Some 8 million metric tons of pandemic-related plastic waste have been created by 193 countries, about 26,000 tons of which are now in the world’s oceans, where they threaten to disrupt marine life and further pollute beaches, a recent study found.The findings, by a group of researchers based in China and the United States, were published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. Concerns had been raised since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that there would be a boom in plastic pollution amid heightened use of personal protective equipment and rapid growth in online commerce. The study is among the first to quantify the scale of plastic waste linked to the health crisis.The cost of the increase in plastic waste has been keenly felt by wildlife. As of July, there were 61 recorded instances of animals being killed or disrupted by pandemic-linked plastic waste, according to a Dutch scientist-founded tracking project. Among the widely publicized examples are an American robin that was found wrapped up in a face mask in Canada and the body of a perch wrapped in the thumb of a disposable medical glove that was found by Dutch volunteers; National Geographic called the latter the first documented instance of a fish being killed by a glove.Although only about 30 percent of all covid cases were detected in Asia as of late August, the region was responsible for 72 percent of global plastic discharge, the study found. The researchers said this was due to higher use of disposable protective equipment, as well as lower levels of waste treatment in countries such as China and India. By contrast, developed economies in North America and Europe that were badly hit by the coronavirus produced relatively little pandemic plastic waste.The situation was worsened by the suspension or relaxation of restrictions on single-use plastic products globally. New York state’s ban on single-use plastic bags, which took effect in spring 2020, was only enforced that fall.“Better management of medical waste in epicenters, especially in developing countries, is necessary,” the researchers wrote, while also calling for the development of more environmentally friendly materials.“Governments should also mount public information campaigns not only regarding the proper collection and management of pandemic-related plastic waste , but also their judicial use,” said Von Hernandez, global coordinator of Break Free From Plastic, an advocacy group. “This includes advocating the use of reusable masks and PPEs for the general public … especially if one is not working in the front lines.”Much plastic waste enters the world’s oceans via major rivers, according to the researchers, who found that the three waterways most polluted by pandemic-associated plastic were all in Asia: The Shatt al-Arab feeds into the Persian Gulf; the Indus River empties into the Arabian Sea; and the Yangtze River flows to the East China Sea.”Given that the world is still grappling with COVID 19, we expect that the environmental and public health threats associated with pandemic related plastic waste would likely increase,The study said that the leading contributor of plastic discharged into oceans was medical waste generated by hospitals, which accounted for over 70 percent of such pollution. Scraps of online shopping packaging were particularly high in Asia, though it had a relatively small impact on global discharge.Modeling by the scientists indicates that the vast majority of plastic waste produced as a result of the pandemic will end up either on sea beds or beaches by the end of the century. In addition to becoming possible death traps for coastal animals, plastic buildup on beaches can increase the surrounding temperature, making the environment less hospitable to wildlife. And as plastic degrades over time, toxic chemicals may be released and moved up the food chain.
A pile of household waste at a landfill.Most people believe supermarkets and manufacturers are to blame for plastic pollution, a survey has found. In 2019, UK supermarkets produced 896,853 tonnes of plastic packaging – a slight decrease of less than 2% from 2018, according to Greenpeace.Supermarkets such as Waitrose have reduced plastic use and committed to increasing reusable packaging and unpacked ranges.But a survey by retail app Ubamarket found that most British shoppers think not enough is being done.Researchers found that 82% of shoppers believe the level of plastic packaging on food and drink products needs to be changed drastically.Read more: A 1988 warning about climate change was mostly rightMeanwhile, 77% believe that it is supermarkets and manufacturers that are causing the most plastic pollution, while 57% think that plastic pollution is the greatest threat to the environment.Will Broome, CEO and founder of Ubamarket, said: “While supermarkets have a long way to go, it is encouraging to see the use of single-use plastics beginning to be reduced in the UK.”This is helping us as a society take major steps towards creating a more sustainable future for the food retail sector, and retail across the board.”It is imperative that other retailers take heed of this and work quickly to establish their own sustainability goals and action plan.”Implementing mobile technology is one effective way for retailers to get ahead of the curve – not only can it improve in-store efficiency and provide access to useful data for the retailer.”Read moreWhy economists worry that reversing climate change is hopelessMelting snow in Himalayas drives growth of green sea slime visible from spaceBroome said Ubamarket’s Plastic Alerts feature allows users to shop “according to the recyclability and environmental footprint of different products, and enables the customer to scan packaging for information on whether it can be widely recycled or not”.Story continuesResearch published earlier this year found that thousands of rivers, including smaller ones, are responsible for 80% of plastic pollution worldwide.Previously, researchers believed that 10 large rivers – such as the Yangtze in China – were responsible for the bulk of plastic pollution. In fact, 1,000 rivers, or 1% of all rivers worldwide, carry most plastic to the sea.Therefore, areas such tropical islands are likely to be among the worst polluters, the researchers said.Watch: Philippine recyclers turn plastic into sheds
Sea levels may be rising, but Ana Teresa Fernández and her bucket brigade are doing what they can to combat it.Forming a 200-yard human chain on Ocean Beach, they drew 170 gallons out of the surf, hauled the sloshing saltwater off the beach and up to the old Cliff House restaurant, where it was carried into the dining room and muscled up a ladder to be poured into seven clear cylinders, all six-feet tall.
Air Date: Week of November 5, 2021
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Some cement factories are collecting plastic waste from consumer goods businesses and landfills to use as fuel to fire their kilns, posing the risk of polluting air with toxic chemicals. (Photo: Xopolino on Wikimedia Commons)
This week, Host Bobby Bascomb talks with Peter Dykstra, an editor at Environmental Health News, about the public health hazards of cement kilns burning plastic waste as a source of fuel. And in California, Scripps Institution of Oceanography is building a 32,000-gallon simulated ocean to study the effects of climate change. Also, a trip back in time to November 1492 when native peoples introduced Christopher Columbus and his expedition to maize, which became a major food staple across the globe.
BASCOMB: It’s time for a trip now Beyond the Headlines with Peter Dykstra. Peter’s an editor with Environmental Health News, that’s ehn.org, and DailyClimate.org. Hey there, Peter, what do you have for us this week?
DYKSTRA: Hi, Bobby. There’s an investigative story from Reuters. They’ve looked into cement kilns, cement kilns are everywhere, especially in booming cities in the developing world. They’re responsible for 7% of all the greenhouse gases emitted. So that’s a huge chunk. And right now, those cement kilns are looking for a new source of fuel to fire up the kilns and they’ve hit upon plastic waste. And that can be a bigger problem than any problem they may be solving.
BASCOMB: Hmm. Well, that makes sense. I mean, plastic is made with fossil fuels. So it’s, you know, pretty energy rich and there’s so much plastic waste out there. It’s free, or maybe even in some places might pay to have it, you know, burned like that. But of course, you know, it’s not too good for air quality now, is it?
DYKSTRA: Right, and there are consumer firms that are funding projects to send their plastic trash to cement plants. It’s a dangerous idea, given the amount of carcinogenic fumes that exists in those plastics, now burning straight, from, in many cases, the developed world to the developing world, to all of our lungs.
Cement factories are burning plastic to fire up massive cement kilns like the one pictured here. (Photo: LinguisticDemographer on Wikimedia Commons)
BASCOMB: Yeah, I mean, looking at things like dioxins, heavy metals, carcinogens. I mean, it’s pretty, pretty toxic stuff.
DYKSTRA: And it’s been said that burning plastics in cement kilns doesn’t help lessen the landfill problem. It simply transfers the landfills from being on the ground to in the skies.
BASCOMB: Well, that certainly is a big problem. Well, what else do you have for us this week Peter?
DYKSTRA: It’s kind of a weird sci-fi sort of project. The Scripps Institute out in San Diego is building a 32,000 gallon tank that has a wind tunnel on top of it. And with all that, they hope to synthesize what happens in the ocean, and how the oceans can affect climate change.
BASCOMB: How will they do that?
DYKSTRA: There are wind currents brought in, water currents introduced mechanically into this tank, and we’ll see what happens as climate change begins to alter both wind and wave and current patterns. It’ll give a little bit more of an insight as to what lies ahead in our future, as climate change really takes hold in our oceans.
The surface layer of the ocean can tell scientists a lot when looking at climate change. That is one aspect researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography will study in their simulated ocean. (Photo: NOAA on Wikimedia Commons)
BASCOMB: So they can simulate climate change in this pool and sort of speculate what we’re going to be looking at then.
DYKSTRA: Right, and thanks for using the word pool because 32,000 gallons sounds like a lot, but it’s actually about 5% of what it takes to fill in a competition sized Olympic swimming pool.
BASCOMB: So it’s really not all that big then. It’s amazing what they can do in such a small space.
DYKSTRA: It is. Scientists can have fun with it and can give us some information that’ll help guide us through a particularly dangerous time in our environmental future.
BASCOMB: Indeed, well, what do you have for us from the history books this week?
DYKSTRA: November 5, 1492. And we all know what happened in 1492. Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And on his subsequent stop to the Bahamas, Columbus went to Cuba in early November, and he was introduced to maize. That corn was brought back to Europe and has since become a global staple for both humans and livestock.
BASCOMB: Well, yeah, there’s so much to that. I mean, that the Columbian Exchange brought tomatoes and potatoes to Europe. I mean, imagine Italian food without tomatoes, but before that, they made do I guess.
Maize has become a food staple around the world after it was introduced from the New World to the Old World in 1492. (Photo: Balaram Mahalder on Wikimedia Commons)
DYKSTRA: And even though Columbus was a tip of the spear, coming from Europe, in the genocide of native peoples in the West, one other thing that was a gift so to speak, from North America to Europe was of course, tobacco. So it’s feed ya and kill ya, Mr. Columbus.
BASCOMB: All right. Well, thanks Peter. Peter Dykstra is an editor with Environmental Health News. That’s ehn.org and DailyClimate.org. We’ll talk to you again real soon.
DYKSTRA: Okay, Bobby. Thanks a lot. Talk to you soon.
BASCOMB: And there’s more on these stories on the Living on Earth website. That’s loe dot org.
Reuters | “Trash and Burn: Big Brands Stoke Cement Kilns with Plastic Waste as Recycling Falters” WIRED | “This Groundbreaking Simulator Generates A Huge Indoor Ocean” Read more about the Columbian Exchange
As of Nov. 4, all New Jersey restaurants and food service establishments are banned from providing single-use plastic straws unless specifically requested by customers, according to legislation passed by Gov. Phil Murphy and other lawmakers last year.
The ban is part of a statewide move to reduce plastic pollution originating from food and retail businesses.
Can you both tell us about your organization, Hidden Plastic, and what inspired you to start an environmental initiative?
Zara: Hidden Plastic educates people through a series of dark comedy videos on some of the problems, but also solutions, to the global micro-plastics issue. We started our journey in the summer of 2020 when we first joined Ocean Heroes Virtual Bootcamp (OHvBC). Part of the challenge for OHvBC was to start your own campaign, so we thought about what problems we should focus on. We realised that micro-plastics are very important but not as well addressed. We also thought we could focus on plastic that is ‘hidden’ from view, such as ‘recycling’ that is actually just sent overseas to countries that then can’t handle the waste, or microscopic plastics seeping into Nature and our food supply.
Ashton: Microplastics are a big problem. They are everywhere: we inhale them, they’re in our food, and they’re in our water supplies. But small amounts add up, which means in one week, we ingest approximately one credit card worth of plastic. We started Hidden Plastic to raise more awareness about this problem by spreading information through our videos, which are funny & slightly surreal so people watch them again & again.
Zara: Quite a bit of my inspiration came from travel when we were fortunate enough to see marine life in the wild like snorkeling with a manta ray, which I feature in my art. I have always wanted to become a marine biologist, and at school, when I was 7 years old, I wrote a fact file about algae instead of fish like everyone else. The research about algae led to my concern about the symbiotic relationship between algae and the coral reefs.
Ashton: We’ve always been passionate as a family about the ocean and wanted to help it. When I was 8 years old, Zara and I got involved with the local Strike for Climate march. If we hadn’t taken part in that, we might have just worried about the world’s problems and felt like we could do nothing. But the climate strikes turned us from being people just worrying about the problems in the world into climate activists. Then we came across the Ocean Heroes Network in 2020. We thought it would be amazing to join other young ocean heroes around the world.
You create such a fun variety of educational videos on your YouTube channel! How do you come up with the different ideas for these?
Zara: I think what we do is to first think of a problem that we would like to address and research it. Then (with some help from our mum) we sit down and write the ideas and a script to make it entertaining and educational. For example, our unofficial mascot the ‘sea chicken’ came about from our first video where I had to dress up as a seabird. All we had at home was a chicken hat and hoped no one would notice (they did!). Sea chicken was born… and he/she returns regularly in our videos.
Ashton: First, we start off with a problem like micro-plastics everywhere, and then we get facts about it. Instead of making a distressing video, we try to make it funny. People remember things better when they are funny, so it seems to work for us. If they weren’t funny, it would just be a dry, educational site. If adults dress up in sea chicken costumes, then people just think they’re weird. But, when kids do it, that’s OK!
The “sea chicken .” Courtesy Hidden Plastics
How would you encourage other young kids to get involved with big issues like climate change and pollution?
Ashton: The problems may look big, but just take it one small step at a time. You don’t have to cover all environmental issues, but just one small subject like sea turtles eating plastic bags, for example.
Zara: Such big problems may appear far too big and challenging for kids to be able to solve alone, but if we work together, we can solve them. Youth are very important and can touch adults in a more emotional way. Probably because we’ve not done anything to create the problems, but will inherit this world that is not in great shape at the moment. Kids could take a first step with a litter pick or join a protest or local environmental group. If they really feel up for it, I would recommend Ocean Heroes Bootcamp, because it is great at motivating you and preparing you to make a difference – no matter how big or small a campaign. Also, Ocean Heroes just launched their magazine called OH-WAKE, edited by a group of youth Ocean Heroes from around the world. OH-WAKE gives some great insights into topics like food waste reduction, tree planting, and soil restoration for those who are new to conservation. Ashton & I were fortunate enough to have been included in Issue #2 to share our journey so far. We hope this magazine encourages other kids to get involved and help solve the many problems around climate change, plastic pollution and other important issues.
I think many adults (myself included) believe your generation will finally be the one that truly makes the most significant positive impact on the climate crisis. What do you think about that? Is that too much pressure, or are you excited for the challenge?
Zara: I personally am quite excited about my generation, as I think we’re up for the challenge as long as together we apply ourselves to it. I think that really we have no other choice because our planet is changing whether we like it or not. And it’s our decision whether that change is for the better or worse.
Ashton: I’m excited about the challenge and think that our generation will bring the most positive changes to the planet. There are already some great solutions out there, and our generation will just bring more. Everyone has a role to play to make our planet what is should be.
Learn more about Hidden Plastic and watch Zara and Ashton’s creative videos over at HiddenPlastic.org.
Every year, we throw millions of tons of plastic into the ocean. Most of it is thrown into rivers, which lead to the sea. A huge amount of this plastic ends up in gyres – vortexes of circular currents – and eventually it all clumps together in vast floating ocean dumps. This, of course, is bad. But Boyan Slat and his project, fittingly named The Ocean Cleanup, have a plan, and on October 20, the second version of the ocean cleanup devices reached proof of technology.
Slat and his team spent years developing the first vessel, called System 001. After nearly seven years of fundraising, Slat’s idea had raised some $31 million and stolen the hearts of millions around the world who wanted to see our oceans finally rid of the plastic scourge. Financial supporters included Peter Thiel, the guy who co-founded PayPal then became the first outside investor in Facebook, and Marc and Lynne Benioff, who basically brought cloud computing to the public.
On September 8, 2018, the enormous ocean cleaner weighed anchor from San Francisco Bay. It was a test run of sorts, as all good science requires, and it was heading about 300 miles off shore for a two-week trial. If all went well, it would head to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and begin collecting the plastic that has accumulated there.Advertisement
The plan was relatively simple — complicated in terms of the sheer size of the operation, but simple in its design. System 001 was massive. Measuring in at nearly 2,000 feet long, it works as a sort of funnel to collect the enormous amounts of floating trash we’ve thrown into the ocean. Boats would tug the systems out to the centers of the five major ocean gyres and let them drift with the same currents that caused all that plastic to end up there in the first place.
After about a month, System 001 completed the 1,300-mile journey, and the contraption began attempting to do what it was created for. Soon, however, it became clear that there was a problem: the enormous boom wasn’t holding the plastic it collected. “It has been four weeks since we deployed System 001 in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP),” Slat wrote in an update on The Ocean Cleanup’s website. “In this time, we have observed that plastic is exiting the system once it is collected.”
Slat and his team, however, weren’t deterred by the setback. They’d been planning for any and all manner of issues. “We are currently working on causes and solutions to remedy this,” Slat explained just after he announced the issue. “Because this is our beta system, and this is the first deployment of any ocean cleanup system, we have been preparing ourselves for surprises.”
In July 2021, after a few years of tinkering, System 002 — or Jenny, if you know her well enough — hit the water for a 12-week test to see how the second version would fare. And as it turns out, it fared well. “The 12-week test campaign has now been concluded successfully – we have now reached proof of technology,” the team said. “System 002 will continue harvesting plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and in tandem, we will start working on System 003, a larger, upgraded ocean system, which is expected to be the blueprint design for scaling to a fleet of systems.”
With a lofty goal of reducing floating plastic in the ocean by 90 percent by 2040, The Ocean Cleanup crew has a difficult task ahead. They’re not worried, though. With the success of System 002, they’re already planning to scale up. “Having taken the learnings from System 002 and applying them to subsequent iterations of the technology, we will scale up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” they said. “With this blueprint for scale-up, we will look to deploy a fleet of systems into all the other four ocean gyres.”Advertisement
“My girlfriend tells me I smell like trash,” says Colin West. And he takes that as a compliment.
West spends 40 to 60 hours a week scuba diving Lake Tahoe to locate and remove submerged trash. On the day I spoke with him, he and a group of divers had collected 576 pounds of underwater garbage, including a massive monster truck–style tire. And since launching the nonprofit Clean Up the Lake in 2018, West and his team of ten full-time employees and contractors, plus an army of trained volunteers, have picked up more than 18,000 pounds of refuse.
Their latest mission? To complete the first circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe via scuba diving, with each dive focused on removing waste. As the nonprofit’s founder and executive director, West dives for trash three days per week, ten to 12 hours each dive, alongside a crew of Clean Up the Lake employees and volunteers.
The group’s Tahoe initiative launched in 2020; it’s supported by local sponsors like Tahoe Blue Vodka and the Tahoe Fund and will cover the waterway’s 72-mile circumference. It’s among the largest litter-removal efforts ever for the lake, and it couldn’t come at a better time. While lauded for its bright-blue beauty, Lake Tahoe’s deep-water clarity has plummeted by 30 percent from 1968 to 1997, according to the EPA. In 2019, scientists also found microplastics in Lake Tahoe’s water for the first time—a fact that’s particularly troubling given that the lake is a major drinking water source for Nevada communities.
Even with forces out of their control—the 221,000-acre Caldor Fire in fall 2021 and severe droughts impairing water access—West anticipates his crew will complete the circumnavigation this December. Along the way, Clean Up the Lake has done much more than rid Tahoe of litter. West is giving legs to a budding “give back while getting outside” movement: trash diving. (Think plogging but fully underwater.)
Trash collection isn’t new to the world of scuba. Since 2011, divers have removed more than 2 million pieces of marine debris through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors’ (PADI) Dive Against Debris program, a global scuba initiative to remove and log submerged litter, says Kristin Valette Wirth, PADI chief brand and membership officer.
In recent years, though, diving for waste has expanded inland to the country’s best-loved yet increasingly polluted lakes. West alone has received approximately 600 applications from interested scuba volunteers around Lake Tahoe. The Great Lakes also have trash divers tackling the region’s growing water-contamination concerns. These lakes, which make up more than 20 percent of the planet’s surface freshwater, are polluted with 22 million pounds of plastics each year, largely from local watersheds and shorelines.
(Photo: Professional Association of Diving Instructors)
Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes may lack the colorful corals and enchanting marine life of the oceans, but these under-the-radar dive locales offer two main allures: mind-blowing geology and rarely seen shipwrecks. The Great Lakes alone boast more than 6,000 sunken ships.
“We have the best shipwreck diving in the whole world, hands down,” says Chris Roxburgh, one of the Great Lakes’ best-known divers. Roxburgh, a master electrician in Traverse City, Michigan, reached local diving fame through his jaw-dropping photos of Great Lakes wrecks. This fall, he appeared on the History Channel’s Cities of the Underworld to share this wreck beauty with the world.
Social media helps Roxburgh and dozens of area divers showcase the hidden wonders of Great Lakes scuba while illustrating the severe plastic plight lurking below the surface. Roxburgh’s home waterway, Lake Michigan, receives roughly half of all of the Great Lakes plastic pollution. With everything the Great Lakes have given him, both recreationally and professionally, Roxburgh now feels responsible for protecting and future-proofing these waterways. He shares footage of submerged Mylar balloons, wrappers, toys, and soda cans to inspire followers to get involved.
“Since I was a kid, my parents taught me to leave no trace and clean up trash along the beaches and underwater, so it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life,” he says, noting that local wreck-diving fame has given him a platform to fight for the lakes he loves. “I felt like I needed to put [content] out there to show people they can make a difference. Especially scuba diving. We get the trash people can’t get to.”
(Photo: Chris Roxburgh)
Some area divers, like “Diver Don” Fassbender of Great Lakes Scuba Divers and Lake Preservation Club, host trash-diving meetups in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But Roxburgh typically goes with a small, hand-selected group, due largely to the liability and dangers, which are increased by the often-required clunky drysuits.
“If you don’t do it properly, your trash bag can get snagged, and it can become entangled in your equipment,” Roxburgh says. “The main thing is to not collect too much to the point it makes the dive unsafe. Always have a plan on how much you’re willing to collect safely, and don’t have ropes or strings floating about.”
Diving Lake Tahoe comes with its own unique risks. It’s the second-deepest lake in the world (1,600 feet) and sits at an altitude of around 6,200 feet above sea level. These elements make for tricky dive safety, and that’s before adding the variable of collecting garbage. West says Clean Up the Lake requires volunteers to have “at least advanced open-water certification with five recent dives.” Each new volunteer goes through rigorous preparation. So far, his team has selected and trained just under 100 volunteers.
“They need to be comfortable when working in a team underwater, because we’re down there working,” he says. Each team of divers—two scuba, one freediving near the surface—follows GPS coordinates. The scuba divers take mesh bags to pick up small trash along the way and use custom hand signals with the freedivers if they stumble upon something heavy that requires a weighted rope system.
Then there’s the fact that they’re diving well beyond summer to meet that December 2021 goal. “The winters get f-ing cold, and the lake gets really cold, even in a drysuit,” West says.
(Photo: Chris Roxburgh)
Divers alone aren’t going to clean up 22 million pounds of Great Lakes plastic. And a 72-mile circumnavigation may rid Lake Tahoe of debris—they’ve already removed 8,000 pounds of trash through this circumnavigation initiative—but it’s not going to fix the main Tahoe pollutants: fertilizers and urban stormwater runoff.
Is the risk of trash diving worth the reward? Yes, says Meagen Schwartz, who studied environmental science at Indiana University and founded Great Lakes Great Responsibility (GLGR), a volunteer movement to de-litter the region’s coasts and waterways. GLGR’s newest push, the #GreatLakes1Million challenge, calls on area residents to gather and record litter, then share their work on social media to catalyze local communities. The goal is to pick up 1 million pieces of waste; they’ve collected 90,000 since November 2020.
Schwartz lives in Alpena, Michigan, home to one of the region’s most vibrant dive spots: Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which boasts nearly 100 historic shipwrecks. While she doesn’t dive herself, Schwartz says trash divers have been instrumental not just to her movement, but to the plastic problem plaguing waterways around the world.
“They’re on the front lines. They’re seeing what’s in the more benthic region [the bottom] of the lake,” Schwartz says. “It’s also about raising awareness about the plastic problem. People can make individual changes, but it really needs to come from putting different legislation in place.”
Schwartz plans to use those 1 million pieces of inventoried trash to fight for change upstream, including data-driven petitions for new, more sustainable legislation. West hopes to do the same; Clean Up the Lake already has hard data from more than 80 categories of collected trash to showcase main pollutant sources and systemic problems.
Making real change is no pipe dream, and PADI’s Dive Against Debris program is proof of that. Take the small island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific as a case study. In 2018, Vanuatu decided to ban nonbiodegradable plastic bags, largely based on Dive Against Debris data. The trickle-down effect was monumental.
“Vanuatu no longer required bags to be shipped there, reducing the country’s overall carbon footprint,” says PADI’s Valette Wirth, noting the removal of plastic bags sparked the need for new, sustainably made sacks. Through this community-driven microeconomy, Vanuatuan people created bags using banana and palm leaves. “Due to the success of the policy decision, Vanuatu became a champion country promoting international cooperation to tackle marine debris. This is living proof of how local action can have a global impact.”
Avril E. Wiers, Careerline Tech CenterStudents in Careerline Tech Center’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Studies program are exploring the issue of microplastics, hard plastic fragments that are smaller than 5 millimeters across.Microplastics are ingested by wildlife and can end up in our food system where they leach harmful chemicals that can cause hormone disruption and cancer.Samples were collected from six beaches along the lakeshore of Ottawa County, from Grand Haven State Park to Holland State Park, with the state park beaches having the highest concentrations of microplastics.“You don’t really notice (plastic) when you go to the beach, but when you are looking for it, there is a lot everywhere. It’s kind of sad because it’s a beautiful place,” said Eli Steigenga, a student in the program.“I was actually really surprised by the amount of small plastic I found that looked like sea shells,” added Lily DeGroot, another student.Using the data they collected, students in both the morning and afternoon sessions of the program are engaging in a civic actions project to reduce the concentrations of microplastics. The morning session is focusing their attention on nurdles, which are tiny plastic pellets that are used as a raw material for plastics manufacturing.“I was surprised by how much plastic there actually is. You don’t notice it unless you are really looking for it. The amount of nurdles is insane!” one student said.The afternoon session is focusing their efforts on increasing recycling efforts at beaches. In general, Michigan has an average recycling rate of 18 percent, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, well below the nationwide average of 32 percent.Plastic in the environment does not biodegrade; it just breaks down into smaller pieces. That’s why it’s so important for plastics to be recycled properly.“If plastic doesn’t end up on the beaches, it can’t break down to microplastics,” student Aubrey Sibble explained.Students will continue refining their civic action projects by connecting with community businesses and organizations. At the completion of the module, students will present their work and celebrate their learning.“Throughout the project-based learning module, we’ve practiced collaboration and teamwork a lot. We’ve also learned how to communicate professionally with business partners,” Ava Carnevale reflected.The project-based learning module was inspired by the Inland Seas Education Association’s Great Lakes Watershed Field Course, a professional development opportunity to include student-led stewardship actions in their classrooms.Since 2016, this workshop has created Great Lakes stewards of over 100 teachers who, in turn, inspire curiosity through student-led stewardship actions in their classrooms. For more information on the Field Course program, visit schoolship.org/glwfc.The Natural Resources & Outdoor Studies program is a one-year career and technical program designed to introduce students in Ottawa County to the diversity of careers in natural resources, sustainability, environmental science, and recreation. To find out more about program enrollment, visit oaisd.org/ctc or talk to your student’s school counselor.— Avril E. Wiers is an instructor in the Natural Resources and Outdoor Studies program at the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District’s Careerline Tech Center.About this seriesThe MiSustainable Holland column is a collection of community voices sharing updates about local sustainability initiatives.This Week’s Sustainability Framework ThemeEnvironmental Awareness/Action: Environmental education and integrating environmental practices into our planning will change negative outcomes of the past and improve our future.
Look up images of ocean pollution and you’ll find islands of plastic items like cups, plastic bags, and other single use items. But microfiber from our clothing is also accumulating throughout the environment, and especially in our oceans and freshwater. According to one 2016 report, the fibers are not only ending up in our water supply—they are found in fish and other marine life too. A 2021 study found microfibers in the stomach of a deep sea fish that lives in a remote part of the South Atlantic Ocean, highlighting just how bad the microfiber pollution is around the world.
More than 70 percent of textiles used in the U.S. ends up dumped in a landfill or burned instead of recycled. Threads from the washing machine or a landfill then eventually make their way to waterways.
Enter sustainable fabrics. One company in particular, Lenzing, an Austria-based sustainable fiber producer that developed TENCEL, which are fibers that biodegrade rapidly in comparison with other regularly used fibers like polyester, creates fiber from raw material from wood. The plant base makes the fabric compostable, and materials are from a sustainably managed forest.
[Related: The secret to longer-lasting clothes will also reduce plastic pollution.]
“We take wood from sustainable forestry and use a highly efficient system of processing all raw materials to produce fibers that are able to return to the ecosystem at the end of their life cycle”, said Robert van de Kerkhof, a member of the managing board at Lenzing Group via a press release. “The textile and non woven industries have to change. Our goal is to raise widespread awareness of major challenges such as plastic pollution.”
The relatively easy rate of breakdown could be crucial for ocean waste if more manufacturers lean on using biodegradable materials instead of synthetic fabrics that create microfibers. Researchers with the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego tested the fibers and published a study in October highlighting how the wood-based material was able to biodegrade quickly in the ocean.
The scientists placed clothing made from synthetic material, like polyester in seawater for more than 200 days. Over the course of the soaking period, scientists did not observe any biofilm or biodegradation—the polyester clothes slowly broke down into plastic microfibers in the water.
“Plastics then undergo processes of fragmentation or deconstruction into smaller pieces… “[These materials] may take anywhere from decades to centuries for most types of plastic [to breakdown’,” the study’s authors wrote.
[Related: Bamboo fabric is less sustainable than you think.]
However, clothing made from Lenzing’s TENCEL fibers were placed in seawater for only 21 days and showed signs of breaking down in the water including a biofilm around the material as it began to degrade.
This TENCEL clothing did not create the same microfibers when broken down– the researchers predicted that it would break down entirely in the water within just a few months.
The researchers pointed out that though using recycled plastic to make new clothing is a short term solution to plastic pollution, they worried that the constant introduction of plastic into the country’s waterways would only contribute more to the plastic microfibers in the environment, polluting drinking water and clogging the digestive tracts of sea animals.
“Arguably,” the authors write, “the negative impacts of microfibers accumulating in the environment may outweigh the impact that the larger plastic item could have otherwise had.”