Why chemical pollution is turning into a third great planetary crisis

Thousands of synthetic substances have leaked into ecosystems everywhere, and we are only just beginning to realise the devastating consequences

Earth

21 July 2021

By Graham Lawton

Marcin Wolski
IT IS the 29th century and Earth is a dump. Humans fled centuries ago after rendering it uninhabitable through insatiable consumption. All that remains is detritus: waste mountains as far as the eye can see.
This is fiction – the setting for the 2008 Disney Pixar movie WALL-E. But it may come close to reality if we don’t clean up our act. “We all know the challenge that we’ve got,” says Mary Ryan at Imperial College London. “We can find toxic metals in the Himalayan peaks, plastic fibres in the deepest reaches of the ocean. Air pollution is killing more people than the current pandemic. The scale of this is enormous.”
Back when WALL-E was made, pollution and waste were near the top of the environmental agenda. At the 2002 Earth Summit in South Africa, global leaders agreed to minimise the environmental and health effects of chemical pollution, perhaps the most insidious and problematic category. They set a deadline of 2020 (spoiler alert: we missed it).
Recently, climate change and biodiversity loss have dominated environmental concerns, but earlier this year the UN quietly ushered pollution back to the top table. It issued a major report, Making Peace with Nature, declaring it a third great planetary emergency. “Do I think that is commensurate with the risk? Yes, I do,” says Ryan.
“It justifies being right up there at the top,” says Guy Woodward, also at Imperial. The key question, though, is what pollutants we should be worried about. “Many are innocuous. Some aren’t. Some interact in dangerous ways. That is what we need to grapple with,” says Woodward.
Pollution, the …

Plastic pollution is nearing irreversible tipping point, experts warn

The world may be approaching an irreversible tipping point for plastic pollution, a group of scientists is warning, with impacts for both the environment and wider society. In an article published inScience, scientists from Sweden, Norway and Germany wrote that there were “enormous” consequences for continuing to throw away plastics, which continue to be “poorly” recycled.Figures for plastic waste entering the environment by 2025 are in the region of 9 and 23 metric tonnes per year, with warnings that by 2050, the world’s oceans and seas will be filled with more plastic than fish.Most plastics that are thrown away eventually break down into tiny nano-particles through a process known as weathering, but according to the study, that will be impossible at future rates of waste.Matthew MacLeod, the lead author of the study, said in an interview with SciTechDaily that while many countries were recycling, “plastic is deeply ingrained in our society, and it leaks out into the environment everywhere”. Should rates of pollution reach a so-called tipping point, the scientists warn, there will be a collapse of habitats and species loss, and changes to the way in which the ocean removes carbon — which would increase temperatures globally. ”So far, we don’t see widespread evidence of bad consequences, but if weathering plastic triggers a really bad effect we are not likely to be able to reverse it”, said Mr MacLeod of a tipping point. “The cost of ignoring the accumulation of persistent plastic pollution in the environment could be enormous.“The study argued a reduction in plastic is “the rational policy response” for governments.“The rational thing to do is to act as quickly as we can to reduce emissions of plastic to the environment,” Mr MacLeod added.

Researchers are now using hurricane-tracking satellites to combat ocean microplastics



Have you ever wondered how scientists even begin to study things like patterns in ocean pollution and movements of microplastics? Better yet, you can probably imagine the people working the hardest to fight these problems could benefit from useful information like being able to track where a majority of microplastics come from in the first place? Surprisingly, initial methods to keep tabs on such things rely on reports from plankton trawlers, according to a new report from the University of Michigan, and those same researchers have introduced the use of some far more advanced machinery for their work: satellites.
The new tracking method employed by the UM team is taking data from a system of eight micro-satellites that were launched in 2016 to track storms. Creating measurements for what they’re calling “ocean surface roughness,” they were able to find a correlation between radar measurements used to track wind speed and the existing data from plankton trawlers and ocean current models already used to predict the movement of microplastics.
“Areas of high microplastic concentration, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, exist because they’re located in convergence zones of ocean currents and eddies. The microplastics get transported by the motion of the water and end up collecting in one place,” says Chris Ruf, the Frederick Bartman Collegiate Professor of Climate and Space Science at UM. “Surfactants behave in a similar way, and it’s very likely that they’re acting as sort of a tracer for the microplastics.”Advertisement
One of the team’s headline-making findings with this new tracking method is that concentrations of microplastics in a body of water can vary by season. For example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch shrinks to its smallest size in January, the thick of the Northern Hemisphere winter. Six months later, microplastic concentrations are at their highest in the exact same region come summer. Meanwhile, the same cycle is flipped in the Southern Hemisphere. The researchers’ hope is that straightforward data like this can direct an organization like the Ocean Cleanup, helping them know when and where to deploy their resources. The same discovery also helped UM researchers narrow down some of the greatest sources of microplastic flow into the ocean, like China’s Yangtze River.
“It’s one thing to suspect a source of microplastic pollution, but quite another to see it happening,” Ruf said. “The microplastics data that has been available in the past has been so sparse, just brief snapshots that aren’t repeatable.”
Next up, the researchers are testing hypotheses from their findings and conducting experiments in a wave-generating tank to learn the relationship between surface roughness and the presence of microplastics. Small wins that they hope add up to big gains in fighting a gigantic environmental problem.

Sri Lanka probing deaths of sea animals following ship fire

The carcasses of five dolphins and more than 30 sea turtles have been found along the western coast of Sri Lanka after the burning of a cargo ship near the capital Colombo, sparking concerns that the accident is devastating marine wildlife in the region.
After the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl caught fire on May 20 near the harbour, some oil, chemicals and plastic pellets leaked into the sea that is home to several species of large marine mammals. These include the non-migratory blue, humpback and pilot whales; spinner, spotted and bottlenose dolphins; and thresher and whitetip sharks.
There are also hundreds of sea turtles and millions of reef fish in this part of the Indian Ocean, popular for marine tourism, wildlife research and fishing.

Sri Lanka is seeking an interim claim of US$40 million (S$53 million) from X-Press Feeders, the ship’s operator, as compensation for firefighting expenses from May 20 through June 1.
Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (Mepa) has yet to fully assess the cost to wildlife and marine environment.
The Sri Lankan navy said the blaze was caused by the vessel’s chemical cargo, which included more than 22 tonnes of nitric acid and other chemicals, most of which was destroyed in the fire.

For now, there is no oil spill, said Dr Darshani Lahandapura, chair of Mepa. But the burnt-out container ship is sinking, with its bottom touching the shallow seabed.
Environmentalists fear that if oil and any remaining chemicals like sodium dioxide, copper and lead spill out, the rich marine life in the region could be at stake.
In the past week, Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation said carcasses of spinner dolphins, humpback dolphins, turtles and eels have washed ashore in coastal regions up to Colombo and Kosgoda. The department’s director-general Chandana Sooriyabandara said tissue samples have been taken from the dead animals and teams were holding necropsies.
Colombo-based conservation biologist Ranil Nanayakkara said: “The carcasses that wash ashore could be only a fraction of total deaths. Most dead animals will sink to the bottom, be eaten by others or be moved by water currents around the world. We have to do studies, and fast, to know what is happening.”
Based on data the government has released, Dr Nanayakkara has ruled out nitric acid, as it is “not potent enough” to kill animals. “It’s not clear what exactly is the cause of death: toxic chemicals or the vibration from the two or three explosions on the ship,” he said.
Marine biologist Asha de Vos, the founder of Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research organisation, warned that not all deaths can be attributed to the ship accident. “It’s important for us to remember that animals die all the time, and their carcasses can be found at sea or washed on beaches throughout the year. Only the necropsies can tell us the cause of death,” she said.
However, all the scientists are worried about the tonnes of plastic pellets covering many beaches, such as Kalpitiya, like heaps of toxic snow. The fish-egg-like pellets are stubborn pollutants that choke marine wildlife and block the digestive tracts of fish that swallow them, thus starving them.
Mr Nanayakkara is afraid that if the pellets travelled in the water columns up the coast, they could wreck the pristine seagrass beds in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, the habitat of dugongs, sharks, rays, seahorses and shrimps, among other creatures.

UNDP World Oceans Day celebration calls for innovation in achieving a sustainable ocean economy

New York – The ocean or ‘blue’ economy represents some $2.3 trillion in market goods and services, from fisheries to tourism to shipping; if the ocean were an economy, it would be the world’s fifth largest.  But our ocean faces unprecedented threats from pollution, overfishing, habitat loss, invasive species and climate change. Collectively, these ocean threats represent nearly $1 trillion in annual socioeconomic losses and threaten the livelihoods and food security of millions of people. The global agenda for moving towards sustainable ocean use is captured in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, Life Below Water, and its ten targets.  Four of the SDG 14 targets came due in 2020, another in 2025, making SDG 14 among the most ambitious of all the SDGs.

It is widely understood that achieving the SDG 14 agenda requires moving away from business as usual towards transformational change in the responsible sectors. Such transformations need to include the introduction and scaling up of innovative approaches – technological but also policy, regulatory, economic and financial. Towards this end, in 2020 UNDP with support from Sweden and Norway, launched the Ocean Innovation Challenge (OIC), seeking to identify, finance and mentor innovations that are replicable, scalable, sustainable and potentially transformational.

On Tuesday, June 8, World Oceans Day, the United Nations Development Programme hosted “A Conversation with the 2020 UNDP Ocean Innovators” which highlighted a suite of inspirational ocean protection and restoration projects UNDP is supporting through the Ocean Innovation Challenge.  These innovations were selected through the OIC’s 2020 global call for proposals on SDG 14.1, reduce marine pollution, that received over 600 submissions from a wide range of public, private and civil society stakeholders.

Featured speakers included Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, Deputy Prime Minister Per Bolund of Sweden, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on the Ocean Ambassador Peter Thomson, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner, and Norad Director General Bård Vegar Solhjell. His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway moderated a conversation with the first cohort of Ocean Innovators on marine pollution.

Crown Princess Victoria emphasized the interconnectedness of the ocean SDG with all the other SDGs: “For a very long time the seas have given us humans what we need to survive. But now, with climate change, pollution, and overfishing we are at a point where the ocean depends on us. It is time for us to give back before it is too late.”  Ambassador Thomson commended the OIC for supporting innovations “that are inspired by nature and act for nature’s well-being”. Deputy Prime Minister Bolund underscored the importance of the OIC approach to “ocean and coastal restoration and protection (that) sustain livelihoods and the blue economy”.  UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner, noted that “the Ocean Innovation Challenge is precisely the kind of initiative which understands that it is in human ingenuity that the greatest hope for the 21st century lies.”

The discussion moderated by Crown Prince Haakon explored the inspiration and ambition behind each of the Innovators.  Three OIC projects, in Comoros, Costa Rica and the Maldives, seek to introduce national level Extended Producer Responsibility schemes to close the loop on ocean plastics pollution by shifting the burden from consumers and municipalities to the plastics producing companies.  A project in Southeast Asia will work with the textiles sector to reduce microfibre shedding from textiles manufacturing.  A partnership with Duke University will create a globally accessible database of best practice in plastics pollution reduction policy approaches.  In the Philippines, Fortuna Coolers is introducing cooling boxes manufactured from waste coconut husks as a substitute for highly polluting polystyrene coolers.  Lastly, two projects are combating ocean nutrient pollution, one through the application of digital tools to optimize wastewater treatment in Cape Verde, the other through the sustainable culture of kelp seaweed as an organic substitute for highly polluting and carbon intensive industrial fertilizer.

In his closing remarks, Norad Director General Solhjell expressed his optimism for humanity’s capacity for transformational change. He underscored Norway’s significant commitment to innovation for ocean sustainability: “To make transformational change, innovation is key and that kind of transformational change is what we need to deal with the great challenges that we are facing with the ocean. To have transformational change you need innovation. And that is the key reason we have partnered with Sida and with UNDP to create this challenge.”

In March 2021, the OIC launched its second call for proposals on sustainable fisheries (SDGs 14.4, 14.7, 14.b); at the end of the call in early May, close to 300 proposals had been received.  Following a detailed and rigorous vetting process, UNDP’s 2021 Ocean Innovators will be announced in late 2021; interested parties can find out more at the OIC website and on social media:

www.oceaninnovationchallenge.org

@UNDPOceanInnov

#UNDPOceanInnovators

https://www.facebook.com/OceanActionHub

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ocean-innovation-challenge-371782199/

https://trello.com/b/QCeFFqIo/undp-oic-2020-ocean-innovators-and-2nd-call-for-innovations

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