Chemical pollution has passed safe limit for humanity, say scientists

Chemical pollution has passed safe limit for humanity, say scientistsStudy calls for cap on production and release as pollution threatens global ecosystems upon which life depends The cocktail of chemical pollution that pervades the planet now threatens the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends, scientists have said.Plastics are of particularly high concern, they said, along with 350,000 synthetic chemicals including pesticides, industrial compounds and antibiotics. Plastic pollution is now found from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans, and some toxic chemicals, such as PCBs, are long-lasting and widespread.The study concludes that chemical pollution has crossed a “planetary boundary”, the point at which human-made changes to the Earth push it outside the stable environment of the last 10,000 years.Chemical pollution threatens Earth’s systems by damaging the biological and physical processes that underpin all life. For example, pesticides wipe out many non-target insects, which are fundamental to all ecosystems and, therefore, to the provision of clean air, water and food.“There has been a fiftyfold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950 and this is projected to triple again by 2050,” said Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) who was part of the study team. “The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity.”Dr Sarah Cornell, an associate professor and principal researcher at SRC, said: “For a long time, people have known that chemical pollution is a bad thing. But they haven’t been thinking about it at the global level. This work brings chemical pollution, especially plastics, into the story of how people are changing the planet.”Some threats have been tackled to a larger extent, the scientists said, such as the CFC chemicals that destroy the ozone layer and its protection from damaging ultraviolet rays.Determining whether chemical pollution has crossed a planetary boundary is complex because there is no pre-human baseline, unlike with the climate crisis and the pre-industrial level of CO2 in the atmosphere. There are also a huge number of chemical compounds registered for use – about 350,000 – and only a tiny fraction of these have been assessed for safety.So the research used a combination of measurements to assess the situation. These included the rate of production of chemicals, which is rising rapidly, and their release into the environment, which is happening much faster than the ability of authorities to track or investigate the impacts.The well-known negative effects of some chemicals, from the extraction of fossil fuels to produce them to their leaking into the environment, were also part of the assessment. The scientists acknowledged the data was limited in many areas, but said the weight of evidence pointed to a breach of the planetary boundary.“There’s evidence that things are pointing in the wrong direction every step of the way,” said Prof Bethanie Carney Almroth at the University of Gothenburg who was part of the team. “For example, the total mass of plastics now exceeds the total mass of all living mammals. That to me is a pretty clear indication that we’ve crossed a boundary. We’re in trouble, but there are things we can do to reverse some of this.”Villarrubia-Gómez said: “Shifting to a circular economy is really important. That means changing materials and products so they can be reused, not wasted.”The researchers said stronger regulation was needed and in the future a fixed cap on chemical production and release, in the same way carbon targets aim to end greenhouse gas emissions. Their study was published in the journal Environmental Science & TechnologyThere are growing calls for international action on chemicals and plastics, including the establishment of a global scientific body for chemical pollution akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.Prof Sir Ian Boyd at the University of St Andrews, who was not part of the study, said: “The rise of the chemical burden in the environment is diffuse and insidious. Even if the toxic effects of individual chemicals can be hard to detect, this does not mean that the aggregate effect is likely to be insignificant.“Regulation is not designed to detect or understand these effects. We are relatively blind to what is going on as a result. In this situation, where we have a low level of scientific certainty about effects, there is a need for a much more precautionary approach to new chemicals and to the amount being emitted to the environment.”Boyd, a former UK government chief scientific adviser, warned in 2017 that assumption by regulators around the world that it was safe to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes was false.The chemical pollution planetary boundary is the fifth of nine that scientists say have been crossed, with the others being global heating, the destruction of wild habitats, loss of biodiversity and excessive nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.TopicsPollutionPesticidesPlasticsFarmingnewsReuse this content

Big brands including Coca Cola call for ‘global pact to combat plastic pollution’

Multinational companies have called for a pact to beat plastic pollution. (Getty)Big brands including Coca Cola and Pepsico have called for a global pact to battle plastic pollution.The proposed pact would include cuts in plastic production, saying that a circular economy for plastics will ‘contribute to the efforts to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, while bringing positive social and economic impacts’.There are more than 70 signatories to the statement, including Walmart, Unilever and Nestle.Later this year, world officials will meet at a United Nations Environment Assembly conference (UNEA 5.2) for negotiations on a treaty to tackle a plastic waste crisis that is choking landfills, despoiling oceans and killing wildlife.The joint statement said: ‘“We are at a critical point in time to establish an ambitious UN treaty.“UNEA 5.2 is the decisive, most auspicious moment to turn the tide on the global plastic pollution crisis. We cannot afford to miss it.”Read more: Melting snow in Himalayas drives growth of green sea slime visible from spaceIt remains unclear whether any deal will focus on waste management and recycling or take tougher steps such as curbing new plastic production, a move that would likely face resistance from big oil and chemical firms and major plastic-producing countries like the US.Less than 10% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled.A Reuters investigation last year revealed that new recycling technologies touted by the plastics industry have struggled to combat the problem.Meanwhile, production of plastic, which is derived from oil and gas, is projected to double within 20 years.This is a key source of future revenue for energy companies, as demand for fossil fuels wanes with the rise of renewable energy and electric vehicles.Read more: A 1988 warning about climate change was mostly rightWhile scaling-up global recycling is critical to tackling plastic waste, these efforts will not prevent plastic pollution from continuing to skyrocket without constraints on production, a landmark 2020 study by Pew Charitable Trusts found.Story continuesLast year, a new study showed that plastic has a far worse carbon footprint than previously believed.The problem is that plastic is often made in coal-based newly industrialised countries such as China, India, Indonesia and South Africa.The energy and process heat for the production of plastics in these countries comes primarily from the combustion of coal.The researchers say that the global carbon footprint of plastics has doubled since 1995, reaching 2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) in 2015.Read more: Why economists worry that reversing climate change is hopelessThis represents more than 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is more than previously thought.Over the same period, the global health footprint of plastics from fine particulate air pollution has increased by 70%, causing approximately 2.2 million disability-adjusted life yearsThe researchers looked at the greenhouse gas emissions generated across the life cycle of plastics – from fossil resource extraction, to processing into product classes and use, through to end of life, including recycling, incineration and landfill.The production phase of plastics is responsible for the vast majority – 96% – of the carbon footprint of plastics.Livia Cabernard, a doctoral student at the Institute of Science, Technology and Policy (ISTP) at ETH Zurich, said: “So far, the simplistic assumption has been that the production of plastic requires roughly the same amount of fossil fuel as is contained in the raw materials in plastic — above all petroleum.””The plastics-related carbon footprint of China’s transport sector, Indonesia’s electronics industry and India’s construction industry has increased more than 50-fold since 1995.””Even in a worst-case scenario in which all plastics are incinerated, their production accounts for the lion’s share of total greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions.”Watch: Nigerian art installation finds beauty in plastic pollution

What is wishcycling? Two waste experts explain the harmful recycling harm than good

Unsure if something can actually be recycled? Putting it in your recycling bin anyway might be worse for the environment than just tossing it in the trash.
[Source Image: JakeOlimb/Getty Images]
By JESSICA HEIGES AND KATE O’NEILL 2 minute

Israeli artist turns plastic pollution into 'Earth Poetica'

In Beverly Barkat’s quest to connect people with nature, she found that environmental waste could be a powerful medium.JERUSALEM — When the Jerusalem artist Beverly Barkat began to create an artwork for the lobby of a building in the new World Trade Center complex overlooking ground zero in Lower Manhattan, she aimed to come up with something architecturally site specific and impactful, large enough to connect with the space but not so enormous as to disconnect from the observer.Barkat had a stark message to convey. Years earlier, she said, she had been struck by an image of children scavenging on a once-beautiful beach awash in plastic waste.“It stayed with me,” she said. “We are suffocating Earth.”Barkat, 55, came back to her studio in Jerusalem and began experimenting, stuffing plastic waste in various types of clear containers, seeking a way to connect people with nature and the world that is not border-oriented, not unlike the vast, floating islands — or continents — of waste plastic that form in the oceans and circulate.Barkat with her work in progress. She casts pieces of polluting plastic — sent to her by people around the world who heard about her mission — in epoxy resin.Amit Elkayam for The New York TimesEventually she settled on a method of casting pieces of plastic waste in crystal-clear epoxy resin. Seen from the outside, the sphere has a sort of stained glass effect. “It went from looking like a scrunched-up plastic bag,” she said, “to something that looks like jewelry” or “something very, very expensive and precious.”The resulting work in progress is “Earth Poetica,” an imposing sphere four meters in diameter, made up of metal-framed panels and an inner skeleton of bamboo segments filled with plastic. The outer surface of the globe, with its authentically proportioned continents and seas, glistens with breathtaking beauty.But when it is viewed close-up from the inside, through a few panels that will be left open as peepholes, an ugly truth is revealed: Like the rough back of a carpet, the inner surface, which reveals the work, is a chaotic maelstrom of tufts and jagged fragments of plastic bags, bottles, fishing nets and consumer packaging.We met at Barkat’s studio in downtown West Jerusalem over a three-week period as some of the final panels — a tip of North America, some last parts of Asia and the South Pole — were taking shape. One flank of her airy, double-story space is filled with bundles of plastic bags and other detritus.Working over the past three years, she has accumulated plastic from around the world. Once the coronavirus outbreak curtailed international travel, people who had heard about the project began sending her their plastic waste from abroad. She collects discarded fishing nets from Jaffa and other spots along Israel’s Mediterranean coast.Interior detail of “Earth Poetica,” which is a huge globe created out of plastic waste.Amit Elkayam for The New York TimesThe color palette of plastic waste collected by the artist from different countries or sent to her by people interested in the project.Amit Elkayam for The New York TimesAmit Elkayam for The New York TimesAnd the pandemic has only enhanced people’s understanding of the project. “People physically felt the concept of what I was talking about,” she said, since the virus, like plastic waste, does not respect borders.She is by no means the first artist to work with plastic waste, and she said she had seen a lot of work by artists trying to tackle climate change and the environment. But it was important for her, she said, to create her own way of doing so.“If I already know it, or someone else has done it, why do it?” said Barkat, who is petite and soft spoken. “If I surprise myself then I surprise other people.”Alongside experimenting with how the materials behaved, Barkat researched her subject using globes, Google maps, NASA imagery and photos posted online. As the project evolved, it brought together many of the various mediums and disciplines that Barkat has incorporated in her journey as an artist.The outer surface of the globe, with its authentically proportioned continents and seas, glistens. Its effect, which has been compared with Renaissance rose windows in cathedrals, carries an air of sacredness.Amit Elkayam for The New York TimesBorn in Johannesburg to parents who were ceramists, she came to Jerusalem in 1976, at the age of 10, when her family took up a yearlong appointment at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. When the year was up, they decided to stay in Israel. (The original home of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1906, is across the way from her current studio.)“My mother tongue is sculpting in clay,” Barkat said. She went on to study jewelry design and ultimately married Nir Barkat, a childhood friend whom she began dating as a student. He went on to become the mayor of Jerusalem, and is now a front-runner to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu as a future head of the conservative Likud party, making Beverly Barkat the partner of a potential prime minister.Before entering public life, her husband was a successful high-tech entrepreneur and traveled extensively. During those years she invested more time in raising their three daughters.She veered into architectural projects, including bringing libraries into schools, and starting, at about the age of 40, embarked on three years of intensive study of drawing and painting with the Israeli master Israel Hershberg. Along the way, she learned glass-blowing in the Czech Republic.The years her husband spent in Jerusalem on the city council and as mayor gave her the opportunity to develop her voice, all the time knowing, she said, “I have art as my anchor.”Her husband “comes to the studio, he helps, he schleps, he climbs,” she said. “He is part of who I am as a person.” (When he was mayor, he inaugurated a garbage recycling plant in the city, citing it as a leader of a “green revolution” in the country.)The artist making her work from  fragments of plastic bags, bottles, fishing nets and consumer packaging.Amit Elkayam for The New York TimesBarkat researched her subject using atlas references, Google maps, NASA imagery and photos posted online.Amit Elkayam for The New York TimesPiecing together the South Pole for “Earth Poetica.”Amit Elkayam for The New York TimesMuch of her past comes together in “Earth Poetica.” The bamboo element, inspired by a conversation in Taiwan, brings in nature and each segment is cast, or “painted,” as Barkat puts it, in a soy bean-based epoxy that she ships from Canada.In a faithful depiction of reality, Barkat’s Pacific Ocean includes plastic garbage patches. Different shades and layers of blue and green create sea swirls and thermal changes. Much of Asia is a lush paradise. Slivers of white, turquoise and translucent plastic, some sharp, some feathery, form arctic icebergs, frozen snow caps and glaciers.Here and there a logo from the plastic packaging peeps through — “Nature’s Wonders,” “100% Natural” — like ironic graffiti.Barkat’s work has been exhibited in Israel, Italy, Taiwan, Japan and the United States, among other places. The Rome-based Nomas Foundation, an arts and research institute that examines contemporary art within the public sphere, is providing curatorial backing for “Earth Poetica.” The president and scientific director of the foundation, Raffaella Frascarelli, will run workshops with the artist while the work, which the foundation also calls the Biosphere Project, is being exhibited.Frascarelli and Barkat first met in 2018 when Barkat was exhibiting a previous project, “After the Tribes,” in Rome.Barkat hopes to break down the barriers between people and nature in a way that will change perceptions and perhaps habits.Amit Elkayam for The New York TimesIn a telephone interview, Frascarelli described Barkat as humble and shy, yet driven by a powerful artistic language and inner desire to have a part in changing the world.“From the individual point of view, the work is a physical process, almost a performance that has been going on for three years now,” Frascarelli said of “Earth Poetica,” a work she refers to in the female form because, she said, it is “profoundly feminine and regenerative.”At a collective level, Frascarelli said, “Earth Poetica” could also be considered a kind of self-portrait of humanity encapsulating “the individual and collective material and spiritual challenges we are facing.”Frascarelli noted that “Earth Poetica” bears a resemblance to the Renaissance rose windows often found in cathedrals, which lends the work an air of sacredness.Before arriving at its permanent home in New York, about a year from now, “Earth Poetica” will be installed in the Israel Aquarium in Jerusalem for at least six months starting from early February. Dedicated to the conservation of Israel’s marine habitats, the Aquarium is building an educational program for children around the artwork. There are also plans for the installation to tour.Once the artwork is installed, it will be possible for visitors to climb up and see it from above, peek inside or sit and contemplate it. Barkat’s hope is to break down the barriers between people and nature in a way that will change perceptions and perhaps habits.With today’s information overload, she said, the brain easily forgets. “If you see something that physically moves you, that’s what your body remembers,” she said, describing the power of art. “You need to experience it physically.”

Bay Area zero-waste stores thrive after wave of pandemic pollution

When Shanti Jourdan received her first bicycle delivery of laundry detergent, Epsom salt and olive oil from Re-Up Refill Shop in Oakland, she thought she had found the holy grail.“I’ve been really into the idea of zero waste and reuse instead of recycle since I was a young teenager,” said Jourdan, 30, an Oakland yoga instructor and astrologer. She posted Instagram photos of the jugs and jars, neatly labeled with embossed black tape. “It felt like it was too good to be true.”

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

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

Passaic NJ chemical plant fire is 11 alarm at Qualco

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

Five myths about plastics

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

Microplastic pollution lingers in rivers for years before entering oceans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plastic policies

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

Take action 

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

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

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