currents. The patches themselves now occupy a total of 15, 915, 933 square kilometres of ocean, threatening the marine environment and the plants and animals living within it.

UN meeting hears call for greater marine protections as plastic waste accrues in oceans, UN Press. Release, Oct. 1, 2014