NEW DELHI — India on Friday became the latest country to impose a ban on most single-use plastics, part of a growing but patchy global effort to tackle a leading source of pollution. The challenges of enforcement are enormous, experts say, but so are the potential gains.Only a small fraction of the plastic produced globally is recycled. Most is single-use, or disposable. It often winds up in landfills, rivers and oceans, or is burned, a significant contributor to air pollution in developing nations. Though these plastics are used only briefly, they can take hundreds of years to decompose. By 2050, there will be about 12 billion tons of plastic waste in the world, the United Nations estimates.Plastic debris is ubiquitous in India: stacked along roadsides, floating in waterways and choking drainage systems. The country is the world’s third-largest producer of plastic waste, trailing only the United States and China, according to a recent report from Australia’s Minderoo Foundation.U.S. is top contributor to plastic waste, report showsIndia announced its ambitious initiative last year. Now, the manufacture, sale or import of widely used items such as plastic cutlery, ice cream sticks, and film on cigarette packs and candy boxes are banned. Plastic bags, another major pollutant, are not on the list for now, but the government has mandated an increase in thickness to make them easier to reuse. Some plastic packaging used for consumer food products will be excluded from the ban, but manufacturers are tasked with ensuring that it is recycled.Experts say bans are only a first step and must be followed by stringent, long-term enforcement.“Plastic is cheap and a poor man’s commodity,” said Anoop Kumar Srivastava, founder of the Foundation for Campaign Against Plastic Pollution. “Such campaigns take years of sustained efforts. The gains are going to be enormous over a period of time.”Legal manufacturers of single-use plastic are likely to shut down as the ban takes effect, he said, but unlicensed ones may spring up to meet demand, making vigilant monitoring imperative. Pollution- control bodies at the state and local levels are primarily tasked with enforcing the ban. Violators will be fined and can face jail time, the Economic Times reported.“The large users of plastic packaging need to work with the supply chain on how they can shift to alternatives without affecting their financial bottom line,” said Suneel Pandey, director of environment and waste management at the Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi.But consumers have a role to play as well. “Awareness is a big issue,” Pandey said. “If [consumers] get alternatives, they would switch. Otherwise, they will use what is convenient.”Plastic manufacturers are already up in arms. They say that the government did not give them enough time to make the transition and that thousands of jobs are at stake.“For so many units to change their product, their machinery, their manpower and adapt to newer technologies is a very big task that cannot happen in a year,” said Kishore Sampat, president of the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association. The ban will impact more than 80,000 companies making single-use plastic items and lead to billions of dollars in losses, he estimated.India takes its place in a slow but building global movement away from plastics. China announced in 2020 that it would phase out plastic bags nationwide by the end of this year. A ban on single-use plastics in Canada will go into effect in December. There is no national ban in the United States, but California, New York and Oregon have limited the use of plastic items.Canada banning single-use plastics to combat pollution, climate changeMore than half a dozen state governments in India have passed similar regulations in the past, with mixed results. But there are small success stories that could serve as a model for the rest of the nation.Twenty years ago, Supriya Sahu, a young government official charged with oversight of Nilgiris district, a popular destination in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, saw a seemingly impossible problem. Tourists left behind mounds of plastic that would find its way into streams and forests and be eaten by animals. She joined forces with civil society groups, municipal bodies and village representatives to work toward a solution.Before seeking a broad ban, she persuaded local councils to pass resolutions against plastic use. Her team distributed cloth bags to tourists at the district borders. To raise awareness, images of animals with plastic stuck to their intestines were displayed widely. Finally, authorities began to fine consumers and close shops using plastic bags.“It worked like magic,” Sahu said. “There was absolutely no way that we could handle all the plastic” that was being generated.Tamil Nadu later adopted many of these practices and banned most single-use plastic items in 2019. The state has seized 1,768 tons of plastic in the years since and collected $1.28 million in fines.“It is not an easy decision for any government to take,” Sahu said. “But somewhere we have to start.”
The legislative path to reducing plastic waste in California became significantly clearer on Tuesday when the Assembly Natural Resources Committee voted 9-0 to approve a bill that targets the production of single-use plastic packaging and foodware in the state over the next decade.
No plastic manufacturers spoke out against Senate Bill 54 at a hearing before the vote, and all three Republicans on the committee voted for its passage. Supporters of the bill said privately that the vote could indicate a similarly lopsided outcome when the measure goes to the full Assembly on Thursday. The bill has already passed the state Senate, but it would have to go back to the upper house for concurrence on amendments that have since been written into the legislation.
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A plastic-reduction ballot initiative has already qualified for the November election. Some of the state’s major business groups as well as two of the largest plastic producers in the country oppose the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act and are raising millions of dollars to defeat it, assuming it goes forward. Dow Inc., the parent company of Dow Chemical, contributed $10 million to the opposition campaign on June 21. The next day, Dart Container Corp. gave $1 million. If the Legislature does not approve SB 54 by a Thursday deadline, the initiative would proceed to the ballot.
Under the terms of SB 54, plastic manufacturers would create their own “producer responsibility organization” to achieve reductions in single-use plastic of 25% by 2032. Producers would also put $500 million a year for 10 years beginning in 2027 into a plastic waste mitigation fund. The organization would operate under an advisory board made up of environmentalists and representatives from California cities, waste management companies, recycling advocates, disadvantaged communities and rural associations. The California Department of Recycling would regulate and monitor the producer group.
The bill also bans polystyrene foodware by January 2025 unless manufacturers demonstrate that they can recycle 25% of it.
“When the Senate voted to move SB 54 out to this house earlier this year, I committed to only bringing forth a bill that was flexible enough to address the concerns raised by industry but also strong enough to win the support of environmental and business groups backing a statewide ballot initiative,” SB 54 author Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica testified at Tuesday’s committee hearing. “I truly believe that we did that and more.”
Allen said the bill “will put California at the front of the pack in addressing the critical issue of plastic pollution, and doing it in a way that offers the certainty and specificity needed for industry to succeed.”
According to the bill analysis, California disposes of 42.2 million tons of plastic waste a year, only 9% of which is recycled. Worldwide, some 8 million metric tons of plastic winds up in the ocean. Most of the nonrecyclable waste breaks down into microplastics that can then enter the human body and create assorted health problems, according to the analysis.
In recent weeks, environmental groups split over revisions of SB 54 that emerged in months-long negotiations in Sen. Allen’s office. Much of the disagreement centered on the authority of the producer responsibility organization. Some groups said in letters to Allen that the revisions took away too much of CalRecycle’s power to oversee the reduction provisions. More recent amendments seem to have mollified those concerns, and at least one environmental group, Californians Against Waste, switched its position to support the bill.
“The amendments that were taken late Friday allayed most of our concerns,” said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste. “With the various guardrails and backstops added to the bill, it will really be a game changer for California.”
The final decision on whether to go ahead with the initiative in November lies with three people who circulated the petitions to qualify the measure for the ballot. They are Michael Sangiacomo, the former CEO of the San Francisco waste management firm Recology; Caryl Hart, an attorney, environmental activist and member of the California Coastal Commission; and Linda Escalante, another Coastal Commission member who is the Southern California legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
On Tuesday, the NRDC, which also had opposed SB 54, declared in a letter that it would now support the measure, pending further amendments to clarify the bill’s protections against potentially hazardous forms of recycling and narrow the list of materials exempted from the bill’s provisions.
A spokesman for the committee that is raising money to defeat the initiative if it goes to a vote declined to comment on where the opponents stand on the revised SB 54.
Copyright 2022 Capital & Main
June 28, 2022 — Think about the last time you went to the grocery store. Maybe you bought a gallon of milk, a carton of strawberries, a box of granola bars, a jar of peanut butter. Each of these food or beverage products likely came in plastic or glass packaging. Humans have become heavily reliant on packaging for two key reasons: convenience and safety. Doing so has had huge implications for the environment — from the carbon-emitting fossil fuels used to make packaging to the habitat-harming trash it becomes when we’re done.
Which is why many consumers and producers are looking for “sustainable alternatives” to lessen the harmful impact on our planet. Between 2016 and 2020, Google searches for sustainable goods increased by 71%. But can packaging really be sustainable? Well, it’s more nuanced than you might think.
Glass vs. Plastic
The Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of “sustainable” include “capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level” and “designating forms of human activity (esp. of an economic nature) in which environmental degradation is minimized.” The question of what constitutes sustainable packaging often focuses on two common materials: glass and plastic. Plastic has been demonized in recent years due to its origins in fossil fuels and its finite life in a recycling plant. Images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch often depict piles of single-use water bottles and other plastic debris floating in the ocean.
Many consumers consider plastic an unsustainable option, in part because of how much of it ends up in landfills or in nature. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Programme in Europe and CIS from Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Given these myriad issues associated with plastic and plastic waste, many consumers think of glass as a safer, more sustainable alternative. Glass can be recycled indefinitely without degrading. Surely it is better for the environment, right?
Despite the common assumption that glass outweighs plastic in environmental benefits, some recent life-cycle assessments (LCAs) show a more complicated story.
In 2020, researchers at the University of Southampton looked at the relative environmental impacts — from raw material extraction through use and final disposal — of glass and plastic used in beverage packaging. The LCA assessed 1-liter (1.06-quart) beverage containers into three categories: fizzy drinks, fruit juice and milk. It examined glass bottles, aluminum cans, milk cartons, Tetra Pak, and two types of plastic bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE).
Although glass can be recycled indefinitely without degrading, it has its own environmental issues. Photo by jasper benning on Unsplash
The assessment focused on 11 “impact categories” within the three beverage groupings, ranging from eutrophication to global warming potential to toxicity for humans. The glass bottle had a higher negative impact than the typical packaging alternatives for each beverage across nearly all impact and beverage categories.
An older LCA, published in 2014 in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment by researchers from GE and LCA consultant EarthShift, compared glass and plastic bottles for holding contrast media used in X-ray procedures. The LCA suggested that the plastic bottle had lower environmental impacts across all designated impact categories, including greenhouse gas emissions, impact on ecosystems and impact on resources. Adding in the impacts of the packaging containing the bottles yielded less clear results, however.
Also in 2020, researchers in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy published an LCA comparing reusable glass bottles to single-use glass bottles. The LCA concluded that the refillable glass bottle is “by far preferable” to the single-use glass bottle. However, as the study notes, the distance a refillable bottle travels affects how well (and, at large distances, whether) it has a lower overall environmental impact than the single-use option.
According to Packaging Sustainability author Wendy Jedlička, the weight of glass has a heavy impact on its carbon footprint. In the United States, the manufacturing of glass and glass products was responsible for 15 million metric tons (16.5 million tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases in 2018.
Is Plastic Any Better?
While these LCAs may have surprising conclusions about glass for some readers, writing previously in Ensia, freelance writer Karine Vann noted, “[LCAs] tend to privilege the impacts of production (which, for example, materials like plastic score well on because they are lightweight and low-carbon to produce) over the impacts of disposal (a measure for which, being difficult or impossible to recycle, plastics score poorly).” One study found that 79% of plastic ends up in a landfill or in nature, potentially harming wildlife. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018 just 2 million tons (1.8 million metric tons) of plastic containers and packaging were recycled — 13.6% of the amount generated that same year.
Cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal (in million metric tons). Solid lines show historical data from 1950 to 2015; dashed lines show projections of historical trends to 2050. Copyright © 2017 The Authors, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” some rights reserved; exclusive licensee American Association for the Advancement of Science. No claim to original U.S. Government Works. Distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial License 4.0 (CC BY-NC). Click image to expand.
Beyond that, the chemicals that make up plastics can pose their own health risks to humans. Nearly two decades ago, Scott Belcher, a research professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at NC State University, and colleagues found that bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical that serves as a building block for certain plastics, can disrupt the function of hormones, interacting with estrogen receptors. BPA also has been associated with alterations of cells of the nervous system during development and with heart arrythmias.
Although many plastic products for sale today are marketed as “BPA free,” that doesn’t mean they are free of harmful chemicals. “The question that consumers need answering is, ‘What’s being used instead of bisphenol-A?’ And this gets to this idea of regrettable substitution,” Belchers says. “A lot of these substances look chemically a lot like BPA. There’s BPS [bisphenol-S], BPAF [bisphenol-AF] — all of these other bisphenols can have similar or even more activity than BPA. And because the specifics of their use are often hidden as confidential business information, we don’t know how — or how widely — substituted chemicals are used.”
And BPA and its substitutes aren’t the only chemicals found in plastic packaging. Belcher also expresses concerns regarding PFAS chemicals, which are commonly used in takeout boxes, microwave popcorn bags and other food packaging materials that repel grease. And flame retardants, colorings and other materials go into plastics as well.
Jane Muncke, environmental toxicologist and managing director of the Food Packaging Forum, a nonprofit organization focused on chemicals in food packaging, has found that potentially harmful chemicals can move from plastic packaging to food due to four main factors: temperature, storage time, type of food and materials used in the packaging.
Through years of study, researchers have been able to determine that various chemicals found in plastics are associated with adverse health effects, such as cancer, infertility, diabetes, obesity, neurodevelopmental issues, immune system problems and asthma. “Exposure to hazardous chemicals contributes to premature mortality and to increased chronic disease,” says Muncke.
“[The] ideal that we’re shooting for is to get rid of the chemicals that impact your body,” Belcher says.
All that said, Muncke suggests the big sustainability issue with food might not be the packaging at all, but the products themselves. She points to providing nonseasonal food products in the winter. “There’s always the example of organic cucumbers grown in December in southern Spain, where they’re pumping out fossil aquifers, nonrenewable groundwater aquifers, to produce organic cucumbers that then get flown to central Europe so that we have fresh cucumbers in December. And then, the argument is always ‘Yeah, well we don’t want to have food waste,’ so we shrink wrap it in plastic,” Muncke says. “Then people say it’s sustainable packaging. The point is that it is a product that is not sustainable. It doesn’t matter if you wrap it in ‘sustainable packaging’ or not, it’s a product that shouldn’t exist. People shouldn’t be making and buying that product.”
Some experts point to the products themselves, not necessarily the packaging, as an issue that should be dealt with. One such example is nonseasonal food. Photo © iStockphoto.com | Esben_H
Muncke calls for examining why we need certain products in the first place. “It’s kind of a straw man argument, it’s like shifting the discussion away from where it needs to be,” she says. “How do we produce, how do we consume foods, and then, once we’ve clarified how that should be happening we can talk about how to package them.”
Still, Muncke says we can’t change the entire economy and stop shipping fresh vegetables across the globe without a transition. So, as a tool for those in the food business who deal with packaging decisions, Muncke and industry, nonprofit and technical partners developed the Understanding Packaging (UP) Scorecard, which helps businesses reduce the adverse health and environmental impacts of food packaging and containers. The scorecard compares packaging across six categories: climate impact, water use, plastic pollution, chemicals of concern, recoverability and sustainability of sourcing — with the goal of transitioning to more sustainable systems.
Culture Is Key
Sustainability in packaging requires not only systems thinking but also a consideration of culture, says Packaging Sustainability author Jedlička. Systems thinking takes a holistic approach that brings together different elements of society, such as people, the economy and the environment. In packaging design, systems thinking looks at addressing human needs while also considering impacts to the planet.
Including culture into a systems thinking methodology makes for a more useful tool, Jedlička says. For example, she notes that for years train passengers in India would drink chai tea out of unfired clay cups, then toss the cups out the window to the side of the tracks, where they would degrade. When plastic cups were introduced the habit continued, littering the landscape.
“I can look at a list of [materials] and go, ‘Yeah, that’ll work.’ But is that appropriate? Does it fit the community?… How does it fit into the bigger scheme of things?” —Wendy Jedlička
“Culture is really key,” says Jedlička. “That’s one of the things that the systems thinking methodologies don’t directly address. They look at profitability, which is great; they look at people, fair trade, and the environment, which is super important. But that culture aspect, that’s what makes everything else sink or swim.”
In other words, sustainability is based on the context. “I can look at a list of [materials] and go, ‘Yeah, that’ll work,’” Jedlička says. “But is that appropriate? Does it fit the community?… How does it fit into the bigger scheme of things?”
She offers The Beer Store in Ontario, Canada, as an example. In 2021 they collected 98% of the refillable glass bottles sold in their home province, reusing each 15 times on average. This system works because it has become part of the culture.
The Beer Store is one of many companies across the world that follows the “milkman” model, where packaging is reused. Loop is a global reuse platform that works with companies to help build a circular economy. It partners with retailers like McDonalds, brands like Coca Cola, and operational partners like FedEx to enhance adoption of multiuse packaging.
Whole System Thinking
The scope of sustainable packaging ranges far beyond the debate over glass versus plastic — a conversation that is ongoing — and there isn’t a universal sustainable packaging material. “There’s not one answer, and there’s not one optimal packaging type. I mean, glass is great, but paper is also great, and so are many other materials,” says Jedlička, “in the right context, and preferably as part of a closed-loop system.”
In the perspectives of Muncke and Jedlička, as important as the stuff our stuff comes in, is considering why we need a product in the first place and the culture in which it functions. Taking these additional aspects into consideration allows decision makers — both producers and consumers — to think more holistically about packaging and products, which is more likely to change the systems in which this all occurs, and, in doing so, contribute to finding packaging that is truly sustainable.
Editor’s note: Elise Bernstein wrote this story as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. The mentor for the project was Mary Hoff.
Erin Adams steers a refurbished lobster boat down Harraseeket River toward Casco Bay in southern Maine. As she passes the tiny Pound of Tea Island, where sea gulls lounge and a lone red Adirondack chair sits invitingly at the water’s edge, her destination looms in the distance: a 10-acre oyster farm. It’s a windy day and the boat pitches and rolls as Adams slows near a line of floating black oyster cages undulating in the swells.Aquaculture both contributes to and is potentially harmed by the ocean plastics crisis.Adams is harvesting today with her business partner Eric Oransky, who works fast, pulling up oyster bags and tossing them onto the deck. Dumping the contents onto a processing table, they count the oysters in groups of 10, occasionally knocking two together to make sure they’re alive. Then, Oransky sends each group of 10 through a chute and Adams catches them in mesh bags. Voila! They’re ready for delivery fresh off the boat.These mesh bags aren’t made from ordinary polypropylene mesh, however. They’re woven out of string made with 100-percent European beechwood, which is sustainably harvested by thinning forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. They’re the only plastic-free, biodegradable, home-compostable oyster “harvest” bags on the market.Maine Ocean Farms uses roughly 1,200 of these bags every season. The bagging material is sold by Ocean Farms Supply, a business launched last year by Maine Ocean Farms and helmed by Adams. And although the company sells the material to oyster, clam, and mussel growers and wholesale distributors as far away as Mexico, California, and Florida, most of its business is local.Erin Adams and Eric Oransky counting oysters. Adams is cutting a mesh bag from the roll of material in the background. (Photo credit: Meg Wilcox)Already, the company’s bags have replaced the use of 14 linear miles of polypropylene mesh, according to Adams, who adds: “We are just beginning.”Demand for non-plastic aquaculture gear is growing, as evidenced by the hundred or so seafood farmers who packed into a session at the Northeast Aquaculture Conference in April to hear Adams and others speak on the topic.Aquaculture both contributes to and is potentially harmed by the ocean plastics crisis. Much of the industry’s gear, from ropes to cages to flotation devices, are made of plastic. Over time, that plastic degrades, generating millimeter-sized particles that can be ingested by shellfish and finfish, potentially harming their health. While harvest bags are a small part of the plastics used on a typical oyster farm—and in aquaculture more broadly—replacing them with a non-plastic biodegradable material is a step in the right direction.Oysters bagged with material made from sustainably harvested beechwood. (Photo credit: Meg Wilcox)They’re just one in a growing number of emerging innovations that mariculturists—small-scale shellfish and kelp growers—are developing to reduce their contribution to the ocean plastics crisis. Other new products include kelp-based ropes and lobster bait bags, oyster cages made solely from wood and metal, and cotton and hemp-based systems for growing shellfish larvae. While innovators are still grappling with longevity, durability, and the cost-competitiveness of new materials, the trend shows some promise.“If you can create a biodegradable material, or something that’s more benign [for farming shellfish], then you’re improving the health of your product, the quality of your product, and the environment at the same time. It’s a win-win-win,” said Joel Baziuk, associate director, Global Ghost Gear Initiative, at the Ocean Conservancy.Ocean Plastics and Aquaculture Every year, 11 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans, which are already clogged with an estimated 15 to 50 trillion pieces of plastic that never fully break down, but instead fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. Roughly 80 percent of that plastic comes from land-based sources, including wastewater, according to Britta Baechler, senior manager of ocean plastics research at the Ocean Conservancy.Aquaculture contributes to ocean plastic pollution in three main ways, Baziuk told Civil Eats. Gear is lost from open water cages, wave action and extreme weather abrade plastic ropes, nets, and flotation systems, and single-use plastics used during routine operations can enter the ocean, particularly in regions with poor waste management systems.“We know that [aquaculture] is a major vector, we just don’t know exactly how much, because there’s not enough research,” said Baziuk.“People told us they’d been looking for 15 years,” for a non-plastic packaging material, Oransky said. “It’s amazing that a few mariners, woodworkers, and shipbuilders figured it out.”Some 1,300 marine animal species have been found to ingest ocean plastics, said Baechler. Bivalves filter enormous volumes of water to feed, which means that microplastics can get trapped in their gills or guts and cause blockages. Studies show that microplastics can decrease the ability of clams, oysters, and mussels to create energy; they can hinder muscle function and impair reproduction and growth. Hormone-disrupting chemicals like bisphenols and phthalates, which leach from microplastics, can also change marine animals’ behavior or affect their ability to grow, reproduce, and feed effectively.Little is known about the impacts to humans who consume shellfish contaminated with microfiber, and more research is needed. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t consume shellfish, Baechler says. “It’s not a great thing for human health that we’re consuming microplastics, but it’s not a problem that’s specific to shellfish or seafood. It’s across the human food system.”Pandemic-Inspired Innovation Energetic and intense, Oransky grew up in Freeport, Maine, and spent summers sailing in Casco Bay. His passion for the water led him to cofound Maine Ocean Farms in 2017, after working as a woodworker.Like many in Maine’s mariculturist community, Oransky is young, innovative, and environmentally minded. “Those are the people who are driving the interest in reducing plastics and coming up with non-fossil fuel-based technologies,” Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, told Civil Eats.
The ocean covers about 70 percent of Earth’s surface, yet it is often missing from discussions about tackling climate change, plastic pollution, biodiversity loss and other pressing environmental threats facing the planet.Thousands of scientists and activists hope to shift the conversation at this week’s United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon, where leaders from more than 20 nations are set to issue a declaration on protecting the high seas against exploitation and restoring ocean health.“Sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted, and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told delegates at the opening of the conference. “We must turn the tide. A healthy and productive ocean is vital to our shared future.”The ocean is a critical solution to climate change, groups tell BidenAlready, the gathering has featured some splashy commitments from governments and the private sector, drawing measured praise from conservationists, who warn that leaders must still do more to protect the ocean for humanity and marine life.Several American officials are attending the talks, including U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry. And President Biden on Monday signed a memorandum to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing — a leading cause of global overfishing that often involves forced labor, human trafficking and other human rights abuses.The United States, Britain and Canada will launch an alliance to improve monitoring of fisheries and “hold bad actors accountable,” according to a White House fact sheet. A working group comprising 21 federal agencies will release a five-year strategy on curtailing illegal fishing, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Monday issued a proposed rule to combat forced labor in the seafood supply chain.“We must continue to work together to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing around the world, which jeopardizes maritime security and livelihoods for law-abiding fishers and communities,” Kerry said in a statement to The Washington Post.Meanwhile, outgoing Colombian President Iván Duque announced Monday that his country had conserved 30 percent of the ocean off its coasts, becoming the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to meet this goal by 2030. (Duque is set to be replaced by President-elect Gustavo Petro, a leftist who won a historic election on June 19 and has pledged to ban new contracts for oil exploration in Latin America’s third-largest country.)President of the Republic of Colombia Ivan Duque Márquez announcing that Colombia has achieved 30% protection of its ocean – 30 BEFORE 30 – the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to achieve #30×30. Enthusiastic applause from #UNOceanConference plenary audience. Congrats! 🌊 pic.twitter.com/XXAs2m3RP8— Jane Lubchenco (@JaneLubchenco46) June 27, 2022
Jean Flemma, co-founder of the think tank Urban Ocean Lab, who is attending the talks in Lisbon, said the mood on the ground there is punctuated by both optimism and a sense of urgency to combat climate change before it’s too late.“There are some big announcements and commitments that have been made, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” she said. “But people also feel an urgency, and some of us are worried that we’re not acting fast enough.”In addition to governments, the private sector has poured money into protecting 30 percent of Earth’s land and sea by 2030 — an initiative commonly shortened to 30 x 30. The Bezos Earth Fund, the environmental philanthropy launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, on Monday announced its first grants for marine protection, totaling $50 million. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)Grants totaling $30 million will support organizations working to create a network of marine protected areas spanning more than 193,000 square miles off the coasts of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama. A $20 million grant will fund the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project, which will conduct research over the next five years in the central and western Pacific Ocean, which contains the highest marine biodiversity on the planet.“The ocean is our planet’s life support system and a major carbon sink,” Andrew Steer, president and chief executive of the Bezos Earth Fund, said in a statement. “Investing in the ocean can be a powerful solution to many major challenges. It can protect vital marine ecosystems, provide jobs, help local communities, improve food security, and address climate change.”On Tuesday, Bloomberg Philanthropies and eight philanthropic partners committed a collective $1 billion to support the creation, expansion and management of marine protected areas. The commitment is roughly equal to all philanthropic giving for marine protected areas and habitat protection over the past decade.The conference is set to culminate Friday in a declaration to facilitate the conservation of the ocean and its resources, according to the United Nations. However, the declaration will not be binding on its signatories.Humanity’s greatest ally against climate change is Earth itselfStill beyond reach, meanwhile, is an international treaty to establish the first-ever legal framework for protecting the high seas. After 10 years of talks, a deal has failed to materialize, although a fifth round of negotiations is scheduled for August in New York.“I love what the U.N. says, but, unfortunately, they can’t really act,” said Clive Russell, a member of Ocean Rebellion, an activist group that staged a protest before the conference to highlight perceived inaction on overfishing. “So the commitments they make don’t really amount to much.”Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, apologized to young people on Sunday “on behalf of my generation, to your generation” for the state of the planet.“In my generation, those that were politically responsible … we were slow or sometimes unwilling to recognize that things were getting worse and worse in these three dimensions: ocean, climate and biodiversity,” he said. “And that even today, we are moving too slowly in relation to the need to reverse the threat, of rehabilitating the oceans, rescuing biodiversity and stopping climate change. We are still moving in the wrong direction.”Since humanity started burning fossil fuels and releasing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere. The consequences have been devastating for coral reefs, which have been wiped out by mass bleaching events.Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every ThursdayYet the ocean also has the power to help humanity stave off the worst effects of global warming. By some estimates, the ocean can provide one-fifth of the emissions cuts needed to meet the more ambitious goal of the Paris agreement: limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.Offshore wind farms can generate clean electricity to power millions of homes in coastal communities. And “blue carbon” ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, coral reefs and kelp forests can store more carbon dioxide per unit than forests on land.“There has been an incredible recognition of the role the ocean has to play in solving the climate crisis,” said Anna-Marie Laura, director of climate policy for the Ocean Conservancy, who is attending the conference. “Countries are backing that up with specific actions. And there’s even more to be done.”
UN head declares ‘ocean emergency’ as global leaders gather in LisbonAntónio Guterres says the world must turn the tide of rising sea levels, ocean heating, acidification and plastics pollution The UN secretary general has declared that the world is in the middle of an “ocean emergency”, and urged governments to do more to restore ocean health.Speaking at the opening of the UN ocean conference in Lisbon, Portugal, attended by global leaders and heads of state from 20 countries, António Guterres said: “Sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency. We must turn the tide.” Guterres said the “egoism” of some nations was hampering efforts to agree a long-awaited treaty to protect the world’s oceans. In March, UN member states were criticised by scientists and environmentalists for failing to agree on a blueprint for protecting the high seas against exploitation. Of the 64% of the high seas that lie beyond territorial limits, only 1.2% is currently protected.Sea level rise, ocean heating, ocean acidification and greenhouse gas concentrations all reached record levels last year, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s state of the global climate report in 2021.Low-level nations and coastal cities face flooding, while pollution is creating vast coastal dead zones and overfishing is “crippling fish stocks”, Guterres said.Marine pollution is increasing and marine species declining, including sharks and rays, whose populations have crashed by more than 70% over the past 50 years.Nearly 80% of the world’s wastewater is discharged into the sea without treatment, while at least 8m tonnes of plastic enters the oceans each year. “Without drastic action, the plastic could outweigh all the fish in the ocean by 2050,” Guterres warned.“We cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean,” he said in his opening remarks.Guterres, who is from Lisbon, was applauded as he began his speech in his native Portuguese, quoting one of the countries best-known poets, Fernando Pessoa: “God wanted the Earth to be all one. That the sea unites, no longer separates.”The secretary general referred to the positive news since the last UN Ocean conference in 2017, including progress on a legally binding instrument to conserve and protect biodiversity in waters beyond national jurisdiction – part of the draft UN high seas treaty – and last week’s World Trade Organization agreement to curb harmful fishing subsidies.But he issued a call to governments to raise their ambitions on global health. “Much more needs to be done by all of us together,” he said, including more funding for scienctific innovation. “A healthy and productive ocean is vital to our shared future,” Guterres said.The theme of the conference is the critical need for scientific knowledge and marine technology to build ocean resilience. Guterres called for a “goal of mapping 80% of the seabed by 2030”.He made several recommendations, including sustainable management that could help the ocean produce six times as much food and generate 40 times as much renewable energy as it does currently, and protecting the oceans and people in coastal areas from the impacts of the climate crisis.More than 3.5 billion people depend on the ocean for food security, while 120 million work directly in fisheries and aquaculture-related activities, the majority in small-island developing states and least developed countries. Yet SDG (sustainable development goal) 14 (to conserve and sustainably use the ocean seas and marine environment for sustainable development) is the least funded of all the SDGs, Guterres said.UN ocean treaty is ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to protect the high seasRead moreKenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, a co-president of the UN oceans conference, told delegates that “oceans are the most under-appreciated resource on our planet” and human activity had placed them under “great stress”.“Poor management has reduced the ocean’s natural ability to restore itself,” he said. “I find it surprising that we should put such a critical resource at risk.”Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, president of Portugal and co-chair of the conference, said that war and the pandemic must not be used as an excuse for inaction. “Oceans are central in geopolitical balance of power,” he said. “We must recover the time we have lost and give hope a chance, once again, before it is too late.” The draft declaration of the conference acknowledges the world’s collective failure to achieve SDG14 and commits to reversing the health of the ocean, but it does not elaborate on how this will be achieved. It also makes reference to the need for financing for developing countries to help implement Marine Protected Areas.The final draft of the political declaration is expected to be adopted at the end of the conference. Negotiations between nations on the key instrument to protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 – the global ocean treaty – are expected to take place in New York in August.TopicsOceansSeascape: the state of our oceansClimate crisisFishingMarine lifeSea levelPollutionPlasticsnewsReuse this content
In recent years, the amount of plastic in the environment has become a global concern. With the world population approaching eight billion , more and more plastic and plastic-derived products are being used and discarded. An estimated 367 million tonnes (367 billion kg) of plastic were produced in 2020 alone – about 12 tonnes (12,000kg) of plastic waste produced every second that year. With about 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, Nigeria ranks ninth globally among countries with the highest contributions to plastic pollution. Unfortunately, over 88% of the plastic waste generated in Nigeria is not recycled . Instead, much of it ends up in water bodies – rivers, lakes, drains, lagoons and the ocean. Waste comes in sizes ranging from macroplastic (pieces larger than 25 millimetres in diameter) to nanoplastic (less than 1,000 nanometers). It takes various forms, such as polyethylene terephthalate (used for food packaging, beverages, and personal care products), polyvinyl chloride (used in plumbing pipes, flooring, and clothing) and polystyrene (used for food packaging, laboratory materials, toys and computer housing). Studies globally have demonstrated the adverse impacts of plastic waste on the environment. For example, it can cause intestinal damage when ingested by fishes and turtles . Microplastic particles (less than 5mm long) have been shown to be potential vectors of disease agents . Plastic has been reported in cooking salt , stool and drinking water (tap, bottled, and sachet), with potential risks to human health. Sustaining life in water and on land is among the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals . This makes it necessary to have a clear idea of where the plastic pollution is coming from, what harm it is causing and what the authorities can do about it. Plastic waste in NigeriaWe conducted a systematic review of academic studies on plastic pollution in the environment in Nigeria. There were relatively few. As at 30 May 2021 there were only 26 such studies in Nigeria, compared to 62 peer-reviewed studies on the Arctic Ocean . Between 1987 and September 2020, there were 59 studies on the African aquatic environment . We looked for the main sources and types of plastic waste in Nigeria and their biological effects. We identified big research gaps but were able to make some recommendations. The studies indicate that water sachets and shopping bags are the major constituents of plastic waste in Nigeria. Educational institutions, markets and households are among the major routes. They are indirect routes of entry of plastic waste, particularly into water bodies in Nigeria. Read more: Lagos beaches have a microplastic pollution problem Markets are one of the major sources of plastic pollution. Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via GettyImages The sources of plastic waste included tyre wear, cigarette butts and electronic waste (mobile phone components, electronics, electrical appliances). Others were fishing ropes, biosolids, cosmetics, clothing, food packs, and cellphone bags. Microplastic particles were found in some insects, snails and fish sampled from water bodies as well as in table salt (mostly in Southern Nigeria). Research gaps Further research is needed to establish holistic evidence of plastic pollution from all sources across the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria. We also need to know more about its effect on agricultural soils, air, plants, animals, drinking water and human health as well as the socio-economic and psycho-social impact. Despite these gaps, the evidence for land-based sources indirectly polluting water bodies and the oceans is a concern. With increasing evidence of climate change in Nigeria , such as floods, the chances for transfer of plastic waste from indirect sources into the aquatic environment are higher. Next steps The low level of recycling – less than 12% – and inadequate waste collection pose a huge threat to plastic pollution management in Nigeria. Read more: Nigeria’s plastic pollution is harming the environment: steps to combat it are overdue Some African countries have taken steps to curb plastic waste discarded into the environment. They are gradually eliminating or banning single-use plastics. They have also made producers more responsible through buy-back programmes . Education about plastic pollution management should start at the elementary level and continue into adulthood. The informal sector also has a role in curbing plastic waste in the environment. Policies and incentives, backed by robust enforcement, should target plastic producing companies to encourage polymer replacement and recycling. Researchers need up-to-date facilities and funds to evaluate plastic footprint and the risk to animals and humans. They should explore trans-disciplinary approaches to curbing plastic pollution, including using innovative technologies. Temitope O. Sogbanmu works for the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She is affiliated with the Evidence Use in Environmental Policymaking in Nigeria (EUEPiN) Project, The African Academy of Sciences (The AAS), the Nigerian Young Academy (NYA), and other Professional Environmental Societies. By Temitope O. Sogbanmu, Lecturer I, Ecotoxicology and Conservation Unit, Department of Zoology, Faculty of Science, University of Lagos
Viruses can survive and remain infectious by “hitch-hiking” on microplastics in freshwater, scientists have found, raising concern about the impact on human health.Researchers from the University of Stirling found that rotavirus, which causes diarrhoea and an upset stomach, could survive for up to three days in lake water by binding itself to the surfaces of microplastics.“Microplastics are so small that they could potentially be ingested by someone swimming,” said Professor Richard Quilliam, lead researcher on the project. “Sometimes they wash up on the beach as lentil-sized, brightly coloured pellets called nurdles that children might pick up and put in their mouths.” “It doesn’t take many virus particles to make you sick,” he added. The study published in the journal Environmental Pollution was the first to explore the issue in nature, with previous research focusing on the spread of viruses in sterile hospital settings. It is part of a larger project called the Plastic Vector project, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, which is investigating how plastics in the environment can help transport bacteria and viruses, and the impact that may have on human health.Even if a wastewater treatment plant is doing all it can to clean sewage waste, the water discharged still has microplastics in it that are then transported down river into an estuary and end up on the beach, Prof Quilliam said.Some viruses can also release themselves from the plastic into the water or sand meaning their persistence in the environment is increased, he added.The scientists also only tested how long pathogens can survive on microplastics for up to three days, meaning it’s possible they could last longer.Microplastics are tiny plastic particles under 5mm in size that pollute the world’s environment. They have been found across the planet – from the world’s oceans, to the air we breathe, and even in our blood.The new study coincides with an ongoing scandal over the state of England’s waterways. Pollution in the bodies of water has long alarmed environmentalists, politicians and members of the public, with government data showing that every river in England is polluted.In March, water companies admitted discharging raw sewage into England’s rivers, estuaries and seas around 1,000 times a day in 2021, according to government data.While sewage firms are permitted to do this during times of heavy rainfall, the Environment Agency said they have allowed far too many spills.Last week, Richard Foord, the newly-elected MP for Tiverton and Honiton constituency in Devon told The Independent his 12-year-old son and one of his friends recently got sick after swimming in their local river, where concerns have repeatedly been raised about pollution.The government has been trying to clamp down on discharges and launched a consultation on its plan to do so.
A recent study conducted at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station confirmed microplastic pollution in Flathead Lake, which can be traced back to various types of human activity. The study, while not the first to identify microplastics in Flathead Lake, made important findings surrounding how much microplastic pollution is in the lake and where it originates. The research was led by FLBS visiting researcher Dr. Xiong Xiong from the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Hydrobiology.
According to the study, which was recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution, Flathead Lake carries microplastic pollutants at levels similar to or higher than other lakes in similarly populated areas. Although the levels remain low in comparison to more populated regions, such pollution should still be of concern for residents of the area who drink, bathe and recreate in the water, researchers say. While microplastic levels are not yet high enough to indicate immediate human danger, the new findings are a sign of a growing problem that could have lasting implications for the Flathead’s ecosystems.
The National Ocean Service defines microplastics as “small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life.” Once ingested by fish and other animals, they can carry toxins into the aquatic food chain and human food products. Significant concentrations of microplastics have also been found in drinking water systems. In the Flathead’s wide-ranging bodies of water, these pollutants have many origins.
Landfills and plastic waste disposal sites are the largest source of microplastic contamination at the mouth of the Flathead River. Microplastics are often picked up from these sites by water particles and carried into the water system. In addition to waste disposal, the researchers found that the everyday laundry cycle is dumping microplastics into the lake. Much of today’s clothing is made of synthetic fabrics that break into microscopic plastics in the wash. These plastics are transported into the water supply through home septic drain fields and community water treatment plants. Human activities in the water that involve plastic boats, ropes, floats and fishing line can also be cause for concern. Many of these recreational supplies are prone to degrading, adding further microplastics to the water.
“Plastics are a part of our daily lives and they’re embedded in all of the things that we do—in our economy, in our lifestyle. A consequence of that—because plastics don’t degrade—is that they show up everywhere we look,” UM Flathead Lake Biological Station director Jim Elser told the Beacon.
Despite these concerning findings, the researchers say there are many actions that can be taken to remedy increasing levels of pollution.
On an individual scale, adopting in-line washing machine filters, reducing one’s consumption of synthetic fiber materials and limiting single-use plastics can help decrease pollution. The study also suggests larger reforms such as improving plastic waste disposal procedures, strengthening education on the dangers of plastic pollution and improving wastewater treatment systems.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Interior Department announced that it will phase out single-use plastics at national parks and other public lands over the next ten years, a move that will curb plastic consumption in Northwest Montana. While the announcement addresses certain pollution sources mentioned in the FLBS research, the policy is limited to enforcement on federal lands.
To ultimately see larger scale changes, Elser said, “we need to start switching away and using less plastic.”
Microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimetres in size — have been found in marine and freshwater animals ranging from tiny zooplankton to large whales.
However, researchers are still struggling to understand the impact that microplastics are having on aquatic species.
Scientists have found that microplastics have the potential to cause harm to animals through pathways including replacing food and leaching added chemicals into their bodies. However, it’s unclear how much these effects are currently occurring in the environment.
Our recently published study explores how microplastics move within coastal marine food webs. We found that smaller animals feeding lower in the food web might be at greater risk from microplastic exposure than larger predatory animals.
Pollutants and food webs
Food webs are tangled networks of organisms feeding on each other. Where an animal is feeding within this tangled network is called its trophic position and may determine its exposure to pollutants.
For example, mercury pollution accumulates in the muscles of animals and is passed from prey to predators, reaching higher levels of concentration through the food web.
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This process is called biomagnification, and it’s why animals like tuna and salmon end up with potentially dangerous concentrations of pollutants.
Do microplastics biomagnify?
During the summer of 2018, we collected individuals — including clams, mussels, sea cucumbers, crabs, sea stars and fishes — across a food web from several sites around southern Vancouver Island.
A beach seine conducted to collect fish for the study. We found that most individuals had up to two microplastic particles in each of their guts and that the particles were mostly fibres.
(Kieran Cox), Author provided
We then determined the concentrations of microplastics found in the guts of the animals and the liver of the fishes and related these concentrations to each animal’s place in the food web.
The species of aquatic animals we analyzed for microplastic content and positions in the food web.
(Garth Covernton), Author provided
Animals higher in the food web did not contain greater concentrations of microplastics than animals lower in the food web, suggesting that biomagnification was not occurring.
Some of our past work has also shown a lack of evidence for biomagnification of microplastics. In that work, we compared microplastic concentrations in fish guts, reported in the scientific literature, with estimates of their place within food webs.
Some species might be at greater risk
Although we didn’t find evidence of biomagnification, we did find that concentrations of microplastics were higher for certain smaller species when compared to their body weight.
Microplastics did not increase at higher trophic levels — higher positions in the food web — according to a literature review.
(Garth Covernton), Author provided
This included filter feeding animals like clams, mussels and certain sea cucumbers, as well as a type of fish, the shiner surfperch. These fish might be ingesting more microplastics because the particles are similar in size and shape to their preferred food — small aquatic microorganisms like zooplankton and other small invertebrates.
However, the numbers of microplastics we found in all animals were less than two particles per individual on average. While this could mean that health risks to these animals are low, we have yet to understand how long-term exposure to low concentrations of microplastics could affect their health.
In our research, we were limited to studying particles greater than 100 microns in size — about the width of a human hair — as particles smaller than this are very difficult to study using a regular microscope. However, emerging methods may make them easier to investigate in the future. These smaller particles are potentially more toxic and we can’t rule out biomagnification at this scale, even if it’s not occurring for larger particles.
How are microplastics affecting aquatic food webs?
As microplastics pollution of the environment increases, we need to understand its possible effects to avoid potential ecosystem disasters in the future.
An aerial view of a lake with experimental enclosures where microplastics research is being conducted at the IISD-ELA, northwestern Ontario. Studying microplastics in natural freshwater labs will advance our understanding of how they might affect aquatic food webs.
(Garth Covernton), Author provided
Freshwater ecosystems, for example, are often more directly exposed to microplastics and can contain higher concentrations.
Researchers, including a member of our team, are currently conducting work at the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Experimental Lakes Area to help understand how microplastics exposure might affect freshwater ecosystems and food webs.
This work, alongside the work of other researchers, should advance our understanding of how microplastics can affect aquatic ecosystems, especially the effects on the small animals at the base of food webs that might be ingesting more of these particles.