HONOLULU (AP) — A whale that washed ashore in Hawaii over the weekend likely died in part because it ate large volumes of fishing traps, fishing nets, plastic bags and other marine debris, scientists said Thursday, highlighting the threat to wildlife from the millions of tons of plastic
Recent studies reveal that tiny pieces of plastic are constantly lofted into the atmosphere. These particles can travel thousands of miles and affect the formation of clouds, which means they have the potential to impact temperature, rainfall, and even climate change.
We’ve all seen them. Images of countless turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, and seals, dead and entangled in abandoned fish nets. The ocean is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for its inhabitants. And not because of the ‘eat or be eaten’ laws of nature – but because just by nature of being a creature that swims, you’re likely to eat plastic that may kill or maim you, or end up trapped and entangled in a net, left to struggle in an unnatural death until you starve, suffocate, or become prey.
It’s one thing to talk about statistics and science, but the violence, pain and suffering our throwaway plastic culture has caused is something that can’t be measured in numbers.
The ocean has become a crime scene. Currently, there are an estimated 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics in the ocean. The plastic either ends up forming giant garbage patches, or breaking down into microplastics.
Plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution and an estimated 8-10 million metric tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year. If current trends continue, by 2050, plastic is expected to outweigh all fish in the sea.
Imagine going for a seaside holiday and swimming in an ocean of plastic? Imagine a sea devoid of life – the magnificent underwater world destroyed because we treated the ocean like a giant garbage dump?
In just the last decade, humanity produced more plastic than it did in the last century. In most supermarkets, fruit and vegetables are wrapped in single-use plastic packaging, but every piece of single-use plastic takes between 500 -1,000 years to degrade. And when it degrades, it does not decompose, it becomes microplastics which are poisonous to animals and humans.
The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that 100% of all plastics human beings have created still exist.
One of the most harmful types of marine plastic debris is abandoned, lost, discarded fishing gear. About 640 thousand tons of fishing equipment get dumped into the ocean each year, not only entrapping marine life, according to researchers from the WUN Global Research Group, “there is chemical contamination with disruptive effects on marine species. As a result, human health is also impacted, with marine litter serving as a vehicle for diseases that contaminate the food chain.
“The problem is more visible in Asian countries like Taiwan, which has one of the world’s largest fishing fleets. In Taiwan, an average of 12.7 m3 of marine litter accumulates per kilometer along the coastline, 70% of which is caused by fishing gear.”
Each year, an estimated 100,000 sea animals are killed by plastic, around 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic, and one in every three sea turtles.
In a study that examined how to stop fishing gears from turning into ocean waste, scientists recommend not only better monitoring and managing of data on fishing gear waste streams by governments, but also regular meetings between stakeholders including the fishery sector, government agencies and non-governmental organisations to share knowledge and work towards implementing solutions for more sustainable fisheries.
Ocean plastic removal initiatives range from The Ocean Clean up, which aims to remove 90% of the plastic in the ocean both by scaling solutions to remove debris from the ocean and to intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the ocean.
1% of the world’s rivers – 1,000 rivers – are responsible for 80% of the plastic that flows into the oceans, so stopping plastic trash has to start with cleaning up rivers.
Ocean plastic removal initiatives like non-profit organisation The Ocean Clean up have developed a range of interceptor solutions to tackle the plastic trash in rivers, from building a simple ‘trash fence’ across a river to high-tech, solar powered filtration systems. The Ocean Clean up has removed an impressive 2 million kilos of trash so far.
A sailor and surfer led Dutch startup created a low-cost, low-tech solution for stopping plastic trash from entering the oceans. The Great Bubble Barrier’s (GBB) beauty is in its simplicity: a perforated tube is embedded on riverbeds, creating a curtain of bubbles which gently nudges waste to the riverbank where it can be collected.
Ichthion was first developed at London’s Imperial College. The company has developed three types of technologies to remove plastics from rivers and oceans: a barrier for plastic capture in rivers, a plastic extraction system for marine environments, and a technology which can be retrofitted to large ships for plastic removal.
River Cleaning designed a diagonal line of floating rotating cog-type devices that pass the waste along the chain until it reaches a storage area by the river bank. This ingenious technique uses the flow of water in the river to spin the cogs – so no power is required.
And while upscaling ocean clean up solutions is urgently needed in coming years, the challenge remains to tackle the problem at its root cause.
Searious Business helps companies adapt their plastic packaging towards more sustainable supply chains and business models, while innovative startups like Apeel and Geno are bringing plant-based alternatives to plastic to disrupt plastic packaging and the plastic-based fast fashion industries.
The movement to include rescuing the ocean as part of our global efforts to tackle climate action is growing. Leaders from Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Palau and Portugal have joined forces to form the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy to accelerate ocean protection in policy, governance and finance. The ocean as we know it is a ticking time bomb – an accumulating trap of debris and toxins that are being carried into and poisoning the food chain. But hope stems from the growing awareness and accountability for how human survival depends on our ability to care for and protect the natural world.
PRIBOJ, Serbia (AP) — In southwest Serbia, construction machines are being repurposed to clear tons of waste clogging the Potpec lake. Year after year during the winter months, the lake near the southwest Serbian town of Priboj fills with tons of garbage such as plastic bottles, rusty barrels, dead animals and even furniture or home appliances. That’s because the Lim river feeding into the lake swells during the winter months and sweeps up trash from dozens of illegal landfills along its banks, as it flows from Montenegro to Serbia. It’s much the same in neighboring Bosnia’s Drina river into which the Lim eventually flows. The problem spans decades and stems from poor waste management and a general lack of environmental protection safeguards across the Balkans. Workers clearing the garbage with small cranes at the Potpec lake this week said the machines often break down because there is simply too much trash. Moreover, the cranes just weren’t designed to pick up large chunks of wood or heavy washing machines from the water. ADVERTISEMENT “You would not believe the things people throw into the river,” said Milan Visic, a tugboat pilot. “It is in fact much better now than it was before because we cleaned up a lot.”The workers say they have collected some 10,000 cubic meters (more than 353,000 cubic feet) of waste since early December. But their job is far from over as much more garbage remains piled up in the lake. . Officials from Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro have on several occasions pledged to work together to solve the problem affecting their shared rivers but little has been done in reality. All three countries are aspiring to join the European Union and are expected to do more for to protect their environment if their accession bids are to move forward. Another pressing issue is the extremely high level of air pollution affecting a number of cities in the region.The garbage problem is evident everywhere – piles of waste dot hills and valleys, trash lines roads and plastic bags twist from tree branches. Compounding the problem is that collected trash is simply dumped in a landfill and recyclables are hardly ever seperated.Environmental activists say tough action is needed now. “For a start, heavy fines should be slapped,” for throwing waste around, said Sinisa Lakovic of the local Jastreb group.
Michigan has reached its first settlement in a series of lawsuits over PFAS contamination.PFAS are a group of chemicals known for the long time they take to break down. Some kinds have been linked to certain cancers.Under the agreement announced Monday, the plastics company Asahi Kasei Plastics North America (APNA) will have to pay for the full cost of cleanup in Livingston County. Those could total in the millions.It will also have to pay for the state’s legal fees.During a media briefing, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said she hopes this settlement will lead other companies to follow suit.“It’s a really simple policy. You made the mess, you clean it up. The end. That’s what we’re looking for,” Nessel said.Two of the state’s PFAS litigation cases remain pending in state court while others, including lawsuits against 3M and DuPont have been wrapped up in multi-district litigation.Nessel told reporters Asahi Kasei’s case became separate because the company wanted to settle.When asked for a comment, an APNA spokesperson pointed to the company’s partnership with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy outlined in the consent degree.“Our President and Chief Operating Officer, Todd Glogovsky, would like to stress that APNA is a proud Michigan employer with deep ties to the local community. We are committed to protecting and preserving our State’s environment and acting as a responsible corporation and member of the community,” the spokesperson said in an email.The extent of possible contamination within Livingston County is unknown. It will be Asahi Kasei’s responsibility under the settlement to pay for the costs of investigation.Michigan Assistant Attorney General Polly Synk said she’s not sure how long it will take the state resolve the issue. She estimated it probably will take longer than “a couple months,” but she doesn’t anticipate it stretching endless years.”“This is an area where EGLE knows the groundwater, they know the depth of groundwater, they know the flow, so there’s a lot known. But once you find it, these are forever chemicals so sometimes treatment can take a long time, even when once you have a handle on the situation,” Synk said.Some environmental groups are celebrating the agreement as a milestone in the fight against PFAS contamination.Tony Spaniola co-chairs the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. He said he’s most encouraged by the state’s commitment to bring PFAS cases to trial if need be.“It’s like saying, ‘You know what? We have a police force that’s actually going to enforce the law.’ And so, we ought to all be feeling a little safer because of that. That doesn’t mean that we’re all set and we’re out of the woods because there’s a whole bunch of other lawsuits going on,” Spaniola said.He said another main piece of the settlement he believes should get more attention is that affected community members get to weigh in on Asahi Kasei’s remediation action plan.Spaniola stressed Michigan needs to address statute-of-limitations laws that prevent some affected communities from pursuing polluters in court. He also said the state should strengthen its polluter-pay laws as well.
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Vultures scavenge for dead animals along a river turned sewer conduit in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Its waters turn from clear to black as it traverses informal settlements and industrial hubs. The river and its tributaries cross Kibera, known as Africa’s largest slum with close to 200,000 residents, and other informal settlements. It skirts dozens of factories that manufacture textiles, liquor and building materials. Many have been accused by environmentalists of discharging raw sewage and other pollutants like oil, plastic and glass into the water.Experts and locals alike fear the water is harming plants in nearby farms that feed residents. Some community-based organizations help clean up the river and the government is also hoping to ramp up efforts. But families in the rapidly growing downstream suburb of Athi River, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) away, say they can no longer rely on the water for basic needs.ADVERTISEMENT25-year-old Anne Nduta uses the river’s dark waters to wash her babies’ clothes by hand.“When it rains, the Athi River water is usually full of garbage, and when it clears a bit we use it to wash clothes,” said the mother-of-two. “But as the dry season continues, the water becomes darker in color and we have to start buying expensive borehole water.” A 20-liter (5-gallon) jerrican of borehole water sells for 20 shillings ($0.16), and Nduta would need four of them to wash her babies’ clothes every three days.Her problems start upstream, where informal settlements have directed some of their sewer lines straight into the Nairobi River.The new national government, installed after the August election
At this point, there’s no denying that plastic pollution is ubiquitous. It appears in the remote corners of the Earth, the food chain, and even human bodies. To protect human and environmental health, global plastic pollution must be addressed.
With increasing public concern about climate change, companies might face higher expectations regarding corporate responsibility, especially those known to cause significant environmental impacts.
In a recent One Earth study, the authors looked into the commitments made by the world’s largest companies between 2015 to 2020 to reduce plastic pollution. Based on the study, about 72 percent of the world’s largest companies have made some form of commitment to reducing plastic pollution, which ranges from one line of text to many pages of commitment.
Although some companies have made commitments in recent years to reduce their plastic footprint, the work doesn’t end there—it’s necessary to analyze how effective they are at reducing plastic pollution.
Corporate commitments have a limited impact on global plastic pollution
There’s no penalty for not fulfilling a non-binding commitment, especially when it comes from the company itself. It’s important to validate whether or not companies are doing what they actually promise to do, says Shelie Miller, a professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan.
Companies’ commitments frequently involve waste reduction strategies, like increasing recycled or recyclable content in packaging and advancing recycling-related efforts, notably paying less attention to how virgin plastic production can be reduced. For example, Nestlé Waters North America—now known as BlueTriton Brands—made a goal in 2008 to double the recycling rates for PET plastic, the kind of plastic used for water bottles, to 60 percent. However, the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) reported in 2018 that the average recycling rate of PET bottles hasn’t changed that much over the past decade.
Based on current trends, efforts to improve waste management may be overshadowed by the production and consumption of virgin plastic. Annual virgin plastic production is estimated to increase to 1.1 billion tonnes in 2050. By that time, the petrochemicals used to produce virgin plastic polymers may very well account for nearly half of the growth in oil demand, surpassing trucks, aviation, and shipping.
“We found limited evidence to suggest that corporate commitments are actually reducing the amount of global plastic pollution,” says Zoie Diana, a PhD candidate in the Division of Marine Science and Conservation at Duke University and author of the recent One Earth study. “Unfortunately, we found reports of companies lightweighting plastic.”
Lightweighting is a practice where companies slightly reduce the volume of plastic in their packaging, like making thinner PET bottles or shorter bottle caps, which you’ve probably already noticed in your local grocery store. While it’s good that companies produce lighter and smaller plastic products, if they reinvest their savings into markets that involve new plastic products, they might only increase the total mass of plastic produced, says Diana.
Companies usually strive to increase their sales, so even if less plastic is used per package, the number of packaging units is likely to increase. For instance, products like shampoo or coffee are often sold in tiny packets or sachets, which use more packaging material compared to larger product sizes. In addition, reducing the weight of plastic packaging doesn’t make the product any less likely to become trash.
[Related: A close look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch reveals a common culprit.]
Sometimes, consumers are misled by products that aren’t as green as they seem. Bioplastics, produced wholly or in part from renewable biomass sources, are considered the more environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics. However, they can still contribute to plastic pollution, global warming, and land use because not all bioplastics are the same and they aren’t always biodegradable.
While some bioplastics like those derived from cornstarch decompose in the soil, others only break down at high temperatures or after being treated in a landfill under very specific conditions. Even biodegradable bioplastics can still end up in landfills and produce methane gas as they decompose. Bioplastics made from crops also use up land that could have been used for growing food. It’s important to remember that bioplastics are still just plastics, even if they are made from a different material.
Boxed water products, often touted as an eco-friendly alternative to bottled water due to the paper-based carton packaging, also appear to be better for the environment than they really are. In reality, the cartons aren’t made entirely from paper because they require plastic film and aluminum to waterproof the paper and seal the content. Moreover, they’re not necessarily easier to recycle. Only 60 percent of households in the country have access to carton recycling, whereas 87 percent of the U.S. population has access to a municipal collection of PET bottles.
Companies must reduce plastic production and overall consumption
Although recycling is an important step aimed at reducing plastic pollution, it’s not that effective. A 2017 Science Advances study reported that only nine percent of the plastic ever created had been recycled. Aside from the 12 percent of plastics that were incinerated, this means that all the plastics that were produced remain in landfills or the natural environment, continuing to pollute the planet. Even if recycling efforts were improved, they might be unlikely to keep pace with the growing rate of plastic consumption.
“We suspect that, at best, the emphasis on recycling found in this study reflects industry efforts to raise global recycling rates and, at worst, reflects industry attempts to shift responsibility toward consumers, greenwashing, and potential pre-emption of legislation aimed at reducing plastic pollution,” says Diana.
A number of companies recently explored creative ways to minimize their plastic use. In 2018, brewing company Carlsberg introduced its Snap Pack to dramatically cut plastic waste. They did away with plastic rings by bonding a six-pack of beer cans together with glue instead. When all of their four-, six-, and eight-pack beers globally have been converted to use this innovation, it would save about 1323 tons of plastic annually, the equivalent of around 60 million plastic bags. Meanwhile, Walmart Canada eliminated plastic wraps of organic banana bunches and single peppers in 2019, preventing almost 94,000 kilograms of plastic waste.
Commitments like lightweighting and more recycling only divert attention from preventive measures that reduce virgin plastic production. The tap on unnecessary plastic production must be turned off, but only three percent of the top 300 companies on the Fortune Global 500 explicitly targeted virgin or newly produced plastics, says Diana. Unilever has a current pledge to halve the amount of virgin plastic they use in their packaging by 2025.
“Many companies focus on making packaging more recyclable or increasing the recycled content in their products,” says Miller. “While these efforts are an improvement over the status quo, they do not fully eliminate the environmental impacts of plastic.”
[Related: Dozens of companies with ‘net-zero’ goals just got called out for greenwashing.]
According to PepsiCo, 87 percent of its packaging is recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable. The multinational food, snack, and beverage corporation hopes to reach 100 percent by 2025. However, Miller notes that improving the ability of packaging to be recycled doesn’t necessarily ensure that it will actually be recycled in practice. Furthermore, a recyclable plastic that escapes waste streams and ends up in the environment can cause just as much ecological damage as a non-recyclable one, she adds.
The environmental impact of plastic pollution can only be partially addressed through improved packaging and recycling efforts because plastics don’t just cause harm when they are discarded. Starting from their production, they already contribute emissions that occur through natural gas extraction and plastic manufacturing. In the United States alone, fossil fuel extraction and production associated with plastic manufacturing contributed at least 9.5 to 10.5 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents back in 2015. Therefore, reducing plastic production and consumption remains to be a critical part of addressing plastic pollution.
“We tend to focus on visible impacts such as solid waste generation, but there are also upstream environmental impacts that are usually invisible to us,” says Miller. “The best way to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic is to reduce overall consumption. Reducing the amount of stuff that we consume is key to reducing environmental impact, not just making it easier to recycle.”
Microplastics pollution has infiltrated regions all around the world, from heavily developed and urbanized areas to remote sites that include the Greenland Sea, the high altitudes in the Alps and the waters and snows of Antarctica.
Now add to that list the bodies of Bering Strait spotted seals.
Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic, generally no bigger than a sesame seed. They are carried on ocean currents, in freshwater bodies and moved around the atmosphere through winds. They are known to be harmful to fish and birds that mistake them for small bits of food.
A University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student has found them in the stomachs of spotted seals harvested in the Bering Strait region. Of 29 stomachs that Alexandria Sletten examined, all but one held tiny bits of plastic. In all, there were 162 pieces recovered, 161 of which were fiber bits and one that was a clear fragment.
Sletten presented her results at a poster session at this week’s Alaska Marine Science Symposium held in Anchorage.
The stomachs she used for sampling were from seals harvested in 2012 and 2020 by residents of Shishmaref, an Inupiat village on the Chukchi Sea coast, and Gambell, a Siberian Yup’ik village on St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea. They were made available for her research through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Ice Seal Biological Monitoring project, through which seal hunters donate specimens that are stored and made available to researchers.
UAF graduate student Alexandria Sletten stands on Tuesday by her poster describing her research into microplastics ingested by spotted seals. She discussed her work during a poster session at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Sletten’s sorting revealed no significant difference separating the 2012 seals from those harvested in 2020, which went contrary to her expectation that amounts of microplastics would increase over time. “I’m finding that it’s been there and it’s always been there” over those years, she said.
Similarly, no pattern separated pups from older seals, also a bit of a surprise. “I did expect to see a bit more difference,” she said.
But the presence of microplastics in the animals’ stomachs in general was no surprise, she said. “It’s unfortunately something very ubiquitous for the Arctic and for the world,” she said.
As is the case elsewhere, scientists in Alaska have been working for years to better understand the presence and spread of microplastics in the environment. Some pioneering work focused on Bering Sea and Aleutian birds, tracking not just the plastic bits in their bodies but even the chemical contaminants called phthalates that spread into body tissues and even eggs from ingested plastics.
However, there has not been a lot of research into microplastics in Alaska marine mammals, something that’s unfortunate in a region where many people depend on hunting marine mammals for food, she said.
Sletten is using this research in her thesis for her master’s degree in marine biology. She intends to do further work, with many more samples, to better parse out life stages of the seals, seasons of harvest and other factors that might correspond to varying levels of microplastics.
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A recent study published in the journal Environmental Pollution found plastics in the scat of fishing cats dwelling in urban areas near Colombo, Sri Lanka.Different sizes of plastics, from micro to macro, were found in some samples, and were believed to have been ingested by the cats via their prey.Potential health effects on the vulnerable small cat species are unknown, but based on knowledge of the impacts of plastic on other species there is cause for concern, say conservationists. During a dietary study on fishing cats living near Colombo, Sri Lanka, researchers made an unexpected finding: Some scat samples collected contained plastics. Varying in size from tiny microplastics to larger debris in the form of macroplastics, these findings are cause for concern for the vulnerable species, say conservationists.
The results were “a bit of a shocker to all of us,” Anya Ratnayaka, a co-founder of the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project and lead author of the paper, told Mongabay in a video interview. The team collected 276 cat samples from fishing cats living in and around Colombo’s urban area and found that six contained plastics. “The fact that we even found any is a bit worrying,” she said.
Fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) are a wetland-dependent species and eat a varied diet of fish, birds and small rodents. As they are not known to forage in or eat trash, it’s thought that the species was exposed to plastic via its prey; thus the researchers believe this is likely a case of trophic transfer, in which contaminants travel up the food chain. The results were recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution.
Fishing cats are wetland specialists and are considered vulnerable across their range by the IUCN. Image by Nathan Rupert via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
“All three plastic types were found in scats containing rodent remains, while meso-, and macroplastics were found in scats with avian remains, and micro- and macroplastics in scats containing freshwater fish remains,” the authors write.
Bits of single-use plastic bags and pieces of nylon and polyester string were among the debris found in the scat, Ratnayaka said. Fishing cats tend to gut their prey prior to eating, which may explain why only a fraction of the samples contained plastic, she added.
Previously, researchers in Nepal also found plastic and glass in fishing cat scat around Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. “The plastic pollution is going to be much higher [in urban areas],” Ratnayaka said. “But the fact that this is also happening in more wild, natural spaces is kind of alarming.”
Though research on the impacts of plastic ingestion on terrestrial wildlife is limited, the researchers say it could cause digestive blockages or leach harmful chemicals.
The fishing cat’s dietary habits and likely route of exposure add “another dimension to the problem of plastic pollution,” according to Michael Bertram, assistant professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Environmental Studies at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “Clearly, ingestion of potentially harmful pollution originating from anthropogenic activities by animals of this species is cause for concern,” Bertram, who was not involved in the research, wrote in an email.
Pieces of single-use plastic bags were amongst the debris found by researchers in fishing cat scat near Colombo, Sri Lanka. Other researchers have found plastic in the species’ scat in Nepal. Image courtesy of Sanjaya Adikari.
Conservationists are aiming to install traps at river mouths to reduce the flow of plastic into fishing cat habitats. The problem can be particularly severe during the monsoon season, Ratnayaka said. Image courtesy of the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project.
The IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, considers fishing cats to be vulnerable across their range, which spans South and Southeast Asia. Like other wild cat species, they face a plethora of threats, including habitat loss, persecution, pollution and disease. Given the rapid conversion and destruction of the wetland habitats on which they depend, the species is particularly at risk.
“The new study provides one more lens to analyze threats affecting fishing cats and is very, very concerning,” Tiasa Adhya, a wildlife biologist and co-founder of The Fishing Cat Project, who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.
In her view, the study’s findings also raise further questions, such as how other threats are combining with indirect plastic consumption to impact the species, and what this exposure might mean for younger cats. “It is worth continuing to study the impact of such pollutants on the long-term survival of populations and any effect these might have on the genetic makeup of populations,” she said.
Following the study, the conservationists are aiming to install plastic traps on river outlets flowing into wetland areas and to investigate plastic levels in the guts of the cat’s prey species, such as fish and waterbirds. “I feel that everyone is concentrating on marine environments, but we also need to try and figure out what’s happening in our terrestrial and freshwater systems as well,” Ratnayaka said.
Banner image: Researchers found plastic in the scat of fishing cats in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Though levels were low, the discovery is cause for concern, says study co-author Anya Ratnayaka. Image by Dulup via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
To stop plastic pollution, we must stop plastic production, scientists say
Ratnayaka, A. A., Serieys, L. E., Hangawatte, T. A., Leung, L. K., & Fisher, D. O. (2023). Plastic ingestion by fishing cats suggests trophic transfer in urban wetlands. Environmental Pollution, 316, 120694. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2022.120694
Mishra, R., de Iongh, H. H., Leirs, H., Lamichhane, B. R., Subedi, N., & Kolipaka, S. S. (2022). Fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinus distribution and habitat suitability in Nepal. Ecology and Evolution, 12(4). doi:10.1002/ece3.8857
Bucci, K., Tulio, M., & Rochman, C. M. (2020). What is known and unknown about the effects of plastic pollution: A meta‐analysis and systematic review. Ecological Applications, 30(2). doi:10.1002/eap.2044
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Animals, Biodiversity, Cats, Conservation, Endangered Species, Environment, Fish, Mammals, Microplastics, Plastic, Pollution, Water Pollution, Wetlands, Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation
Minnesota lawmakers plan to introduce several bills cracking down on certain chemicals, rushing to hold hearings so that a young Woodbury woman who is dying of cancer can testify.
Maplewood-based 3M has made a group of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) since the 1950s, but failed for decades to report to regulators and scientists that they could be toxic to humans, animals and the environment. The company announced in late December that it plans to stop making PFAS and stop using the chemicals in its products by the end of 2025. Other companies still make the chemicals, and will continue to do so.
Amara Strande, 20, was featured in a December Reformer series about the dangers of the 3M chemicals and how the company sought to conceal it. Strande is a graduate of Oakdale’s Tartan High School, where she was among an alarming number of students and graduates who got cancer. 3M stopped making some of the chemicals in 2000, and Oakdale began filtering its contaminated water in 2006.
Several bills are in the works: One would ban PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam. Another would require manufacturers selling products with PFAS in Minnesota to disclose that to the state. A third would ban all non-essential use of PFAS chemicals.
Passing both chambers of the Legislature and winning a signature from Gov. Tim Walz won’t be easy, given the powerful influence of 3M, which employs 13,500 Minnesotans and has wide-ranging sway among both parties. 3M said in a statement that it continues to support PFAS regulation “based on the best available science and established regulatory processes” but the regulations should be “crafted carefully to meet regulatory objectives and help maintain the availability of important products that are made with PFAS.”
Avonna Starck, state director of Clean Water Action, said the three bills have been drafted and are waiting on bill numbers, but hearings may be held before they get numbers so Strande can testify.
“Everyone I have talked to in the Legislature who has heard her story is motivated to get it moving,” Starck said.
Sen. Tou Xiong, a Maplewood attorney, went to Tartan High School from 2004 to 2008.
“I know exactly what Amara is talking about,” he said. “Cancer is definitely a thing that was around.”
He remembers when state health officials announced in 2005 that 3M chemicals were detected in five Oakdale city water wells.
“We were like ‘Oh there’s contamination coming from 3M,’” Xiong said. “We didn’t really know anything else… I don’t think the teachers wanted to alarm us either.”
He’s working to draft a bill patterned after a first-of-its-kind Vermont law that allows people exposed to toxic chemicals to sue responsible companies for the cost of monitoring their health.
Vermont lawmakers pushed for the law after a now-shuttered Bennington plastics factory contaminated about 8,000 residents’ drinking water, leading to a $34 million class-action settlement, including a $6 million medical monitoring fund.
Courts in about 16 states have recognized the right to seek medical monitoring through case law, but Vermont’s law marked the first time a state put that right in statute, leaving no question that victims could seek reimbursement of medical monitoring costs, according to Safer States, a national alliance of environmental health organizations.
The Vermont law also allows the state to sue manufacturers “who knew or should have known that the material presented a threat of harm to human health or the natural environment” for cleanup costs, according to the Associated Press.
Xiong said he’s been working for years with Woodbury and 3M to address city water wells shutting down in connection with 3M’s $850 million settlement with the state over chemical contamination.
“I think everybody wants to make sure that our communities are safe and that we address the PFAS forcing our community to close our wells,” he said. “I think it’s just finding the right path.”
The chemicals persist in the environment and humans, and can be found in the blood of people across the world. They can be found in wildlife in the Arctic circle and drinking water, rivers and streams.
Beginning in the 1950s, 3M dumped thousands of gallons of industrial waste containing the chemicals into four landfills east of the Twin Cities, where they migrated into four aquifers used for drinking water and ended up in groundwater.
By 2017, a 100-square-mile underground plume east of St. Paul was contaminated with the chemicals. Today, the plume is about 200 square miles, according to state regulators.
While numerous people in the East Metro have suspected they may have been sickened by the contaminated water, help has been elusive.
Robert Bilott sued DuPont over chemicals polluting West Virginia farmland near its Teflon plant and won a landmark 2004 settlement. 3M manufactured the chemical for DuPont beginning in the 1950s.
Oakdale residents then recruited Bilott to help with a Minnesota lawsuit against 3M, but Minnesota law doesn’t allow medical monitoring claims to be pursued in class-action suits. So the Minnesota case could not lead to the kind of settlement reached in West Virginia, where thousands of people were monitored, and an independent panel of scientists later linked chemical exposure in drinking water to six diseases, including two types of cancer.
Bilott said in an email, “Having the ability to seek medical monitoring in response to exposure to toxic substances has been a critically important tool for those exposed to PFAS across the country.”
He filed a class-action lawsuit in 2018 in federal court on behalf of people exposed to the chemicals made by 3M and other companies. He’s not seeking monetary damages but wants the companies to fund a scientific panel to determine how much harm the chemicals are causing. In April, a judge certified the class-action lawsuit to go forward for Ohioans, but the chemical companies appealed the consideration of adding other Americans to the case.
Ban on all but essential use of PFAS
Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, is author of a bill banning all “non-essential use” of PFAS chemicals in products. They’re found in car seats, carpeting, cosmetics, ski wax, cookware, food packaging, fabrics and cleaners.
“It’s everywhere and it’s just insane,” Brand said.
Brand said research has shown the chemicals can be found in breast milk.
“All I’m trying to do with my legislation is turn off the tap,” he said. “The bathtub has been overflowing for a long time.”
What uses would be considered essential? Not many, he said. Certain medical devices and airplanes, for example.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if you had to prove it was safe before it could be included in products?” he said. “In the name of all the Amaras of the world,” he said, referring to Strande, the young woman featured in the 3M Reformer story.
In 2017, a nearly 15-pound tumor was found in Strande’s liver, and she was diagnosed with a rare cancer called fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma; it strikes one in 5 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 39.
She’s since had more than 20 surgeries to battle tumors. In recent months, tumors grew next to her heart, wrapping around her upper right chest, fracturing her ribs. Surgery is no longer an option, and there is no cure.
Even though she is in “more profound pain,” she wants to testify in person, if she is physically able, her mother Dana said.
“It’s very important for me to testify because my life has been significantly changed,” Strande said. “I’m really sick of seeing other people also go through similar losses with cancer and disease.”