Marine life Evolutionary ‘trap’ leading young sea turtles to ingest plastic, study says Researchers find fragments in innards of species that have adapted to develop in open ocean, which has highly polluted areas Nicola Davis Science correspondent @NicolaKSDavis Mon 2 Aug 2021 00.15 EDT Young marine turtles are swallowing large quantities of plastic, with ocean …
Disposable plastic bags
MANILA, Philippines — Environment groups have challenged the Senate to urgently pass a measure that would regulate the production and use of single-use plastics, after the House of Representatives approved a counterpart bill last week.
House Bill No. 9147, or the Single-Use Plastic Products Regulation Act, sailed through the third and final reading on July 28, with 190 affirmative votes and no objections.
Environment groups called the approval of the House bill a critical “first step” in the right direction, particularly in curbing the country’s plastic pollution problem.
“This also sends a strong message to plastic manufacturers that they have a responsibility to significantly reduce their contribution to the plastics problem and transition to alternative delivery systems,” said Marian Ledesma, Greenpeace Philippines campaigner.FEATURED STORIES
Following the bill’s approval, the Senate should respond with a version that promotes genuine solutions to plastic pollution, said environment and health watchdog Ecowaste Coalition.
Their counterpart measure, the group said, should not promote “dirty” solutions, such as incineration or the burning of wastes to be turned into energy.
Several bills on the regulation of single-use plastics have been filed in the Senate since 2019, Ecowaste said. None have moved beyond the committee level.
Data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, however, showed that at least 488 local governments have passed ordinances banning single-use plastics, the group added.
“We only have a few weeks left in the legislative calendar, and with the 2022 national elections fast approaching, we believe that now is the right time to pass the national regulation on single-use plastics,” said Coleen Salamat, Ecowaste’s campaigner.
“Our environment and communities cannot afford to go back to start with this bill in the new Congress,” she added.
During the Department of Science and Technology-hosted joint conference on Friday, upcycling surfaced as an accessible and implementable solution “while we are working on the other alternatives … especially for the sachet problem,” according to Jonathan Co of Sentinel Upcycling Technologies.
Co’s business is focused on manufacturing products made of single-use packaging waste transformed into durable materials, such as school and monobloc chairs.
Through the Pateros residents’ purchase of four upcycled sorting bins, a total of 1,200 pieces, or 2.4 kilograms, of single-use plastic sachets were kept away from polluting oceans and landfills.
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U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, State Rep. David Gomberg, State Rep. Janeen Sollman, the Surfrider Foundation, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Environment Oregon, and Oceana united at a press conference Friday, July 23, at the Oregon Zoo to draw attention to the plastic pollution crisis and the recent legislative measures offering solutions.In response to the approximately 22 billion plastic bottles that Americans throw away each year, Merkley announced that a National Bottle Bill would soon be introduced in Congress. As part of an effort to focus collective action around the crisis, Merkley has also introduced a federal resolution to make July “Plastic Pollution Action Month.” This furthers the momentum of an existing international movement called “Plastic Free July,” which challenges individuals to reduce their plastic use.“Many of us were taught the three R’s—reduce, reuse, and recycle—and figured that as long as we got our plastic items into those blue bins, we could keep our plastic use in check and protect our planet,” said Merkley, who serves as the chair of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee overseeing environmental justice and chemical safety, which has jurisdiction over the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. “But the reality has become much more like the three B’s—plastic is buried, burned, or borne out to sea. The impacts on Americans’ health, particularly in communities of color and low-income communities, are serious. Plastic pollution is a full-blown environmental and health crisis, and it’s long past time that we do everything we can to get it under control.”
Merkley discussed the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (S. 984/H. R.2238), which he led on introducing in the U.S. Senate, with Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA) introducing in the House. The bill is a comprehensive piece of federal legislation that would fundamentally shift the plastic pollution problem by offering source reduction measures and extended producer responsibility, addressing chemical recycling, and calling for reusable and compostable alternatives.The press conference featured a bottle installation by Re:Solve NW and a California Condor made out of plastic marine debris by Washed Ashore, beautifully illustrating the need for solutions to the plastic crisis.While many of the plastic pollution bills failed in Oregon’s 2021 Legislative Session, state leaders are still committed to taking action.“Public beaches and returnable bottles are a critical part of Oregon’s remarkable legacy,” said Rep. Gomberg. As a coastal legislator, I know we still have a long way to go to address the scourge of plastic and foam debris. But sadly, too many other parts of the country are further behind. Americans throw away over 20 billion plastic bottles a year. An estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the marine environment each year, devastating the world’s oceans. Much of this plastic waste comes from single-use plastics—packaging, food containers, or disposable foodware and other items that are typically used and thrown away, putting an immense burden on local governments to handle the waste. We can do better! I’m proud to stand here today with Sen. Merkley and to support his efforts to promote responsible recycling.”
“A big reason why plastic pollution is on the rise is because producers are absolved of all responsibility for where their products end up, leaving you and me with limited choices when buying consumer goods and then footing the bill for managing the waste. That fundamentally has to change,” said Oregon State Rep. Janeen Sollman (HD 30). “Producer responsibility programs work because they change the incentives that make wastefulness so cheap.””In 2020, 88% of the items removed during Surfrider beach cleanups were made of plastic,” said Bri Goodwin, Oregon field manager with Surfrider Foundation. “Surfrider volunteers dream about the day they no longer need to host beach cleanups to protect the environment. Stopping plastic pollution at its source is the only way this dream will ever become reality. We commend Sen. Merkley for leading the way at the federal level to end the plastic pollution crisis.”“Plastic pollution has created a global health crisis for wildlife, ecosystems and humans,” said Amy Cutting, Oregon Zoo interim director of animal care and conservation. “Plastic entanglement and ingestion pose a grave threat to many species, including the critically endangered California condor. Reducing the sources of plastic pollution will help protect all life and the ecosystems we depend on, and we applaud Sen. Merkley’s leadership in this effort.”“Mitigating plastic pollution at its source is vital for the protection of our marine ecosystems,” said Grace Doleshel, youth programs coordinator for the Oregon Coast Aquarium. “Together, we can facilitate change and foster environmental stewardship. Together, we can assure that Oregon’s beauty and wildlife are here to cherish for generations to come.””Nothing we use for a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our oceans and rivers and threaten wildlife for centuries,” said Celeste Meiffren-Swango, state director with Environment Oregon. “Momentum is growing across the country to reduce plastic pollution and it’s heartening to see Oregon’s own Sen. Merkley leading the effort in Congress.””Single-use plastics are harming sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and other marine animals at an alarming rate,” said Sara Holzknecht, field representative at Oceana. “With the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, Sen. Merkley is leading the national charge to protect our oceans and communities from the growing plastic pollution crisis.”
A record-setting fish was pulled from Hamilton Harbor at the western tip of Lake Ontario in 2015 and the world is learning about it just now. The fish, a brown bullhead, contained 915 particles—a mix of microplastics, synthetic materials containing flame retardants or plasticizers, dyed cellulose fibers, and more—in its body. It was the most particles ever recorded in a fish.”In 2015 we knew a lot less about microplastics and contamination in fish. I was expecting to see no particles in most fish,” Keenan Munno, then a graduate student at the University of Toronto, told EHN. Every sampled fish had ingested some particles. Munno’s 2015 master’s work has spun out into six years’ worth of research, including the new Conservation Biology paper that reports these findings. Related: Plastic pollution, explainedThe findings point to the ubiquity of microplastics and other harmful human-made particles in the Great Lakes and the extreme exposure some fish experience—especially those living in urban-adjacent waters. While direct links between microplastics and fish and human health are still an issue of emerging science, finding plastics within fish at such high amounts is concerning.
Great Lakes plastics problem
A nylon fiber removed from a brown bullhead in Lake Ontario. The red line represents one millimeter. (Credit: Keenan Munno)
A fragment of blue high density polyethylene removed from a brown bullhead in LakeOntario. The red line represents one millimeter. (Credit: Keenan Munno)
Researchers collected fish from three locations in both Lake Superior, Lake Ontario and the Humber River (a tributary of Lake Ontario). In all they gathered 212 fish and 12,442 particles.In Lake Ontario, besides the record-setting bullhead, white suckers from Humber Bay and Toronto Harbor had 519 and 510 particles, respectively. A longnose sucker from Mountain Bay in Lake Superior had 790 particles. In the Humber River even common shiners, minnows which rarely get to eight inches long, had up to 68 particles. “It was obviously concerning,” said Munno, now a research assistant at University of Toronto. She extracted and counted all the microplastics and other particles from the fish’s digestive tracts by hand. That includes all 915 record-setting particles.”You feel bad for the fish that’s eaten that much plastic,” Munno said. Of the human-made particles found in the group of fish, 59% were plastics in Lake Ontario, 54% in Humber River, and 35% in Lake Superior.This new study is part of a growing and concerning body of research on plastics in the Great Lakes. In a 2013 study, researchers sampled Great Lakes surface water and found an average of 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometer. Near major cities they measured concentrations of 466,000 microplastics per square kilometer.Recent research estimated that Great Lakes algae could be tangling with one trillion microplastics.”Globally, 19-21 million tonnes of plastic waste were estimated to enter aquatic ecosystems in 2016,” the study’s authors wrote. That number is expected to double by 2030.
Microplastics’ impacts on humans
Beach plastic litter in Norway. (Credit: Bo Eide/flickr)
“I’ve been studying microplastics for a long time and this is the study that blew me away,” Chelsea Rochman, a coauthor on the study and University of Toronto professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, told EHN.Rochman began her microplastics research in the trash gyres in the ocean. There she’d find microplastics in one out of 11 fish and usually only a couple of pieces in a single fish. While the findings were concerning, some people said the threat to animals was well into the future. “We’re finding that there are concentrations of microplastic in certain areas in the environment where the concentrations are so high that the animals might be at risk today,” Rochman said.Still unpublished research from Rochman’s lab by a colleague of Munno’s will show that microplastics can travel from the digestive tract to the fillets of the fish. Microplastics in fish fillets could be one way they get to humans.While research hasn’t drawn robust links between microplastics and specific health problems in humans, they’ve been connected to neurotoxicity, metabolism and immunity disruption, and cancer in other laboratory tests, Atanu Sarkar, a professor of environmental and occupational health at Memorial University of Newfoundland, told EHN. Microplastics accumulate in the organs of mice exposed to them.Even if they’re not eaten by people, fish used as fertilizer or pet food can spread microplastics throughout the environment far from aquatic ecosystems, he said.Rochman has worked to mitigate plastic pollution in Lake Ontario with the U of T Trash Team. The Trash Team and its partners have installed filters on washing machines to capture plastic microfibers and sea bins, which capture microplastics in the lake.”In one sea bin sample—a 24-hour sample, one bin—we find hundreds of microplastics,” Rochman said. The laundry filters likely capture one million in a month.While microplastics continue to flood the Great Lakes, each one caught and removed is a small step in the right direction.Banner photo: Anglers on Lake Ontario. (Credit: Ian Muttoo/flickr)
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Microplastics pose a growing concern in oceans and other aquatic habitat. Photo: Sören Funk
Microplastics are everywhere.
“It’s in our water, it’s in the ocean, it’s in the animals, in the air, even in space,” Ana Zivanovic-Nenadovic, North Carolina Coastal Federation assistant director of policy, said recently during a virtual forum on microplastics.
Since the mass production of plastics began in the mid-20th century, plastic has permeated our lives, she explained July 15 to the 202 from 29 different counties logged on for the North Carolina Coastal Microplastics Forum, organized by the federation.
The online forum included presentations from researchers, educators and environmental group representatives who explained the different types of microplastic pollution, the risks microplastics pose to the natural environment and human health, and current policies.
“This forum is the first step in our effort to inform the public and galvanize support for the change that will hopefully lead to solutions to microplastics,” Zivanovic-Nenadovic said.
Bonnie Monteleone, executive director of the nonprofit Plastic Ocean Project Inc. and a plastic marine researcher, said she found in her research that around 3.86 metric tons of microplastics, or pieces measuring less than 5 millimeters, are in the North Atlantic.
The ocean is turning into “plastic soup,” Monteleone said.
Plastic is the newest member of the food web “because plastics break up, not down. They’re breaking up into smaller and smaller particles, making them more bioavailable for all the organisms in the ocean. So I like to call it the ‘big small problem’,” she said. “As the particles get smaller, we start to see less and less of them and scientists are really concerned to where these smaller particles are going.”
Plastic debris breaks apart, not down, into microplastics, which are pieces 5 millimeters or smaller. Photo: NOAA
One place these microplastics are being found is in our seafood.
Dr. Susanne Brander, a member of the faculty at Oregon State University since 2017 and previously faculty at University of North Carolina Wilmington, explained that microplastics are transferred through food webs and then are ingested directly by organisms, “but they are also trophically transferred, meaning that they are ingested by smaller organisms that are then fed upon as prey items by forage fish or larger predators. The ultimate result is that these items can end up in seafood on our dinner plates.”
According to an analysis, globally, about 26% of a fish species are found to ingest microplastics, which is roughly the same in the U.S. Microplastics affect the fish’s ability to survive and to reproduce, and that can have population level impacts.
“So we should think about this from a human health perspective but also from a fish health perspective. And in the end, that’s going to influence how many fish there are out there to catch.”
Dr. Marielis Zambrano with North Carolina State University department of forest biomaterials said that these microplastics being found in the ocean — and in our seafood — are from synthetic textiles, tires, city dust, road markings, marine coatings, personal care products and plastic pellets, or nurdles.
Microplastics are synthetic solid particles that don’t dissolve in water and are less than 5 mm in size. It’s estimated that a minimum of 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing 270,000 tons are floating in the world’s oceans, she explained.
The average person ingests more than 5,800 particles a year of synthetic debris, found in everything including seafood, beer, tap water and sea salt. Microplastics are even found in human stool samples, meaning we are eating microplastics, Zambrano said.
Found in 99.7% of all samples taken from the ocean surface, microfibers are a primary source of microplastics. These microfibers get into the environment through the home laundry process. The effluent is processed in wastewater treatment plants but some of the particles are too small to filter out before being discharged. Microfibers are also in the air from carpet, clothing and other materials.
Dr. Marielis Zambrano with N.C. State University explains how microfibers get to the environment during her presentation.
Dr. Richard Venditti, the Elis-Signe Olsson professor in Paper Science and Engineering in the Forest Biomaterials Department at N.C. State University, said a study at the university found that cotton and rayon, both based on natural materials, degrade in about 35 days in lake water in a simulation.
“In stark contracts, polyester and many other plastics are completely inert to biological activity and persist in the lake water for a very long time,” which is a challenge, he said.
The microfiber problem has no unique solution but there are some possible ways to help, such as filters on washing machines, a sustainable coating on fabrics, using natural or plant-based fibers, or new methods to spin fibers that are durable, though all of these are not without problems.
Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton reiterated that microplastics are a huge public health concern and noted the high percentage of microfibers they find while testing because wastewater treatment plants aren’t able to remove all those before being discharged. Haw River, a tributary of Cape Fear River, is in the central part of the state.
Plastic, which is getting into our bodies through drinking water, has even been found in breast milk, she added. There’s also concern about the chemical compounds these plastics are made of, as well as about PFAS and other chemicals. “Those compounds are also being soaked up by these plastic particles” that are making it into our bodies.
Dr. Scott Coffin, a research scientist at the California State Water Resources Control Board, said that while wastewater treatment plants are effective at removing microplastics — between 88 and 99% of plastics — what is removed is then turned into sludge.
The sludge, which contains a high level of nutrients, is often transformed into biosolids and used as fertilizer in agricultural fields across the country. For North Carolina, 25-50% of sludge is applied as biosolid to agriculture, according to a map Coffin included in his presentation. With the increase in plastic production, there’s an increase in microplastic concentrations in biosolids, he said.
While it’s known that plants can uptake and accumulate microplastics through their roots and be distributed through their shoots, it’s unknown that plastic particles can make their way into the actual fruits and vegetables that we eat, Coffin explained. “However, we do know that with increasing plastic concentrations in soils, we see decreasing plant production of fruits and vegetables, with above a certain threshold, a complete inability of the plant to create tomatoes in this one study.”
Biosolids are the sludge generated by the treatment of sewage at wastewater treatment plants, which produces biosolids for agricultural, landscape, and home use. Upper left, an activated sludge tank at a wastewater treatment plant, and a holding area for biosolids, lower right. The two photos are not from the same facility. Graphic: USGS
Coffin added that plastic does often contain hazardous chemicals, some of which are intentionally added.
There’s at least 3,300 known chemical additives, 98 are hazardous, and 15 are endocrine disrupting. Bodies create estrogen naturally but when exposed to higher levels, it can cause things like diabetes, intellectual disabilities and cancer.
“Why do we care so much about endocrine disruptors? Exposure to just one class of endocrine disruptors of flame retardants results in more intellectual disabilities than pesticides, mercury and lead combined with an estimated 750,000 to 1.75 million total intellectual disabilities in the United States between 2001 and 2016,” Coffin said. While the human health effects of microplastics are largely uncertain, he said, evidence is rapidly evolving.
Coffin said humans are exposed to microplastics through tap water. Researchers found in 2017 that 94% of samples in the United States had detectable levels of microplastics, prompting California to pass a bill for its Water Board to define microplastics and develop standardized testing.
When it comes to bottled and tap water, in general, higher concentrations are found in bottled water than tap water. “This is not surprising, as the bottle itself seems to be the source of these particles. Just unscrewing a lid from a plastic water bottle releases on the order of 14 to 2,400, plastic particles.”
A recent study also found that polypropylene feeding bottles for infants releases about 16 million particles per liter. This results in the estimated daily exposure of 14,000 to 4.5 million particles per day to infants.
“This is just an exposure, and we don’t know how much risk this could cause,” he said, adding that looking across all exposure routes, air is likely the greatest exposure pathway, with a much higher concentration indoors than outdoors.
Microplastics don’t go away once we’re exposed to them. “It’s estimated that we’re walking around with between 525 and 9.3 million plastic particles. We know that these particles can be transferred to the next generation with four out of six placentas containing microplastics in a 2021 study.”
Associate professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, Sarah Morath said in terms of plastic pollution, there are regulatory instruments like bans, such as the 2015 ban on microbeads in beauty products like body wash and toothpaste, economic instruments such as a tax or fee designed to encourage individuals and businesses to alter their behavior, and persuasive instruments, like an education campaign or Plastic Free July which where individuals voluntarily commit to eliminating their use of single-use plastics for a month.
Microbeads are a type of microplastic that were in personal care products like toothpaste before being banned in 2015. Photo: NOAA
Legislation that has been enacted or is currently being considered at the federal level includes the Save our Seas Act, which tend to get a lot of bipartisan report because they invoke nonregulatory methods, and Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, reintroduced in March, with mechanisms to address plastic pollution, including putting the onus on the producer to collect and dispose of the product, Morath said. Other acts include the RECYCLE Act that focuses on improving residential recycling programs and RECOVER Act, focused on building recycling infrastructure, both introduced this year.
Zivanovic–Nenadovic told Coastal Review after the forum that this is the federation’s first step in directly addressing the microplastics pollution.
“I hope that the audience was able to gain knowledge about the impacts, magnitude and ubiquity of microplastics. It took decades to get to the point we are in and it will take a determined effort to start to turn the clock back on this problem. We hope to have excited the audience and motivated it to help us as we go forward,” she said. “The audience was able to learn about how pervasive the microplastics are in our environment. The presenters share information about microplastics in our food, in drinking water, elaborated on sampling methods and offered possible policy and regulatory solutions, and examples that exist in other states.”
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