COP27: Activists 'baffled' that Coca-Cola will be sponsor

HECTOR RETAMALBy Esme StallardBBC News Climate and ScienceClimate activists are “baffled” over Egypt’s decision to have Coca-Cola – a major plastic producer – sponsor this year’s global climate talks.Campaigners told the BBC the deal undermines the talks, as the majority of plastics are made from fossil fuels. Coca-Cola said it “shares the goal of eliminating waste and appreciates efforts to raise awareness”.This year’s COP27 UN climate talks are hosted by the Egyptian government in November in Sharm el-Sheikh.Egypt announced it had signed the sponsorship deal last week.At the signing, Coca-Cola Global Vice-President, Public Policy and Sustainability Michael Goltzman said: “Through the COP27 partnership, the Coca-Cola system aims to support collective action against climate change.”But opposition to the decision has grown over the past week over Coca-Cola’s links to plastic pollution. Climate activists are accusing the company of “greenwashing” and more than 5,000 have now signed a petition calling for the decision to be reversed. The company admitted in 2019 that it uses three million tonnes of plastic packaging in a year. Found on every continent and in the oceans, plastic is a major source of pollution. Its production also contributes to global warming. Currently 99% of global plastic is produced from fossil fuels in a process called ‘cracking’ which produces greenhouse gas emissions and drives climate change. And in 2021, an audit from Break Free From Plastic named Coca-Cola as the world’s number one plastic polluter.Mohammad Ahmadi of Earth Uprising International said: “This action by the COP27 presidency goes against the purpose of the conference.”This was a sentiment echoed by Steve Trent, CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation, who called on Egypt to reverse the decision. Neither Egypt’s COP27 presidency nor UNFCCC – the UN’s climate change body – responded to the BBC’s request for comment on the sponsorship deal. Last year when the UK government hosted the climate talks, they banned fossil fuel companies from sponsoring the event.Mr Trent said: “Coca-Cola’s whole business model is predicated on fossil fuels. They have made promises to improve recycling which have never been met.”NurPhoto/Getty ImagesCoca-Cola told the BBC it recognised it needs to do more: “While we have made progress against our World Without Waste goals, we’re also committed to do more, faster.”Climate activists the BBC spoke to were not only concerned about the signal the sponsorship sent, but also how it could affect the negotiations. Nyombi Morris, a climate activist from Uganda and a UNOCHA Ambassador, told the BBC: “When polluters dominate climate negotiations, we don’t get good results. As an African activist, I am concerned that more of our lakes are going to be filled with plastics again.”Last year the BBC revealed the impact that plastic pollution by Coca-Cola was having on remote communities across the world.This video can not be playedTo play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Coca-Cola told the BBC that it remains committed to: “collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell by 2030.”

The Mediterranean Sea is so hot, it’s forming carbonate crystals

It’s also worth noting that the Mediterranean Sea is one of the most microplastic-polluted water bodies in the world: In 2020, scientists reported finding 2 million particles in a single square meter of sediment that was only 5 centimeters thick. Whether aragonite crystals are forming around microplastics floating in the water column, Bialik doesn’t know. “They could probably form around any nucleation center,” says Bialik. “I suspect that microplastics may also be a possible one. But as scientists love to say, more research is needed.” What Bialik and his colleagues can say, though, is that as these crystals form, they release CO2. So much so, Bialik calculates, that they account for perhaps 15 percent of the gas that the Mediterranean Sea emits to the atmosphere.As the sea warms up and loses its CO2, both from the water belching it up and from the proliferating crystals, its acidity actually goes down. This is the opposite process from the one that’s causing widespread ocean acidification: As humans spew more CO2 into the atmosphere, the oceans absorb more of it, and the ensuing chemical reaction raises acidity. Acidification makes it harder for organisms like corals and snails (which are known collectively as calcifiers), to build shells or exoskeletons out of calcium carbonate. But as the Mediterranean warms and releases its absorbed carbon back into the atmosphere, it gets more basic, reversing that acidification.That should be great for the calcifiers, right? Not necessarily. “Many of them have specific temperature ranges in which they can build their shells—not too hot, not too cold,” says Bialik. So even if the sea is getting less acidic as it warms, that heat stresses these organisms in a different way. (Not to mention the stress of being constantly exposed to extreme levels of microplastics.)It’s not clear whether aragonite crystals are forming in more places around the world. Scientists are already aware of “whiting events,” in which calcium carbonate precipitates in much more obvious ways, turning the waters around the Bahamas and in the Persian Gulf a milky color. In the Eastern Mediterranean, there wasn’t an obvious whiting event to clue in Bialik and his colleagues. Instead, they stumbled upon the crystals in their sediment traps.“This is a somewhat unique area with a variety of conditions that have to happen to make this work,” says marine chemist Andrew Dickson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who wasn’t involved in the research. “The question then is, to what degree is that environment really special, or is it common around the oceans? And I don’t have a clear picture of that in my mind.”It may be that the conditions in the eastern Mediterranean aren’t replicated in many other places, so Dickson is leaning toward the idea that this may not be particularly common. But Bialik points out that wherever it may be happening, it could be causing a climate problem: Aragonite crystal formation may mess with the water’s ability to absorb atmospheric CO2, thus interfering with how the ocean reduces levels of the planet-heating gas. “I won’t say we fully understand this yet and fully understand what governs it—when it turns on and when it shuts down,” says Bialik. “We didn’t even think this process occurs on this scale in open waters, in normal marine conditions. And so we still have a lot that we need to understand about it.”

The Titans of Plastic

During the summer of 2018, two of the largest cranes in the world towered over the Ohio River. The bright-red monoliths were brought in by the multi-national oil and gas company Shell to build an approximately 800-acre petrochemical complex in Potter Township, Pennsylvania—a community of about 500 people. In the months that followed, the construction project would require remediating a brownfield, rerouting a highway, and constructing an office building, a laboratory, a fracked-gas power plant, and a rail system for more than 3,000 freight cars.

The purpose of Shell’s massive complex wasn’t simply to refine gas. It was to make plastic.
Five years after construction began at the site, Shell’s complex, which is one of the biggest state-of-the-art ethane cracker plants in the world, is set to open. An important component of gas and a byproduct of oil refinery operations, ethane is an odorless hydrocarbon that, when heated to an extremely high temperature to “crack” its molecules apart, produces ethylene; three reactors combine ethylene with catalysts to create polyethylene; and a 2,204-ton, 285-foot-tall “quench tower” cools down the cracked gas and removes pollutants. That final product is then turned into virgin plastic pellets. Estimates suggest that a plant the size of the Potter Township petrochemical complex would use ethane from as many as 1,000 fracking wells.

Shell ranks in the top 10 among the 90 companies that are responsible for two-thirds of historic greenhouse gas emissions. Its Potter Township cracker plant is expected to emit up to 2.25 million tons of climate-warming gases annually, equivalent to approximately 430,000 extra cars on the road. It will also emit 159 tons of particulate matter pollution, 522 tons of volatile organic compounds, and more than 40 tons of other hazardous air pollutants. Exposure to these emissions is linked to brain, liver, and kidney issues; cardiovascular and respiratory disease; miscarriages and birth defects; and childhood leukemia and cancer. Some residents fear that the plant could turn the region into a sacrifice zone: a new “Cancer Alley” in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
“You have to drill the wells to support the petrochemical plant, but you also have to build the petrochemical plant in order to keep drilling the wells. It’s like a Ponzi scheme for natural gas.” – Rebecca Scott.[embedded content]“I’m worried about what this means for our air, which is already very polluted, and for our drinking water,” said Terrie Baumgardner, a retired English professor and a member of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, the main local advocacy group that fought the plant. Baumgardner, who is also an outreach coordinator at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group Clean Air Council, lives near the ethane cracker. In addition to sharing an airshed with the plant, she is one of the approximately 5 million people whose drinking water comes from the Ohio River watershed. When Shell initially proposed the petrochemical plant in 2012, she and other community advocates tried their best to stop it.And the plant’s negative impact will go far beyond Pennsylvania. Shell’s ethane cracker relies on a dense network of fracking wells, pipelines, and storage hubs. It’s one of the first US ethane crackers to be built outside the Gulf of Mexico, and one of five such facilities proposed throughout Appalachia’s Ohio River Valley, which stretches through parts of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. If the project is profitable, more like it will follow—dramatically expanding the global market for fossil fuels at a time when the planet is approaching the tipping point of the climate crisis.For the residents who live nearby, Shell’s big bet on plastic represents a new chapter in the same story that’s plagued the region for decades: An extractive industry moves in, exports natural resources at a tremendous profit—most of which flow to outsiders—and leaves poverty, pollution, and illness in its wake. First came the loggers, oil barons, and coal tycoons. Then there were the steel magnates and the fracking moguls.Now it’s the titans of plastic.Jeff Bryant and his daughter, Cheyenne, live in Marianna, one of the most heavily fracked counties in Pennsylvania. Cheyenne tested positive for biomarkers of exposure to toxic chemicals. Photos by Nate Smallwood for Environmental Health News and Sierra MagazineScenes from Aliquippa, a town six miles south of the Shell plant that’s likely to be affected by its pollution.
Shell’s petrochemical complex produces poly-ethylene nurdles. They are pellets, about the size of a lentil, which are used to make many consumer products, including the single-use plastic packaging and bags that contribute to the
global plastic crisis. Microplastics contain a mix of harmful chemicals and have been found in virtually every corner of Earth’s water and soil and in animals throughout the food web, including human bodies. Nurdles are what’s known as “primary microplastics”: plastics that were tiny to begin with, not broken down from larger pieces. An estimated 230,000 tons of nurdles wind up in oceans every year. They resemble tiny eggs, so fish are prone to eating them.

Shell has promised that its Pennsylvania plant won’t release nurdles into local waterways. “Polyethylene powder and pellets are not allowed to make their way into local waterways under any circumstances,” a Shell spokesperson said in an email, pointing to the company’s enrollment in
a program sponsored by the American Chemistry Council and the Plastics Industry Association that aims to help plastics manufacturers achieve “zero plastic resin loss.”

That program has been around for more than 25 years, but as of 2016, nurdles were still the second-largest source of ocean micropollutants (after tire dust). Nurdles are easily lost or swept away by the wind during transport via trucks, barges, and trains. Shipping accidents have led to vast spills. Unlike oil, nurdles aren’t classified as a hazardous material, so most states don’t regulate them, and federal agencies aren’t obligated to clean up spills.

Many nearby residents, however, remain unconvinced by Shell’s officious assurances. “Sooner or later, they’re gonna have a big spill of those nurdles,” said Bob Schmetzer, who cofounded the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community. “It’s a matter of time . . . There are nurdles in the water anywhere those plants are.”

As the world increasingly turns toward renewable energy and strives to decarbonize, fossil fuel giants like Shell are trying to advance a new plastics boom to keep their ventures afloat—and it’s working. Plastics manufacturing is estimated to account for more than a third of the growth in oil demand by 2030 and nearly half by 2050—ahead of trucks, aviation, and shipping, according to the International Energy Agency.

Shell’s Pennsylvania plant relies on ethane from fracking wells, a sector that has recently benefited from Russia’s war on Ukraine. Prior to the war, the industry suffered from an oversupply of gas and consistently low prices, which created negative cash flows and large amounts of debt. More than 600 fracking companies and related industries in North America
filed for bankruptcy between 2015 and 2022. As of 2019, Shell was one of the largest fracking leaseholders and producers over a nine-county area in the Appalachia Basin, primarily in Pennsylvania, operating more than 300 wells. The cracker plant will create additional demand from existing wells and is expected to prompt the drilling of new ones, all at a time when the war in Ukraine has caused a huge spike in gas prices and a windfall for companies like Shell.

It takes millions of gallons of water to frack for gas, which are typically withdrawn from local waterways or aquifers. The wastewater that comes back up to the surface contains radioactive elements and heavy metals, and it isn’t always disposed of safely. Chemicals known to be dangerous to the environment and human health, such as PFAS, are also used in the process.

The plastics and fracking industries, and all the pipelines and infrastructure associated with them, are major drivers of climate change. Recent studies show that methane emissions from fracking have been
drastically undercounted because these analyses don’t account for leaks. Methane is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at driving global warming in the short term. In 2019, global atmospheric methane reached a 20-year high, with some researchers pointing to the US fracking boom as the culprit.
“The cracker is really only here because of local natural gas and subsidies offered to Shell. Of course it’s beneficial for the folks who get those jobs, but we shouldn’t just look at a small set of local outcomes when considering these things.” – Nick Muller.Between direct emissions and methane leaks from the fracking industry, the US plastics industry emits greenhouse gases at the same rate as 116 coal-fired power plants, according to a report from the advocacy group Beyond Plastics. The same report says that if the global plastics industry were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

“Even this one facility is not just one facility,” Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based collaborative of more than 50 regional and national environmental advocacy groups, said of Shell’s Potter Township project. “The ethane cracker itself is well down the production chain. It starts with fracking wells, then there are gathering lines, pipelines, and compressor stations, among other facilities. And after the cracker plant, there are downstream manufacturing processes to turn these plastic pellets into products. Every single part of that chain poses risks.”

“You have to drill the wells to support the petrochemical plant, but you also have to build the petrochemical plant in order to keep drilling the wells,” said Rebecca Scott, associate professor of environmental sociology at the University of Missouri. “It’s like a Ponzi scheme for natural gas.”

The Beaver county Marcellus Awareness Community spent years fighting an influx of fracking wells long before Shell proposed to build an ethane cracker plant nearby. Once it learned about the proposal, the community group then pivoted from opposing wells to trying to stop the ethane cracker. During the course of a seven-year campaign, it formed partnerships with local and national environmental and health advocacy groups, including the Breathe Project and its members, such as the Clean Air Council, and with researchers at local universities and water protectors from Native American tribes throughout the watershed. Together, they launched a comprehensive grassroots campaign against the cracker: They canvassed, filed petitions, appealed permit approvals, spoke at public hearings, and held protests.
The Clean Air Council’s efforts secured some concessions from Shell, including improved traffic mitigation, additional restrictions on noise and light during construction, fence-line air monitoring, and improved pollution controls during flaring (burning off excess natural gas). But in the end, they couldn’t stop the plant. “None of it did any good,” Baumgardner said. “In the last year, we’ve changed our organizing strategy. Now we’re doing air monitoring, noise monitoring, light monitoring, and getting ready to watch the water for plastic nurdles.”

The Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community group launched Eyes on Shell, which provides resources like emergency planning information in case of an accident at the site; instructions on where to obtain air monitors; contact information for relevant regulatory agencies, nonprofits, and research groups; and detailed instructions on how to document and report any unusual happenings at the plant. Their vigilance proved valuable before the plant even opened. In September 2021, members of the group and other residents noticed a sickly-sweet maple-syrup-like smell emanating from the site and notified regulatory agencies. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued Shell violations for “malodorous air contaminants,” and Shell identified the smell as coming from chlorotolyltriazole, a compound that, according to the company, formed when they applied a corrosion inhibitor and bleach to cooling units at the plant. In March 2022, a piece of faulty equipment resulted in the spill of 2,500 gallons of sulfuric acid at the site. Again, residents and activists learned of the problem when a number of them received notifications from a national alert system that there had been a sulfuric acid spill in the area. Although the alert didn’t specify the origin of the spill, it didn’t take much research on the part of local activists to determine that it had occurred at the cracker plant. Shell later stated that the spill was entirely contained and that none made its way into nearby water or soil, and no violations were issued.

“The plant wasn’t even opened up yet, and they were already getting violations for not being able to contain these chemicals inside the fence line,” Schmetzer said. “It was scary.”

Living near fracking wells or related infrastructure has been linked to everything from preterm births and high-risk pregnancies to asthma, migraines, skin disorders, and anxiety. “For leukemia and lymphoma, the current understanding is that it could show up as soon as three to five years after exposure, and within less than 10 years for sure,” said Dr. Cheng-Kuan Lin, a physician and former researcher at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Solid tumors like lung cancer could take 10 or 20 years. And other cancer types could take more than 30 years to show up.”

Lin was the lead author on three studies examining literature on the cancer risk associated with living near petrochemical facilities. A study of leukemia found that people who live near petrochemical complexes are 36 percent more likely to develop cancer than those who don’t. The risk is higher for certain types of leukemia. People living near petrochemical facilities are about 85 percent more likely to develop chronic lymphocytic leukemia compared with people not living near these facilities. The studies also found that those who live near petrochemical complexes are almost 20 percent more likely to develop lung cancer.

Lin noted that pollutants from these types of facilities might vary from country to country, but they all emit benzene, a known risk factor for leukemia. Shell’s Pennsylvania plant will emit numerous cancer-causing chemicals including benzene and formaldehyde. He also pointed out that some of the studies followed people for only a short period of time, so they likely didn’t capture the whole picture. “In general, the longer you trace these populations, the more cancers you’ll find,” he said.

Families living among the Marcellus Shale fracking fields fear what the proliferation of wells will mean for their health. Jeff Bryant and his nine-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, live in Marianna, a tiny borough in Washington County that is located about 60 miles south of Shell’s new plant and is one of the most heavily fracked counties in the state. Only 450 people live there, and 21.6 percent of them live in poverty (a rate that’s substantially higher than the national poverty rate of 11.4 percent). When drilling began in 2018 at dozens of new fracking wells surrounding the town, Cheyenne, who was five at the time, developed headaches, respiratory problems, and nosebleeds. “She’d wake up in the morning with her nose bleeding, then just bleed and bleed,” Bryant said.

The headaches were alarming too. Cheyenne would hold her head and cry, saying, “My head is stabbing.”

In 2019, Environmental Health News tested the air, water, and urine of Pennsylvania families who lived near fracking wells for contaminants. The investigation found biomarkers for harmful chemicals in the bodies of children living near fracking wells at levels up to 90 times higher than the national average. Cheyenne’s urine sample showed biomarkers indicating exposure to toluene, ethylbenzene, styrene, benzene, and other chemicals used in fracking, which are linked to respiratory, kidney, liver, circulatory, and nervous system problems; skin irritation; and increased cancer risk.

“She’s been poisoned,” Bryant said. “All she does is run around outside with her friends—there’s no reason these things should be in her body.”

Some studies have found that emissions from fracking wells tend to be highest during the drilling phase. Cheyenne’s health problems got better once drilling had been completed. But Bryant worries more wells are coming, and the family can’t afford to move.
Dwan B. Walker, the mayor of Aliquippa, feels that Shell didn’t consider the opinions of his constituents.Nate Smallwood for Environmental Health News and Sierra MagazineResidents of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, are about 35 miles away from Potter Township, but they could be just as impacted by Shell’s cracker plant. Home to massive industrial polluters like US Steel and PPG Industries, the county had air that was among the dirtiest in the nation before Shell’s ethane cracker arrived. Yet even though air and water pollution don’t respect geographical borders, residents outside Potter Township were given little say about the plant. Julie DiCenzo, a retired medical writer, joined the citizens group Communities First–Sewickley Valley because of her concerns about both the cracker plant and the fracking wells that had received permits less than a mile from her home. She started attending town meetings in neighboring Economy Borough, where some fracking wells had already received permits and the shale gas drilling company had plans for more, but as a nonresident, she wasn’t permitted to speak. “Even though it’s in another county, it’s still affecting us,” DiCenzo said. In addition to holding public educational meetings to raise awareness about the risks from the ethane cracker and fracking, members of Communities First–Sewickley Valley worked to persuade several of the 11 municipalities in the local school district to implement zoning ordinances that would keep oil and gas development as far away from residents as possible, with mixed success. This lack of political power for residents was evident in the permitting process for the Shell ethane cracker too. Residents of the counties surrounding the site regularly packed Potter Township’s community meetings about the plant, but some felt that their opinions didn’t count because they weren’t residents of the township itself.The plastics plant has also raised concerns about environmental justice. Beaver County is 91 percent white, with a median household income of $59,000 a year and 9 percent of the people living below the poverty line. But within 15 miles of Shell’s plant, there are at least eight communities where residents are more than 30 percent non-white or more than 20 percent of people live in poverty. In Aliquippa, about six miles south of the plant, around 41 percent of the town’s approximately 9,200 residents are non-white and a third are Black. The median annual income is $36,451, and a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line. When the plant was proposed, the promises to nearby residents were big: a 25-year operating contract, other new businesses in the region, and up to 20,000 direct and indirect jobs. But some Aliquippa residents say those promises remain unfulfilled. “The city hasn’t seen much benefit from the plant so far,” said Dwan B. Walker, who has served as Aliquippa’s mayor for 11 years. Being mayor of Aliquippa is a labor of love—Walker makes just $175 a month doing the job and works for a security company to pay the bills. He decided to run for mayor after his sister was shot and killed in 2009 because he wanted to make his community safer. Walker, too, went to Shell’s public hearings about the plant but didn’t feel that his opinion or the opinions of his constituents mattered. He still hopes the plant might eventually create downstream manufacturing jobs for the residents of Aliquippa, but he also worries about his community’s and his own family’s health.In 2021, following President Joe Biden’s executive order on environmental justice, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf formally established the Environmental Justice Advisory Board and the Environmental Justice Interagency Council. As it stands, Pennsylvania’s current policy states that environmental justice communities (defined as including “historically and currently low-income communities and communities of color”) should get extra consideration to review permits for polluting facilities. Aliquippa’s proximity to the plant means its air will be significantly impacted by emissions, but the town didn’t get such special consideration during the permitting phase. Nor did any of the other environmental justice communities nearby.“It’s a weak policy,” said Joe Minott, the executive director and chief counsel for the Clean Air Council. Minott has criticized the DEP for declining to follow its existing environmental justice policies. “It contains very few specifics about how to actually achieve environmental justice, and it’s just a policy right now, not backed up by any regulations, so they’re not even obligated to follow it.”In 2014, Minott’s group created a detailed report on the expected impacts of the ethane cracker, including increased risk of cancer and respiratory and heart disease, increased traffic, and light and noise pollution. The organization also provided expert witnesses and legal counsel to the community, then took Shell to court. Shell eventually settled on both counts and agreed to provide better pollution controls during flaring and continuous fence-line air monitoring at the plant, accompanied by a public online dashboard where residents can review air-monitoring data.“They say ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ but a lot of legislators stop there in their critical thinking about the benefits of this kind of tax package.” – Sara InnamoratoWalker said residents of Aliquippa have also had concerns about fracking well proposals nearby. “The DEP didn’t hold any meetings with me or the city council to talk about environmental concerns,” he said. “We’d need to have a lot more conversations about that before we let it happen here. I don’t want to be in the grocery store hearing, ‘You let them do what?’ ”In an attempt to lure Shell to Pennsylvania, the state’s former Republican governor Tom Corbett approved legislation offering Shell an “unlimited tax credit” in 2012, one year after he slashed $1 billion in public education funding. It was one of the largest subsidy packages ever awarded to a company in the United States. Of the 183 state legislators who voted on the bill, just 62 voted against it.That windfall hasn’t translated into growth for Beaver County. A study by the Ohio River Valley Institute, a nonprofit progressive research organization, concluded that during construction of the plant, Beaver County actually fell behind both the state and the nation in nearly every measure of economic activity. The county’s population has continued to decline, all while registering “zero growth in employment, zero reduction in poverty, and zero growth in businesses—even when factoring in all the temporary construction workers at this site.”Other research promises that those benefits are still coming. A study commissioned by Shell and published by researchers at Robert Morris University in 2021 projected that once it opened, the ethane cracker would add nearly $4 billion a year to the state’s economy. In Beaver County alone, the report found, the complex would produce $260 million to $846 million in annual economic activity, including wages, benefits, and related spending. Environmental advocates called the report “propaganda” because it didn’t consider subsidies or externalized costs to health and the environment. The true costs and benefits remain to be seen.It’s difficult to quantify the public health costs of a facility like the ethane cracker, but modeling tools offer a rough idea. According to predictions from the EPA’s CO-Benefits Risk Assessment tool, the plant’s emissions of PM2.5—toxic airborne particulate much tinier than the width of a human hair—are estimated to cost Beaver County an additional $16 million a year in health-care costs. That’s not counting other pollutants like volatile organic compounds and hazardous chemicals. Neighboring Allegheny County can expect about $13 million in additional health-care costs. The national health-care burden is expected to increase by about $70 million a year from pollution that travels from Shell’s plant beyond the area. A DEP spokesperson said that estimating potential health-care costs associated with emissions for a proposed facility is not part of the state’s permitting process.Republican state senator Elder Vogel Jr., one of the sponsors of the $1.7 billion subsidy the state offered Shell, represents parts of Pennsylvania’s Beaver, Lawrence, and Butler Counties, including Potter Township, where the cracker plant is located. Despite the local opposition, he remains a firm supporter of the facility. “All across the world, people have heard about Beaver County now,” Vogel said. “This Shell plant is putting us on the map.”When asked whether state legislators considered the public health costs before offering Shell $1.7 billion in tax subsidies, Vogel said, “No, not really. I don’t believe so.”Nick Muller, a professor of economics, engineering, and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, coauthored a 2019 study on the environmental and employment impacts of the shale gas boom. It found that the adverse effects on public health almost exactly equaled the economic benefits, and the climate costs subtracted another $12 billion to $15 billion in value, putting the industry’s cumulative economic impact in the red. “The cracker is really only here because of local natural gas and subsidies offered to Shell,” Muller said. “Of course it’s beneficial for the folks who get those jobs, but we shouldn’t just look at a small set of local outcomes when considering these things.”When having an abundance of natural resources either doesn’t translate into sustainable wealth or leaves a region more impoverished than it started, sociologists refer to it as “the resource curse.”In Appalachia, examples of the resource curse abound, according to the University of Missouri’s Rebecca Scott. “Appalachia has been culturally marginalized by narratives of backwardness and welfare dependency, like the image of the hillbilly in popular culture,” Scott said. Those harmful stereotypes can make residents more eager to belong in ways that are seen as culturally important, like contributing to the production of energy or essential materials like steel and plastic. “It becomes not only about the community’s ability to have commodities but also its ability to belong, and for its members to have a sense of personal worth.”This context helps explain why for some Western Pennsylvanians, the Shell plant felt like a godsend. “The Shell construction project put everybody in the unionized construction industry in Beaver County, Allegheny County, and Butler County to work, and then, because of the magnitude of the job, they started pulling in people from farther away,” said Larry Nelson, president of the Beaver County Building and Construction Trades.Nelson’s organization, which is one of several local chapters of North America’s Building Trades Unions, represents about 20 local construction unions including plumbers, plasterers, painters, sheet metal workers, boilermakers, operating engineers, cement masons, and bricklayers. “Before that job started, just about all the trades had some form of unemployment,” Nelson said. “It helped the unions out greatly.”Union members receive the same pay and benefits as others in their same profession, regardless of the type of job they’re working on or which client they’re working for, Nelson said. But the Shell project stood out as being one of the safest job sites he’s ever seen. “Workers had something called ‘work stop authority,’ which gives any worker the ability to stand up and say, ‘Wait, something doesn’t look safe. Let’s pause and take another look,’ ” he said. Nelson believes the plant could be a continuing source of employment and that Shell will call on the unions for future projects at the plant as needed.Shell officials have made numerous efforts to demonstrate that the company makes a good neighbor. Shell gave $1 million to the Community College of Beaver County to develop a training program for petrochemical facility workers and has hired at least 13 graduates to fill permanent roles at the plant, according to a company spokesman. The company created a community advisory panel and hosts a quarterly virtual community meeting. During the pandemic, Shell donated money and services to local food banks and charitable organizations, donated hand sanitizer to local schools, donated N95 masks and nitrile gloves to local hospitals, and sponsored an employee donation drive for the Beaver County Humane Society.“The community has benefited from the first day they started moving dirt down at the facility,” Vogel said. In addition to the jobs at the plant, the state senator pointed to the indirect jobs it has created, including those in the new hotels, restaurants, and facilities serving the influx of construction workers from out of town, and in the catering and shuttle services for employees at the site. “One of my neighbors is retired, but he got a job driving workers in from the off-site parking lots a few hours a week,” Vogel said. “Another neighbor up over the hill from me went to Shell’s new training program at the community college and got hired. He’s 21 or 22, and he’ll have a lifetime career there if he wants it.”The political climate in Pennsylvania’s state government is aggressively pro-oil, pro-gas, and pro-industry. That’s driven in part by the Republican-controlled legislature, but Governor Wolf and other state Democrats have also supported the Shell project.State representative Sara Innamorato, who represents parts of Pittsburgh, is one of the few Democrats who opposed the plant. “They say ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ but a lot of legislators stop there in their critical thinking about the benefits of this kind of tax package,” she said. “We aren’t doing the math to figure out this is costing us millions of tax dollars per job. We’re foregoing billions of dollars of revenue over the life of this plant at a time when we can’t afford to make necessary investments in our infrastructure, our public schools, or our small businesses.”Bob Schmetzer spent nearly four decades working as an electrician with the local union. He supports good jobs for union workers. For him, Shell’s promises ring hollow.“I lived through the era when the steel mills all shut down at one time,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re facing that again now. What happens when you take 8,000 temporary workers and they all leave or they’re all out of work again?”For people like Schmetzer, who are living in the shadow of the cracker but not directly benefiting from the jobs, the trade-offs are obvious. His wife died from heart disease a few years ago, which he attributes in part to air pollution from the oil and gas industry and the proliferation of fracking wells. “She already had heart problems, so it wasn’t like air pollution originated it, but it kicked it into gear, and I’m still furious about that,” he said.Following his wife’s death, Schmetzer’s sister, who lived nearby, fled the region when a fracking well went in about a mile from her house. She moved to North Carolina to get away from the well. “I don’t get to see my sister anymore,” he said. “I’m sure someone else would feel the same way if these things happened to their families.”Many others, like Jeff and Cheyenne Bryant, can’t afford to move away. For the Bryant family, the stakes of Shell’s big bet on plastic couldn’t be higher—for Cheyenne in particular. “Twenty years of research on this fracking thing has already proven that it’s bad for our health,” Bryant said. “But they’re still putting in more and more wells that are killing us. It isn’t right.”Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with Sierra Magazine.From Your Site ArticlesRelated Articles Around the Web

Is there a green solution to the vinyl record backlog?

The backlog in the vinyl industry since the pandemic began means that artists and some music fans are having to wait around a year to receive their records.Global demand for albums is at its highest in 30 years, while most factories are still using the same pressing methods deployed in the 1980s.But a Dutch firm is offering, what it says is, a more sustainable – but more expensive – solution to the backlog.And it is doing so without the material that gave vinyl its name.Harm Theunisse, owner of Green Vinyl Records, in Eindhoven, believes it is the “new standard” for the industry.His team has spent the past seven years developing a new large-scale pressing machine that uses up to 90% less energy than typical vinyl production, and which can be monitored in real time rather than retrospectively. “This machine can do almost 40% more capacity than the traditional plants, too,” said Theunisse.”The pressing here is both faster and better for our planet.”The machine in Eindhoven avoids using PVC (polyvinyl chloride – which gave vinyl its name) – the most environmentally damaging of plastics, according to Greenpeace.Instead, it uses polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) – a more durable plastic which is easier to recycle. Theunisse said he wanted to do something to enable future generations to listen to music on vinyl without worrying about the environmental impact. “It’s for the kids,” he said. “Our world is heating up.”The barrier to finding eco-friendly alternatives to PVC has always been the desire to match the same rich sound quality while maintaining the hardness and durability of plastic, says Sharon George, senior lecturer in sustainability at Keele University.Green Vinyl Records’ method is “a real step in the right direction”, she says.”We need to stop thinking about the cost at the till and think about that cost to the planet and to our health,” she adds. Worldwide demand for vinyl is currently estimated at around 700 million records a year, as a result of a resurgence in popularity coinciding with supply chain problems during the Covid pandemic.The big factories are having to turn away business.”It’s nice to have such a full order book,” said Ton Vermeulen, chief executive of vinyl manufacturing company Record Industry, in Haarlem, near Amsterdam.But there are issues, he says, with people “always over- or under-ordering”.”When they have a new album out, they order 1,000 [copies] and, by the time they’re getting it, they already need 1,500.”Mr Vermeulen says his company is dealing with frustrated customers who have album plans and gigs booked around release dates. He is having to tell record labels and artists to wait.”They’re willing to pay more. They say ‘whatever it costs, it doesn’t matter’ – but unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. It’s the whole chain we need to go through,” he told BBC News.PainstakingVinyl has been manufactured at Vermeulen’s factory since 1957 and the company prides itself on its heritage methods, using the same 33 presses, which are painstakingly maintained. First a master disc is made of metal and converted into a stamper. Then PVC pellets are loaded into the machine, melted and pressed into the mould.The machines stay on for 17 hours and churn out 50,000 PVC records per day. The audio here is made and packed for the three major labels: Sony, Universal and Warner Music; deals that have been in existence for decades.Vinyl manufacturer Record Industry is trying to be conscious of the planet, too – from recycling waste to investing in solar power.So what does its boss think of a more environmentally-friendly future for pressing records?”I’ve had calls saying, ‘Hey, can you press records from the plastic from the ocean?’,” said Mr Vermeulen. “We could give it a try and it might look like a record – but if it needs to sound like a normal record, there’s where we have a problem.””When you want to keep the quality of the product as it is now, then that’s impossible,” he says.The molecular attributes of the plastic are thought to have a significant impact on the quality of how the music sounds – so pressing plants want to avoid using impure materials.High costMr Vermeulen was involved with the Green Vinyl project when it began, but he raises concerns about the costs.”I think it’s the unknown aspects, and the costs involved to put high investment in – because these machines are massively more expensive than the presses we use over here,” he said.”I’m not saying there is no space for such a new technique, but I have doubts if companies are going [to go] for it.”But it seems some are willing to take the risk. Tom Odell’s new album is being pressed at Green Vinyl Records.And Harm Theunisse has just signed his first order from Warner, too. The entrepreneur acknowledges the initial costs, but estimates a return on investment in around 18 months. “You’ve got to buy one and then listen to it yourself,” he says.You can hear more about green vinyl pressing on BBC World Service podcast Tech Tent.Follow Shiona McCallum on Twitter @shionamcMore on this storyGovernment to ban single-use plastic cutlery28 August 2021Single-use plastic cutlery ban edges closer20 November 2021How vinyl records are trying to go green24 June 2021

In world first, Chile to ban single-use F&B products over three years

In May 2021, Chile announced a legislative ban on single-use products in the food and beverage industry to take effect over the next three years.Similar bans in other countries and cities also address the crux of the plastic pollution problem — the disposable culture — but Chile’s ban extends to other materials too, including cardboard and poly-coated paper.In the lobbying process, the Chilean plastics association raised some concerns about the intricacies of the ban, but said it was ultimately “satisfied with the outcome.” New legislation passed by the Chilean government in May 2021 aims to rid the nation of all single-use products in the food and beverage industry, including plastics, within three years. This is the first national-level legislation in the world to implement a ban on single-use F&B products, such as those made of plastic, cardboard and other materials, as opposed to targeting single-use plastics alone. It also follows Chile’s 2019 ban on plastic bags, which received some criticism for people swapping out disposable plastic bags for disposable paper ones, or overcollecting reusable bags.
Chile produces nearly 1 million metric tons of plastic trash a year, but recycles just 8.5% of it, according to a 2019 report by InvestChile. In comparison, Europe has a recycling rate of about 30%, according to another 2019 report by Hamburg-based research firm Statista.
The new legislation will significantly reduce Chile’s plastic waste while boosting the nation’s plastic recycling rates, experts say. This law is projected to eliminate an estimated 23,000 metric tons of single-use plastic pollution annually — the weight equivalent of 116 blue whales, according to a 2020 report by the NGO Oceana Chile.
“The plastic industry now realizes that we are not targeting plastics specifically, but the unnecessary use of single-use items,” Javiera Calisto, legal director of Oceana Chile, told Mongabay. Oceana Chile and its partner organizations were the teams responsible for the proposal and lobbying of this new bill over the past three years.
The law aims to reduce waste generation in three key ways: eliminating single-use products in the food and beverage industry, certifying plastic products, and regulating the use and composition of disposable plastic bottles.
“The law establishes different terms for the respective obligations to come into force. Since we’re making important changes, it was very important to be realistic,” Calisto said.
Chile produces nearly 1 million metric tons of plastic trash a year, but recycles just 8.5% of it, according to reports. Image by Chris Hunkeler via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
According to Oceana, plastic tableware such as straws, cutlery and stirrers will be banned from all eating establishments six months after the law is enacted. Other changes will have up to three years to come fully into force. This includes a requirement that at least 30% of bottled drinks in supermarkets must come in reusable bottles.
Other places in the world have taken similar action as Chile by taking a “hard measure” approach to eliminating single-use plastics. For instance, New York City, California, Hawai‘i, Kenya and the European Union have all banned single-use plastic bags in recent years.
As of July 2018, 127 out of 192 countries have adopted full or partial bans against plastic bags, while 57 countries have imposed a plastic bag tax on either the producer or consumer at the national level, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme.
But these legislations are far from perfect. Common criticisms against increasingly popular plastic bans include the fact that they harm poor nations and people the most, and merely encourage the uptake of equally harmful alternatives. This was the case when Chileans began amassing huge amounts of reusable bags following the countrywide ban on plastic bags in 2019.
Chile’s newest law will apply to single-use products including plastic utensils, poly-coated paper cups, disposable cardboard trays and single-use chopsticks, as opposed to single-use plastics alone. Single-use products have been defined as any F&B utensil that is not “used by the establishment on multiple occasions in accordance to their design,” regardless of the material they’re made of.
Chile’s newest law will apply to single-use products including plastic utensils, poly-coated paper cups, disposable cardboard trays and single-use chopsticks, as opposed to single-use plastics alone. Image by Brian Yurasits via Unsplash.
Change in the works
Under this legislation, restaurants that fail to comply can be fined up to around 327,000 Chilean pesos ($360) per product, and supermarkets can be fined 1.3 million pesos ($1,435) per reported case.
Some establishments have already made the switch to reusables. At Mallplaza Egaña, a shopping mall, reusable cutlery and utensils such as including plates, cups and stirrers have replaced all single-use plastics in its food gardens.
Antonio Braghetto, operations manager of the Mallplaza mall franchise in Chile, told Mongabay in an email that the legislations imposed in Chile in recent years have helped “mobilize organizations” along the path to a zero-waste economy.
The new law might also prove crucial in finally addressing the carbon footprint of the plastics industry.
For instance, the law requires that disposable plastic bottles in Chile must be composed of a percentage of plastic that has been collected and recycled within the country. The Ministry of Environment will enforce and regulate this process through a plastic certification process. However, the exact percentage, or what qualifies as “recycled” material, is unclear.
Plastic manufacture is often overlooked as a significant source of carbon emissions. For example, in the U.S., plastic manufacturing is expected to overtake coal plant emissions by 2030. At the same time, recycling rates have never surpassed 9% in the U.S., and plastics companies have been found to overstate the feasibility of recycling plastics since the 1970s, Mongabay previously reported.
“Only upstream measures such as a cap on plastic production will prevent further degradation of our life-supporting ecosystems,” Melanie Bergmann, a plastic pollution and microplastic expert at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, said in a previous Mongabay article.
Some establishments have made the switch to reusable cutlery and utensils such as including plates, cups and stirrers in the place of single-use plastics. Image courtesy of María Jose Arancibia/Mallplaza.
The plastic prerogative
An estimated 12 million to 14 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year, according to the IUCN. It’s not known what proportion of this can be attributed to single-use plastics, though these are the “most visible” forms of pollution, IUCN plastics expert Joao Sousa told Mongabay in an email.
Yet, plastics also have their benefits, Sousa said. Their cost-effective, durable, lightweight and waterproof nature is precisely what makes plastics so versatile and lucrative.
This time, the Chilean Plastics Association (Asociación Gremial de Industriales del Plástico de Chile, or Asipla for short) was part of the meetings held with the Chilean senate and other officials for the drafting of Chile’s newest law against single-use plastics.
“Even though we were 100% conscious about the impact of plastics on the environment, we also are convinced of the many undeniable advantages that plastic has given society since its existence,” Magdalena Balcells, general manager of Asipla, told Mongabay.
Without plastics, for example, the world wouldn’t have the face masks (N95 masks are made from synthetic plastic fibers) or medical equipment necessary for managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seventy-five percent of the waste found on Chile’s beaches is plastic litter. Image courtesy of Javiera Castilo/Oceana.
“We all want to have fewer residues in the world — it’s not just plastic, but glass, paper, cardboard, and aluminum. But if it’s unfeasible, we are not doing any favors to the environment,” Balcells added when asked about Asipla’s experience being included in Chile’s bill-drafting process this time around.
The various parties “had their differences,” Balcells said. Proposals to ban the production of PET bottles altogether or to deem all forms of packaging as single-use materials were floated, but ultimately ruled unfeasible. But the parties involved eventually met in the middle.
“We are very satisfied with the outcome,” Balcells said. “Though the scope is not huge, it is visible enough for people to change their habits. And that’s a very good thing.”
Banner image: A neighborhood store in Chile with a sign proclaiming they are no longer delivering plastic bags. Image by LuisCG11 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Oceana Chile. (2020). Estimación de la disminución de desechos plásticos de un solo uso producto de su regulación. Retrieved from
Statista. (2019). The plastic dilemma: 348 million tons of plastic produced per year worldwide, half of which becomes waste. Retrieved from
Taylor, R. L., & Villas‐Boas, S. B. (2016). Bans vs. fees: Disposable carryout bag policies and bag usage. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 38(2), 351-372.
UNEP. (2018). Legal limits on single-use plastics and Microplastics: A global review of national laws and regulations. Retrieved from

Conservation, Environment, Environmental Law, Environmental Policy, Green, Interns, Law, Oceans, Plastic, Pollution, Sustainability, Water Pollution

LISTEN: Max Aung on hidden toxic threats

Dr. Max Aung joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the dangers of some everyday chemicals to our health—and how regulation hasn’t kept up with these threats. Aung, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and assistant director at the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice program, also talks about how pregnant people and babies are most vulnerable to these pervasive exposures.The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.Listen below to our discussion with Aung, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.


Brian BienkowskiAll right, today’s guest hanging out is Dr. Max Aung, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and assistant director at the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice program. Aung talks about the mix of insidious pollutant exposures we all face, how these exposures impact the most vulnerable among us, and how policy can catch up to the ever growing list of concerning chemicals. Enjoy.So Max, it is good to see you. But I will full disclosure for the listeners, I see you quite a bit now, you are part of the agents of change program, you are now an assistant director. And you were also part of our first cohort, and you wrote an essay about oil and gas development where you grew up. So I just want to start there, if you could tell me a little bit about what that experience was like, as a researcher being out there with your views and thoughts, what the reception was, to your article and a little bit about the work you’re doing now with us?Max AungYeah, so, you know, the article was such a great opportunity for me to reflect on the sort of environmental issues that are facing communities that have high oil and gas production. But it was also interesting, because having grown up there, you know, I’ve, I’ve had friends that work in the oil and gas fields, that’s like their first job out of high school, it pays really well. You know, it’s it’s basically the source of economic growth for a lot of folks in those communities. So, in my essay touched on that a bit – thinking about, you know, sort of how even though these have environmental impacts these different industries, there’s also this issue of like, how do you deal with folks that rely on this for their everyday lives? So I think, you know, when I wrote the essay, it was largely, you know, well received from I had some folks, you know, reach out to me, and, tell me that, that they found the article to be an important reflection on that balance. I’ve had, we got this article invited to be like in a undergraduate textbook chapter, which was really exciting, you know, that new scholars will be reading this as they think about creative writing and reflecting on environmental issues. And, yeah, so, you know, I think that’s sort of been a great foundation, as I’ve sort of navigated this next stage of my career and thinking about ways to incorporate communities and think about communities inputs, as we tried to shape policy, environmental policy. And so that’s been a huge factor, especially with some of my work at UCSF, which, you know, we can talk a little bit more about later on. In terms of the [Agents of Change] program, so I joined the leadership here in March. And it’s been really exciting because I’ve been working really closely with Dr. Ami Zota, you and Yoshi as well, and just thinking through different ways that we can engage existing scholars in the program, but also ways that we can, you know, galvanize the new cohorts towards different focus groups and thinking about how can we leverage that skill in terms of outreach and in terms of getting our Agents of Change fellows out there to you know, communicate with important stakeholders. So that’s been really exciting so far.Brian BienkowskiGood. And it’s so awesome to be part of the program and already a few years in have people like yourself who are part of it, who have now grown in your career and have new positions, and then come back. I mean for me when I started this, to already see people like you coming back and being a part of it after being in the first cohort, is just, it’s just wild how kind of fast time flies, but it’s been really excellent. And just for people listeners who maybe didn’t read your essay, so it was focused in Kern County, California, right?Max AungYeah, yeah.Brian BienkowskiYou’re right. And I really appreciated the idea of thinking about the economic ramifications. I thought that was one of the aspects of your essays that was crucial when we think about weaning off oil and gas or just trying to get rid of polluting, polluting industries, thinking about the people that rely on these for their livelihoods.Max AungYeah, and it was, you know, it’s so great. Like, during our sessions, like in that first fellowship year, just, you know, getting the feedback from you, workshopping it with the other fellows was such a great experience. Because I felt like, I was consistently challenged to think about every single word I put into that essay, and like the impact, you know, and not being afraid to say, radical, social justice oriented things. And I did feel like that was such a great learning experience, sort of go through that exercise.Brian BienkowskiWell, that’s great to hear. And I hope future folks feel the same way. That’s definitely the spirit of the program. And so you went to University of California, Santa Cruz for your undergrad, and I believe you’re at University of Michigan over here for your masters and your PhD – I love Ann Arbor, is such a fun town. What drew you to public health? And how did you come to start researching environmental exposures?Max AungYeah, so okay, at Santa Cruz, I’d say I gained a really diverse set of research and education experiences. So you know, my undergraduate training was in molecular biology. And so I was just really drawn to some of my more advanced coursework around immunology, and thinking about the different mechanisms that underlie various different health conditions. And that’s was sort of, you know, my bedrock in terms of the coursework. On the other end, I was doing research in a stable isotope laboratory, in the ocean sciences department, which is totally, you know, not, you know, totally different in terms of science, but like, just a totally different direction in terms of how to apply scientific research. And so in that lab, I was working with an exciting team to reconstruct past sea surface temperatures over the course of several thousands of years. So we…the Paleo climatology lab is very focused on trying to understand past climate conditions so that we have data to inform future climate models. So there’s this, you know, this duality between the molecular Health Sciences and more environmental, climate-change focused research. And I think, you know, trying to think through these two different experiences, it was a little bit next, like, after undergrad, you know? I struggled a little bit with trying to find my path forward.And after undergrad, I actually, I took two years, where I wasn’t in school, I was teaching full time for a STEM diversity program that focus on retaining undergraduates from historically marginalized backgrounds in the STEM fields. And so during that time, it gave me a little bit more breathing room to like, think through sort of what are my next steps, and, I got involved with the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, so I was working with them in the summer. And through that, I started networking with all of these different – because they’re so well connected with all of these universities across the country – and, and through that I sort of got connected with different professors from different schools of public health. And as I was brainstorming through potential graduate training, and really tried to lean in on those background experiences. It became clear to me as I was learning about grad programs that something that would fulfill me is a blend of environmental research, plus Health Sciences, plus policy, right? And so I kind of converge it to like environmental health policy is like sort of where I was thinking. And then so when I was looking at different programs, you know, Michigan really stood out to me. They had a super strong Department of Environmental Health. And when I spoke to different faculty and different current students, it seemed like there was a lot of opportunity if you came in with environmental health to sort of branch out, and also gain skills in policy and some of the more data analysis, epidemiology heavy coursework.So that’s the way, that’s the sort of path that brought me to Michigan. And at Michigan, you know, I don’t think any of this was planned, but I was able to receive this really exciting fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, it was called the Health Policy Research Scholars fellowship. And that really just amplified my health policy training. And it basically allowed me to integrate that type of training into my more science-heavy applications in environmental health. And so, you know, that’s sort of like my entry point into public health and the way I’ve been navigating it in terms of like, career trajectory.Brian BienkowskiWhat’s one place that you miss in Ann Arbor?Max AungOh. I love ramen. I think anybody that knows me really well knows that I’ll always, you know, go find like, the best ramen shop in any city I’m in. So there’s actually like a pretty, you know, delicious ramen place in downtown Ann Arbor called Slurping Turtle. And so that’s one place I miss. Where I was living most recently in Ann Arbor it’s in the middle of the campus and my home, or my former home. So like, you know, on the walk back, I had been known to just like, be like, alright, canceling dinner, cooking dinner, I’m just gonna get ramen.Brian BienkowskiYeah, there’s, there’s a lot, there’s a lot in a town, that’s not huge. There’s a lot of super good food and good music and good places to get a drink. So, before we get on to how you’ve taken that environmental research and what you’re doing with it now, I wanted to ask you, what’s the defining moment that shaped your identity?Max AungOh, yeah, um, you know, I, so I think I can, you know, I could time travel back to a lot of different moments long, longer times ago, but I actually, I think, like in terms of something that’s really defined me, it’s like, for me, one of the experiences, most recently was, I was working at UCSF, and I had the opportunity to, basically, you know, co-lead my first big R1 proposal. And I think what was really exciting about this proposal was, I was focusing on basically trying to better understand mental health disparities among immigrant women, and focus on how environmental exposures are potentially impacting mental health disparities in this population. And I think what was like really pivotal for me as, as a scholar was, this is sort of a moment where, after I’ve developed all of the training, earned the PhD, got to this point in my career, I’m able to now develop research questions and research proposals that literally converge my identity as an immigrant scholar, but also focus on important salient problems that are impacting these communities. You know, I will say that grant hasn’t been funded yet. So we didn’t get it on the first try. But I, I will be persisting on it and trying again, and, reshaping it in different ways. But nonetheless, I still look back at that experience and think that it’s been a huge moment for me to I’m really just feel empowered to use my skills to, you know, and my lived experiences to pursue research that, that not very many folks are doing and I think is really important.Brian BienkowskiYeah. And hopefully bettering science and shaping what environmental science looks like. And then take it one step further, hopefully making lives better, right?and in the communities you’re researching, or are looking into, in some way, having a positive impact. So that’s definitely a defining moment. I think that’s great. And hopefully it gets funded at some point.Max AungYeah, eventually I’m trying, I’m trying, you know, different ways to sort of get it funded. So crossing fingers.Brian BienkowskiSo now you’re really broadly your focus now is on what we’re exposed to that impact our health and human development. So just just kind of a 10,000 foot view, walk me through some of the things that we’re exposed to that kind of keep you up at night? What are you looking at, exposure wise, that we should be concerned about?Max AungYeah, so. So, you know, historically, in terms of what I’ve done research on so far, I’ve focused a lot on endocrine disrupting chemicals. And this includes, for example, a lot of different chemicals found in plastics and different personal care products that you use on a daily basis, like lotions, shampoos. So you know, some chemicals include phalates, phenols, parabens, I’ve done a lot of research on these endocrine disrupting chemicals. Particularly, I’ve focused on how they’re influencing maternal health conditions, and potentially, what implications that has for infant health later in life. And sort of my core research applications in that space is to try to disentangle biological mechanisms, right? So that’s, that’s sort of in the bedrock of my PhD dissertation: identifying different biological pathways that might be affected by these chemicals, and trying to illustrate that in these different studies that that we’ve published, so that so that different scholars can learn about those mechanisms, and build on those when they think about risk assessment, and trying to identify high-risk scenarios with these high exposures and thinking about what pathways might be influenced by those exposures.Brian Bienkowski Can you talk a little bit about… so I think when we historically think about environmental pollution and things that harm us, we think of… let’s use lead for an example, the more lead that I’m exposed to, or that my nephew is exposed to, the more toxic it is. With endocrine disrupting compounds, it doesn’t always work that way, there can be very tiny amounts of exposure that that wreak havoc on the body and maybe at a higher exposure, it’s not the same. So can you talk a little bit about first of all, when we say endocrine disrupting compounds, what what we mean, and also kind of the challenge of identifying how toxic they are, because they don’t always behave like traditional toxics.Max AungYeah, that’s a good point. Yeah, so, just to set the baseline. So when we say endocrine disrupting chemicals, essentially, what that means is that these chemicals, especially, based on in vitro, mechanistic laboratory experiments, these chemicals have been shown to have properties where they can mimic hormone signaling, and they can essentially alter concentrations of different hormone production. And this has, I mean, even though we call them endocrine disrupting chemicals, this has wide implications for various different pathways, because not only can they affect the endocrine system and hormone production, but because the endocrine system is so intimately connected to the immune system, for example, these chemicals can also elicit inflammatory responses, so, they can, you know, cause immune cells to regulate these proteins that are involved with inflammation and this can have downstream effects on cardiovascular function on tissue damage. So, all sorts of different downstream effects. And that’s what makes these chemicals you know, very tricky to understand. Because if they’re affecting various different pathways, there’s all sorts of feedback loops that might be occurring. And disentangling those different feedback loops, and those different mechanisms is really challenging. In terms of the dosage, you know, what you’re saying is about the concentrations, and different levels of concentrations being important, that’s also a huge consideration, right? Because, you know, there’s some evidence that, you know, particular endocrine disrupting chemicals can have nonlinear relationships. So it’s like, even low doses can have effects, and maybe you might not see effects in the middle range, but then you might see effects in the higher range. And, you know, that’s really tricky, especially when you’re trying to investigate these chemicals in a large, prospective cohort, an epidemiology study, where you have a huge distribution of these chemicals, and the distribution might be different based on which study population you’re focusing on. So, yeah, all of those things are incredibly challenging. And, a lot of the research and collaborations I’m working on now, is these, you know, multi center, multi cohort investigations, where we’re integrating data across different birth cohorts. And that’s one of the ways that we can sort of tackle this problem is having a larger sample, a larger, diverse sample that we can have a better understanding of the different distributions of these exposures.Brian BienkowskiSo, as you mentioned, a lot of your work is focused on babies, pregnant people, kind of fetal exposures. Can you talk about the specific vulnerabilities for these groups? And what we know about environmental exposures during this really critical window of development?Max AungYeah, so basically, a huge piece of my research is built on the developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis, which proposes that early life exposures can have, can be affecting key biological processes in utero, that can essentially influence the trajectory of infant development for many, many years. So this could be metabolic health, this could be neurodevelopment. So particularly, I’ve been focused on neurodevelopment, and that’s where my research program is shifting towards right now, in terms of my funded projects. And what we’re seeing so far is that, from preliminary data, that maternal biomarker profiles that we’ve measured in some of our pilot studies are associated with early measures of infant neurodevelopment. So after pregnancy. And those same biomarkers are also associated with environmental chemicals, such as the phalates from the consumer products. And so you know, our running hypothesis is that these chemicals are influencing different biomarker profiles in the mom during pregnancy, and that’s potentially influencing key neurodevelopmental features in the developing fetus, and that’s persisting into infancy. And so that’s one of the major pieces that I’m trying to work on. And so right now, we’re building on that preliminary work, and we’re expanding it into multiple different cohorts measuring these biomarkers. And the idea is that, from the study, we’ll be able to characterize these early mechanisms of neurotoxicity, potential neurotoxicity, but then also, hopefully use these biomarkers as you know, potential predictive tools that we can help to identify potential neurodevelopmental outcomes later in life.Brian BienkowskiSo just so I’m clear that the basic idea is that the mother is exposed to, or the pregnant person is exposed to a compound, and you’re seeing… and by biomarkers, what do you mean, what are you looking at?Max AungYeah, so there’s all sorts of biomarkers that you know that we, that I’ve been researching over the past few years. But most recently, I’ve been focusing on these targeted bioactive lipids, so this includes, you know, parent fatty acid compounds that folks get from, you know, essentially their diet like arachidonic acid, linoleic acid. And these fatty acid compounds are essential, and you know, you need them for key biological processes. And as a component of their essential function and role in physiology, they are metabolized into secondary molecules that can stimulate different things like immune responses, cardiovascular function, they’re also important for, you know, kidney function. So, these secondary molecules are really key signals of biological processes. And so, when you measure them, and then you see that there are altered levels, or different concentrations associated with higher concentrations of phalates, then you start to be concerned, because, you know, that essentially suggest that perhaps, that the chemicals are influencing that metabolism of those bioactive lipids, and if they’re influencing that metabolism, they might be influencing all those downstream processes that I just laid out. And that’s, you know, that’s when we start to find that there might be a problem with that, because those downstream processes could be influencing the developing fetus.Brian BienkowskiSo using a lotion that has too much phalates could make your child have delayed development, maybe some kind of behavioral issues. I mean, are these the kinds of downstream impacts you’re looking up?Max AungWell, we’re trying to disentangle that. It’ still very early stages in terms of those outcomes, but some of my colleagues in that I collaborate in these cohorts have found associations with dilates and altered infant neurodevelopmental parameters. And so we are seeing evidence so far that there are some associations. And so now that we’ve seen those relationships with dilates and neurodevelopment, this next stage that I’m proposing is trying to find these linking pathways, with these bioactive lipids that might be explaining some of these relationships.Brian BienkowskiAnd of course, as humans, we’re all eating perhaps produce that has pesticides, we’re putting on these lotions, we’re eating out of plastic containers, we’re walking outside where there’s heavy traffic, so we’re exposed to mixtures of pollutants all the time. So can you outline, you know, first, why that’s a challenge for researchers like yourself, and how folks like you try to best capture what these mixtures might be doing to us, or disentangling them? If that’s what you’re doing.Max AungYeah. So yeah, so thanks for bringing that up. You know, there’s, there’s hundreds of thousands of chemicals that were exposed to, and like you said, pesticides, and some pesticides have been shown in mechanistic models to be neurotoxic. So when you think about, you know, the cumulative exposures of pesticides, phthalates, toxic metals like lead, and, what is so challenging about understanding any single chemical class is that they’re not acting alone, right? You have these different exposures that are also influencing these biological pathways. And they’re also, through that mechanism, potentially influencing those outcomes like neurodevelopment. And so you know, what I’d say, in that space of disentangling the mechanisms. I think what’s really challenging is, you know, one of the studies I published like a couple of years ago is we looked at like four different chemical classes, you know, dilates, included toxic metals included, and we saw that they’re having these, in some cases, divergent associations with these biological pathways and these biomarkers, and so when you see divergent pathways, it’s really tricky because it’s hard to understand what that implication is in terms of the downstream effects. Like are they acting sort of against each other? like antagonistically? Is this an issue of temporality, where we’ve only measured the exposures once and the biomarkers once so we’re not capturing the bigger picture, right? So there’s a lot of unanswered questions in terms of like these mixture effects. But I think, in that chaos and confusion of all these different divergent relationships, I think there’s something really compelling in terms of this really emphasizes the need to look at chemicals as a whole mixture, because you’re going to miss things if you don’t, right? if you focus on just one chemical class, you’re really going to miss the fact that other chemical classes are having. And it’s, it’s really not conducive for risk assessment, you know, when you think when you’re ignoring those different chemical classes. And so, you know, in terms of taking the risk assessments and thinking of downstream policy implications, I think it’s really critical that we start to evolve from this one chemical at a time policy approach and thinking about all of these chemicals, cumulatively.Brian BienkowskiSo that leads me nicely into my next question, and maybe that’s in part your answer. I was thinking about, I’ve been, personally, I’ve been writing about BPA for more than a decade now. And the bad news keeps coming. And the studies keep finding impacts, whether it’s animal studies, or correlational, human epidemiological studies, and it’s still not regulated, right, nothing happens. And one of the things I realized as a journalist pretty early on that I think is was surprising to me, and I think it’s surprising to other people is that everything on the shelf isn’t tested to the extent that you think it is. So, you know, we you’re talking about phalates and things that are probably in my shower right now. So, where’s the regulation failing? So maybe one one aspect you mentioned, is not looking at things as classes rather trying to look at them individually, but what else? What else could we or should we be doing?Max AungThat’s a, that’s a big question. You know, I think there’s so many different things we could be doing better. But, you know, one of the things for sure is, you know, in addition to looking at the cumulative effects is thinking about better capturing different routes of exposure and integrating that holistically – especially thinking about different historically marginalized communities as well, because there is historic exposure that needs to be accounted for in marginalized communities. So, you know, some communities are exposed to not only the phalates, but high levels of air pollution, toxic lead, there’s PFAS in the drinking water. So thinking about historical exposures as well is really important, because that really contextualizes the current state of the problem that those communities might be facing. Whereas if you just look at the chemical class in isolation, without thinking about those historic exposures, you’re going to underestimate the risk that those communities are experiencing.Brian BienkowskiWhat would you tell someone who’s an expecting mother?Max AungThat’s, you know, I think, what I would tell them is that, you know, well… I think in general, what I would tell folks is that a lot of the solutions, the really big impact solutions are going to come at the regulatory policy level, we can try to limit our exposures as a consumer by, you know, not using this product or that product. You know, avoiding different products, but that’s really so marginal in terms of exposure reduction. I think the onus should really be on regulators and industry to not use these chemicals and to use safer alternatives or if some of these chemicals are not essential, basically, yeah, like they shouldn’t be produced. So in terms of what I tell folks when they asked me about reducing things like, in addition to, you know, avoiding certain products, I would say, it’s really, also going to take a lot of civic engagement to push policymakers to make responsible decisions on reducing these harmful exposures. That’s really where the big-impact, exposure reduction is going to come from. And so, you know, I think that’s where we really have to invest our energy and our effort, as scientists as activists, and sort of pushing policymakers and industries to sort of do better.Brian Bienkowski Was there an “aha!” moment for you or something that you learned when you were researching these exposures that you don’t think most people would know about? Something kind of surprising, interesting, shocking.Max AungYou know, I think like, for me, it’s, it’s been… Well, the first part was just seeing how many chemicals we’re exposed to. It’s pretty alarming. And there’s estimates that there’s like, hundreds of thousands of registered and, you know, thousands of unregistered chemicals too, and that is really problematic, because as a scientist, it’s really, it’s really challenging to investigate the health effects of these chemicals, when there’s like such a large mountain of chemicals. And so I think that was been sort of a huge moment, in terms of the way I think about the problem. And it’s also compelled me to not only investigate them, to the best I can with these epi cohorts –we’re very limited in those cohorts on what we can measure, right, just because of costs– So that’s compelled me to, you know, in addition to focusing on those, also think about how we can drive policy forward. And one of the things I’ve been working on in my role at UCSF, in my past, while at UCSF and I’m still carrying it forward, is thinking about developing a framework to inform policy action when there’s limited research, and to sort of, how can we drive decision making forward? so that we can reduce exposures without having to necessarily conduct these large epi cohorts that will take many, many years to do. So finding that balance has been really tricky. And that’s, you know, something sort of that I’ve been focusing on a lot recently, and it’s really great in terms of bridging my policy bug right into my science hat.Brian BienkowskiI wonder if that might be the answer to my next question. I was thinking about a lot of everybody in the Agents of Change program, there’s a, there’s a real importance placed on using your research to spur positive change in communities. And I think in some instances, I’ve seen this with reporting, when we report on a fence-line community, and there’s a power plant, it’s a very clear link: these people are being harmed by this thing, how can we make that known and spur action? It’s easy, it’s local. Whereas what you’re looking at is so ubiquitous and big. And really, we’re all exposed to these compounds and in some communities more than others, but being such a big, unwieldy problem. I’m wondering how you go about trying to make that change happen?Max AungYeah, so that’s definitely an ongoing workshopping and brainstorming process. In terms of like, how I’ve been approaching it with my collaborators at UCSF, we’re developing thi framework for Environmental Health Policy. And the goal of the framework is to develop a process, a very transparent process for evaluating scientific evidence to inform policymakers to take action on an environmental contaminant. And so in that process, it requires the integration of key decision criteria, right? Like how will you balance the costs and benefits of an intervention? How do you balance environmental injustice and the potential to essentially push back against systemic racism? you know, how can the intervention do that in terms of environmental hazards? And in this process, like, I think the way that we’ve sort of started to approach it is bringing in key stakeholders, from NGOs, from the government, from different community organizations, and really listening, trying to listen on their input. And so that’s one of the most recent things we did in this project: [it] was to bring together a workshop of different key stakeholders. And so now going forward, you know, we’re synthesizing through that information. And as we develop future case studies and applications for our policy framework, I think, will continue to sort of bring in community engagement and really trying to get their input every step of the way, so that we’re impacting a potential intervention with their ideas in mind and very integrated into how we’re approaching the potential intervention or recommendation.Brian Bienkowski I remember talking to Dr. Reginald Seeley, who who spoke to the Agents of Change at some point. And he mentioned when he worked on The Hill for a little while, how incredibly busy policymakers are. This idea of you doing some of the work for them and taking the studies and running them through this project and giving them different outputs of “this would do this, And this would do that. And there’s benefits here cost saving here,” I think is brilliant.Max Aung Yeah, absolutely. It’s a big, it’s a big hill, but I think that, you know, I’m optimistic. And I think we have a stellar team of collaborators. And we’ve brought together a great steering committee to help guide us. It’s really exciting. So I’m hopeful that we can continue that work and really influence policymakers in the future.Brian Bienkowski Excellent. I just have a couple more questions for you, Max. And this has been a really good time it is there anything else that you want to mention that you are optimistic about? Some of these topics are just heavy. What else out there gets you excited or hopeful?Max Aung Yeah, I think, you know, in terms of like, the science, I am pretty, I’m getting optimistic about how some of the funding opportunities that have been announced through the NIH, I’m starting to see more and more emphasis on important research that has implications for environmental justice. And not just NIH but also the EPA. There’s an environmental justice intent in some of these opportunities. So, I’m cautiously optimistic that they can influence positive change and promote social justice. You know, and hopefully, the folks that get these different funding mechanisms can incorporate community input, and really drive environmental justice forward. And I think there’s also a lot of potential in terms of a lot of initiatives that the Biden administration is doing, in terms of trying to integrate social justice into a lot of their regulatory frameworks. And so I think, I’m optimistic about that. I really hope it can be sustained after like the midterm elections, and hopefully in the next four years, but, we’ll see.Brian Bienkowski of living. Yeah, article, political realities. Yeah, unfortunately, sometimes But you know, I what I will say is the fact that there is an awareness, you know, easy for me to say I’m not a member of a community that is dealing with these things. But I think the fact that there is awareness right now is a positive step in itself. And hopefully that continues to bring about change. So Max, I have three rapid fire questions where you can just give me one word, or phrase and then we can, we can move on, get me out of here and the rest of your day. So one of my all time favorite moviesMax Aung Moulin RougeBrian Bienkowski When I have downtime, I am most likelyMax Aung Cycling outdoors.Brian Bienkowski Oh, gosh, me too. I’m taking one as soon as we get done here. And I cannot I cannot start my day withoutMax Aung Coffee.Brian Bienkowski Perfect. We are two for three on matching each other there. And Max. My last question, what is the last book that you read for fun?Max Aung I just started reading this book called “On Earth we’re briefly gorgeous.” And I haven’t finished it yet. So I’ll let you know what when I finished it, but so far, it’s really poetic.Brian Bienkowski And who is the author on that?Max Aung I hope I’m pronouncing their name right. Ocean Vuong.Brian Bienkowski Yeah. “On Earth We’re briefly gorgeous.” I love the title.Max Aung Yeah, it’s a beautiful title. And their background is largely in, you know, in creative writing and poem. So it’s got that sort of that vibe in there quite a bit.Brian Bienkowski Excellent. Well, Max, thank you so much for taking time today. I really mean it that I am so excited that you’re part of the team and I get to see you and talk to you and brainstorm with you on how to grow this program. So thank you so much for today.Max Aung Yeah, thanks so much for inviting me.

How microplastics from cigarettes pollute our oceans

CBS 8’s Chief Meteorologist Karlene Chavis breaks down how to filter out our oceans biggest problem: cigarette butts.

SAN DIEGO — Beach cleanups are common along our coastline, and the most reported pollution problem are cigarette butt filters. They are a costly health hazard for not just us, but the environment. 

Travel from storm drains to beaches

Whether the filters are put out in the sand or make the journey inland from areas like Downtown San Diego through storm drains, they will also find a way onto our beaches. I took a stroll along the sands of Ocean Beach with Mitch Silverstein. He is with the San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. It did not take long to find cigarettes butt, and I mean a lot of cigarette butt, pollution. 

“How far did we walk? 100 feet and we got 50 butts. That’s crazy. It’s nuts, it’s nut balls,” said Silverstein. “The beach is not an ashtray.”

I asked Silverstein and Dr. Thomas Novotny, who was also present for this all too familiar show and tell, what do you say to people who believe “well I’m only putting out one cigarette butt, where’s the harm?”

“One, there’s six trillion cigarettes manufactured globally, you put one, the next guy puts one, the next million people put one, and what we find is that a third of all the beach litter picked up from the beaches is cigarette butts,” said Novotny.

Number 1 marine pollution

Novotny is the Professor Emeritus at the San Diego State University School of Public Health. This environmental concern is echoed by many organizations including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA, citing cigarette butts as the number one marine pollution in the world. 

Novotny refers to cigarettes as a teabag of toxins citing the seven thousand chemicals found in them, including 50 of which are capable of causing cancer. And to top it off, these filters, that have all those toxins locked in, are single use plastics. Don’t let the appearance of a paper lining fool you.

“The filter, which is the most picked up item of the cigarette butts is plastic. It doesn’t bio-grade, it stays in the environment. It gets squashed, broken up into small pieces and is retained as microplastics in the environment as well. Both have a chemical and plastic pollution with cigarette butts,” said Novotny.  


To better illustrate how microplastics get dispersed into our environment, Mitch Silverstein uses a piece of Styrofoam as an example.

“It is the most easy to see example of how one piece of plastic, this from a cooler, instantly turns into thousands and thousands and thousands of pieces. It becomes indistinguishable from the sand,” said Silverstein as he breaks apart the chunk with his hand.

Once broken down, but not gone, the microplastics associated with cigarette filters become imbedded in our environment and even us.

“It’s also a sponge for toxins. So, it soaks up toxins. Fish eat it and we eat that fish, and we get those toxins, and we get that plastic. So, we’re eating it,” said Silverstein.

Taking action 

When it comes to putting out this issue, Novotny advocates for an upstream way of preventing this top pollution. He wants legislation passed that would ban the sale of filter cigarettes, citing the filter itself has no health benefits.

“It is not just the environment, if we can reduce tobacco use in any way, even a small percentage we are going to improve the health of Californians, reduce the cost of healthcare, reduce the cost that is involved in cleaning up beaches and urban environments and just spoiling the natural environment that we have,” said Dr. Novotny. 

Mitch Silverstein echoes this sentiment on the ban with involvement on a local and State level. 

“We can try to blame litterbugs all we want, but at the end of the day, we need to hold the producers responsible and we need to prevent every single cigarette from having a plastic butt, where evidence is overwhelming that it’s hazardous waste and highly likely to end up in our environment,” said Silverstein. 

Unfortunately, on a State level, a bill is introduced during every legislative session that never makes it out of the committee process. Mitch says pushing for this policy change is going to come down to the data, and we can help.

“We have a great tool, Surfrider — any individual can have an account and add to the data that we collect because we need to show policy makers the data. You know, not just come out and say, “hey, you know I feel like the ocean is being polluted”. We know it and we have the numbers to back it up.”

WATCH RELATED: Students practice conservation with Trout in the Classroom (April 2022).

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Palau study reveals microplastics are infecting the most pristine corners of the world

Plastic pollution is so insidious that it has entered even the most sacred of places. In 2012, a seal washed ashore in Massachusetts because its stomach was inflamed by all the plastic it had swallowed; seven years later a submarine diving to the bottom of America’s deepest point, the Mariana Trench, discovered a plastic bag; and as recently as March a study revealed that three out of four people have microplastics in their blood.
RELATED: What is microplastic anyway? Inside the insidious pollution that is absolutely everywhere
Since microplastics are so small that they have entered our blood — plastic particles are by definition less than 5 millimeters in length — it stands to reason that they have contaminated the most pristine human locales on the planet. A new study published in the journal PLOS One confirms that this is indeed the case, as scientists from the Palau International Coral Reef Center studied the pristine reef area of the tiny, remote island republic, which lies east of the Philippines and north of New Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. Mixed in with the beach sand, seawater and natural sediments, the scientists found a troubling number of microplastics (MPs) and nanoplastics (NPs), or plastic particles that are far tinier than 5 millimeters in length.

“Plastic is literally everywhere — it is not just in the streets and oceans; it is in the food that we eat, the water we drink, and the very air that we breathe.”

“This study shows that plastic pollution must be considered in environmental studies even in the most pristine locations,” the authors explain in their abstract. “It also shows that NPs pollution is related to the amount of MPs found at the sites. To understand the effects of this plastic pollution, it is necessary that the next toxicological studies take into account the effects of this fraction that makes up the NPs.” In fact, the authors zeroed in on the threat posed by nanoplastics as one of the chief takeaways from their research.

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“They are more dangerous because of their size and concentration,” Christine Ferrier-Pages from the Centre Scientifique de Monaco, and one of the co-authors of the study, told Salon by email. “It is estimated that NPs are 100 times more abundant than MPs and in addition, due to their small size, they can enter the cells and provoke quite a lot of damages.”
Ferrier-Pages added, “Plastics, especially microplastics and even more nanoplastics, enter the marine food web at each level of the food web and accumulate in the higher trophic levels, i.e. fish and other commercial organisms. Nowadays, it has been shown that many commercial fish are contaminated, and by eating these fish, plastics are also transferred to humans. The problem with plastics is that there are hundreds of tons of plastics entering the sea each year, and for the moment, there is no good tool to get rid of these plastics.”
John Hocevar, a marine biologist and director of Greenpeace’s oceans campaign, echoed this chief concern when speaking to Salon by email — namely, that plastic pollution appears to last forever.
“Plastic doesn’t go away, it just breaks down into smaller fragments and disperses,” Hocevar explained. “In many ways, this means that plastic gets more dangerous over time. The throwaway packaging we use today adds to the plastic bottles and bags we used decades ago. Today, plastic particles pervade the atmosphere, raining down on even the most remote mountains and islands. Microplastics are also now saturating our oceans, where they are often eaten by marine life or washed ashore.”
Hocevar praised the new study for reinforcing this point, since “much of the plastic washing up in Palau was produced, used, and discarded thousands of miles away.”
Christopher Chin, Executive Director of The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE), also praised the study, observing that it confirms “not only the ubiquity of plastic pollution, but also its inequity; ocean states [like Palau] and those in the global south face a  disproportionate impact from plastic pollution.”
“The public should not only be more aware about microplastics and nanoplastics, we should all be alarmed,” Chin told Salon. “Plastic is literally everywhere — it is not just in the streets and oceans; it is in the food that we eat, the water we drink, and the very air that we breathe.” He drew attention to a study which found that humans typically eat roughly one credit card’s worth of plastic every week.
Given how humans are chomping down plastic without even realizing it, perhaps it is hardly surprising that the reef organisms of Palau aren’t doing much better.
“On the reef organisms, we have performed some studies on corals, which have been published previously in different journals,” Ferrier-Pages explained. “We have shown for example that nanoplastics induce coral bleaching, the loss of the symbiotic algae by corals. As the symbionts provide corals with most of their food requirements, bleached corals enter into starvation. We have also demonstrated that microplastics can reduce coral calcification — the deposition of their hard skeleton.”
For more Salon articles about plastic pollution:

Living on Earth: Beyond the Headlines

Air Date: Week of July 8, 2022

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Republican governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, has rolled back the previous administration’s plan to phase-out single use plastics in the state (Photo: Glenn Youngkin, Flickr, Public Domain)
Environmental Health News Editor Peter Dykstra and Host Steve Curwood discuss Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s rollback of a plan to phase out single-use plastics. They also remark on the surprising ecological diversity and cleanup efforts of the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY, before commemorating 30 years since the US stopped dumping sewage sludge in the ocean.


CURWOOD: On the line now from Atlanta, Georgia is Peter Dykstra. Peter is an editor with Environmental Health News, that’s and, and he keeps track of what’s going on beyond the headlines for us. Hi, there, Peter, how are you doing and what have you got for us today?
DYKSTRA: Hi, Steve. We’ve got a story about the Commonwealth of Virginia. The previous governor who left office at the beginning of the year, Ralph Northam, had set up the beginning of a scheme to phase out single-use plastics at all state agencies and state universities. The new governor, Glenn Youngkin, rolled some of that back in favor of pushing the idea of plastics recycling, an idea that we’ve spent many, many years learning does not get the job done.
CURWOOD: So a step forward and, I guess, a step or two backwards, huh?
DYKSTRA: And there was one particularly big program to reduce plastics use and instill other environmental measures at George Mason University, which is a really big commuter school in Northern Virginia outside of Washington, DC. So ambitious was this program, that the new Governor, Glenn Youngkin, recognized George Mason with a Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award in March, and the following month, in April, he issued an executive order essentially cutting the legs out of the single use plastics reduction plan.
CURWOOD: All right, Peter, hey, what else do you have for us for today?
DYKSTRA: I’ve got kind of a stinky story from one of the worst sites in New York City, as far as pollution goes, a Superfund site, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, the site of heavy industry and rampant dumping for a hundred and fifty years, sewage, all sorts of heavy metals like lead, and there’s stuff at the bottom of the canal that’s lovingly referred to as black mayonnaise.

Wildlife is thriving in and around Gowanus Canal, in Brooklyn, NY, after over a century of industrial pollution (Photo: Alexander Rabb, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: What a place, huh?
DYKSTRA: Yeah, but there’s a wildlife inventory that’s going on in the canal where they’re finding everything: birds, sea birds, insects, plants, shellfish, finned fish. But one of the issues and conflicts here is that the citizen based effort to clean up the canal is running into the sometimes rigid programs that EPA sets up for cleanup, and some of the Superfund cleanup efforts are getting in the way of the citizen cleanup efforts.
CURWOOD: But, A, it’s helping wildlife and, B, it’s getting remediated, so…
DYKSTRA: Maybe a happy ending someday. It’s just kind of a gross place, but even in this gross place, there’s a concerted effort to clean it up.
CURWOOD: Well, let’s take a look back in history now, Peter, what do you see?
DYKSTRA: Yeah, if you’re ready for a little bit more smelly news out of the same place, good old New York City. On June 30, 1992, 30 years ago, New York City formally ended its practice, more than 100 years old, of dumping sewage sludge into the Atlantic. There was an uproar in the late 80s in New York and New Jersey about medical waste washing up on beaches, trash, sewage, and all sorts of yucky things. But by that date, June 30, 1992. They became the last American municipality to stop barging its sewage sludge out to the nearby ocean and dumping it.

30 years ago, on June 30th, 1992, New York City became the last city in the US to stop dumping sewage sludge in the ocean. (Photo: bikesharedude, Flickr, Public Domain)

CURWOOD: Well, better late than never. Peter is an editor with Environmental Health News, that’s and We’ll talk to you again real soon, Peter, thanks a lot.
DYKSTRA: Thank you, Steve. We’ll talk to you soon.
CURWOOD: And there’s more on these stories on the Living on Earth webpage that’s

Energy News Network | “Virginia Governor Rolls Back Plastics Phase-Out, Seeking to Court Recycling” The Sierra Club | “Brooklyn’s Infamous Superfund Site: Also a Wildlife Haven” EPA | “Reilly in New York to Mark End of Sewage Sludge Dumping”

Living on Earth: Getting plastics out of the parks

Air Date: Week of July 8, 2022

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Plastic fork with seaweed. Single-use plastic utensils are difficult to recycle and can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. (Photo: Ingrid Taylar, Flickr, CC)
To help curb the plastic pollution crisis, the US Department of Interior will phase out single-use plastic products sold and distributed in national parks and other federal public lands it oversees. Christy Leavitt, Plastics Campaign Director at Oceana, joins Host Bobby Bascomb to talk about how the phase out could work and why it matters.


CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood,
BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb. Roughly 40% of all plastic produced worldwide each year is thrown away after just one use.And while things like plastic forks, straws and bags may be used for only a moment, they can stick around for up to a thousand years before they decompose.Less than 6% of plastics in the US is recycled, meaning most plastic waste is incinerated, landfilled, or winds up in our oceans.Seeking to curb such waste, Canada has announced a phaseout of the manufacture and import of common single-use plastic starting at the end of 2022 and culminating by the end of 2025.Plastic is made from oil and gas, a major resource for Canada which is one of the world’s largest producers of oil.Still, Prime Minister Trudeau says phasing out single-use plastic is a worthy aim, as the ban would eliminate close to 3 billion pounds of plastic waste over the next decade.
TRUDEAU: Plastic pollution is a global challenge. You’ve all heard the stories, and seen the photos. And to be honest, as a dad it’s tough trying to explain this to my kids. How do you explain dead whales washing up on beaches around the world, their stomachs jam-packed with plastic bags? Or albatross chicks photographed off the coast of Hawaii, their bodies filled to the brim with plastic they’ve mistaken for food? How do I tell them that against all odds, you’ll find plastic at the very deepest point of the Pacific Ocean, 36,000 feet down?
BASCOMB: The U.S. Interior Department has announced a goal to phase out single-use plastics sold and distributed in national parks and other public lands it oversees, but so far the Forest Service under the Agriculture Department has yet to follow suit.The parks system alone had nearly 300 million visits last year and had to deal with some 70 million pounds of plastic waste.
For more, I’m joined now by Christy Leavitt, Plastics Campaign Director at Oceana. And by the way, we should disclose that Oceana is a supporter of Living on Earth through Sailors for the Sea. Welcome to Living on Earth, Christy!
LEAVITT: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
BASCOMB: So what exactly does this announcement entail? And how significant is it?
LEAVITT: This is a big announcement from the Department of Interior and the Biden administration. So on June 8th, on World Oceans Day, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland committed to phasing out single use plastic products in our national parks and other public lands overseen by the Department of Interior. So what she did was she issued a secretarial order that calls for the department to reduce the procurement, sale and distribution of single use plastic products and packaging on all Interior Department-managed lands and buildings by 2032.
BASCOMB: Now, the goal here is to phase out plastic by 2032, as you just mentioned, but that’s a full decade away. Why does it have to take so long? And what needs to happen between now and then?
LEAVITT: Yeah, well, we are hopeful that they will move quickly to phase out some of the worst, the most problematic, single-use plastics as quickly as possible. Our understanding is that it’s going to take them up to 10 years to deal with some of the specific concession contracts that they have. But we definitely know they’re interested in moving quickly, and we will be following up to make sure that they do move as quickly as possible.
BASCOMB: Well, what kind of impact does plastic waste currently have in our public lands and waters?
LEAVITT: Just to give you the scope of the problem, as we look at our oceans is that every year, 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean. And to put that in perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to dumping two garbage trucks full of plastic into the ocean every minute. And it’s not just harming our oceans, but it’s also our climate and our health and our communities and our public lands. Basically, no place on earth is untouched by plastic. And we’re finding it in our national parks and other public lands. And it has a couple of impacts there. One impact is that nobody wants to look and see single use plastic water bottles or plastic straws or other plastic as they’re exploring the beautiful places like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. And then it’s also harmful for the ecosystems there. So not only are there the big pieces of plastic, so the plastic bag, or the plastic water bottle, but it also, plastic breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastic, that then can get into the soil, can get into the air. That’s what we’re finding in rain; we’re even finding it in human blood and in our lungs, too. So we’re finding it everywhere, including in our national parks.

Water bottles for sale in Death Valley National Park, California. Sales of single-use products such as these are slated to end by 2032 in all Department of Interior facilities including in national parks. (Photo: Courtesy of Oceana)

BASCOMB: And to what degree is that potentially a threat to wildlife? You know, the very reason that we’re going to these national parks?
LEAVITT: It is a big problem for wildlife. So not only can wildlife get entangled, or ingest plastic, but the same thing is happening with microplastics, where they might be eating it, they might be, you know, breathing it in, those sorts of things, too. So it’s a problem for wildlife. And when we talk about our national parks, there’s more than 400 different national park units around the country. Some of them are the really big parks, like Grand Teton National Park, and some of them are smaller areas. But 88 of the National Parks are ocean and coastal parks. So they’ve got a direct impact on what’s happening in our oceans as well as our coastal Great Lakes too. So the plastic, if plastic is going out there, it’s gonna end up in our oceans. And Oceana did a survey a few years ago, we pulled together a report that looked specifically at what was happening with animals in US waters. And we found nearly 1800 animals — these were marine mammals, so dolphins, whales, as well as sea turtles — had been harmed by either ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic in US waters since 2009.
BASCOMB: And of course, those are just the ones that we know about and documented, you can be sure the number’s much, much higher.
LEAVITT: That is definitely true. Those are only the ones that people were able to see and observe. But there’s a lot more animals that are being impacted by plastic.

Installing additional water fountains, such as this one at Grand Canyon National Park, can help reduce the need for single-use plastic bottles by making it easier for visitors to refill reusable bottles. (Photo: Michael Quinn / NPS, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

BASCOMB: Now, of course, plastic is made from fossil fuels, and the production of plastic and the plastic itself is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet. And as we know, climate change is one of the biggest threats to our national parks. To what extent, do you think that was maybe a factor in Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s decision here to phase out plastics on our public lands?
LEAVITT: Yeah, our national parks are definitely faced with extraordinary adaptation challenges. So it’s a critical problem. And it’s definitely something that the Department of Interior and the Biden administration overall are looking at solutions to the climate crisis. As you mentioned, plastics have a big impact on climate. Almost all plastic is created from fossil fuels. So throughout its entire existence, plastic is creating climate changing greenhouse gases, so it’s extracted from, whether it’s from oil and gas, that extraction creates greenhouse gases; then the production of plastic creates more; they’re transported; they then break down in landfills or they’re incinerated or burned. So throughout its whole life, that plastic is creating more and more greenhouse gases. And I don’t think most people think of that plastic bottle or that plastic bag as coming from fossil fuels, but it is. And in fact, if plastic was a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
BASCOMB: So how will phasing out single use plastic and the national parks and public lands actually work? What might a visitor see that might be different?

According to Christy Leavitt, every year around 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the oceans worldwide. That’s about two garbage trucks full of plastic every minute. (Photo: Courtesy of Oceana)

LEAVITT: I think some of the things that visitors will see at national parks will be more refillable water stations. So rather than buying a plastic water bottle, there’ll be stations at all of our national parks and other Department of Interior sites where you can go and refill your reusable water bottle. There’ll also be inexpensive water bottles for sale, so if you didn’t bring a water bottle, you’ll be able to purchase one right there. And you could use it over again and again. There’s already some of that happening at national parks and this will expand it even more. There are a lot of national parks, you can buy food, whether lunch or for dinner. Some of those are cafeteria style. Some of those are restaurant style. And they can move to reusable plates and dishes and cups and utensils. So they’ll need to create systems to be able to wash all those dishes. But it will be able to make sure that we’re not using single use plastic products in those places.
BASCOMB: Now, from what I understand many of the gift shops and food vendors in the national parks are actually concessionaires who contract with the National Park Service. So how might this affect them?
LEAVITT: Yes, that is definitely the case where a lot of the restaurants or gift shops are being run by concessionaires. And so they will need to make these changes, they’ll need to get rid of unnecessary single use plastic products, whether it’s in Yosemite or a National Seashore or another wildlife refuge.
BASCOMB: Christy, what kind of public support or, for that matter, pushback have you seen for this plan to phase out single use plastic in the parks?

Christy Leavitt is Oceana’s Plastics Campaign Director (Photo: Courtesy of Oceana)

LEAVITT: We know that people love their national parks, as we’ve been talking about a bit here. And we did a survey earlier this year. And we found that 82% of American voters would support a decision by the National Park Service to stop selling and distributing single use plastics at our national parks. So that’s a very high level of support, it’s bipartisan support. So definite interest in protecting our national parks from single use plastic.
BASCOMB: Christy Leavitt directs the plastics campaign at Oceana. Christy, thank you so much for your time today.
LEAVITT: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

E&E News | “National Parks to Phase Out Single-Use Plastics” Read about Secretary Haaland’s order to phase out single-use plastics About Canada’s single-use plastics ban About Christy Leavitt