Pollution: Complaint lodged over plastic microbeads on French coast

The French Ecology Ministry has lodged a complaint after industrial plastic microbeads have been found washed up on several beaches on the French Atlantic coast, polluting the shoreline.The complaint, announced on Saturday, January 21, calls for “justice” against an unnamed defendant, “X”.Microbeads are little industrial beads, 5mm across, which are used in the production of most plastic products, when they are melted down to make everyday plastic objects. In French, they are often known as ‘GPI’ (granulés plastiques industriels). The beads are also sometimes called ‘siren tears’.They are different from other microplastics, which occur when existing plastic objects break down.‘Extremely invasive pollution’It comes after several mayors made complaints from coastal towns, including Pornic (Loire-Atlantique) and Sables-d’Olonne (Vendée), and a complaint by Pays de la Loire regional president, Christelle Morançais, about the hundreds of thousands of beads washing up on the coast.Ms Morançais complained of “extremely invasive pollution [with] dramatic consequences for flora and fauna”. She laid the blame at the door of “rule-breaking companies that devastate our oceans, our water, and our environment”.A la suite du déversement sur les plages de notre littoral d’une quantité très importante de granulés plastiques industriels, j’ai décidé de porter plainte contre X devant le procureur de la République. pic.twitter.com/6nMGH74t1I— Christelle MORANÇAIS (@C_MORANCAIS) January 19, 2023Christophe Béchu, Ecology Minister, has now responded, saying: “The state is at the side of your campaigns, and I am letting you know of our intention to take this to court.” He said that GPIs were an “environmental nightmare…the equivalent of 10 billion plastic bottles”.Microbeads were also noticed in Finistère at the end of last year, and were also detected across beaches in Vendée, Morbihan, and in Loire-Atlantique. ‘Poison for fish’Hundreds of people took part in a beach cleaning session on Pornic beach this weekend, to help clear up the beads and to raise awareness of their denunciation of the pollution. They took part in a demonstration, and held up placards reading: “Plastic pollution = guilty industry!” and “Poison for fish”.Lionel Cheylus, spokesperson for the NGO foundation Surfrider, told the AFP: “We think that it has come from a container, which, maybe, was damaged a while ago, and because of recent storms, has opened.“We found these pellets in December in Finistère, and then in summer in Sable d’Olonne, and then here in Pornic, then Noirmoutier. It’s pollution that moves.”Mr Cheylus said he believed that Storm Gérard had been moving the beads around more. Related articlesTourists in France ‘swimming in a plastic soup’Marseille beaches covered in waste after storms drag rubbish into seaHaving to clean beaches is shameful 

Kitchener mother finds “sneaky plastics” in household waste

WATERLOO REGION — When Rebecca McIntosh of Kitchener signed up for the zero waste challenge, the married mother of two found “sneaky plastics” among the garbage she never thought about before.McIntosh didn’t know it, but she had been “wishcycling” — assuming a container or bag could be recycled, so it was tossed into the blue box.But during the zero waste challenge, she scrutinized every piece of garbage her family produced. The five-day challenge, run by the Kitchener charity Reep Green Solutions, is to have each member of the household produce no more waste than what a single Mason jar can hold.“We think we lead a low-waste lifestyle, but until you pay attention you don’t really know where all your waste comes from,” said McIntosh.She long believed ice cream containers could be recycled. Wrong: they contain plastic between the cardboard-like layers and are not recyclable. Cardboard alone and most plastics on their own can be recycled, but not when combined into a single product. “That was eye-opening,” said McIntosh.McIntosh and her family have done the challenge twice. The real benefit is looking closely at the garbage produced, and thinking about ways to reduce it.“We made changes afterwards,” said McIntosh. “Now we buy ice cream in a full, plastic container that is recyclable, or a glass one.”The UN Environment Assembly voted in March 2022 to end plastic pollution, and forge an international legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.When Canada was chairing the G7 group of advanced economies in 2018, it called for reducing the use of plastic. It spent years developing new regulations.Ottawa’s first phase of a multi-year program to eliminate plastics came into effect about a month ago with a ban on importing or manufacturing six plastic items: plastic checkout bags, cutlery, stir sticks, straight straws, chopsticks and takeout containers. Businesses have until Dec. 20, 2023, to use up existing inventories and start using replacements.Beginning in June, plastic ring carriers can no longer be made or imported into Canada. Businesses have a year to use up existing supplies, but beginning in June 2024, ring carriers will be banned.The government will also prohibit the export of plastics in the six categories by the end of 2025, making Canada the first among peer countries to do so internationally, says a federal government statement.The video “The Story of the Sea Turtle with the Straw” inspired millions of people to stop using plastic straws.screen shot from the viral video: The story of the sea turtle with straw in it’s nostril.Over the next decade, the world-leading ban will eliminate an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of hard-to-recycle plastic waste and more than 22,000 tonnes of plastic pollution, which is equivalent to over a million garbage bags full of litter, says the statement.But if you don’t eat fast food, the federal ban will have little impact.“We don’t drink bottled water, we don’t use plastic straws, the single-use plastics are not something we had a lot of in our lives anyway,” said McIntosh.For McIntosh and her family, “sneaky plastics” are the problem.“It was more the hidden plastics, the ice cream container with plastic layers, or even meat packaging you think is a paper material but it is actually plastic, so it’s garbage,” said McIntosh.Plastics pollution is so widespread, microscopic plastics are showing up in human blood, poop and placenta.But Jennifer Lynes Murray, a University of Waterloo professor who teaches business and environment, social marketing and enterprise strategies for social accountability, has worked for more than a decade on one of biggest generators of single-use plastic waste — concerts, sporting events and festivals.For a decade Murry worked with artists and musicians, venues and promoters to ban the use of plastic cups at venues. Instead, the fans can bring refillable containers, and free water is provided at filling stations. The Hillside Festival in Guelph has adopted many green initiatives, said Murray.The federal government successfully battled other, huge environmental challenges.In the 1980s Ottawa negotiated an acid rain reduction treaty with the U.S. that reversed the acidification of many lakes in Ontario and Quebec.In the 1970s an international treaty was approved in Montreal to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons from aerosol sprays. The harmful chemicals caused huge holes in the ozone layer. As a result, the holes are shrinking and will be closed entirely in about 20 years.The same thing can happen with plastics, said Murray.“We lived without plastics prior to the 1950s, so there are definitely ways we can live without them again,” said Murray.“It is a three-pronged challenge — how willing are people to make the changes, how available are the alternatives and how will the government encourage that through policies and regulations?” said Murray.She watched a single image galvanize the public — a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. The 2015 pictures and video showed researchers removing a plastic straw that was embedded in the turtle’s nostril.“It created this whole movement, and within a year nobody was using plastic straws and it was really widespread as well,” said Murray. “When you get the momentum, things can happen quickly.”Canada needs to ban a lot more plastics than the six items associated with takeout food, and it needs to act more quickly, said Sarah King, the Vancouver-based head of the Oceans and Plastics Campaign for Greenpeace.“The current ban covers less than three per cent of the plastic waste we generate in Canada,” said King.The blue box program is as widely loved as it is deeply flawed, she said, and only encourages and enables more widespread use of plastics.“Recycling we know is not the solution to the plastic waste and pollution crisis,” said King. “This whole idea of plastic recycling is a myth. because many people across this country have come to learn that less than nine per cent of plastic is recycled in Canada.”King said PVC, the black plastic pipe, should also be banned. Polystyrene — a white, spongy material widely used for coffee cups and clamshell takeout containers — should be banned as well, she said.Polystyrene “is highly polluting in its production. And due to the nature of the material, when it ends up in the environment it breaks apart very easily and spreads,” said King.SHARE:

Trying to live a day without plastic

On the morning of the day I had decided to go without using plastic products — or even touching plastic — I opened my eyes and put my bare feet on the carpet. Which is made of nylon, a type of plastic. I was roughly 10 seconds into my experiment, and I had already committed a violation.Since its invention more than a century ago, plastic has crept into every aspect of our lives. It’s hard to go even a few minutes without touching this durable, lightweight, wildly versatile substance. Plastic has made possible thousands of modern conveniences, but it has come with downsides, especially for the environment. Last week, in a 24-hour experiment, I tried to live without it altogether in an effort to see what plastic stuff we can’t do without and what we may be able to give up.Most mornings I check my iPhone soon after waking up. On the appointed day, this was not possible, given that, in addition to aluminum, iron, lithium, gold and copper, each iPhone contains plastic. In preparation for the experiment, I had stashed my device in a closet. I quickly found that not having access to it left me feeling disoriented and bold, as if I were some sort of intrepid time traveler.I made my way toward the bathroom, only to stop myself before I went in.“Could you open the door for me?” I asked my wife, Julie. “The doorknob has a plastic coating.”She opened it for me, letting out a “this is going to be a long day” sigh.My morning hygiene routine needed a total revamp, which required detailed preparations in the days before my experiment. I could not use my regular toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo or liquid soap, all of which were encased in plastic or made of plastic.Fortunately, there is a huge industry of plastic-free products targeted at eco-conscious consumers, and I had bought an array of them, a haul that included a bamboo toothbrush with bristles made of wild boar hair from Life Without Plastic. “The bristles are completely sterilized,” Jay Sinha, the company’s co-owner, assured me when I spoke with him the week before.Instead of toothpaste, I had a jar of gray charcoal-mint toothpaste pellets. I popped one in, chewed it, sipped water and brushed. It was nice and minty, though the ash-colored spit was unsettling.I liked my shampoo bar. A shampoo bar is just what it sounds like: a bar of shampoo. Mine was scented pink grapefruit and vanilla, and lathered up well. According to shampoo bar advocates, it is also cheaper than bottled shampoo on a per-wash basis (one bar can last 80 showers). Which is good, because the plastic-free life can be expensive. Package Free, a sleek outlet in the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan that abuts Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop store, sells a zinc and stainless-steel razor for $84 (as well as “the world’s first biodegradable vibrator”).An array of plastic-free items in the reporter’s bathroom.Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesA plastic-free morning shave, thanks to a razor made of zinc and steel.Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesA wool sweater knitted by hand completed the day’s outfit.Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesTaking a blogger’s advice, I mixed a D.I.Y. deodorant out of tea tree oil and baking soda. It left me smelling a little like a medieval cathedral, but in a good way. Making your own stuff is another way to avoid plastic, though it does require another luxury: free time.Before I was done in the bathroom, I had broken the rules a second time, by using the toilet.Getting dressed was also a challenge, given that so many clothing items include plastic. I had ordered a pair of wool pants that promised to be plastic free, but they had not arrived. In their stead, I chose a pair of old Banana Republic chinos.The tag said “100 percent cotton,” but when I had checked the day before with a very helpful Banana Republic public relations representative, it turned out to be a little more complicated. The main fabric is indeed 100 percent cotton, but there was plastic lurking in the zipper tape, the internal waistband, woven label, pocketing and threads, the representative told me. I cut my thumb trying to slice off the black brand label with an all-metal knife. Instead of a Band-Aid — yes, plastic — I used some gummed paper tape to stop the bleeding.Happily, my underwear did not represent a plastic violation — blue boxers from Cottonique made of 100 percent organic cotton with a cotton drawstring in place of the elastic (which is often plastic) waistband. I had found this item via an internet list of “14 Hot & Sustainable Underwear Brands for Men.”For my upper body, I lucked out. Our friend Kristen had knitted my wife a sweater for a birthday present. It had rectangles of blue and purple, and it was 100 percent merino wool.“Could I borrow Kristen’s sweater for the day?” I asked Julie.“You’re going to stretch it out,” Julie said.“It’s for planet Earth,” I reminded her.Plastics Present and PastThe world produces about 400 million metric tons of plastic waste each year, according to a United Nations report. About half is tossed out after a single use. The report noted that “we have become addicted to single-use plastic products — with severe environmental, social, economic and health consequences.”I’m one of the addicts. I did an audit, and I’d estimate that I toss about 800 plastic items in the garbage a year — takeout containers, pens, cups, Amazon packages with foam inside and more.Before my Day of No Plastic, I immersed myself in a number of no-plastic and zero-waste books, videos and podcasts. One of the books, “Life Without Plastic: The Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Avoiding Plastic to Keep Your Family and the Planet Healthy,” by Mr. Sinha and Chantal Plamondon, came from Amazon wrapped in clear plastic, like a slice of American cheese. When I mentioned this to Mr. Sinha, he promised to look into it.I also called Gabby Salazar, a social scientist who studies what motivates people to support environmental causes, and asked for her advice as I headed into my plastic-free day.“It might be better to start small,” Dr. Salazar said. “Start by creating a single habit — like always carrying a stainless-steel water bottle. After you’ve got that down, you start another habit, like taking produce bags to the grocery. You build up gradually. That’s how you make real change. Otherwise, you’ll just be overwhelmed.”“Maybe being overwhelmed will bring some sort of clarity?” I said.“That’d be nice,” Dr. Salazar said.Must avoid: All of these items, which are part of the reporter’s everyday life, contain plastic.Photographs by Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesAdmittedly, living completely without plastic is probably an absurd idea. Despite its faults, plastic is a crucial ingredient in medical equipment, smoke alarms and helmets. There’s truth to the plastics industry’s catchphrase from the 1990s: “Plastics make it possible.”In many cases it can help the environment: Plastic airplane parts are lighter than metal ones, which mean less fuel and lower CO2 emissions. Solar panels and wind turbines have plastic parts. That said, the world is overloaded with the stuff, especially the disposable forms. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that people go through one trillion single-use plastic bags each year.The crisis was a long time coming. There’s some debate over when plastic entered the world, but many date it to 1855, when a British metallurgist, Alexander Parkes, patented a thermoplastic material as a waterproof coating for fabrics. He called the substance “Parkesine.” Over the decades, labs across the world birthed other types, all with a similar chemistry: They are polymer chains, and most are made from petroleum or natural gas. Thanks to chemical additives, plastics vary wildly. They can be opaque or transparent, foamy or hard, stretchy or brittle. They are known by many names, including polyester and Styrofoam, and by shorthand like PVC and PET.Plastic manufacturing ramped up for World War II and was crucial to the war effort, providing nylon parachutes and Plexiglas aircraft windows. That was followed by a postwar boom, said Susan Freinkel, the author of “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,” a book on the history and science of plastic. “Plastic went into things like Formica counters, refrigerator liners, car parts, clothing, shoes, just all sorts of stuff that was designed to be used for a while,” she said.Then things took a turn.“Where we really started to get into trouble is when it started going into single-use stuff,” Ms. Freinkel said. “I call it prefab litter.”The outpouring of straws, cups, bags and other ephemera has led to disastrous consequences for the environment. According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 11 million metric tons of plastic enter oceans each year, leaching into the water, disrupting the food chain and choking marine life.Close to one-fifth of plastic waste gets burned, releasing CO2 into the air, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which also reports that only 9 percent of plastics are recycled. Some aren’t economical to recycle, and other types degrade in quality when they are.Plastic may also harm our health. Certain plastic additives — such as BPA and phthalates — may disrupt the endocrine system in humans, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Worrying effects may include behavioral problems and lower testosterone levels in boys and lower thyroid hormone levels and preterm births for women.“Solving this plastic problem can’t fall entirely on the shoulders of consumers,” Dr. Salazar told me. “We need to work on it on all fronts.”It’s EverywhereEarly in my no-plastic day, I started to see the world differently. Everything looked menacing, like it might be harboring hidden polymers. The kitchen was particularly fraught. Anything I could use for cooking was off-limits — the toaster, the oven, the microwave. Even leftovers were a no-go. My son waved a plastic baggie filled with French toast. “You want some of this?” Yes, I did.Instead, I decided to go foraging for raw food items.I left my building using the stairs, rather than the elevator with its plastic buttons, and walked to a health food store near our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.When I go shopping, I try to remember to take a cloth bag with me. This time, I had brought along seven bags of varying sizes, all of them cotton. I also had two glass containers.At the store, I filled up one of my cotton bags with apples and oranges. On close inspection, I noticed that the each rind had a sticker with a code. Another likely violation, but I ignored it.At the bulk bins, I scooped walnuts and oatmeal into my glass dishes using a (washed) steel ladle I had brought from home. The bins themselves were plastic, which I ignored, because I was hungry.Scooping walnuts into a glass container with a steel ladle brought from home.Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesIt is not easy to pay without using plastic. Even paper currency may have synthetic ingredients.Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesGlass container? Bamboo fork? Cotton towel? Wooden chair? Check, check, check, check.Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesI went to the cashier. At which point it was time to pay. Which was a problem. Credit cards were out. So was my iPhone’s Apple Pay. Paper money was another violation: Although U.S. paper currency is made mainly of cotton and linen, each bill likely contains synthetic fibers, and the higher denominations have a security thread made of plastic to prevent counterfeiting.To be safe, I had brought along a cotton sack full of coins. Yes, a big old sack heavy with quarters, dimes and pennies — about $60 worth that I had withdrawn from Citibank and my kids’ piggy banks.At the checkout counter, I started stacking quarters as quickly as I could between nervous glances at the customers behind me.“I’m really sorry this is taking so long,” I said.“That’s OK,” the cashier said. “I meditate every morning so I can deal with turmoil like this.”He added that he appreciated my commitment to the environment. It was the first positive feedback I’d received. I counted out $19.02 — exact change! — and went home to eat my breakfast: nuts and oranges on a metal cookie tray, which I balanced on my lap.A couple of hours later, in search of a plastic-free lunch, I walked to Lenwich, a sandwich and salad shop in my neighborhood. I arrived early in the afternoon, toting my rectangular glass dish and bamboo cutlery.“Can you make the salad in this glass container?” I asked, holding it up.“One minute please,” the man behind the counter said, tersely.He called over a manager, who said OK. Victory! But the manager then rejected my follow-up request to use my steel scooper.After lunch, I headed to Central Park, figuring that this was a spot in Manhattan where I could relax in a plastic-free environment. I took the subway there, which scored me more violations, since the trains themselves have plastic parts and you need a MetroCard or smartphone to get through the turnstiles.At least I didn’t sit in one of those plastic orange seats. I had brought my own: an unpainted, fold-up Nordic-style teak chair, hard and austere. It’s what I had been using at the apartment to avoid the plastic-tainted chairs and couches.Fellow riders took little notice of the man in the wooden chair.Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesI plopped my chair down near a pole in the middle of the car. One guy had a please-don’t-talk-to-me look in his eyes, but the other passengers were so buried in their phones that the sight of a man on a wooden chair didn’t faze them.Walking through Central Park, I spotted dental floss picks, a black plastic knife and a plastic bag.Back home, I recorded some of my impressions. I wrote on paper with an unpainted cedar pencil from a “Zero Waste Pencil tin set” (regular pencils contain plastic-filled yellow paint). After a while, I went to get a drink of water. Which brings up perhaps the most pervasive foe of all, one I haven’t even mentioned yet: microplastics. These tiny particles are everywhere — in the water we drink, the air we breathe, in the oceans. They come from, among other things, degraded plastic litter.Are they harmful to us? I talked with several scientists, and the general answer I got was: We don’t know yet. “I think we’ll have an improved understanding in the next few years,” said Todd Gouin, an environmental research consultant. But those who are extra-cautious can use products that promise to filter microplastics from water and air.I had bought a pitcher by LifeStraw that contains a membrane microfilter. Of course, the pitcher itself had plastic parts, so I couldn’t use it on the Big Day. Instead, the night before, I spent some time at the sink filtering water and filling up Mason jars. Our kitchen looked like it was ready for the apocalypse.The water tasted particularly pure, which I’m guessing was some sort of a placebo effect.I wrote for a while. Then I sat there in my wooden chair. Phone-less. Internet-less. Julie took some pity on me and offered to play a game of cards. I shook my head.“Plastic coating,” I said.At about 9 p.m., I took our dog for her nightly walk. I was using a 100 percent cotton leash I bought online. I had ditched the poop bags — even the sustainable ones I found were made with recycled or plant-based plastic. Instead, I carried a metal spatula. Thankfully, I didn’t have to use it.Using the stairs after shopping, to avoid the elevator, which has plastic parts.Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesThe first draft of this article was written with a plastic-free pencil by candlelight.Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesCouldn’t use the bed (plastic).Jonah Rosenberg for The New York TimesAt 10:30 p.m., exhausted, I lay down on my makeshift bed — cotton sheets on the wood floor, since my mattress and pillows are plasticky.I woke up the next morning glad to have survived my ordeal and be reunited with my phone — but also with a feeling of defeat.I had made 164 violations, by my count. As Dr. Salazar had predicted, I felt overwhelmed. And also uncertain. There was so much that remained unclear, even after I had been studying this topic for weeks. What plastic-free items really made a difference, and what is mere green-washing? Is it a good idea to use boar’s-hair toothbrushes, tea tree deodorant, microplastic-filtering devices and paper straws, or does the trouble of using those things make everyone so bonkers that they actually end up damaging the cause?I called Dr. Salazar for a pep talk.“You can drive yourself crazy,” she said. “But it’s not about perfection, it’s about progress. Believe it or not, individual behavior does matter. It adds up.“Remember,” she continued, “it’s not about plastic being the enemy. It’s about single-use as the enemy. It’s the culture of using something once and throwing it away.”I thought back to something that the author Susan Freinkel had told me: “I’m not an absolutist at all. If you came into my kitchen, you would be like, what the hell? You wrote this book and look at how you live!”Ms. Freinkel does make an effort, she said. She avoids single-use bags, cups and packaging, among other things. I pledge to try, too, even after my not wholly successful attempt at a one-day ban.I’ll start with small things, building up habits. I liked the shampoo bar. And I can take produce bags to the grocery. I might event pack my steel water bottle and bamboo cutlery for my trips to Lenwich. And from there, who knows?And I’ll proudly wear the “Keep the Sea Plastic Free” T-shirt that I bought online in the days leading up to the experiment. It’s just 10 percent polyester.

Citizen scientists are seeing an influx of microplastics in the Ohio River

PITTSBURGH — A group of citizen scientists have observed a substantial influx of nurdles — small plastic pellets about the size of a lentil — in the Ohio River, which provides drinking water to more than five million people.

“In the last few months, we’ve seen a huge surge in nurdles,” James Cato, a community organizer at the Mountain Watershed Association, told Environmental Health News (EHN) in November. “Where we’ve normally been detecting about 10 nurdles per sample, we’re now seeing 100.”

Cato and other citizen scientists have regularly conducted “nurdle patrol” since 2020, taking to the river in boats to collect nurdles from water and sediment samples. Their goal is to establish a rough baseline for how many and what types of nurdles are in the water before Shell opened its massive new plastics plant along the Ohio River in southwestern Pennsylvania.

But these particular nurdles represent just a tiny fraction of the microplastics plaguing the Ohio River and other freshwater bodies across Pennsylvania and the country. Nurdles, broken down pieces of plastic packaging, bottles, or bags, and plastic fibers used in synthetic textiles (like nylon) that are less than five millimeters long are considered microplastics.

What’s happening with the influx of nurdles in the Ohio River exemplifies how hard it is to track down the sources of such pollution and determine who is responsible for cleaning it up. And amid the confusion, scientists are just beginning to understand the consequences to wildlife and human health.

“When I started looking into this a couple years ago, freshwater environments weren’t really on the radar because most research on microplastics had been focused on marine environments,” Lisa Emili, a researcher and associate professor at Penn State University Altoona, told EHN. “That’s starting to change as we increasingly recognize that freshwater environments have the ability not only to transport microplastics, but also to accumulate them.”

Tracking down the source of plastic nurdles

A leaf along the Ohio River. Citizens scientists have seen an influx of the pollution. Credit: James CatoNurdles found in the Ohio River by the Mountain Watershed Association.Credit: James Cato
Shell’s plant, which came online in November, will produce up to 1.6 million metric tons of plastic nurdles every year to be used in many consumer products, including single-use plastic packaging and bags. But the influx of new nurdles showed up before the plant opened, and the nurdle patrollers think they’ve traced many of them to a different source.

“These nurdles are really tiny, about the size of a poppy seed and about an eighth the size of regular nurdles,” Cato said. That unique appearance allowed them to track a trail of them to an outfall on Racoon Creek, a tributary of the Ohio.

The outfall belongs to a company called Styropek, which manufactures expandable polystyrene pellets, or EPS — rigid plastic pellets that are later expanded with air to double their size, then used to manufacture insulation and packaging products similar to Styrofoam. According to its website, Styropek is the largest manufacturer of these pellets in North America.

“We found thousands of these nurdles downriver of Styropek’s outfall and just two upriver,” Cato said. “There were also lots of nurdles on the riverbanks — so much that it looked like snowfall, coating plants in white — and they basically formed a bull’s eye around the plant, so we’re pretty confident they’re coming from there.”

The groups first noticed the nurdles in September. As private citizens, they couldn’t investigate further without trespassing on Styropek’s property, so they alerted regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). About a month later, the EPA referred them to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP), at which point the groups filed a complaint with that state agency and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to ask them to investigate.

Their contact at the Fish and Boat Commission wanted to help, but didn’t think they had legal jurisdiction to do so. Jamar Thrasher, a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency had performed an inspection at Styropek about a week prior to receiving the complaint, and “found nothing floating near the facility’s outfall or in the stream and identified no violations.” Still, in response to the complaint, he said the agency “requested that Styropek develop and integrate a more expansive plastic pellet/nurdle housekeeping plan to prevent potential discharge through any outfalls.”

Styropek did not respond to numerous requests for comment. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection did not perform a follow-up investigation, perform any clean-up of the nurdles, require the company to perform any cleanup or issue any fines against Styropek.

Nurdle pollution is largely unregulated. There are no international regulations on it, but in 2022 the United Nations resolved to create an international treaty aimed at restricting microplastic pollution in marine environments. A draft of the rule is expected to be complete in 2024.

In the U.S., no agency is charged with preventing or cleaning up nurdle pollution — nurdles aren’t federally classified as pollutants or hazardous materials, so unlike oil spills or other toxic substances in waterways, the Coast Guard doesn’t clean up nurdle spills.

Most state governments don’t have rules in place related to nurdle monitoring or cleanup, and in other parts of the country, it has sometimes been unclear who bears responsibility for regulating its pollution, resulting in an alarming lack of cleanup when spills do occur.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Lauren Camarda said nurdles are prohibited from entering waterways under Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law and the Solid Waste Management Act, both of which should enable the agency to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up nurdle spills.

Microplastics pervasive in fresh water 

Plastic pollution in oceans has gotten lots of attention, but researchers are now discovering that microplastic pollution in fresh water is also pervasive.A study published by the nonprofit environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment in October found microplastics in all 50 of the “pristine” Pennsylvania waterways the group sampled — all of which are classified by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection as “exceptional value,” “high quality” or Class A trout streams. Research on microplastics in fresh water across the U.S. is still limited, but scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere they’ve looked, including many waterways that feed the Great Lakes and the lakes themselves, rivers throughout Illinois, and California’s Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers.Microplastics can kill fish and other wildlife that ingest them by making their stomachs feel full when they’re not, but emerging research suggests they can also enter fish through their gills or skin, poison their flesh and travel up the food chain, which has implications for other types of wildlife and human health.“Microplastics piggyback other pollutants like bacteria, heavy metals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals and PFAS [per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a.k.a. ‘forever chemicals’],” Emili said. “We know they’re not good for us, but unlike other pollutants, we don’t even know how to set maximum daily loads for microplastics to avoid health consequences because they come in all different sizes, chemical compositions and levels of toxicity.”Nurdles account for a large proportion of microplastics in waterways — by weight they’re the second-largest source of micropollutants in the ocean (after tire dust).

Microplastics in human blood

“The study that really scared everyone found microplastics in human blood.”Credit: Oregon State UniversityMicroplastics have been found virtually everywhere on the planet — from the top of Mount Everest, the highest elevation on Earth; to the Marianas Trench at the very bottom of the Pacific Ocean; in fresh rain and snow, in the cells of fruits and vegetables, in the bodies of animals and humans and even in placentas and newborn babies.“But the study that really scared everyone found microplastics in human blood,” Emili said. That study, published in May 2022, was the first to detect microplastics in human blood. They showed up in 80% of people who were tested.“This means we’re starting to see not just ingestion of microplastics by animals and people, but also absorption of really, really small microplastics at a cellular level.”It’s not yet entirely known how having microplastics in our bodies and blood impacts our health, but other research suggests the pollution can damage human cells, while other scientists have hypothesized they could increase cancer risk and cause reproductive harm, among other health problems. And we do know that some of the toxic substances that piggyback on microplastics, like heavy metals, PFAS and endocrine-disrupting chemicals are associated with numerous health problems including higher cancer risk and reproductive harm.Researchers are also worried that an influx of microplastics in fresh water has the potential to disrupt natural carbon cycles, further fueling the climate crisis, according to Emili.“If we’re substituting plastics for something like natural sediment, microbes may gravitate toward them more than natural sources, which could upset the larger carbon sequestration cycle,” she explained. “We don’t know for sure, but this is also something we really need to look at.”

Plastic nurdle libraries

The groups doing nurdle patrol in the Ohio River are working with researchers at Penn State University to build a “nurdle library” — an index of the various nurdles they’ve collected with information about where each one came from and what it’s made of.These libraries could help them quickly identify large quantities of nurdles they spot down the line. But there are many potential sources for nurdles spills, and identifying where each piece of plastic came from poses its own challenges.“Nurdles start to degrade once they’re in the environment,” Emili explained. “The way they started out their life looking, chemically, is not necessarily what they’ll look like after degrading. That makes it harder to say for sure where they came from.”In May of 2022, a train derailment outside of Pittsburgh spilled approximately 120,000 pounds of plastic nurdles into the Allegheny River (along with approximately 5,723 pounds of oil). The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection oversaw cleanup efforts conducted by contractors for Norfolk Southern Corporation, the owner of the rail line responsible for the spill. The company estimated that 99% of the nurdles were recovered, according to the state agency, but the nurdle patrollers say they still regularly come across pieces of plastic they recognize from that spill. The company hasn’t yet been fined for the accident, and the activists worry that enforcement related to releases of nurdles is inadequate to deter them. “The cleanup of this incident is ongoing and [the Department of Environmental Protection] DEP is reviewing revised plans for how the operator will clean up remaining pellets,” the agency’s spokesperson Lauren Camarda told EHN. “The remediation and DEP’s compliance and enforcement activities related to this incident are ongoing, and, as such, DEP has not yet assessed a civil penalty.”A recent report by international conservation organization Fauna & Flora International noted that nurdle pollution isn’t something that can be controlled through individual consumers, and called for a “robust, coordinated regulatory approach from industry, governments, and the International Maritime Organization.”“So far we haven’t seen satisfactory enforcement even for egregious violations,” Evan Clark, a boat captain and nurdle patrol leader with Three Rivers Waterkeeper, told EHN. “We’re going to keep an eye on Styropek, but for us the bigger picture is making sure we can get our regulators to do meaningful enforcement around plastics in our waterways.”From Your Site ArticlesRelated Articles Around the Web

Volume of microplastics found on ocean floor triple in two decades

Sign up to the Independent Climate email for the latest advice on saving the planet Get our free Climate email Microplastic debris found on the bottom of ocean beds has tripled in the past two decades, scientists have warned. That is despite repeated awareness campaigns and protests calling for the reduction of single-use plastic around …

Sampling program sheds light on microplastics and pollution at North Carolina beaches

This summer, a group of volunteers spent quite a bit of time out on the beach combing through the sand in search of microplastics.“The microplastic sampling program we modified from the EPA’s beach plastic sampling protocol and we engaged roughly 30 volunteers that are sampling beaches all the way from North Topsail to Sunset Beach just to take a look at what the microplastic issue might be like,” said coastal specialist Georgia Busch.The North Carolina Coastal Federation hosted the citizen science program in an effort to better understand what kind of plastic pollution was showing up on the beach.“Once weekly volunteers would go out to their assigned beach access and use sieves and their buckets and use some of the ocean water and they were looking for microplastics that are 5mm in size or less so the sieve would catch those tiny, tiny microplastics and they would categorize them into five different categories and count them up as part of our greater data collection,” Busch said.Now that the sampling has wrapped up, organizers said they were surprised by some of the results of the collections.“A trend I don’t think I expected is that a couple of our volunteers took it upon themselves to sample sound side and intercoastal waters in addition to the beach sand and microplastics were much more heavily accumulated in more of the marsh habitat versus on the beach sand,” Busch said. “But if you think about it, it makes sense because the marsh grasses, the tides, just the way the hydrology works in and out of those ecosystems they’re going to capture and hold onto more of that debris.”Aside from where more of these tiny plastics were found, there was also a particular type that was found more often.“One thing we learned during the microplastics sampling is that the small polystyrene or small foam beads are something that is incredibly prevalent all up and down the coast and that floating docks are the primary source of them,” said coastal advocate Kerri Allen.It’s not just the data collection the coastal federation was interested in. Allen and her team took the results to local towns like North Topsail, Topsail, Surf City and Wrightsville Beach.“We were able to draft ordinances that now four towns in North Carolina have adopted requiring the encapsulation of these floats and with this success,” Allen said. “We’ve actually had people in other states all over the country reach out and want to emulate what’s been done here.”Another key takeaway according to program organizers was also the awareness the sampling brought about the pollution problem in North Carolina.“One thing we learned from talking to the general public is that they had no idea the depth of the problem,” Allen said. “You know most of our beaches around here are pretty clean, and so for someone to go out on a beach that looks pretty clean and just find all of this microplastics I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes.”Organizers of the microplastics sampling project say they plan to continue the sampling efforts next year with a higher focus on soundside areas based on this year’s results.

A new Shell plant in Pennsylvania will ‘just run and run’ producing the raw materials for single-use plastics

Internal documents unearthed by congressional Democrats reveal an apparent moment of candor two years ago from Shell public relations executives discussing their company’s environmental responsibilities related to the massive plastics manufacturing plant they were building 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

The multi-billion dollar Shell plant became fully operational in November after years of construction and has already been cited by state environmental regulators for exceeding its yearly limit of volatile organic compounds, which create lung-damaging smog. The plant along the Ohio River in Beaver County has the capacity to produce as much as 3.5 billion pounds of plastic pellets a year, the building blocks for such products as bags, bottles, food packaging and toys. 

Among the documents made public Dec. 9 was email correspondence within the Shell communications team, where a corporate vice president acknowledged that the company had no answer to questions about its long-term responsibility for making “the raw material with which to produce 30 years of single-use plastics.”

The Shell executive’s comment came in the context of criticizing a New York Times article with a provocative headline—“Big Oil Is in Trouble. It’s Plan: Flood Africa With Plastic.” The Times report noted that oil companies were shifting to plastics production as climate change threatened fossil fuels, and revealed an effort by the American Chemistry Council, a major petrochemical lobby, to promote pro-plastics U.S. trade policies in Africa.

“Frankly, we do have questions to answer about whether we’re going to take any responsibility for where PennChem’s output ends up,” a corporate communications vice president, Rob Sherwin, wrote to another top Shell communications official, Curtis Smith, on Sept. 1, 2020. “This is one that’s gonna run and run … because we haven’t even finished building a facility that will potentially churn out the raw material with which to produce single use plastic for 30 years.”

Another Shell official in the company’s communications shop, Sally Donaldson, chimed in that this was “definitely a topic we need to be on top of.”

The development was previously referred to as the Pennsylvania Chemicals project, according to Shell’s website.

The Shell emails were among a trove of documents from oil companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP made public by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, as part of an investigation into the fossil fuel industry and its role in driving climate change.

Shell officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In recent years, companies have increasingly been pressured into taking responsibility for the plastic waste they produce, or the environmental damage they cause. In 2020, for example, Shell announced it would strive to achieve net-zero carbon emissions and that it had joined a global alliance of companies working to end plastic waste.

But the global plastics problem has turned into a crisis, with oceans choked with plastic and microplastics ubiquitous, and the United Nations looking for a solution.

In western Pennsylvania, the company’s plant—fed by the ethane byproduct of fracked natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale regions—has been seen by business advocates as a potential center for a new Appalachian petrochemical hub, and by critics as a source of health-damaging pollution and a driver of climate change.

Environmental advocates in Pennsylvania described the email comments from the Shell officials as both alarming and revelatory.

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The world can’t recycle its way out of the plastics crisis

There are an estimated 50 trillion to 75 trillion plastic particles in the world’s oceans and another 8 million to 10 million tons are added every year, with catastrophic impacts on marine wildlife and ecosystems. Damage to these ecosystems from plastic pollution causes an estimated $500 billion to $2.5 trillion a year in economic losses. But the costs don’t stop at the shoreline. Deloitte estimates that in North America alone plastic pollution in rivers and streams costs up to $600 million per year.Nor do impacts end at the waters’ edge. Plastics contaminate commercially harvested fish and shellfish, fishmeal fed to animals, agricultural soils and food crops, tap and bottled water, and the air we breathe. An unfortunate but inevitable consequence of this pervasive pollution is that plastics are also showing up in human bodies: in our waste, lungs, blood, even in the placenta of pregnant people. An unknown but potentially enormous array of toxic chemicals can enter the human body via these plastics.But the volume of toxins leaching from plastic products and particles is dwarfed by the pollutants being released into communities where plastics and petrochemicals are made, and where plastic’s oil and gas feedstocks are pumped from the ground. The risks from this pervasive pollution are particularly acute for the communities that live on the fence lines of these facilities and the front lines of the ongoing buildout of plastic and petrochemical infrastructure.That buildout poses risks not only for the environment and human health, but for the global climate. Because 99 percent of what goes into plastic is fossil fuels, plastics are essentially fossil fuels in another form. As demand for oil and gas in energy and transport declines, fossil fuel producers are looking to plastics as a way to continue profiting from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency projects that by 2050, more than half of all oil and gas will be used to make plastics and petrochemicals. This has enormous climate impacts. On our present trajectory, plastic production, use, and disposal could emit 56 gigatons of CO2 by 2050 — equivalent to 13 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget that keeps warming below the critical 1.5 degree Celsius threshold. These impacts would be compounded if plastic pollution disrupts natural carbon sinks in the ocean and soils. Accordingly, the plastics treaty is being hailed as the “most important climate deal” since the Paris Agreement.The scale, scope, and diversity of these impacts explain why negotiators for the new plastics treaty are mandated to address not just plastic waste but the entire lifecycle of plastics, including the production that drives plastic pollution in all its forms, and why that mandate requires binding — not just voluntary — commitments. Put simply, the world cannot recycle its way out of the plastics crisis.Last month, Greenpeace documented that less than 5 percent of all plastics used and discarded in the United States each year are actually recycled. It found that for all but a small subset of plastic products, the real recycling rates are even lower. The Greenpeace investigation proves yet again that for most products and for most communities, plastic recycling is simply a myth.But widespread belief in that myth is not an accident. The plastics industry has long been aware that plastic recycling does not work at any meaningful scale, yet continues to promote it as a solution to the plastic crisis.If this story sounds familiar, it should.Massachusetts was among the first states to launch an investigation into the oil industry’s role in the accelerating climate crisis. That investigation led the state to sue ExxonMobil for misleading the public and investors about the climate risks inherent in its fossil fuel products. In April, California launched a similar investigation into the role of plastic producers in the plastic crisis, beginning with a subpoena to Exxon, also a leading plastic producer. A parallel investigation by Massachusetts could examine the impacts of industry greenwashing on the state, even as legislators advance efforts to address the plastic crisis at state and local levels.But just as confronting climate change demands coordinated national and global action, so too does confronting the plastic crisis. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have cosponsored the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which would represent a vital first step in a national response to plastics pollution.Having failed to learn the lessons from 30 years of failed climate negotiations, the United States is actively promoting the Paris Agreement as a model for the plastic negotiations. Rather than seek ambitious action to confront plastic production, US negotiators are calling for voluntary commitments, a major focus on recycling, and an approach that puts plastic producers at the negotiating table with the countries and communities plagued by plastic pollution. It is also spearheading a coalition of countries seeking to lower ambition for the plastics treaty. This approach has failed in the fight against fossil fuel-driven climate change. And people around the world are living with the accelerating consequences.Markey sits on three Senate committees that will oversee US engagement in these negotiations, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As a major coastal state whose people and economy will be affected by the success or failure of the plastic treaty, Massachusetts has a big stake in getting it right. The people of Massachusetts have proven that they are ready to confront corporate deception and demand strong action to confront the climate crisis and the rising impacts of climate change, and have shown they are prepared to act on the root causes of the plastic crisis as well. They should expect nothing less from the government that represents them before the international community.Negotiators should abandon the misplaced trust in the fossil fuel and plastics industry to help solve the problems its products create and its profits demand. The world missed that opportunity at the climate talks. It shouldn’t miss it again on plastics.Carroll Muffett is president of the Center for International Environmental Law.