Plastic is choking Ghana’s sea

Frustration is written across Richard Yartey’s face as he drags his heavy net to shore. It is filled with plastic bottles and bags, but not fish. This will cost him money. 

“We often have to repair our fishing nets two or three times a week because of the plastic in the water,” he says.

Jamestown in Accra, where Yartey had cast his net, was once a thriving fishing enclave. But Yartey says they now often have to travel to Elmina, a fishing spot about 130km away.

Markets in Accra pay better but the same city also pollutes the waters with discarded water bottles, sachets and other refuse. 

Ghana produces 840 000 tonnes of plastic waste annually, with only a small portion being recycled, according to data provided by the World Economic Forum.

When the unrecycled waste finds its way into the ocean, it’s not only a problem for people. 

“Marine animals like turtles and whales mistake it for food and suffer serious harm or even die,” says Christopher Gordon, of the Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies at the University of Ghana.

A 2018 United Nations study reported that 80% of municipal solid waste generated in African cities was recyclable and if this was done, it could generate up to $8 billion a year.

In 2019, Ghana launched its national plastic action, which relies on encouraging businesses to make products out of recycled plastic.

Some have heeded the call. Nelplast Ghana, for example, produces pavement blocks from plastic waste and has a workforce of 300 people.

But small-scale private enterprise is an insufficient solution to this major public problem that occurs across Africa. 

Citizen initiatives in Africa recycle about 11% of the recyclable waste, according to a 2022 UN report by Desta Mebratu and Andriannah Mbandi. But there are few large-scale efforts so the rubbish instead ends up as a costly and harmful mess.

In places such as Jamestown beach, every plastic-clogged net is a reminder of the urgent need for bigger solutions. Gordon says a ban on single-use plastic should be one of Ghana’s solutions to pollution. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

What you can do about your laundry’s microplastics problem

Beyond guzzling water and gobbling energy, doing laundry is a source of another serious environmental problem: microfiber pollution.As your clothes and linens churn in the washing machine and tumble around in the dryer, they often shed tiny fibers — many of which are small bits of plastic from synthetic fabrics such as polyester — that can wind up in waterways and the air.Microfibers are the most abundant type of microplastic found in the environment, according to studies. Microplastics have also been discovered in human waste — suggesting that they’re present inside people’s bodies.“We know we are exposed to them,” said Britta Baechler, associate director of ocean plastics research at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group. The impacts of microplastics on human health are still being understood, she noted. Some research already shows exposure to microplastics can cause negative health effects in certain animals.While textiles can also shed microfibers as they’re being made or just by being worn, reassessing how you do laundry can help make a difference. Washing a single load of synthetic clothes can release millions of these minuscule fibers.The most impactful way to tackle microfiber pollution is developing better textiles, said Kelly Sheridan, research director at the Microfibre Consortium, which works to reduce microfiber release in the textile industry. It’s often the construction of a garment and how the fabric is processed that will determine how much it sheds, Sheridan said.Still, you can also help at home. Here’s how:Can I reduce microfiber pollution by switching to natural fabrics?While many studies show that polyester and other synthetic clothing can be a major source of harmful microplastic fibers, choosing to wear more natural fabrics, such as cotton, isn’t really as simple of a solution as you might think.“By the time it turns from the cotton plant into a fiber that’s usable for garments, it’s processed such that its original chemical structure is different,” Sheridan said. “A cotton fiber in its finished state doesn’t necessarily degrade, and if it still does, it will be a much slower rate.”“As it biodegrades,” she continued, “what chemicals is it releasing into the environment?”Natural fibers have been documented in oceans. One peer-reviewed study published in 2020 analyzed ocean water samples from around the world and reported that most of the fibers found were dyed cellulose, not plastic.“The assumption that natural fibers are not a problem certainly hasn’t been proven,” Sheridan said.How do I wash my clothes to reduce microfiber pollution?Cutting down on how often you do laundry is an easy first step.Ask yourself if you really need to wash something after only wearing it once, said Elena Karpova, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who studies textile sustainability.And since microfibers are also released from dryers, try air drying your clothes more often.Washing and tumble drying your clothes less frequently can also help them last longer and creates additional environmental benefits, such as reduced energy and water consumption.Why you should almost always wash your clothes on coldSome research suggests that machine-washing clothes in larger amounts of water with more agitation can increase microfiber shedding. Experts recommend doing normal-sized loads rather than running your machine half or partially full.It can also be helpful to wash your clothes at a lower temperature and for a shorter amount of time because hotter and longer washes can produce more polluting fibers.If you can, use a front-loading machine, which has been found to generate less microfiber release than top-loading appliances.Do filters and other laundry devices work?There are several devices designed to combat microfiber pollution, including washing machine filters as well as laundry bags and balls. Studies suggest that the filters may be the most effective.In one laboratory study, for instance, the filter that was tested (Lint LUV-R) captured an average of 87 percent of fibers. Another study examined the impact of installing filters in nearly 100 homes in a small Canadian town and found a significant reduction in microfibers in wastewater, with lint samples from the filters capturing an average of up to 2.7 million microfibers per week.While some washing machine models in other countries can come with these filters built in, in the United States they more often have to be bought separately and installed, which can be expensive. The Lint LUV-R, for instance, costs $150 for just the filter.More affordable laundry bags or balls can also reduce microfiber shedding, though research shows performance can vary. A 2020 study of six devices found that the XFiltra filter performed the best, reducing microfiber release by 78 percent. The Guppyfriend laundry bag came in second with a 54 percent reduction in fiber shedding and was followed by the Cora Ball laundry ball at 31 percent.If you try these devices, dispose of the captured fibers properly by putting them in the garbage. A covered trash can help reduce the amount of fibers that become airborne, Baechler said. Make sure to avoid rinsing anything used to catch fibers off in the sink.Keep in mind, though, that adopting these tips isn’t going to solve the problem, Sheridan said. But doing “a combination of all those things can only help.”Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday

Seafloor plastic pollution is not going anywhere

The world produces about 380 million metric tons of plastic annually. A huge share of plastic debris ends up in the world’s oceans, rivers, and lakes in the form of microplastics, contaminating countless ecosystems and threatening animals and humans.

A new study conducted in the Mediterranean Sea hints at the scale of the problem. Researchers found that the mass of particles that have settled to the seafloor mimics global plastic production over the past 5 decades. Once buried in sediment, the study found, microplastics remain intact.

Scientists have long scoured sediment cores—cylinders of mud drilled belowground and brought to the surface—for evidence of microplastic pollution in oceans, lakes, and other aquatic environments. The cores, they found, provide a timeline of the “plastic age,” the period starting in the 1950s when humans started producing the material on an industrial scale.

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Plastic Fills Half a Century of Mediterranean Sediments

In the new study, researchers collected more than 10 cores from the seafloor of the Balearic Sea, a part of the Mediterranean near the Ebro delta, where one of Spain’s longest rivers enters the sea. The spot where the cores were collected, 100 meters (330 feet) below the surface, concentrates pollution discharged by the river, including plastic debris from bags, vessel paint, clothes, cosmetics, and other sources.

The researchers sliced the cores into 1-centimeter-thick (0.4-inch-thick) disks and used isotopic dating of lead naturally present in the sediments to estimate the age of five cores. Each slice encapsulated about 10 years of history.

Nets, plastic, underwater crime

We’ve all seen them. Images of countless turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, and seals, dead and entangled in abandoned fish nets. The ocean is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for its inhabitants. And not because of the ‘eat or be eaten’ laws of nature – but because just by nature of being a creature that swims, you’re likely to eat plastic that may kill or maim you, or end up trapped and entangled in a net, left to struggle in an unnatural death until you starve, suffocate, or become prey.

It’s one thing to talk about statistics and science, but the violence, pain and suffering our throwaway plastic culture has caused is something that can’t be measured in numbers.

The ocean has become a crime scene. Currently, there are an estimated 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics in the ocean. The plastic either ends up forming giant garbage patches, or breaking down into microplastics.

Plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution and an estimated 8-10 million metric tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year. If current trends continue, by 2050, plastic is expected to outweigh all fish in the sea.

Imagine going for a seaside holiday and swimming in an ocean of plastic? Imagine a sea devoid of life – the magnificent underwater world destroyed because we treated the ocean like a giant garbage dump?
In just the last decade, humanity produced more plastic than it did in the last century. In most supermarkets, fruit and vegetables are wrapped in single-use plastic packaging, but every piece of single-use plastic takes between 500 -1,000 years to degrade. And when it degrades, it does not decompose, it becomes microplastics which are poisonous to animals and humans.

The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that 100% of all plastics human beings have created still exist.
One of the most harmful types of marine plastic debris is abandoned, lost, discarded fishing gear. About 640 thousand tons of fishing equipment get dumped into the ocean each year, not only entrapping marine life, according to researchers from the WUN Global Research Group, “there is chemical contamination with disruptive effects on marine species. As a result, human health is also impacted, with marine litter serving as a vehicle for diseases that contaminate the food chain.

“The problem is more visible in Asian countries like Taiwan, which has one of the world’s largest fishing fleets. In Taiwan, an average of 12.7 m3 of marine litter accumulates per kilometer along the coastline, 70% of which is caused by fishing gear.”

Each year, an estimated 100,000 sea animals are killed by plastic, around 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic, and one in every three sea turtles.
In a study that examined how to stop fishing gears from turning into ocean waste, scientists recommend not only better monitoring and managing of data on fishing gear waste streams by governments, but also regular meetings between stakeholders including the fishery sector, government agencies and non-governmental organisations to share knowledge and work towards implementing solutions for more sustainable fisheries.
Ocean plastic removal initiatives range from The Ocean Clean up, which aims to remove 90% of the plastic in the ocean both by scaling solutions to remove debris from the ocean and to intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the ocean.
1% of the world’s rivers – 1,000 rivers – are responsible for 80% of the plastic that flows into the oceans, so stopping plastic trash has to start with cleaning up rivers.
Ocean plastic removal initiatives like non-profit organisation The Ocean Clean up have developed a range of interceptor solutions to tackle the plastic trash in rivers, from building a simple ‘trash fence’ across a river to high-tech, solar powered filtration systems. The Ocean Clean up has removed an impressive 2 million kilos of trash so far.
A sailor and surfer led Dutch startup created a low-cost, low-tech solution for stopping plastic trash from entering the oceans. The Great Bubble Barrier’s (GBB) beauty is in its simplicity: a perforated tube is embedded on riverbeds, creating a curtain of bubbles which gently nudges waste to the riverbank where it can be collected.
Ichthion was first developed at London’s Imperial College. The company has developed three types of technologies to remove plastics from rivers and oceans: a barrier for plastic capture in rivers, a plastic extraction system for marine environments, and a technology which can be retrofitted to large ships for plastic removal.
River Cleaning designed a diagonal line of floating rotating cog-type devices that pass the waste along the chain until it reaches a storage area by the river bank. This ingenious technique uses the flow of water in the river to spin the cogs – so no power is required.
And while upscaling ocean clean up solutions is urgently needed in coming years, the challenge remains to tackle the problem at its root cause.
Searious Business helps companies adapt their plastic packaging towards more sustainable supply chains and business models, while innovative startups like Apeel and Geno are bringing plant-based alternatives to plastic to disrupt plastic packaging and the plastic-based fast fashion industries.
The movement to include rescuing the ocean as part of our global efforts to tackle climate action is growing. Leaders from Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Palau and Portugal have joined forces to form the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy to accelerate ocean protection in policy, governance and finance. The ocean as we know it is a ticking time bomb – an accumulating trap of debris and toxins that are being carried into and poisoning the food chain. But hope stems from the growing awareness and accountability for how human survival depends on our ability to care for and protect the natural world.

Student project tracking microplastics found in Bering Strait-area spotted seals

Microplastics pollution has infiltrated regions all around the world, from heavily developed and urbanized areas to remote sites that include the Greenland Sea, the high altitudes in the Alps and the waters and snows of Antarctica.
Now add to that list the bodies of Bering Strait spotted seals.
Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic, generally no bigger than a sesame seed. They are carried on ocean currents, in freshwater bodies and moved around the atmosphere through winds. They are known to be harmful to fish and birds that mistake them for small bits of food.
A University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student has found them in the stomachs of spotted seals harvested in the Bering Strait region. Of 29 stomachs that Alexandria Sletten examined, all but one held tiny bits of plastic. In all, there were 162 pieces recovered, 161 of which were fiber bits and one that was a clear fragment.
Sletten presented her results at a poster session at this week’s Alaska Marine Science Symposium held in Anchorage.
The stomachs she used for sampling were from seals harvested in 2012 and 2020 by residents of Shishmaref, an Inupiat village on the Chukchi Sea coast, and Gambell, a Siberian Yup’ik village on St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea. They were made available for her research through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Ice Seal Biological Monitoring project, through which seal hunters donate specimens that are stored and made available to researchers.

UAF graduate student Alexandria Sletten stands on Tuesday by her poster describing her research into microplastics ingested by spotted seals. She discussed her work during a poster session at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Sletten’s sorting revealed no significant difference separating the 2012 seals from those harvested in 2020, which went contrary to her expectation that amounts of microplastics would increase over time. “I’m finding that it’s been there and it’s always been there” over those years, she said. 
Similarly, no pattern separated pups from older seals, also a bit of a surprise. “I did expect to see a bit more difference,” she said.
But the presence of microplastics in the animals’ stomachs in general was no surprise, she said. “It’s unfortunately something very ubiquitous for the Arctic and for the world,” she said.
As is the case elsewhere, scientists in Alaska have been working for years to better understand the presence and spread of microplastics in the environment. Some pioneering work focused on Bering Sea and Aleutian birds, tracking not just the plastic bits in their bodies but even the chemical contaminants called phthalates that spread into body tissues and even eggs from ingested plastics.
However, there has not been a lot of research into microplastics in Alaska marine mammals, something that’s unfortunate in a region where many people depend on hunting marine mammals for food, she said.
Sletten is using this research in her thesis for her master’s degree in marine biology. She intends to do further work, with many more samples, to better parse out life stages of the seals, seasons of harvest and other factors that might correspond to varying levels of microplastics.



Pollution: Complaint lodged over plastic microbeads on French coast

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

Kitchener mother finds “sneaky plastics” in household waste

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

Trying to live a day without plastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracking down the source of plastic nurdles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Microplastics pervasive in fresh water 

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

Microplastics in human blood

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

Plastic nurdle libraries

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