Tag Archives: Plastisphere

Yummy Plastics

“From Waste to Food: A Generator of Future Food” by Ting Lu and Stephen Techtmann, won the Merck 1 million prize.  It concerns an efficient, economical and versatile technology that converts wastes such as end-of-life plastics into edible foods. These foods contain all the required nutrition, are non-toxic, provide health benefits, and additionally allow for personalization needs. This technology promises to transform waste streams into nutritious food supplements, thus solving the two problems of increasing food scarcity and plastic waste simultaneously.

The core of the proposed technology is to harness synthetic microbial consortia – a combination of natural and rationally engineered microorganisms – in order to efficiently convert waste into food. The project will comprise four research goals: conversion from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to protein powder (goal 1), augmentation of biosafety for food and for the environment (goal 2), introduction of nutritional and health-promoting contents (goal 3), and expansion of the technology to include additional plastics or other types of waste (goal 4). The proposed work will establish a transformative basis for food generation.

  • Excerpts from Future Insight Prize, Merck Press Release, July 13, 2021

Junk: the Engine of Green Growth

“Plastic waste is not just a global crisis that threatens economic recovery, climate, and nature. It is also an investment opportunity that can flip it from a scourge into an engine for economic development,” said Rob Kaplan, who founded Circulate Capital in 2017. Initially the firm sought to back companies in India and Southeast Asia, such as recycling or waste-sorting companies, that help reduce the amount of plastic waste that winds up in the ocean.

In 2019 it raised a $106 million debt and project finance fund, Circulate Capital Ocean Fund, backed by a handful of large multinational corporations that include Coca-Cola, Danone,  Procter & Gamble,  and Unilever…Circulate is one of a small but growing number of firms investing in companies that contribute to what they call the circular economy, a business model that seeks to eliminate waste that organizations produce, continuously reuse products and materials and regenerate natural systems.

An estimated 30 private-market funds, including private-equity, venture and debt strategies focused on the circular economy in the first half of 2020, up from just three in 2016….A number of large multinational corporations are funding these firms’ efforts as part of a broader push to reduce both the overall waste their own companies produce and the amount of virgin materials they use.

Unilever, which has backed funds managed by Circulate and New York-based Closed Loop Partners, aims to cut in half the amount of virgin plastic it uses by 2025 and plans to collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells. Coca-Cola, also a backer of Circulate’s Ocean fund, aims to make all of its global packaging recyclable by 2025 and to use at least 50% of recycled packaging material by 2030, among other goals.

Excerpt from Laura Kreutzer, Growth Firms See Plastic Waste as an Investment Opportunity, WSJ, June 23, 2021
 

Save Time and Money but Destroy Soil and Oceans

The images of swaths of garbage floating on the oceans’ surface have become a rallying call to address plastic pollution, but there is more to this challenge than meets the eye. While plastics and microplastics – items smaller than 5 mm – accumulate and impact marine environments, much of the problem is rooted in land contamination. Land-based plastic pollution, which often feeds into the oceans, is estimated to be at least four times higher than what is in the oceans, according to a study published in Global Change Biology. 

“Soil is the main source of microplastics reaching oceans through soil erosion and surface runoff,”  Plastics settle in soil through disposal in landfills, as well as through the use of plastic-sheets in agriculture or application of microplastic contaminated compost. “Direct disposal of plastics to ocean is relatively less pronounced compared to the transfer of microplastics from land. Microplastics, lighter than soil particles, such as sand, silt and clay, are easily lost to waterways,”…

“We contribute to plastic pollution through indiscriminate disposal of plastics in landfills and use of microbeads in cosmetics and microfibers in textiles. There are efforts to produce biodegradable plastics, which may provide some solution to plastic pollution, but bioplastic may not be the silver bullet to manage plastic pollution.” Commonly used biodegradable bioplastics “retain their mechanical integrity under natural conditions, potentially causing physical harm if they are ingested by marine or terrestrial animals.” “The fate of biodegradable bioplastics in natural and engineered environments could be potentially problematic. Methane is a product of biodegradation in anaerobic environments in landfills.” These bioplastics, furthermore, require high temperatures, controlled aeration and humidity to degrade completely.

Due to their small size, microplastics, especially nanoplastics resulting from the degradation of microplastic, can enter organisms’ internal organs, where they could potentially transfer contaminants attached to them. These can include persistent organic pollutants, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as trace metals like mercury and lead. The plastics and pollutants that accumulate on or in them enter the food chain and can eventually be transferred to humans, causing growing food safety concerns.

The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre’s laboratories are equipped to research the presence of microplastics in food. “Techniques such as energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and infrared and Raman spectroscopy can be applied to screen for plastics in foods, enabling risk assessment and management,” said Andrew Cannavan, Head of the Joint Centre’s Food and Environmental Protection Section. 

Excerpt from Joanne Liou Out of Sight but not out of Mind: IAEA and FAO Launch R&D to Identify Sources, Impacts of Microplastic Pollution in Soil, IAEA Press Release, July 2, 2021

The Plastics Revolution: A Century Later

Businesses pay a fee to Tontoton,  a company established in 2019,  for every ton of plastic that they generate. Tontoton then uses the money to employ scavengers, who retrieve an equal weight of plastic garbage in Vietnam — the world’s No. 4 source of ocean debris…Tontoton said it has the only such program in Vietnam, while Plastic Bank runs a similar one in Indonesia and the Philippines, and the Plastic Collective covers Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia…Tontoton targets the worst ocean-bound rubbish, called orphan plastic because it cannot be recycled. Trash pickers find the single-use plastic along the cyan waters hugging Vietnam’s Phu Quoc and Hon Son islands. Their goal is to collect 5,000 tons a year and send it to INSEE, part of Siam City Cement, to be burned for energy….

These cleanup programs have sprung up globally as doubts emerge about recycling, which used to seem like a win-win idea because consumers could keep consuming and the environment could stay pristine. But instead, for decades, the public believed its plastic was being recycled, only to find that 91% of it was not, according to a study in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, assessing all plastic from 1950-2015.

Vietnam is a focus of cleanup campaigns because it’s among the top five countries sending litter to sea, along with China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand…These Asian countries earned this marker because they import so much waste for processing from the rest of the world.

Tontoton says clients sign a letter committing to multiple strategies beyond offsets, including plastic substitutes and reduction. The company helps them offset or “neutralize” plastic already used, but this isn’t a “getaway car” to escape broader responsibility. “Plastic neutralization cannot solve the problem by itself.”

Excerpt from LIEN HOANG, Vietnam tests waters for plastic credits to fight marine pollution, April 15, 2021

How the Global Trade in Plastics Spills Over the Oceans

Low-value or “residual” plastics – those left over after more valuable plastic is recovered for recycling – are most likely to end up as pollution. So how does this happen? In Southeast Asia, often only registered recyclers are allowed to import plastic waste. But due to high volumes, registered recyclers typically on-sell plastic bales to informal processors…When plastic types were considered low value, informal processors frequently dumped them at uncontrolled landfills or into waterways.

Plastics stockpiled outdoors can be blown into the environment, including the ocean. Burning the plastic releases toxic smoke, causing harm to human health and the environment. When informal processing facilities wash plastics, small pieces end up in wastewater, which is discharged directly into waterways, and ultimately, the ocean.

The price of many recycled plastics has crashed in recent years due to oversupply, import restrictions and falling oil prices, (amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic). However clean bales of (polyethylene terephthalate) PET and (high-density polyethylene) HDPE are still in demand. In Australia, material recovery facilities currently sort PET and HDPE into separate bales. But small contaminants of other materials (such as caps and plastic labels) remain, making it harder to recycle into high quality new products. Before the price of many recycled plastics dropped, Australia baled and traded all other resin types together as “mixed plastics”. But the price for mixed plastics has fallen to zero and they’re now largely stockpiled or landfilled in Australia.

Excerpts from Monique Retamal et al., Why Your Recycled Plastic May End up in the Ocean, the Maritime Executive, Mar. 8, 2021

When Life Colonizes Plastic: the Deep Sea Wonder

The ocean deep, where pressure is high, light absent and nutrients scarce, is often seen as a desert. But, as with other deserts, it has oases. Hydrothermal vents, methane-gas seeps and whale corpses are hot spots for marine wildlife.  These natural loci of biodiversity are now being joined by unnatural ones made of plastic. Researchers obtained 33 objects from the deep sea in the South China Sea. Most were bags, bottles and food wrappers, but they picked up some derelict fishing ropes and traps as well…

These objects were teeming with life. When the researchers examined their finds in a laboratory, they found nearly 1,200 individual organisms representing 49 species of crustaceans, corals, echinoderms, flatworms, molluscs, polychaete worms and fungi. They also discovered evidence that some of these species were breeding. There were egg capsules from four different types of snail, and a cocoon from a flatworm known for parasitising crustaceans. This result suggests that accumulations of plastic are, indeed, benthic oases… As to why organisms colonise the objects in these accumulations, the short answer is, “because they are there”.

Excerpts from Marine Ecology: Deep-ocean plastic is a haven for life, Economist, Feb. 6, 2021

A Present for the Earth: Reducing Plastic Leakage

Approximately 8 million metric tonnes of plastic litter flow to the ocean annually, and only 9% of plastic waste ever produced has been recycled….Another major issue relates to microplastics – those plastics that are smaller than 5 millimeters, and that pose increasing environmental, economic and health hazards… Discarded plastics break down into these smaller particles through natural weathering processes. Microplastics can enter water bodies through different pathways, including atmospheric deposition, run-off from land, roads and through municipal wastewater.

A review of technical solutions from source to sea explores a set of innovative tech solutions. Among these potential technologies include:

  • Introducing debris-cleanup boats, debris sweepers and sea-bins to remove plastics and other wastes carried into water bodies;
  • Protecting large bodies of water by introducing wetlands along coastlines;
  • Secondary and tertiary wastewater treatment which relies on membrane filtration to prevent microplastics entering rivers and lakes;
  • Advanced coagulation technology to make water contaminated with microplastics drinkable;
  • Promoting sustainable waste management practices to reduce plastic leakage.

A key principle of this work is preventing untreated wastewater, which is often packed with plastics and microplastics, from entering the environment in the first place.  The wastewater coming from urban residential, industrial and commercial settings is full of contaminants including plastics, microplastics and other debris…

Water pollution by plastics and microplastics: A review of technical solutions from source to sea, UNEP Press Release, Dec. 27, 2020

Fatalism about Plastics: Intractable Plastics Pollution

The annual inflow of plastic could nearly triple from 2016 to 2040, the study found, and even if companies and governments meet all their commitments to tackle plastic waste, it would reduce the projection for 2040 by only 7%, still a more-than twofold increase in volume.  The study’s authors, the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trust and sustainability consulting firm Systemiq Ltd., set out a range of measures to stem the flow and called on businesses and governments to do more to reduce the use of plastic. 

The study attributes the surge to a growing global population using more plastic per person. Other factors include greater use of nonrecyclable plastics and an increasing share of consumption occurring in countries with poor waste management. China and Indonesia are likely the top sources of plastic reaching the oceans, accounting for more than a third of the plastic bottles, bags and other detritus washed out to sea, according to a study published in 2015 by Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia.

Over the past two years China has been making strides to improve waste management, including banning the import of plastic and other waste from developed countries like the U.S., which for decades have shipped much of their trash overseas. Indonesia has implemented its own restrictions on trash coming in from overseas, while lawmakers in the U.S. are increasingly trying to find ways to improve the country’s domestic recycling rates as export markets vanish.

They found that flexible plastic packaging—particularly items like potato-chip bags and food pouches, which are made of several materials and typically aren’t recycled—accounts for a disproportionate amount of ocean plastic. The As You Sow report said companies should stop selling products in flexible plastic until it is recycled or composted in significant amounts. Companies, in response, have been redesigning flexible packaging to promote recycling. For example, Nestle recently began selling a line of Gerber baby-food pouches made from a single material. But hurdles remain, particularly around collection and sorting of the packaging…

The amount of plastic flowing into the oceans could be reduced by as much as 80% over the next 20 years through a combination of reduced plastic use, increased recycling, alternatives to problematic packaging like plastic pouches and better waste management, the Pew-Systemiq study said…

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, Ocean Plastic Is Getting Worse and Efforts to Stem the Tide Fall Short, Study Finds, WSJ, July 23, 2020

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

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

Plastics in Seas as New Tiny Ecosystems

The malign effect of floating plastic debris on seabirds, turtles and other sea creatures is well known. But, as Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler have discovered, plastic debris also provides a new habitat for organisms small enough to take advantage of it.  The two researchers collected pieces of plastic from various sites in the North Atlantic. They then examined each using DNA analysis, and also an electron microscope, to see what was living on it. Lots of things were. Altogether, they discovered about 50 species of single-celled plant, animal and bacterial life. Each bit of debris was, in effect, a tiny ecosystem….Plastics are energy-rich substances, which is why many of them burn so readily. Any organism that could unlock and use that energy would do well….Less encouragingly, Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler also found cholera-like bacteria in their tiny floating ecosystems. Both fish and seabirds act as vectors for cholera (the former bring it into human settlements when caught by fishermen, the latter when resting ashore or nesting), so anywhere that such creatures might pick up cholera bugs is something worth keeping an eye on.

The researchers paint an intriguing picture of the adaptability of nature, and provide another piece of the jigsaw that is the Anthropocene. Conservationists intent on preserving charismatic megafauna have reason to lament the spread of plastics through the ocean. But those interested in smaller critters have been given a whole, new sphere—the plastisphere—to study.

Marine ecology: Welcome to the plastisphere, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 7