California’s attorney general has announced a first-of-its kind investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries for their alleged role in causing and exacerbating a global crisis in plastic waste pollution. Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said Thursday that his office has subpoenaed Exxon Mobil Corp. seeking information related to the company’s “historic and ongoing efforts” to minimize the public’s understanding of the harmful consequences of plastic. “For more than half a century, the plastics industry has engaged in an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis,” Bonta said.Fossil fuels such as oil and gas are the raw material of most plastics. In recent decades, the accumulation of plastic waste has overwhelmed waterways and oceans, sickening marine life and threatening human health. Climate & Environment Big fight brewing over California ballot measure to reduce single-use plastics Environmentalists and industry are at odds over a November ballot initiative that would reduce single-use plastics and polystyrene food containers. In a statement released late Thursday, Exxon Mobil denied the accusations.“We reject the allegations made by the attorney general’s office in its press release,” said Julie L. King, a spokeswoman for the corporation. “We are focused on solutions and meritless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work that is underway to enhance waste management and improve circularity.”King said Exxon Mobil has been collaborating with governments including the state of California, communities and other industries to support commercial-scale advanced recycling.The announcement of the investigation comes amid an urgent and growing movement across California to curb plastic pollution by reducing it at its source. In the last two weeks, the city and county of Los Angeles have announced ordinances and directives to reduce plastic waste, while state legislators, lobbyists and negotiators debate a bill that could ban several forms of single-use plastics. Also, in November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative designed to curb plastic pollution.Speaking at Dockweiler State Beach — an area of Los Angeles County coast sandwiched between a Chevron oil refinery and a major sewage outflow — Bonta said that despite the public’s perception that plastics are heavily recycled, more than 90% of them end up either buried in landfills, burned or flushed into the ocean.Internal documents from the 1970s warned industry executives that recycling was “infeasible,” he noted, and that there was “serious doubt” that plastic recycling “can ever be made viable on an economic basis.” Indeed, despite the industry’s decades-long recycling campaign, the vast majority of plastic products, by design, cannot be recycled and the U.S. plastic recycling rate has never broken 9%.“In California and across the globe, we are seeing the catastrophic results of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign of deception. Plastic pollution is seeping into our waterways, poisoning our environment and blighting our landscapes,” Bonta said. “Enough is enough.” California California officials approve plan to crack down on microplastics polluting the ocean State officials have moved to limit single-use plastics and filter out the toxic pollutants from waterways before they reach the sea. No other state or country has undertaken such an investigation into the oil and plastics industry. However, California’s probe does mirror other climate change investigations and lawsuits that governments across the nation have launched against the fossil fuel industry, accusing it of deception and seeking compensation for the risks and dangers caused by its products.“This is connecting the dots at a higher level than we have ever seen before, in a way that could hold fossil fuel companies accountable for one of the greatest environmental crises of our time,” said Jennifer Savage, who leads Surfrider Foundation’s national efforts to stop plastic pollution.“Most people don’t realize how tightly plastic production is tied to the fossil fuel industry,” she said. “People don’t think of plastic pollution as a fossil fuel or climate change issue, but they’re truly two sides of the same coin. … The only way that we are going to solve the plastic pollution crisis is to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. And this is a major step in that direction.” The attorney general’s investigation is aimed at determining if any of Exxon Mobil’s actions violated state law and were based on “good faith” understanding of open-source materials about the industry. The subpoena, Bonta noted, is just the beginning. He said his legal team was starting with Exxon Mobil because it is “one of the, if not the biggest producer of plastics in the world, as well as one of the leaders when it comes to deception. They have distinguished themselves because of the amount of plastic they have produced and put into the world.”The plastics industry began an aggressive campaign in the 1980s to sway public opinion when state legislatures and local governments tried to consider restricting or banning plastic products, Bonta said. “We will be as comprehensive, as thorough, as broad, as is necessary, to get to the bottom of this issue of the harm that plastics has caused — and the deception — both past and ongoing,” he said of the investigation.Responding to the probe’s announcement, Matthew Kastner, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing Exxon Mobil and the petrochemical industry, said in a statement that “plastics belong in our economy, not our environment.” He said his organization is committed to a more “sustainable future” that includes “bold” government actions, as well as increasing recycling and waste management infrastructure. He did not specifically respond to questions about the subpoena or investigation. Jay Ziegler, director of policy and external affairs for the Nature Conservancy in California, said that Thursday’s action by the state reminded him of the major investigations that had exposed the tobacco industry. “Wow, it’s like ‘Thank You For Smoking’ all over again,” Ziegler said, referring to the satirical novel by Christopher Buckley that follows a tobacco lobbyist who promotes the benefits of cigarette smoking. Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste, agreed.“This is no different than the tactics used by the tobacco industry to promote smoking and by these same oil companies to prevent action on climate change,” he said. “They know that what they are doing is destroying the planet and affecting pubic health, but instead of investing in sustainable alternatives they spend their money to lobby against reform and to deceive the public.”Sean Hecht, co-executive director of UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, noted similarities to the ongoing challenges against opioid manufacturers, as well as the recent climate disinformation cases making their way through court.He also pointed to a lawsuit led by Santa Clara County against former lead paint manufacturers. The case, which was settled in 2019 after 20 years of litigation, “was seen as quite significant in establishing that there could be liability in a case like this,” he said.Plastics never fully degrade. They just break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. These particles often contain harmful chemical additives such as flame retardants or plasticizers, and a widely cited scientific review of 52 studies concluded that humans on average consume a credit card’s worth of microplastic each week. In just the last few months, research has shown the presence of plastic particles in human blood, healthy lung tissue and meconium — the first bowel movement of a newborn. They are also found in marine organisms, ocean water, air and soil.Some researchers project that by 2050, there may be more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than there are fish. UC Davis researchers once sampled seafood sold at markets in Half Moon Bay and found that one-quarter of fish and one-third of shellfish contained plastic debris.Nevertheless, plastic production has continued to grow, and records show that the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are still expanding their plastics infrastructure and capabilities. In the U.S. alone, companies from across the globe have invested $208 billion since 2010 in new facilities, expansions and factory restarts.State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), who has championed this issue for years, said that all the momentum now coming together across the state speaks to how pressing the plastics issue has become. “We all recognize what an urgent issue this is,” he said, “and that’s why we’re so deeply committed.”
Missouri lawmakers are pushing to ease state regulations on so-called “advanced recycling,” a process proponents say diverts hard-to-recycle plastics from landfills and makes them into new products.
The bill’s sponsor hopes to bring the massive facilities into the state to create jobs while saving the environment from plastic.
But the promise made by advanced recycling is an empty one, critics counter, that does little to improve the environment and uses massive sums of energy, generally, without yielding new plastic.
Advanced, or chemical recycling, breaks down plastics, like films and wrappers, that can’t be processed at mechanical recycling facilities. The hope is to increase the dismal rate of plastic recycling — less than 10% — and ease the burden on landfills.
Chemical industry and business groups say it’s a tool for a more sustainable future with less plastic waste. But environmentalists say the industry is “greenwashing” a process that, in practice, primarily serves to create more fossil fuels.
“It’s just the science isn’t quite there,” said Bridget Sanderson, state director for Environment Missouri. “And there’s of course a lot of greenhouse gas emissions…and toxics that are coming out of these facilities as well.”
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Missouri legislators are weighing a bill that would exempt advanced recycling facilities from permit requirements that govern solid waste facilities and treat the businesses like manufacturers in the hopes of coaxing them into the state. At least 18 other states have adopted similar legislation with support from the chemical industry. If adopted, it would remove “unnecessary hoops to jump through,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon.
“And whenever you get rid of some of these regulations, and this industry enters your state, they…spend hundreds of millions of dollars in facilities, they create new jobs, all at the same time while eliminating polymers from landfills and facilities using it as feedstock to produce new plastics,” Knight told a Senate committee earlier this month.
The bill has already cleared the House. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy, and the Environment passed an amended version 5-2 on Wednesday, sending it to the Senate floor for approval.
Often, opponents say, advanced recycling facilities don’t produce new plastics. Instead, they convert processed plastic waste into fuel to be burned — though the American Chemistry Council said that was the first phase of the technology’s development. The industry is transitioning to plastic-to-plastic recycling, the group said in an interview.
There is also little agreement regarding the level of greenhouse gas emissions or risk from toxic waste associated with the process.
Environmental groups say the process itself emits considerable greenhouse gasses and creates fuels that are dirtier than existing gasoline while a paper funded by and using data from the industry claims exactly the opposite — that the resulting fuels have a reduced environmental impact.
One study published in the journal “Energy” found fuels created through advanced recycling technologies produce more greenhouse gas emissions than regular diesel fuel.
Reduce vs. recycle
The U.S. generates more plastic waste each year than any other nation, and the overwhelming majority of it winds up in landfills. Most types of plastics aren’t easily recycled.
“America’s plastic makers are committed to sustainable change,” said Wes Robinson, senior director of state affairs for the American Chemistry Council. “Right now we have an issue because roughly 90% of plastics aren’t actually recyclable.”
He told a Missouri Senate committee “this technology can fix that.”
But “advanced recycling,” Sanderson said, is a “misnomer” for the energy-intensive process that creates fossil fuels from processed plastic and burns it, leaving in place demand for virgin plastics.
During House committee discussion on the bill, a representative asked the Sierra Club’s lobbyist, Michael Berg, whether it was better for plastic waste to wind up in a landfill or be converted into fuel and burned.
“Probably to end up in the landfill,” Berg said. “I mean, those are bad alternatives, but because it stays sequestered in the soil instead of going into the atmosphere.”
The solution to the crisis of plastic pollution is to not use so much plastic, Sanderson said. She said the chemical industry has made people dependent on plastics. She said she was talking to a group of elementary school students about recycling and told them their grandparents didn’t use plastic grocery bags as kids because they didn’t catch on until the 1970s.
Sanderson said every piece of plastic ever made is still on our planet in some form.
“Nothing we should use — the coffee cup or anything — for a few minutes should be lasting on this planet for hundreds of years,” she said.
Nothing we should use — the coffee cup or anything — for a few minutes should be lasting on this planet for hundreds of years.
– Bridget Sanderson, state director for Environment Missouri.
But the plastic industry contends creating the plastic — most of it non-recyclable — isn’t the problem. The low level of recycling is.
Asked what role a decreasing use of plastic should play in solving the pollution problem, Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability for the American Chemistry Council, said plastics had “led the way” in decreasing the amount of materials used in packaging.
He cited as evidence the transition from laundry detergent being routinely sold as boxed powder to a bottled liquid — and then the concentration of that liquid so that each bottle carried more product.
“The challenge is, though, that we aren’t doing a great job of recycling and recovering those plastics after use,” he said.
Existing recycling businesses have raised concerns about some high-profile advanced recycling facilities that never made it off the ground. Trent Ford, a lobbyist representing the mid-America chapter of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, pointed to Georgia where public officials and an advanced recycling company scrapped plans for a facility after the company failed to deliver “end product” to customers in Indiana, according to Reuters. Meeting such a deadline in Indiana was a condition of the company’s contract in Georgia.
Ford said existing mechanical recyclers also didn’t want to be put at a disadvantage compared to advanced recycling facilities’ potential regulatory break.
Reuters analyzed 30 advanced recycling facilities and found that most are behind schedule or have closed down.
The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives reported, of more than three dozen facilities announced since the early 2000s, only three are operational — and only one is creating new plastic.
The American Chemistry Council claims there are seven advanced recycling facilities making new plastic at commercial scale.
In ongoing litigation over the greenwashing of plastic recycling, the bottled water company BlueTriton made a revealing argument: its claims of being environmentally friendly aren’t violations of the law, because they are “aspirational.”
BlueTriton — which owns Poland Spring, Pure Life, Splash, Ozarka, and Arrowhead, among many other brands — is estimated to contribute hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic to U.S. landfills each year. BlueTriton used to be known as Nestlé Waters North America, which was bought by the private equity firm One Rock Capital Partners in March 2021. The company, which has a history of draining aquifers to get the water that it encases in polluting plastic, owns about a third of bottled water brands in the U.S. Yet with sleek, green — and blue — PR materials, BlueTriton markets itself as a solution to the problems of plastic waste and water.
“Water is at the very core of our sustainable efforts to meet the needs of future generations,” BlueTriton declares on its website, spelling out its promise for sustainable stewardship over a picture of pine trees, pristine water, and clouds. The company’s Instagram account is similarly nature-oriented and wholesome, filled with green-tinged images of people hiking and enhancing the native trout population.The claims were a bridge too far for the environmental group Earth Island Institute, which sued BlueTriton in August, arguing that its misleading sustainability claims violate a local Washington, D.C., law known as the Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which is designed to prevent “deceptive trade practices.” In response, the company defended its green self-promotion by explaining that everyone should realize that the claims are meaningless nonsense.
“Many of the statements at issue here constitute non-actionable puffery,” BlueTriton’s attorneys wrote in a motion to dismiss the case submitted to a D.C. court in March. “BlueTriton’s representation of itself as ‘a guardian of sustainable resources’ and ‘a company who, at its core, cares about water’ is vague and hyperbolic,” the attorneys continued. “Because these statements are ‘couched in aspirational terms,’ they cannot serve as the basis for Plaintiff’s CPPA claim.”
When BlueTriton picked a new logo in April 2021, it explained its choice on Instagram as a nod to its commitment to nature and environmentalism. “Triton is a god of the sea in classical Greek mythology,” the company wrote. “Combined with the color blue, representing water, the new name and logo reflect our role as a guardian of sustainable resources and a provider of fresh water.”
Several of its brands go even further, suggesting that they are helping address the plastic problem because the bottles can in principle be recycled. BlueTriton brands Poland Spring, Ozarka, and Zephyrhills Water advertise that “We use #1PET plastic, which can be used over and over again!” Pure Life water boasts that all its bottles are “100% recyclable … and can be used for new bottles and all sorts of new, reusable things.” Deer Park claims that its recyclable bottles help “keep plastic out of landfills” and that the company “care[s] about you & our planet.”
In truth, there is overwhelming evidence that recycling cannot solve the plastic problem. Since the 1950s, only 9 percent of plastic produced has been recycled, while the vast majority of plastic waste is either landfilled or incinerated. Six times more plastic waste is burned than recycled in the United States. Packaging, including the PET bottles that BlueTriton brands describe as recyclable, account for more than half the plastic that winds up in landfills.
As plastic waste proliferates around the world, an essential question remains unanswered: What harm, if any, does it cause to human health?A few years ago, as microplastics began turning up in the guts of fish and shellfish, the concern was focused on the safety of seafood. Shellfish were a particular worry, because in their case, unlike fish, we eat the entire animal—stomach, microplastics and all. In 2017, Belgian scientists announced that seafood lovers could consume up to 11,000 plastic particles a year by eating mussels, a favorite dish in that country.By then, however, scientists already understood that plastics continuously fragment in the environment, shredding over time into fibers even smaller than a strand of human hair —particles so small they easily become airborne. A team at the U.K.’s University of Plymouth decided to compare the threat from eating contaminated wild mussels in Scotland to that of breathing air in a typical home. Their conclusion: People will take in more plastic during a mussels dinner by inhaling or ingesting tiny, invisible plastic fibers floating in the air around them, fibers shed by their own clothes, carpets, and upholstery, than they will by eating the mussels.A sample collected off Hawaii contains living organisms and plastic.Photograph by David Liittschwager, Nat Geo image collectionPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.This spring, scientists from the Netherlands and the U.K. announced they had found tiny plastic particles in living humans, in two places where they hadn’t been seen before: deep inside the lungs of surgical patients, and in the blood of anonymous donors. Neither of the two studies answered the question of possible harm. But together they signaled a shift in the focus of concern about the plastics toward the cloud of airborne dust particles we live in, some of them so small they can penetrate deep inside the body and even inside cells, in ways that larger microplastics can’t.Dick Vethaak, a professor emeritus of ecotoxicology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and co-author of the blood study, doesn’t consider his results alarming, exactly—“but, yes, we should be concerned. Plastics should not be in your blood.”“We live in a multi-particle world,” he adds, alluding to the dust, pollen, and soot that humans also breathe in every day. “The trick is to figure out how much plastics contribute to that particle burden and what does that mean.”Harm is the hard partScientists have been studying microplastics, defined as particles measuring less than five millimeters (a fifth of an inch) across, for a quarter century. Richard Thompson, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth, coined the term in 2004 after finding piles of rice-sized plastic bits above the tideline on an English beach. In the ensuing years, scientists located microplastics all over the globe, from the floor of the Mariana Trench to the summit of Mount Everest.Microplastics are in salt, beer, fresh fruit and vegetables, and drinking water. Airborne particles can circle the globe in a matter of days and fall from the sky like rain. Seagoing expeditions to count microplastics in the ocean produce incomprehensible numbers, which have multiplied over time as more tonnage of plastic waste enters the oceans every year and disintegrates. A peer-reviewed count published in 2014 put the total at five trillion. In the latest tally, made last year, Japanese scientists from Kyushu University estimated 24.4 trillion microplastics in the world’s upper oceans—the equivalent of roughly 30 billion half-liter water bottles—a number in itself hard to fathom.“When I started doing this work in 2014, the only studies being done involved looking for where they are,” says Alice Horton, a marine scientist at the UK’s National Oceanography Center who specializes in microplastic pollution. “We can stop looking now. We know wherever we look, we will find them.”But determining if they cause harm is much harder. Plastics are made from a complex combination of chemicals, including additives that give them strength and flexibility. Both plastics and chemical additives can be toxic. The most recent analysis has identified more than 10,000 unique chemicals used in plastics, of which more than 2,400 are of potential concern, says Scott Coffin, a research scientist at the California State Water Resource Control Board. Many are “not adequately regulated” in many countries, the study says, and includes 901 chemicals that are not approved for use in food packaging in some jurisdictions.Felix Weber, research associate at the Institute of Environmental and Process Engineering at RhineMain University of Applied Sciences in Germany, sits in front of a picture of a 3-D microscope with plastic particles. Photograph by Arne Dedert, picture alliance/Getty ImagesPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.Additives can also leach into water, and one study found that up to 88 percent could leach, depending on factors that include sunlight and length of time. The same study found up to 8,681 unique chemicals and additives associated with a single plastic product. Sorting out which particular chemical combinations are problematic, and finding the level and length of exposure that causes harm in such a convoluted brew is no easy task.“You may find a correlation, but you would be hard pressed to find causation because of the sheer number of chemicals we’re exposed to in our daily lives,” says Denise Hardesty, a research scientist who has studied plastic waste for 15 years at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.Janice Brahney, a biochemist at Utah State University who studies how dust transports nutrients, pathogens, and contaminants, says she is concerned because plastic production continues to increase dramatically, while so much about microplastics remains unknown. In 2020, 367 million metric tons of plastics were manufactured, an amount that is forecast to triple by 2050. “It is alarming because we are far into this problem and we still don’t understand the consequences, and it is going to be very difficult to back out of it if we have to,” she says.The American Chemical Council (ACC), an industry trade group, maintains a lengthy collection of statements on its website explaining chemical composition of various plastics and rebuttals to research claims that certain plastics are toxic.“No, microplastics are not the ‘New Acid Rain.’ Not even close,” the council said in response to media coverage of Brahney’s 2020 paper, published in Science, which estimated that 11 billion metric tons of plastic will accumulate in the environment by 2025. (Brahney calculated that just in the western U.S., more than 1,000 metric tons of tiny particles are carried by the wind and fall out of the air every year.)The ACC also criticized that finding, saying, “The amount of microplastics in the environment represents only 4 percent of particles collected on average… The other 96 percent is comprised of natural materials like minerals, dirt and sand, insect parts, pollen and more.”Meanwhile, the ACC said through a spokesman it has launched a research program to help answer outstanding questions of microplastics, including those surrounding household dust, and help establish a global exchange of microplastics research between universities, research institutions, and industry. The work envisioned will include examining the environmental fate and potential routes of exposure of microplastics, identifying potential hazards, and developing a framework to assess risk. Findings will be published over the next few years.The topic is so complicated and controversial, Hardesty says, that even the definition of harm comes up for debate at times. Should we only worry about the effects of microplastics on human health? What about the harm they might do to animals and ecosystems?Plastics in animalsThe search for potential harm from plastics actually began with animal studies some 40 years ago, when marine biologists studying the diets of seabirds began finding plastic in their stomachs. As more marine wildlife began to be affected by plastics, either by entanglement or ingestion, studies expanded beyond birds to other marine species, as well as to rats and mice.In 2012, the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal declared that all seven sea turtle species, 45 percent of marine mammal species, and 21 percent of seabird species were affected by eating or becoming entangled in plastic. The same year 10 scientists unsuccessfully called on the world’s nations to officially classify the most harmful plastic as hazardous, which would give their regulatory agencies “the power to restore affected habitats.”In the decade since, the numbers and risks to animals have worsened. More than 700 species are affected by plastics. It is probable that hundreds of millions of wild birds have consumed plastic, scientists say, and by mid-century, all seabird species on the planet are predicted to be eating it. Certain bird populations are already thought to be threatened by widespread exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals contained in plastics. Laboratory studies of fish have found plastics can cause harm to reproductive systems and stress the liver.Japanese quail chicks in a study—the results shown here—fed microplastics weren’t more likely than unexposed chicks to get sick, die, or have trouble reproducing, though they did show minor delays in growth. Photograph courtesy Lauren RomanPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.Animal studies have shown the ubiquity of plastic waste and helped inform research into its potential physiological and toxicological effects in humans.For example, although toxins from plastics can cause adverse health effects in birds, an Australian study in 2019, in which Japanese quail chicks were deliberately fed such toxins, found the opposite: The chicks suffered minor delays in growth and maturation, but weren’t more likely than unexposed chicks to get sick, die, or have trouble reproducing. The findings surprised the scientists, who called them the “first experimental evidence” that the toxicological and endocrine effects “may not be as severe as feared for the millions of birds” carrying small loads of plastics in their stomachs.Hardesty, one of the co-authors, says the quail study serves as a cautionary reminder that assessing the threat posed by exposure to microplastics is “not that simple.” In particular, she says, the difficulty finding clear evidence of harm in quails “really highlights that we are still not able to answer the question of what the impact of eating plastic is for humans in a definitive way.”Plastics in humansMeasuring possible adverse effects of plastics on humans is far more difficult than on animals—unlike quail and fish, human subjects can’t intentionally be fed a diet of plastics. In laboratory tests, microplastics have been shown to cause damage to human cells, including both allergic reactions and cell death. But so far there have been no epidemiologic studies documenting, in a large group of people, a connection between exposure to microplastics and impacts on health.Instead, research has involved small groups of people—a factor that limits conclusions that can be drawn beyond identifying the presence of microplastics in different parts of the body. A 2018 study found microplastics in the feces of eight people. Another study documented the presence of microplastics in the placentas of unborn babies.The recent study by Vethaak and his colleagues found plastics in the blood of 17 of 22 healthy blood donors; the lung study found microplastics in 11 of 13 lung samples taken from 11 patients. Virtually nothing is known about either group that would help inform the level and length of exposure—two essential attributes to determine harm.In both studies the plastic particles found were primarily nanoplastics, which are smaller than one micrometer. The ones found in the blood study were small enough to have been inhaled—though Vethaak says it’s also possible they were ingested. Whether such particles can pass from the blood into other organs, especially into the brain, which is protected by a unique, dense network of cells that form a barrier, isn’t clear.“We know particles can be transported throughout the body via the river of blood,” Vethaak says.The study is one of 15 microplastics research studies underway at the Dutch National Organization for Health Research and Development.The lung study, done at University of Hull in the U.K., showed just how intrusive airborne particles can be. While the scientists expected to find plastic fibers in the lungs of surgical patients—earlier research had documented them in cadavers—they were stunned to find the highest number, of various shapes and sizes, embedded deep in the lower lung lobe. One of the fibers was two millimeters long.“You would not expect to find microplastics in the smallest parts of the lung with the smallest diameter,” says Hull environmental ecologist Jeannette Rotchell. The study, she says, enables her team to move to the next level of questions and conduct lab studies using cells or tissue cultures of lung cells to discover the effects of the microplastics they found.“There are many more questions,” she says. “I would like to know what levels are we exposed to in the course of our lives. What microplastics are we breathing in every day, whether working at home, going to the office, outdoors, cycling, running, in different environments. There’s a big knowledge gap.”The question of harmScientists aren’t entirely fumbling around in the dark. There is extensive research on toxins found in plastics, as well as on lung diseases, from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to cancer, which kill millions of people every year and have been linked to exposure to other pollutants. The American Lung Association, in its latest report, declared COPD, which results from chronic inflammation, to be the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.Humans inhale a variety of foreign particles every day and have been since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The body’s first response is to find a way to expel them. Large particles in airways are typically coughed out. Mucus forms around particles further down the respiratory tract, creating a mucus “elevator” that propels them back up to the upper airway to be expelled. Immune cells surround those that remain to isolate them.Over time, those particles could cause irritation that leads to a cascading range of symptoms from inflammation to infection to cancer. Or, they could remain as an inert presence and do nothing.The particles identified in the lung study are made of plastics that are known to be toxic to humans and have caused lung irritation, dizziness, headaches, asthma, and cancer, says Kari Nadeau, a physician and director of allergy and asthma research at Stanford University. She ticked off the symptoms as she went through the list of fibers published in the study.“We know this already from other published articles,” she says. “It takes one minute of breathing in polyurethane and you could start wheezing.”What scientists don’t know is if the plastic particles in the lung would meet the level and length of exposure to cross the threshold of harm.Whether such particles “directly caused asthma for someone’s whole life, that would be hard to prove,” she says. “I am not saying we should be afraid of these things. I am saying we should be cautious. We need to understand these things that are getting into our body and possibly staying there for years.”Albert Rizzo, the American Lung Association’s chief medical officer, says the science is too unclear to draw conclusions. “Are the plastics just simply there and inert or are they going to lead to an immune response by the body that will lead to scarring, fibrosis, or cancer? We know these microplastics are all over the place. We don’t know whether the presence in the body leads to a problem. Duration is very important. How long you are exposed matters.”He says the most relevant analogy may be the decades-long effort to convince the government that smoking causes cancer. “By the time we got enough evidence to lead to policy change, the cat was out of the bag,” he says. “I can see plastics being the same thing. Will we find out in 40 years that microplastics in the lungs led to premature aging of the lung or to emphysema? We don’t know that. In the meantime, can we make plastics safer?”
The seas off the coast of Vancouver Island were heaving on that stormy day last October, the waves five to six metres high as the wind ripped along at 35 knots. The sheltered waters of Juan de Fuca Strait, just 80 kilometres away, were worlds calmer, safer. The MV Zim Kingston, a 260-metre, Greek-owned container ship travelling from South Korea to Vancouver, could have come in. It could have done laps inside the strait as it awaited its scheduled unloading at the port in Vancouver. But no, it kept skulking along outside the strait, alone in the rain, like a hooligan stalking with a cigarette.
Why did the Zim Kingston stay out there, tracing slow laps in the water for 20 hours? The boat’s owner, Danaos Shipping, isn’t talking. Nor is Zim Integrated Shipping, which chartered the vessel. But some shipping experts are zeroing in on a hazardous chemical sitting inside a shipping container onboard. Potassium amyl xanthate, used in mining, ignites when it contacts wet air — and it makes sense to stay at sea if a substance that hot is at play on a storm-wracked ship. “If you have stuff like that loose, you’d rather deal with it out at sea,” says Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School economist who studies the shipping industry. “The last thing you want is an explosion in the harbour.”
Certainly, the Zim Kingston’s captain acted as though there was trouble on board. He contacted the Canadian Coast Guard saying it was nearing the mouth of the strait, ready to come in. Then he veered north.
A storm hit the Zim Kingston cargo ship, en route to Vancouver, before it could enter the Juan de Fuca strait. Rather than plying on to those sheltered waters it zig-zagged in the windswept open ocean, losing 109 shipping containers. It eventually made it into the strait to anchor off Victoria, where it caught fire some eight kilometres from the shore. Four of its containers eventually washed up at Cape Scott Provincial Park on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal
But perhaps it’s best to read the Zim’s unexplained lurking as just another odd episode in a shipping season gone haywire. The supply chain has been thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic, with everyone stuck at home, ordering doodads off Amazon. As a result, container ships are busier than ever. The industry, which reaped US$25 billion in profits in 2020, was in the black by over US$150 billion last year. Retailers like Wal-Mart are chartering their own ships — a new twist — just to keep up with demand. Ships’ dock appointments are ever shifting now, and myriad container vessels find themselves anchored outside ports — in Long Beach, Calif. and also in Vancouver — waiting days to unload.
Mad times breed mad behaviour. And also disaster. Eventually on the Zim Kingston, storm beat ship. The deck keeled at a 35-degree angle. The Zim, capable of carrying 4,253 of the 20-foot containers (about six metres), tilted perilously, and 109 of these metal boxes slipped into the ocean.
What caused the spill? The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is still investigating, so did not offer comment, but Peter Lahay, the Canadian co-ordinator for the International Transport Workers Federation, has questions about how well the containers, often called “sea cans,” were lashed down. “Was the declared weight for those containers right, or was the load off balance?” Lahay asks. “And were labels describing the containers’ content accurate or fraudulent?”
Ships suppress a fire onboard the Zim Kingston, about eight kilometres from the shore in Victoria, on Oct. 24, 2021. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is still investigating what went wrong on the cargo carrier, which lost 109 shipping containers in a storm outside the Juan de Fuca Strait, before the fire broke out. Photo: Chad Hipolito / The Canadian Press
What’s known is that there were 52 tonnes of xanthate on board, according to the Canadian Coast Guard. And as the Zim Kingston finally limped inside the strait to anchor off Victoria, its load was jostled and the storm was still raging. The xanthate burst into flames. Plumes of smoke rose from the deck. The Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards monitored a blaze that could not be snuffed out with water, and the lost containers floated north. When four of them washed up near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, the beach there was suddenly scattered with 71 refrigerators and a plenitude of inflatable pink plastic unicorns.
Soon, during high tides, the foam on water lapping Cape Scott Provincial Park was viscous, “like Jello,” says Ashley Tapp, a cofounder of Epic Exeo, a B.C. non-profit specializing in beach clean-up. “It was so thick with shampoo and baby lotion that my eyes and nostrils were burning.”
There are 105 more shipping containers at large, according to the Canadian Coast Guard, two of them containing the volatile xanthate, and as the seas pound at their walls and rust their latches, it’s likely that each one of them will disgorge its contents. “With every tide, every storm,” says Tapp, “more debris comes in.”
An ugly situation, certainly, but start bracing for worse. Container ships now transport about 90 per cent of all consumer products worldwide, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Since 2020, the number of sea cans they’ve spilled has skyrocketed. Between 2008 and 2019, an average of 1,382 containers were lost at sea each year, according to the World Shipping Council. Last winter more than 3,000 were lost.
Meanwhile, the planet’s largest insurer of ships — Gard, of Norway — estimates that in 2020, there was one fire involving containerized cargo every two weeks. The blazes happen partly because, as they carry our lawn mowers, toothbrushes, dog toys and spatulas, container ships also transport a wide array of hazardous chemicals. “Dangerous goods” account for about 11 per cent of all boxes shipped in containerized cargo, according to Gard, and many are flammable. Calcium hypochlorite, used for bleaching paper and disinfecting swimming pools, has caused severe deck fires. In 2019, when 13 containers of that substance exploded aboard a ship called the KMTC Hong Kong as it sat in a port in Thailand, noxious smoke and acidic ashes rained on nearby villages. Over 130 people went to hospital, gasping for breath as their skin tingled and burned.
Another troubling fire came last June off the coast of Sri Lanka on a Singaporean ship called the X-Press Pearl, after nitric acid, a corrosive component in fertilizer, began leaking out of one container. It’s not clear if this compound caused the fire, but soon there were explosions on board and sea cans fell off the ship, dropping 1,524 tonnes of a strangely named menace into the Laccadive Sea.
A man fishes on a Sri Lankan beach polluted with plastic pellets or “nurdles” that washed ashore from the cargo ship MV X-Press Pearl after a fire in June 2021. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena /Associated Press
“Nurdles” are lentil-sized plastic pellets that, in molten form, can be shaped into consumer products, and they’re almost constantly trickling into the ocean. In 2016, a British consulting firm, Eunomia, estimated that over 200,000 tonnes of nurdles pollute the marine environment each year.
Fish eat nurdles, which look like their food, and humans, in turn, eat the contaminated fish. Nurdles, meanwhile, are both rafts for E. coli and cholera and sponges for toxins such as PCBs. After the X-Press Pearl spill, on some Sri Lankan beaches, the nurdles were two metres deep.
Still, Sri Lanka was in a way lucky. The X-Press Pearl is, relative to most cargo ships, tiny. It can carry just 2,756 containers. Along with the Zim Kingston, which was not known to be carrying nurdles, it’s a bit player in an industry that has been steadily supersizing its vessels for over a half-century. In 1968, when the twenty-foot container first became an industry standard, the world’s largest ship could carry 1,530 of them. Today, there are 12 ships that can accomodate 24,000 containers, and Canada has eagerly joined the jumboization party.
In 2020, the Port of Halifax completed a $38 million expansion project that, last May enabled it to welcome the biggest ship ever to enter Canada, the Marco Polo — nearly three Canadian football fields long and capable of hauling 16,022 containers. Then-Nova Scotia premier Iain Rankin was jubilant. “Big ships represent jobs and opportunities in all corners of the province,” he tweeted. “We are thrilled the Marco Polo is here.”
It is the biggest cargo ship ever to call at a Canadian port and is here because of our great infrastructure and naturally deep-water harbour. Big ships represent jobs and opportunities in all corners of the province. Welcome. We are thrilled the Marco Polo is here! pic.twitter.com/1tOyVP5ikM— Iain Rankin (@IainTRankin) May 18, 2021
But Are Solum, a senior claims executive for Gard, has grown wary watching the steady upsizing. Solum wrote in June 2020 of how, in storms, container ships often lapse into rolling where the ship pitches, or moves up and down like a teeter totter, in powerful waves, causing stacked sea cans to catapult into the ocean.
The phenomenon is the subject of numerous arcane science papers, but to Sorum the phenomenon is, at bottom, simple: on the largest vessels, sea cans are piled some 40 metres above the waterline, he notes; when the ship starts to move with the motions of the sea, “you do not have to be a physicist to understand that the container stacks will be subject to great forces.”
John Konrad, the founder of gCaptain.com, a news site that covers shipping, sees the threat of container spills in even plainer terms. “The scale of these incidents,” he says, “will surely rise.”
The spills now plaguing our oceans are due in part to climate change, which is making storms ever more volatile. But there’s also a dark power dynamic causing container ship spills to trend upwards: the industry is largely unregulated and possessed of the leverage to keep it that way.
Shipping’s governing body is a United Nations agency that the New York Times last year described as “clubby” and “secretive.” The International Maritime Organization includes 175 member states and grants a single vote to each state. If that sounds fair and reasonable, consider that the organization is the only UN agency where corporate players are allowed to represent countries.
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According to the Times, one in four of the organization’s delegates comes from the shipping industry. Last September a climate-focused publication, DeSmog, revealed that, throughout the 2010s, the Cook Islands’ ambassador to the International Maritime Organization, Ian Finley, was paid $700,000 by a lobby group that advocates for chemical tankers — the International Parcel Tankers Association. As his cheques rolled in, Finley vociferously fought greenhouse gas emission targets for shippers. In 2016, he characterized a proposal to consider the issue as “right out of left field. To be honest,” he said, “I am staggered this was even suggested.”
The International Maritime Organization typically reaches decisions by consensus, thereby making it hard to discern each delegate’s position. Meanwhile, it forbids journalists from quoting delegates at meetings without their permission. Megan Darby, of the website Climate Home News, was suspended from meetings after she used Finley’s “left field” quote in a story.
Since 2020, the maritime organization has made efforts to reduce pollution from the sector by limiting the amount of sulphur content allowed in fuel — a move that could discourage consumption of the heavy oil produced in Canada’s oilsands region.
But in the view of many observers, the maritime organization’s climate policy remains retrograde. The shipping industry, which is not bound by the Paris Climate Accords, is still partly powered by “heavy fuel oil,” cheap, viscous stuff that’s essentially the dregs of the refining process and as thick as peanut butter when it’s cold.
The Ever Ace is the largest container ship in the world, capable of carrying nearly 24,000 shipping containers. Its slightly smaller sister ship, the Ever Given, became famous after getting stuck and blocking the Suez Canal for six days in March 2021. Photo: Kees Torn / Flickr
The shipping industry causes three per cent of all global emissions — more than all the airlines worldwide — and over the past couple decades has been fortifying its free pass to pollute via a paperwork trick. While most ships are owned by wealthy nations — European countries, the U.S., South Korea and Japan — a Marine Policy study found that, in 2019, 96 per cent of EU-owned ships were registered in less affluent countries.
While the Zim Kingston bears the flag of Malta, Comoros and Palau are currently the most popular flags of convenience. According to Shippingwatch.com, both of these tiny island nations “barely enforce environmental regulations and requirements for labour conditions for seafarers.”
Tilting against the shipping industry is not easy, but in November, in the wake of the X-Press Pearl nurdle spill, the government of Sri Lanka tried. Along with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency and other non-governmental organizations, Sri Lanka asked the International Maritime Organization to tighten regulations controlling container ships’ transport of nurdles. The coalition implored the organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee to recognize nurdles as “hazardous” — and thereby require them to be stored below deck in sturdy, clearly labelled packages.
The petitioners arrived at the London meeting bearing a letter signed by 50,000 supporters, but the committee spent only an hour on nurdles and took no action. To the organization’s spokesperson Natasha Brown, this was no surprise. “The document was discussed,” Brown said in an email to The Narwhal, “and the contents therein were referred on to relevant sub-committees.”
The Environmental Investigation Agency’s Deputy Ocean Campaigns leader, Christina Dixon, could only seethe. The International Maritime Organization, she said, “showed a callous disregard for plastic pollution from ships as a threat to coastal communities, ecosystems and food security. This is simply unacceptable.”
Dixon’s discontent is scant, though, when compared to the rage that now animates Gord Johns, the NDP MP for Courtenay—Alberni on Vancouver Island. In 2018, Johns tabled a motion aimed at formulating “a national strategy to combat plastic pollution in and around aquatic environments.” It passed unanimously, and as Johns sees it, in the wake of the Zim Kingston spill, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which oversees the Coast Guard, failed to honour the resolve expressed in that unanimous vote.
After the spill, Johns says, the department’s staff “sat on their hands. They didn’t respond.” According to the province, Fisheries and Oceans did work with local and provincial authorities to control the fire on board and monitor for any environmental impacts. The department also required Danaos, the ship’s owner, to dismantle the four beached shipping containers, and roughly 30 workers spent a month clearing 47 tonnes of debris from beaches.
But Johns is outraged that the cleanup did not begin until a week after the spill and that at first the department didn’t let local environmental groups take part. He’s also livid that Danaos is largely off the hook for the 105 sea cans still missing. “It’s appalling,” he rails.
Four of the 109 shipping containers lost from the Zim Kingston washed up on the north coast of Vancouver Island. The remaining 105 have yet to be found. Photos: U.S. Coast Guard; Canadian Coast Guard; U.S. Coast Guard
With six fellow NDP MPs, all of them B.C.-based, Johns has been urging Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray to establish what he calls an “emergency coastal debris spill response plan.” He also wants the department to hold shipping companies financially liable for all cleanup costs, even if spilled debris keeps washing up for years. Typically, shippers are, like Danaos, held accountable only for the first gush of litter.
Johns’ proposal could reorient maritime legal dynamics. Others are joining him in making similar demands. John Konrad, the gCaptain founder, argues that shipping firms should pay port fees earmarked for an ongoing cleanup fund. “We pay airport fees, don’t we?” he argues. “The only reason shippers are getting away with this is there’s no voter outrage.”
When The Narwhal called Murray’s office, her press secretary, Claire Teichman, responded that Canada’s legislators have already taken action to protect oceans. “In 2016,” she said in a written statement, “we launched the $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan.”
That plan aimed, among other things, to establish “24/7” emergency response to marine disasters and to “provide new boats, equipment and training that help local community members play an even more important role in marine safety.” Despite the complaints of legislators like Johns, Teichman says that Minister Murray’s initial response to the Zim Kingston spill was in full compliance with the Oceans Protection Plan. It was “thorough and effective,” she said. “The clean-up operations for all impacted beaches have been completed.” Fisheries and Oceans is not investigating the Zim Kingston spill, nor is Environment and Climate Change Canada, the department confirmed, though they are tracking the remaining containers and debris.
A responder hoses down the Zim Kingston cargo ship off Victoria’s coast after a fire broke out among its shipping containers, some of which contained dangerous chemicals used in mining. Photo: Canadian Coast Guard
In December, one of Johns’s NDP caucus allies, Lisa Marie Barron, tabled a motion that echoed his call for a more vigorous response to ocean spills, and also called for the public to be furnished with “a manifest of all missing cargo” — something not mandated under the Oceans Protection Plan. The problem with the manifest idea: containers on ships are frequently mislabelled. Indeed, in 2019, when the National Cargo Bureau, a U.S.-based marine surveying non-profit, inspected 159 dangerous-goods containers at U.S. ports, it found that 108 were inaccurately labelled. In some cases, mislabelling is simply due to human error — chemicals are complicated. But often, bald lying is involved.
In 2010, an Indian company, Research-Lab Chemical Corporation, openly acknowledged on its website that it was habitually mislabelling the very chemical that in 2019 exploded in Thailand and rained toxins onto locals. “In China,” Research-Lab wrote, “no shipping company accepts ‘Calcium Hypochlorite’ in dry container, because they believe this is dangerous chemicals for dry container. For the above reason, to ship it in dry container, we must cover the name on the B/L” — the bill of lading, or receipt. “We show another name like: calcium hydroxide, calcium Chloride ….” The calcium hypochlorite in Thailand was falsely identified. The shipping company thought that they were carrying containers filled with dolls, not a combustible chemical.
The prevalence of such misdeclarations is not well-known outside the shipping world. Barron, the member for Nanaimo—Ladysmith, was surprised when told of them, asking The Narwhal: “You mean the labels aren’t accurate?”
Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador, thinks Barron’s motion is unlikely to pass. He characterizes it as a reflection of “local MPs feeling they need to do something,” and “an effort to embarrass the government into doing more.”
As the politicians posture and the analysts parse, the debris from the Zim Kingston continues to wash in. In recent weeks, Ashley Tapp, the beach cleanup specialist, has seen a swarm of disposable gray urinal mats hit the beaches of Cape Scott Provincial Park. A batch of kids’ bike helmets has washed up, too, each one emblazoned with a character from the TV cartoon Paw Patrol.
Pink plastic unicorns still litter the sand, and Cape Scott’s resident gray wolves are now eating their way through a shipment of salted prawn tips. B.C.’s Environment Ministry said the presence of junk food on the beach is the “responsible parties’ obligation,” and that BC Parks is working with the provincial and federal agencies in charge to ensure Cape Scott’s ecological values are protected.
For now, though, Tapp is most focused on an array of unusual hockey equipment that’s bringing a retro vibe to the beach. “A lot of the gear today is made out of special stuff to make it lighter,” explains the 31-year-old Tapp, once a minor league hockey manager. “The graphics are bright. But the hockey gloves washing in now are just plain-Jane, old school.” They’re from the Hansa Carrier, a ship that lost 21 containers off the coast of B.C. in 1990 and, to Tapp, they’re reminders of how long the debris dumped by the Zim Kingston will be with us.
“It could be my grandkids out there picking pink plastic unicorns up off the beach,” Tapp says. “It’s so sad because not one of the things I’ve found on the beach is essential to survival. It’s just tragic how we as humans have become dependent on all this stuff we don’t even need.”
A fire broke out on the Zim Kingston off Victoria in October 2021 after a storm wracked the cargo carrier, loaded down with toys and dangerous chemicals alike.
Photo: Canadian Coast Guard
New titleThanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.The Narwhal’s growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting. With your help, we’ll be able to do so much more in 2022.If you believe in the power of independent journalism, join our pod by becoming a Narwhal today. (P.S. Did you know we’re able to issue charitable tax receipts?)
EU unveils plan for ‘largest ever ban’ on dangerous chemicalsUp to 12,000 substances could fall within the scope of the new ‘restrictions roadmap’ Thousands of potentially harmful chemicals could soon be prohibited in Europe under new restrictions, which campaigners have hailed as the strongest yet.Earlier this year, scientists said chemical pollution had crossed a “planetary boundary” beyond which lies the breakdown of global ecosystems.The synthetic blight is thought to be pushing whale species to the brink of extinction and has been blamed for declining human fertility rates, and 2 million deaths a year.The EU’s “restrictions roadmap” published on Monday was conceived as a first step to transforming this picture by using existing laws to outlaw toxic substances linked to cancers, hormonal disruption, reprotoxic disorders, obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.Industry groups say that up to 12,000 substances could ultimately fall within the scope of the new proposal, which would constitute the world’s “largest ever ban of toxic chemicals”, according to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).Tatiana Santos, the bureau’s chemicals policy manager, said: “EU chemical controls are usually achingly slow but the EU is planning the boldest detox we have ever seen. Petrochemical industry lobbyists are shocked at what is now on the table. It promises to improve the safety of almost all manufactured products and rapidly lower the chemical intensity of our schools, homes and workplaces.”The plan focuses on entire classes of chemical substances for the first time as a rule, including all flame retardants, bisphenols, PVC plastics, toxic chemicals in single-use nappies and PFAS, which are also known as “forever chemicals” because of the time they take to naturally degrade.All of these will be put on a “rolling list” of substances to be considered for restriction by the European Chemicals Agency. The list will be regularly reviewed and updated, before a significant revision to the EU’s cornerstone Reach regulation for chemicals slated for 2027.Chemicals identified in the new paper include substances in food contact materials, single-use nappies and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) in granules for children playgrounds.But industry groups argue that the scheme’s focus on groups of chemicals could affect high street products such as sun creams and perfumes, which may use a host of synthetic substances.“A lot of different ingredients fall under the skin sensitiser group so a wide range of cosmetic products would potentially be affected,” said John Chave, the director general of Cosmetics Europe, a trade body. “The effect on consumers would be that there would potentially be less variety, less choice and less functional effectiveness for cosmetic products with no gains for safety whatsoever because the ingredients were safe in the first place.”Beyond cosmetics, affected products could include paints, cleaning products, adhesives, lubricants and pesticides.Europe’s Reach system is already the world’s most extensive chemical register, and new bans could hit more than a quarter of the industry’s annual turnover of around €500bn (£420bn) per year, according to a study by the trade group Cefic.“Some of the restrictions may have a significant impact on the industry and value chains,” said Heather Kiggins, a Cefic spokeswoman.The industry argues for a more narrowly targeted approach to restrictions, and for incentives and import controls to help develop safer alternative products.Nevertheless, the European Chemicals Agency favours dealing with chemicals in groups because chemical firms have previously avoided bans on individual chemicals by tweaking their chemical composition to create sister substances that may also be dangerous, but which then require lengthy legislative battles to regulate.The industry tactic, known as “regrettable substitution”, has been criticised by environmental groups for allowing the replacement of substances such as the endocrine-disrupting bisphenol A with other bisphenols.Santos described it as “a cynical and irresponsible tactic by the chemical industry to replace the most harmful banned chemicals with similarly harmful ones not yet on the regulatory radar. We’ve witnessed a decades-long pattern of regrettable substitution to avoid regulation.”More than 190m synthetic chemicals are registered globally and a new industrial chemical is created every 1.4 seconds on average.The UN says that it expects the industry’s global value of more than $5tn (£3.9tn) to double by 2030 and to quadruple by 2060.The EU’s environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said the new restrictions “aim to reduce exposure of people and the environment to some of the most harmful chemicals, addressing a wide range of their uses – industrial, professional, and in consumer products”.Sign up to First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7amThe EU’s internal markets commissioner, Thierry Breton, said achieving a toxic-free environment would demand transparency and visibility from the commission. “The restrictions roadmap provides such visibility, and allows companies and other stakeholders to be better prepared for potential upcoming restrictions,” he said.Millions of tonnes of chemical substances were used by industrial giants such as BASF, Bayer, Dow Chemicals and ExxonMobil without completing safety checks between 2014 and 2019, according to research by German environmentalists.TopicsEnvironmentPollutionPlasticsEuropean UnionEuropenewsReuse this content
Scientists on Saturday began a five-month mission to study how plastic pollution in Africa’s main rivers and climate change stresses are impacting microorganisms in the Atlantic ocean, they announced.
The survey is being staged from the 33-year-old Tara research schooner, which arrived in South Africa’s Cape Town on Friday ahead of the expedition up the West African coast.
The researchers will analyze how nutrients and pollution in major African rivers – the Congo, Orange, Gambia and Senegal – are affecting the Atlantic.
They will trace the sources of plastic pollution at river mouths, to understand their distribution and the types of material involved.
The research station will also cast nets that can go up to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) below the ocean’s surface, to collect samples from ecosystems called “microbiomes,” to be analyzed in labs on land. The data gathered will help answer key questions about the world’s oceans.
The researchers will also study the Benguela Current, which moves up from South Africa to the Namibian and Angolan coasts.
It pulls up cold water from the ocean depths in a process known as upwelling, bringing nutrients to the surface.
“You get more nutrients here than anywhere else in the world,” Emma Rocke, a 42-year-old research fellow at the University of Cape Town, who is working on the vessel, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“Understanding that, and characterizing it at a microbiome level is something that hasn’t been done really ever, and more importantly, it’s not incorporated in climate change models.”
She said the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports published so far don’t consider the microbiome, “yet without it, ocean life would not exist.”
Marine biologists will later study an upwelling current off the Senegalese coast, the world’s third most powerful after Benguela and the Peru-Chile upwelling system.
The Tara vessel is on its 12th global mission and it involves 42 research institutions around the world.
Tara Ocean Foundation executive director Romain Trouble, 46, said that this is the first time the ship has traversed the West African coast.
“There’s very little data on this kind of microbiome, microscopic species, in this ecosystem,” he said.
University of Pretoria’s microbial ecology and genome professor Thulani Makhalanyane, 37, will be focusing on the effect of agriculture and plastic pollution from African rivers.
“In coastal communities, we expect to see evidence of a high degree of pollution,” said Makhalanyane. “We are also interested in other polluters that are perhaps not as well characterized, things like antibiotic resistance genes.”
The vessel left its home port of Lorient in France in December 2020 to embark on a 70,000-kilometer (43,500-mile) journey. Since then, it has traversed the coasts of Chile, Brazil and Argentina, as well as the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.
Pittsburgh recently joined a growing number of local governments, including Philadelphia, that have approved a ban on single-use plastic bags at the register at stores.
“I’m thrilled. I am absolutely thrilled,” said Sandy Grote, who was shopping at the Giant Eagle store at the Waterworks shopping center in Pittsburgh with a cartful of groceries in reusable bags.
Grote worries about plastic pollution. “I really do think about it because plastics are going nowhere, and it’s forever. So I really try to avoid plastic when I can,” she said.
LISTEN to Julie Grant discuss her reporting with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple
Vanessa Lynch grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs in the 1980s and ’90s but moved away for college. She returned to the area a decade later with her husband and then-1-year-old child.
It was 2007, and the fracking industry was just beginning to take hold in southwest Pennsylvania. The then-fledgling industry was not really on Lynch’s radar; between raising a daughter and working full-time as a therapist, she had her hands full. Things got even busier when she had her son in April 2009 and he began suffering from frightening wheezing spells when he was 6 months old, requiring periodic medical attention.
“Honestly, I really had very little understanding of what was going on in the region,” she says.
Just before her daughter was set to start kindergarten, Lynch and her family moved half an hour away to Indiana Township to be close to a good school and have more space to play outside. The neighborhood had everything the growing family could hope for, with a park to play soccer and softball and a creek for summertime wading.
A couple of years later, however, she learned via a neighbor’s Facebook post that the fracking industry had quietly placed a gas drilling site in her community, just above the local park. Infuriated and inspired to act, in 2018, Lynch joined up with the local chapter of the national environmental advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force, where she now works as a part-time organizer.
Lynch and her fellow organizers were not able to shut down the well pad, but they did win more protective ordinances for the township, shielding approximately 85% of its land from future drilling.
Now, though, there’s another threat lurking at Lynch’s door: a plastics manufacturing plant that Shell Oil is constructing just an hour away, on the banks of the Ohio River.
Shell’s ethane-cracker plant, which it began building in 2017, is set to open later this year, but the company has not yet announced a firm date and did not respond to a request for comment. The first facility of its kind in Appalachia, it will use extreme heat to “crack” ethane, a byproduct of fracked gas, into ethylene, a building block for manufacturing plastic.
The facility will produce more than 1 million tons of plastic pellets per year, which will be used to make products ranging from phone cases to auto parts. As it does, the facility will spew hundreds of tons of dangerous compounds into the air while also emitting planet-heating pollution. And it will be fed by the fracked gas from thousands of wells peppered across Appalachian communities—communities like Lynch’s.
From Gas to Plastic
The fossil fuel industry is a powerful political and economic force in Pennsylvania, and Lynch’s organizing has been an uphill battle. In recent years, though, the market has been on her side.
In the roughly 15 years since fracking first came to Appalachia, gas has become a far riskier investment. Until Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, growth in global demand was on the decline, especially amid the spread of COVID-19. One 2021 study even found that Appalachian gas may never be profitable again.
In plastic, however, the fossil fuel industry sees a chance to turn itself around, solidifying demand for fracked gas in the region for decades to come. Local officials are on board with the scheme—they awarded Shell one of the largest public subsidy packages in national history.
Advocates are particularly concerned because the Shell cracker plant isn’t meant to be the sole plastic plant in the region. Rather, it is part of a plan to transform Appalachia’s Ohio River Valley into a plastic and petrochemical hub, with cracker plants, storage facilities, and gas pipelines erected across Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
“These plants don’t stand alone, and they require a high volume of natural gas to do the work that they do,” Lynch says. “So when you think about the Ohio River Valley and the potential for these sorts of very large polluters to become more and more common, it really does become a more concerning story.”
In Lynch’s township, gas companies are currently extracting gas from eight wells. But six more are permitted for future use if the industry decides to develop them, and as demand for ethane increases to supply the cracker plant (or plants), she is concerned that the number could rise.
Nearby areas, many of them more economically depressed, are far more open to drilling than hers. The most fracked county in the state is Washington County, where the poverty rate is 3% higher than it is in Lynch’s township. But as demand grows, Lynch says, fracking is expanding.
“[Washington County] is where fracking really started in southwest PA, so it’s the most concentrated,” she says. “What we’re finding is, as they’re looking for places to expand, we’re the next generation of areas that they’re coming to.”
Since emissions don’t respect borders, pollution from nearby municipalities could spread across the region. The air in the area is already polluted: A 2013 study found that Allegheny County, which comprises the greater Pittsburgh area, including Indiana Township, is in the top 2% of areas in the U.S. for cancer risks from air pollution.
Fracking—shorthand for “hydraulic fracturing”—involves pumping chemicals, such as benzene, antifreeze, and diesel, deep underground to fracture shale deposits and release the gas stored within them. The process releases airborne benzene, formaldehyde, particulate matter, and ammonia, which have been linked to respiratory ailments and other illnesses.
There is no way to determine whether fracking contributed to Lynch’s son’s lung issues due to his proximity to fracking operations, but the practice has been linked to shortness of breath, worsened asthma, and other respiratory ailments.
There are other health impacts to worry about too. Used fracking chemicals often get dumped into rivers—a concern that some state and federal authorities have ignored.
Drilling into shale for gas can also release radioactive materials, like uranium and thorium, that have been buried for millennia. In recent years, dozens of children have contracted rare cancers, including Ewing sarcoma, in southwest Pennsylvania. Researchers suspect exposure to radiation could be responsible.
“Fracking makes people sick. It makes people very sick,” says Ned Ketyer, a retired pediatrician and board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a physician-led organization focused on environmental health.
With the imminent opening of Shell’s cracker plant, Ketyer says there will be even more risks to health on the horizon from the plant’s emissions, including nitrogen oxide, ozone, and volatile organic compounds, as well as the increased demand for fracked gas.
Ketyer has spent years raising the alarm about the dangers of fossil fuels, but despite the evidence that gas is harming locals, he’s found that not everyone is interested in pushing back.
“This is an area where people have lived for generations, extracting fossil fuel and supporting the industries that extract fossil fuels,” he says.
Growing up in the Pittsburgh suburbs, Lynch didn’t think much about pollution. Neither, she says, did her family members—even those who were exposed to it each day at work. Her grandfather, for instance, was an electrical engineer in the steel industry.
“He used to tell a story about how when he would get up in the morning, he would put on his white shirt to go to work, and when he would come home in the evening, the shirt would be gray,” she says.
Polluting, fossil fuel-based industries—coal, steel, and now gas—have long formed the backbone of the region’s economy. The resulting public desensitization to pollution has posed difficulties in local environmental organizing. So have Shell’s claims that the plastic industry will put people back to work. In southwest Pennsylvania, the unemployment rate is significantly above the national average.
“We are often prepared to trade our health for jobs,” says Lois Bower-Bjornson, field organizer for Clean Air Council, who lives in southwest Pennsylvania’s Washington County.
Amid dwindling employment opportunities, local unions have been overwhelmingly supportive of the cracker plant. But while Shell once claimed the facility would create thousands of jobs, that projection later dropped to the hundreds.
Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a coalition of environmental and public health groups focused on the Pittsburgh region, says that even some residents who are skeptical of the fossil fuel industry’s expansion plans are nervous to publicly take a stand. They fear backlash not only from their neighbors, but also from the industry or its government allies.
“There’s a cultural history where people have learned through multiple generations that it’s better to just go along and get along and not raise up these issues—that if you want to be able to survive in this county, you keep your mouth shut,” he says. “That’s what we run up against. That is a legacy of [the region’s] industrial past.”
Despite the challenges, a small yet vibrant movement in southwest Pennsylvania is fighting plans for gas and plastic expansion: holding protests, writing op-eds and letters to elected officials, and mobilizing dozens of people to testify at hearings.
They have achieved some wins, including the fact that the cracker plant will monitor its emissions on-site.
Activists have also taken emissions tracking into their own hands, using both naked-eye observations and low-cost monitors to track pollution to ensure Shell is complying with regulations.
Beyond fighting the Shell plant itself, Lynch has also been advocating for a fairer regulatory environment, pressuring the federal government to keep its promise to instate strict regulation on methane emissions and advocating for the state of Pennsylvania to join a regional climate initiative, two measures that could lessen local pollution.
Activists are also working to boost public awareness of the dangers of fracking and plastic. Bower-Bjornson of the Clean Air Council, for instance, organizes tours to introduce the public to the human impacts of fracking, showing attendees well pads and compressor sites and introducing them to people impacted by their pollution.
Like the planned petrochemical hub, the movement for a healthier and safer environment transcends state lines. This varied opposition is necessary, since there’s no single policy that can take down the fossil fuel industry, says Dustin White, a senior campaigner on plastics and petrochemicals with the Center for International Environmental Law.
“There’s no one thing that’s absolutely gonna stop it all,” he says, instead calling for a “death by 1,000 paper cuts” approach.
White, who lives in West Virginia, says this approach also includes thinking bigger by advocating for a total ban on a petrochemical build-out. Just as important is helping people envision more just and sustainable systems, where neither communities nor materials are treated as disposable: “A more regenerative economy,” he says.
It’s clear the current economic system isn’t working for most working-class people in Pennsylvania. It may not even be sustainable for the fossil fuel sector. Financial analysts and environmentalists alike have predicted that, due to a variety of market factors and increasing concern about the climate crisis, the petrochemical build-out is far from a safe financial bet.
Rather than pouring public money into projects that put Pennsylvanians’ health and the climate on the line—and that could be doomed to collapse anyway—activists say officials should invest in more sustainable industries. Research shows that investments in renewable energy, for example, could create almost a quarter-million jobs each year in the state.
Lynch fears that if her local economy doesn’t change quickly, the region—and the planet—she calls home could become unlivable by the time her kids are grown. But she gains motivation from knowing there’s another path.
“I think about the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania, but I also think about all the amazing opportunities we have to protect this region and to remind people that our health and our well-being [have] value,” she says. “It’s the project of a lifetime.”
Teaser photo credit: A Pittsburgh towboat pushes a barge down the icy Ohio River. Behind is the on going construction of the Shell Cracker Plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania in January 2019. By Drums600 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76249312
Most waste decisions are out of reach of consumers, who have the packaging chosen for them by manufacturers
When shoppers go to the store for shampoo or strawberries or cereal, they have the choice between brands and ingredients and even different prices, but there’s one major thing consumers can’t often choose: how those goods come packaged.
Long before an item lands on the supermarket shelf, its makers have chosen the cardboard box and the plastic or metal bag inside keeping food fresh. They’ve chosen which type of plastic clamshell will keep berries from getting smashed on the way to the fridge. They’ve selected which type of glass or plastic or compostable material will hold your hair care products on the shelf for weeks or months without falling apart.
This is the first story in a new series by InvestigateWest examining one of the most problematic pollutants of the 21st century: plastic. This series was funded in part by the Sustainable Path Foundation.
With arrows and numbers somewhere on the package, they’ve told consumers whether that material might be recyclable. But it’s up to individuals to make sure that little number on the bottom denotes something that is actually accepted for recycling in their area. Then, busy people are asked to make split-second decisions about which bin something belongs in, often with little idea whether that material will actually get used again, or simply end up as garbage.
“We as consumers are stuck with the packaging decision that somebody else has made,” says Washington state Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, whom some have deemed the “single-use plastics warrior” for her work combating waste. “And then we as consumers have to figure out what to do with packaging, whether it’s plastic or glass or aluminum or … Styrofoam.”
Das is one of several Pacific Northwest lawmakers who’ve pressed for nation-leading legislation that would require companies to pay for the recycling programs needed to deal with the packaging choices they make. It’s a move that about a dozen other states have also considered as they tackle their recycling and waste streams.
When consumers don’t know exactly what to do with all that packaging, they often do what’s called “wishful recycling,” tossing those containers into the recycling bin in hopes that they ultimately get recycled, Das says.
That creates serious problems.
At local materials recovery facilities, people and optical robots work at a breakneck pace to separate garbage from recyclable materials. Despite their best efforts, they end up baling some of that contamination in with the plastics, metals and cardboard and then sell to places that can process those materials and turn them back into products or new packaging.
Until about five years ago, much of the world shipped those contaminated bales to China, where they could be recycled and made into new products. But then China shut the door to all but the most pristine bales in an effort to reduce air pollution from burning the leftover garbage, and to focus on better recycling the materials used and created within its own borders.
Suddenly, people around the world, including in the Pacific Northwest, had to figure out how to recycle all that packaging somewhere else. Some recycling programs at the city and county level stopped collecting entire categories of materials, and the companies and sorting centers in charge of waste streams went on the hunt for other markets.
Washington’s Department of Ecology found in 2018 that less than half of the 13.2 pounds of waste created per resident each day was recovered for recycling, for composting or to be burned for energy. That adds up quickly in a state with more than 7.4 million people, particularly as the amount of plastic and other waste created per person is increasing over time — in 2000, it was more like 9.7 pounds per resident each day.
But there’s something many other countries have already figured out: You can make the companies that sell products in your area pay to ensure their packaging is either recycled, reused or composted, and in doing so, you can greatly increase that recovery rate and reduce how much goes to waste.
What’s the magic solution? Industry experts call it an “Extended Producer Responsibility” or EPR.
In 2021, Maine and Oregon became the first states in the country to pass such legislation. They are already starting to figure out the rules of their own EPR programs, and while the Washington Legislature failed to vote on a similar bill before its session ended in March, negotiations with manufacturers in the Evergreen State may be helping other states push similar programs forward.
PASSING THE BUCK BACK
The basic way EPR programs function is by requiring producers to pay into a “producer responsibility organization” or a PRO that ensures their materials are recycled properly. The PRO negotiates collection costs, ensures that pickup is happening where it needs to, and ultimately sells the collected products to end markets for recycling or reuse.
By keeping the programs “material neutral,” states can ensure that different types of packaging all meet standards for recycling, reuse or composting. But if your material is harder to recycle, the PRO will charge you more for the extra labor.
PROs already exist in many states around the country, including Washington and Oregon, to handle the recycling and reusing of things such as electronics, paint, fluorescent lightbulbs and more, but packaging is a category that has yet to be widely addressed in the United States.
Key to the programs’ success is ensuring that people across the state have access to recycling.
Das’ Senate Bill 5697 would have required manufacturers, brands and/or the businesses first distributing packaged products in the state to pay into packaging PROs in Washington. The bill also would have ensured that rural communities with garbage collection also have recycling collection.
That was one point of interest for the Association of Washington Cities, as many municipalities operate their own waste-collection systems.
The cities, along with roughly 100 other stakeholders representing industries including plastics, metals, paper and waste collection met with Das and other proponents of the legislation over several months in 2021.
In negotiations, the cities supported creating a basic recycling model to reach nearly every person in the state, explains Carl Schroeder, the deputy director of government relations for the Association of Washington Cities. But if that basic model was, say, the Honda Civic of municipal or county recycling, some places that have the Cadillacs and BMWs of recycling didn’t want to provide less.
“One of the things we were kind of ‘giving up’ as we looked at this new approach was the locally developed systems that evolved over time,” Schroeder says.
Still, the idea of passing the buck back to producers of plastics and other materials, rather than ratepayers, was appealing, Schroeder says.
“Producers of that packaging are the folks who make the decisions to utilize one packaging form or another. Our ratepayers ultimately bear all that cost and are not in a position to reduce that cost,” Schroeder says. “There are decisions that could be more environmentally beneficial and cost effective.”
THE PATH TO BECOMING LAW
It often takes several years to create a complex program like an EPR through legislation, says Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, a nonprofit that works to pass policies aimed at ending waste entirely.
Around 2018, some of the first efforts to address plastic packaging in Washington were brought forward by a coalition of environmental groups and like-minded state lawmakers. In 2021, the groups successfully passed plastics legislation that will, among other things, soon require more post-consumer recycled content in plastic beverage bottles and bottles used for household cleaning and personal hygiene products. That laid the groundwork to focus on a packaging EPR, Trim says.
To improve recycling systems overall, four things need to happen, Trim says. First up is truth in labeling, along with designing packaging to make sure it can truly be recycled. Second, consumers need education so they know how to return those products. Third, adequate infrastructure is required to collect and sort the material. And fourth, you need an end market for all that stuff.
Only 49 percent of those materials are currently being recovered, when the goal is more like 75 percent, Trim says.
“We’ve got to create large amounts of clean material so that we can feed the demand being driven by the post-consumer content mandates,” Trim says.
A responsibility-based program would require producers to pay for many of the changes needed to get there.
In British Columbia, packaging recycling is paid for by producers via an EPR that started in 2014. The program resulted in a nearly 86 percent recovery rate overall for paper, glass, metal and plastic packaging in 2020, and ensured more than 99 percent of households had access to recycling, according to an annual report by the producer responsibility program Recycle BC.
However, the plastic recovery rate — the amount of plastic returned from the total sold in the province — still hovered around 52 percent, underscoring the need for smart packaging design and industry innovation, the report states.
Of course, when industries are asked to pay for the problem, they also want a say in how the solution is run, particularly when there are valuable materials involved that they can use to meet other recycling mandates. For example, used soda bottles made from easily recycled types of plastic can help beverage companies meet recycled content mandates, making clean batches of those bottles from sorting centers desirable. Continued negotiations over who gets to control the collection and sale of bottles and other valuable materials may have been what ultimately prevented the Washington state bill from passing this year.
But Das says producers know that the demand for sustainable packaging is growing, particularly among young consumers. With the opportunity to help write the solution, many, such as the beverage industry, have come to largely support the effort.
“We applaud Washington state for exploring stronger collection and recycling systems that can speed progress toward a circular economy for all recyclable materials, and we appreciate the opportunity to work with the state on building a system that increases recycling rates,” the Washington Beverage Association said in an emailed statement to InvestigateWest.
Other states have checked in with Das to see how the negotiations with various stakeholders were going, and some included tweaked language from Washington’s proposed legislation in their own bills. One similar piece in New York’s bill would require PROs to reimburse local recycling programs based on rates set by a government agency, while Washington’s bill would require the PROs to work with one another to set those reimbursement rates.
“If our bill can’t pass, I’m really proud that other states are using some of our language,” says Das, who has since announced she won’t seek re-election this year. “This is a solvable problem, and we are the ones to solve it. We need to work on it together.”
Das says she’s confident other environmental champions in the Legislature will take up the cause and keep pushing for the policy in Washington. Plus, as other states pass similar policies, it will only become easier to pass here, she says.
Other states that have considered similar legislation include Maryland, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and of course Maine and Oregon, the two states that last year passed the first U.S. packaging EPR laws.
By this summer, Oregon lawmakers will learn more about labels’ misleading or false claims concerning recyclability, and then the state’s Department of Environmental Quality will spend the next few years developing the rules for PROs, which are expected to start operations by mid-2025.
“This improved recycling system … will reduce confusion about what goes in the bin, keep litter out of our waterways and expand services across the state,” writes Jennifer Flynt, public affairs specialist for Oregon DEQ, in an email to InvestigateWest. “These changes will also provide peace of mind that what we put in our bin is actually recycled in a way that is good for the planet and does not cause harm domestically or overseas.”
With states individually tackling packaging, who ultimately controls each EPR program — a state agency versus the producers paying for recycling — is likely to vary from place to place, even when neighboring states may have similar goals. For example, Oregon’s EPR doesn’t cover beverage containers because the state has a long-standing deposit program designed to address that recycling, while Washington’s bill included beverage containers.
Das recalls her father, who worked in the aluminum industry, holding up a soda can to her when she was young and explaining how it would be remade into a new soda can in just a couple months. The goal with EPR legislation is to get there with plastics.
“We’re not going to get rid of plastic, it’s too versatile,” Das says. “My hope is we can turn plastic into a circular economy to be recycled over and over again. … We just need the political will to get it done.”
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. This story was funded in part by the Sustainable Path Foundation.
FEATURED IMAGE: Truckloads of plastic bottles, cardboard, glass and newspaper run along an intricate set of conveyor belts and bins to be sorted at Waste Management’s Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology (SMaRT) Center. (Young Kwak/Inlander)
COMING SOON IN THE SERIES:
Researchers and environmentalists around the Pacific Northwest are expanding our understanding of the scope of plastic pollution in the environment, where that pollution comes from, and the impact that plastic pollution may have on animals and people. From marine wildlife research in Oregon and Puget Sound, to inland microplastics studies and macroplastic litter cleanups, people across the PNW are working to understand the root causes and potential solutions to pervasive plastics.