Environmental groups urge Senate to pass bill banning single-use plastics in the Philippines

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.
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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.
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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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Plastic Free July press conference highlights important legislation

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.”

Record levels of harmful particles found in Great Lakes fish

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: The ‘big little problem’ plaguing oceans

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.”

Dead turtles and waves of plastic show Sri Lankan ship disaster's deep ramifications

The Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl caught fire on May 20 en route to Colombo carrying 350 metric tons of oil in its tanks and at least 81 containers of “dangerous goods,” including nitric acid — a highly toxic chemical used to make fertilizers. As the Sri Lankan navy and coast guard teams fought to douse the flames, the inferno tore through the ship’s cargo, releasing a cocktail of hazardous chemicals into the air and sea, prompting authorities to issue a toxic rain alert, and compounding fears of an oil spill.The fire released 80 tons of plastic pellets — raw materials used to make plastic products — into the ocean, blanketing beaches along Sri Lanka’s western coast. The environmental impact was immediately clear.Plastic pellets became lodged in fish’s gills and mouths. And dozens of rare sea turtles washed up on Sri Lanka’s beaches, some with what appeared to be scorch marks on their shells. Fish, dolphins and even a whale were found dead. As of late June, about 200 carcasses had been counted. Two months on, billions of plastic particles have washed up on nearly every shore of the island and are expected to disperse throughout the Indian Ocean.Fishing communities have been heavily impacted, and locals fear it will be take years for the island to recover from what environmentalists have called the worst disaster in Sri Lanka’s history. Animal deathsSri Lanka is a tourist hotspot. Its unspoiled beaches and turquoise waters not only attract tourists, they are home to abundant sea life, including 28 species of marine mammals, such as blue whales and five species of endangered nesting turtles. It is not unusual for marine animals to wash ashore at this time of year, after becoming entangled in fishing nets or simply victims of the rough monsoon seas. While no records were kept of how many dead animals washed ashore in previous years, local environmentalists say this time is different. “We are seeing this exponential increase of marine deaths, including dolphins, turtles. What is noticeable is the exponential increase started soon after this accident,” said Don Muditha Katuwawala, coordinator for Sri Lankan marine conservation group Pearl Protectors. “We are seeing 30 to 40 cases reported daily.”Thushan Kapurusinghe, a turtle conservationist with 28 years’ experience who helped establish Sri Lanka’s first marine turtle sanctuary, believes the deaths were caused by the ship disaster. Usually, if a turtle was caught in a net or rough seas, Kapurusinghe said, you’d see cut marks on their fins or broken shells. Often they are bloated from weeks in the water or have bite marks from other predators, he said. But the turtles he has seen on the beaches, and in photos sent to him from residents, had apparent scorch marks on their shells, swollen eyes and salt glands, and red engorged blood vessels and legions around their mouths and bellies, he said. “What you can see with most of these turtles found along the beaches in recent weeks, particularly after the X-Press Pearl disaster, these are fresh specimens,” he said. “Now when you see newly dead carcasses, there are clear burn marks on top of the shell … Around the mouth you can see red patches and bleeding, that means internally they are bleeding.”He said this suggests they may have been exposed to chemicals or injured in the fire. Sri Lanka is home to leatherback turtles, green turtles, loggerheads, hawksbill and the small Olive Ridley turtle. Kapurusinghe, the conservationist, said most of the turtles washing up are the latter — among the world’s smallest sea turtles. From images he’s seen, most are juveniles, which spend their days feeding in the shallower waters close to the western coast, he said. While nesting sites are found all over the coast, turtle migration and nesting routes, he said, start at the southern coast and make their way north up Sri Lanka’s western coast between March and July. The carcasses were found on beaches around the capital Colombo — up the western shoreline — where the ship was. “This is not normal. When you observe them you can say they did not die because of becoming tangled in fishing nets,” he said. .m-infographic_1625816718976{background:url(//cdn.cnn.com/cnn/.e/interactive/html5-video-media/2021/07/09/20210603-Sri-Lanka-sinking-ship-map-smallx2-new.png) no-repeat 0 0 transparent;margin-bottom:30px;width:100%;-moz-background-size:cover;-o-background-size:cover;-webkit-background-size:cover;background-size:cover;font-size:0;}.m-infographic_1625816718976:before{content:””;display:block;padding-top:143.2%;}@media (min-width:640px) {.m-infographic_1625816718976 {background-image:url(//cdn.cnn.com/cnn/.e/interactive/html5-video-media/2021/07/09/20210603-Sri-Lanka-sinking-ship-map-mediumx2-new.png);}.m-infographic_1625816718976:before{padding-top:61.92%;}}@media (min-width:1120px) {.m-infographic_1625816718976 {background-image:url(//cdn.cnn.com/cnn/.e/interactive/html5-video-media/2021/07/09/20210603-Sri-Lanka-sinking-ship-map-mediumx2-new.png);}.m-infographic_1625816718976:before{padding-top:61.92%;}}Several prominent marine biologists have warned against jumping to conclusions about the animal deaths and urged the community to wait for necropsies — examinations of the carcasses — to be completed, though it is unclear when that will be.Other factors could be at play in the deaths, including reporter bias, when people are more likely to note carcasses as they’re acutely aware of the disaster.Ultimately, no one can be sure what is causing the deaths, said Katuwawala of Pearl Protectors, and a lack of comparable data is adding to the confusion. “We don’t have a proper base-line data that we can compare to previous years. Because of the lack of it and the delays in the post-mortems there is a lot of confusion as to understanding why these marine deaths are happening,” he said. “All this needs to be accounted for and tested as to how they died and what really caused this disaster for them.”Plastic disaster While necropsies are being carried out, Sri Lankans are still collecting tons of plastic pellets released during the fire.In the weeks after the fire, the surf, whipped up by monsoon seas, became thick with these white plastic pellets, also known as nurdles. The volume was so great that, in some areas, they washed up in knee-deep piles, with each wave bringing millions more ashore. When Asha de Vos, a marine biologist and founder of Sri Lankan NGO Oceanswell, saw the plastic pollution inundate the shores near her home, she started calling experts to figure out what was going to happen next. Lockdown prevented residents from going to the beaches to help out with the response, but they could assist in other ways, she said. “I could feel people’s frustration,” de Vos said. Her team set up a “nurdle tracker” so the community could send in photographs of what the beaches looked like before and after the plastic. The result exceeded expectations: “We got around 120 people sending photographs within a few days of the entire coastline,” she said. The next step was to figure out where the nurdles were going and create models to track their distribution around the island. People would send in images of beaches where they spotted the plastic, with dates and times. Together, they were quickly able to build a picture of how far and wide the plastic was traveling and plan to conduct monthly surveys on the concentration of plastic in certain areas and how it changes over time.One thing stood out. Among the white pellets they noticed some pieces had burned and fused in the fire, something they hadn’t seen in previous similar disasters and could increase the danger to the marine environment from potential toxins.”If we can try to understand the degradation of these nurdles, what’s going to happen to them, scientifically, then we have a sense of, okay, how long is this impact going to last? How long can we predict these impacts are going to be?” de Vos said. The problem is they just don’t know how much plastic was released into the water, and how much remained on the ship. “It’s still very patchy, and it’s still hard for us to really have a lot of those answers,” she said. The country’s Marine Environmental Protection Authority said in June it had removed 1,000 tons of debris along 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the coastlines, a triumphant, yet incremental portion of the total spillage. Lessons from DurbanExperts warn the pellets will wash up for years to come and become a permanent part of the currents and tides of the world’s oceans. In a similar disaster in South Africa in 2018, 49 tons of plastic nurdles spilled into the sea around Durban. A year after the spill, pellets were found more than 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) away on St Helena island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and two years later on shores of Western Australia, more than 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away. Charitha Pattiaratchi, an oceanography professor with the University of Western Australia, said the pellets were the main pollutant from the ship disaster as “any of the other chemicals, even if they fell into the ocean would have diluted very quickly.”The plastic, he said, while not necessarily toxic, will remain in the ocean for years.”The nurdles will continue to be present in the surface waters of the Indian Ocean for many decades and will make landfall in many of the Indian Ocean countries (for example in Indonesia, India, Maldives, and Somalia) because of the reversing monsoon currents in the region,” Pattiaratchi said.Using high-resolution modeling, his team have been able to plot the course of the nurdles’ journey over the past two months.
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Projection of the nurdle spread following X-Press Pearl disaster Credit: Charitha Pattiaratchi, University of Western Australia
Pattiaratchi said over time the nurdles will grind down to become microplastics, and plastic from the Durban incident is still found on the beaches of Western Australia. “If you go to the beach, you will find them if you’re looking for them. And that’s what will happen to these ones, it will be distributed along the most of the Indian Ocean, northern Indian Ocean countries, if you go looking for them, you will find them for years to come.”While the pellets are not necessarily toxic to humans, Pattiaratchi said they can further impact marine life by getting trapped in gills of fish, causing them to suffocate.Fisheries devastatedSri Lanka’s fisheries were also deeply affected. In some areas they were closed, worsening the financial losses from communities already suffering from pandemic lockdowns. Fear and confusion spread over whether the fish were safe to eat. “We also heard about what was in the ship and the chemicals, so we are scared. So now for weeks we have not consumed any seafood. The fishermen are saying its safe. But there is no guarantee,” said Sarika Dinali, a resident from Negombo beach.D.S. Fernando, a fisherman also in Negombo, said “now the situation is even worse.” “People are now scared of eating fish because it might be contaminated. Prices have also dropped drastically. The situation is hopeless,” he said. Others have urged the government to speed up testing on samples and be clear with the public. “We are most affected because people are refraining from buying fish. It is the government’s responsibility to do proper tests and educate the public on what’s going on. Otherwise people are afraid to consume fish,” said local fishing community leader Aruna Roshantha.The Sri Lankan government, Department of Fisheries and the MEPA have not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.On July 11, state Fisheries Minister Kanchana Wikesekera said Rs 420 million ($2.1 million) in compensation will be paid to fishermen as part of an interim claim from the X-Press Pearl. On July 12, X-press Feeders said made an initial payment, through the vessel owner’s P&I insurers, of $3.6 million to the Sri Lankan government to help compensate those affected by the consequences of the fire and sinking of the vessel.Investigation ongoingAs communities wait for answers, government and environmental investigators are determining the extent of the disaster. Independent and international oil experts are on site trying to ensure any oil remaining on the half-sunken ship does not spill into the environment, causing further disaster. “We continue to contribute to the cleanup and pollution mitigation efforts, having flown in additional oil spill response assets on a chartered flight from Singapore in response to a request from the UN-EU team in Colombo,” the ship’s operators said in a statement. Salvors remain at the wreck site on a 24-hour watch “to deal with any debris and report any form of a spill with drones deployed daily to help with the monitoring activities,” it said. Investigations into what caused the fire are ongoing, but the boat had one container of nitric acid — a highly toxic chemical used to make fertilizers — that was leaking. The captain of the ship, Vitaly Tyutkalo was arrested on June 14 and later released on bail, according to police spokesperson Deputy Inspector Ajith Rohana. He has been accused of allegedly violating the country’s Marine Environment Pollutions Act but hasn’t been formally charged.The government has named another 14 people as co-accused in cases over the damage caused, according to Reuters.Meanwhile, the Centre for Environmental Justice has filed a fundamental rights petition in the Sri Lankan Supreme Court.For decades, de Vos has been pushing for greater rules on ships that pass by Sri Lanka’s waters as part of her work to protect non-migratory blue whales.The southern coast of Sri Lanka is the main artery through the Indian Ocean, and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.Pushing such lanes farther out to sea or shift to cleaner fuel could help to avoid further disasters, de Vos said, and help safeguard the future of endangered turtles, too. “The shipping lanes were put in place at a time when we didn’t have this wealth of knowledge about species and how they use these areas, or about safety concerns,” said de Vos. “And now we do have to use the best available information, to try to understand how we can coexist in a way that will make sure that we’re doing a better job and looking after oceans.”For de Vos, community involvement is key to recovering from the disaster.”We come from a small island where fishing is what you use the ocean for. Recreational conservation wasn’t a big theme, traditionally. And so to shift that we need to give more people have the opportunity to engage.””I want to make sure the public is also well informed and not misinformed,” she said. “And that that is something that can happen in a crisis situation,” she said.

Living on Earth: Beyond the Headlines

Air Date: Week of July 23, 2021

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Trees in the Tongass National Forest on Revillagigedo Island near Ketchikan. Tongass is the largest U.S. National Forest at 16.7 million acres, making it a key carbon sequester. (Photo: Steve Curwood)
After President Trump removed the roadless rule and other protections for the Tongass National Forest, America’s largest national forest, the Biden administration is set to bring them back, Peter Dykstra of Environmental Health News tells host Bobby Bascomb in this week’s Beyond the Headlines segment. They also talk about Maine becoming the first U.S. state to pass a law requiring packaging manufacturers rather than taxpayers to cover the costs of recycling. For the history segment they go back to the year 1931 when a swarm of grasshoppers overwhelmed farmers who were already struck by the Dust Bowl.

Transcript

BASCOMB: Well, it’s time for a trip now beyond the headlines with Peter Dykstra. Peter is an editor with environmental health news. That’s ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. Hey there, Peter, what do you have for us today?
DYKSTRA: Hi, Bobby. We’re going to talk about a political football that is long standing, and over 9 million acres in size. And of course, we’re talking about the Tongass National Forest in the Alaska panhandle. The world’s largest old growth temperate rain forest had been largely protected by Bill Clinton’s roadless rule. There was a lot of back and forth between starting back with the Reagan administration to Clinton, to Bush to Obama, and then President Trump reversed the roadless rule. If you can’t build roads into a forest, you can’t cut down the trees and haul them out. And now President Biden in his first months in office is poised to reverse it back to the roadless rule and protect the Tongass.
BASCOMB: Well, that’s great news. I mean, the Tongass is absolutely huge. It’s the largest national forest in the country in full of just, you know, biodiversity, it’s a really unique habitat.
DYKSTRA: Huge and unique. Normally, we don’t think of the words temperate and rain forests going in the same place. But it’s a wet place that grows a lot and the trees grow big and the species are abundant. All of that was threatened by the revocation of the roadless rule by President Trump. This may restore protections that environmentalists hold dear. But at the same time, there are logging communities in the Alaska panhandle that would be angered by the inability to go back and create jobs in the Tongass.
BASCOMB: Yeah, well, hence the political football that it’s been for so long. Well, what else do you have for us this week?

Maine recently passed a law that will shift the recycling costs away from consumers to producers. This legislation comes at a time when according to the US Environmental Protection Agency packaging and recycling accounts for nearly ⅓ of all municipal and solid waste. (Photo: Michael Lehet, Flickr, CC BY ND 2.0)

DYKSTRA: Unprecedented for the US even though it’s being tried in a few Canadian provinces and in the EU, Maine becomes the first US state to set up a system to bill companies who produce a lot of packaging, for the disposal and recycling of that packaging. They’re doing that through a fund that they hope to create, where these companies would pay in, and municipalities would be subsidized for all the extra spending they have to do for recycling cardboard, plastic and other recyclables.
BASCOMB: Well, that’s great, though, I have to wonder where all that plastic recycling is supposed to go? You know, so many Asian countries aren’t taking it from the United States anymore. And you know, we don’t really have the infrastructure here.
DYKSTRA: Well, it’s no secret that plastics recycling has collapsed in recent years. The state of Maine has given itself till the end of 2023. To figure out how all this would work. Plastics recycling is in absolute worldwide turmoil. Cardboard recycling is a little bit easier and it’s still succeeding in a lot of places. But Maine is taking the first step in the US to try and manage all of the recycling business that has to take place.
BASCOMB: Well, I’ll be curious to see how it works out for them. I wish them luck. What do you have for us from the history books this week?

On July of 26, 1931 a swarm of grasshoppers devoured millions of acres of crops in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, states which were already suffering from the Dust Bowl. (Photo: Your, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

DYKSTRA: We have a 90th anniversary, July 26, 1931. That was a very dry year, at the beginning of what became known as the Dust Bowl, and the perfect swarm was created. Not perfect storm, perfect swarm: grasshoppers by possibly the billions overwhelmed farmland in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, cornfields were eaten straight down to the stubs. American agriculture was hit hard, not just by their grasshoppers, but by a drought that ended up lasting close to 10 years, the Great Depression, saw dust storms, crop failures, all of which were due in part to that long drought and in part due to just terrible soil conservation practices by American farmers. The farmers have cleaned up their act somewhat. And hopefully we’re not reemerging into another huge drought.
BASCOMB: Gosh, yeah, I mean, there is, of course, a terrible drought going on in much of the West. But, you know, let’s hope we’ve learned a thing or two in the last 90 years about you know, how to preserve the soil.
DYKSTRA: Let’s hope.
BASCOMB: Indeed. All right, well, thanks Peter. Peter Dykstra is an editor with environmental health news. That’s ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. We’ll talk to you again real soon.
DYKSTRA: All right, Bobby, thanks a lot. Talk to you soon.
BASCOMB: And there’s more on these stories on the Living on Earth website, that’s loe.org.
 

Links
The Washington Post | “Biden Administration Proposes Sweeping Protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest” The Boston Globe | “Maine Passes Nation’s First Law to Make Big Companies Pay for the Cost of Recycling Their Packaging” History | “Grasshoppers Devastate Midwestern Crops”

Maine will make companies pay for recycling. Here's how it works

The law aims to take the cost burden of recycling away from taxpayers. One environmental advocate said the change could be “transformative.”Recycling, that feel-good moment when people put their paper and plastic in special bins, was a headache for municipal governments even in good times. And, only a small amount was actually getting recycled.Then, five years ago, China stopped buying most of America’s recycling, and dozens of cities across the United States suspended or weakened their recycling programs.Now, Maine has implemented a new law that could transform the way packaging is recycled by requiring manufacturers, rather than taxpayers, to cover the cost. Nearly a dozen states have been considering similar regulations and Oregon is about to sign its own version in coming weeks.Maine’s law “is transformative,” said Sarah Nichols, who leads the sustainability program at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. More fundamentally, “It’s going to be the difference between having a recycling program or not.”The recycling market is a commodities market and can be volatile. And, recycling has become extremely expensive for municipal governments. The idea behind the Maine and Oregon laws is that, with sufficient funding, more of what gets thrown away could be recycled instead of dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators. In other countries with such laws, that has proved to be the case.Essentially, these programs work by charging producers a fee based on a number of factors, including the tonnage of packaging they put on the market. Those fees are typically paid into a producer responsibility organization, a nonprofit group contracted and audited by the state. It reimburses municipal governments for their recycling operations with the fees collected from producers.Nearly all European Union member states, as well as Japan, South Korea and five Canadian provinces, have laws like these and they have seen their recycling rates soar and their collection programs remain resilient, even in the face of a collapse in the global recycling market caused in part by China’s decision in 2017 to stop importing other nations’ recyclables.Ireland’s recycling rate for plastics and paper products, for instance, rose from 19 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2017. Nearly every E.U. country with such programs has a recycling rate between 60 and 80 percent, according to an analysis by the Product Stewardship Institute. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, America’s recycling rate was 32 percent, a decline from a few years earlier.Nevertheless, laws like these have faced opposition from manufacturers, packaging-industry groups and retailers.In Maine, the packaging industry supported a competing bill that would have given producers more oversight of the program. It also would have exempted packaging for a range of pharmaceutical products and hazardous substances, including paint thinners, antifreeze and household cleaning products.One of the industry’s main objections to the bill that ultimately passed was that it gave the government too much authority and left the industry with not enough voice in the process. “No one knows packaging better than our members,” said Dan Felton, the executive director of the packaging industry group Ameripen, in a statement following the passage of the law. “Funds should be managed by industry.”Recycling is important for environmental reasons as well as in the fight against climate change. There are concerns that a growing market for plastics could drive demand for oil, contributing to the release of greenhouse gas emissions precisely at a time when the world needs to drastically cut emissions. By 2050, the plastics industry is expected to consume 20 percent of all the oil produced.The oil industry, concerned about declining demand as the world moves toward electric cars and away from fossil fuels, has pivoted toward making more plastic — spending more than $200 billion on chemical and plastic manufacturing plants in the United States. Vast amounts of plastic waste are exported to Africa and South Asia, where they often end up in dumps or in waterways and oceans. In the ocean, they can break down into microplastics that harm wildlife.China’s decision in 2017 precipitated a crisis in recycling. Without China as a market to import all that waste, recycling costs soared in the United States. Dozens of cities suspended their recycling programs or turned to landfilling and burning the recyclables they collected. In Oregon alone, 44 cities and 12 counties had to stop collecting certain plastics like polypropylene.Gov. Janet Mills of Maine, a Democrat, signed the new recycling policies into law this month.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated PressTo cope, state legislators and environmental protection agencies began looking for solutions. A number of them, including Maine and Oregon, settled on what is known as an extended producer responsibility program, or E.P.R., for packaging products.In Maine, packaging products covered by the law make up as much as 40 percent of the waste stream.In both states, one important benefit of the program is that it will make recycling more uniform statewide. Today, recycling is a patchwork, with variations between cities about what can be thrown in the recycling bin.These programs exist on a spectrum from producer-run and producer-controlled, to government-run. In Maine, the government is taking the lead, having the final say on how the program will be run, including setting the fees. In Oregon, the producer responsibility organization is expected to involve manufacturers to a larger degree, including them on an advisory council.In another key difference, Maine is also requiring producers to cover 100 percent of its municipalities’ recycling costs. Oregon, by contrast, will require producers to cover around 28 percent of the costs of recycling, with municipalities continuing to cover the rest.Built into both laws is an incentive for companies to reconsider the design and materials used in their packaging. A number of popular consumer products are hard to recycle, like disposable coffee cups — they’re made of a paper base, but with a plastic coating inside, and another plastic lid, as well as possibly a cardboard sleeve.Both Maine and Oregon are considering charging higher rates for packaging that is hard to recycle and therefore doesn’t have a recycling market or products that contain certain toxic chemicals, such as PFAS.For many companies, this might require a shift in mind-set.Scott Cassel, the founder of the Product Stewardship Institute and the former director of waste policy in Massachusetts, described the effect of one dairy company’s decision to change from a clear plastic milk bottle to an opaque white bottle. The opaque bottles were costlier to recycle, so the switch cost the government more money. “The choice of their container really matters,” Mr. Cassel said. “The producer of that product had their own reasons, but they didn’t consider the cost of the material to the recycling market.”Sorting plastics near Nairobi, Kenya. There is growing evidence that waste shipped to Africa and South Asia for recycling ends up in unregulated dumps or waterways.Baz Ratner/ReutersThirty-three states currently have extended producer responsibility laws on the books, but they are far more narrow. Typically they focus only on specific products, like used mattresses and tubs of paint.In those narrow applications, they have proven effective. Connecticut’s mattress, paint, electronic and thermostat E.P.R. programs have diverted more than 26 million pounds of waste since 2008, according to an analysis by the Product Stewardship Institute.A number of the packaging E.P.R. programs introduced in statehouses this year faced significant opposition from the packaging and retail industries, including the one in Maine. One of the industries’ main contentions was that the laws would lead to higher grocery prices for consumers. A study by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality of Canadian E.P.R. programs found that consumer product prices had increased by only $0.0056 per item.Some major consumer-product companies have begun voicing support for policies like these. In 2016, Greenpeace obtained internal documents from Coca-Cola Europe, which depicted extended producer responsibility as a policy that the company was fighting. In a sign of change, this spring, more than 100 multinational companies, including Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Walmart, signed a pledge committing to support E.P.R. policies.Sustainability and Climate Change: Join the Discussion The New York TimesOur Netting Zero series of virtual events brings together New York Times journalists with opinion leaders and experts to understand the challenges posed by global warming and to take the lead for change. Sign up for upcoming events or watch earlier discussions.

Microplastics wash out of your clothing and into the ocean. Some simple fixes could help

Every time we wash our synthetics, little bits of plastic leach out of our clothes, swirl down the drain, and make their way into the ocean.Those tiny shreds are called microfibres, a type of microplastic formed after larger materials have broken down. At five millimetres or smaller, they’re a growing problem in the world’s waters. They harm the food chain, showing up in plankton, the digestion systems of mammals, and seafood consumed by humans.A report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found 35 per cent of primary microplastic pollution comes from synthetic clothing and textiles, with the remaining from cigarette butts, personal care products and other plastic products. In the Arctic of Eastern Canada, researchers found they were present in almost all water samples.Get top stories in your inbox.Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that impacts you, Canada, and the world. Don’t miss out.It’s part of the larger picture of Canada’s plastic problem, which sees 3.3 million tonnes of plastic thrown away each year, with only nine per cent making it to the recycling bin. However, a new study from Ocean Wise offers a hopeful perspective, says Laura Hardman, director of its Plastic Free Oceans campaign. The report, released this month, found microplastic can be significantly reduced by upgrading filters in washing machines. The new filters have the potential to catch up to 90 per cent of microfibres.Microfibres under a microscope. Image courtesy of Ocean WiseResearchers tested two types of lint traps, by LINTLUVR and Filtrol, which Hardman said most washing machine brands could incorporate into their existing systems to cut down on plastic waste. Clothing corporations could also use more-efficient filters and do a pre-wash before sending goods to consumers, the report suggests, since most fabrics shed the majority of their microfibres during the first wash. Also, an option is to have businesses vacuum away the particles during production. What people are reading Washing machine filters aren’t the be-all and end-all to solving microfibre pollution, but Hardman says they could be an effective and immediately available intervention. The filters can be used with any machine, although depending on the size of your machine hose, a pliable hose and clamp might be needed to fit the filter to the machine.“On average, 533 million microfibres are being released by your average Canadian and U.S. households and discharged into the environment. And that adds up to 85 quadrillion microfibres, believe it or not, into the wastewater annually in Canada in the U.S.,” she explained, referencing an earlier Ocean Wise study.“To visualize it, that’s the equivalent of 10 blue whales of microfibres entering our oceans, rivers and lakes every year.”Microplastics have been found in our food and water, although the impacts are not yet known. Graphic courtesy of Ocean Wise An @OceanWise report found microplastics can be significantly reduced by upgrading filters in washing machines. The new filters have the potential to catch up to 90 per cent of microfibres. #PlasticPollution The study of microplastics is still relatively new, says Hardman, who explains that further research needs to be done to explain what percentage of microfibres are released once garments are brought home versus during the production process, as well as the breadth of the effects on humans and animals.A 2019 University of Victoria study looked into the latter, and it found that people are consuming tens of thousands of plastic particles per year. Again, researchers say the full impacts need to be further analyzed, but that it’s an important step in understanding plastic pollution.Not only can microplastics be ingested, but they exist in the air and can be breathed in, explains lead author Kieran Cox.“Human reliance on plastic packaging and food-processing methods for major food groups, such as meats, fruits and veggies, is a growing problem. Our research suggests microplastics will continue to be found in the majority — if not all — of items intended for human consumption,” said Cox. “We need to reassess our reliance on synthetic materials and alter how we manage them to change our relationship with plastics.”So do corporations, says Hardman, who says clothing businesses can do things like design fleece (a main microfibre culprit) to have lower shed rates and create long-lasting garments.The report is part of the organization’s ongoing microfibre project, which sees collaborations between players in the clothing industry as well as government to work towards microplastic solutions, so she’s hopeful that more businesses will start to adopt suggested practices. Individuals can purchase long-lasting garments or secondhand items, rather than fast-fashion goods, which are more likely to shed microfibres. “It really energizes us to keep asking the challenging questions that are going to empower and enable businesses to take action and individuals to take action. We all have a part to play … it’s not just business, it’s not just policymakers, it’s not just consumers,” she said.“We are all part of the system. And we all have a role to play in tackling this very real problem, which is only going to grow if we don’t take action now.”

Why chemical pollution is turning into a third great planetary crisis

Thousands of synthetic substances have leaked into ecosystems everywhere, and we are only just beginning to realise the devastating consequences

Earth

21 July 2021

By Graham Lawton

Marcin Wolski
IT IS the 29th century and Earth is a dump. Humans fled centuries ago after rendering it uninhabitable through insatiable consumption. All that remains is detritus: waste mountains as far as the eye can see.
This is fiction – the setting for the 2008 Disney Pixar movie WALL-E. But it may come close to reality if we don’t clean up our act. “We all know the challenge that we’ve got,” says Mary Ryan at Imperial College London. “We can find toxic metals in the Himalayan peaks, plastic fibres in the deepest reaches of the ocean. Air pollution is killing more people than the current pandemic. The scale of this is enormous.”
Back when WALL-E was made, pollution and waste were near the top of the environmental agenda. At the 2002 Earth Summit in South Africa, global leaders agreed to minimise the environmental and health effects of chemical pollution, perhaps the most insidious and problematic category. They set a deadline of 2020 (spoiler alert: we missed it).
Recently, climate change and biodiversity loss have dominated environmental concerns, but earlier this year the UN quietly ushered pollution back to the top table. It issued a major report, Making Peace with Nature, declaring it a third great planetary emergency. “Do I think that is commensurate with the risk? Yes, I do,” says Ryan.
“It justifies being right up there at the top,” says Guy Woodward, also at Imperial. The key question, though, is what pollutants we should be worried about. “Many are innocuous. Some aren’t. Some interact in dangerous ways. That is what we need to grapple with,” says Woodward.
Pollution, the …

NC Coastal Federation, partners talk combatting microplastic pollution

NEWPORT — Plastic pollution is a widespread problem throughout the world’s oceans and waterways, and environmentalists encourage people, businesses and governments to all take action.The N.C. Coastal Federation, a Carteret County-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the state’s coastal environment, hosted an online forum Thursday on microplastic pollution, and more than 300 attendees registered worldwide.Microplastic is plastic that has broken down into pieces no bigger than 5 milimeters. Studies have found it polluting vast amounts of the oceans and inland water bodies, resulting in people and wildlife ingesting it, which can be hazardous to health.

NCCF Executive Director Todd Miller said a big part of the solution is raising public awareness of microplastic pollution.“We’re still in the early stages of exposing this issue to the public,” he said. “We’re at the state where we know the issue is spreading.”Mr. Miller also said microplastic pollution is tied to a lot of coastal issues the federation has been dealing with.“Storm debris is a major issue,” he said. “As we’ve talked about coastal resiliency…in North Carolina, microplastics are just starting to come into the conversation. The important thing is going to be identifying where opportunities are to do something.”NCCF assistant director of policy Ana Zivanovic-Nenadovic said microplastics have “permeated our lives” since the 1960s, when mass production of plastic products took off.“It’s in the water, the air and the wildlife,” she said. “It’s a problem.”Plastic Ocean Project Executive Director Bonnie Monteleone was one of several speakers who joined the forum. Ms. Monteleone said scientific study shows 11 million metric tons of microplastics go into the oceans annually from runoff alone, affecting 638 marine species.“The plastics in the oceans aren’t creating an island,” she said, “it’s more creating a soup.”Ms. Monteleno said plastics will break up into smaller and smaller pieces, but they never “break down,” that is they never lose the properties that make them plastics. Studies show microscopic plastics are being eaten by microorganisms, which are in turn eaten by larger and larger predators, causing these plastics to build up in their bodies.“We used to intentionally dump plastic into the ocean,” Ms. Monteleno said. “An international law went into effect (in 1988). It took a good 20 years for a law to be made.”One considerable source of microplastics are microfibers, tiny pieces of fiber that can be coated with plastic. N.C. State University graduate student Dr. Marielis Zambrano said microfibers can find their way into the water and the air through laundering synthetic fabrics, like polyester.

“You have microfibers coming off (synthetic fabrics) throughout the life cycle of a product,” NCSU Elis-Signe Olsson Professor of Pulp and Paper Science and Engineering Dr. Richard Venditti said.Potential solutions include filters for washing machines and dryers, adding a finish to fabrics and replacing synthetic fabrics with natural, plant-based or biodegradable ones.While all the effects of microplastics on human and animal health aren’t known, scientists have determined they are hazardous. California State Water Resources Control Board research scientist Dr. Scott Coffin said plastic additives can disrupt endocrines in humans.He said a 2017 study showed 83% of worldwide tap water sources had microplastics in them.“Currently there are no standardized methods to monitor (water sources) for microplastics,” he said.As of Wednesday, a monitoring method is under development in California.Water isn’t the only source of microplastics that get into people’s bodies.“We find that air is likely our greatest exposure pathway,” Dr. Coffin said. “We find much of this (exposure) is indoors. We know microplastics don’t go away after you ingest them.”Regulatory action is one part of the response to the issue of microplastics. Wake Forest University School of Law associate professor Sarah Morath said two things to consider when creating regulations to reduce microplastic pollution is what part of the lifecycle of plastics should be regulated and who should be responsible for doing the regulating.“I think we’ve learned plastic is ubiquitous,” Ms. Morath said. “You can’t underestimate the importance of letting your elected representatives known you’re concerned about the issue.”  Mr. Miller agreed with Ms. Morath.“I think people have to recognize this is an issue,” he said. “I think we’re on our way. I think we need to look at opportunities in North Carolinian to create role models through legislative action…We need to support the science.” Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email mike@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.