Peter Dykstra: We have met the enemy, and he is us

Is anyone really, truly surprised that President Biden’s relatively ambitious plan to address climate change is being axed so quickly from his infrastructure package?A poll this month by Cambridge University found less than fifty percent of citizens in seven Western European nations were willing to accept major changes like outlawing gasoline or diesel vehicles or restrictions on meat-eating diets.And that’s Europe.

Climate change polls

Daiga Ellaby / Unsplash
In the U.S., several polls earlier this year found a huge partisan gap in whether or not climate change was a serious problem at all: Among Democrats, 75 percent found the problem urgent enough to require immediate action; 21 percent of Republicans thought so. In a Gallup Poll last year, 23 percent of Americans reported eating less meat than the year before, but the predominant reason was health of their innards, not the health of their environment. McDonalds can cite billions and billions of reasons why cattlemen can sleep safely for many nights to come.

Republican climate denial

Sen. Lisa Murkowski
Office-holding Republicans who took climate change seriously did so at their own peril. Florida’s Carlos Curbelo, tapped to chair the bipartisan Congressional Climate Caucus, lost his seat in 2018. Others were “primaried” – beaten by more conservative Republicans in the preliminaries – or retired to avoid a primary loss. Even the GOP’s two conspicuous Trump dissenters, Wyoming’s Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger of southern Illinois, serve where Coal is King, and they tend to vote that way. Cheney sports a 2 percent lifetime rating on the League of Conservation scorecard; Kinzinger a whopping 8 percent.Republican senators from climate-vulnerable states, like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski or John Kennedy of Louisiana, also represent oil-and-gas-dependent states and will reliably vote their carbon consciences.So throw in coal-state Dem Joe Manchin, and the major clean energy boost in Biden’s platform is toast.

Big Oil’s ‘Big Lie’

Nick Fewings / Unsplash
Big Oil is dropping millions on airing its own Big Lie in ads during news and talk shows. The American Petroleum Institute’s breezy spots cast Big Oil as “the leader” in reducing American emissions, even as it lavishes its Congressional apologists with campaign cash.And while the petrochemical industry still loves cars, trucks, planes and ships, it’s actively dating other polluting suitors. Immense plastics plants are planned for Louisiana, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, negating many of the gains achieved in cutting greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. had that story, about the growth of this new market for oil, earlier this week.

Pogo’s famous line

Douglas Fischer / EHS
We go back to Pogo J. Possum’s famous line – “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”The McCarthy-era comic strip offered the quip as commentary on Americans’ talent for acting in their own worst interest.Next week, the world’s nations will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, to weigh the next steps in cutting greenhouse gases and limiting the climate catastrophe awaiting us all.President Biden’s chief climate emissary, John Kerry, called Glasgow “the last best hope” for climate action. He added that failure by the U.S. Congress to deliver something on climate will send the worst possible signal to the world.And the world’s other colossal greenhouse emitters, China and India, are talking the talk but showing little actual progress. Glasgow will open with raised urgency, raised ambitions – and raised doubts.
Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at or @pdykstra.His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.Image of 1971 “World of Pogo Earth Day Booklet” via eBay. From Your Site Articles

US plastics to outstrip coal’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, study finds

Climate crisis US plastics to outstrip coal’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, study finds American plastics industry, described by experts as ‘the new coal’, releasing at least 232m tons of gas annually Maya Yang Thu 21 Oct 2021 17.47 EDT Last modified on Thu 21 Oct 2021 17.56 EDT The plastics industry in the United …

Climate pollution from plastics to outpace coal emissions in US by 2030, report finds

With dozens of new plastics manufacturing and recycling facilities in the works, the U.S. plastics industry will release more greenhouse gas emissions than coal-fired power plants by 2030, say the authors of a new report.

Emissions from the plastics sector equaled that of 116 coal-fired power plants last year, according to the report out Thursday from Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics project. Meanwhile, 42 plastics manufacturing and recycling facilities have opened, or are in the process of being built or permitted, since 2019.

“As the world transitions away from fossil fuels for electricity generation and for transportation, the petrochemical industry has found a new market for fossil fuels: plastics,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, told reporters on Thursday.

With the U.S. coal industry in decline, the report authors say policymakers at home and at the upcoming COP26 climate summit, a conference happening at the end of month where world leaders will hash out the details of climate pledges, need to factor the climate toll of plastics into emissions reductions efforts.

“Leaving out plastics is leaving out a giant piece of the problem,” Enck said. “We would like the national leaders that are gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, to take the plastics issue just as seriously as they are taking transportation and electricity generation.”

Climate costs of U.S. plastics

The report authors calculated emissions from 10 stages of plastics production, from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for the raw material—ethane in natural gas—all the way up to burning waste in incinerators.Cracker plants, where natural gas is heated at such high temperatures that it fractures into plastic building blocks like ethylene, have the heaviest emissions toll, producing around 70 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent pollutants, which is equal to the emissions of 35 coal-fired power plants. Because the report looks at emissions from a range of greenhouse gases, the authors converted the warming potential of all the pollutants into an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. The authors say that emissions reports from the plastics industry are incomplete as they don’t adequately account for leaks of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s 84 times more climate-warming than carbon dioxide in the short-term—and other gases from the transport and production of plastics feedstocks. Related: The US falls behind most of the world in plastic pollution legislationThey note that while so-called “chemical recycling,” which uses large amounts of energy to melt used plastics into building blocks for fuel and other products, is uncommon now, new plants could add up to 18 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent pollutants by 2025. Enck referred to chemical recycling as plastics’ “new deception” now that Americans are aware that less than 9% of plastics are recycled.Shipping resins and other plastics building blocks overseas accounts for a significant amount of emissions as well, said Jim Vallette, president of Material Research, the firm that Beyond Plastics hired to do the report analysis. “Plastic is very much like the new coal because the coal industry also is counting on exports to stay alive,” he added.

Harmful plastics pollution 

Plastics facilities don’t just create planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. They also release benzene, formaldehyde, and the carcinogen ethylene oxide, among other harmful pollutants. The plastics industry has come under fire in recent years for building its polluting plants in poorer parts of the country: 90% of the climate pollution from U.S. plastics plants occurs in just 18 communities that are mostly in Texas and Louisiana, according to the report.”The health impacts of the emissions are disproportionately borne by low-income communities and communities of color, making this a major environmental justice issue,” Enck said.Banner photo credit: Bob Doran/flickr

Plastic's toxic reach in Louisiana

Communities throughout St. James, St. John the Baptist, and Louisiana’s other “River Parishes”—those located along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge—shoulder some of the worst impacts of industry in the U.S.
While most of the nation’s residents live with a cancer risk of around six to 25 in a million, throughout this region, cancer risks run significantly higher, reaching 2,000 in a million in part of St. John the Baptist Parish, where a neoprene factory, Denka Performance Elastomer, emits a constant cocktail of chemicals, including carcinogenic chloroprene gas.

As a result, this region of Louisiana has acquired a grim reputation as Cancer Alley. In total, it is home to approximately 150 industrial plants—many of which produce chemicals used to make plastic—stretching across 85 miles of rural land, along both banks of the Mississippi. From the worst-polluted part of the Pacific Ocean, I had traced the destructive path of plastic back to a major source, in the most notoriously toxic region of America’s petrochemical landscape.

On my way to Welcome from New Orleans, in Norco, St. Charles Parish, I drove around two enormous refineries, one owned by Valero and the other by Royal Dutch Shell, and past two chemical plants, on narrow roads lined with sludgy drainage ditches slick with oil. These complexes surround Norco’s few thousand human inhabitants and their homes, shops, restaurants, post office, and places of worship. Norco was named by and for New Orleans Refining Company (NORCO), the town’s earliest industrial inhabitant, in 1916, following its purchase of former plantation land. In 1929, Shell acquired NORCO’s refinery, expanding operations significantly to include production of chemicals used to make plastic, on agricultural land I’d later learn had been wrested from the descendants of formerly enslaved African Americans who had established farms in a community called Diamond.

Diamond, which began as a small Black neighborhood, has been wracked by two lethal explosions at the Shell plant, in 1973 and 1988. Its residents have long suspected that their constant exposure to toxics was making them sick, though health officials have suggested the increased incidence of cancers and other diseases their community has seen could also be caused by smoking and other lifestyle choices. Norco’s white neighborhoods, located farther afield from the town’s most dangerous industrial operations, are less exposed.

Citizen air pollution science 

Diamond once was a vibrant African American community. Today four mostly empty streets remain, running through tidy plots, many barren, a few with still-occupied homes. Diamond is a modern ghost town born out of necessity, as revealed by investigations and justice-seeking efforts spearheaded by Margie Eugene-Richard, an African American woman who grew up just 25 feet from Shell’s Diamond petrochemical plant.Having witnessed Shell’s numerous disasters striking in her own backyard, and the company’s pollution sickening close friends and family members, Richard spearheaded efforts to hold the company accountable.With the help of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Sierra Club, and other nonprofit allies, Richard formed a community group called the Concerned Citizens of Norco, which called on residents to gather air samples with “buckets”: low-cost, DIY research tools typically constructed from rigid five-gallon plastic containers, tubes, valves, and Tedlar bags (which are designed to hold volatile gases). Once collected, air is sent to laboratories for chemical analyses.
In 1994, personal injury attorney Ed Masry, who worked with Erin Brockovich, equipped residents of Contra Costa County, California, with the earliest iteration of these buckets to collect polluted air in neighborhoods near Unocal Corporation’s Rodeo refinery. This air-sampling effort helped reveal unchecked air pollution that had sickened thousands of people living nearby. Unocal ultimately settled an $80 million lawsuit paid out to some 6,000 residents. Since, air-sampling kits used by so-called bucket brigades have helped many communities across the US keep tabs on their local air pollution levels and hold industries accountable for violating emissions regulations.
Related: The US falls behind most of the world in plastic pollution legislationDiamond residents used their air pollution data, which revealed concerning levels of toxic chemicals, to take Shell to court, demanding relocation. During many frustrating years of litigation, Shell continued to pollute. Finally, in 2000, after Richard traveled straight to Shell’s top corporate officials working at The Hague, the company made its first buyout offer. But it was offensively low: just $26,000 per property. Richard and her allies kept pushing back to get a fair price for giving up their homes. Finally, in 2002, Shell offered to buy out Diamond’s residents—extending home-improvement loans to the few who chose to stay—and reduce its emissions, formally acknowledging that living in Diamond was too risky. Most people, including Richard, have left Diamond, though Richard would devote her life to advocating for other communities overtaken by industry in the US and abroad.

In LaPlace, St. John the Baptist Parish, a handful of cows languidly roamed a scruffy patch of dead roadside grass at the foot of the steam-ing, gleaming scaffolding of yet another chemical complex. The blue-and-white logo affixed to a large chemical storage tank read “Denka Performance Elastomer.” When I stepped out my car to get a better look at the animals, the sharp scent of industrial emissions stung my sinuses, and my temples began to throb. Almost immediately, I noticed a pickup truck outfitted with security mirrors and flashing lights rolling toward me. I hurriedly snapped a few photos of the cows—and inevitably, the plant—before returning to my car and driving on.

The expanding industrial complex 

Near Garyville, approaching St. James Parish, the landscape and everything that occupied it appeared increasingly sepia toned. The streets, the fences, the houses, the electricity wires, and the grass that miraculously continued to grow—everything was acquiring a rusty tint that intensified in hue when an industrial complex came into view a few miles down the road. This one was a hodgepodge of round-topped domes, silos and pipes, and smokestacks, all coated with a layer of bauxite ore, a red claylike substance used in aluminum refining, imported from Jamaica. Bauxite dust, which often contains traces of heavy metals, is considered an occupational hazard for people who work with the ore. For miles, the clay clung to everything, even the air, which felt gritty inside my mouth. The wind carried the plant’s toxic emissions, sending mercury invisibly into the air and sweeping it across the orange landscape, where it accumulated in the soil, nearby streams and rivers, and the mighty Mississippi.I continued driving past more toxic tailings ponds, more chemical plants, more piles of industrial waste, until I reached the Sunshine Bridge. After crossing the cantilever bridge, I followed River Road past the Mosaic company’s fertilizer and ammonia factory and AmSty’s polystyrene plant to finally arrive in Welcome.When I arrived, I climbed up the grassy levee to take a look at the river. I could see a grain barge loading up against a collection of floating storage containers strapped together like a giant metal raft near the undeveloped bank—just grass and mud and twisting live oaks—most of them dead and crumbling. Upriver, I could see a tangle of thick pipes reaching across the levee and over the highway, supplying petroleum to yet another chemical plant. The site of the proposed plastic factory, an enormous acreage of over-grown grass, was cordoned off by nothing more than a tall, chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire.

Erica Cirino is a science writer and artist who explores the intersection of the human and nonhuman worlds. Her photographic and written works have appeared in Scientific American, The Guardian, VICE, Hakai Magazine, The Atlantic, and other esteemed publications. She is a recipient of fellowships from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and Safina Center, as well as several awards for visual art.Banner photo: Oil refineries in Louisiana. (Credit: wisepig/flickr)

Microplastics may be cooling—and heating—Earth’s climate

Tiny bits of plastic are swirling in the sky, and a new model suggests they could be subtly affecting the climate.Like the ash spewed from a supervolcano, microplastics have infested the atmosphere and encircled the globe. These are bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, and they come in two main varieties. Fragments spawn from disintegrating bags and bottles (babies drink millions of tiny particles a day in their formula), and microfibers tear loose from synthetic clothing in the wash and flush out to sea. Winds then scour land and ocean, carrying microplastics high into the atmosphere. The air is so lousy with the stuff that each year, the equivalent of over 120 million plastic bottles fall on 11 protected areas in the US, which account for just 6 percent of the country’s total area.In a study published today in the journal Nature, scientists have taken a first swing at modeling how the atmospheric particles could be influencing the climate, and it’s a strange mix of good news and bad. The good news is that microplastics may be reflecting a tiny bit of the sun’s energy back into space, which would actually cool the climate ever so slightly. The bad news is that humanity is loading the environment with so much microplastic (ocean sediment samples show that concentrations have been doubling every 15 years since the 1940s), and the particles themselves are so varied, that it’s hard to know how the pollutant will ultimately influence the climate. At some point they may end up heating the planet.Earth absorbs some of the sun’s energy while also reflecting some of it, an exchange known as radiative forcing. Like other aerosols in the atmosphere, such as dust and ash, microplastics interact with this energy, the modeling found. “They’re very good at scattering sunlight back to space, so we see that cooling influence coming through,” says atmospheric chemist Laura Revell, lead author of the new paper. “But they are also pretty good at absorbing the radiation emitted by the Earth, which means that they can contribute to the greenhouse effect in a very small way.”Like snowflakes, no two microplastics are alike—they’re made of many different polymers, and they come in a rainbow of colors. Fragments chip away as they tumble around the environment, while fibers split over and over again. And each particle grows a unique “plastisphere” of bacteria, viruses, and algae. So when Revell and her colleagues set out to build a model of how they affect the climate, they knew it would be impossible to represent so much diversity. Instead, they determined the general optical properties of fibers and fragments as two main groups—for instance, how well they’d reflect or absorb the sun’s energy. They based their model on pure polymers without pigments, and assumed an atmospheric composition of 100 particles per cubic meter of air. The researchers then plugged all this into an existing climate model, which told them the estimated effect that atmospheric microplastics would have on the climate. 

Proposed synthetic turf prompts concerns about more PFAS in Bennington, Vt.

The Spinelli Complex at Mount Anthony Union High School. Courtesy photo
Mount Anthony Union High School’s main athletic field is in rough shape. Conditions at the Bennington school have been so bad that sports teams cannot use it to practice and use it only for games during the fall season. 
In recent years, that’s prompted the school’s activities director, Ashley Hoyt, to look into the school’s options. On Nov. 2, residents in the school district will vote on whether to spend $3.5 million to upgrade the Spinelli Complex, which includes an upgraded multiuse building, track and, according to a conceptual plan by the engineers, an 82,500-square-foot synthetic turf field. 
While many agree the current field does not work for athletes and coaches, some are raising concerns that synthetic turf could contain the toxic chemical group PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are known to cause an array of harmful health effects, including cancer, when ingested. 
Widespread PFAS contamination in Bennington from the former Teflon coating business ChemFab, owned by Saint Gobain, continues to affect residents, including having a major impact on drinking water. 
In a report sent to school administrators, the manufacturers of the synthetic turf field and track assured MSK Engineering and Goldstone Architecture, who are working on the project, that the materials do not contain the emerging class of toxic “forever chemicals,” and advocates for the field point to existing turf fields elsewhere in Vermont. 
But those who oppose the artificial turf project — including state legislators, a former official with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Vermont Conservation Voters — say the risks outweigh the benefits. 
They’ve expressed concerns about the most common tests for PFAS in turf, which may not identify the full scope of the chemical class. Jon Groveman, policy and water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, has reviewed the manufacturer’s tests and does not think they’re conclusive. 
The report includes only several dozen chemicals within the PFAS class, but Groveman said there are thousands of others that are not yet regulated. 
“There is, to our understanding, a way to actually do further analysis and certify that there really isn’t any of the thousands of PFAS in the product,” he said. “But that hasn’t been done.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Scott signed Act 36, which bans certain products containing PFAS — such as firefighting foam, food packaging, carpets and ski wax — from being sold in the state. On Monday, federal officials with the Environmental Protection Agency made forward movement on efforts to limit the chemical class in consumer products, The New York Times reported. 
“If it’s present, then Bennington is going to have issues,” said Lauren Hierl, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters. “Any community choosing to look at this could end up inadvertently bringing PFAS into their community and then having to deal with the potential health and environmental risks that come along with that.”
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who sponsored Act 36, said legislators need to continue to probe the issue.
“If you look at what the state has done already, we are moving in the direction, more and more and more, of working to keep PFASes out of our environment,” he said. “So as much as we can do, I think we’ll continue to do that.”
Tim Holbrook, chair of the Mount Anthony Union School District, said synthetic turf has become a popular choice for schools in recent years. 
“It isn’t something that we’re inventing,” he said. “There are four or five different high schools in Vermont that have them, and as far as we know, no one’s ever had a problem with them at all.”
The Mount Anthony Union School District Board is scheduled to hear a range of opinions on the matter Wednesday night at its regularly scheduled meeting and plans to hold an additional informational meeting later this month for members of the public. 
Big dirt patch
Andrew Gilbert, a senior at Mount Anthony who plays football and lacrosse, hopes to see a new Spinelli Complex where more teams can play and practice. 
“When you’re in middle school and coming up through elementary school playing sports, especially football, Friday nights on Spinelli — you don’t beat that atmosphere,” he said. 
The soccer and football teams play games on the field, but all practices and all other sports are relegated to other fields to avoid wear and tear that is already causing uneven terrain. Hoyt, the athletic director, said she’s seen that terrain cause injuries. 
“After football and soccer season, the field is totally chewed up,” Hoyt said. “If you were to walk our field, right now, the whole center is just a big dirt patch. There’s uneven surfaces. We don’t even honestly have grass on it at this point.”
Other fields — where practices take place and other sports play — don’t have abundant spectator seating, are not wheelchair-accessible and often flood, she said. 
A fact sheet, published alongside a number of other documents related to the project on the board’s website, said artificial turf has become more popular because it’s free of fertilizer and pesticides, it reduces water and maintenance costs, and it increases the amount of possible playing time on the field. It also says that the fields “result in fewer injuries because of the improved and level playing surface,” but studies have shown that synthetic turf can cause higher rates of lower-extremity injuries. 
In February 2020, the school board convened an ad hoc committee, which included coaches, administrators, board members and community members, to review the options for upgrading the turf field. Hoyt said they looked at natural turf, but even what she calls the “Cadillac” of grass fields wouldn’t have enough playability and durability. 
“The field would still need tons of upkeep and maintenance,” she said. “We’d still be painting the field multiple times a week. That just wasn’t something that we wanted.”
The committee voted unanimously to recommend an artificial turf in March 2021. In September, MSK Architects and Goldstone Architecture presented a feasibility study to the board. The vote is scheduled for Nov. 2. 
“The board has been very, very clear that they do not want to have a field that has the potential to harm anybody,” Holbrook said. “That certainly is paramount.”
Environmental concerns
Environmentalists have raised a list of concerns about the proposed field that range from microplastics pollution to the temperature of turf fields and the risk of PFAS contamination. PFAS has been identified in various types of turf across the country. 
Scientists with the Children’s Environmental Health Center of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have raised concerns about children’s exposure to recycled rubber, which is often included in turf.
“Everything that we’ve learned from working on these issues with a coalition of people throughout the country is that these risks are not worth taking,” Groveman said. “The more we learn about these chemicals, the more dangerous we find out they are.”
Hierl, with Vermont Conservation Voters, said she’s concerned about disposing of the synthetic material when the turf’s lifespan is over — school board documents say the turf would likely last around 15 years with proper maintenance. 
Hierl serves on the Montpelier City Council, where the wastewater treatment facility is accepting landfill leachate from Coventry. Discharge from Montpelier’s facility already has high readings of PFAS. 
“It creates these ripple effect problems downstream,” she said. “For us, it’s trying to assess, what are the costs and benefits and the risks that you’re taking on and would want any community to have their eyes wide open.”
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, said both the Legislature’s Health and Welfare Committee and the Natural Resources Committee and Energy Committee, which he chairs, have been working to reduce the presence of toxic chemicals in the state — and particularly at schools. Burlington High School had to relocate after PCBs were found at the campus, he said. 
“I’m thinking about prudence and liability,” Bray said. “I just would want to be very careful about bringing anything potentially toxic into the state, period, and most specifically to a school. And then Bennington itself has a very sensitive history on PFAS.”
‘It’s just ironic’
Judith Enck, who was a regional administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at Bennington College, said she recommends against synthetic turf, which she described as a “plastic shag carpet.” 
She’s concerned about PFAS, she said, but she also has other concerns. Synthetic turf also creates hotter surfaces and contributes to microplastic pollution. She believes plastic turf fields should be banned in the state.
“It’s just ironic that a community that’s been so negatively impacted by toxic chemicals in drinking water would even consider putting this type of material on playing fields for children,” she said. 
Town officials have asked whether PFAS entering the environment could impact Saint Gobain’s responsibility to clean up existing pollution in Bennington. Peter Walke, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the situation likely wouldn’t affect an existing settlement between the company and the state.
If there were a PFAS release from the school, Walke said, and it affected wells included in the settlement, Saint Gobain could request that the school help pay for the cleanup. 
“We don’t see that as likely,” he said. “The school is in an area where water lines either already existed or will be extended to cover the impacted wells from the PFAS contamination, so we don’t anticipate that being a significant issue.”
Campion wonders who would hold responsibility for cleaning up potential pollution — a cost he said should not fall to taxpayers. 
“I think we all really believe kids deserve a great space to play on and to explore athletics,” Campion said. “But it has to be safe. It absolutely has to be safe for kids, and it absolutely has to be safe for the environment today and going forward.”

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Microplastics making their way up to belugas in Arctic through prey, says new study

Breadcrumb Trail Links World News Life Food Almost 80 per cent of the particles found in the stomachs of fish studied come from textiles and clothing that are washed into waterways in the laundry process, the report said. Author of the article: The Canadian Press Hina Alam An inquisitive beluga whale takes a pause from feeding on capelin to view its surroundings in the St. Lawrence-Saguenay Marine Park, near Tadoussac, 450 kilometers northeast of Montreal, in this 2007 file photo. Photo by Robert J. Galbraith /Montreal Gazette Article content VANCOUVER — Hundreds of thousands of tiny bits of plastic waste have been found in the prey of belugas, proving that the pollution in the whales is making its way even to the most remote Arctic waters, a new study says. Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Article content In the study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, researchers looked at five species of Arctic fish that are regular prey of belugas and found 21 per cent of them had microplastic particles in their gastrointestinal tracts. The lead author of the study, Rhiannon Moore, said this finding confirmed that microplastics are moving up the food chain. “It’s a worry because plastic, as we know, is everywhere, and we don’t really know the long-term effect of all the different types of plastic that are ending up in these species,” she said in an interview. Moore, who recently completed a master of science degree at Simon Fraser University and is a zero-waste outreach co-ordinator with the City of Victoria, said many northern animals are encountering environmental change. Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Article content “So, we have species that are experiencing the effects of climate change, increased marine traffic, migration patterns — all sorts of changes. And so this is just another … human-made impact that that’s occurring.” Microplastics are contaminants that are less than five millimetres in size. Almost 80 per cent of the particles found in the stomachs of fish studied come from textiles and clothing that are washed into waterways in the laundry process, the report said. There is evidence that tiny bacteria make these fibres their home, increasing their palatability for fish, it added. The study documents microplastics in the stomachs of fish from the Eastern Beaufort Sea, north of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alaska. Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Article content The latest study builds on the team’s previous work where researchers looked at the bodies of seven belugas from an Indigenous hunt by members of the Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk in the western Canadian Arctic. That study estimated the whales ingest upwards of 145,000 particles of microplastics a year. Moore said it confirms belugas are likely ingesting the plastics through their prey. “So, before … we were making assumptions and estimations, and now we really know that plastic is in the food that whales eat, and likely other other species.” The latest study said the Arctic deep sea has been identified as a potential source of plastic accumulation. Belugas are known to dive to depths greater than 1,000 metres and spend “significant” time at the sea floor bottom, it said. Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Article content “How climate change will influence beluga foraging behaviour and activity in the deep sea, and the associated exposure to plastic debris remains unclear,” the report said. Peter Ross, a senior scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and a co-author of the report, said evidence suggests that microplastics in the Arctic are largely making their way on currents from the Atlantic Ocean. “The Arctic communities are not really big players in contaminating their backyard,” he said. “So, we have yet again another example of a pollutant from the more urbanized and industrialized south moving quickly and readily into the Arctic.” There is “near universal contamination” of the water in the Arctic, he said. Moore said she was “not necessarily surprised” by the findings because of the large quantities of plastic that enter the oceans every year. But she said she is hoping that the discovery spurs people into taking action. “Everyone loves whales, and nobody really wants whales to be threatened in any way,” Moore said. “Whenever you talk about whales and pollution, it tugs on their heartstrings and so you would hope that this would cause people to act and look at daily life choices.” This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2021. Share this article in your social network Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Sign up to receive daily headline news from the Montreal Gazette, a division of Postmedia Network Inc. By clicking on the sign up button you consent to receive the above newsletter from Postmedia Network Inc. You may unsubscribe any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link at the bottom of our emails. Postmedia Network Inc. | 365 Bloor Street East, Toronto, Ontario, M4W 3L4 | 416-383-2300 Thanks for signing up! A welcome email is on its way. If you don’t see it, please check your junk folder. The next issue of Montreal Gazette Headline News will soon be in your inbox. We encountered an issue signing you up. Please try again Comments Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

How airborne microplastics affect climate change

Airborne microplastic sampling under way at Kaitorete Spit in Canterbury, New Zealand. Credit: Alex AvesAdvertisement
Microplastics—minuscule bits of bottles, bags, synthetic fibers and other plastic waste that have broken up in the environment—are influencing Earth’s climate as they circulate through the atmosphere. Like other aerosol particles, both natural and synthetic, microplastics seem to have an overall cooling effect (albeit a small one), according to the first study to look at the possible climate effects of airborne microplastics. The study’s authors and other researchers say the findings, published on Wednesday in Nature, show the urgent need to get a better handle on how much plastic debris is in the air, where it is and what it is made of in order to better pin down its climatic influence.

Microplastics are yet another kind of particle that humans are adding to the atmosphere “that has a climate impact. And that is big, and that is important, and we need to start accounting for that” when examining factors that affect Earth’s climate, says Deonie Allen, a microplastics researcher at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. “This is the paper that opens that door,” adds Allen, who was not involved in the new study but has worked with the authors on other research.

All kinds of plastic waste crumble into smaller and smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight, wind, rain and other environmental conditions. Plastic’s generally low density means these fragments can easily be picked up by winds and blown around the world. In recent years, scientists have even found microplastics on remote mountain peaks and in the Arctic.

It occurred to researchers—including Laura Revell, an atmospheric scientist at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and one of the new study’s authors—that all those particles swirling around the globe would intercept sunlight, as do other aerosols such as dust, sulfates and black carbon. This ultimately influences temperatures on Earth’s surface. Sulfates, for example, scatter radiation, exerting a cooling effect. Black carbon, on the other hand, absorbs visible and infrared radiation, warming the atmosphere.

But unlike sulfates or black carbon, plastic is not one material but hundreds. It encompasses a multitude of different polymers, as well as the chemicals and pigments that are added to them. Microplastic particles also come in a wide array of sizes and shapes. “That makes them particularly tricky,” Revell says. Her team’s study only considered noncolored fragments and fibers shed by synthetic fabric because they were the only materials for which the researchers had information on radiative properties. These particles scatter ultraviolet and visible light and absorb infrared light. When the scientists included these interactions in global climate models, they could estimate the particles’ net impact on Earth’s energy balance—which was a very slight cooling. The study estimated so-called effective radiative forcing (ERF), a measure of changes in Earth’s energy balance. Microplastics had an ERF of about –0.75 milliwatt per square meter, whereas all other aerosols have an ERF between –0.71 and –0.14 watt per square meter. (There are 1,000 milliwatts in one watt.) At the global level, warming from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere overwhelms these cooling influences.

But microplastics could have localized cooling or warming effects depending on how they vary from place to place: there are higher concentrations over some cities, for example. “The regional effects of aerosols can be significant” even when the overall global effect is low, says climate scientist Bjørn Samset, who studies aerosols at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo and was not involved with the new study.

The exact effect on temperature can vary depending on how many particles are involved, how high in the atmosphere they are and numerous other variables. Because Revell and her co-authors wanted to take a first stab at addressing the question of climate influence, they assumed a uniform concentration of one microplastic particle per cubic meter of air throughout the lowest layer of the atmosphere. Even the limited concentration studies done to date show huge variations, however, from as low as 0.01 particle per cubic meter over parts of the Pacific Ocean to as high as 5,550 particles per cubic meter over Beijing. Studies have used different methods of sampling and detection, some of which miss the smallest plastic particles. In the studies that have used more sensitive methods, the tiniest particles made up half of what was found. And scientists do not yet know how many microplastics may be present at higher levels of the atmosphere, where their effects could be different.

Factoring in pigments and other additives could also change the effect they have. Pigments, for example, would generally increase light absorption, which would tend to warm the atmosphere. Revell says there is simply not yet enough information available to draw such conclusions. And then there are organic materials that could alter things by glomming on to plastic particles, as well as the ways these particles may interact with other atmospheric chemicals or influence cloud formation. “We still don’t know much about how they actually behave in the atmosphere,” Revell says.

Though the overall effect she and her colleagues have calculated is small, compared with that of other aerosols, “it is big enough to be quantified,” Allen says, adding that this shows the need to fund more and better monitoring of atmospheric microplastics. Rather than microplastics being a separate problem, she says, the results “securely cement [them] in the climate change argument.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)Andrea Thompson, an associate editor at Scientific American, covers sustainability. Follow Andrea Thompson on TwitterCredit: Nick HigginsRecent Articles by Andrea ThompsonRisk of Dangerous Heat Exposure Is Growing Quickly in CitiesHow Climate Change Helped Fires Cross the Sierra Nevada for the First TimeHere’s How Much Food Contributes to Climate Change

Concerns over plastic waste from healthcare sector

A disturbing image has exposed a huge hidden issue with Australia’s vaccine rollout amid a desperate push to find a solution.Doctors and nurses are joining the war on waste after disturbing images reveal a grim plastic waste problem that has made worse by the Covid pandemic.The scale of the problem – about 70 million pieces of plastic in landfill – is more evident now than ever with the healthcare system relying on single-use plastic during the Covid vaccine rollout.Images shared by NSW Circular, a government funded organisation that promotes recycling, have given a grim insight into the mammoth amount of syringe caps being discarded.Each jab involves a range of single-use plastics, including syringe caps and the syringe itself which add up to hundreds of kilos.And NSW Circular is desperate to do something about it.The organisation is working with St Vincents for a recycling trial, during which, they collected 80,000 pieces of plastic waste that weighed 205kgs – equivalent to 41,000 plastic bags.The scheme has since expanded to include a vaccine hub in Newcastle, where 170kg of plastic caps from Covid jabs have been collected in just a few weeks.NSW Circular said collecting waste produced from the vaccine rollout across NSW’s public health system could save nearly 70 million pieces of plastic from landfill – this would total about 150 tonnes.But the challenge is figuring out what to do with it.While the group flagged that clinical waste cannot be recycled, between 40 and 60 per cent of non-clinical waste was being thrown away. If that was recovered, NSW Health could save between $2-3 million a year which could be spent elsewhere.“If the estimated recyclable waste currently going into clinical waste streams was recovered, NSW hospitals could create annual savings equivalent to the cost of hiring 40 nurses,” NSW Circular said.One of the solutions is turning plastic parts into roller doors.NSW Circular joined forces with AllMoulds Plastic’s founder Scott Cantrill who has turned the 80,000 pieces of plastic from St Vincent’s Hospital into parts for roller doors and plastic caps that go on bolts.The plastic caps are then being purchased Ocycut – a Sydney company that makes parts for wind turbines. NSW Circular said it set out to prove it was possible for the healthcare sector to recycle without compromising health or safety.