Foes of the single-use filter — Meet the New Yorkers who want to eliminate the cigarette butt

According to Tobacco Atlas, a partnership between the American Cancer Society and Vital Strategies, 5.7 trillion cigarettes are sold annually worldwide. That’s more than 15 billion butts every day, 65% of which are intentionally littered, according to Keep America Beautiful.These inch-long, non-biodegradable filters, along with a cigarette’s tobacco, contain more than 7,000 chemicals, according to the 2014 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Tobacco and Health. More than 50 of them are carcinogens. And a study by Imperial College London showed they contribute more than 1 million tons in microplastic waste every year. Research also shows those toxicants ultimately end up in our food and water supply, with negative impacts on human health and the environment.Just having them on the ground is hazardous, according to Thomas Novotny, a medical epidemiologist and executive director of the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project.“These filters act like a little teabag where chemicals ooze out,” Novotny said. “If they have the remnant tobacco on them, it’s even worse.”When a cigarette butt leaches into the environment, it can kill. In a laboratory study, eight cigarette butts were soaked in approximately 8 ½ cups of water for 24 hours. Fish were placed in this leachate stock and by the fourth day, half of them had died.On land, children and pets often pick up butts from the ground and ingest them. Poison Control received over 700 calls nationally involving cigarette butt ingestion over the last three years; nearly 90% of those incidents occurred in children less than 2 years old. Eating just one cigarette butt can be toxic to a child under 6 years old, according to Poison ControlThese chemicals can seep into the ground, and contaminate the soil and groundwater. Heavy metals such as cadmium are hazardous and cannot be destroyed, but are absorbed readily by plants such as root and leafy vegetables.“It’s a vicious circle, what we are doing to our environment every day,” said Ana Navas-Acien, an environmental health sciences professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “We are eating, breathing in and drinking toxic products, resulting in premature death and disease.”The chemicals from cigarette butts can also accumulate in the bodies of animals, which means they can make their way through the entire food chain.“Chemicals get leached out into an aquatic environment,” Novotny said. “Animals at the lower end of the food chain such as microorganisms are absorbed through filtration by a clam or an oyster. Then birds eat this, and it becomes food for some other animal, and maybe even us.”Birds have been known to incorporate discarded filters in their nests. Novotny said this has two outcomes. One, the bird has fewer parasites or fleas because nicotine is a natural pesticide. Unfortunately, he said, the butts also cause DNA damage.

Passaic NJ chemical plant fire is 11 alarm at Qualco

PASSAIC — More than 200 firefighters continued to battle an 11-alarm chemical fire that sent one to the hospital early Saturday morning.Frigid temperatures caused runoff water to freeze and create even more hazards for first responders from three counties.Mayor Hector Lora said that the bulk of the fire, which began around 8:30 p.m. on Friday, is in the Majestic Industries portion of the property but that part has also spread to the Qualco chemical plant at 225 Passaic St.Lora, who took to Facebook Live throughout the night with updates, said the fire was in multiple buildings and that they expected to lose the whole structure.”There have been bad fires but this is the worst that I’ve ever seen,” he said.Lora said the fire was still not under control as of 12:30 a.m. but it has not spread to where the chemicals are housed. He said the Department of Environmental Protection is on hand and will be assessing the air quality throughout the night.“If it got to the chemicals there would have been mandatory evacuations,” Lora said. “The fire continues to burn but we have made tremendous progress.”He noted that as the firetrucks run out of gas, they have to stop to refuel before continuing their efforts.Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost said that the building where the fire started, which is along the river, has collapsed in on itself. It was vacant but was being used to store plastics, pallets and some chlorine.He also said that the firefighters are drafting water from the river to supplement the water that they are using.The smoke was so significant that it was being picked up by radar from the National Weather Service as it spread across northern New Jersey and off the coast.Residents were being evacuated from the immediate area of the blaze and advised anyone nearby to close their windows. Passaic Street from First Street to Main Avenue was closed to traffic as well as Route 21 in both directions.“I’m asking residents to keep your windows closed as our fire department and our emergency responders are assessing the extent of this fire,” Lora said. “We are asking all residents to stay as far away as possible. This is a chemical fire. You will see the color in the sky.”Residents seemed to be heeding those warnings along Fourth Street as the area was empty at about 10:30 p.m.Story continues after galleryGov. Phil Murphy echoed that sentiment on social media, posting that he urged “everyone in Passaic to stay safe as firefighters battle a large eight-alarm fire at a chemical plant off of Route 21.””If you live nearby, keep your windows closed,” Murphy said. “Praying for the safety of our first responders on the scene.”Trentacost said that about 200 firefighters from throughout Essex, Bergen and Passaic counties have responded to the fire.“This is by no means under control but we are doing everything we can to contain it,” he said.Trentacost said that his department has been in touch with Passaic Valley Water to provide adequate water pressure and that fire boats from other departments were also en route.He also said that one firefighter was taken to the hospital after being hit in the face with debris. He is doing well but will remain under observation. There have been various slips and falls though as the firefighters also battle the elements.Lora said that the buildings were empty after 5 p.m. and the security guard at the site had been accounted for.The overwhelming scent of smoke and chemicals, particularly chlorine was enough to make people’s eyes water as far away as Wallington after the wind shifted at about 10 p.m. Large embers and sprays of water are also floating across the river.Lora stressed that it was being assessed but that it was important to stay away because it was a chemical fire.“There are a lot of firefighters, a lot of police officers that are coming out in order to ensure that individuals are evacuated from the immediate area,” Lora said. “Because this is a chemical fire we are extremely concerned for the health and safety of those in the area.”Story continues after videoMutual aid from “basically everywhere” was on hand and Lora said that “as of right now” there were no reports of loss of life but he was concerned for police, fire and emergency personnel.Firefighters are battling the blaze in frigid conditions. The city was 20 degrees after midnight but subzero wind chills are expected overnight with winds of about 15 to 20 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.It will feel about -10 to -5 degrees tonight into mid to late Saturday morning.Lora said the city was working to set up a shelter in the city for those displaced. Nearby Wallington sent an alert to their residents advising them to stay indoors with windows closed and to be on the lookout for large embers coming across the river. East Rutherford also posted that “shifting winds may cause smoke from the working fire at a chemical factory in Passaic to pass over areas of the borough” and encouraged residents to stay inside until the fire is under control. Qualco, the site of the fire, produces and distributes chemicals used to treat pools and spas. They have been based in the city for more than 30 years.The company housed more than two dozen chemicals on site in 2020 with a daily inventory ranging from 500 pounds of sodium hexametaphosphate to 500,000 pounds of the industrial disinfectant trichloroisocyanuric acid, according to the latest “Community Right to Know” data on hazardous substances from the state Department of Environmental Protection.According to a 2016 safety datasheet on the website, Qualco had several chemicals on site including aluminum chlorhydrate and 1,2-Ethanediamine that were the ingredients to a product called “Liquid Floc Rite“ that settles unfilterable substances like algae to the pool floor to be vacuumed. The report says it can cause serious eye damage and skin irritation.The Passaic Fire Department had used the Qualco facility in the 1990s as a training ground for dealing with large scale chemical fires and spills.Story continues after tweetThe blaze was reminiscent of the infamous 1985 Labor Day fire that tore through about 20 percent of Passaic’s industrial base. The fire incinerated 21 century-old factories and 17 apartment buildings as well as homes in the Lower Dundee area of the city.Despite the cold temperatures, January fires have ravaged North Jersey in recent years. A massive fire destroyed the Atlantic Coast Fibers recycling plant on Jan. 30 last year. In that case firefighters braved the brutal cold overnight and into the next day to put out the fire, which engulfed an entire city block and veiled the city’s skyline with smoke. There were at least two explosions at the site.And two years earlier, on Jan. 30, 2019, the landscape of nearby Elmwood Park was changed forever when a 10-alarm blaze levelled the historic Marcal Paper Mill. By the end of the night, 30 of the 36 structures on the site were either damaged or destroyed. The Marcal sign that colored the Elmwood Park portion of Route 80 a tint of red for decades was famously destroyed as well.Katie Sobko is a local reporter for For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.Email: Twitter: @katesobko

Five myths about plastics

Plastics are innovative materials — some are essential to modern medicine and the transition to renewable energy. But each year, 42 percent of plasticsgo toward short-term uses like packaging. Designed for performance, they are not engineered with reuse or end-of-life in mind. Plastics have become ubiquitous in contemporary life and widely dispersed in the environment. Yet with that ubiquity comes surprising ambiguity. Plastics’ historical and material origins remain obscure, oversimplified and misunderstood, resulting in at least several myths.Myth No. 1Nineteenth-century plastics were sustainable.Most plastics today are derived from oil and gas, but the earliest industrialized plastics were sourced from trees (e.g., latex) and later cellulose. Celluloid, for example, replaced traditional uses of ivory and tortoise shell, giving the impression that it had environmental benefits. The radio program “Marketplace” credited it for helping to “preserve natural resources and animals, like the elephants.” The BBC hailed early plastics as “an environmental savior.” This sentiment echoes literature produced by the Celluloid Manufacturing Co., which in a 1878 pamphlet claimed that the advent of its plastic meant that “it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”The historical record suggests otherwise. In fact, 19th-century plastics were more readily tied to the project of colonization than environmental conservation. Demand for gutta-percha, an early bio-based resin used to insulate telegraph cables for the administration of the British Empire, led to widespread deforestation in Southeast Asia. The result, concluded one historian, was nothing short of a “Victorian ecological disaster.” Celluloid production also required camphor, a tree-derived solvent and plasticizer sourced principally from Taiwan. As Toulouse Antonin Roy explains, three empires — China, Britain and Japan — vied to commodify the island’s camphor forests, eventually displacing several Indigenous communities. Likewise, natural rubber was tied to colonial projects and often violent subduing of people and land.Myth No. 2Mass production of plastics began in 1950.PBS, National Geographic and Nature have all pinpointed 1950 as the year the mass production of plastics began. But 1950 actually marks the first year when global manufacturing data was compiled, according to scientist Jenna Jambeck, who with Roland Geyer and Kara Lavender Law used this data to estimate total worldwide plastic production in a 2017 paper. Their research helped the public grasp the sheer scale of plastics produced: roughly 4.4 billion pounds in 1950, which seems small compared with today. (In 2020, world production approached 809 billion pounds.)To achieve this level of production, the industry had to build up over several decades, often benefiting from government assistance. Commercial production of Bakelite, the inaugural synthetic plastic, began in both Germany and the United States in 1910. The U.S. Tariff Commission counted 1.6 million pounds of coal-tar resins like Bakelite produced a decade later, in 1921, swelling to 34.2 million by 1931 and 141 million a few years after that.World War II further accelerated plastics’ growth: War contracts expanded the infrastructure for existing plastics (e.g., acrylics, phenolics, PVC and polystyrene), and the Navy helped DuPont and Union Carbide secure the necessary licenses to commence production of polyethylene (then an emerging, British-developed plastic) on American shores.As a result, over the 1940s, U.S. production rates increased more than sixfold, a history also told by marine sediment cores. In samples taken off the California coast, plastics and plastic fibers are evident even in pre-war sedimentary layers, markedly increasing after 1945, as plastics were pushed into consumer markets.Myth No. 3We know how long plastics last in the environment.Dozens of infographics — including one published by NOAA — perpetuate the idea that plastics’ life spans are both known and knowable. That a six-pack ring will stick around for 400 years. A plastic bottle: 450.But scientists question how accurate, and even how meaningful, such exact figures are, since plastics’ endurance is a function of their environment. That could range from the bright, brackish sea surface to the dark interior of an acid-rich gut, the subsurface layers of terrestrial landscapes or the pressurized depths of a deep-sea trench. Plastics are a diverse class of contaminants containing complex mixtures of among 10,000 different monomers, additives and processing aids, making it difficult to estimate longevity, though scientists are working to discern better half-life estimates.It may be hard to say definitively that “plastics are forever,” as a Nature Chemistry article asserts, but some could enter the geological record. And while many plastics resist degradation by design, they aren’t static. Museum curators tasked with preserving plastic artifacts know all too well that plastics discolor, desiccate, fissure and fracture, undergoing a range of physical changes, including becoming micro- and even nano-scaled particles. These can behave like other persistent pollutants: long-lived, mobile and prone to accumulate, insinuating themselves into Earth’s systems and cycles. These fragments also change chemically, releasing leachates as well as degradation products, note scientist Imari Walker and other researchers.Myth No. 4Bioplastics fix the problems of conventional fossil carbon plastics.Bioplastics are an area of innovation and growing demand, with brands including Lego, Danone and Nestlé seeking alternatives to conventional plastics. Last fall, Coca-Cola introduced a 100 percent plant-based bottle, calling it a “major milestone” in its “sustainable packaging journey.” Often, these materials are touted as “green.”But it is hard to speak generally about bioplastics’ promise: Some use the term to refer to plastics made from renewable, “bio-based” materials, such as corn and sugar cane, while others use it to describe “biodegradable” plastics, which might still be derived from fossil-carbon sources. Some bio-based plastics won’t biodegrade. And some “biodegradable” plastics may not biodegrade under certain environmental conditions, explain scientists Scott Lambert and Martin Wagner.Merely shifting carbon sources doesn’t address the myriad other challenges that plastics pose. For example, even plant-based plastics can be chemically equivalent to — and as toxic as — their conventional counterparts, in part because they are as (if not more) reliant on additives or processing aids.Myth No. 5It is possible to clean up plastics.Images of floating marine debris — and projects to clean it up — have captured the public imagination. In just one example, as of Jan. 1, YouTubers Mark Rober and MrBeast had raised $30 million to help the Ocean Conservancy and the Ocean Cleanup remove 30 million pounds of trash: beach and river-borne debris and discarded fishing gear. Their #TeamSeas campaign generated significant buzz, was plugged by Jimmy Kimmel and, as announced on Twitter, was backed by 600,000 donors.Plastic pollution is beyond the capacity of technological systems to remediate, writes plastics scholar Max Liboiron. Most plastics are minuscule fragments distributed below the sea surface, in the atmosphere, or are buried in sediments or shoreline sands. Other plastics have spread through freshwater systems or land: In fact, a recent United Nations report suggests that soils could contain even larger quantities of microplastics than oceans do. In addition to the plastics themselves, their associated pollutants (such as phthalates, brominated flame retardants and stabilizers like UV-328) are also ubiquitous. Together, they could interfere with Earth’s capacity to support life, conclude environmental chemist Hans Peter Arp and colleagues in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.But plastics pose problems beyond waste. Human rights violations have been documented across plastics’ life cycle, from the extraction of fossil carbons to the toxic releases from factories, incineration and open burning — a burden disproportionately borne by low-income communities and communities of color. Plastics also bear consequences for the climate and public health, suggesting that what needs to be cleaned up is production itself.

Two more elephants die after eating plastic waste in Sri Lankan dump

Two more elephants die after eating plastic waste in Sri Lankan dump About 20 elephants have died in eight years after eating plastic in open landfill site Conservationists and veterinarians have warned that plastic waste in an open landfill in eastern Sri Lanka is killing elephants, after two more were found dead at the site. …

Microplastic pollution lingers in rivers for years before entering oceans

Microplastics can deposit and linger within riverbeds for as long as seven years before washing into the ocean, a new study has found.Because rivers are in near-constant motion, researchers previously assumed lightweight microplastics quickly flowed through rivers, rarely interacting with riverbed sediments. Now, researchers led by Northwestern University and the University of Birmingham in England, have found hyporheic exchange — a process in which surface water mixes with water in the riverbed — can trap lightweight microplastics that otherwise might be expected to float.The study was published today (Jan. 12) in the journal Science Advances. It marks the first assessment of microplastic accumulation and residence times within freshwater systems, from sources of plastic pollution throughout the entire water stream. The new model describes dynamical processes that influence particles, including hyporheic exchange, and focuses on hard-to-measure but abundant microplastics at 100 micrometers in size and smaller.Aaron Packman“Most of what we know about plastics pollution is from the oceans because it’s very visible there,” said Northwestern’s Aaron Packman, one of the study’s senior authors. “Now, we know that small plastic particles, fragments and fibers can be found nearly everywhere. However, we still don’t know what happens to the particles discharged from cities and wastewater. Most of the work thus far has been to document where plastic particles can be found and how much is reaching the ocean. “Our work shows that a lot of microplastics from urban wastewater end up depositing near the river’s source and take a long time to be transported downstream to oceans.”Packman is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research. He also is a member of the Program on Plastics, Ecosystems and Public Health at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. Jennifer Drummond, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham and former Ph.D. student in Packman’s laboratory, is the study’s first author.Modeling microplastic movementTo conduct the study, Packman, Drummond and their teams developed a new model to simulate how individual particles enter freshwater systems, settle and then later remobilize and redistribute. The model is the first to include hyporheic exchange processes, which play a significant role in retaining microplastics within rivers. Although it is well-known that the hyporheic exchange process affects how natural organic particles move and flow through freshwater systems, the process is rarely considered microplastic accumulation.“The retention of microplastics we observed wasn’t a surprise because we already understood this happens with natural organic particles,” Packman said. “The difference is that natural particles biodegrade, whereas a lot of plastics just accumulate. Because plastics don’t degrade, they stay in the freshwater environment for a long time — until they are washed out by river flow.” To run the model, the researchers used global data on urban wastewater discharges and river flow conditions. Trapped in headwatersUsing the new model, the researchers found microplastic pollution resides the longest at the source of a river or stream (known as the “headwaters”). In headwaters, microplastic particles moved at an average rate of five hours per kilometer. But during low-flow conditions, this movement slowed to a creep — taking up to seven years to move just one kilometer. In these areas, organisms are more likely to ingest microplastics in the water, potentially degrading ecosystem health. The residence time decreased as microplastics moved away from the headwaters, farther downstream. And residence times were shortest in large creeks.These deposited microplastics cause ecological damage, and the large amount of deposited particles means that it will take a very long time for all of them to be washed out of our freshwater ecosystems.”Aaron Packmancivil and environmental engineerNow that this information is available, Packman hopes researchers can better assess and understand the long-term impacts of microplastic pollution on freshwater systems.“These deposited microplastics cause ecological damage, and the large amount of deposited particles means that it will take a very long time for all of them to be washed out of our freshwater ecosystems,” he said. “This information points us to consider whether we need solutions to remove these plastics to restore freshwater ecosystems.”The study, “Microplastic accumulation in riverbed sediment via hyporheic exchange from headwaters to mainstems,” was supported by a Royal Society Newton International Fellowship, Marie Curie Individual Fellowship, the German Research Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust and the National Science Foundation.

Americans agree on something: Get single-use plastics out of our national parks

About 82% of U.S. voters support stopping the sale of single-use plastics at national parks, according to a poll released today by the non-profit Oceana.

U.S. national parks average 33 million visitors and nearly 70 million pounds of waste each year, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, so a ban on single-use plastics would be substantial.

The national poll, conducted by nonpartisan polling company Ipsos, surveyed 1,005 U.S. adults last November. And, in a true rarity these days, the poll found the support crossing political lines. The findings included:

90% of Democrats and 73% of Republicans would support a decision by the National Park Service to stop selling and distributing single-use plastic in national parks;
78% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats agree it is important that national parks remain free of plastic trash;
82% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans agree that single-use plastic items have no place in national parks.

Plastic policies

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The U.S. is woefully behind the rest of the world in tackling plastic waste.
What remains unclear is whether the bipartisanship shown in the new poll over plastics can extend to Washington DC. There is a bill, Reducing Waste in National Parks Act, that, if passed, would ban the sale and distribution of single-use plastics in the parks. The bill was introduced last October by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ill.) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ore.).
Another bill, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, is not specific to national parks but, if passed, would comprehensively address plastic production, consumption, and waste management in the country. That bill was first introduced in 2020 and reintroduced in March 2021 by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA).
In responding to EHN about the bill’s specifics last year, Congressman Lowenthal wrote “this bill incorporates best practices and important common-sense policies. While it may be ambitious—it is by no means radical.”

Take action 

Single use plastics remain a menace in our National Parks and beyond. Across the globe:

More than 1 million plastic bags are used every minute, with an average “working life” of only 15 minutes.
500 billion plastic bags are used annually—and that’s just plastic bags.
Of all plastics the world has produced, only 9% of the nine billion tons has been recycled—most ends up in landfills, dumps, or in the environment.
The ocean is expected to contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025 and, by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).
Studies suggest that the total economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem caused by plastic amounts to at least $13 billion every year.
If current consumption habits continue, we’re on pace to have discarded 12 billion tons of plastic waste into landfills and our environment by 2050.

See the full poll at Oceana’s website, and check out our plastics guide to stay on top of plastic pollution news.Banner photo: Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park. (Credit: Mike McBey/flickr)
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Tumble dryers found to be a leading source of microfibre air pollution

Tumble dryers found to be a leading source of microfibre air pollutionHong Kong scientists design simple filter system to capture the harmful microplastics – but there’s a catch A single tumble dryer could be responsible for releasing 120m micro plastic fibres into the air each year, a study has found.Tumble dryers are one of the main sources of microfibre pollution in the atmosphere, according to research by Prof Kenneth Leung, director of the State Key Laboratory of Marine Pollution (SKLMP) and department of chemistry at City University of Hong Kong.He described the findings as “essential” for managing microfibre emissions, which are known to damage human health and the environment.“Once we know the source, we can begin to control it using simple methods,” said Leung, the lead author of the study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Microfibres are a common group of microplastics – plastic pieces less than 5mm in length. During washing and drying, friction causes materials to shed these fibres. Because of their small size, many slip through the filters in tumble dryers and are released into the environment, where they have been found in water, food and even the placentas of unborn babies.These tiny plastic particles have been found in even the most remote regions, from the Arctic to high up in the Earth’s troposphere.Researchers tumble dried polyester and cotton clothes in separate 15-minute cycles and measured how many microfibres were released through the vent. While natural materials such as cotton shed fibres too, they can be digested by animals and “decompose in the environment relatively quickly”, said Leung.The team estimated that between 90m and 120m microfibres are produced and released into the air outside by each dryer annually.Using 3D printing, Leung and colleagues have designed simple filters that prevent microplastics being dispersed from washing machines, and are in the process of designing a similar system for tumble dryers.“These [filter systems] effectively remove most of the microfibres from the laundry,” he said. However, it is still unclear where these microplastics would end up when the filters were cleaned.“If people just put these [fibres] in the dustbin, some of the fibres will be released back into the air,” he said. “We suggest the particles should be collected in a bag.”Even if fitting these filters is “possible, as Leung says, microfibres will still be pervasive until the clothing industry uses more environmentally friendly fabrics.“Manufacturers need to make textiles and clothing that are more resistant to wear,” Danyang Tao, a PhD student at SKLMP, said.Microfibres are inhaled and ingested by humans and animals each day. These plastics are known to harm wildlife, and studies are beginning to uncover the damaging health consequences they have on humans. In 2021, scientists found microplastics caused damage to human cells in the laboratory. These tiny fibres have also been linked to intestinal inflammation and other gut problems.Leung said he hoped the research would help “raise the alarm and trigger more innovation” to tackle the problem.TopicsPlasticsnewsReuse this content

Meet Mr Trash Wheel – and the other new devices that eat river plastic

Meet Mr Trash Wheel – and the other new devices that eat river plastic From ‘bubble barriers’ to floating drones, a host of new projects aim to stop plastic pollution before it ever reaches the oceanThe Great Bubble Barrier is just that – a wall of bubbles. It gurgles across the water in a diagonal screen, pushing plastic to one side while allowing fish and other wildlife to pass unharmed.The technology, created by a Dutch firm and already being used in Amsterdam, is being trialled in the Douro River in Porto, Portugal, as part of the EU-supported Maelstrom (marine litter sustainable removal and management) project.It is the latest in a series of new technologies designed to find sustainable ways to remove and treat river debris before it reaches the sea.Plastic can be spread by natural disasters, such as a tsunami, which can push invasive species and debris halfway across the world. But rivers carry a much more regular supply of plastic to the oceans. Research in 2017 found that 10 river systems transport 90% of all the plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans (two in Africa – the Nile and Niger – with the other eight in Asia: the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Haihe, Pearl, Mekong and Amur).Molly Morse, a scientist at UC Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Initiative and lead on its global Clean Currents Coalition, says: “In some cases, communities don’t have access to proper waste pickup services and must turn to what might seem to be the only alternative: dump the trash directly in the river to be carried away.“In other cases, plastic litter on land is moved by rain or wind into a river, where […] the plastic may make its way to the ocean.”An estimated 0.8m to 2.7m tonnes of plastic are carried by rivers to the ocean each year. That is the equivalent of 66,000 to 225,000 doubledecker buses.Without barriers, river currents carry plastic directly to the sea, where it becomes far trickier to tackle: plastic often floats for vast distances, can host invasive species and becomes part of the wider plastisphere, such as the concentration of seaborne waste in the Great Pacific garbage patch.That is why some scientists are calling for greater efforts to stop plastic going into rivers in the first place. A 2020 study found that a “significant reduction” of plastic in the ocean could be achieved only by stopping it reaching the sea, or through a combination of river barriers and other clean-up devices.Cue inventors, who have developed an array of river barriers and collection devices to catch and remove riverine plastic – from simple nets and booms to conveyor belts and robots.Mr Trash Wheel, known officially as the Inner Harbor Water Wheel, is a conveyor-belt system powered by currents and solar energy, launched in 2014 in the US city of Baltimore. Long booms with submerged skirts funnel waste into a central hub, where autonomous rakes scoop it on to a conveyor belt that deposits it on a barge, with more than 17 tonnes collected in a day.Once full, the barge takes the rubbish to be incinerated in a power plant, though it is hoped that eventually the collected waste can be sorted and recycled. There is now a whole family of Trash Wheels in Baltimore, the latest addition being Gwynnda, the Good Wheel of the West.graphic explaining how a Bubble barrier can divert plastic waste but let wildlife throughOr there’s the Interceptor, a floating, solar-powered device developed by the non-profit organisation The Ocean Cleanup, billed as the “world’s first scalable solution” to rid the oceans of plastic. Similar but larger than the trash wheel, it has barriers that guide rubbish on to a conveyor belt, where a shuttle distributes it among five onboard waste bins.Another design, the Azure barrier, developed by the UK-based startup Ichthion to operate in any river, can remove up to 80 tonnes of plastic a day using durable, tide-sensitive booms that direct plastic to extraction points along the bank. The plastic is processed into flakes for recycling.Other more hi-tech inventions include the WasteShark, an electronically controlled “aquadrone” that preys on plastic – up to 350kg at a time. Using algorithms from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, the WasteShark moves around and back to its docking station autonomously, where up to five of the catamaran-shaped vessels can deposit the collected plastic and recharge. The design, developed by a Dutch startup, RanMarine, is due to be showcased at CES 2022 in Las Vegas this month.While the cost of implementing these technologies may be feasible for some cities and towns – and vastly preferable to the cost of plastic pollution, which it is estimated will reach $7.1tn (£5.25tn) by 2040 – there are many other factors to consider. These include, says Morse, “the physical river characteristics, amount of waste, seasonal changes, ecology, power sources, workforce availability, security, boat traffic [and] funding”.Philip Ehrhorn, co-founder of the Great Bubble Barrier, says: “One of the biggest challenges we face is the lack of regulation regarding plastic pollution in our waterways and thereof the lack of ownership and responsibility for the problem.“The urgency to solve our plastic pollution problem in rivers is down to forward-thinking water authorities and governments, since plastic is not yet officially considered a water pollutant,” he says.Most of the world’s top 20 plastic-polluting rivers are in developing countries. But Ehrhorn adds: “Europe still has a huge issue with plastic pollution, which shouldn’t be ignored nor underestimated.”EU laws were introduced in January last year to tackle the “wild west” of plastic waste being dumped in poorer countries; the UK is one of Europe’s worst offenders, exporting about 70% of its plastic. But the wildest west lies across the Atlantic: the US is the world’s biggest plastic polluter, accounting for more than all EU countries combined.There is no one-size-fits-all solution, says Morse. “Rivers vary immensely in respect to factors such as depth, width, flow and seasonality. What might work in a massive river like the Mississippi in the United States, which flows all year round, likely will not work for a smaller, more seasonal river like the Tijuana in Mexico.”In Ecuador, Ichthion’s Azure prototype had problems on the Portoviejo River. Data had suggested the river’s depth varied in the wet and dry seasons by two metres; in reality, it fluctuated by as much as four metres within a few days.Getting support from the local people and permission for new infrastructure can also be difficult. For the Clean Currents Coalition, which is working with eight teams around the world, simplicity works best.“The most successful solutions have been the simpler technologies – such as booms, barriers and traps – that are manufactured locally and require manual removal of the captured waste,” Morse says. This can also create extra jobs.One example of these is Wildcoast’s “brute boom” at the Los Laureles Canyon, a tributary of the Tijuana River. The double-walled float stretches across the river and allows the boom to move with the changing depth. A suspended steel mesh catches the plastic, which is taken for processing once the boom is full. Reports from San Diego in California suggest that it has succeeded in reducing plastic downstream.TerraCycle’s river traps, which are installed in some of Bangkok’s 1,600 polluted canals, catch up to 2.5 tonnes of waste a day, helping to recycle plastic instead of sending it to landfill.A German startup, Plastic Fischer, has installed TrashBooms in waterways in Indonesia, India and Vietnam. It advocates a local, low-tech and low-cost approach, using locally manufactured mesh-and-float barriers to catch rubbish.These Maldives islanders once saw sharks as the threat. Now they fear the plasticRead moreMany environmentalists argue that these innovations treat the symptoms, not the problem, and that the only real solution is to curb plastic production. But, with plastic manufacturing shipments estimated to have risen by 2.2% last year by the Plastic Industry Association, this is not likely any time soon.“If we’re going to keep producing, consuming and disposing of plastics at, or near, our current rate, our ability to manage it needs to catch up – and quickly,” says Morse.TopicsPollutionSeascape: the state of our oceansPlasticsOceansWasteRiversMarine lifeWildlifefeaturesReuse this content

Tackling the integrated challenge of plastic pollution and climate change

Plastic pollution plays a significant role in global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.As India’s petrochemical industry expands, experts question how the 2070 net zero target would be met with industrial targets headed in a different direction.India continues to invest in recycling technologies, for lack of alternatives but stronger solutions are needed to achieve the net zero target. Several reports and assessments in the recent past have tracked the sharp growth of plastic pollution and canvassed for the need to tackle plastic pollution at a global level. There is also an increasing number of reports that indicate linkages between plastic pollution and climate change. In the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a global assessment of the marine plastic crisis, titled From Pollution to Solution. An update to a 2016 report on Marine Plastic Debris and Microplastics, this assessment hopes to raise awareness of the magnitude and severity of marine litter, especially plastics and microplastics. This evidence-based report is aimed at identifying gaps in knowledge, promoting effective solutions and global interventions for marine pollution, and safeguarding ecological and human health.
In October 2021, two publications by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provided updated information and recommendations on addressing plastic pollution. Other global organisations also took a firm stance on plastic pollution. The Common Seas’ evaluation tool for national governments, Plastic Drawdown, focuses on a country’s available resources to assess effective mitigation strategies. The Zero Waste framework for reducing plastic waste targets legal and financial solutions in European cities to reduce greenhouse emissions. Youth ambassadors from the Plastic Pollution Coalition also petitioned the leaders at COP26 to act on the issue of plastic pollution and the climate crisis. So have The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Break Free From Plastics (BFFP), Beyond Plastics and Recycling Association.
To understand why many organisations tried to raise the issue of plastic pollution at a climate conference, we must understand the impacts of plastic on oceans, ecosystems, and human health. The most critical yet lesser-known fact about plastic pollution is that it plays a significant role in global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Demonstrations outside the COP26 venue. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.
In 2019, a report titled Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet examined the lifecycle of plastics and identified major sources of greenhouse gas emissions,  unaccounted sources of emissions, and uncertainties that lead to an underestimation of plastic’s climate impacts. In October 2021, Beyond Plastics released another report built on previous findings, titled The New Coal: Plastics & Climate Change, to assess the devastating impact of plastics on climate, much of it happening with little public scrutiny and lesser government and industrial accountability. While both reports focus on the plastic industry in the United States – the worst global plastic polluter, the findings will hold true for other nations with expanding petrochemical industries.
Plastic is manufactured from naphtha, a crude oil-based substance, and ethane, liquid natural gas, with the addition of other chemicals, most of which are fossil fuel-based. Hence, plastic manufacturing is a significant source of greenhouse emissions. A recent study identified over 8,000 chemical additives used for plastic processing, some of which are a thousand times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Products like single-use packaging, plastic resins, foamed plastic insulation, bottles and containers, among many others, add to global greenhouse emissions. Most plastic cannot be recycled, only downgraded, and is often incinerated, or used as fuel in waste-to-energy plants, sometimes known as chemical recycling. While plastics are worth three to four times as much for fuel than as scrap, these recycling processes release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect.
India’s plastic cycle
India is among the many countries scaling up its petrochemical industries. With an investment of $100 billion to boost domestic production by 2030, the next decade will catalyse India’s crude oil demand and accelerate petrochemical production. Industrial practices like decarbonisation, and plastic-based fuels touted to be sustainable, are less optimal and cost-effective than claimed, with the result contributing to more emissions and a larger carbon footprint.
On the recycling front, India generates 9.46 megatons of plastic waste each year, of which 40% is not collected and is either burnt, lost, or dumped into landfills or waterways. Of the total plastics produced, half are used in packaging, most of which are single-use in nature. Despite the existence of 5,000 registered recycling units, plastic recycling is largely informal. A complicated aggregator system segregates, recycles, and makes some profit off the plastic economy.
Waste-to-energy plants and refuse-derived fuels are examples of suboptimal processes with high emissions. Despite many setbacks, from shutdowns due to poor waste-to-energy efficiency, fines for flouting environmental safety norms, and high operational costs, India continues to invest in these recycling technologies, for lack of alternatives.
“While these are scientifically proven methods to dispose or process waste, more mechanisms are needed to address the challenges of efficiency and cost,” says Kaushik Chandrasekhar, a solid waste management expert at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Incineration and recycling-as-fuel can only be a part of the solution if they add to India’s greenhouse emissions. To meet India’s net-zero targets by 2070, it needs stronger solutions.
India’s net-zero aim for 2070
In November 2021, India’s ambitious net-zero target for carbon emissions were celebrated by many, as the country committed to becoming carbon-neutral by not adding any greenhouse emissions to the atmosphere by 2070.
As the world’s fourth-biggest carbon emitter, these targets marked India’s cognizance of the issue of climate change, and its commitment to address it. But with the country’s industrial practices headed in a different direction, can it realistically achieve net-zero in the next 50 years?
As per the CEEW estimates, if India is to achieve net-zero carbon goals in the next 50 years, our solar-based electricity generation capacity must increase to 1689 GW by 2050 and to 5,630 GW by 2070. Photo by Sarangib/Pixabay.
A recent analysis by the Council for Energy, Environment and Water Research (CEEW), a think tank in New Delhi, estimated a cost of over $10 trillion (Rs. 700 lakh crore), for the upgraded infrastructure of renewable energy sources for electricity, transport, building, and industry sectors to meet the net-zero targets. “If we are to account for the petrochemical industry emissions in future scenarios, data on energy use for plastic production, both as fuel and as feedstock – the raw material used but not burned during an industrial process – is essential,” surmised Vaibhav Chaturvedi, co-author of the CEEW report. “However, it is in the petrochemical sector’s commercial interests to introduce circular economies that allow plastics to remain in the industrial ecosystem, rather than find non-plastic-based alternatives,” he added.
The report is a grim reminder that recycling plastics as an industrial fuel is not a viable long-term solution to pollution. As India’s petrochemical industries expand, could infrastructure interventions that consider the plastic lifecycle help turn the tide on climate change?
Circular economy approach for the lifecycle of plastics
In April 2021, TERI’s roadmap proposed a circular plastic value chain to address the problem of both plastic pollution and greenhouse emissions. The roadmap aims to dissociate plastic production from virgin fossil fuels and incentivise the reduce-reuse-recycle principles to address the issue of waste.
Bio-based plastics, manufactured partially or wholly from biomass, and oxo-biodegradable plastics that degrade under favourable conditions offer more viable, less GHG-emitting alternatives to fossil-fuel plastics. Yet neither are completely biodegradable, and industries need to look for other packaging solutions.
In September 2021, the India Plastics Pact (IPP) was signed under a collaboration between the World Wildlife Fund, the Confederation of Indian Industries, with support from UK Research and Innovation. The IPP, the first of its kind in Asia, aims at a circular economy for plastics with innovative ways to eliminate, reuse, or recycle the plastic packaging across the plastics value chain, and forge collaborations between businesses and NGOs to collectively achieve long-term targets. International brands like Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Indian companies like Hindustan Unilever, ITC Limited, Tata Consumer Products Limited, and three of Godrej’s trademarks, have signed the pact.
Corruption is a big challenge in the recycling sector. “When government land is allocated for public recycling infrastructures, such as a landfill, a waste-to-energy plant, or a biogas plant, the informal sector is largely ignored. Yet they are the largest investors in the recycling business. Instead of spending on public infrastructure, the government could strengthen the informal sector, allow them to expand in scale, capacity, and technology, so that they have a vested interest not just in making a profit but in addressing the issue of pollution,” advises Bharati Chaturvedi of Chintan, an environmental research and action group in Delhi.
Both TERI and Chintan, along with other grassroots organisations like the Integrated Mountain Initiative and Development Alternatives, are partners of the Japan-funded UNEP project, CounterMEASURE. The project is committed to identifying sources and pathways of plastic pollution in river systems in Asia, with a focus on the Mekong (China) and Ganges (India) rivers – among the top contributors of marine pollution. Their policy-driven approach hopes to tackle plastic at different stages of its lifecycle and ensure that rivers transport lesser plastic into the marine ecosystem.
Finally, to deal with discarded plastics in the ecosystem, restoring coastal blue carbon habitats such as mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows becomes important. These habitats trap and bury plastics, preventing them from entering marine ecosystems, with the added advantage of sequestering more carbon than terrestrial forests. Financing integrated solutions to address two of the most critical global problems of this century, namely plastic pollution and climate change, would help us achieve net-zero goals, while protecting communities and habitats.

Read more: The cost of plastic waste

Banner image: The roof of an informal recycling unit in Dharavi slum. As per some estimates, 60% of Mumbai’s plastic is recycled in Dharavi without which the city would be choking in waste. Photo by Cory Doctorow/ Flickr.