Why more and more girls are hitting puberty early

Annals of MedicineWhy More and More Girls Are Hitting Puberty EarlyA pandemic-era rise in early puberty may help physicians to better understand its causes.By Jessica WinterOctober 27, 2022Illustration by Mikyung LeeMegan Gray was eight years old when she got her first period. She was playing hide-and-seek with her older sister and a friend at their friend’s house in suburban Sacramento. She was wearing pink jeans, which she had saved up for a long time to buy. She tied a sweatshirt around her waist to hide the bloodstain, and, later, threw the ruined pink jeans away; when her mother asked where they’d gone, she threw a tantrum to deflect the question. Gray had a close relationship with her mom, but she was so young that they’d had no conversations about puberty; her older sister had not yet gotten her period. “There was nothing, no context for understanding,” Gray told me. “I knew what a period was—I didn’t think I was dying or anything. But still, I didn’t tell anyone for months. I just used wadded-up toilet paper. It felt so awkward and shameful.” She did eventually talk with her mom about it. But this was the nineteen-eighties. “It wasn’t some big informational session. It was very Gen X—you just dealt with things by yourself and got on with it.”Gray was taller than her peers and wore layers of tops to conceal her developing breasts. She estimates that she was a C-cup by fifth grade. “There were assumptions about me because I had boobs. And I had never even kissed anyone. I was lucky, because nothing traumatic occurred. Yet I do think that there is a trauma in being sexualized.”Maritza Gualy got her first period when she was eight going on nine, at the end of the eighties. Her mom showed her how to use a thick Kotex pad. Eventually, her older sister introduced her to o.b. tampons—the ones with no applicator; they were small and easier to hide. The sisters, whose parents were Colombian immigrants, attended a majority-white Catholic school in Nashville. Her school uniform had no pockets, so whenever Gualy had her period, she had to hide tampons in her bra or in the waistband of her skirt. One day, an o.b. fell out of her skirt when she and her classmates were sitting on the rug together. Later, when they were back at their desks for a spelling test, Gualy recalled, “the teacher went around from kid to kid with the tampon. ‘Is this yours?’ ‘Is this yours?’ Except she was only asking the more well-developed girls! I knew I wasn’t going to admit to it.”In fifth grade, Gualy’s best friend got her period, and she was upset to learn that Gualy had started hers more than a year earlier and hadn’t mentioned anything. “But I already felt so othered,” Gualy said, “and I didn’t want to add to that.”When Gray and Gualy were kids, pediatricians thought that the average age of onset of puberty in girls—defined in most medical literature as thelarche, when breast tissue begins to develop—was about eleven years old. Menarche, or first period, was thought to happen around age thirteen. Only a small percentage of girls had started puberty by the age of eight, much less started menstruating. But, by the two-thousands, new research had found that eighteen per cent of white girls, thirty-one per cent of Hispanic girls, and forty-three per cent of Black girls had entered thelarche by age eight, according to a study published in 2010. Often, these girls were taller than most of their peers and showed other signs of accelerated physical maturation, such as pubic hair and underarm odor. Thelarche typically presages the onset of menstruation by two to three years, meaning that some of these girls would have to deal with the mess and discomfort of a monthly period before they’d finished elementary school. Researchers and physicians hypothesized about possible causes for the increase in early puberty, such as increasing rates of obesity; greater exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in food, plastics, and personal-care products; and stressful or abusive home environments.Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, pediatric endocrinologists saw a new surge of referrals for girls with early puberty. Recent retrospective studies from Germany and Turkey show that the number of these referrals doubled or even tripled during the lockdown periods of 2020 (this at a time when many families may have been avoiding non-emergency doctor’s visits for fear of COVID-19). A paper published in August in the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics, which analyzed data from South Korea’s national statistics portal, found that the number of children diagnosed with precocious puberty almost doubled between 2016 and 2021, with a sharp post-2020 spike. The rise in early puberty “is a phenomenon that is occurring all over the world,” Frank M. Biro, the former director of the adolescent-medicine division at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, told me. (Although there has also been a rise among boys, girls experiencing early puberty still vastly outnumber them.)The new data may offer some safety in numbers to early-developing girls—if Gray and Gualy were growing up today, they might have found a friend or two on the same accelerated track. But early puberty is associated with a daunting list of adverse physical and psychological outcomes: various studies have suggested that early-maturing girls are at greater risk for developing obesity, breast cancer, eating disorders, depression, and a range of behavioral issues. Especially in the midst of what is increasingly understood to be a post-COVID youth mental-health crisis, the startling new uptick in early puberty is troubling to some physicians and parents. But, because the spike appears to have been triggered within a compressed, well-defined timeframe, it also offers rich terrain for better understanding the condition’s causes and effects. It also provides a chance to rethink puberty: to see it not as a gateway into adulthood but as another stage of childhood—one that is highly variable from kid to kid and need not be cause for alarm.“We are in a great natural experiment at the moment, and we might not know the results of it for another ten years or more,” Louise Greenspan, a pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente, San Francisco, said. “I do wonder if this is going to be a cohort of kids whose puberty was more rapid because they were in a critical window of susceptibility during a time of great social upheaval.”For generations, pediatricians have referred to a table of pubertal development known as Tanner stages, named for the pediatric endocrinologist James Tanner, one of the lead investigators of the landmark Harpenden Growth Study, conducted from 1949 to 1971 at a charity home for orphaned and neglected children in a suburb of London. There, hundreds of boys and girls were photographed naked at three-month intervals. Although the data for the Tanner scale were gathered from kids of a narrow demographic—white, thin, and bearing the internal scars of trauma or adversity in their formative years—it established, in a pair of papers published in 1969, our modern benchmarks of puberty: five distinct stages, ranging from prepubertal to fully developed. On average, the girls in the study began showing breast buds—the “Tanner II” stage—at age eleven or so, and began menstruating between thirteen and fourteen.Early puberty is identified through physical examination, blood tests to measure levels of sex hormones, and a bone X-ray to estimate “bone age”—how close a child’s skeletal system is to reaching maturation. Puberty typically begins in girls when the pituitary gland starts secreting hormones known as gonadotropins; these hormones cause the ovaries to grow and to produce estrogen, the sex hormone that triggers the development of secondary sex characteristics. These changes usually happen alongside a distinct process called adrenarche, or the awakening of the adrenal gland, which provokes the development of pubic and underarm hair and underarm odor. In formulating his scale, Tanner was careful to present puberty as a spectrum, not a strict schedule; he emphasized that a healthy girl might start her period at age ten or age sixteen, and that every child’s progress through puberty had its own rhythms and tempo. Some of the numbers in the Harpenden Growth Study have held up remarkably well: the average age for a first period, for example, has only dropped to about twelve and a half.But other norms set down by the Tanner stages began to come into question as early as the late nineteen-eighties, when a physician’s associate named Marcia Herman-Giddens, who worked in a pediatric clinic at the Duke University Medical Center, observed girls as young as six or seven presenting with breast buds or pubic hair. Herman-Giddens went on to lead a study of pubertal development in some seventeen thousand girls in the U.S., published in the journal Pediatrics in 1997. It found that the average age for Black girls to develop breast buds was just short of nine years old; for white girls, it was closer to ten on the dot. A moderately more rigorous longitudinal study, conducted in three U.S. cities and also published in Pediatrics, in 2010, showed those averages dropping even further, if only by a few more months.When researchers investigated possible reasons that more girls were entering puberty sooner, they focussed on three main factors. One was stress—they hypothesized that higher cortisol levels might contribute to the premature activation of the pituitary and adrenal glands. (Some of Herman-Giddens’s work was with early-maturing girls who were believed to have been physically and sexually abused, which prompted a causality question that has never been definitively resolved: whether abuse triggers premature puberty, or whether girls who enter puberty earlier are at greater risk for abuse.) A second factor was exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which can scramble or mimic the body’s naturally occurring hormones. E.D.C.s include parabens (preservatives that are used in cosmetics, food, and pharmaceuticals), phthalates (which are added to plastics to enhance their durability and flexibility), and the dreaded bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical compound that the Food and Drug Administration banned for use in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012.But determining the role of E.D.C.s in a given health condition is a conundrum for any scientist attempting to design a controlled study, because “we live in an ocean of chemicals,” Biro, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, told me. “How you can measure exposure in an individual is a major issue. Some of these substances are in and out of the body in seventy-two hours, some take three or four years. Different people metabolize them at different rates.”Speculation about the main causes of early puberty eventually coalesced around a third factor, one that was easier to isolate: body-mass index. Average B.M.I. and obesity rates in girls had risen somewhat in tandem with rates of early puberty. Some research suggested as well that both elevated cortisol levels and high exposure to E.D.C.s are associated with higher B.M.I. Meanwhile, structural racism and failures of environmental justice have ensured that Black and brown girls are more vulnerable to all three of these factors than are white or Asian girls, who tend to enter puberty later.The correlation between B.M.I. and early puberty has to do with a hormone called leptin, which is one of the necessary components for the pituitary gland to begin producing gonadotropins. Leptin is produced in the fat tissue and plays a role in raising the body’s estrogen levels. Typically, as estrogen increases, so does fat and leptin, which can create a feedback loop—weight gain spurs puberty, and puberty spurs weight gain. (This relationship also helps to explain why some very thin girls and women don’t menstruate: they don’t have enough fat tissue to make leptin.)“Leptin is not so much the trigger for puberty as it’s permissive,” Paul Kaplowitz, a professor emeritus of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., told me. “An adequate level of fat tissue is a requirement for puberty to progress. But we don’t know for sure if fat is the only reason why girls in the twenty-first century are maturing earlier than girls in the latter part of the twentieth century. Obesity is a big part of the story. It’s not the whole story.”Given everything we understand about the mechanisms of puberty, it feels intuitive and logical that some percentage of lockdown kids, who might have otherwise followed a more Tanner-like progression in their physical development, may have tipped into early puberty thanks to a conspiracy of increased calorie intake, more fatty and processed foods, and decreased exercise, as well as the manifold sources of stress and anxiety that the pandemic generated during a pivotal stage of their development. Like early puberty itself, mental-health problems among children and teen-agers were on the rise before the pandemic, and skyrocketed during and after it. Between 2009 and 2019, according to data from the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, rates of depression and suicidal ideation among high-school students all rose significantly. Approximately one in three kids in this age group reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”; in a C.D.C. study of high-school students conducted in 2021, this number had risen to forty-four per cent. Mental-health-related emergency-room visits for children ages five to eleven increased by twenty-four per cent from March to October, 2020, as compared with the same period in 2019; for kids ages twelve to seventeen, the figure was thirty-one per cent. Child psychologists are overwhelmed with new-patient requests, and many have stopped taking insurance. The National Association of School Psychologists has stated that there is roughly one school psychologist for every twelve hundred students in the U.S.A crucial, perhaps overlooked link between early puberty and the youth mental-health crisis is sleep. Marlon Goering, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, studies the relationship between pubertal timing and behavioral challenges in young people. He told me that melatonin, the sleep-regulating hormone that the brain produces in response to darkness, may have contributed to the pandemic-era jump in early puberty. During the lockdowns, many children got less sleep and more irregular sleep, and they spent vastly more time in front of the blue light of screens, which inhibited their ability to secrete melatonin. A drop in melatonin can contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression; it also activates an increase in a protein called kisspeptin, which is another of the trigger hormones for puberty. The melatonin-disrupting effects of blue light may have persisted long past the acute phase of the pandemic: many schools and students have continued using the iPads and Chromebooks that they acquired to facilitate remote learning, and many households never reset the screen-time rules that they had in place before lockdown obliterated them.Some pediatric endocrinologists suspect that the recent spike in early puberty may be subtly different from the decades-long rise that preceded it. Greenspan, of Kaiser Permanente, San Francisco, and other colleagues have noticed that, among their consultations for early puberty, they are not seeing as many girls with higher B.M.I. as they did pre-pandemic. She also said that pubertal tempo—the total time it takes to progress from thelarche to menarche—is speeding up among her patients, regardless of B.M.I. If large-scale data eventually bear out Greenspan’s observations, it would likely mean that the average age of first period, which has remained relatively stable over the last eighty years, may begin to drop more noticeably, even if only for a micro-generation of kids.Much of the time, early puberty does not require medical intervention (although, in rare cases, it may be caused by a brain tumor or by a disorder of the patient’s ability to produce cortisol). “I can’t tell you how many kids come into my practice who have their periods early, and when the parents don’t make a deal out of it, the kids tend to be fine—‘Yeah, it’s kind of annoying, but Mommy showed me how to change the pad.’ And you’re talking to a third grader,” Greenspan said.“We’re cognizant of trying not to medicalize things that are a normal part of life,” Deanna Adkins, a pediatric endocrinologist and the director of the Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care Clinic, said. “Early puberty is early, but it’s still normal in most cases. We do the best we can to not make a child feel like, ‘My parents are bringing me to the doctor because there’s something wrong with me.’ ”Recently, a parent whom I will call R.—she asked that I not use her name, to protect her daughter’s privacy—phoned her pediatrician’s office because her seven-year-old had developed a breast bud. R., who is a college professor and lives in Brooklyn, spoke first with a nurse. “She said, ‘You’re the third or fourth mom this week who’s called about this. Puberty is starting earlier and earlier. It’s very normal, Mom.’ When we saw the pediatrician, it was the same thing: ‘Oh, Mom, it’s normal.’ ”R. found the pediatrician’s response dismissive without being reassuring. “There was no wider analysis about the consequences related to her socialization at school, her relationships with boys and men—all these things that it opened up,” R. said. She was especially uneasy because her daughter has experienced unusual stressors in the last couple of years, including a concussion and her parents’ divorce. Adding the possibility of early puberty, R. said, “just feels like insult to injury—like, can we give this kid a childhood?”I spoke with R. again after she and her daughter had a more satisfying appointment with a pediatric endocrinologist. “There was a straight-up acknowledgement, from the beginning, that this is a big deal. It was O.K. to think of this as something to be attentive to.” Now, mother and daughter await the results of blood tests and a bone X-ray; it’s safe to say that, of the two, R. is the more anxious. When they first broached the topic of early puberty, her daughter was excited. “Yes! Now I can get a bra!” she exclaimed. Puberty in a younger girl could be a simpler rite of passage, at times even a thrilling one, R. said, “if there wasn’t society out there to worry about.”Even in the absence of an acute medical crisis, some families do decide to halt the process of puberty temporarily, with medication that blocks the release of sex hormones—most commonly, a drug called Lupron. Lupron is sometimes prescribed off-label to children with gender dysphoria, and, due to efforts in many states to limit or ban gender-affirming pediatric care, the drug has become controversial. A puberty blocker such as Lupron may inhibit bone mineralization, when calcium and phosphate act on collagen to increase bone mass; this process accelerates during adolescence. Anecdotal reports have proliferated for years about women who took Lupron for precocious puberty in childhood and went on to suffer osteoporosis, joint disorders, and chronic pain in adulthood, but most research on puberty blockers and bone health is reassuring. In any case, it is difficult to adjudicate concerns about any long-term effects when those concerns are weaponized by, say, the Arkansas state legislature, which is attempting to prohibit gender-affirming pediatric care in the state with a bill known as the Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act, or the state attorney general’s office in Texas, which has proposed that administering puberty blockers to children with gender dysphoria may constitute “child abuse.” (Studies have repeatedly shown that mental-health outcomes for L.G.B.T.Q. youth were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and advocates for trans young people have warned that the ongoing proliferation of anti-trans legislation will compound those effects.)Adkins told me that she has not seen long-term issues such as low bone density or higher rates of fractures in patients who took Lupron. “When kids are in early puberty, they’re already starting to add calcium to their bones,” she said. “Pausing that for a period of time slows down their growth spurt and slows down their calcium spurt. But once you stop the medication, all of that restarts.” Children with precocious puberty typically stay on blockers until they reach a bone age of around eleven or twelve. “They’ll be accruing calcium in their bones from the restart of puberty all the way to the age of thirty or so,” Adkins said. “There’s plenty of time to catch up.”There are two main criteria to consider when deciding to start a child on Lupron, Adkins told me. One is if the child’s projected adult height falls below the fifth-percentile range, due to rapid bone maturation; stalling puberty buys the kid more time to add some inches. The other is more subjective, and has to do with physical or developmental challenges that the child might face in addition to precocious puberty.V., who is an occupational therapist in Orlando, has a daughter who is on the autism spectrum. She noticed that her daughter’s body began rapidly transforming in the late spring of 2020, when she was six and a half: breast buds, a huge growth spurt. By age eight, she had pubic hair and wore clothes in an adult-size extra-small. She frequently felt “off” in ways that she couldn’t precisely articulate—fatigued and headache-y. Her social status was changing, too. “She told me that boys were giving her more attention at school,” V. said. “She was like, ‘You’ve never noticed me before. Now, all of a sudden, I’m interesting? What?’ ”V. brought her daughter to a developmental pediatrician and a pediatric endocrinologist; the latter was a four-month wait. An X-ray showed that her “bone age” outpaced her chronological age by about two years. Her doctor guessed that she might begin her period within a few months, which seemed too soon for her. In the spring, her daughter began taking Vitamin D supplements, which aid in calcium absorption. She received her first dose of Lupron in August, two months before her ninth birthday. “I felt as if she needed more time to work on her social-emotional skills before she had to deal with a period every month,” V. said. “I want her to feel like, ‘O.K., I’m ready for this.’ But honestly, I need some time to adjust, too.”In Judy Blume’s 1970 young-adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which has served as a puberty handbook of sorts for generations of girls, a character named Laura Danker looms awkwardly on the periphery. Laura is studious, very shy, and very tall. When the eleven-year-old narrator of the book, Margaret Simon, sees Laura on the first day of school, she mistakes her for a teacher, not a fellow sixth grader. “You could see the outline of her bra through her blouse and you could also tell from the front that it wasn’t the smallest size,” Margaret observes. “She sat down alone and didn’t talk to anyone.” Margaret has just moved to town and easily makes new friends, who giggle and gossip about “the big blonde with the big you know whats.” “She’s got a bad reputation,” one girl says. “She’s been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period,” another alleges.Laura’s body commands a chaotic attention from her peers: by turns affronted and leering, repelled and keenly envious. Her body provokes their imagination, then serves to corroborate whatever they might imagine. Laura belongs nowhere: a head taller than all the boys, arms crossed over her chest, feeling the shame and confusion of the eleven-year-old she is but does not look like.In Blume, the fast-developing girl is sympathetic but mostly a cipher, a narrative device; in Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend,” she gets to tell the story. In the book—the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels—young Lenù, the narrator, gets her period without knowing what it is; she is comforted by an older friend, who’s had hers for a year already. Lenù’s best friend, Lila, shows no signs of development; for this, Lenù seems to pity her. “Suddenly, she seemed small, smaller than I had ever seen her…she didn’t know what the blood was. And no boy had ever made a declaration to her.” For an instant, it doesn’t entirely make sense that they are peers, much less friends.Lenù is wrung out by a classical pubertal funk: moodiness, anxiety, impulsivity (she flashes her breasts at some classmates for ten lire). Like Laura in “Are You There God?,” Lenù feels herself to be at once conspicuous and isolated. “I felt at the mercy of obscure forces acting inside my body,” she says. She is “besieged by boys.” She searches for respite. “I sneaked away, I compressed my bosom by holding my arms crossed over it, I felt mysteriously guilty and alone with my guilt.”The stigma of early development in girls is particularly painful because, in some cases, it may perpetuate a vicious cycle. An article published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, in May, found that early puberty put girls at higher risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, breast cancer, and heart disease along with “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and antisocial behaviors,” “earlier onset of sexual activity, higher number of sexual partners, and higher likelihood of substance use, delinquency, and low academic achievement.” The journal Hormones and Behavior, in 2013, argued that “early maturing girls are at unique risk for psychopathology.” A Pediatrics article titled “Early Puberty, Negative Peer Influence, and Problem Behaviors in Adolescent Girls,” from 2013, stated, “Early timing of puberty and affiliation with deviant friends are associated with higher levels of delinquent and aggressive behavior. Early-maturing adolescents tend to affiliate with more-deviant peers and appear more susceptible to negative peer influences.” (Free book-title idea for Elena Ferrante: “My Deviant Friend.”)Kaplowitz, of Children’s National Hospital, and Greenspan both advised caution about the most doomsaying studies of girls who experience early puberty. Some of the results are derived from brief questionnaires. Others are based on self-reported data, which can render wobblier conclusions (for example, most women can pinpoint when their period began, more or less, but not as many know precisely when their breasts began to bud). “Many of these studies are not well controlled, and many of them don’t have a large number of subjects,” Kaplowitz said. “I don’t think these are settled issues.”Because more Black girls enter puberty at a younger age, and because Black girls tend to come under more punitive surveillance no matter what Tanner stage they happen to occupy, the onus of early puberty can be especially harmful to them. A 2017 report from the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality studied the impact of “adultification,” a phenomenon in which children are socialized to act older than they are, and in which Black kids, specifically, are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers”—less in need, or less deserving, of the kinds of protections that childhood confers. Adultification has effects across the education and juvenile-justice systems: Black girls are more likely to be disciplined than white girls of the same age for the same infractions, and they have higher rates of school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, and arrests.The emotional and behavioral haywire of adolescence is driven by a pair of interlocking mechanisms: the hormonal and the social. The hormones that are released in puberty can lead to increased risk-taking and sensation-seeking; a nine-year-old who is newly doused in these hormones may not have the same self-regulating ability to manage them that a thirteen-year-old does. And just how much self-regulation an early-developing girl must exhibit depends on her surroundings: not just the scrutiny she receives from adults, which in turn is mediated by race and class, but by the tendencies of the children and young adults with whom she interacts. An older-looking girl might be more likely to hang out with actually older girls, and do the things they do.Among the adverse outcomes linked to early puberty that are most strongly supported by data, causation is not always clear. “We know that people who have menarche earlier do tend to have a higher rate of depression,” Greenspan said. “But we don’t know if that’s a biological thing or a social thing. Is it the biological effects of estrogen on the developing brain? Or is it the stress of looking older than your peers, and having to deal with that?” Even the ways in which a girl looks older than her peers is heavily dependent on her social context. “Are you in a school with uniforms, where everybody looks kind of shapeless? Or are you in an environment where clothes are tighter, and everyone is looking at you? You might feel uncomfortable or even miserable in your body—and that could lead to depression, that could lead to body dysmorphia,” Greenspan said.Several pediatric endocrinologists told me that parents are often highly agitated by the likelihood that their children are becoming sexual beings and that others are going to sexualize them. But, Greenspan said, “puberty and sexuality can be separated. A seven- or eight-year-old girl going through puberty isn’t necessarily going to associate that with pregnancy and sex unless someone makes that association for her.” In Greenspan’s view, families can choose to see puberty not as a Rubicon but as one among many points on a decades-long continuum of transformation. “Kids’ bodies are constantly changing. They need new shoes because their feet are bigger; they can’t fit into their clothes because they’re getting taller; they’re banging into furniture because they no longer know where their body is in space.” In these prepubertal developmental stages—when kids are sprouting and molting and falling over and spilling their teeth on the floor—the adults, while attuned to these metamorphoses, are not especially fazed by them. The ordeal of puberty, Greenspan said, should be similarly understood: as a station of childhood, not its terminus.More than once in my conversations with Greenspan, she said that adults “have to let kids be the age they are.” But early puberty presents something of a physics problem—how do we measure the passage of time? The bone X-ray may best illustrate the dilemma: a medical assessment that assigns the child to a skeleton that is older than the child herself. A tall, developed ten-year-old who has reached menarche may not be chronologically older than a petite, flat-chested ten-year-old who has not—but she is, in a real sense, physically and even experientially older. Adults and other children will almost inevitably relate to the girl differently—and not necessarily even in a sexualized way, although that is of grave concern; but intellectually, socially, emotionally. They may have advanced expectations of her, and she may strive to meet those expectations or fail to, and, either way, that cycle of stimulus and response is determining her place in her social milieu, conjuring a mirror in which she sees herself, and wiring her brain in configurations that subtly differ from those of her average-developing peers. Nature begets nurture. For this girl, the hands of the clock simply go faster.Megan Gray is now forty-six, works as a writer in Los Angeles, and has two kids, ages ten and eight. She looks back on the shock of early puberty with an affecting sort of analytical melancholy. “When your hormones change when you’re that young, your body is flooded with such an intensity of emotions that you’re not nearly mature enough to deal with it,” she told me. “I mean, nobody is, ever, and that’s why junior high is the worst.” But she was only eight years old. “Everything is felt so powerfully, but your brain has not caught up with that,” she went on. “For me, that manifested in depression.” Developing early, Gray said, clouded her ability to see the romantic and sexual possibilities that her adult life promised. “When you’re shamed at a young age for a sexuality that you don’t even have, I think it inhibits you from developing a sexuality. I began to associate people seeing me in a sexual way, or even as attractive, as a negative. At the same time, when you’re entering that age, you do want people to like you. And you want to like other people. There was that constant tension of, you know, liking is good, but attraction is bad, even if, on a rational level, I understood that wasn’t true. That contradiction started very young.”Gray and Maritza Gualy, who is now forty-one and a product designer in Los Angeles, both said that developing early had a positive influence on how they approach the subject of puberty with their own kids. “My husband and I want to talk to them preëmptively, openly, and answer their questions honestly,” Gualy said. Her children, who are nine and eight, have already had “the puberty talk,” she went on, “and they have no shame about it—yet. They have fun detecting their body changes and announcing them.” Recently, a speaker visited her daughter’s Girl Scout troop to discuss puberty; now her daughter is putting together an emergency period kit to keep in her backpack, “just in case she or one of her friends needs it while at school,” Gualy said.Gray told me, “Our generation of parents is hopefully doing things differently. My son may never forgive me for making him do a two-hour Zoom for the Sex-Positive Families puberty workshop. But I’d rather my kids grew up to tell the story about how their mom gave them too much information than not enough.”She also recognizes that indulging too much in parental anxieties can have a conjuring power; that awareness of the past, and of the possibilities it may show you, doesn’t have to force upon you any foreboding premonitions. “I want to avoid the mistakes that the grownups in my life made,” Gray said. “At the same time, I don’t want to put any of that baggage on my kids. I don’t want to make any assumptions about their experiences just because I had some trauma surrounding puberty. I’m trying to remain neutral, and to listen when they tell me how they feel about it.” ♦

'Our lives are at stake': Protesters from Louisiana's Cancer Alley march to the White House

More than 100 black-clad protesters, many of whom had flown in from across the country, marched in a traditional Louisiana funeral procession from Freedom Plaza to the White House Tuesday. They held signs with the names of loved ones lost to illness due to the industrial pollution that runs rampant in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. 

Debra Ramirez walked about half a block behind the rest of the march, occasionally stopping to rest. A great-grandmother from Mossville, Louisiana, Ramirez struggles with knee problems and had a heart attack just last year.

“I’m determined to make it, I don’t care if I’m the last one,” Ramirez said to a woman marching beside her. “This might be my last march, but I’m going to make it.”

As she walked, Ramirez held an ornate black umbrella and a sign that featured a “death tree” with more than a dozen names of those who had passed on its branches. She’s been involved with the fight for environmental justice in the region since the 1980s. 

The plastics industry says advanced recycling is a solution to the plastic waste crisis. But environmental groups disagree. – Chicago Tribune

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The plastics industry says there is way to help solve the crisis of plastic waste plaguing the planet’s oceans, beaches and lands— recycle it, chemically.Chemical recycling typically uses heat or chemical solvents to break down plastics into liquid and gas to produce an oil-like mixture or basic chemicals. Industry leaders say that mixture can be made back into plastic pellets to make new products.Advertisement“What we are trying to do is really create a circular economy for plastics because we think it is the most viable option for keeping plastic out of the environment,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade association for American chemical companies.ExxonMobil, New Hope Energy, Nexus Circular, Eastman, Encina and other companies are planning to build large plastics recycling plants. Seven smaller facilities across the United States already recycle plastic into new plastic, according to the ACC. A handful of others convert hard-to-recycle used plastics into alternative transportation fuels for aviation, marine and auto uses.AdvertisementBut environmental groups say advanced recycling is a distraction from real solutions like producing and using less plastic. They suspect the idea of recyclable plastics will enable the steep ramp up in plastic production to continue. And while the amount produced globally grows, recycling rates for plastic waste are abysmally low, especially in the United States.Plastic packaging, multi-layered films, bags, polystyrene foam and other hard-to-recycle plastic products are piling up in landfills and in the environment, or going to incinerators.Judith Enck, the founder and president of Beyond Plastics, says plastics recycling doesn’t work and never will. Chemical additives and colorants used to give plastic different properties mean that there are thousands of types, she said. That’s why they can’t be mixed together and recycled in the conventional, mechanical way. Nor is there much of a market for recycled plastic, because virgin plastic is cheap, she said.So what is more likely to happen than actual recycling, said Enck, a former regional administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is the industry will shift to burning plastics as waste or as fuel.Lee Bell, a policy advisor for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, thinks chemical recycling is a public relations exercise by the petrochemical industry. The purpose is to dissuade regulators from capping plastics production. Making plastic could become even more important to the fossil fuel industry as climate change puts pressure on their transportation fuels, Bell said.The industry has made roughly 11 billion metric tons of plastic since 1950, with half of that produced since 2006, according to industrial ecologist Roland Geyer. Global plastic production is expected to more than quadruple by 2050, according to the United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal in Norway.The international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says the share of plastic waste that is successfully recycled is projected to rise to 17% in 2060 from 9% in 2019 if no additional policies are enacted to restrain plastic demand and enhance recycling, but that wouldn’t begin to keep up with the projected growth in plastic waste. With more ambitious policies, the amount of plastic waste that is recycled could rise to 40% to 60%, according to OECD.Two groups working to reduce plastic pollution, the Last Beach Clean Up and Beyond Plastics, estimated that the U.S. rate for recycling plastic waste in 2021 was even lower — 5% to 6%, after China stopped accepting other countries’ waste in 2018.AdvertisementThe U.S. national recycling strategy says no option, including chemical recycling, should be ruled out. The way to think of these new plants, the industry says, is as manufacturing plants. They should be legally defined that way, and not as waste management. About 20 states have adopted laws in the past five years consistent with that wish. Opponents say it’s a way to skirt the more stringent environmental regulations that apply to waste management facilities.The U.S. facilities currently recycling plastic into new plastic are small — the largest is a 60-ton-per-day plant in Akron, Ohio, Alterra Energy, according to the ACC.Alterra Energy says it takes in the hard-to-recycle plastics, like flexible pouches, multi-layered films and rigid plastics from automobiles — everything except plastic water bottles since those are recycled mechanically, or plastics marked with a “3″ since they contain polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.“Our mission is to solve plastic pollution,” said Jeremy DeBenedictis, company president. “That is not just a tag line. We all truly want to solve plastic pollution.”The Ohio facility typically takes in 40 tons to 50 tons per day, heating and liquifying the plastic to turn it back into an oil or hydrocarbon liquid, about 10,000 gallons to 12,000 gallons daily. About 75% of what comes into the facility can be liquified like that. Another 15% is turned into a synthetic natural gas to heat the process, while the remainder — paper, metals, dyes, inks and colorants — exit the reactor as a byproduct, or carbon char, DeBenedictis said. The char is disposed of as nonhazardous waste, though in the future some hope to sell it to the asphalt industry.The process doesn’t involve oxygen so there’s no combustion or incineration of plastics, DeBenedictis said, and their product is trucked as a synthetic oil to petrochemical companies, essentially the “building blocks on a molecular level for new plastic production.”AdvertisementThe materials they take in, that haven’t been able to be recycled until now, should not be sent to landfills, dumped in the ocean or incinerated, DeBenedictis said.“That next level has to be a new technology, what you call chemical recycling or advanced recycling. That’s the next frontier,” he said.“Let’s not kid ourselves here. This is the right time to do it,” added company CEO Fred Schmuck. “There is absolutely no way we can meet our climate goals without addressing plastic waste.”DeBenedictis said he’s licensing the technology to try to grow the industry because that’s the “best way to make the quickest impact to the world.” A Finnish oil and gas company, Neste, is currently working to commercialize Alterra’s technology in Europe.The main chemical recycling technologies use pyrolysis, gasification or depolymerization. Neil Tangri, the science and policy director at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, is skeptical. He says he has been hearing that pyrolysis is going to change everything since the 1990s, but it hasn’t happened. Instead, plastic production keeps climbing.GAIA views chemical recycling as a false solution that will facilitate greater production of virgin plastic — a high-energy process with high-carbon emissions that releases hazardous air pollutants, Tangri said. Instead, GAIA wants plastic production to be dramatically scaled back and only recyclable plastics to be produced.Advertisement“Nobody needs more plastic,” Tangri said. “We keep trying to solve these production problems with recycling when really we need to change how much we make and what we make. That’s where the solution lies.”In Rhode Island, state lawmakers considered a bill this year to exempt such facilities from solid waste licensing requirements. It was vigorously opposed by environmental activists and residents near the port of Providence who feared it would lead to a new plant in their neighborhood. State environmental officials sided with them.Monica Huertas, executive director of The People’s Port Authority, helped lead the opposition. The neighborhood is already overburdened by industry, she said, so much so that she sometimes has asthma attacks after walking around.Dwayne Keys said it’s unfair that he and his neighbors always have to be on guard for proposals like these, unlike residents in some of the state’s wealthy, white neighborhoods. The port area has enough environmental hazards that residents don’t benefit from economically, he added. Keys calls it environmental racism.“The assessment is, we’re the path of least resistance,” he said. “Not that there’s no resistance, but the least. We’re a coalition of individuals volunteering our time. We don’t have wealth or access to resources or the legal means, as opposed to our white counterparts in higher income, higher net worth communities.”The chemistry council’s Baca said the facilities operate at the highest standards, the industry believes everyone deserves clear air and water, and he would invite any detractors to one of the facilities so they can see that firsthand.AdvertisementU.S. plastics producers have said they will recycle or recover all plastic packaging used in the United States by 2040, and have already announced more than $7 billion in investments in both mechanical and chemical recycling.“I think we are on the cusp of a sustainability revolution where circularity will be the centerpiece of that,” Baca said. “And innovative technologies like advanced recycling will be what makes this possible.”Kate O’Neill wrote the book on waste, called “Waste.” A professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, she has thought a lot about whether chemical recycling should be part of the solution to the plastic crisis. She said she has concluded yes, even though she knows saying so would “piss off the environmentalists.”“With some of these big problems,” she said, “we can’t rule anything out.”

Environmentalists fear a massive new plastics plant near Pittsburgh will worsen pollution and stimulate fracking

Fifteen years after Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry began to raise worries about air and water pollution, the industry’s critics now fear a new source of harmful emissions from the fledgling petrochemical industry, which is poised to become a major customer for the state’s abundant gas reserves.

In a state that has long nurtured the extraction of oil, coal and now gas, environmentalists warn that a vast new Shell plant on the banks of the Ohio River 30 miles north of Pittsburgh will add to air and water problems in a region that has endured decades of pollution from the steel and coal industries.

The plant, which is expected to open before the end of 2022, will convert ethane, a form of natural gas, into ethylene, a building block for plastics. The operation will produce millions of tons of tiny plastic pellets called “nurdles” which opponents predict will leak into the Ohio River and beyond during shipment, and will contribute to a flood of plastics that are polluting the world’s oceans and clogging landfills.

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The selective accounting behind the plastic industry’s climate-friendly claims

As the plastics industry ramps up production, plastic pollution continues to accumulate in the environment at an alarming pace. Up to 199 million metric tons of plastic is already swirling in the oceans — strangling marine life and leaching toxic chemicals into the food chain — and a study published earlier this year predicts this number could quadruple by midcentury. Meanwhile, plastic — most of which is made out of oil and gas — is also taking a toll on human communities. Production facilities located in majority-Black and low-income communities emit hazardous air pollution, contributing to wildly elevated rates of cancer and respiratory disease.

Much of the problem is driven by unnecessary single-use plastics — products like plastic bags and utensils that are designed to be thrown away after only a few minutes of use. One estimate from 2018 found that single-use plastics accounted for between 60 and 95 percent of the planet’s marine plastic pollution.

Given the scale of the problem and its increasing urgency, it seems only natural that the U.S. government is considering a straightforward step toward a solution: Stop buying single-use plastics. 

Between July and late September, the General Services Administration, a federal agency that provides administrative support to other government agencies, sought public comment on a proposal to restrict federal procurement of single-use plastic items. “With single-use plastics being a significant contributor to the global plastic pollution concern,” the General Services Administration, or GSA, explained, “it is a logical step for the agency to examine this.”

But petrochemical industry trade groups have vociferously opposed the proposal. The Plastics Industry Association launched a whole new “awareness campaign” in response to what it said would be a costly and environmentally damaging regulation. Another plastic industry group, the American Chemistry Council, inveighed against the proposal with a 23-page public comment. 

Both groups made similar arguments, trotting out talking points they frequently use in the face of proposed legislation to cut back on single-use plastics. Contrary to popular belief, they said, plastic is actually the most environmentally friendly option compared to alternative packaging materials such as aluminum and glass. Banning federal procurement of single-use plastics would only lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions, more landfilled materials, and higher costs to taxpayers. 

Experts dispute these claims, however, saying they are either outright false or that they rely on selective data interpretations that are meant to make single-use plastics look good while downplaying the full spectrum of their environmental impacts. The industry’s arguments are based on so-called “life cycle analyses,” or LCAs — a method used to determine all of the environmental impacts associated with something’s production, use, and disposal. While these assessments can be useful, they have frequently been “misused” by the industry to place disproportionate weight on factors like transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions — which make plastic look good because it’s lightweight — and less emphasis on considerations like chemical pollution, an area where chemicals perform poorly. Other factors may be too difficult to quantify and so are omitted altogether, like the number of marine animals that are strangled by plastic litter every year.

Elizabeth Balkan, North America director for the international nonprofit Reloop, said that life cycle analyses can allow interest groups to simply craft the story they want to tell — by “picking and choosing data and assumptions and crafting a methodology based on specific, target outcomes.”

A plastic bag floats in the ocean off Cebu Island in the Philippines.
Getty Images

At the heart of the American Chemistry Council and Plastics Industry Association’s claims to sustainability are LCAs suggesting that single-use plastics are less carbon-intensive than items made from alternative materials. To take the example of a beverage container, the analyses they cite find that a single plastic water bottle causes fewer greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime than an aluminum can or glass bottle. This is because it generally takes more energy to melt, mold, and transport thicker and heavier glass and aluminum.

Although the plastics industry commissioned several of these LCAs, and although they contain notable omissions — they neglect, for example, to acknowledge the 36 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions caused by fracking for the plastics industry every year — Balkan said they at least have “some merit”; their findings have been replicated in numerous other independent studies. However, an LCA’s outputs are only as useful as the questions they attempt to answer. Why not compare single-use plastics to reusable alternatives, Balkan asked? Why assume that all plastics must be replaced, rather than modeling a scenario with dramatically scaled-down demand for packaging and disposable foodware? 

John Hocevar, oceans campaign manager for the nonprofit Greenpeace USA, also said it was inappropriate to highlight greenhouse gas emissions to the exclusion of plastic’s many other devastating consequences to public health and the environment — from marine litter and toxic chemicals that leach out of plastics to hazardous air pollution from waste incineration. 

“If something makes sense from a climate perspective but is going to disrupt entire ecosystems, cause extinctions, and cause death or serious health problems for large numbers of people,” he said, “it would be ridiculous to claim it is an environmentally friendly choice.”

Some of the plastic industry’s other claims fall flat as well. For example, the trade groups lean heavily on the promise of recycling — one of the LCAs they cite says we can “recycle our way out of this problem” — even though the U.S. plastic recycling rate has never risen above 10 percent and advocates say it is unlikely to ever work on a meaningful scale. And to back up the ACC’s assertion that single-use plastics prevent more material from heading to the landfill, the group cites a 2016 LCA saying that it takes four tons of “alternative materials” to replace one ton of plastic. But this number is misleading; it represents the amount of alternative materials that would be needed to replace not only single-use plastics, but also plastic in things like cars, furniture, medical products, and “durable household goods” — a scope far broader than what the GSA covers in its proposal.

Furthermore, more waste does not automatically mean more environmental damage, since some types of waste are less damaging than others. Yet the plastics industry implies the opposite by pairing the findings of the 2016 LCA with those of a separate analysis, this one looking at a single-use plastic reduction policy in Canada. That analysis, written by a conservative-libertarian think tank called the Fraser Institute, says that a Canadian single-use plastics ban will cause a spike in other kinds of waste and lead to “increased environmental damage.”

A plastic water bottle on a wall in Spring Township, Pennsylvania.
Getty Images

This is in direct opposition to what the Canadian government’s own reports say. In a regulatory impact statement published at the end of last year, the country’s health and environment departments estimated that its ban on the manufacturing and sale of six kinds of single-use plastics, which was announced this summer and will be fully implemented by the end of 2023, would create roughly 298,000 metric tons of additional waste from replacement materials within the first year of implementation. But this increase waste “would represent inherently less risk to the environment” than single-use plastics, as it would be comprised almost entirely of paper substitutes — which, unlike plastic, are widely recycled and compostable — as well as smaller quantities of biodegradable wood and molded fiber, a paper-based packaging material. While the policy is set to create some new plastic waste from non-single-use items — about 21,500 metric tons — this will be more than offset by the elimination of some 132,000 metric tons of single-use plastic waste. 

To Madhavi Venkatesan, an economics professor at Northeastern University in Boston, this is just another example of the plastics industry handpicking arguments that align with its interests, even if those arguments are not backed by robust evidence. “It borders on unethical,” she told Grist. Yet another example is the claim that restricting single-use plastics would cause a jump in food waste, which the ACC supports in its comment to the GSA by citing brochures from U.S. and U.K. packaging industry associations. One of these documents says that cucumbers wrapped in plastic last longer than those that are bare, and another says plastic wrapping can extend meat’s shelf life by two to 21 days. 

Balkan objected to this argument: Just because plastic can extend a cucumber’s shelf life doesn’t mean that it’s needed to address food waste, a problem that is largely driven by consumer behavior — how much food people buy, cook, and serve — as well as agricultural practices. She called it an “inaccurate and deceitful attempt” to coopt an urgent environmental issue.

Again, Balkan and Venkatesan highlighted the need for a full reckoning with plastic’s impacts: If it solves one environmental problem by creating another — like reducing food waste but exacerbating plastic pollution and all the harms that come with it — then “that’s not a real solution,” Venkatesan said. The same goes for many of the plastic industry’s arguments in defense of plastic: Even if they are true — and several appear not to be — they should only be evaluated within the full context of plastic’s burden to people and the planet, from its production to its use and disposal.

Neither the American Chemistry Council nor the Plastics Industry Association responded to Grist’s request for comment.

In their own public comments to the GSA, environmental advocates say that such a holistic analysis will only support one conclusion: that single-use plastics must be eliminated. “Single use plastic is impacting our health, is creating serious environmental justice concerns, and is a significant contributor to the global plastic pollution crisis,” said one comment written by Safer States, a national alliance of environmental health organizations.

“We urge the GSA to move quickly to develop and enact bold rules that will drastically reduce and ultimately eliminate federal procurement of single use plastics and prompt movement toward truly safe and sustainable products and systems.”

Editor’s note: Greenpeace is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

Adult incontinence products outnumber baby nappies in landfill — and the figure is only going up, researchers say

Adult incontinence products outnumber baby nappies in landfill — and could outstrip them 10-to-one by 2030, according to a new Australian study. Key points:Experts want policy change to divert adult incontinence products from landfillThey say these products are a bigger waste problem than nappiesThe problem is a health, as well as an environmental concernResearchers from the University of Queensland and Southern Cross University found adult products and their impact got less attention, but could have a bigger environmental footprint. Co-author Emma Thompson-Brewster, an expert in waste management, said these were one of the last, and most difficult products yet to be diverted from landfill. “They produce greenhouse gasses, leachate [water pollutants] and also it’s full of plastic so the plastic biodegrades into micro plastics, and there could be other chemicals.”They’re not going away any time soon, and it’s important in any waste management issue that we talk about what the problem is – and the problem here is adult products,” she said.One in four Australians experience incontinence, and unlike babies who age out of nappies, for some it may be a long-term or chronic condition, researchers said. 

Remote-controlled robots coming to Lake Erie will help remove, study plastic pollution

Lake Erie will soon have two electric, remote-controlled robots on its shores and in its waters to help remove plastic pollution.The technology is part of the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup initiative, led by the Council of the Great Lakes Region and Pollution Probe. The Canadian-based organizations joined forces in 2020 to help remove plastic from the Great Lakes.Researchers with the Rochester Institute of Technology found that nearly 22 million pounds of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes each year through different sources and waterways.“That number is quite concerning,” said Mark Fisher, founder and CEO of the council.After seeing plastic-removing technology being used in saltwater environments, the team wanted to try it out on the Great Lakes.“We’ve seen them deployed around the world, in other coastal communities and predominantly, I would say, in saltwater environments,” Fisher said. “We said, well, there’s no reason why they can’t be … tested and deployed in an environment like the Great Lakes.”

The Council of the Great Lakes


Gautier Peers test drives the BeBot during a press event with The Council of the Great Lakes and Meijer at Muskegon, Michigan in August 2022. Peers is a representative with the BeBot manufacturing company the Searial Cleaners. The BeBot and the PixieDrone were deployed at Lake Michigan during the event.

Over the last two years, the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup Initiative expanded to more than 30 sites with different types of cleanup technology. After receiving funding from Meijer and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the initiative expanded to the United States.“We’ve seen some incredible expansion over the last couple of years in the ability to use new capture and cleanup technologies as part of our work, he said.”The initiative was able to introduce this technology to Northeast Ohio’s waterways through partnerships with Cleveland Metroparks, Lake Metroparks, the Port of Cleveland and the PHASTAR Corporation.Meijer’s $1 million donation funded both robots, the BeBot and the PixieDrone.The BeBot, developed by Niteko Robotics, combs the beaches with a rake that gathers large particles from the sand into a collection bin on the robot. It can climb over obstacles, and carry up to 40 kilograms, or about 88 pounds of material.The PixieDrone, designed by Ranmarine, navigates the lake and pulls floating debris from the water to collect it into the back of the machine. It is equipped with a camera to help it avoid obstacles, and a basket that can hold up to about 42 gallons and 132 pounds.

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The BeBot is emptied, revealing the amount of debris it collected from the Lake Michigan’s beach in Muskegon. The BeBot and PixieDrone were deployed on Lake Michigan during a press event with Meijer and the Council of the Great Lakes in August 2022.

The Council of the Great Lakes

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The PixieDrone is deployed into Lake Michigan during a press event with Meijer and the Council of the Great Lakes in August 2022.

The Council of the Great Lakes

“So, both of them are remote controlled devices and operate slightly differently, but provide very useful and helpful data for the work that we do,” Fisher said.The robots are able to collect larger plastics, like bottles, food containers and cigarette butts, and plastics as small as nurdles – plastic pellets that can range from one to five millimeters in size, Fisher said.After the collection, researchers will sort through the debris to determine and categorize what is collected, Fisher said. This involves recycling material, throwing away waste and returning any organic material, like sticks and plants, back to the beach.There is not yet a definitive number on the amount of plastic in Lake Erie itself, Fisher said, but the data collected will allow them to determine that information.“In terms of absolute numbers, there really isn’t one at this stage,” he said, “which is why, the work that we’re doing through the Great Lakes plastics cleanup and on individual beaches and marinas is really helping us understand what is showing up in different lakes, but also different communities that are bordering Lake Erie and the other [four] Great Lakes.”The BeBot and PixieDrone will be deployed in Lake Erie this fall for the testing phase, led by Ohio State University’s Ohio Sea Grant program, Fisher said. They will be officially deployed around April or May of 2023 and will run until the fall.While the robots will help provide a path to making the shores and waters of Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes clean, Fisher said they are not the solution.“The solution is working further upstream in the economy and our communities to make sure that we’re doing a much better job at providing opportunities to collect, recover this material, obviously recycle it and create opportunities for its reuse in the economy,” Fisher said, “as opposed to it either going to landfill or even worse, showing up in the environment as litter.”The Council of the Great Lakes hopes the robots will spark a larger conversation that can create a lasting impact on plastic disposal and reduction, Fisher said.“It really helps us reach coastal communities, whether it’s both beachgoers or boaters, about this plastics challenge that we face in the Great Lakes region,” he said, “and how we need to be working together to make sure that plastic never becomes waste or litter in the first place.”

All that plastic in the ocean is a climate change problem, too

When you think of plastic pollution, you might imagine ocean “garbage patches” swirling with tens of millions of plastic bottles and shopping bags. But unfolding alongside the “macroplastic” pollution crisis is another threat caused by much smaller particles: microplastics.

Microplastics — tiny plastic fragments that are less than 5 millimeters in diameter, a little less than one-third the size of a dime — have become ubiquitous in the environment. They form when larger plastic items like water bottles, grocery bags, and food wrappers are exposed to the elements, chipping into smaller and smaller pieces as they degrade. Smaller plastic fragments can get down into the nano territory, spanning just 0.000001 millimeter — a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair.

These plastic particles do many of the same bad things that larger plastic items do: mar the land and sea, leach toxic chemicals into the food chain. But scientists are increasingly worried about their potential impact on the global climate system. Not only do microplastics release potent greenhouse gases as they break down, but they also may be inhibiting one of the world’s most important carbon sinks, preventing planet-warming carbon molecules from being locked away in the seafloor.

Matt Simon, a science journalist for Wired, details the danger in his forthcoming book on microplastics, A Poison Like No Other. He told Grist that it’s still early days for some of this research but that the problem could be “hugely important going forward.”

To understand the potential magnitude, you first have to understand an ocean phenomenon called the “biological carbon pump.” This process — which involves a complex network of physical, chemical, and biological factors — sequesters up to 12 billion metric tons of carbon at the bottom of the ocean each year, potentially locking away one-third of humanity’s annual emissions. Without this vital system, scientists estimate that atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which recently hit a new record high of 421 parts per million, could be up to 250 parts per million higher.

“The biological carbon pump helps to keep the planet healthy,” said Clara Manno, a marine ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey. “It helps the mitigation of climate change.”

The pump works like this: First, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves into water at the surface of the ocean. Using photosynthesis, tiny marine algae called phytoplankton then absorb that carbon into their bodies before passing it onto small ocean critters — zooplankton — that eat them. In a final step, zooplankton excrete the carbon as part of “fecal pellets” that sink down the water column. Once these carbon-containing pellets reach the ocean floor, the carbon can be remineralized into rocks — preventing it from escaping back into the atmosphere.

Matt Simon’s book, A Poison Like No Other, details the many dangers of microplastics.
Left: Milan Bozic, Right: Jenna Garrett

So where do microplastics come in? Unfortunately, at every step of the process.

Perhaps most concerning to scientists is the way microplastics may be affecting that final stage, the sinking of zooplankton poop to the bottom of the seafloor. Once ingested, microplastics get incorporated into zooplankton poop and can cause fecal pellets to sink “way, way more slowly,” said Matthew Cole, a senior marine ecologist and ecotoxicologist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the U.K. In a 2016 paper he published in Environmental Science & Technology, he documented a 2.25-fold reduction in the sinking rate for the fecal pellets of zooplankton that had been exposed to microplastics. Other research has shown that plastic-contaminated krill fecal pellets can sink about half as quickly as their purer counterparts.

This reduced sinking rate is a result of microplastics’ buoyancy — especially those made of low-density polymers like polyethylene, the stuff used in grocery bags and likely the most common polymer in the surface ocean. Slower sinking rates mean fecal pellets may spend up to two or even three days more than usual drifting through the water column, presenting more opportunities to be intercepted.

“They’re more likely to break apart, they’re more likely to be eaten by other animals,” Cole said, making it less likely that the carbon will reach the seafloor and become permanently sequestered. 

There are other worries too, about the way microplastics can affect phytoplankton and zooplankton health — potentially compounding the stresses already posed by rising carbon dioxide concentrations, which are making the oceans warmer and more acidic, and are contributing to the expansion of oxygen-depleted “dead zones.” High concentrations of microplastics in water are toxic to phytoplankton, and lab experiments have shown they can cause up to a 45 percent reduction in some species’ growth. Cole’s experiments on copepods, a common kind of zooplankton, have shown that ingested microplastics take up space in copepods’ guts, causing them to eat less real food, produce smaller eggs that are significantly less likely to hatch, and live shorter lives. 

A researcher sifts through sediment to find tiny fragments of microplastic.
Charly Triballeau / AFP via Getty Images

Researchers are still trying to come to grips with what all these laboratory observations could mean on a global scale. But the worry is that a planet-wide population of smaller, shorter-lived ocean algae and zooplankton may not be able to take up as much carbon as their ancestors — exacerbating the problems associated with buoyant fecal pellets. 

“There is something there that we should worry about,” Manno said, stressing the need for more research. To that end, she’s working on a multiyear field study, with research expeditions planned for the microplastics-laden Mediterranean Sea and the moderately cleaner Southern Ocean. Manno said she’s hoping to collect real-world plastic and fecal pellet samples and get a better look at how microplastics interact with zooplankton in the open ocean.

The goal, Manno explained, is to quantify the decline in carbon sequestration related to microplastics and translate that into a dollar cost to society. “The ocean provides us this ecosystem service,” she said. “If something stresses these processes … this is a kind of social benefit that we cannot use anymore.”

If her hypothesis is correct — that microplastics are inhibiting the biological carbon pump — it will add even more weight to a growing recognition of plastic and microplastics as a major climate disrupter. Scientists already know that plastic production and incineration cause massive greenhouse gas emissions, and in A Poison Like No Other, Simon notes emerging research on the way microplastics release exponentially increasing amounts of planet-warming methane and ethylene as they break down.

“They continue emitting forever,” said Sarah-Jeanne Royer, the oceanographer and postdoctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who is conducting that research.

To mitigate their damage to ecosystems and the climate, Royer called for policymakers to double down on removing microplastics from the ocean. But that’s a tall order. Despite some early-stage experiments involving plastic-eating mussels and bacteria, Simon said there are currently no viable, scalable ways to remove all the microplastics that have already accumulated in the environment.

“We have so much microplastic and nanoplastic in so many places on the planet — in the air and the land and the sea — that there’s just no way to pull it all out,” Simon said. “I wish there was a nice, happy solution like a magnet that you could drag through the environment and attract all the microplastics, but unfortunately that just doesn’t exist.”

Instead, he called for people to take steps to limit the release of microplastics into the environment — like by installing a filter on their washing machine — as well as government-mandated caps on plastic production. “We have to stop producing so much goddamn plastic,” he said. “It is out of control at this point.”

New study reveals ‘staggering’ scale of lost fishing gear drifting in Earth’s oceans

New study reveals ‘staggering’ scale of lost fishing gear drifting in Earth’s oceansLost nets, lines and hooks trap wildlife for years as they float in the ocean, sink to the bottom or are washed ashore

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Enough commercial fishing line is left in the ocean each year to stretch to the moon and back, according to the most comprehensive study ever completed of lost fishing equipment.The staggering amounts of lost gear, which includes 25 million pots and traps and 14 billion hooks, was likely having deadly consequences for marine life, one of the study’s authors said.Enough nets were lost or discarded each year to cover Scotland. If all types of lost line was tied together, it would be able to stretch round the Earth 18 times.
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“This is super confronting,” said Dr Denise Hardesty, of the Australian government’s CSIRO science agency, and one of the study’s authors.“This is having an unimaginable toll of unknown deaths that could result in population level effects for marine wildlife.”Published in the journal Science Advances, researchers from CSIRO and the University of Tasmania used standardised interviews with 451 commercial fishers in seven countries to ask what was being lost.Living sea walls and kelp forests: the plans to lure marine life back to Sydney HarbourRead moreResearchers matched those interviews with data on the amount of commercial fishing globally to estimate what was lost. Annual losses included:
78,000 sq km (30,000 sq miles) of purse seine nets and gillnets
215 sq km of bottom trawl nets
740,000 km (46,000 miles) of main long lines
15.5 million km (9.6m miles) of branch lines
13 billion longline hooks
25 million traps and pots
Fishers in the United States, Morocco, Indonesia, Belize, Peru, Iceland and New Zealand were interviewed. The countries were chosen because they had a fishing industry using most fishing methods.Smaller boats lost more gear than larger boats, and bottom-trawl fishers lost more nets than midwater trawlers.A previous estimate put the percentage of gear lost at a higher level, but that research relied on a range of studies, rather than a standardised estimation based on interviews.Hardesty said fishers often lost nets due to bad weather where equipment wasn’t properly secured or floated away, or gear became entangled with equipment from other vessels competing for the same fish.But she said because nets were designed to catch and kill animals, lost gear would continue to entrap wildlife for years as it either floated in the ocean, sank to the bottom or washed ashore.“That’s birds, turtles, whales, sharks, dolphins, dugongs,” she said.“You are then also catching a whole bunch of fish but then not eating them. That becomes a food security problem because that’s protein that’s not feeding people around the world.”Kelsey Richardson, a lead author from the University of Tasmania, said the detailed estimates should help fisheries managers, the commercial fishing sector, and conservationists to better target solutions.The nets were adding to the global problem of marine plastic pollution, she saidHardesty said there were solutions, such as local governments introducing buy-backs of older fishing gear which tended to get lost more often than new equipment. Tags or labels could be attached to gear, and free facilities could be introduced at harbours to allow fishers to discard unusable nets safely.Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF Australia, said: “These figures are breathtaking. This gives us a sense of the horrendous scale of the problem and the urgent need to tackle it.Off Tanzania, in one of the world’s richest seas, why is the catch getting smaller?Read more“Ghost nets – as they’re known – are a particularly lethal form of plastic pollution for all the marine life we care about. Once these nets are lost from a fishing vessel, they don’t stop fishing.”Leck said a global plastic pollution treaty currently being negotiated through the United Nations needed to address the problem of ghost nets “at a global level to make sure countries are accountable” through transparent reporting and labelling of fishing gear.“This affects all countries – not just the places where nets are lost. This gear can migrate around oceans and continue to catch fish and entangle threatened species.”TopicsFishOceansFishingFoodMarine lifeReuse this content