Living on Earth: Beyond the Headlines

Air Date: Week of September 9, 2022

The AES Corporation power plant, shown above, was Hawaii’s last operating coal-fired power plant before it shut down on September 1, 2022. (Photo: Tony Webster, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
This week, Environmental Health News Editor Peter Dykstra and Host Steve Curwood mark the end of coal-fired power in the 50th state (Hawaii) and discuss how 3D printed homes made from recycled bottles could ease both the affordable housing and the plastics recycling crises. In the history calendar, they look back to 1916 when the world’s first self-service grocery store opened and dramatically changed the way we shop.

Louisiana city council decision stalls a $2.2 billion methanol project

The St. James Parish Council on Wednesday effectively rejected a bid to allow for industrial development in a neighborhood currently zoned residential, leaving the land’s owner — the South Louisiana Methanol (SLM) company —  on its own to resolve a stalled $2.2 billion project on the site. 

The proposed ordinance would have rezoned a residential neighborhood in the parish’s 5th Council District — a low-income, majority-Black district on the parish’s west bank that is already home to a large number of industrial sites — to a “residential/future industrial” designation. 

The council’s rejection of the change effectively precludes SLM – a joint venture between the New Zealand-based Todd Corporation and a Houston-based subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian company SABIC – from selling the property to any entity with designs for industrial development. 

The ordinance, introduced by Councilmember Donald Nash, never went to a vote, as no council member seconded a motion to consider it. 

Originally announced in 2013, then again in 2019 under reshuffled ownership, the proposed SLM plant would have encompassed 1,500 acres on the parish’s west bank. It was projected to produce approximately 2 million tons of methanol annually, which would have made it one of the largest such facilities in the world. The project would be directly adjacent to Welcome Park, the 5th District’s only public park, which is one of the concerns residents have raised publicly. 

The plant was designed to utilize natural gas in its production of methanol, which is used in a variety of products and applications – ranging from plastics to fuels. The domestic price of natural gas has recently spiked due to the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting increase in U.S. gas exports to Europe.

Greg Johnson, an attorney with Liskow & Lewis who addressed the council on SLM’s behalf on Wednesday, said the company has invested $70 million toward the $2.2 billion project, while previous reporting has put the figure at $300 million.  

Because the project was approved before current zoning was adopted, SLM has the right, under parish land use regulations, to build the plant in spite of the residential zoning. But the project has been stalled for years with little work occurring on the site, and the company has allowed some required permits to lapse. 

One of the criticisms raised by the council and by members of the public is that SLM did not articulate a clearly defined vision for what it plans to do with its property now that the original plan appears to be off the table. 

“I’m not seeing a strong effort on the part of South Louisiana Methanol to work with the community or to do things that will make the community safe,” Councilmember Clyde Cooper, who represents the 5th District, said before the motion was considered. “With this situation having run its natural course, I think we need to allow it to run its natural course.” 

Johnson told The Lens after the meeting that the company is reviewing its options, which could include either selling its property or redesigning the project somehow. Johnson did not offer specific details about the future of the property, saying only that the zoning change was necessary so that SLM could explore different opportunities. 

“This land use redesignation is required in order for SLM to pursue new investment partners so that they can position the property for potential projects supporting growth for the parish,” Johnson told council members. “There is not any particular one at this time, but by changing the designation will allow them to explore other opportunities for the property “

One of those opportunities could be to sell the land to another industrial developer. Had the council adopted the zoning ordinance on Wednesday, it would have opened the door for SLM to sell its property as an industrial site, pending the approval of the parish’s officials. But by rejecting it, the current zoning designation for the property stands: treating it as “residential growth” for anyone other than SLM and its $2.2 billion methanol plant. 

That zoning decision was made in 2018, according to the council’s agenda. The parish’s original land use plan from 2014 treated the area as “residential/future industrial,” which residents had publicly opposed. 

For Barbara Washington, a resident of St. James Parish and a founding member of Inclusive Louisiana, a nonprofit focused on environmental justice, the council’s decision was a welcome surprise. 

“We saw humanity there tonight,” she said. “It seemed like all the time that we’ve been talking, they haven’t been listening –  but tonight, it seemed like they were actually listening, and that’s hopeful for us,” she told The Lens. 

‘The clandestine conditions of these meetings’

Meanwhile, the council’s process for considering the ordinance came under scrutiny after two attorneys from the nonprofit environmental legal organization Earthjustice, Corinne Van Dalen and Zora Djenohan, spoke before the parish council two weeks ago. 

They claimed to be in possession of documents showing communications between St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne and SLM CEO Paul Moore about the proposed zoning change. Then on Wednesday, Djenohan said that she was in possession of documents showing that several councilmembers met with SLM leadership in private, which raised questions about whether the councilmembers had violated the state’s open meeting law, and to what extent SLM had the capacity to influence the council’s decision making. 

Earthjustice provided those documents, along with others, to The Lens on Thursday.

The documents show that in July, Dufresne invited Councilmembers Vondra Etienne-Steib, Clyde Cooper and Alvin St. Pierre to a Microsoft Teams meeting with Moore and other employees of SLM, under the subject line “Land Use Discussion.” In a separate email, Dufresne invited Councilmembers Ryan Louque and Jason Amato to meet with Moore and SLM employee Price Howard under the same subject heading. 

In total, a majority of the seven-member council — a voting quorum — was invited to participate in a meeting. Under the law, members of a public body can’t privately meet in a quorum to conduct or discuss public business. 

“The exact attendance and subject matters discussed at each of these meetings remains unclear due to the clandestine conditions of these meetings,” Van Dalen and Djenohan said in a letter to the council. 

“This raises the issue as to whether the Parish violated Louisiana’s open meetings law by privately convening the majority of its Council members over a series of meetings to discuss land use at SLM’s site,” they said. 

Even if separate meetings were held — each with less than a majority of the council — to get around the public meeting requirement, it is also illegal to attempt to circumvent the open meetings law. Environmental groups have previously sued the parish over allegations officials conducted secret meetings with parish council members and members of the parish Planning Commission. Though each meeting was attended by less than a quorum of either body, the attendance of members in those meetings, when combined, constituted a quorum, according to the suit. 

The records compiled by Earthjustice also show that Dufresne sent Moore a draft of the parish’s land use ordinance amendment. Moore responded by stating that he would like for the rezoning ordinance to include more of SLM’s land than originally proposed, and that some of the land SLM committed to using as a buffer should instead be zoned as industrial. 

While “it was SLM’s intent to use a portion of this land for buffer zones, SLM would like to have this land designated industrial so that site use flexibility is maintained,” Moore wrote. SLM was also willing to give up a small portion of the land directly adjacent to Welcome Park, he said.

It appears that at least some of Moore’s suggestions were incorporated in the final zoning change ordinance.

Djenohan told the council on Wednesday that such decisions should not be made in private. At the end of the day, the change could affect the lives of the council’s constituents, and therefore needs to be made in public.

“This is not a decision without consequences, and it needs to be made in the open, in public meetings,” she said. 

A look at the plastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

For decades, our oceans have been filling up with trash. The North Pacific Garbage Patch, also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has accumulated approximately 80,000 tons of plastic waste—and that estimate continues to climb. Most of the litter in the ocean is delivered by rivers that carry waste and human pollution from land to sea. But the origins of floating debris in offshore patches haven’t been fully understood. A  recent study published in Scientific Reports has identified one important source of the trash: the fishing industry. 

Between 75 to 86 percent of the plastics floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come from offshore fishing and aquaculture activities, according to an analysis of the trash collected by nonprofit project the Ocean Cleanup. Major industrialized fishing nations, including Japan, China, South Korea, the US, Taiwan, and Canada, were the main contributors of the fishing waste. “These findings highlight the contribution of industrial fishing nations to this global issue,” says Laurent Lebreton, lead study author and head of research at the Ocean Cleanup. 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a region twice the size of Texas between the West Coast of North America and Japan, is one of several vortexes in the ocean where waste accumulates. Created by spinning currents, or gyres, each vortex churns and crushes plastics into tiny undegradable bits that are tricky for cleanup efforts to scoop up. Plankton nets are used to collect these microplastics, often no more than 5 millimeters in size, says Lebreton. “But it is currently impossible to retrace an accurate origin for this pollution,” he says. 

[Related: The great Pacific garbage patch is even trashier than we thought]

Since 2018, the Ocean Cleanup has been working to remove less common larger debris, which can sometimes be identified. The team’s approach uses vessels that pull a long U-shaped barrier through the water, guiding the larger plastics into the catch system. “This provided us with a unique opportunity to study larger plastic objects that were not the focus of previous research efforts,” says Lebreton. 

The Ocean Cleanup’s System 001/B, which was the collection iteration used to collect the data in the recent study in Scientific Reports. The Ocean Cleanup

In a 2019 mission, the system pulled up more than 6,000 plastic objects that were larger than 5 centimeters (the threshold for large debris). While a third of the haul was unidentifiable, the research team sorted fish boxes, oyster spacers, and eel traps. This fishing and aquaculture gear was the second most common type of hard plastic collected, making up 26 percent. 

Like the rest of the sectors of our economy, fisheries adopted plastics for its light weight and cheap manufacturing costs. Those plastics can persist for decades.

“We found a fishing buoy dating from the 60s and a crate from the 70s, so this must have been building over time,” Lebreton says, noting that the fishing industry has only expanded since the last century. “More than half the ocean surface is now being fished, increasing the chance of fishing gear being lost, discarded, or abandoned in the ocean.”   

[Related: Humans created an extra 8 million tons of plastic waste during the pandemic]

Generally, the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been increasing in concentration and in size, according to a 2020 study by the organization. “This would suggest the situation is worsening, which is expected at this stage with an exponential increase in plastic production over the last two decades,” Lebreton says. “This is why it is important to study and identify this pollution so that future inputs can be mitigated.”

The Ocean Cleanup project has an ambitious goal to remove 90 percent of marine plastic waste by 2040. Since last year, the team’s upgraded system plucked over 100,000 kilograms of floating plastics from the ocean; however, marine biologists have expressed skepticism about the efficiency of such cleanup efforts and raised serious concerns these techniques could harm wildlife. Lebreton says that the nonprofit’s efforts should not be a permanent solution: “We want to go out of business eventually.” The best way to decrease plastic waste in these waters is to stop it at the source, he says—cleanup technologies can help pin down the cause and origin of pollution to inform regulation and management. This could include regulating the gear fishing vessels use or how the ships manage their waste, Lebreton says. 

“I trust making this pollution visible [through cleanup efforts] has a significant impact on awareness and also the general understanding of the issue,” he says. “Documenting floating plastic pollution should play a role in the design of mitigation strategies. General public awareness can help in pushing legislation.”

Images and captions from the Ocean Cleanup.

Crates, buoys, lines, and ropes the Ocean Cleanup crew connected back to the fishing industry. The Ocean Cleanup

These black plastic cones are eel traps used for fishing hagfish. The Ocean Cleanup

A haul of crates and boxes. The Ocean Cleanup

A researcher with the Ocean Cleanup analyzes plastic items to find clues to their origins based on language and country codes. The Ocean Cleanup

System 002 in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the most recent collection systems designed by the Ocean Cleanup. The Ocean Cleanup

Venice tells tourists to ditch water bottles and drink from fountains

Sign up to Simon Calder’s free travel email for weekly expert advice and money-saving discounts Get Simon Calder’s Travel email Tourists to Venice are being urged to ditch single-use plastic water bottles and drink from fountains, in the latest attempt from local government to cut down on pollution. Tourism is responsible for up to 40 …

The PPE used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is getting tangled up in wildlife

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, masking has been one of the key public health measures put in place to combat the disease. Since March 2020, billions of disposable surgical masks have been used around the world, raising the question: What happens to all those used masks?

As researchers in single use plastic and microplastic pollution, the onset of a global wave of plastic debris pollution became evident to us in the early days of the pandemic — we could see the evidence even during lockdowns when exercise was limited to short daily walks in the neighbourhood. Masks and gloves were on the ground, fluttering in the wind and hanging on fencing.

As ecologists, we were also aware of where the debris would end up — in nests, for example, or wrapped around the legs or in the stomachs of wildlife.

In Canada, a team of researchers led by conservation biologist Jennifer Provencher studied how plastic debris impacts wildlife. In a study conducted during a canal cleanup in The Netherlands, biologists at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center documented that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) debris would interact with wildlife in the same way as other plastics.

Effects on wildlife

There’s a cartoon circulating on the internet that goes like this: a rat comes home carrying bags of groceries to see two rats laying in bunk beds made from medical grade masks. The rat in the bottom bunk exclaims, “Free hammocks, all over town. It’s like a miracle!”

We shared this cartoon with our colleagues at the beginning of the pandemic, while we were conducting surveys of PPE litter around Toronto streets and parking lots.

We found that within the area that we were surveying — which covered an area of Toronto equivalent to about 45 football fields — over 14,000 disposable masks, gloves or hand wipes accumulated by the end of the year. That’s a lot of rat hammocks.

We set out to understand the breadth of the harm that PPE is doing to wildlife. What we learned is just how many other people were equally concerned.

Jarring images

We conducted a global survey using social media accounts of wildlife interactions with PPE debris. The images are jarring: A hedgehog wrapped in a face mask, the earloops tangled in its quills. A tiny bat, with the earloops of two masks wrapped around its wing. A nest, full of ivory white eggs, insulated with downy feathers and a cloth mask.

Many of these animals are dead, but most were alive at the time of observation. Some were released from their plastic entanglement by the people who captured the photo.

In total, we found 114 cases of wildlife interactions with PPE debris as documented on social media by concerned people around the world. Most of the wildlife were birds (83 per cent), although mammals (11 per cent), fish (two per cent), invertebrates such as an octopus (four per cent) and sea turtles (one per cent) were also observed.

The majority of observations originated in the United States (29), England (16), Canada (13) and Australia (11), likely representing both the increase in access to mobile devices and our English-language search terms. Observations also came from 22 other countries, with representation from all continents except Antarctica.

Weighing costs and benefits

With an estimated 129 billion face masks used monthly around the world, how do we, as ecologists and environmental researchers, tell a global population experiencing a global pandemic to use fewer masks? We don’t.

N95 masks have been essential in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 and, although they are more environmentally harmful than cloth masks, the benefit to health is demonstrably superior.

So, what could we have done better? One thing we noted during our PPE litter surveys is the abundance of discarded masks and gloves in close proximity to public garbage bins.

We hypothesize that a lack of clear messaging from municipalities and provinces about safe ways to dispose of PPE, along with our reluctance to gather near sources of discarded PPE, may have contributed to this global pollution event.

Developing better ways for people to get rid of their PPE waste may help prevent used surgical masks from ending up in the environment.
(Shutterstock)

These are lessons that can still be implemented as we continue to cycle through waves of this pandemic; the use of masks is not yet behind us. Our surveys continue as we track an accumulation of PPE debris that will likely find its way into more nests and tangled around the bodies of more animals.

The rise of single use plastic use due to COVID-19 may not have been avoidable. But the rise in plastic pollution could have been mitigated with some investment in public outreach and modifications to waste management infrastructure to allow for masks and other PPE to be disposed of and processed correctly with minimal leakage to the environment.

The UK is leading the world in championing tough legally binding targets for plastic pollution

In 676 AD the Anglo-Saxon Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne had a lot of things on his mind. His home, the remote Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, was not the pristine idyll it once was. Poachers had set their sights on the islands’ rare eider ducks. The islands’ residents too were hacking at Farne’s forests with worrying alacrity.  
Cuthbert was adamant that urgent remedial action was required. And so he gathered the islands’ elders to enact the world’s first piece of environmental protection legislation. Poaching was immediately prohibited by statute. Loggers were threatened with imprisonment. And within months the renaissance of the eider had begun.  
The UK has a long history of delivering game-changing environmental policy to protect our most precious flora and fauna. In 1990 the UK Government hosted the renegotiation of the Montreal Protocol – a landmark global agreement effectively ending the depletion of the ozone layer. And in 2008 the UK’s Climate Change Act became the first global legally-binding climate change mitigation target set by a country. 
This leadership is now needed more than ever before to tackle the plastics crisis. Indeed this month a Greenpeace report revealed 100 billion pieces of plastic are thrown away each year in the UK alone. Globally there are up to 75 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. The plastisphere is now so pervasive plastic is a ubiquitous presence in our bodies, our landscapes, and our aquatic environments.  
In March this year UN member states came to an historic agreement to develop a legally-binding global treaty on plastic pollution. The world has expressed a clear collective ambition to have the detail of the treaty negotiated by the end of 2024 for adoption and ratification the following year. But as with everything in life, the devil is in the detail.  
At the heart of the negotiation will be five international negotiating committee meetings where member states will agree on the scope and design of the treaty. Get it right and the world will have produced a set of tough legally binding measures and targets across the full lifecycle of plastic, capable of being strengthened over time without the need for additional ratification, to turn off the plastic pollution tap once and for all. Get it wrong and the world will have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle one of the most profound environmental issues of our time. 
The UK has a vital role to play in ensuring the world gets a global treaty on plastic that is fit-for-purpose. That’s why at the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network (OPLN) we’re delighted to be working with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to deliver this.  
Together we’ve created the UK Plastics Treaty Dialogues. OPLN and Defra are set to work with the leading lights of civil society and global business to help shape a treaty that works for all stakeholders. This activist-to-industry network will assemble for six invitation-only meetings over the next two years to build capacity for the UK’s participation in the Global Plastics Treaty. These dialogues will feature some of the world’s most influential business and environmental leaders including Unilever, The Coca-Cola Company, Nestle, WWF, Greenpeace, WRAP and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).  
Good policy is rarely created in a vacuum – and the UK dialogues will ensure Britain is well placed to help shape a Global Plastics Treaty that is fit for purpose. I call on the world’s foremost thinkers to join these dialogues to ensure we fulfil the promise the treaty offers.  
For centuries the UK has shown real vision on environmental issues. The UK Plastics Treaty Dialogues will help ensure this spirit of bold leadership continues. There’s not a moment to lose.  

Dave Ford is Founder of the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network 

Australian Wool Innovation grabs attention with new international ad campaign

Footage of men and women covered in black oil, and emerging from a swimming pool, are part of a new international ad campaign to sell more wool.Key points:New wool campaign highlights the eco-credentials of the fibre compared to synthetic fabricsThe ad features people dripping in oil, representing the fossil fuels used to create synthetic clothingIts message contradicts proposed EU sustainability labelling laws which could see synthetics ranked above woolLevy-funded research and marketing group Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) has launched the new ad campaign to highlight the sustainability of wool, compared to synthetic textiles.The ad, which will run in America, the United Kingdom, France and Australia, depicts people swimming in a pool of black oil, struggling to get out.When they do finally emerge, they take off their dripping clothes to reveal clean wool products underneath.AWI said it was based on the insight that “every 25 minutes an Olympic pool’s worth of crude oil is used to produce synthetic clothing, which amounts to almost 350 million barrels a year”.

15 big issues poised to impact oceans and coasts

September 1, 2022 — In the spirit of the annual University of Cambridge–led horizon scan of emerging conservation issues, 30 experts from around the world last year put their heads together to brainstorm and assess the potential impacts to ocean and coastal ecosystems over the next decade of a spectrum of human activities across the globe. Their analysis, published in July in Nature Ecology and Evolution, found 15 big issues bubbling to the top.
Fire Fallout

The increased frequency and severity of fires on land can have cascading impacts as wind and rain carry soot, nutrients, metals and other by-products of burns to coasts and oceans. In some cases these substances can boost the productivity of ocean plants. But the disruptions they cause can also shift the balance of life, making it difficult for some species such as corals to survive.   

Dark Matter

More severe storms due to climate change, along with development, dredging, thawing permafrost and other factors, are increasing the amount of sediment and nutrients in ocean waters and boosting algae growth. This can reduce the ability of sunlight to penetrate into deep waters and alter water chemistry. The changes can have some benefits, such as reducing coral bleaching. But they also alter species mix and potentially reduce the ability of organisms to soak up carbon.

Acidification Meets Metals

Toxic metals enter the ocean from industrial waste and from disturbance of previously polluted sediments by storms and human activities. As carbon dioxide concentrations increase in the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs more of the gas and its water acidifies. The acidity in turn can increase the ability of marine organisms to take up the metals. In some places where metals are a limiting factor, such as the deep ocean, this can boost phytoplankton growth. In other places, the metals can be toxic to ocean organisms and contaminate bivalves we harvest and eat, potentially causing human health problems as well.

Pole Shift

Warming ocean waters are causing ocean organisms to move poleward in search of cooler conditions, with shifts happening five times as fast as those occurring on land. In some cases, other species that better tolerate the heat can move in to fill the void. But in some places at the equator, ocean biodiversity is actually decreasing, with fewer plants and animals around to keep the ecosystem healthy, resilient and able to meet human needs for food.

Fatty Acid Famine

Fish — particularly slow-growing species that inhabit cold water — are a major source of essential fatty acids (EFAs), an important component of the human diet. The fish in turn obtain EFAs from phytoplankton. As climate changes cause ocean waters to warm, phytoplankton will likely make fewer EFAs and fish ranges could shift in ways that reduce their ability to ingest these compounds. This might have adverse impacts not only for human diets but for other ocean life forms that depend on phytoplankton and phytoplankton-eating fish for sustenance.

Protein Potential

A protein called collagen is used to make cosmetics and other consumer goods. It’s currently harvested mainly from livestock, but as demand grows, manufacturers may turn to collagen-rich ocean animals such as sponges, jellyfish and sharks. On a positive note, the trend could boost sponge farming, reduce the impact of undesirable jellyfish and provide a use for parts of harvested fish that otherwise would be thrown away. But, concerns revolve around reduced incentives to avoid catching nontarget species in commercial ocean fishing.

Swim Bladder Demand

The market for dried swim bladders, a luxury item in some cultures, is growing. Harvest of fish aimed at meeting the demand already has contributed to the endangerment of at least three species. As populations decline, pressure could shift to related species, creating a “cascading effect” that puts those species at risk as well. And increased demand not only threatens the target species but also nontarget sharks, turtles and other marine organisms that are accidentally caught along with them.

Carbon Mover Removal

As fishing pressure on the ocean increases, mid-depth species are increasingly being harvested. The problem is, these are also the species that help move carbon in the organisms they eat into the deep sea where it can be sequestered for long times. Removing these fish could disrupt the downward movement of carbon, reducing the ocean’s ability to counteract climate change.

Lithium Water

A boom in demand for lithium for batteries, such as those used in electric vehicles, has mining interests turning to deep ocean waters that contain significant quantities of the valuable metal. With emerging lithium-concentrating technologies, extraction is a looming reality — potentially threatening species living in rare and extreme environments.

More the Merrier?

As humans increasingly turn to the oceans for food, energy and more, opportunity arises to cluster enterprises. This can create economies of scale and reduce habitat disruption. The researchers note that we need ways to evaluate the relative costs and benefits of colocation to minimize habitat disruption and threats to biodiversity, and to avoid sub-optimization, such as expecting the ocean area beneath a floating wind turbine to be an ideal aquaculture site.

Cities at Sea

Talk of building towns in the ocean has increased in recent years. Benefits to humanity would be new energy sources, abundant water for hydroponic agriculture and more, but governance challenges would be likely. It’s a mixed bag for ocean life, too: Floating cities could help anemones, sea urchins and other marine organisms that live at least part of their life cycle on rocky intertidal surfaces migrate to safer places in the face of climate change. But it also could facilitate the spread of biodiversity-threatening invasive species.

“Green” Pollutants

Growth in electric vehicles and other “green” technologies that require batteries is increasing the use of cobalt, nickel and other trace elements. These elements pose a contamination risk to near-shore ocean sediments as they leach from production sites and landfills, with potential implications for sea life.

Tracking Technologies

It’s hard to track the movements of marine organisms because radio signals transmit poorly through water. Now, new technology known as underwater backscatter localization (UBL) has potential to dramatically expand our ability to study undersea life. UBL could benefit conservation by enhancing the ability to understand distribution and behavior of ocean animals. But it also will be important to consider how the presence of the devices might adversely affect them.

Robotic Research

The use of robots that mimic life forms for ocean research is growing. Because so-called “soft robots” aren’t limited by the need for pressurization like rigid robotics, this may boost deep sea exploration. At the same time, it could disrupt previously untrammeled environments and harm marine life by using novel organisms as fuel or being ingested by indiscriminating animals.

Biodegrading Into What?

Biodegradable plastics are beneficial because they can prevent the buildup of trash in the ocean environment. But what about the components the materials degrade into? The speed with which such materials are entering the market due to consumer demand has in some cases limited testing of the impacts of degradation of the products, opening the door to potential new problems with toxicity within the marine environment.

Why do some people in New Jersey suddenly have so many reusable bags?

A ban on single-use plastic and paper bags in grocery stores had an unintended effect: Delivery services switched to heavy, reusable sacks — lots of them.Nicole Kramaritsch of Roxbury, N.J., has 46 bags just sitting in her garage. Brian Otto has 101 of them, so many that he’s considering sewing them into blackout curtains for his baby’s bedroom. (So far, that idea has gone nowhere.) Lili Mannuzza in Whippany has 74.“I don’t know what to do with all these bags,” she said.The mountains of bags are an unintended consequence of New Jersey’s strict new bag ban in supermarkets. It went into effect in May and prohibits not only plastic bags but paper bags as well. The well-intentioned law seeks to cut down on waste and single-use plastics, but for many people who rely on grocery delivery and curbside pickup services their orders now come in heavy-duty reusable shopping bags — lots and lots of them, week after week.While nearly a dozen states nationwide have implemented restrictions on single-use plastic bags, New Jersey is the only one to ban paper bags because of their environmental impact. The law also bans polystyrene foam food containers and cups, and restricts restaurants from handing out plastic straws unless they’re requested.Emily Gonyou, 22, a gig worker in Roselle Park who provides shopping services for people through Instacart, said she was surprised when she learned the delivery company had no special plans for accommodating the ban. “They pretty much said, ‘OK, do exactly what you’re doing, but with reusable bags,’” she said.Understand the Latest News on Climate ChangeCard 1 of 4Understand the Latest News on Climate ChangeMelting ice.

Plastic pollution in Mediterranean is cleaned by Enaleia, Lefteris Arapakis

KERATSINI, Greece — It was Lefteris Arapakis’s first expedition on a fishing boat, and he didn’t expect what the nets would pull up.There were scorpionfish, red mullet and sea bream. But there was also a bright red can of Coke.About this seriesClimate Visionaries highlights brilliant people around the world who are working to find climate solutions.Arapakis, whose family had plied the waters near Athens for five generations, pulled the can out of the net and turned it over to look at the sell-by date stamped o­n the bottom. 1987. Seven years older than him. It had been in the Mediterranean for almost three decades.He was still staring at the can when a fisherman grabbed it out of his hand and tossed it back into the water.“That’s not what we’re paid to catch,” Arapakis recalled the fisherman saying.Every day, the fishing boat — and thousands just like it on the crystalline Mediterranean — caught old bottles, plastic foam, flip-flops and other detritus in its nets. And every day, its crew tossed everything back into the undulating waters, only hauling back what would bring cash.So Arapakis, now 28, had an idea: He would try to convince the fishing industry to treat plastic as a catch. In 2016, he launched a nonprofit focused on sea cleanup and fishing education called Enaleia, a play on Greek words that calls to mind sustainable fishing. Once the fishers brought the plastic ashore, he would recycle it and pay them for their trouble. Six years into the project, he has signed up more than half of Greece’s large-scale fishing fleet — hundreds of ships — to pull in the plastic they gather as they ply the Mediterranean. He plans to keep expanding globally.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisementThis year, after Arapakis spread his efforts across Greece and much of Italy, he expects to gather nearly 200 tons of plastic — enough to fill a football field five feet high with tiny pieces of plastic. That’s more than 7,500 pounds of plastic every week. And others have taken notice: The United Nations Environment Program named him a Young Champion of the Earth in 2020 — its highest environmental honor for people under 30.Global plastics activists have struggled for years to make an impact as the amount of plastic flowing into the world’s oceans continues unabated. One 2015 study found that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic were likely going into the world’s waters every year. The problem is especially acute in the Mediterranean.“In a way, plastics are trapped inside the Mediterranean,” said Kostas Tsiaras, a research scientist at the Hellenic Center for Marine Research who has studied plastic pollution in the sea.And the challenge is global: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of especially dense concentrations of plastic debris in the northern part of that ocean, is estimated to be roughly twice the size of Texas.“At first the fishermen were making fun of us,” Arapakis said. “They said we are not Greek garbage collectors.” But as the project has expanded, the fishing industry has flocked to it.“They were part of the problem. Now they’re part of the solution.” he said.Lefteris Arapakis aboard the Panagiota II, his father’s fishing boat, in Keratsini, Greece, on July 25, 2022.When Lefteris Arapakis’s father, Vangelis, started working the seas in 1978, it was a different era. The fish were plentiful, and the plastic nearly nonexistent.“In the 1970s there weren’t any plastic bottles. Bottled water didn’t exist,” Vangelis, 57, said on a recent afternoon, perched in his office above the selling floor of the Keratsini fish market just west of Athens — the biggest in the country. Inside, the smell was of stale cigarettes. From a cracked window came the aroma of the sea.Things changed in the 1980s, he said. For a time, when fishing boats followed in the wake of the big ferryboats that plied the sea near Athens, they would find a trail of bobbing bottles. The problem built quickly: the Mediterranean is like a big bathtub, connected to the Atlantic Ocean only by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, leaving detritus with little escape.By the 1990s, when Lefteris was a child, plastics were a daily nuisance in the nets. But if anyone ever brought the waste to shore, local authorities would complain about the disposal problem and ask for it to be dumped at sea. The message back then was “make it disappear,” Vangelis says.Fishing could then become a frustrating cycle, as plastic debris passed from one boat to another. “We’d take the fish and we’d toss everything else back in the sea,” he said. “Another boat would come again in five hours and they’d do the same thing.”Back then, there were still plenty of fish when the boats pulled in their nets, according to Vangelis. Now, though, every year it feels like there are fewer fish for a shorter time.Vangelis had hoped to pull his eldest son into the fishing industry, giving him summer jobs cleaning the boat and selling fish at the market.“He was gifted to be able to talk to clients and to offer what we had to offer,” the father said. “He was good at explaining things.”But Lefteris Arapakis, a lanky theater aficionado with shoulder-length hair, a scraggly goatee and a pierced ear, had always been an awkward fit for the culture of the wharves. In that world, big, taciturn men plied the seas for long hours. They sold their fish overnight, then slugged back beers at a portside cafe as the first light broke over the water. Fishermen measured their success by the size of their haul and the size of their car. He was fine with his little Alfa Romeo and a copy of Dante tucked into his backpack.Worse, Arapakis’s sympathy was in the wrong place: “I always felt pity for the fish,” he said.Aboard the Panagiota II, Lefteris Arapakis’s father’s fishing boat. Arapakis felt a shock of excitement when he saw what the boat brought back the first day it collected trash, in 2018: two big trash bags full of plastic.Aboard the Panagiota II, Lefteris Arapakis’s father’s fishing boat. Arapakis felt a shock of excitement when he saw what the boat brought back the first day it collected trash, in 2018: two big trash bags full of plastic.Arapakis always knew he didn’t want to spend his life on the family boat, navigating choppy seas as his great-grandfather’s painted icon of St. Nikolaos watched over his shoulder. Fishing for plastic, however, felt different, and the boat — the Panagiota II, named after the family matriarch — could be his testing ground.Arapakis felt a shock of excitement when he saw what the boat brought back the first day it collected trash, in 2018: two big trash bags full of plastic.“If we hadn’t taken action, we would have had that plastic floating around the Mediterranean forever,” Arapakis said.Now the organization Arapakis started, Enaleia, pays fishing crews a small amount every month for the plastic they gather — between $30 and $90 per crew member, depending on how much plastic they bring in. (The group found that crews bring in more if they get paid for their work.) The funding comes from foundations that support the organization — mostly Greek groups, with a few international donors such as the Ocean Conservancy, Nestlé and Pfizer — and from profits from the sales of recovered fishing nets to clothing manufacturers, who can reclaim the material for socks, backpacks and shoes.Other fishermen get paid to do days of plastics cleanup entirely, instead of heading out for fish.Small port towns don’t always welcome the sudden influx of litter, and sometimes Arapakis has to push to get permission, or even legal changes, to store it somewhere.Small port towns don’t always welcome the sudden influx of litter, and sometimes Arapakis has to push to get permission, or even legal changes, to store it somewhere.At the beginning, convincing fishermen to join was painstaking work, requiring a lot of face time in unfamiliar villages. It wasn’t easy: The industry doesn’t always cotton to environmentalists, since many fishermen think the activists want to take away their livelihoods. And the culture can be deeply resistant to change. One season, Arapakis’s father painted his boat a vibrant cerulean rather than the deeper blue that is traditional. Other fishermen were still laughing about it a year later.So sometimes Arapakis would just walk up and down a wharf, talking to the crews he came across.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisement“Maybe you know my family. We fish in Piraeus,” Arapakis would tell them. The Greek fishing industry is small enough that people often recognized his family name. Then it would usually take shared meals and some ouzo, Greece’s ubiquitous anise-flavored spirit for the fishers to trust him. “I had to get drunk with them,” Arapakis said.At each new port, he needed to convince authorities to let him store the plastic that many of them viewed as trash, and to find new routes to recyclers.Now from port to port across Greece’s vast coastline, fishing boats are gathering plastic and bringing it to shore. About 60 percent of Greece’s biggest fishing boats are working with him, about as much as makes sense logistically, Arapakis said. The remainder work from ports where it wouldn’t be cost-effective to set up the infrastructure to take the plastic for recycling.And in Arapakis’s home port, a vacant corner has been filling up with the measure of their success: car seats. Old fishing nets. Bottles from Greece, Turkey, Egypt, even the United States. Big trucks haul the catch to recyclers across Greece.The fishing boats of Vangelis Arapakis (pictured), and others at the port in Keratsini, Greece. When Vangelis started working the seas in 1978, it was a different era. The fish were plentiful, and the plastic nearly nonexistent, he said.The fishing boats of Vangelis Arapakis (pictured), and others at the port in Keratsini, Greece. When Vangelis started working the seas in 1978, it was a different era. The fish were plentiful, and the plastic nearly nonexistent, he said.At the recycling plant in the mountains outside Athens where Arapakis sends much of his plastic, black plastic pipes that were the remnants of a fish farm were heaped outside the main warehouse on a recent afternoon. Bundles of plastic bottles were piled 15 and 20 feet high. Inside the plant, workers fed the plastic into complicated machines that first washed the old material, then dried and sorted it, then chopped it into flakes or melted it into pellets. The material was poured into tall sacks that each held a metric ton of tiny pieces of plastic that looked like vast piles of small, sparkly jewels.Figuring out what to do with all of the plastic has required nearly as much creativity as getting fishers to sign on. Small port towns don’t always welcome the sudden influx of litter, and sometimes Arapakis has to push to get permission, or even legal changes, to store it somewhere. Until very recently, for example, Italy didn’t technically permit plastic waste to be hauled from the sea.And recycling companies don’t like plastic that has spent decades in the sea: it’s sun- and water-beaten, and the end product isn’t as strong as what comes from fresher material, making it more challenging to resell.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisementBut there’s a growing demand for reclaimed plastic, and sometimes the story is just as attractive as the material itself. Companies such as Adidas have started making shoes and clothing out of reclaimed ocean plastic, a development Arapakis hopes will expand the market. For now, much of his recycled plastic is mixed with higher-quality recycled plastic to make things like furniture. He sends the used fishing nets to companies in Spain and the Netherlands that turn them into backpacks and other articles of clothing. He gives ocean-plastic socks out as presents, including — at a recent star-studded reception — to Greece’s president.“Until we had this option with Lefteris, there wasn’t any place to put the trash,” said Christos Iliou, 54, a fisherman on the island of Kythnos, about 50 miles southeast of Athens who has a Playboy bunny tattooed on his left bicep and a golden propeller on a chain around his neck. “You could collect it, but it was a Catch-22 because it would end up back in the sea.”“Lefteris has a gift. He can convey his passion,” he said. “People trust him. They know who he is.”At the daily fish auction at the Keratsini port near Athens, on July 26, 2022.At the daily fish auction at the Keratsini port near Athens, on July 26, 2022.On a recent morning, Iliou puttered his boat out of the main port of Kythnos. The water was perfectly clear — and bottles could be seen underneath the surface, on the seafloor about 10 feet down. He was piloting a team of cleanup volunteers toward a series of beaches that were accessible only from the water.In the port, a plastic bag floated by. Further out, day-trippers on rental boats roared across the water, leaving the fishing vessel rocking in their wake. The island’s terraced hills — once covered with hops that were taken to an Athens brewery, now mostly abandoned — slowly passed against the horizon.At one beach — just thirty or forty feet wide — the cicadas buzzed in the morning heat. There were no other people in sight. And though from a distance the beach looked pristine, up close the ground was thick with litter. Half a flip-flop. A cookie cutter in the shape of an anchor. A long piece of driftwood, plastic bags impaled on each of its gnarled branches. A red medicine bottle.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisement“You feel you’re doing something, even if it’s a little bit,” said one of the volunteers, Irini Vlastari, 66, who came on the cleanup venture with her son and two grandchildren. Vlastari lived on the island until she was 12, when she moved to Athens. She still comes back every summer.Back when she was a child, people reused things, she said. Old clothing was repurposed into dolls. Tin cans were cut into toy cars. “We wouldn’t throw things away.” Now, “every year there’s more trash.”Volunteers collect coastal plastic in Kythnos, Greece, on July 27, 2022. Irini Vlastari, 66, came on the cleanup venture with her son and two grandchildren. “You feel you’re doing something, even if it’s a little bit,” she said.Volunteers collect coastal plastic in Kythnos, Greece, on July 27, 2022. Irini Vlastari, 66, came on the cleanup venture with her son and two grandchildren. “You feel you’re doing something, even if it’s a little bit,” she said.The cleanup hauls in two 55-gallon bags of plastic over a few hours.Enaleia’s efforts won’t clean up the Mediterranean on their own, Arapakis acknowledged — the scale is far too vast.“Cleaning plastic from the sea is not solving the problem, it’s treating the symptom,” he said.Enaleia also tries to do preventive work, encouraging fishing boats to recycle their nets at the end of the season rather than tossing them in the sea. This year they gathered more than 30 tons.Arapakis is still thinking about places to expand: Kenya is the latest target, his first attempt beyond the Mediterranean. Next is the rest of Italy and Cyprus. Another target is Egypt, whose powerful Nile pumps a torrent of plastic into the Mediterranean.In Kenya and elsewhere, Arapakis says his program is able to have even more of an impact, paying fishermen more than they could earn by fishing simply to focus on gathering plastic. That helps fish populations recover and brings in more plastic per fisher than in the Mediterranean.The cleanup effort, as small as it is compared to the scale of the challenge, is still a way to leave the sea a better place, Arapakis said.“I cannot change the climate crisis. But I can change my father’s mind, and some of the others who work with him. And then we can expand to fishing communities around Greece, and then you can expand to Italy and the Mediterranean,” Arapakis said. “What you change grows. ”Lefteris Arapakis watches the sun set over the horizon on July 25, 2022.About this storyElinda Labropoulou contributed to this report. Story editing by Dayana Sarkisova. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Illustration animation by Emma Kumer. Design and development by Hailey Haymond. Copy editing by Adrienne Dunn.