How to reduce microplastic shedding from laundry

If there’s one thing every fitness enthusiast, athlete, and lover of the outdoors has an overabundance of, it’s synthetic apparel. After all, materials like polyester, nylon, and acrylics simply excel at wicking moisture, dry out quickly, and can really take a beating.

But all those synthetics are made of plastics. And when these fibers break or pill, they shed tiny threads that often end up in our soil and water supply, causing health and environmental problems. As careful as you may be, the No. 1 culprit behind all those loose particles is right inside your home: your washing machine.

Fortunately, there are easy ways to keep microplastics from polluting the planet every time you run a load.

Why should I care about microplastics?

As the name suggests, microplastics are small pieces of plastic or plastic fibers that are frequently invisible to the naked eye. As such, fighting to prevent their release is less sexy than advocating against plastic straws or bags—endeavours that are commonly accompanied by heart-wrenching images of turtles choked by trash. But microplastics are still an urgent threat to our environment, says marine biologist Alexis Jackson. And she would know: she has a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology and has extensively studied the plastics in our oceans as the ocean policy lead for the California chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

But unlike buying metal straws or collecting reusable shopping bags, the solution to this microscopic problem isn’t clear. For starters, microplastics are so, well, micro, that wastewater treatment plants usually can’t filter them out.

[Related: Reusable grocery bags aren’t as environmentally friendly as you might think]

When they slip through, they end up pretty much everywhere. They’ve even been detected in the arctic. And they’re more than just a nuisance: any animal that eats these minuscule plastic threads may end up with blocked digestive tracts, decreased energy, and less of an appetite, all of which can result in stunted growth and reduced reproductive abilities. Plus, microplastics have been shown to absorb harmful chemicals like heavy metals and pesticides, carrying those toxins into the bodies of plankton, fish, sea birds, and other wildlife.

From there, the dangerous chemicals can work their way up the food chain and show up in your seafood dinner, not to mention your tap water.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have data on the potential long-term effects of microplastics on human health. But since we know they are harmful to animals (and plastic isn’t a recommended part of a healthy, balanced diet), Jackson points out that it’s safe to say we should probably avoid putting them in our bodies.

Tips for laundry day

When it’s time to wash your leggings, basketball shorts, or moisture-wicking tanks, there are a few things you can do to keep microplastics out of the environment.

Start by separating your clothing items—not by color, but by material. Wash rough or coarse clothes like jeans separately from softer items like polyester T-shirts and fuzzy fleece sweaters. This way, you reduce the friction caused by rougher materials crashing into more delicate ones for 40 minutes. Less friction means your clothes won’t wear out as fast and the fibers will be less prone to premature breakage.

Then, make sure you’re using cold water instead of hot. Heat weakens fibers and makes them more likely to break; cold water will help them last longer. Next, run a short cycle instead of a normal or long one, which will limit the opportunity for fiber breakdown. While you’re at it, reduce the speed of the spin cycle if you can—this will reduce friction even further. One study showed that together, these methods reduced microfiber shedding by 30 percent. 

While we’re on the subject of washer settings, avoid the delicate cycle. That may run contrary to your beliefs, but it uses more water than other washing modes to prevent friction—and a higher ratio of water to fabric actually increases fiber shedding.

[Related: Here’s why gym clothes smell so rank—and how to freshen them up]

Finally, skip the dryer altogether. We can’t emphasize this enough: heat can shorten the life of materials and make them more likely to break in the next load of laundry. Fortunately, synthetic clothing dries fast, so hang it outside or over your shower rod instead—you might even save money by not running your dryer so frequently.

Once your clothes are washed and dried, don’t go back to the washer for a while. Many items don’t need to be washed after every use, so put those shorts or that shirt back in the dresser for another wear or two if it doesn’t smell like wet dog after one use. If there’s just one dirty spot, wash it out by hand instead of starting a load.

There are also several tools you can use to reduce microfiber shedding. Guppyfriend makes a laundry bag specifically designed to capture broken fibers and microplastic waste, but also to prevent fiber breakdown in the first place by protecting clothing. Just place your synthetics inside, zip it shut, toss it in the washer, and pick out any and dispose of any microplastic lint that gets caught in the corners of the bag. Even standard laundry bags help reduce friction, so those are an option as well.

A separate lint filter that attaches to your washing machine’s discharge hose is another effective and endlessly reusable option, shown to reduce microplastics by up to 80 percent. But don’t spring for those laundry balls that are supposedly meant to catch microfibers in the wash: the beneficial results are comparatively minimal.

As for detergent, many popular brands contain plastic, including those handy pods, which break down into microplastic particles in the washing machine. But finding out which detergents are the culprits requires some digging. Learn how to find out if your detergent is really environmentally friendly before you restock, or consider making your own. Then take care of your synthetics, starting on laundry day.

Foetuses can be affected by microplastics, scientists find

Microplastics could be harming unborn babies, concerning new research has found. Large polystyrene particles – around the size of a cloud or fog droplet at 10 micrometres – can make their way into the placenta, according to scientists at Utrecht University.Presenting her research at the Plastic Health Summit in Amsterdam last week, lead scientist Hanna Dusza said more work is urgently needed to determine what effect the tiny pieces of plastic are having on foetal health.Microplastics are tiny plastic particles less than 5 millimetres in size. They are found in numerous products – including toothpaste, shampoo and drug capsules – and created when bigger plastic objects break down.The research also found that plastic particles can become a vector for other chemicals, effectively carrying them into the womb.This could expose the foetus to a raft of dangerous pollutants, including PCBs: a group of manmade chemicals once widely used in industrial processes, and still contaminating the environment even after they were banned in Europe in the 1980s.PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals.Could microplastics have a similar impact to air pollution?The placenta is a temporary organ that develops in the uterus during pregnancy, and enables oxygen and nutrients to pass from the mother’s blood to the baby through the umbilical cord.Scientists have already found that air pollution particles breathed in by the mother can penetrate the placenta during these vital exchanges, leading to premature births, low birth weights and lifelong health conditions for newborns in some cases.As Dusza, an environmental toxicologist explains, “Recent studies have shown that microplastics are also detected in the placenta, though their effects are unclear.“Our research shows that plastic particles of different sizes are efficiently taken up by placenta cells, where they may exert subtle effects on endocrine function.” This function of the placenta is to produce hormones which control the foetus’s growth.Dusza has developed a new method for the detection of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the human amniotic fluid.The dangerous effects of plasticising chemicals on reproductionThe Summit, organised by NGO Plastic Soup Foundation, also heard from Professor Patricia Hunt of Washington State University in the US.When Prof. Hunt accidentally exposed her laboratory mice to BPA, an industrial chemical, in the late nineties, her focus was drawn to the effects of common environmental contaminants on reproduction.On Thursday she revealed that endocrine-disrupting chemicals in microplastics have the potential to harm the foetuses of pregnant mice.“Chemicals used in plastics not only have the potential to harm our fertility, but also to affect future generations,” she said.“Linking maternal and foetal exposure to birth outcomes, development, and adult disease would convince even persistent doubters of the harmful effects of plasticising chemicals.“But we don’t have the luxury of time. We must put faith in experimental evidence and ensure that our estimates of human exposure are accurate.”How to avoid ingesting microplasticsMicroplastics are everywhere – from the bottom of the ocean to the shellfish we eat, and Arctic snow to the beers we drink – so it’s impossible to avoid them altogether.But there are things you can do to limit your exposure while at home, such as wearing more clothes made of natural fibres. That’s because synthetic garments shed microfibres – which you can also tackle with a washing machine filter.Naturally, many of the recommended tips for filtering out microplastics from your life also involve cutting down on single-use plastics like water bottles, tea bags lined with plastics, take-away cups and plastic-packaged ready meals.A non-plastic kettle may be worth investing in too – especially for cleaning baby bottles, researchers at Trinity College Dublin have suggested.

Upper ocean layer contains 24 trillion pieces of microplastics

Microplastics are tiny fragments of degraded plastic, no greater than 5 mm in diameter. They are oceanic pollutants that can drift thousands of miles in the surface layers of the open sea and can also find their way down the water column to various depths. 

While studies to measure and monitor the presence of microplastics in regions of the world’s oceans have been conducted for the past 50 years, they have made use of disparate methods of collection and analysis, meaning that the data could not be combined or compared easily. Large data sets to help follow the trends in microplastic pollution have thus not been available to researchers in general.

This is what prompted a global team of oceanographers, led by researchers from Kyushu University, to review the data from previous published and unpublished expeditions to sample microplastics in the oceans. They calibrated and processed these data in order to build a publicly available dataset for assessing trends in the abundance of microplastics more accurately. 

“Although the observation of microplastics dates back to the 1970s, standardized data spanning the globe is still limited,” explained Atsuhiko Isobe, professor at Kyushu University’s Research Institute for Applied Mechanics.

To create the new dataset, a total of 8,218 pelagic microplastic samples, collected from oceans around the world, were synthesized and standardized. The data set contains raw, calibrated, processed, and gridded data that is now comparable. Samples were adjusted for different types of collection, as well as for conditions of ocean turbulence and wind, as these factors affect estimates of abundance. 

“We collected published and unpublished data on microplastic distribution from around the world and calibrated to account for differences such as in collection method and wave height to create standardized, state-of-the-art 2D maps of microplastic abundance,” explained Professor Isobe. 

The researchers estimated that there were 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world’s upper ocean layer, which equates with somewhere between 82,000 and 578,000 tons of plastic, or roughly 30 billion 500 ml plastic water bottles.

“Our dataset provides realistic amounts of microplastics in the wild to help researchers trying to assess the true impact they are having on aquatic organisms and the environment,” said Professor Isobe.

“While this work improves our grasp of the actual situation, the total amount of microplastics is still likely to be much greater since this is just what we can estimate on the surface. For us to get a clearer picture, we must develop 3D maps probing the depths of the oceans and continue to fill the gaps within our dataset.”

“Though we are making progress, we still have much to learn to get a complete picture of the fate of plastic debris and the effect it is having on the environment.”

The research is published in the journal Microplastics and Nanoplastics.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

Microplastics making their way up to belugas in Arctic through prey, says new study

Breadcrumb Trail Links World News Life Food Almost 80 per cent of the particles found in the stomachs of fish studied come from textiles and clothing that are washed into waterways in the laundry process, the report said. Author of the article: The Canadian Press Hina Alam An inquisitive beluga whale takes a pause from feeding on capelin to view its surroundings in the St. Lawrence-Saguenay Marine Park, near Tadoussac, 450 kilometers northeast of Montreal, in this 2007 file photo. Photo by Robert J. Galbraith /Montreal Gazette Article content VANCOUVER — Hundreds of thousands of tiny bits of plastic waste have been found in the prey of belugas, proving that the pollution in the whales is making its way even to the most remote Arctic waters, a new study says. Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Article content In the study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, researchers looked at five species of Arctic fish that are regular prey of belugas and found 21 per cent of them had microplastic particles in their gastrointestinal tracts. The lead author of the study, Rhiannon Moore, said this finding confirmed that microplastics are moving up the food chain. “It’s a worry because plastic, as we know, is everywhere, and we don’t really know the long-term effect of all the different types of plastic that are ending up in these species,” she said in an interview. Moore, who recently completed a master of science degree at Simon Fraser University and is a zero-waste outreach co-ordinator with the City of Victoria, said many northern animals are encountering environmental change. Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Article content “So, we have species that are experiencing the effects of climate change, increased marine traffic, migration patterns — all sorts of changes. And so this is just another … human-made impact that that’s occurring.” Microplastics are contaminants that are less than five millimetres in size. Almost 80 per cent of the particles found in the stomachs of fish studied come from textiles and clothing that are washed into waterways in the laundry process, the report said. There is evidence that tiny bacteria make these fibres their home, increasing their palatability for fish, it added. The study documents microplastics in the stomachs of fish from the Eastern Beaufort Sea, north of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alaska. Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Article content The latest study builds on the team’s previous work where researchers looked at the bodies of seven belugas from an Indigenous hunt by members of the Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk in the western Canadian Arctic. That study estimated the whales ingest upwards of 145,000 particles of microplastics a year. Moore said it confirms belugas are likely ingesting the plastics through their prey. “So, before … we were making assumptions and estimations, and now we really know that plastic is in the food that whales eat, and likely other other species.” The latest study said the Arctic deep sea has been identified as a potential source of plastic accumulation. Belugas are known to dive to depths greater than 1,000 metres and spend “significant” time at the sea floor bottom, it said. Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Article content “How climate change will influence beluga foraging behaviour and activity in the deep sea, and the associated exposure to plastic debris remains unclear,” the report said. Peter Ross, a senior scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and a co-author of the report, said evidence suggests that microplastics in the Arctic are largely making their way on currents from the Atlantic Ocean. “The Arctic communities are not really big players in contaminating their backyard,” he said. “So, we have yet again another example of a pollutant from the more urbanized and industrialized south moving quickly and readily into the Arctic.” There is “near universal contamination” of the water in the Arctic, he said. Moore said she was “not necessarily surprised” by the findings because of the large quantities of plastic that enter the oceans every year. But she said she is hoping that the discovery spurs people into taking action. “Everyone loves whales, and nobody really wants whales to be threatened in any way,” Moore said. “Whenever you talk about whales and pollution, it tugs on their heartstrings and so you would hope that this would cause people to act and look at daily life choices.” This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2021. Share this article in your social network Advertisement Story continues below This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below. Sign up to receive daily headline news from the Montreal Gazette, a division of Postmedia Network Inc. By clicking on the sign up button you consent to receive the above newsletter from Postmedia Network Inc. You may unsubscribe any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link at the bottom of our emails. Postmedia Network Inc. | 365 Bloor Street East, Toronto, Ontario, M4W 3L4 | 416-383-2300 Thanks for signing up! A welcome email is on its way. If you don’t see it, please check your junk folder. The next issue of Montreal Gazette Headline News will soon be in your inbox. We encountered an issue signing you up. Please try again Comments Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Paint flakes most abundant microplastic particles after fibers

A new report suggests that paint flakes could be one of the most abundant type of microplastic particles found in the ocean. As with other types of microplastics, the effect on marine life and the ocean are not yet fully understood.

The study, published in Science of the Total Environment and carried out by the University of Plymouth and the Marine Biological Association (MBA), conducted several surveys across the North Atlantic Ocean and estimated through more than 3,600 collected samples that each cubic metre of seawater contained an average of 0.01 paint flakes. This finding suggests that paint flakes are the second largest type of microplastic particles found in the ocean after microplastic fibres which has a concentration of around 0.16 particles per cubic metre.

The study further estimated that some of the paint flakes also had high quantities of lead, iron as well as copper due to them having antifouling or anti-corrosive properties. The researchers argued that this could further pose a threat to the ocean and the species living in it if they ingest the particles.

“Paint particles have often been an overlooked component of marine microplastics but this study shows that they are relatively abundant in the ocean. The presence of toxic metals like lead and copper pose additional risks to wildlife,” said Dr Andrew Turner, the study’s lead author and associate professor in environmental sciences at the University of Plymouth.

Therefore, paint flakes can be considered the most abundant type of microplastic in the ocean after fibres. And this development needs closer scientific attention as the full effect of the metallic additives on the ocean and its species is not yet fully understood.

For more from our Ocean Newsroom, click here.

Photography courtesy of Unsplash, graphical abstract found here.

Wilmington, NC, partners with groups, businesses to cut plastic waste

Tricia Monteleone, left, vice president of Plastic Ocean Project Inc., and Bonnie Monteleone, the group’s executive director, pose during an event in September at Waterline Brewing Co. in Wilmington. Contributed photo by Moe Saur
Wilmington put in place a sustainability program in 2012 that recently has been trying to combat plastic pollution – especially plastic bags — through education and outreach, with the help of a state grant and partnerships with nonprofit organizations.
The sustainability program aims to efficiently manage energy, water and waste, “while cultivating a culture of environmental stewardship throughout city operations to reduce our environmental footprint. We strive to implement fiscally and environmentally sound projects to preserve the quality of life of our community and resources,” according to the city.
Part of the outreach included having the city council approve in September a resolution to reduce plastic waste and support Ocean Friendly Establishments, a nonprofit initiative that encourages businesses and nonprofits to reduce single-use plastics.
David Ingram, Wilmington’s sustainability project manager, who has been in this role since 2015, said in an interview that the resolution ties in nicely with his department’s outreach work funded through a state grant from the 2020 Community Waste Reduction and Recycling Grant Program.
The city was awarded $16,917 with a $3,383 match requirement, totaling $20,300 toward the effort. The grant, which was put in place to help local governments in expanding, improving and implementing waste reduction and recycling programs, is administered by the North Carolina Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service through the Solid Waste Management Outreach Program, according to city officials.
City officials apply for this grant each year. This year, they pitched building the city’s recycling program with a focus on increasing public awareness of waste reduction and recycling and supporting the statewide Recycle Right NC campaign as well as promote the “Mayor’s Plastic Bag Challenge,” an effort to reduce single-use plastic bag usage.
“This year, the focus of that grant was really just a lot of outreach and education in regards to not only Recycling Right, but also promoting the use of reusable bags to help eliminate the use of single-use plastic bags,” Ingram said.
Ingram said the city had used the grant to take numerous steps to educate residents and help them understand what can be recycled, including Recycle Right NC materials. “We really tried to kind of simplify and make it more streamlined,” he said.
The city program also purchased reusable bags to hand out and provided some to the Plastic Ocean Project to distribute at their recent events, Ingram added.
“I would say to this particular grant, the education outreach efforts will be ongoing, and we have quite a few more reusable bags to distribute. We have a lot of messaging just in regard to Recycling Right,” he said.  “Going forward, we hope to collaborate on some other events as well just to continue that messaging.”
Ocean Friendly Establishments is an initiative of the Plastic Ocean Project, which aims to educate the public and help address the global plastic pollution problem.
Plastic Ocean Project Executive Director Bonnie Monteleone told Coastal Review that it didn’t take long to convince the city council to approve a resolution of support for the effort, but COVID-19 delayed progress for more than a year.
“As the saying goes, it takes a village,” Monteleone said, adding Ingram played a major role in bringing the resolution to the city council. Numerous Wilmington Ocean Friendly Establishments committee members joined in the effort along with help from the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.
Monteleone noted that the bag campaign to encourage using reusable bags is in line with the city council’s resolution and with Plastic Ocean Project efforts in general.
“We are in the process of designing a ‘Got your bag’ logo that will be displayed in parking lots and billboards,” Monteleone said. Plastic Ocean Projects is also connecting with grocery stores to provide educational materials and the reusable bags from the city. “We hope to initiate the campaign mid-November that will focus on a positive message.”
Monteleone explained that the Ocean Friendly Establishment program began with just addressing the use of straws, encouraging restaurants to only give them out upon request. “It has now grown into a five-star program. This a perfect example of how one small effort can turn into a movement. We hope the bag campaign will do the same.”
Ocean Friendly Establishments is the brainchild of Ginger Taylor, a volunteer for the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle program, who saw the need for a solution to plastic straw litter, Monteleone said. Taylor was troubled by the number of straws she picked up in Wrightsville Beach while walking the strand identifying turtle tracks and pitched her idea at a North Carolina Marine Debris Symposium, an annual symposium featuring presentations by environmental and educational groups on different efforts to tackle marine debris.
Through the work of the Plastic Ocean Project, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and other organizations including the North Carolina Aquarium’s Jeanette’s Pier and nonprofits such as Keep Brunswick County Beautiful, the North Carolina Coastal Federation and Crystal Coast Riverkeepers, Ocean Friendly Establishments now has more than 200 establishments, including businesses, restaurants, breweries and nonprofits. “It’s a great example of the power of one and our very caring communities,” she said.
What makes the Ocean Friendly Establishments program successful is the numerous volunteers that make up many committees along the coast. “They are truly the driving force behind the success of this program as well as the resolutions,” she said.
A self-regulating, community-based certification program, Ocean Friendly Establishments has its own website where volunteers can join committees and businesses can apply for certification.
“It all comes down to using less plastic. Nature did not design plastic and therefore does not know what to do with it, hence it persists in the environment indefinitely. Because it can persist for decades and in some cases centuries, it can wreak havoc on the natural world and sadly is. The solution to plastic pollution is to reduce. If we don’t use it, we can’t lose it,” she said.
Why is plastic a problem?
Ingram told the city council in September that while the city has a long history of being a steward of the coastal environment, “We do recognize that plastic film and single-use plastics represent a contamination in our local environment, as well as our waste stream.”
Ingram said that plastic bags, while they are recyclable, tend to be placed in either curbside recycling or in locations that are not the proper place to drop these items off. When that happens, the bags impede the recycling process at many of the materials recovery facilities. The bags clog the system and force the machinery to be shut down, leading to delays and increased costs.
“This plastic film and bags, as well as straws, represent an enormous impact to our local waterways, when they don’t make it into our recycling or waste stream,” Ingram said. “They break down into small fragments that not only float on the surface of our waters but actually can sink down to the bottom and be very difficult to ever remove from the environment.”
Monteleone said Americans use more than 1 billion plastic bags a year – about 365 bags per person — which in total equals about 12 million barrels of oil.
While these bags can be recycled, many are not and chemicals leech out from the plastic bags and are starting to affect animals. Organisms that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen are compromised because of plastics. “These are getting lost in the environment and wreaking havoc on our marine life. “
About 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water and anything that ends up in the environment has the potential of getting into storm drains and into rivers, which lead to the ocean.

Environmental groups push for Pittsburgh plastic bag ban

Environmental advocacy nonprofit PennEnvironment released a letter Wednesday signed by 100 Pittsburgh businesses and organizations in support of a plastic bag ban, an ordinance expected to come before City Council later this fall.“We estimate this policy has the potential to prevent 108 million plastic bags from entering our waste stream in our environment each year,” said Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director of PennEnvironment. “These signers represent businesses, community organizations, and nonprofits, and every Pittsburgh City Council district.”The letter is part of Penn Environment’s broader campaign to pass a plastic bag ordinance in Pittsburgh, an effort the organization successfully undertook in Philadelphia, where a plastic bag ban took effect July 1.The Pittsburgh ordinance has been under discussion for several years. It was delayed by a 2019 Pennsylvania legislature ban on municipal plastic bag ordinances, provoking a lawsuit led by Philadelphia and other municipalities. Then in May, in anticipation of the end of the ban on plastic bag bans, Pittsburgh City Council passed a resolution to introduce a plastic bag ordinance.Though most of the letter’s 100 signatories are small businesses and organizations, some larger retailers are preparing for a potential ban. Whole Foods does not use plastic bags—and in 2019, Giant Eagle announced plans to phase out single-use plastic bags by 2025.In March, PennEnvironment released the results of a survey showing microplastics were found in every Pennsylvania waterway tested. Film microplastics, which are fragments from plastics bags, were found in all three of Pittsburgh’s rivers, including the Allegheny River, from which Pittsburgh draws its drinking water.“It’s estimated that people consume about a credit card’s worth of plastic each week,” Deemer said. “Once microplastics are in our environment and in our water, there’s really no effective way to remove them. So the best thing that we can do is stop plastic pollution at the source and plastic bags are one source of microplastics.”Plastic bag bans in several hundred other cities have had mixed results. In particular, early-adopting cities like Austin and Chicago found that banning only thin plastic bags pushed large retailers in particular to offer customers thicker-gauge plastic bags touted as reusable, resulting in higher plastic use than before the bans. Other retailers offered paper bags, which come with environmental impacts of their own.Deemer said PennEnvironment has been working with City Councilor Erika Strassburger’s office to make policy recommendations as they draft the ordinance, to help avoid some of the unintended consequences experienced in other cities.“In terms of making sure that this doesn’t create a bigger plastic problem and encourage thicker plastic bags, it’s all in the definition that’s in the bill,” Deemer said. “We want to make sure that the definition of plastic bag in this bill is just ‘blown-film extrusion.’ It’s the way that the plastic bags are made, no matter the thickness of the plastic, so that we’re not trading thin plastic for thick plastic.”Deemer said they are also advocating for the ordinance to define acceptable paper bags as ones made of post-consumer recycled paper. Both the “blown-film extrusion” language and the precision of post-consumer recycled paper bags are part of the model ordinance PennEnvironment developed for Pennsylvania municipalities considering plastic bag ordinances.It is not clear what provisions will be included in the Pittsburgh ordinance. In July, in an interview on WESA’s the Confluence, Strassburger said the Pittsburgh ordinance may include both a ban on plastic bags and a fee on paper bags. This strategy is among the best practices recommended by the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit ocean protection organization.In a release, Strassburger said she plans to introduce the plastic bag ordinance this fall.

Democrats weigh first nationwide fee on plastic in U.S. budget negotiations

Bales of hard-to-recycle plastic waste are seen piled up at Renewlogy Technologies in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on May 17, 2021. REUTERS/George FreyWASHINGTON, Sept 29 (Reuters) – U.S. congressional Democrats are considering including the first federal fee to tackle plastic pollution in the multitrillion-dollar reconciliation bill, a proposal that is drawing opposition from the plastics and petrochemical industry.Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Tom Suozzi are in talks with other Democrats to include their REDUCE Act as a source of revenue in the reconciliation bill. It would impose a 20-cent-per-pound fee on virgin – or new – plastic for single-use products such as plastic bags and beverage containers.The proposal is among a slew of money raisers being considered by the White House and Democrats to pay for a package that includes provisions aimed at tackling climate change and expanding the public safety net. The measure, which Democrats aim to pass without Republican support, is a pillar of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda.White House officials declined to comment. But two sources familiar with the Biden administration’s thinking said it is reluctant to back the plastics fee because it could drive up costs for consumers.More than 90% of plastic produced gets dumped or incinerated because there is no cheap way to repurpose it, according to a 2017 study by researchers from UC Santa Barbara, the University of Georgia and Woods Hole published in the journal Science Advances.The REDUCE Act would compel plastic producers to use more recycled content and direct revenue toward a fund to support recycling and address plastic marine debris and other pollution.”That pollution chokes our oceans, hastens climate change, and threatens Americans’ well-being, and it’s the plastics industry that should cover the cost of the damage,” Whitehouse said.The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents some of the largest plastics and petrochemical companies, launched an ad campaign this month opposing the prospective fee, saying the measure would raise the cost of consumer goods.ACC spokesman Matthew Kastner said the group has also been lobbying lawmakers to reject the idea and is “beginning to engage the White House.”Reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Peter CooneyOur Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Maritime rope could be adding billions of microplastics to the ocean every year

New research compared a variety of synthetic ropes commonly used in the maritime industry. Credit: University of Plymouth

The hauling of rope on maritime vessels could result in billions of microplastic fragments entering the ocean every year, according to new research.

Scooping plastic out of the ocean is a losing game

Article body copy
A garbage truck turns off the road, engine rumbling, brakes wheezing, and the smell of rot trailing in its wake. The truck stops short and starts to reverse—beep, beep, beeping down a boat launch. With salt water lapping at its rear tires it stops, opens its tailgate, and dumps its load of cups, straws, bottles, shopping bags, fishing buoys, and nets.
A minute later, this plastic waste is floating away on a journey to pollute the ocean and poison the food chain. As the garbage truck drives away it passes another truck preparing to back down the ramp. And another pulling into the marina—one of an endless stream of garbage trucks, each lining up to dump its own load of plastics.
It doesn’t happen like this, of course, but eight million tonnes of plastic does end up in the ocean every year—the equivalent of a garbage truck’s–worth every minute. And the rate is increasing. If nothing changes, the amount of plastic sloshing around the ocean could double in 10 years. By 2050, that mass of plastic could exceed the weight of all the fish in the sea.
The costs to society and the environment are huge. A study by the consultancy firm Deloitte shows that, every year, up to 1,000,000 seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die after ingesting or being entangled by plastic. Microscopic bits of plastic are working their way up the food chain, including in the seafood we eat. Plastic floating around the ocean carries invasive species that compete with or prey on native species. And when it washes onto beaches, plastic pollution affects tourism and devalues real estate. In its examination for 2018, Deloitte pegged the price of ocean plastic pollution at US $6-billion to $19-billion. That’s cheap compared with another study, which calculated the cost at up to $2.5-trillion per year, or $33,000 per tonne. None of that accounts for plastic’s costs to human health. Yet along its production cycle from oil and gas refining to use and disposal, plastic produces chemical emissions that have been linked to hormone disruption and cancer.
It’s enough to motivate teenage entrepreneurs, philanthropists, corporations, nonprofit organizations, governments, university students, and afflicted communities around the world to take action. Their ideas are seemingly as diverse as the species living in the sea: a Korean program pays fishermen to collect plastic at sea. In Baltimore, Maryland, the cartoonish Mr. Trash Wheel skims up to 17 tonnes of garbage out of the city’s harbor in a day. Inspired by the plankton-filtering ways of the whale shark, Singapore-based Drone Solutions created the WasteShark, an autonomous drone that sucks up floating bits of plastic in harbors. Chinese and Australian researchers are exploring the potential to use nanotechnology to pull microplastics out of the water in wastewater treatment facilities. Other efforts range from collecting old nets at harbors, to making plastic itself a currency to incentivize its collection, to using multimillion-dollar booms to skim plastic from the ocean’s surface, to volunteers diving to the seafloor to clean it up. There’s little doubt these efforts are well intentioned. But they are not all equal.
There is a harsh reality that all of us concerned with the mounting ocean plastic problem must confront: the vast majority of the plastic in the ocean is too small or too out of reach to ever be cleaned up. It is suspended in the water column, settled on the ocean floor, or degraded into microscopic particles that are difficult to detect, let alone collect.
That realization is vital. With the plastic pollution problem growing increasingly dire, and with so many potential solutions on offer—all competing for limited funding, resources, and public support—it is more urgent than ever to focus on the approaches that are most likely to succeed.

One of the best-known and best-funded efforts, the Ocean Cleanup, is instructional in understanding not only the size of the ocean plastic problem, but also the challenge of cleaning it up.
Founded in 2013 by then-18-year-old Boyan Slat, the nonprofit has raised more than $35-million to clean up the five gyres, convergence zones in the world’s oceans where plastic tends to concentrate. Slat’s first target is the North Pacific’s infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The Ocean Cleanup has tested multiple iterations of its plastic-catching booms. Though the project has seen some success in capturing plastic waste, a fundamental flaw plagues the approach. Photo by Abaca Press/Alamy Stock Photo
Slat’s plan is to harness the currents and the wind to herd the bigger floating pieces of plastic into horseshoe-shaped booms. Just as windblown trash gets ensnared in a fence, the plastic should get trapped in the booms until a boat can come to haul the debris to shore. Sounds simple. But after its first two pilot projects failed to gather trash, the Ocean Cleanup is years behind schedule. With a successful test of its third design in 2019, the organization says it is back on track to deploy 60 of its devices in all the world’s oceans within the next decade. In 2018, it estimated it could clean up 50 percent of the plastic in the ocean by 2023. It’s an audacious claim that many doubt is possible (not just because, by 2021, the organization had yet to deploy any operational booms). Yet Slat notes he has hired more than 100 staff and experts to help develop the project’s signature booms. He also likes to say that, sometimes, tackling big problems requires an outside perspective and a venture capitalist’s attitude.
“Rather than doing many small things that you hope add up, it’s much more effective to work on projects that are high risk and high reward,” he told Digital Trends in 2019. “If one of them works, you can actually solve the whole problem, or at least a large part of it.”
Through its trials, the Ocean Cleanup has helped spread awareness of the problem of plastic pollution. The organization has improved the scientific understanding of the kinds of plastic in the ocean and where it’s coming from. But from its inception, independent scientists have been critical of the Ocean Cleanup. Some expressed concerns about the unintended harm the booms could pose to marine life, such as pelagic fishes, sea turtles, and marine mammals. A well-discussed issue has been the booms’ effects on the neuston, a little-known community of organisms that lives in the ocean gyres. The neuston includes animals, plants, and microorganisms—like the Portuguese man-of-war, sea snails, and the sail jellyfish—that drift with the wind and currents. Neuston and plastic debris, maneuvered by the same forces, occur in the same areas. Collecting the plastic means collecting neuston, with unknown consequences for the open-ocean food chain.
Sail jellyfish and other neuston, creatures that are carried around the ocean by the wind and currents, are at risk of being ensnared by the Ocean Cleanup’s booms. Photo by Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures
But a more direct concern for the Ocean Cleanup’s goal of cleaning up the five gyres is just how difficult it is to trap plastic in the open ocean. While there is plenty of plastic floating on the surface of the North Pacific gyre, even more is out of reach, suspended in the water column and degraded into tiny pieces that slip right through the booms.
Sönke Hohn, a biologist specializing in mathematical modeling at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research in Germany, is one of the Ocean Cleanup’s many skeptics. Last year, in collaboration with researchers in the United Kingdom and Germany, Hohn published an analysis of what it would take for the Ocean Cleanup to collect only the floating plastic in the largest five gyres. Hohn and his colleagues took the current amount of plastic in the ocean, added annual inputs, and compared it with how much plastic the Ocean Cleanup’s successful pilot collected. In the project’s 20-year estimated timeline, Hohn’s math showed that the Ocean Cleanup’s efforts would have no noticeable effect on the amount of plastic in the ocean. To clean up a fraction of one percent of the total, the Ocean Cleanup would have to run nonstop until 2150. Even when Hohn artificially increased the fleet to 200 booms, the project still only recovered five percent of the floating plastic.
“That was with an optimistic scenario,” Hohn says.
Logistics aside, Hohn also worries about the optics of the Ocean Cleanup’s efforts. If the project even appears to be working, the rest of us could feel absolved from action, he says. “The media and the public love the story of a young guy coming along to save the ocean,” Hohn says. “We like to think: he’s solved the problem. We don’t have to change anything. The truth is, we can’t rely on technology to clean up the ocean.”
Like many of his colleagues in marine plastic research, Hohn thinks the whole principle of cleaning up the ocean is misguided.

In July 2020, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq released a report called Breaking the Plastic Wave. Yonathan Shiran, the project director and author of an accompanying scientific study, compares cleaning up ocean plastic with mopping up a flooding house.
“First you have to turn off the source of the water,” says Shiran, “then you wipe up the floor. I do worry [cleanup efforts] are distracting us from the real solution—closing the tap.” No cleanup effort is cheaper and more effective than preventing plastic from entering the environment, the study found.
The cleanup quest is so futile, says John Hocevar, the ocean projects lead for Greenpeace USA, that he’d like to see every dollar earmarked for cleanup worldwide redirected to fixing the leaks. “We’re making the problem worse at a pace that far exceeds what we can possibly clean up,” he argues. “We need to close the tap as quickly as possible. Then I’ll be more excited to clean up the mess.”
But closing the tap may be an even more monumental task. In rich countries, cutting off the flow of plastic into the sea will require policy changes to encourage better waste management, a circular plastics industry, banning single-use plastics, and incentivizing reusable options. In poorer places, it requires all that and more widespread waste management.
People living in lower-income countries generally produce far less plastic waste per capita, but the Pew study found that two billion people are currently living without waste collection. With nowhere to put it, Shiran says, they’ll often dump their garbage in the street where rain and wind wash it into rivers, which eventually carry it to the ocean. Surveys of plastic at sea, combined with studies looking at ocean currents and drift patterns, show that more than 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean first bobbed down a river—a quarter of it down just 10 rivers, mostly in Asia. A growing population means that the number of people without garbage services will nearly double by 2040, compounding the problem. Expanding waste collection services to everyone would be nearly impossible, says Shiran.
Plastic debris tends to accumulate in a handful of key sites, such as in harbors and along beaches. Imaginechina Limited/Alamy Stock Photo
Knowing the leak is unfixable, at least for now, strengthens the argument for mopping up in the meantime.
“We don’t say, The oil spill is too big to clean up, so why bother,” says Susan Baer, the executive director and cofounder of Clear Blue Sea, a nonprofit working on a fleet of what are basically ocean-going Roombas. “Leaving that much plastic in the ocean is detrimental to human health and the health of the ocean. Every animal in the sea will eat whatever plastic it can fit in its mouth,” Baer says.
“Cleanup efforts are an important piece of the puzzle, right up until they’re not needed,” adds Chloé Dubois, cofounder of Ocean Legacy Foundation, a Canadian nonprofit that organizes beach cleanups and recycles marine debris among other activities. “They remove bigger pieces of plastic before they become impossible to clean up. They also help shift the narrative and public behavior. That’s what drives policy changes.”
So even if we are going to follow Hocevar’s lead and put as much time and money as we can into closing the plastic leak, that still leaves us in the same spot: figuring out which of the many competing cleanup efforts deserve our funding, support, and attention.
But the struggles of the Ocean Cleanup, and the realization that most plastic in the ocean—small, sunken, and degraded—is nearly impossible to collect, are insightful. Taken together, they lead us to a stance shared by many experts: that the best way to clean up the ocean is to stop trying to clean up the ocean.

After its own research showed plastic’s freshwater source, the Ocean Cleanup in 2015 diversified and started working on the Interceptor, a river boom system that funnels garbage into an anchored collection barge. The organization has installed three Interceptors: in the Klang River in Malaysia, in the Ozama River in the Dominican Republic, and in the Cengkareng drain in Indonesia. A fourth is in the works for the Mekong River in Vietnam. The organization is aiming to place an Interceptor in the 1,000 most polluted rivers by 2025.
The Ocean Cleanup’s Interceptor program recognizes the riverine source of most marine plastic waste and tries to catch it nearer to the source. Photo by Frans Blok/Alamy Stock Photo
But rivers are transportation corridors. To avoid conflicts with boats, the Interceptor only extends partway into the river. Plenty of trash slips by. When it does, it tends to collect in harbors. These sites, experts suggest, are ideal locations for concerted, targeted efforts—like the England-based Water Witch.
In the 1960s, Francis Caddick designed a boat custom made to clean up the water around the dock in Liverpool. More than 50 years later, the family-run company has evolved as marine litter has changed. “In our infancy, our vessels mostly worked clearing wood and vegetation,” says Jackie Caddick, the company director. “Now I would say a good 90 percent of what we remove is plastic, and we have developed our vessels to deal with this.”
The company’s largest dredger can skim up to a tonne of litter every three minutes, gathering up to 100 tonnes a day. Port authorities, marinas, and resort areas operate Water Witch dredgers in 200 locations worldwide.
Cleanup efforts, such as the Water Witch, that focus on key hotspots like harbors and beaches can collect plastic much more efficiently than projects focused on cleaning the open ocean. Photo by Elizabeth Leyden/Alamy Stock Photo
Another place plastic tends to accumulate is on beaches. Experts like the Ocean Legacy Foundation’s Dubois and Marcus Eriksen, the chief scientist with 5 Gyres, an environmental research organization, say that beach cleanups are another effective way to tackle the plastic problem. Cleaning shorelines may not be flashy enough to draw a lot of attention, but doing so prevents plastic that has washed ashore from returning to the ocean where it can sink to the bottom, or from degrading in the sun and breaking into tiny pieces that are impossible to clean up.
Though humble, beach cleanups have impact. Over the past 27 years, volunteers have cleaned nearly 45,000 kilometers of Canadian waterways as part of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. The 2019 effort removed 160 tonnes of litter. In the northern Gulf of Alaska, a similar project, run by Gulf of Alaska Keeper, has cleaned up more than 2,400 kilometers of coastline since 2006, gathering more than 1,300 tonnes of plastic. That’s with just one crew working only during the summer. Imagine what similar efforts could do with the Ocean Cleanup’s $35-million. Even Greenpeace’s Hocevar, who favors better garbage collection over all efforts, says volunteer beach cleanups should continue, because they provide a link between the public and the plastic problem.
An even more concentrated source of plastic debris is the 500,000 to 1,000,000 tonnes of commercial fishing gear that gets lost at sea every year, says Eriksen. By weight, this ghost gear makes up a large percentage of the garbage cleaned off beaches in Alaska—up to 70 percent in one analysis—and at least 46 percent of the large plastic objects floating in the ocean, according to a study by the Ocean Cleanup. This ghost gear is especially damaging, because as well as polluting the ocean, it continues to kill marine life.
Research shows that a majority of floating plastic will, within a few years, wash up on a beach. Collecting it there prevents the plastic from breaking down or reentering the ocean. Photo by David Pereiras/Alamy Stock Photo
The good news is, compared with other industrial sources of plastic, fishing gear is fairly easy to collect or prevent from being lost. Several programs have set up free dump bins at docks to make it easier and cheaper for fishers to safely dispose of old gear. Bureo, a California-based company, buys aging nets from South American fishermen and turns them into skateboards and sunglasses. And Fishing for Litter, a program run by KIMO International, a European pollution prevention and ocean health NGO, plays to fishermen’s desire for sustainability. Since 2004, the program has encouraged commercial fishermen to gather ghost gear and other litter they find at sea and dump it in bins KIMO has set up at ports around Europe. Between 2016 and 2017, nearly 1,000 vessels gathered 470 tonnes of ocean plastics along with their catch—voluntarily.
“We’re aiming to change behavior for the long term, so that fishers are seen as part of the solution to marine litter,” says Arabelle Bentley, KIMO’s executive secretary. For fishers, she says, “it’s a feel-good factor.”
That desire to be part of the solution unites all cleanup efforts. But passion can be misplaced. The unfortunate reality is that there is no key to cleaning up the ocean. The solution is not flashy or sensational. It’s not an entrepreneur with a big idea—a person we can look to as the one who will solve the problem. It’s the boring stuff: when you use plastic, dispose of it properly. If you want to do more, help clean up a river, harbor, or beach. But really, we need to slow the flow of garbage trucks. Because right now, they’re speeding up. We are using more plastic every year. By 2050, the garbage trucks could be unloading every 15 seconds instead of every minute. We don’t have all that long before the ocean is teeming with more plastic than fish.