Nurdles: The worst toxic waste you’ve probably never heard of

Nurdles: the worst toxic waste you’ve probably never heard ofBillions of these tiny plastic pellets are floating in the ocean, causing as much damage as oil spills, yet they are still not classified as hazardous When the X-Press Pearl container ship caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean in May, Sri Lanka was terrified that the vessel’s 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil would spill into the ocean, causing an environmental disaster for the country’s pristine coral reefs and fishing industry.Classified by the UN as Sri Lanka’s “worst maritime disaster”, the biggest impact was not caused by the heavy fuel oil. Nor was it the hazardous chemicals on board, which included nitric acid, caustic soda and methanol. The most “significant” harm, according to the UN, came from the spillage of 87 containers full of lentil-sized plastic pellets: nurdles.Since the disaster, nurdles have been washing up in their billions along hundreds of miles of the country’s coastline, and are expected to make landfall across Indian Ocean coastlines from Indonesia and Malaysia to Somalia. In some places they are up to 2 metres deep. They have been found in the bodies of dead dolphins and the mouths of fish. About 1,680 tonnes of nurdles were released into the ocean. It is the largest plastic spill in history, according to the UN report.Nurdles, the colloquial term for “pre-production plastic pellets”, are the little-known building block for all our plastic products. The tiny beads can be made of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride and other plastics. Released into the environment from plastic plants or when shipped around the world as raw material to factories, they will sink or float, depending on the density of the pellets and if they are in freshwater or saltwater.They are often mistaken for food by seabirds, fish and other wildlife. In the environment, they fragment into nanoparticles whose hazards are more complex. They are the second-largest source of micropollutants in the ocean, by weight, after tyre dust. An astounding 230,000 tonnes of nurdles end up in oceans every year.Like crude oil, nurdles are highly persistent pollutants, and will continue to circulate in ocean currents and wash ashore for decades. They are also “toxic sponges”, which attract chemical toxins and other pollutants on to their surfaces.“The pellets themselves are a mixture of chemicals – they are fossil fuels,” says Tom Gammage, at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international campaign group. “But they act as toxic sponges. A lot of toxic chemicals – which in the case of Sri Lanka are already in the water – are hydrophobic [repel water], so they gather on the surface of microplastics.“Pollutants can be a million times more concentrated on the surface of pellets than in the water,” he says. “And we know from lab studies that when a fish eats a pellet, some of those pollutants come loose.”Nurdles also act as “rafts” for harmful bacteria such as E coli or even cholera, one study found, transporting them from sewage outfalls and agricultural runoff to bathing waters and shellfish beds. The phenomenon of “plastic rafting” is increasing.Yet nurdles, unlike substances such as kerosene, diesel and petrol, are not deemed hazardous under the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) dangerous goods code for safe handling and storage. This is despite the threat to the environment from plastic pellets being known about for three decades, as detailed in a 1993 report from the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency on how the plastics industry could reduce spillages.Now environmentalists are joining forces with the Sri Lankan government in an attempt to turn the X-Press Pearl disaster into a catalyst for change.When the IMO’s marine environment protection committee met in London this week, Sri Lanka’s call for nurdles to be classified as hazardous goods attracted public support, with more than 50,000 people signing a petition. “There is nothing to stop what happened in Sri Lanka happening again,” says Gammage.Last year there were at least two nurdle spills. In the North Sea a broken container on the cargo ship MV Trans Carrier lost 10 tonnes of pellets, which washed up on the coasts of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In South Africa, a spill in August 2020 came after an accident in 2018, which affected up to 1,250 miles (2,000km) of coastline. Only 23% of the 49 tonnes that were spilled were recovered. In 2019, 342 containers of plastic pellets spilled into the North Sea. Awareness is growing about the huge threat posed by the tiny pellets. Last year two environmental protesters in the US were charged under a Louisiana state law with “terrorising” a plastics industry lobbyist when they left a box of nurdles outside his house as part of a campaign to stop the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics opening a factory in Louisiana.The nurdles came from another Formosa plant in Texas, which had spilled vast amounts of the pellets into Lavaca Bay on the Gulf of Mexico (Formosa agreed to pay $50m to settle a lawsuit for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act). The charges against the activists, which carried a 15-year prison term, were later dropped.Such incidents are preventable, campaigners say. “The sinking of the X-Press Pearl – and spill of chemical products and plastic pellets into the seas of Sri Lanka – caused untold damage to marine life and destroyed local livelihoods,” says Hemantha Withanage, director of the Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka. Consumption of fish, the main protein source for 40% of Sri Lankans, has reduced drastically, he says. “It was a huge accident and unfortunately there’s no guidance from the IMO.”Classifying nurdles as hazardous – as is the case for explosives, flammable liquids and other environmentally harmful substances – would make them subject to strict conditions for shipping. “They must be stored below deck, in more robust packaging with clear labelling,” says Tanya Cox, marine plastic specialist at the conservation charity Flora & Fauna International. “They would also be subject to disaster-response protocols that can, if implemented in the event of an emergency, prevent the worst environmental impacts.”Welcome to the ‘plastisphere’: the synthetic ecosystem evolving at seaRead moreBut the nurdle can has been kicked down the road, with the IMO secretariat referring the issue to its pollution, prevention and response committee, which meets next year. Campaigners said it was disappointing that the Sri Lankan proposal was not properly discussed. The EIA’s Christina Dixon said: “The attitude of the committee members was extraordinary and showed a callous disregard for plastic pollution from ships as a threat to coastal communities, ecosystems and food security. This is simply unacceptable.”Meanwhile, the cleanup continues in Sri Lanka. Some of the 470 turtles, 46 dolphins and eight whales washing ashore have had nurdles in their bodies, says Withanage. While there is no proof the nurdles were responsible, he says: “I’ve seen some of the dolphins and they had plastic particles inside. There are 20,000 families who have had to stop fishing.“The fishermen say when they dip [themselves] into the water, the pellets get into their ears. It’s affected tourism, everything.”TopicsPlasticsSeascape: the state of our oceansPollutionSri LankaMarine lifeWildlifeOceansTravel and transportfeaturesReuse this content

Microplastic pollution in Virginia coastal system becomes increasing concern for local researchers

Microplastic waste has become a serious threat to the ecosystem — plastic pollution in particular has grown exponentially in the past decade within Virginia, leading to disruption of the Chesapeake Bay and other large bodies of water. University researchers explain the significant harm that microplastics can have on the environment, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay, and discuss plans of action to combat this detrimental effect. 
Microplastics are categorized as plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size. These often enter the ocean through sewage systems and infiltrate soil and the air we breathe. Initially, researchers only knew of microplastics as the microscopic particles formed by larger plastic waste that was broken down by the sun. However, new findings have confirmed that microplastics come from the synthetic fibers in clothing and microbeads from cosmetic products, such as face exfoliants.

Research on microplastics is minimal, and as a result, researchers do not know the specific effects microplastics have on the environment. For other environmental issues such as landfill waste, pollution and the lack of fossil fuels, researchers have come up with timelines and proposed action plans — this has not yet been developed for microplastics, however. 
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce has voiced concerns about the lack of a large-scale and long-term collective database that contains visual survey information of microplastics along coasts and in the open ocean in order to support microplastic research. As a solution, the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information created the Marine Microplastic Database this year, a publicly accessible and regularly updated collection of global microplastic data from researchers around the world. 
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 77 in March, which outlines a plan to phase out single-use plastics and reduce solid waste at state agencies. In response to the order, the University created a single-use plastic reduction policy, which began with eliminating plastic waste in dining halls and replacing single-use plastic with sustainable and reusable takeaway containers and compostable silverware. The University is also looking into expanding their composting facilities and minimizing plastic bag use under this initiative. 
Similar initiatives have been implemented throughout the nation, and environmental concerns based on plastic pollution have pushed retailers to provide more sustainable bag options, pilot the trend of reusable containers and make plastic straws a rarity. Environmentally-conscious consumers have even boycotted stores that utilize single-use plastics.
Large plastics make their way into the ocean frequently and are easier to remove from the water compared to microplastics, which must be either filtered out of the ocean or entirely prevented from entering the ocean.
The existence of plastics in large bodies of water results in a multitude of issues — notably, the disruption of the ecosystem when animals ingest plastics and release toxic gas and foods containing tiny plastics. 

Asst. Engineering Prof. Lindsay Ivey-Burden has conducted research in environmental engineering — specifically engineering for a more sustainable future. Ivey-Burden explained further how these unsustainable materials end up in our environment. 
“When anything with synthetic fibers and polyester goes in the washer, the fibers sort of come out and they form very small micro [and] nano-plastics,” Ivey-Burden said. “And so then that goes into the wastewater system and back into the environment.”
Another way microplastics enter our oceans is through cosmetic products, especially those labeled as exfoliants. Exfoliants contain microbeads, which produce an abrasion towards the skin that removes dead skin cells from the surface of the face. These microbeads easily pass through household water filter systems and travel to large bodies of water.
In Virginia specifically, this affects the coast and its marine life. One of the most common ways microplastics damage the coastal system is through the oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. 
“Microplastics in the water make it much harder for [the oysters] to filter the water — which they’re supposed to do because they’re trying to eat all the algae — and they end up eating a bunch of plastic instead of algae,” Ivey-Burden said.
This leads the oysters to be put under an immense amount of stress. In order to fulfill their nutritional needs, they must filter through much more water in order to consume enough algae due to the alarming algae-plastic ratio present in the bay. 
Certain areas of the Chesapeake Bay also serve as hot spots for microplastics, acting as breeding grounds for chemicals and diseases that are picked up by microplastics and transported into the bay. Shorelines and underwater grass beds are the most common hot spots because it is easy for microplastics to settle in these areas. The black sea bass — a local fish commonly served at restaurants in coastal Virginia — is just one of the marine animals that feed near these hotspots and ingest the microplastics. 
While studies show that most microplastics do not move to the muscle tissue of fish — the part consumed by humans — scientists are still concerned with the effect of microplastics on human health. It is difficult to determine the individual impacts of these plastics on consumers as we are constantly in contact with microplastics, from bottled and tap water to clothing. Additionally, researchers know very little about the levels of toxicity that can hurt humans as well as how food chain processes may affect the toxicity of plastics.
Environmental and material scientists have been researching the toxicity of plastic materials and the solutions needed to decrease this toxicity to people and the environment. 
Researchers have explored solutions to microplastic waste, but some of these solutions are costly and may cause further destruction to the environment. Water filtration systems, for example, are one of the most discussed solutions. Filtration systems utilizing magnets, tiny nets and vacuums have all been tested by different researchers, but it is nearly impossible to filter out such small pieces of plastic without filtering out very crucial marine organisms as well. 
Robert Hale, microplastic expert and head researcher at the Virginia Institute for Marine Science, explained that implementing a filtration system is not realistic. 
“There are not just microplastics in the ocean, there are other organisms — especially floating organisms — that will get weeded out too,” Hale said. “There is just no way for these filters to sort effectively.”
Other solutions, such as creating more sustainable clothing, eliminating single-use plastics and establishing filtration systems in washing machines are all viable and would have a large impact on microplastic waste. However, from a cost standpoint, the likelihood that the general public will react favorably to increased taxes as a way to fund initiatives that stop plastic waste is very low. 
“The cost efficiency of plastic ends up feeding the monster and makes it very difficult for big corporations to increase production costs in order to be more environmentally friendly,” Hale said.
In order to eliminate microplastics, scientists agree that toxic additives that are in plastic waste must first be removed. Assoc. Engineering Prof. David Green has been studying plastic waste for much of his career, specifically plastic as a material and the microscopic properties associated with it. 
“By trying to remove certain additives that have proven to be toxic — things like car plasticizers, stabilizers and pigments — and making this plastic particle, but trying to design it so that when it gets wet and it gets into the landfill, that it doesn’t degrade off,” Green said.
Green also agreed that general reduction of plastics would help to eliminate microplastics. The elimination of single-use plastics at the University is a plan that, if modeled at other universities across the country, could make a big difference.

Plastic pollution making its way into bodies of wildlife, humans

Quantifying the dangers of plastic pollution in the seas and nature, a team of researchers in a new study estimates that about half of the world’s seabirds have ingested plastic additives. The researchers from Japan, the United States and other countries studied 145 seafowls of 32 species from 16 areas of the world. They found brominated flame retardants …

Market to farm: A new food waste disposal method raises fears that microplastics will taint fields

click to enlarge

Luke Awtry

A metal spoon removed from a Green Mountain Compost pile

Hundreds of pints of spoiled Ben & Jerry’s ice cream awaited their fate in a Williston warehouse this month.

Unfit for sale, the sweet rejects from the company’s factories would be scooped up by a worker driving a payloader and tipped with a crash into a filthy metal hopper. Augers would funnel the mess to a monstrous red machine with powerful spinning paddles that would pummel the pints, breaking down the cardboard and plastic packaging and separating most of it from the sugary slop.

Welcome to Vermont’s first waste depackaging facility, where Americone Dreams go to die.

Casella Waste Systems fired up the $3 million waste-processing plant in January and, with it, a controversy about the new type of food waste it generates.

The facility is designed to tackle the problem of what to do with food waste that is banned from Vermont’s only landfill, in Coventry, but still encased in boxes, plastic bottles and plastic bags.

The new machinery can process thousands of tons a year of food that is thrown away by manufacturers and grocery stores while still in its plastic, metal or paper packaging. Manufacturers such as Ben & Jerry’s often need to discard batches of food and beverages that don’t meet their strict quality-control standards or are past their shelf life. The Williston facility also handles food waste from homes, restaurants, apartment complexes and institutions.

While the process separates out most contaminants, it does not capture them all. That melted Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and other food slop will still contain tiny bits of plastic when it leaves Casella’s separator and is shipped to biogas plants. There, when mixed with other food or farm waste, it will decompose in huge digesters, generating methane that is turned into energy. Some of the plastic — the crucial question is how much — will still be present when the depleted material is spread on Vermont farm fields.

click to enlarge

Luke Awtry

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream pints awaiting depackaging

The state’s nearly decade-long drive to steer all organic material — whether leaves raked off lawns, vegetables scraped off dinner plates or stale bread tossed from supermarket shelves — out of the landfill and into animal feed, healthy soil and green energy has made Vermont a leader in food waste recovery. But the solution to one problem — wasting valuable landfill space with food that simply rots — has unintentionally caused another, say critics of the new process.

So far this year, more than 500 tons of material from digesters that accept this depackaged waste have likely been applied to farmland in Vermont, according to data from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“It’s foolish to think that we can lace our precious agricultural lands with countless bits of indestructible microplastic and not suffer the health and environmental consequences,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

The impact of plastic in soils is not well understood, but studies show that it can affect soil health, reduce plant vigor, and, if the particles are small enough, be absorbed by plants and end up in food for animals and people.

So far, all that tonnage has gone to just three farms. But state regulators are concerned enough that they’ve instituted what amounts to a moratorium on more farms spreading the waste on fields until they learn more about what’s in it.

Supporters say the Casella depackaging plant is a vital tool in the campaign to recycle more food waste and conserve landfill space. A 2018 study of Vermont’s waste stream estimated that 24 percent of all landfilled waste, or 80,000 tons a year, was organic material that could be put to better use. Of that, 38 percent was discarded still in its packaging.

Surrounding states are adding depackaging capacity, supporters note. Without similar equipment, Vermont’s food and beverage businesses may be forced to haul its packaged waste out of state. Hannaford, for example, trucks expired food from its 15 Vermont supermarkets to a depackaging and biogas power plant outside Bangor, Maine, a six-hour drive from Burlington.

Depackaging food waste can also help extend the life of the Coventry landfill, boost green-energy production and provide farmers with an alternative to synthetic fertilizers.

In April, Cathy Jamieson, manager of the state’s solid waste program, told lawmakers the plain truth: “We need to deal with food waste in packaging if we want to divert these materials.”

Guessing Game

click to enlarge

Luke Awtry

From left: Mike Casella, Steven Collier and Anson Tebbetts examining food slurry

When Casella started to search for a depackaging machine several years ago, the company sought the best technology on the market, according to the Williston facility’s general manager, Mike Casella.

The firm certainly has the resources to get the best. Started by two brothers in Rutland, Casella is now a publicly traded company that operates massive waste operations from Maine to Pennsylvania. It dominates waste hauling in Vermont and owns the landfill in Coventry.

Casella ultimately chose the Thor Turbo Separator, which manufacturer Scott Equipment touts as capable of processing 40 tons of organic material per hour and rendering it “99 percent clean.”

“There will always be pieces of plastic, glass, or metal that scoots through our screens,” the company says on its website. “All we can share is that our system is good at keeping it to a bare minimum.”

But 10 months into the new operation, Mike Casella acknowledged that the amount of nonorganic material departing the depackaging operation is little more than guesswork. “It’s definitely less than 5 percent,” he said. He later amended that to 1 percent and then “less than half a percent, or even less.”

“To be honest, we don’t know,” he said finally.

The more the company can learn about what contaminants get through the process, he said, the more work it can do with customers to keep them out of the food waste.

One reason for the uncertainty is the great variability in the material being run through the Thor, so named to highlight the power of its spinning hammers.

Discarded cans of beer from local brewers such as Frost Beer Works, Zero Gravity Craft Brewery and Fiddlehead Brewing pose virtually no risk of contamination. Workers presort the material to remove and recycle any plastic carriers and cardboard packaging, leaving just the aluminum cans to be smashed open. The cans themselves are compacted into bales and recycled.

Other items aren’t quite so simple. In the case of single-serve coffee K-Cups, the Thor’s smashing action must separate the coffee grounds from the cardboard boxes they come in, the white plastic container cups, small plastic internal filters and foil tops.

Most problematic are the tons of food scraps from green bins picked up from restaurants, schools, hospitals, hotels, apartment buildings and homes. On a recent visit to the Williston facility, Mike Casella waded into a concrete bunker full of stinking waste on its way to the Thor to find it polluted with non-compostable drink cups, straws, plastic bags and ketchup packets. He tugged on a bit of fabric and pulled out a slimy shirt.

click to enlarge

Luke Awtry

A bunker full of food scraps — and trash

The volume of these postconsumer food scraps — and the non-compostable waste in the mix — has increased dramatically since last year. That’s because on July 1, 2020, the state law that bans food waste from being discarded as trash took full effect.

The largest compost operation in the state, the Chittenden Solid Waste District’s Green Mountain Compost, is having such difficulty keeping its compost clean that it is instituting new rules on January 1. Compostable foodware such as plates and utensils will no longer be accepted, because sorting out what is actually compostable and what is plastic has become too labor-intensive, CSWD officials say.

Casella previously hauled most of its organic material to Green Mountain Compost, but those shipments have dropped off sharply since the depackaging facility came online. The 373 tons or so of food scraps per month that Casella was taking to CSWD started falling in January, decreased steadily to 47 tons by June and eventually flatlined to zero, according to CSWD data.

Now Casella is running those food scraps through the Thor’s screens to sift out contaminants, mixing them into a slurry and sending it off to boost energy production. Tanker trucks haul the nutrient-rich goop to digesters, where microorganisms break it down in oxygen-free environments, releasing methane that’s burned for heat or to generate electricity. Vermont farms have been using digesters to make power from cow manure for several decades, and the practice is growing.

It’s the depleted food waste that emerges from digesters that is the cause of current concern.

PurposeEnergy of Windham, N.H., helped build the nation’s first brewery waste-to-electricity plant at the former Magic Hat Brewing in South Burlington in 2010. The company now uses it to blend the depackaged food from Casella with watery waste from multiple brewers, distillers and food manufacturers. PurposeEnergy has three more digesters in development in Vermont.

Earlier this year, Vanguard Renewables of Wellesley, Mass., opened the largest digester in New England at the Goodrich Family Farm in Salisbury. Much of the gas produced is sold to Middlebury College to reduce its fossil-fuel use.

About 80 percent of the food slurry generated at Casella’s depackaging plant is delivered to digesters in South Burlington and Salisbury, Casella said. It’s also been trucked to a third digester at Gebbie’s Maplehurst Farm in Greensboro.

Tiny Shards

click to enlarge

Luke Awtry

Kate Porterfield hunting for microplastics in food waste at UVM

The University of Vermont is studying Casella’s process to determine exactly what contaminants aren’t filtered from the organic waste and their potential impact on the environment. Casella and UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment contributed a combined $260,000 toward the research.

Under the direction of Eric Roy, interim director of the college’s environmental sciences program, two graduate students are tackling the issue from different angles. Sarah Hobson, who is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science, is reviewing the published literature on depackaged food waste, composting and plastics contamination to understand the impact of plastic in food waste.

Kate Porterfield is a doctoral candidate in the engineering and math department who is studying biogas production rates. She’s also looking at microplastics contamination. “Microplastics” generally refers to tiny fragments of plastic, five millimeters or smaller.

To discover how much biogas different types of food waste produce, Porterfield takes samples from the depackaging equipment, runs them through a mini-digester in the UVM lab and analyzes the gas produced. She then uses a biological process to break down the waste further to help her more easily find, count and categorize the tiny bits of plastic left behind.

On the counter in her lab at UVM, Porterfield showed off dozens of tiny glass vials, each containing bits of what she presumes to be plastic, labeled by their size and the dates they were collected. Additional tests are needed to confirm that the shards are, in fact, plastic, but to the untrained eye the samples look unnatural. One bore a distinct pattern of tiny green dots in neat rows on a yellow background, leaving no doubt that the material was man-made — likely a plastic film used in food packaging.

Preliminary results indicate that the amount of microplastics in the Casella waste is comparable to what’s been found during studies of compost and food waste conducted elsewhere, Roy said. Researchers typically count the number of microplastic particles per kilogram. Existing studies vary widely, and most have found between 20 and 2,800 particles per kilogram, Roy said. Additional testing on a wider variety of samples from Casella is still needed.

“We have more work to do to put this information into a better context,” Roy said. He expects to publish the team’s work in early 2022.

Quantifying the amount of plastic headed to farm fields is one thing; understanding what risks, if any, it poses to human health and the environment is very different, Roy said.

Some studies indicate that microplastics may damage soil and plant health, Roy said during a recent webinar describing the research. They may inhibit plant and root growth and cause lower germination rates in seeds. Some suggest that microplastics could lower soil’s capacity to hold water.

But other studies indicate that microplastics may improve soil aeration and drainage, he said.

click to enlarge

Luke Awtry

UVM researchers Kate Porterfield (left) and Sarah Hobson

Plastic makes its way into agricultural soils from various sources: as mulch used to deter weed growth, irrigation systems, farm equipment and even litter, Roy said.

That may make it challenging for researchers to pinpoint the sources of microplastics already in the landscape, let alone comprehend the impact of new ones.

“We do need some more basic understanding of what’s out there already and how microplastics may be problematic,” Roy said.

Deb Neher, a professor in the UVM Department of Plant and Soil Science, told Seven Days that a growing a body of data suggests that microplastics in soil are an increasing problem. She expects that UVM’s research will provide important data and insight into how big a problem the issue is in Vermont.

Because plastics don’t break down easily, they accumulate in the soil and the organisms that live there.

Just like aquatic creatures are harmed when they mistake microplastics for food, creatures such as earthworms ingest them and effectively starve because they’re eating material with no nutritional value, she said, noting: “The empirical evidence is mounting of detrimental impacts of microplastics to soil food webs.”

Urging Caution

click to enlarge

Luke Awtry

The Thor Turbo Separator at Casella

The depackaging process “has the capacity, if not well implemented, to cause immense harm,” Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), chair of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, told Seven Days. Lawmakers are considering whether additional regulation is necessary.

The state failed to protect residents for years from the health threats posed by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, Bray said, and Vermonters deserve better. The so-called “forever chemicals” contaminated the groundwater at the Vermont Air National Guard base, as well as hundreds of private wells near a former Teflon coating plant in the Bennington area.

“Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot again,” Bray said. “Let’s not poison ourselves and then be stuck dealing with the damage.”

That message appears to be getting through to regulators. Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets officials have informed Casella that it can continue current operations, but the agency will not approve spreading food waste on additional farms until the issue has been further studied.

Cary Giguere, director of public health and resource management for the agriculture agency, said the pause was needed to give the state time to better understand what is effectively a new, unregulated waste stream.

“This is one of the unintended consequences of the Universal Recycling Law that warrants further examination,” Giguere said, referring to the 2012 legislation that phased out dumping food waste in landfills over several years.

If tiny bits of plastic are seeding farmers’ fields and running off into surrounding waterways, the public is likely to blame farmers, Giguere said. As a result, the agency has informed farmers who have been accepting Casella’s material that more study is needed.

“This falls along the lines of: What we don’t know is of more concern at this point than what we do know,” Giguere said.

Officials from the Department of Environmental Conservation and Agency of Agriculture are developing a sampling program to help determine the extent of the problem.

If the state opts to undertake an extensive soil testing program, it may look for more than microplastics, DEC Commissioner Peter Walke said. Heavy metals and PFAS, which have been linked to the land application of biosolids from wastewater treatment plants, may also merit a closer look.

“If we’re going to do the work, it probably behooves us to take as broad a look as we can,” Walke said.

Before touring the depackaging plant, Walke said, he had assumed that the machinery was “shredding” the pints. But he learned that the hammering process causes the same result as, say, what happens when an ice cream tub is dropped and spills its contents.

“If I scooped that up, I would not have any problem putting that down the drain or in my compost,” he said.

Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts also toured the depackaging plant earlier this month and came away sounding impressed.

“It’s amazing technology, what is occurring here,” he said. “We have this tremendous amount of waste, and we can somehow convert it into something that could be useful, as opposed to throwing it into a landfill.”

He pointed to a ketchup packet caught in the Thor’s screens as evidence that waste is captured, but he acknowledged that proved little when it comes to microplastics.

“I think people are trying to figure out how much of it is making its way into the slurry,” Tebbetts said. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Is it 1 percent? Two percent? Ten percent?” He echoed Mike Casella: “I don’t know.”

Farmers Fret

click to enlarge

Luke Awtry

A screening machine at Green Mountain Compost

The agriculture agency’s decision to put farmers on notice has some of them worried.

Laura DiPietro, the agency’s deputy director of agricultural resource management, said she called the three farmers involved to provide them with information. Farmers have taken clean bulk food waste from manufacturers for years, but ag officials wanted to make certain they understood that the depackaged material is different, DiPietro said.

Peter Gebbie in Greensboro started receiving shipments of waste from the depackaging operation over the summer. It went into a digester and was mixed with manure from his 250 beef cattle; the food waste, particularly when nutrient rich, increased the production of gas. That, in turn, generated electricity that he sold to utilities. The spent material flowed to his manure pit and was spread on his fields.

The news that he might have inadvertently distributed plastics on his land was troubling, he said. “I wouldn’t want that any more than most people would,” Gebbie said.

If Casella can show that it can keep plastic out of the waste, Gebbie said, he’d probably take the material again, although he might not get the chance. A fire destroyed his digester in September, and he doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to rebuild.

St. Albans dairy farmer Jeff Boissoneault also accepted some of Casella’s organic waste: 86 tons of leftovers from the digester that PurposeEnergy built for Magic Hat. He is waiting for additional information before deciding whether to take more material, said his son Cody.

Eric Fitch, founder and CEO of PurposeEnergy, said the information that the agriculture agency gave Boissoneault was “inaccurate and completely unrelated to our process or the materials we receive.”

“It is a very unfortunate situation,” he wrote in an email. He did not elaborate.

But in an email to DiPietro, he wrote that the amount of potential contamination was minuscule, given how light the packaging was compared to the food waste and the screens designed to remove it. He estimated that, even if packaging evaded all screens, it might represent 0.001 percent contamination.

“Researchers at UVM are studying these materials, and it may be prudent to wait for their results so that accurate information can be shared with the farming community,” he wrote.

All In on Biogas

click to enlarge

Luke Awtry

Dan Goossen of Green Mountain Compost

Vanguard Renewables, the developer of the huge digester in Salisbury that is fueling Middlebury College, has made a big bet on biogas not only in Vermont but also around the nation. It has six facilities in operation, five in Massachusetts and one in Vermont, and 10 others in development, Ray Duer, vice president of sales, said in a recent webinar. Biogas is crucial to addressing climate change, he said, and Vanguard’s “aggressive” growth strategy envisions installing 60 digesters across the country in four years.

While few farms have spread material from Casella’s depackaging facility so far, industrial depackaging is in its infancy. More and more food manufacturers are committing to zero-waste goals, Mike Casella said. The Williston facility could handle much more material than it currently does, he added.

In April, Vanguard’s founder, John Hanselman, told lawmakers that Vermont should eventually have multiple depackaging operations. CSWD leaders considered partnering with Vanguard on a depackaging operation of its own, but Casella beat the waste district to the punch.

Asked about microplastic contamination, Hanselman offered general reassurances to lawmakers that plastics were screened out before being spread on Goodrich Family Farm’s fields, which are located along Otter Creek.

“I was less than satisfied with that response,” Rep. Kari Dolan (D-Waitsfield) told Seven Days.

Dolan said the issue is similar to the environmental risk once posed by microbeads, tiny plastic particles used as abrasives in skin care products, soaps and toothpastes. When flushed down the drain, the beads are so small that they pass through wastewater treatment system filters and into waterways, where they can accumulate in aquatic organisms. Vermont began the process of barring microbeads in 2015, before the federal government passed a national ban.

Just as they do in oceans, plastics break down in soil into smaller and smaller pieces. That’s why having additional details about the type of waste screening being used is so important, Dolan said.

Hanselman declined to be interviewed by Seven Days but offered a written statement.

“We recognize that plastic contamination is endemic in all forms of food recycling and utilization, whether composting or animal feed,” he wrote. “We have gone to extra lengths at our anaerobic digester facilities by adding a secondary screening process to remove as much of the residual plastic as possible prior to any land application.”

UVM’s Roy said researchers have not yet been able to test the spent material going onto the Goodrich farmland.

The danger of microplastic contamination is one that composters and others envisioned when the Universal Recycling Law was written, said Tom Gilbert, co-owner of Black Dirt Farm, a compost operation in Stannard.

For that reason, the law contained unambiguous requirements that organic material be separated from contaminants such as plastic “at the point of generation,” which Gilbert has argued is the supermarket. When that requirement became inconvenient, state waste regulators did “an end run” around the law to permit the depackaging facility, he said.

Jamieson, the state’s solid waste manager, responded to this charge in April, telling lawmakers that the language in the law was more of a guide and that mandating businesses to separate food waste from packaging in all situations was impractical and unenforceable.

The legal debate aside, Gilbert said unregulated use of depackaging facilities certainly violates the spirit of the recycling law. The law identifies compost as a higher and better use for organic waste than energy production. While there may be a role for depackaging facilities, the scale of Casella’s diversion of food scraps from compost to biogas shows that “the state is backsliding” on its commitment to those priorities, he said.

It also sends mixed messages. As Gilbert put it, why should Vermonters be told that they have to separate their food waste from packaging, but supermarkets can toss stale cookies still in their plastic containers into a bin and ship it to Maine or Williston for a big machine to sort out?

And if that separation process leads to polluted farmland, “that would be criminal,” Gilbert said.

“Local food is a major solution to climate change,” he said. “You fuck up our soil, you fuck up our ability to pull on that lever.”

Fabrice Monteiro’s best photograph: a spirit emerges from a rubbish dump in Senegal

Fabrice Monteiro’s best photograph: a spirit emerges from a rubbish dump in Senegal ‘The model is holding a child’s doll, looking out over the wreckage. It represents the future generations we’re condemning to environmental catastrophe’Outside Dakar, Senegal’s capital, is a rubbish dump with its own name: Mbeubeuss. The land on which it sits was once flat swampland. It began as a landfill site in 1968; today, it is a mountain of rubbish. It has accumulated so much plastic waste from the city that to reach it you have to drive on a road of compacted trash.This is not the Africa I grew up in. As a child here in the 1970s and 80s, it was not like this. But when I returned in 2012, I was shocked at what I found. Here in Senegal, there was plastic waste everywhere – at roadsides, in trees, everywhere. The younger generation don’t know any different: it’s just part of their environment now. I decided I wanted to shoot a series to raise awareness of environmental issues in Senegal, in the hope that people would realise that things do not have to be this way. I wanted to connect environmental issues with the cultural interests of the population, and started researching animism – the belief that objects and the natural world are imbued with spirits.Animism is connected to nature: it was about praising nature in all its different elements, working with it not against it, and living in harmony with it. Much of that was lost with globalisation and the modern way of living. With this series, I wanted to create a series of spirits sent by Mother Earth to warn humankind about its neglect and destruction of the environment.Each of the shots in the series addresses one environmental concern: coastal erosion, oil spills, sanitation and the burning of the land for agriculture, for example. But this image, the first I shot for the series, was about plastic consumption.I had the idea to make a dress that was a continuation of the trash mountain, so it looked as though this spirit was emerging from the piles of rubbish. I collaborated with a Senegalese stylist called Doulsy who had been working with recycled materials and can sew pretty much anything: he was the perfect person to create this costume. It needed to have a sense of scale: the model is sitting on a barrel of oil to give that height to the figure. We wanted to strike a balance between working with abandoned materials and making something that looked like a fashion editorial.But more than anything this image is a message: the model is holding a child’s doll, looking out over the wreckage. It represents the future generations that we’re condemning to environmental catastrophe through our overconsumption.At first, I only intended to make 10 images. They were all going to be shot in Senegal, and distributed to people here. But I felt uneasy when the work was finished: it felt like I was drawing attention to Africa for the wrong reasons. I was concerned it made the continent look uniquely polluted, as though this isn’t a problem all over the world. The only reason Europe doesn’t look like this is because it ships its waste out to us.So I continued the series, shooting all over the world, from Australia and the destruction of the coral reefs to the US and the damage wrought by coal mining. My work is about unity, about revealing the ways in which we are all connected, to each other and to nature. Taking this series global helped achieve that.My work has always been a mix of different things, a kind of blending of different disciplines and cultures denoted in the French word métissage. I’m European and I’m African. I grew up in a culture heavily influenced by voodoo, while also reading western comics. I’m a fashion photographer but I’m also an industrial engineer. My work represents all of that.Across all I do, I’m interested in identity and how we separate ourselves from those we consider the “other”. Throughout history, humankind has created an idea of the other in order to justify his or her exploitation. It is an idea that was central to slavery and colonialism. But it’s also at the heart of our approach to the environment. Only because we see ourselves as apart from the natural world, or superior to it, can we continue to treat it this way.Today, people talk about the anthropocene era: a geological term for a time in which nature is being fundamentally changed by humanity. But it suggests that humanity as a whole, not the specific capitalist system we have created, is the problem. In fact, it is the system that is the problem, and the system that needs to be opposed.Fabrice Monteiro’s CVBorn: Namur, Belgium, 1972.Trained: Self-taught.Influences: Alexander McQueen, Malcolm Ferdinand.High point: “Realising that I can make a living from my creative work.”Low point: “Working on environmental subjects and understanding how dire the situation is. It scares me.”Top tip: “Always try to explore outside boundaries.” Fabrice Monteiro has been shortlisted for Prix Pictet prize, to be announced on 15 December. The work of all 12 shortlisted artists will be at the V&A, London, from 16 December.TopicsArt and designMy best shotPhotographySenegalAfricaPlasticsPollutionfeaturesReuse this content

How the chemicals industry’s pollution slipped under the radar

How the chemicals industry’s pollution slipped under the radar While the industry has an important role to play in moving to low-carbon economies it’s also hugely carbon intensive and predicted to become more soIt’s one of the biggest industries in the world, consumes more than 10% of fossil fuels produced globally and emits an estimated 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, more than India’s annual emissions – yet the chemicals sector has largely slipped under the radar when it comes to climate.The shipping industry faces a climate crisis reckoning – will it decarbonize?Read moreThis sprawling industry produces a huge range of products, many of which support other industries – pesticides for agriculture, acids for mining, lubricants for machinery, ingredients in cleaning agents, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals and plastics.While the industry has an important role to play in moving to low-carbon economies – providing coatings for solar panels, lightweight plastics to reduce vehicles’ energy consumption and insulating materials for buildings – it’s also hugely carbon intensive and predicted to become more so. Oil companies have been betting on chemicals as a way to remain profitable as the world pledges to turn away from fossil fuel energy. The International Energy Agency predicted that petrochemicals could account for 60% of oil demand in the next decade.The chemicals sector is the largest industrial user of oil and gas but it has the third-largest carbon footprint – behind steel and cement – because only about half of the fossil fuels that the industry consumes are burned for their energy. The rest is used as feedstock for products such as plastics with the emissions released only when these products reach the end of their lives, for example, when waste plastic packaging or an old mattress is incinerated.Lowering the industry’s emissions is possible but technically daunting. Plus this large, complex industry, which supports millions of jobs worldwide, has significant political and economic clout. “They’ve become a bit of an untouchable sector for many politicians,” said Jan-Justus Andreas, who leads industrial policy at the Norwegian environmental non-profit Bellona Europa.Yet the chemicals industry is finding itself increasingly under scrutiny – both from nations that need to meet ambitious emissions reduction targets and from researchers, scientists and campaigners calling on the industry to cut its polluting products.Moving away from dirty energyOne way to lower emissions is to focus on chemical plants – improving efficiency and switching to low-carbon energy.Most of the industry’s direct carbon dioxide emissions come from burning fossil fuels to power chemical transformations, many of which take place at high temperatures and pressures. These emissions could be significantly reduced if the industry moves away from dirtier fuels such as coal.If renewable wind or solar energy is available, certain chemical processes that are already driven by electricity, such as the production of chlorine used to make other materials such as PVC pipes or solvents like chloroform, could immediately become low carbon. And chemists continue to look for ways to power traditionally heat-driven chemical transformations with electricity instead – such as the process of converting nitrogen to ammonia, mostly used for fertilizer, which requires temperatures of about 500C (932F).While chemical companies are counting on efficiency improvements and investing in renewable energy to meet their climate goals, many chemical products themselves cannot be decarbonized because they are made of carbon, said Martin Scheringer, an environmental chemist at the public research university ETH Zurich.Removing fossil fuels from the raw materials used to create carbon-based chemicals and materials is crucial, said Jonatan Kleimark of the non-profit ChemSec. Kleimark likens products made from fossil fuels – such as clothes, toys and paints – to a carbon debt, because the carbon embedded within them will only be emitted in the future. “The longer we wait to change, the larger debt we will build, and that will be very hard to do something about if we don’t start,” Kleimark said.Are clothes made from recycled materials really more sustainable?Read moreTo stop adding to this debt, chemicals and materials could be made with sources of carbon that are already above ground, such as plants. Bioplastics – made with plant materials such as sugar, corn or seaweed – are booming, for example, as companies and scientists try to remove fossil fuels from plastic production.Another idea is to turn waste products into raw materials for the chemical industry. Chemists have been using agricultural waste or waste plastics – even the ultimate waste material, carbon dioxide – as feedstocks. A Berlin-based startup, Made of Air, is attempting to create plastics from wood waste, while an Icelandic company, Carbon Recycling International, turns captured carbon dioxide emissions into methanol, used in fuels and for making other chemicals such as formaldehyde.‘Why don’t you deal with someone else first?’But all these ideas – especially those involving a shift in feedstocks – are very hard to implement.Technologies to turn agricultural or plastic waste into new chemicals are still unproven on a large scale and using carbon dioxide as a raw material will require vast amounts of zero-carbon energy.Manufacturers making products with plants rather than fossil fuels need to ensure that they do not create new problems through deforestation, destroying wildlife habitat, raising food prices or increasing the use of water or pesticides. Biomass resources also tend to be more spread out, whereas traditionally, chemical plants stay close to where fossil fuel resources are easily accessible.“With renewable feedstocks, you will need to reestablish new supply chains,” said Zhanyun Wang, a senior scientists at ETH Zurich. In addition to delivering a steady stream of renewable raw materials to chemical plants, the new supply chains would need to be competitive with well-established ones making products from fossil fuels at low prices, Wang said.The clean power infrastructure requirements alone are tremendous. Electrifying Europe’s chemicals sector would require 4,900 terawatts of renewable electricity, according to an estimate by the European Chemical Industry Council, almost double the total amount of electricity Europe generated in 2019.“If you are a lobbyist for the chemical sector, showing those numbers helps you to put your head down again and say, ‘Look, firstly I’m too important and valuable, and secondly, it’s really, really difficult to deal with me, so why don’t you deal with someone else first,’” Andreas said.Currently, that someone else refers to the cement and steel industries, said Andreas. The internal competition between the three industries to avoid scrutiny is unhelpful, he said, because they could benefit from developing an industrial strategy together.The exhaust gases from steel and cement plants could serve as valuable feedstocks for chemical plants. All three industries need large-scale renewable electricity or carbon capture facilities, which require significant investment. The financial risks involved in building these new facilities could be mitigated, Andreas said, if the new facilities serve multiple operations instead of a single steel mill or fertilizer plant.Governments could also help build the necessary infrastructure or help companies gain access to renewable feedstocks, said Rebecca Dell, who directs the industry program at the San Francisco-based ClimateWorks Foundation.But with less than 30 years to 2050, time is short. If there are no delays, typically, it takes about seven years for companies to get a new process up and running, Dell said. “We have to move a lot faster.”Simplifying productsOne important, but neglected, lever for cutting emissions from the chemical sector is to simply use and produce fewer chemicals. “That would lead very directly to a reduction in CO2 emissions and also reduce the toxification of humans and the environment,” Scheringer said.The overuse of materials such as plastics, fertilizers and other synthetic chemicals has caused devastating effects on ecosystems and human health. Plastic debris chokes waterways and wildlife, fertilizer-laden runoff from fields can cause algal blooms and create dead zones in coastal areas.These impacts have led policymakers and consumers to cut back – for instance, many cities and countries now have prohibitions on some single-use plastics. “It’s an attempt to reduce plastic itself as a pollutant in the landscape, more than concerns about greenhouse gases, but we can make simultaneous progress on more than one front,” said Dell.Studies have also found that being more precise about applying fertilizer could save farmers money and keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.It is less straightforward to cut back on some of the chemicals that are used to make consumer products, but Scheringer, Wang and others have proposed a way to start. Alarmed by the dangers of some cancer-causing PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals”, researchers have suggested eliminating PFAS from their “nice-to-have” applications – such as nonstick cookware, long-lasting mascara, or water-repellent surfer shorts that don’t need the level of high performance that “forever chemicals” confer.‘Forever chemicals’: the hidden threat from the toxic PFAS on your shelfRead moreThe researchers recommend that “forever chemicals” be used only in really important products, such as protective gear or medical devices that save lives. The same philosophy could be applied to identify and eliminate other chemicals that have been unnecessarily formulated in products, such as adding antimicrobials to soaps that can already kill germs.Simplifying the chemical ingredients in products has an added benefit: they are easier to take apart or recycle when they are no longer useful. Wang points to the example of carbon black, the chemical used as a pigment in food takeout boxes. The pigment serves no technical function other than providing colour and it is used because food looks more appealing set against a black background, Wang said. But the pigment also means the takeout boxes are invisible to devices that use light to sort plastics at sorting facilities, making them impossible to recycle.The chemical sector is producing more than consumers need, Wang said: “The business model is driven by how many chemicals you sell, it’s not necessarily driven by the added societal value of the chemical.”But the “enormous demand” for products is also a big driver – and perhaps harder to address, said Kleimark. “We’re standing in front of a really, really big challenge because there we cannot rely on technologies, but on changing the way we do things today.”TopicsEnvironmentGreen lightClimate crisisGreenhouse gas emissionsChemistryCarbon capture and storage (CCS)PlasticsOil and gas companiesfeaturesReuse this content

British beaches plagued with ‘plastic pollution which looks like just like pebbles’

Pyroplastics look just like real pebbles. (University of Plymouth)Campaigners have warned that British beaches are being inundated by a form of plastic pollution that looks exactly like rocks.The so-called ‘pyroplastics’ are believed to be remnants of plastic that has been burnt or melted, researchers said. They have been spotted this week in Wales.Hilary Rowlands, a founding member of Tywyn Beach Guardians in Gwynedd, told North Wales Live: “It’s only when you pick them up, and feel how light they are, that you realise they are not stones at all.”There’s not a single beach I’ve combed where I haven’t come across them. Sometimes they are covered in oil or impregnated with the toxins that come from burning plastic.”It’s all dangerous, both to the environment and the marine life.Read more: Melting snow in Himalayas drives growth of green sea slime visible from space”The longer-term concern is that they will break down into microplastics and threaten marine food chains.”Pyroplastics look almost exactly like pebbles, and are created when plastics are heated during manufacturing processes.Researchers began to analyse the ‘rocks’ in recent years after people spotted them on beaches in Cornwall – initially thinking they were real pebbles.The lumps of plastic also weather like real rocks, and shed microplastic into the environment.Some of the lumps could be as much as half a century old, according to Andrew Turner of the University of Plymouth.Read more: A 1988 warning about climate change was mostly rightTurner writes: “Pyroplastics are derived from the burning of plastic. Some may look like various burnt pieces of plastic amalgamated together, while others look remarkably like pebbles once they have been eroded down by the elements.”They have probably been in existence since we started burning plastic to dispose of it (perhaps 80 years or so). Some of the now restricted chemicals we find in pyroplastics suggest they have been around since at least the 1960s.Story continues”Burnt plastic on beaches is likely to be derived from many sources, including burning waste on the beach itself, collapse of old landfill sites, historical burning of waste at sea and contemporary burning of plastic waste on small island states.”Pyroplastics are found worldwide, with samples having been located on Atlantic beaches in Spain and the Pacific beaches of Vancouver.Watch: Nigerian artist’s installations draw attention to world’s plastic waste

Microplastics in household dust could promote antibiotic resistance

PLASTICS ARE man-made materials that are unnatural to this world, but that does not stop the natural world from interacting with them. Indeed, dozens of studies show that when plastics get into the sea many ocean-dwelling microorganisms aggressively colonise them. This might help break plastics down, but these oceanic colonies are also hotbeds of antibiotic-resistant genes. Now, it seems, something similar might be going on in the dark recesses of your home.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Enjoy more audio and podcasts on

Margaret Wertheim: Even plastic coral artwork can't survive climate change

While world leaders dither about how to tackle climate change, an eerie echo of global warming’s destructive power has been playing out in a project created as an artistic response to this apocalypse. Even art can be destroyed by the toxic effects of our runaway carbon emissions. Even plastic art.In 2005, around the time scientists were recognizing that abnormal patterns of coral bleaching were related to rising ocean temperatures, my sister and I started to crochet simulations of living reefs. It was art meets science meets environmental catastrophe channeled through the medium of a handicraft we’d grown up with. Crochet wasn’t an arbitrary choice, for the frilly, crenelated forms of real coral organisms are biological manifestations of hyperbolic geometry — a mathematical structure easily emulated with crochet.To our surprise, our “Crochet Coral Reef” has blossomed into a community art project spread across the planet, with now nearly 20,000 crocheting participants in 50 cities and countries, almost all of them women. We have worked with crafters to create crochet reefs in London, New York, Chicago, Melbourne, Abu Dhabi, Latvia and many other places. Woolly reefs are currently underway in Germany and Canada, and in New York state and North Carolina. But it was in Finland where the forces of destruction recently played out.

Opinion
Op-Ed: NFTs are digital tulip fever: Would you pay thousands for a bar code?
Nonfungible tokens are a dressed-up species of bookkeeping. But what art needs is less auditing and more ecstasy.

As part of the Helsinki Biennial this year we were invited to work with citizens there, and an astonishing 3,000 Finns took part. During COVID-19 lockdowns many people everywhere turned to crafts as a calmative force, and crocheting corals also offers a purposeful rejoinder to environmental devastation. Just as living reefs are made by millions or billions of tiny coral polyps, so our reefs are generated by thousands of crocheters working together. Both biological and crafty reefs exemplify the power of collaboration at scale. The Great Barrier Reef, which served as the inspiration for our project, is the largest living thing on Earth, and one of a few organisms visible from outer space.

A detail of the plastic crocheted coral.(©Institute for Figuring by Margaret Wertheim)

In addition to crocheting in yarn, we asked the Finns to use plastic. My sister and I have been crocheting plastic into corals since we learned about the horror of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2006. How ironic that as living reefs disappear, giant whorls of plastic trash are forming in the ocean, as if a kind of synthetic replacement were going on.It’s hard now to buy anything not packaged in plastic. Remember those pandemic months when we stockpiled toilet paper, each jumbo pack swaddled in a see-though plastic membrane? This emblem of viral infection became a feature of the Helsinki project when local reef organizer Lotta Kjellberg approached a manufacturer of toilet packaging about possible crafty byproducts.

As toilet paper packaging film rolls off the production line, an inch-wide strip is cut from the edge, making a perfect medium for crochet. Two hundred kilos of the stuff was delivered in a dumpster to Kjellberg’s door. In a time-consuming act of devotional recycling, she distributed it around Helsinki to libraries, craft stores, community centers, schools and senior citizens’ facilities. Tinted an elegant blueish-violet and dotted with pale splashes of ink, its availability in such quantity enabled the creation of a huge number of color-coordinated plastic corals. We could not have wished for a better scenario.

Opinion
Op-Ed: Can the world’s coral be saved?
Two Steps is a perfect snorkeling spot on the Big Island of Hawaii.

In my first foray out of Highland Park in 15 months, I flew to Helsinki in May to work with a team of local ladies to shape thousands of individual crocheted pieces into large-scale sculptures. Along with the violet and whites of the loo-paper packaging were sparkling black videotape corals, plus others in reds, yellows and blues made out of gift-wrapping ties, grocery bags and various synthetic detritus. All of it recycled material.The four resulting artworks were magnificent testimonies to community-centered art. Gorgeous, absurd, lavish forms bursting with life — together they formed a faux ecology that rehabilitated rubbish through female craft.But over the summer, Finland experienced one of the hottest, wettest periods in its recorded history. Farther north, the Greenland ice sheet was also drenched in rain, an unheard-of phenomenon — it never rains in Greenland — and an ominous sign of the forces being unleashed in our atmosphere.At the Biennial, most of the artworks were displayed on an island off Helsinki in a series of stunning abandoned fortifications. Unfortunately, the rooms became infested with mold. Other artists’ projectors burned out, sound systems fritzed, video screens dripped with slime. But these were solvable problems. For the corals a more permanent tragedy ensued.Blobs of mold blossomed on the pedestals and understructures of the works. Possibly it had creeped into the crochet stitches too. Now, instead of traveling on to other exhibitions, these beautiful monsters have had to be destroyed. Art has imitated life. Even crocheted plastic sea creatures can’t withstand the consequences of humanity’s petrochemical ensorcellment. Killed off by climate change, this unique colony of Helsinki corals has disappeared, echoing the fate of its living cousins who also soon may be mere memories.Margaret Wertheim is a science writer and artist. The “Crochet Coral Reef,” created with Christine Wertheim, has been exhibited at the 2019 Venice Biennale and many other international venues. crochetcoralreef.org