Pivet's plastic phone case could biodegrade within 2 years

Most plastics take hundreds of years to decompose. This one, from case maker Pivet, harnesses the power of hungry microbes.Michael Pratt doesn’t want to change the way you take out the trash. Instead, he wants to change what happens to trash when it ends up in a landfill or the middle of the ocean.  Pratt is the founder of Pivet, a new company that makes smartphone cases. You might think it’s a crowded field, however, not only is Pivet a Black-owned business in an industry that has shown little progress with diversity, but its plastic cases are also unusual. Unlike most plastics that take hundreds of years to decompose, Pivet’s cases can biodegrade in around two years, according to the company. The plastic in Pivet’s cases is embedded with a proprietary material called Toto-Toa. This material is comprised of natural and non-toxic ingredients, but Pivet wouldn’t specify those ingredients as it’s currently seeking intellectual property protection. This mixture purportedly speeds up the natural biodegradation process by attracting micro-organisms when the case enters microbe-rich environments, like landfills or oceans. (No, it won’t start to biodegrade when you’re still using the case.) These microbes colonize on the surface of the case and then break the plastic down into its raw components.“We don’t think that plastic is bad in general,” says Pratt. “We think what happens to plastic in its end of life is where the problem is. When we’re done with it, we have no idea how to properly dispose of it without harming the planet.”New MaterialsIn the US, more than 90 percent of plastic is never recycled. So instead of simply making a recyclable phone case or one made with recycled materials, Pratt and his team developed the Toto-Toa material to avoid placing the burden of recycling on the consumer. Buyers can throw out the case as normal when it’s no longer needed without worrying about harming the environment to the same degree. 

Your clothes spew microfibers before they’re even clothes

The clothing supply chain releases some 265 million pounds of microfibers that wash into the environment each year.You probably know by now that when you wash a load of synthetic clothes, like yoga pants or moisture-wicking sweatshirts, tiny bits of them tear loose and flush out to a wastewater treatment facility, which then pumps them out to sea. A single load of laundry releases perhaps millions of these microfibers (technically a subspecies of microplastics, defined as bits smaller than 5 millimeters). So it’s no wonder that scientists are finding the particles everywhere they look, from the deepest seas to what’s no longer a pristine Arctic.And now it turns out that your clothes are polluting the planet with microplastic before they’re even clothes. A new report from the Nature Conservancy picks apart the textile supply chain—from the manufacturer who makes synthetic yarn from little pellets of plastic, to the factory that stitches together the clothes—to estimate that this pre-consumer process releases 265 million pounds of microfibers each year. That’s the equivalent of one full T-shirt escaping into the environment for every 500 that come off the production line.These microfiber emissions could grow by over 50 percent in the next decade, as the business of synthetic textiles continues to boom. “Almost all of us, every single day, wake up, reach into a drawer or into our closet, and put on something that at least in part is made from synthetic textiles,” says Tom Dempsey, director of the Oceans Program at the Nature Conservancy of California and a coauthor of the new report. “We have a real problem, not just in capturing these microfibers pre-consumer, as well as in our homes and wastewater facilities, but also in how to dispose of the microfibers we do capture.”Treatment facilities actually catch between 83 and 99.9 percent of microfibers flowing out of our washing machines and the factories that make synthetic clothing. But humanity is producing such astounding quantities of the stuff that even catching 99.9 percent isn’t good enough. Oodles of them are able to escape filtering and end up in the environment. In the case of clothing factories, “wet processes” like the dyeing of fabrics and the prewashing of finished clothes in enormous machines create microfiber-rich wastewater, which is then sent to a treatment facility. Some of the microfibers get stuck in the solid human waste that these facilities turn into “sludge,” which is then slathered on agricultural fields as fertilizer. One 2016 paper calculated that by doing so, North Americans could be loading their fields with up to 330,000 tons of microplastics each year. “I think of that as just a big catch-and-release program for microfibers,” Dempsey says.And sludgy microplastics aren’t staying on those fields. When soils dry out, winds scour the dirt and blow microfibers around the world. So much microplastic is swirling around the atmosphere that each year the equivalent of 120 million plastic bottles is falling just on 11 national parks and other protected areas in the western US. (Plastic rain is the new acid rain.) Additionally, the treated water from our washing machines and textile mills, complete with microfibers that eluded filtering, gets pumped out to sea, where currents transport the particles around the globe.Recently, scientists have been doing controlled experiments to show how variables like detergent and temperature influence how many microfibers a household washing machine shakes loose. But the textile pre-consumer process hasn’t been studied until now. “The production phase is still this real black box,” says microplastics scientist Lisa Erdle, manager of research and innovation at the 5 Gyres Institute, which advocates for action on ocean plastic pollution. “We know that there are higher microfiber emissions for new garments compared to old. So it definitely is not a surprise that the pre-consumer textile manufacturing phase could be a major source of emissions.”But why worry about invisible little bits of plastic escaping into the environment? Because microfibers (and microplastics in general) have thoroughly infiltrated Earth’s ecosystems. Just as a sea turtle might choke on a big piece of plastic like a shopping bag, so too might small animals, like the planktonic creatures that make up the base of the oceanic food web, have their digestive systems clogged with tiny plastics. And when microfibers soak in water, they leach their component chemicals. While it’s still too early to know the extent of the impact these chemicals have on marine species, scientists worry that they could be harmful for any number of them.In fairness to synthetic microfibers, natural fibers aren’t faultless here either. “There’s a whole range of chemicals that are applied even to natural materials to give them different properties,” says Erdle. Clothing made from them is treated with dyes, of course, but also other substances to impart durability or waterproofing.Scientists like Erdle are scrambling to better understand the effects of microplastics, especially when it comes to potential threats to human health. Researchers consistently find the particles in shellfish and other seafood that people consume. They’re in our water and in the air you’re breathing right now. One study earlier this year calculated that adults and children consume an average of 883 and 553 particles a day, respectively.But the good news is that when it comes to pre-consumer microfiber pollution, there are actually business incentives for the clothing industry to clean up its act. Many factories actually treat their own wastewater in order to recycle it. If they can also sequester those microfibers and dispose of them properly (i.e., not spread them on fields), they can be socially and fiscally responsible. “What companies are finding is that by doing this, they actually save on water costs and utility bills that are associated with sewage,” says Sam Israelit, chief sustainability officer at the management consultancy Bain & Company and a coauthor of the new report. “And that reduction pays for the investments.”“If we were able to scale these solutions across the sector,” adds Dempsey, “we think we could reduce the upstream microfiber loss by something approaching—or maybe even greater than—90 percent relative to the current loss rates.”And not to shift the blame and responsibility to you, the consumer, but there are a few little things you can do too. You can wash your clothes in special bags or use a washing machine ball that grabs the fibers. There’s even a special filter called a Lint LUV-R that you can attach to your washing machine, which one study showed captures 87 percent of fibers.But at the end of the day, we just need clothes that don’t shed so many damn fibers. Indeed, some clothing manufacturers are exploring potential innovations that would reduce shedding, such as using different kinds of materials or spinning synthetic yarn in different ways. “It’s a fine balance to reduce fiber loss without compromising on the performance that’s required out of that material,” says Sophie Mather, executive director of the Microfibre Consortium, a nonprofit founded by the outdoor gear industry to explore solutions to fiber fragmentation. (The consortium wasn’t involved in this new report, but it is collaborating with the Nature Conservancy on a road map for research into fiber release from textiles.)A waterproof jacket needs to stay waterproof, for example, and stretchy yoga pants need to expand without tearing. “It’s not just about slapping a chemical finish on and saying, ‘We put this treatment on it. It’s going to stick the fibers in, and they’re not going to come out,’” says Mather. “I think that’s a very short-sighted view. It’s more about really understanding the intricacies of how that fabric has been put together in the first place.”It’s not likely that all of Earth’s people will suddenly go back to wearing only all-natural fibers like wool and cotton—synthetic materials are too useful. But the microfiber pollution problem is also too big to not tackle immediately. “I think the great upside here is that, unlike so many other conservation challenges, solutions really do exist right now,” says Dempsey. “The power of some of these brands, and the potential for some of these brands to make change within their own supply chain, is massive.”More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!One man’s amazing journey to the center of a bowling ballThe long, strange life of the world’s oldest naked mole ratI’m not a robot! So why won’t captchas believe me?Meet your next angel investor. They’re 19Easy ways to sell, donate, or recycle your stuff👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🎮 WIRED Games: Get the latest tips, reviews, and more🏃🏽‍♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones

A 'Bubble Barrier' is trapping plastic waste before it can get into the sea

“The Bubble Barrier” was developed as a simple way to stop plastic pollution flowing from waterways into the ocean. An air compressor sends air through a perforated tube running diagonally across the bottom of the canal, creating a stream of bubbles that traps waste and guides it to a catchment system. It traps 86% of the trash that would otherwise flow to the River IJ and further on to the North Sea, according to Philip Ehrhorn, co-founder and chief technology officer of The Great Bubble Barrier, the Dutch social enterprise behind the system.Commissioned by the municipality of Amsterdam and the region’s water authority, the Bubble Barrier was installed in October 2019 in under five hours. Ehrhorn says the idea is to catch plastic without having a physical barrier like a net or boom blocking the river, which could disrupt aquatic life or interfere with shipping.
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Trash is lifted to surface, and guided to a catchment system.
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To minimize noise, the compressor is located 50 meters away from the barrier, in a repurposed shipping container, and is powered by Amsterdam’s renewable energy.Ehrhorn says that while the bubble curtain can trap plastics down to 1 millimeter in size, the catchment system only retains objects that are 10 millimeters and larger. Small drifting aquatic life can get caught in the bubble curtain’s current, but with time is able to pass through the catchment system, according to Ehrhorn. He adds that an independent third party is currently assessing the movement of fish around the Bubble Barrier.’Like a jacuzzi’With a background in naval architecture and ocean engineering, Ehrhorn, who is from Germany, first conceived the Bubble Barrier when he spent a semester abroad in Australia, studying environmental engineering. At a wastewater treatment plant, he saw how oxygen bubbles were used to break down organic matter. “It was like a jacuzzi,” says Ehrhorn. “And what I noticed is that some of the plastic that people had flushed down the toilet was collecting in one corner.” This observation sparked his thesis and later the technology behind the Bubble Barrier. Unbeknownst to Ehrhorn, three Dutch women were working on the exact same idea in Amsterdam. Anne Marieke Eveleens, Saskia Studer and Francis Zoet were at a bar one evening discussing plastic pollution when they looked at the bubbles in their beer glasses and inspiration struck.By chance, a friend of Ehrhorn’s saw their pitch video for a competition inviting solutions for removing plastic from the environment. “We connected and found that we have the same vision and mission,” remembers Ehrhorn. “So I handed in my thesis and moved to the Netherlands the next day.” Together, the four turned a simple idea into a fully fledged Bubble Barrier pilot in the River IJssel. The plastic problemUp to 80% of ocean plastic is thought to come from rivers and coastlines. Ehrhorn says much of the plastic in Amsterdam’s Westerdok canal comes from trash bags that local residents leave outside their homes. If the bags tear, wind and rain can carry trash into the canal.Read: Could mealworms help solve our plastic crisis?Globally, 11 million metric tons of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year, where it can suffocate and entangle some aquatic species. Plastic debris less than five millimeters in length, known as microplastics, can also affect marine life. Often mistaken for food, microplastics are ingested and have been found in zooplankton, fish, invertebrates and mammalian digestive systems.Seabird conservation ecologist Stephanie B. Borrelle is the Marine and Pacific Regional Coordinator for BirdLife International. Her research on plastic pollution has found that even with “ambitious commitments currently set by governments,” we could release 53 million metric tons of plastic waste into the world’s freshwater and marine ecosystems by 2030. As a member of the Plastic Pollution Emissions Working Group, a team of self-described “scientists, policy wonks and conservation practitioners,” Borrelle has also researched the Bubble Barrier.”It was a really interesting one for us to look at, mostly because other types of barriers placed into aquatic environments can be a bit problematic in the way they interact with ecological functioning and animals moving through that system,” she says. Borrelle has some reservations about the technology; she questions how suitable the system would be for wide rivers and in developing economies, with a pump that needs continuous electricity and occasional maintenance, and she notes that heavy bits of plastic may not be lifted up by the bubbles. Read: How NASA technology can help save whale sharks — the world’s largest fish”Also, if you’ve got a large amount of traffic going through, that’s going to disrupt the plastic accumulation,” Borrelle says, adding that boats plowing through the barrier could potentially drag plastic along. “There are certain limitations, but as I see it, it’s an important part of the toolbox we have to address plastic that’s already in the environment,” she says. “The thing about plastic pollution is that there is no one single solution to fixing it. Once it’s in the environment, it’s about trying to get it from every angle you possibly can.”For the moment, the Great Bubble Barrier team works with Amsterdam’s water authority and the Plastic Soup Foundation NGO to analyze what kind of plastic has been caught and identify its sources, to help develop new policies around plastic waste.Amsterdam’s water authority empties the catchment system’s 1.8-meter by 2-meter basket three times a week. The contents are sent to a waste processor for sorting, and suitable materials are recycled. Ehrhorn says that the pandemic means they haven’t been able to quantify how much plastic the Bubble Barrier has caught to date.The startup, which is for-profit, plans to install more Bubble Barriers across the Netherlands, in Portugal and in Indonesia. It says the installation cost and energy use depends on the location and the flow of the river.Beyond keeping plastic from our oceans, the system could help change attitudes. Because the waste inside the catchment system is easily visible to passersby, Ehrhorn believes it helps people realize how much waste is ending up in our waterways; in this way, the barrier also acts as an educational tool to discourage waste and littering. “It concentrates on the trash that would otherwise flow off unseen and underwater even,” he says. “It literally brings to the surface, [that] which was otherwise never seen.” #video_1606835203041{margin:20px 0;}#video_1606835203041 video,#video_1606835203041 img{margin: 0; position: relative; width: 100%;}.cap_1606835203041{-webkit-font-smoothing:antialiased;padding:0 0 5px 5px; font-size:16px; color:#595959;}.cap_1606835203041:before{content:””;display: block;height: 1px;margin-top: 10px;margin-bottom: 10px;width: 80px;background-color: #C5C5C5;}.cap_1606835203041 >span{color:#C5C5C5;}@media(orientation:landscape){.video_1606835203041{display:block;}.Mvideo_1606835203041{display:none;}}@media(orientation:portrait){.Mvideo_1606835203041{display:block;}.video_1606835203041{display:none;}}
This story has been updated to correct the name of the River IJ and location of the IJsell.

Boris Johnson calls Cornish ocean cleaning couple 'an inspiration'

A Cornish couple who have collected hundreds of kilos of litter from the sea have been told by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that they inspire him. The couple have been awarded a Points of Light award by the Prime Minister in recognition of their dedication to keeping Cornwall’s coastline pristine. Through their organisation Clean Ocean …

MerMade launches recycling bins made with 100% certified ocean plastic for World Oceans Day

MerMade is rising from the sea with 65-gallon recycling bins made from fully traceable, certified ocean plastic sourced from Oceanworks. In this case, the plastic waste was collected from waters around Costa Rica. And each bin, made with 3.5 pounds of ocean plastic for World Oceans Day on June 8 (and beyond), comes with a 10-year warranty.

World Oceans Day comes via the United Nations as a time set aside “to raise global awareness of the benefits humankind derives from the ocean and our individual and collective duty to use its resources sustainably.”
The MerMade bins come from a Los Angeles-based startup that bills itself as “a creative collective that helps people reimagine traditional plastic products by using certified ocean plastic.”

A first batch of 111 blue bins, made by local partner Rehrig with distinctive teal lids, can be found in the wild throughout Southern California at local surf shops, schools and private residences, the company says. One claim to fame: It’s the first-ever bin to use ocean plastic in a trash-can mold.

“We hope to expand our placements and see our MerMade bins on curbs at private homes, businesses, and at events and festivals nationwide,” says Tessa Hayward, one of MerMade’s cofounders. At Lollapalooza 2021? Maybe.

Hayward helped create the startup in 2019 with fellow ocean lovers Matt Hartz, Matt Lanzdorf and Jesse Blatz, colleagues at LA-based advertising agency Team One. They pitched the ocean plastic recycling bin idea for an agency Launch an Idea program, won $25,000 and used it as seed money to start the company.

A close-up of the MerMade recycling bins, made with Oceanworks-sourced ocean plastic, launched for … [+] World Oceans Day.

Matt Hartz

Why a Recycling Bin?
You may have heard of ditching the plastic straw to help curb ocean plastic pollution. Hayward says the bins are about thinking bigger when it comes to how people can help curb plastic pollution. The 3.5 pounds of Oceanworks plastic that goes into each MerMade bin is equal to 3,000 straws, Hayward says. Similar products like ocean plastic traffic cones, shopping carts and more may be on the horizon.
“Our goal is a lofty one—to get millions of pounds of plastic out of the ocean—and possibly inspire other companies to reimagine their products using ocean plastic along the way,” she says.
Oceanworks sources plastic waste from eight marine collection zones around the globe, including Costa Rica.
“Oceanworks guidelines set the requirements for a supplier and its material to be listed as Oceanworks Guaranteed,” Hayward explains. “They focus on five categories: collection area compliance, environmental stewardship, social impact, business compliance, and recycling processes and segregation.”

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of waste to be claimed. Less than 10% U.S. plastic is reportedly recycled and plastic production is expected to double over the next two decades. Hayward notes that an estimated 17.6 billion pounds of plastic enters the marine environment every year, which is roughly equal to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the oceans every minute.
How to Get One
MerMade is accepting applications for bin batches on its website. Single bins are available for individuals and local business owners who reside in select service areas in Southern California. Bulk batches are available for order and delivery across the United States and worldwide.
For a limited time while supplies last, SoCal individuals and business owners in select service areas can apply for a complimentary MerMade bin, Hayward says. Bulk pricing varies by size and shipping requirements but individual bins will go for about $100 after the complimentary window closes (comparable in price to bins available at big-box stores).

World Oceans Day 2021: Why‌ ‌is‌ ‌there‌ ‌so‌ ‌much‌ ‌plastic‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌ocean?‌

Sign up to the Independent Climate email for the latest advice on saving the planet Get our free Climate email The planet is drowning in plastic pollution. Plastic has been found at the bottom of the world’s deepest ocean trench and lodged deep in Arctic sea ice.  During the 1990s, the world became addicted to …

Sierra Club Lake Erie Group: New plant won't 'recycle' plastics, just perpetuate pollution

International Recycling Group (IRG) plans to build a plant for processing waste plastic on a 25-acre “Opportunity Zone” site between East 10th Street and East Lake Road. The site was owned by International Paper (IP). The plant will have a sorting facility that IRG calls “recycling” waste plastic products.Lake Erie Group, Pennsylvania Sierra Club Chapter, opposes building the plant.The Lake Erie Group, Pennsylvania Sierra Club Chapter, has about 800 members in northwestern Pennsylvania. Many live in the neighborhood of the IP site or on the east side of the city of Erie.Breaking the mold:An in-depth look at how Erie-based IRG wants to change plastic recycling’s futureLake Erie Group’s position: The benefits that IRG claims would accrue to the community and the environment if its plant were built, even if accurate, are heavily outweighed by the foreseeable long-term human health costs and environmental damage of operating the proposed plant. Therefore, Lake Erie Group, Pennsylvania Sierra Club Chapter, opposes building the plant.The Sierra Club’s position on the continued extraction of fossil fuels is clear. Plastics are produced from feedstocks refined from the production of oil and gas: “There are no ‘clean’ fossil fuels. The Sierra Club is committed to eliminating the use of fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas and oil, as soon as possible. We must replace all fossil fuels with clean renewable energy, efficiency and conservation.”The Sierra Club also has clear positions on 1) the build-out of the plastics industry in western Pennsylvania; 2) on the banning of single-use plastics (and corporate efforts to undermine the public’s right to do so — unfortunately successful in Pennsylvania); and 3) the virtually complete failure of the plastics recycling industry.Basically, plastics recycling does not exist in any meaningful form. The very limited amount of plastics actually being processed for “recycling” are in fact being downcycled— re-processing plastic degrades the material and limits the number of times it can be re-processed. The ultimate fate of all the plastics introduced into the environment every day are, in order of prevalence:1) Pollution, most evident in waterways, but equally present on land, and even in the air, and in virtually all our bodies.2) Landfill.3) Burning, primarily for energy production (but also including coke substitution), spewing climate-changing carbon pollution into our waters and atmosphere, notwithstanding even modern emission control technology.4) A tiny portion of the vast volumes of plastics produced every day are downcycled into other plastics, which cannot be recycled again, meaning that they ultimately end up as either pollution (directly and through burning) or in landfills. Fossil-fuel-based plastics are simply not sustainable materials.The International Recycling Group (IRG) is proposing to truck 250,000 tons of plastic garbage into Erie annually. The materials would be sorted and then transported off-site to be used as fuel. No recycling is involved. Based on the well-considered positions of the Sierra Club nationally and in Pennsylvania, the Lake Erie Group cannot support the IRG proposal.Furthermore, any thorough consideration of the IRG proposal, as outlined in public statements, on its website, local media and social media, raises dozens of unanswered questions, and leads a reasonable person to wonder how such an enterprise can possibly succeed, let alone accomplish anything positive in the way of addressing the enormous issue of plastic pollution. A list of these questions appears in the Erie Reader: https://bit.ly/3yN1VgW.An article published on GoErie.com, https://bit.ly/3wGeKrE, refers to the questionnaire, but neglects to try to get answers to the questions, instead providing Mitch Hecht, IRG CEO, with another opportunity to greenwash his proposal, describing himself as a “dedicated environmentalist.”Timeline:A history of International Recycling Group included challenges, setbacks en route to ErieThe Sierra Club Lake Erie Group understands that the plastics industry plays an important role in the economy of the Erie region. But we also understand that plastic pollution has already achieved a level frequently described as environmental disaster. Plastic pollution has become a moral issue — the damage to the environment is enormous and increasing daily, and the worst of its impacts are felt most intensely by the world’s poorest populations. The continued production of single-use plastics afflicts all of us, and the fact that it is a source of economic activity is not sufficient reason to permit the ongoing infusion of plastic into the environment on every level.Sierra Club:The U.S. recycling system is garbageWe strongly urge the plastics industry, and its support network, including Penn State Behrend and its School of Engineering, which has the largest academic plastics lab in the United States, to start to address this crisis from a moral perspective, rather than continuing to embrace a coldly technological approach to materials science, free of concerns about the crisis caused by their products. The alternative is for the plastics industry to continue to emulate the international armaments industry, which has successfully convinced many of the world’s governments that its weapons make us safe, when it is quite clear that the arms trade drives armed conflict.We strongly urge that the city of Erie and the other municipalities in northwestern Pennsylvania take a hard look at their recycling programs and stop supporting the fiction that plastics are recyclable. A well-conceived, carefully managed recycling program is important — indeed, it is essential for a sustainable future — but a recycling program that pretends to recycle plastic and rejects recycling glass (or paper, or other immanently recyclable materials) is not fundamentally sound. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a hierarchy of options — recycle is the last resort, and certainly not a solution to the plague of plastics currently engulfing the planet.To read about the Sierra Club’s zero waste policy go to: https://bit.ly/3vFW3Eg.This position paper was submitted by the Executive Board of the Lake Erie Group, Pennsylvania Sierra Club Chapter.

Picture of Chesapeake microplastics grows clearer

Scientists have long suspected that the tiny plastic particles floating in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers — consumed by a growing number of aquatic species — are anything but harmless.Now, studies by a regional workgroup are beginning to clarify the connections between the presence of microplastics and the harm they could be causing in the Bay region. This research, combined with international interest in microplastics, is setting the stage for more informed management decisions and a flurry of additional studies.Globally, microplastics have been found in the air we breathe, the food we eat and in human organs — even in mothers’ placentas. It’s possible that humans are ingesting a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week. One of the ways people consume plastics is by eating seafood, though the tiny particles can also be swirling around in tap and bottled water. Assessing the risk of plastic consumption by humans is one important research goal.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, researchers also want to understand how microplastics could be impacting local ecosystems and aquatic species. A workgroup of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a state-federal partnership that leads the Bay restoration effort, identified microplastics in 2018 as a contaminant of mounting concern. A 2014 survey of four tidal tributaries to the Bay found microplastics in 59 out of 60 samples of various marine animals, with higher concentrations near urban areas. A Bay survey the next year found them in every sample collected.

Plastic microfibers, shown here under a microscope, often slough off from the washing of synthetic fabrics and make their way through wastewater treatment facilities to local waterways. Such fibers are thought to be among the most common plastics in many river systems. 

Ocean Wise

Microplastics are typically defined as plastic pieces between 1 micron and 5 millimeters in size. Smaller pieces are called nanoplastics.Researchers classify microplastics in two ways.“Primary” microplastics are tiny when they enter the environment. Examples include plastic pellets released by industrial facilities, synthetic microfibers in clothing released during wash cycles and tire fragments washed off of roads.“Secondary” microplastics are created when larger plastic debris breaks down into smaller fragments as it’s battered by wind, sun and water over time. Polystyrene (often known by the brand name, Styrofoam) food containers, plastic grocery bags and plastic water bottles are in the secondary category. They easily break down into smaller pieces, making them priority targets for legislation that reduces their use.Focus on striped bassIn spring 2019, the Bay Program convened a two-day workshop to evaluate what local experts did and did not understand about the impact of microplastics in the Chesapeake region.The participants concluded in a follow-up report that microplastics “pose a potential serious risk to the successful restoration of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.” They recommended developing an “ecological risk assessment” for striped bass — a key Bay species, known regionally as rockfish — to provide a detailed look at how a living organism ingests microplastics and what happens when it does.In response, the Bay Program formed a plastic pollution action team to head the risk assessment effort and produce strategies for reducing plastic pollution, a goal seeing revived political interest recently. The group also compiled standardized terms and measurements for the region’s scientists to use as they study microplastics.And, after dredging up more questions than answers about microplastics, the 2019 workshop led the EPA to contract with Tetra Tech Inc. to help produce a series of reports on the subject, including the risk assessment for striped bass.Striped bass from the Potomac River were selected because, as one of the top predators in Bay tributaries, they consume and rely on other species and habitats whose progress is integral to the restoration effort. They are known to consume both blue crabs and forage fish. Once under a fishing moratorium, striped bass were considered a success story of the Bay because of their rebounding population. Recently, though, they have faced setbacks. Their habitat, preferred diets and populations have been well-documented, and striped bass continue to be closely monitored under a regional fishery partnership today.

Discarded plastic objects wash into waterways and break down over time into tiny particles called microplastics.

Dave Harp

The newly released risk assessment found a fair amount of circumstantial evidence, based on research involving other fish species, that microplastics could have harmful impacts on the Bay’s most iconic recreational species and, potentially, on the people who eat them.The scientists did not open the bellies of local striped bass to look for plastic. Instead, they combed existing scientific literature — some of it coming out while the work was under way — to discern data gaps and identify where future Bay-region studies should focus their attention.The assessment found that microplastics can harm fish in several ways.Tiny plastic particles can physically block or fill up the animal’s gut, potentially reducing its ability or desire to feed.Microplastics can cause behavioral changes as their presence changes a fish’s buoyancy or swimming behavior, which can make the fish more susceptible to predators.Microplastics also can carry toxic chemicals into the fish’s body, which could bioaccumulate as the fish consumes other prey that have ingested plastics.While striped bass migrate outside of the Bay, they tend to remain in the estuary for the first few years of their lives, making them “an organism that can reflect the potential impact of microplastics in a specific location,” the assessment states.Martin Gary, executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, advocated for focusing on striped bass rather than oysters or blue crabs, as had been originally suggested, because their lifecycle makes the fish a fitting indicator of their environment. Gary said the Potomac River is the second-most valuable spawning area for striped bass along the Atlantic Coast, behind the Susquehanna River.“Pretty much all life stages of striped bass use the [Potomac] river at some point, even the larger animals that come back,” Gary said. “It’s not a species with specific outcomes in the 2014 Bay agreement, but its life cycle includes the health of crabs and oysters and sea grasses. Everything is interdependent.”Also, because their numbers are once again in decline, striped bass also are “on everybody’s radar right now,” Gary said, as fishery managers consider whether to revisit an overarching management plan in light of recent declines in their population. If they do, microplastics could be a part of that conversation.Eating plasticGlobally, researchers have found microplastics in the guts of enough aquatic species to assume they’re nearly everywhere, both in aquatic environments and in the creatures that inhabit them.Eastern oysters, which live in the Chesapeake Bay, have been shown to confuse microplastic beads for food in a University of Maryland lab, taking the particles into their gut.

Plastic pieces float near a kayak in Virginia’s Occoquan River.

Whitney Pipkin

A researcher in Delaware Bay recently looked for microplastics in juvenile and adult blue crabs in two of the bay’s tidal creeks. Jonathan Cohen, an associate professor at the University of Delaware whose work has yet to be published, wrote in an email that his team found microfibers in 48% of crabs collected, mostly in their stomachs.No one has done a survey on the stomachs of striped bass in the Potomac River yet, but evidence already exists that they would likely find microplastics. A study of microplastics uptake by species in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada found tiny plastic particles in the guts of striped bass there.
Susanne Brander, a researcher at Oregon State University studying how microplastics impact black sea bass, spoke via video at the 2019 workshop about her findings, which could have some correlations to the Bay’s striped bass. While at the University of North Carolina, Brander found microplastics in 60% of black sea bass she sampled in the wild during a two-year project. This important East Coast species also visits the Lower Bay.Because striped bass consume a broad array of other species over the first three years of their lives, their diet alone — a major focus of the risk assessment — illuminates the many ways they could be consuming microplastics in the Potomac River. Striped bass could be exposed to microplastics via their gills or by skin contact in addition to consuming them. But the assessment assumes, based on existing research, that “trophic transfer” — eating other species that have eaten microplastics — is a major mechanism of exposure.How microplastics get into the fish matters. Studies cited in the assessment show that mysids, small, shrimplike crustaceans that striped bass regularly consume, can contain large amounts of microplastics. The same research shows that fish that consume mysids tend to bioaccumulate those plastic particles — storing them in higher and higher concentrations — and transfer them to fish tissue.The assessment did not focus on which types of microplastic striped bass would likely be consuming. Preliminary evidence suggests that microfibers, like those that are shed by synthetic clothing or fishing nets, could be more abundant than disintegrating plastic in river systems.As researchers were working on this assessment, microplastics research continued to be published. One study came from students at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, who found microplastic particles in the stomachs of smallmouth bass taken from the mainstem of the Susquehanna River in 2019. Each of the 89 bass contained an average of 29 pieces of microplastics, predominantly fibers.Overall, the striped bass assessment is a starting point for further research, its authors said.“This is a framework that starts showing the potential of different sources of microplastic contamination … to striped bass,” said Kelly Somers, physical scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and co-chair of the Plastic Pollution Action Team. “Naturally, it will inform us of other species on that pathway, like blue crabs or [underwater grasses]. This is the first iteration — that necessary groundwork we need to lay to better understand that.”Human impactMore information also is needed about threats posed to humans who eat the Bay’s fish, including striped bass.“Given that striped bass are a popular recreational and commercial fishery species, there is potential for humans to become contaminated with microplastics from eating striped bass,” said Matt Robinson, environmental protection specialist for the District Department of Energy and Environment and a co-chair of the Bay Program’s plastic pollution action team.Granted, he said, research is pointing to a growing number of ways humans could be consuming plastics already. “Still, we are very concerned here in DC about people eating plastic when they eat fish.”Despite the ubiquity of microplastics, researchers and advocates are far from throwing in the towel. The plastic pollution action team also published in May a document that lays out what future microplastic monitoring should look like in the Bay watershed — and potential strategies for curbing sources of plastic pollution closer to the source.

“COVID trash” is now a common element in waterborne debris. Masks and gloves are among the types of litter that degrade into microplastics.

Robbie O’Donnell

The report suggests an overarching monitoring program for microplastics that dovetails with existing monitoring programs and falls under the purview of the Bay Program. A subset of fish monitoring programs that collect and analyze stomach contents, for example, could also be used to garner microplastic ingestion data. The report also suggests collecting enough microplastic data that the Bay Program could set a related pollution reduction goal for the region or states could use it to inform their own policies and practices.Globally, the production and disposal of plastics has continued to skyrocket in recent decades, with an estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic entering the marine environment from land-based sources every year, according to the nonprofit Oceana. The group says that’s roughly the equivalent of dumping two garbage trucks full of plastic into the ocean every minute.Despite growing awareness about plastic pollution in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have temporarily cemented reliance on certain plastics. A data analysis published in ScienceDirect indicated that the pandemic would “reverse the momentum of a years-long global battle to reduce plastic waste pollution.” Another study found the virus triggered an estimated global use of 129 billion face masks and 65 million gloves every month, enough to cover the landmass of Switzerland over the course of a year.Volunteers who clean up trash along the Anacostia River had to create a new category for the sudden uptick in masks, gloves and other “COVID trash” they were finding floating in the water and stuck to the shorelines.“That was one of the main things people picked up,” said Robbie O’Donnell, watershed programs manager for the Anacostia Riverkeeper.Katie Register, executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways at Longwood University, said that, in some ways, 2020 felt like a lost year in plastics advocacy. But, in other ways, a lot of ground was gained.“People used to sit in a restaurant eating off plates, and then for a year all that food has been in single-use plastics, for the most part,” Register said. “But, in spite of that, we’ve seen some real changes.”Some are driven by new legislation.New lawsEven as the research continues, recent legislation is attempting to reduce sources of plastic pollution.

A plastic grocery bag floats across a sidewalk in the District of Columbia. The District was one of the first localities to pass a 5-cent fee on the use of plastic bags.

Whitney Pipkin

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order in March that lays out a plan for state government facilities — including state universities — to stop by midsummer the use of plastic bags, straws, cutlery and other items. The order, which cites concerns for the health of the Bay and wildlife, also includes a plan to phase out use of all nonmedical single-use plastics and polystyrene objects by 2025.Virginia also approved in March a plan to end the use of polystyrene cups and food containers. Food chains with 20 or more locations will not be able to package food in such containers as of July 2023 without being fined, while remaining vendors have until July 2025. The bill also restricts nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers after the 2025 deadline.The state also passed a local option to add a 5-cent tax on plastic bag use at grocery, convenience and drug stores as of this year. In May, the Roanoke City Council was the first to approve a local version of the tax.Maryland lawmakers did not act this year on a proposed ban of plastic bags, but they did join Virginia and become the sixth state in the country to ban intentional balloon releases. Pennsylvania authorities completed a littering study in 2020 and began work in May on a Littering Action Plan intended to curb trash closer to its source.At the federal level, California and Oregon lawmakers reintroduced an expanded federal bill called the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. The bill would require producers of plastics to help fund recycling programs while banning certain single-use plastics nationwide, placing a moratorium on new plastics production facilities and calling for additional research, among other measures.“I credit a lot of this to growing concerns among people of all ages,” Register said. “People are more aware that plastic pollution is increasing, and it’s got serious impacts.”

Merkel urges ′ambitious′ Glasgow climate summit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the UN’s COP26 summit in November must deliver “concrete measures” to tackle climate change. She used her weekly podcast to highlight World Environment Day.
The United Nation’s COP26 climate summit in November “must provide further impetus for concrete measures” to cut global warming to a “tolerable level,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted on Saturday. In her weekly video podcast, coinciding with World Environment Day, Merkel said the climate goals set in Paris in 2015 and to be finessed in Glasgow, Scotland, later this year, will make 2021 a “significant year” in the transition from fossil fuels. Europe making progress Europe has “already come a long way” toward becoming what the EU terms a “climate-neutral economy” by 2050, asserted Merkel — a former environment minister herself from 1994 until 1998 under late conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl. The Paris Agreement set the aim of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), compared to pre-industrial levels. Experts such as the Climate Action Tracker consortium warn that current policies have the world heading for 2.9 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, 2100. “These [Paris] goals are ambitious, but we can achieve them,” insisted Merkel in her podcast, adding that new German climate legislation— prompted by Germany’s constitutional court in April — would “preserve our environment, our own livelihoods.” “We have the appropriate instruments for this: An effective CO2 price, the phase-out of coal-fired power generation, increased coal-fired power generation, the increased expansion of renewable energies, and the switch to e-mobility,” she said. Under the current bill submitted by Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, Germany aims by 2030 to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 65% in relation to 1990 levels. By 2045, Germany’s economy is supposed to be climate neutral. ‘Easy to stop’ single-use plastics Referring to World Environment Day, Merkel also highlighted the need to cut plastic waste. She urged Germany’s 83 million residents to embrace from July the EU’s ban on the production in Europe of single-use plastics such as straws and cotton buds. “Doing without them will be easy and will greatly relieve the environment,” Merkel said. The chancellor also highlighted species depletion and losses in biological diversity. “Up to a million species are threatened with extinction, many of them already in the coming decades,” she said. “We urgently need to stop this development.” “We humans are dependent on an intact environment and the preservation of biodiversity,” emphasized Merkel. ipj/mm (epd, KNA, dpa, AFP, Reuters)