Ocean plastic is bad, but soil plastic pollution may be worse

Those concerned with agricultural plastics in the soil are looking to address the problem from several fronts.Acknowledging that there is no silver bullet, the FAO report outlines a variety of recommendations that span several different policy arenas, including eliminating the use of the most problematic agricultural plastics, investing in biodegradable substitutes, and mandatory extended producer responsibility obligations for appropriate end-of-life management. The authors of the report also suggest establishing an international, voluntary code of conduct on sustainable use, which will be discussed by the FAO’s Committee on Agriculture in July, said Thompson, one of the report’s authors.“A voluntary code can have a much wider scope, because it doesn’t require consensus between all the countries that are debating it,” said Thompson. “It can set responsibilities for a wider range of stakeholders rather than just national governments.”“There are links between the climate crisis, plastics, biodiversity, and toxics. They are all part of the same story.”The report also supports mandated solutions. Carlini and her colleagues, for example, are gearing up for negotiations on drafted resolutions for a global, legally binding plastics treaty at the U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi this month. While countries joined together at UNEA in 2019 and previous sessions to pass a resolution on marine plastic pollution, Carlini is advocating for policymakers to take a broader approach.“We’re extracting fossil fuels and using them to make chemicals and pesticides and plastics that are then polluting the world,” said Carlini. “There are links between the climate crisis, plastics, biodiversity, and toxics. They are all part of the same story.”Meanwhile, Nizzetto is working with PAPILLIONS, a research project supported by the European Commission to study the lifecycle of agricultural plastics and their long-term impacts. The group is calling on policymakers to establish sustainability criteria for agricultural plastics, including biodegradability standards, life-cycle traceability, and increased funding for research that investigates the complex interactions among plastics and other pollutants in soils, including pesticides and heavy metals.In the U.S., potential solutions to address agricultural plastics have been slower to develop.The FAO report emphasizes solutions that embrace the “polluter pays” principle, including Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes that promote closed-loop recycling of agricultural plastics, funded by the corporations that produce them. With a mandated EPR system, the producers of agricultural plastics would be responsible for funding and developing the infrastructure needed to collect and recycle those materials based on government regulations that outline sustainable management.“If the corporation is required to pay for end-of-life disposal and it’s costly, they will be incentivized to reduce the toxins in their products or design them for recyclability,” said Suna Bayrakal, director of policy and programs at the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute. “EPR laws shift the financial and management responsibility to the producers, all while retaining government oversight.”EPR programs currently exist in 33 states and Washington, D.C. for a variety of products like batteries, paint, pharmaceuticals, and tires. Last year, Maine and Oregon passed the first-ever U.S. EPR laws to require companies that put consumer packaging on the market to contribute to the costs of collection and recycling. But few of these mandates cover agricultural plastics, aside from California’s recycling program for pesticide containers of 55 gallons or less.

How a dramatic win in plastic waste case may curb ocean pollution

POINT COMFORT, TEXASNearly every day for three years, Diane Wilson and a handful of fellow volunteers spent hours poking through the buggy, marshy grasses of the Gulf Coast, combing stretches of pebbly sand, or kayaking beside a huge petrochemical plant, all in search of tiny plastic pellets called nurdles. They found the lentil-sized pieces everywhere, filling gallon bags with them, and submerging bottles to collect water tainted with raw plastic powder.In March of 2019, Wilson, a retired shrimp boat captain and fisherwoman, loaded a trailer with 2,400 of those samples—46 million individual pellets, she estimates—and drove her pickup truck to federal court to face down Formosa Plastics, the company responsible for the spills. The victory she won there led to what is said to be the largest ever settlement of a private citizen’s Clean Water Act lawsuit. It was a big moment in efforts to confront a type of pollution that, while accounting for a significant chunk of the microplastics choking the world’s seas, gets far less attention than the more visible tide of bottles, bags, and other post-consumer waste.Now, Wilson’s win is a warning to others making and handling nurdles that they too could face costly consequences for leaking plastics into the environment. Regulation of the pellets remains weak, but the ripples of change the case set off may be the start of a new, more stringent approach to managing them.Nurdles are the building blocks for all manner of plastic products, from yogurt containers and toothpaste tubes to car parts. Every year, Formosa’s plant turns by-products of oil and gas into millions of tons of those pellets, and plastic powder, a raw form of vinyl. The voluminous evidence Wilson’s group gathered persuaded the judge hearing her case that the complex was discharging a flood of the plastics into Cox Creek and Lavaca Bay, part of an interconnecting network of Gulf of Mexico inlets about halfway between Houston and Corpus Christi.The judge’s ruling called Formosa a “serial offender” whose “violations are enormous.” Following the verdict, the company, part of Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group—the world’s sixth largest chemical maker—agreed to pay $50 million into a trust funding local conservation projects, scientific research, and a sustainable fishing co-operative. Formosa also committed to stopping the spills and cleaning up its mess.Those costs have gotten the attention of executives elsewhere in the industry, says Karen Hansen, a lawyer in the Austin, Texas, office of the firm Beveridge & Diamond, who represents companies on water quality issues. “No company wants the liability that Formosa Plastics found itself with,” so others are now working to reduce their own nurdle leaks, she says.Wilson thinks her case is a powerful model: citizen science and activism holding a major polluter to account, and citizen enforcement making the changes stick. Hansen agrees: “The reverberations have been far-reaching.”Mind-boggling numbers The problem is not just plastic manufacturers. “Transporters, distributors—the entire supply chain” is losing pellets, says Jace Tunnell, a marine biologist with the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute. Nurdles often spill while being loaded on and off trains. They accumulate on tracks and then wash toward rivers, lakes, or coastlines when it rains, says Tunnell, who founded Nurdle Patrol, a citizen science project awarded a $1 million grant from Wilson’s trust.The numbers are mind-boggling. One study estimated that in the United Kingdom, between five and 53 billion pellets are lost into the environment each year. In 2020 more than 700 million spilled from a cargo ship on the Mississippi River near New Orleans. In Sri Lanka, pellets are still washing up on hundreds of miles of coastline after a container ship carrying 1,700 metric tons sank last year; the UN called it the biggest plastic spill on record.Overall, a 2016 report estimated, 230,000 metric tons of nurdles enter the world’s oceans each year, accounting for 24 percent of spilled microplastics and nearly 2 percent of total marine plastics.Diane Wilson holds up plastic pieces she pulled from dirt on the bank of a waterway outside the Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas, on November 3, 2021.Photograph by Mark Felix, AFP/Getty ImagesPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.Even as public awareness about plastic pollution grows, fossil fuel companies and their petrochemical subsidiaries are ramping up to make more plastic than ever in the years to come. The industry—anticipating that action on climate change may reduce demand for oil and gas—sees plastic as a promising source of revenue growth. So without action to address nurdle spills, they could get even more frequent and more damaging.The industry’s expansion is well underway on the Gulf Coast, long the hub for U.S. plastic production, with new plants opening and old ones growing. ExxonMobil and the Saudi petrochemical conglomerate SABIC just jointly fired up a giant new complex near Corpus Christi. Formosa recently completed a $5 billion expansion of the plant at the center of the nurdle case. Even before it was done, one of the company’s lawyers said the complex was producing a trillion pellets a day.Last year, in the wake of Wilson’s win, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state regulator, tightened requirements for companies making and handling nurdles. Neil McQueen, of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group, says the new language is too vague, and leaves industry wiggle room to define terms to its advantage. Hansen says companies anticipate tougher enforcement and are acting accordingly.Elsewhere, other activists are following Wilson’s lead, stepping in where regulators have failed to act. South Carolina environmentalists started collecting nurdles around Charleston Harbor after the Formosa verdict. Last year, they won a $1 million settlement—and an agreement to make changes to prevent future spills—from Frontier Logistics, a plastics distribution company.‘It was going right into the creek’Wilson is the fourth generation in her family to have earned a living on the waters tucked behind barrier islands on the Matagorda Bay system. The area’s once-rich habitats—a haven for more than 400 bird species and home to dolphins, alligators, and sea turtles—have been declining for decades, a result of development, industrial pollution, and threats such as algal blooms. That, and a growing awareness of petrochemicals’ toxic footprint, spurred Wilson to become an environmental activist more than 30 years ago.Her focus on nurdles began in 2012, when a former Formosa employee told her the plant was losing significant quantities. At first, Wilson tried to prod state regulators to do something. The agency sent inspectors, and later fined Formosa $122,000, but Wilson could see that its actions wouldn’t stop the spills.So in January 2016 she and a few others began what became near-daily nurdle- and powder-collecting outings, under the auspices of San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, a group she leads. “We started wading out on the bay,” Wilson tells me as we sit outside her little purple house, underneath a tree with Spanish moss draped over its thick, twisting branches. “Along the shores, around the boat ramps.” Once they figured out where to look, the pellets were easy to see, “and they’re everywhere.”She bought a cheap kayak and started paddling on Cox Creek, which meanders right past Formosa’s 2,500-acre complex. She found one of the discharge points, a ditch “coming right from the plant. And it was going right to the fence, and it was going right into the creek,” she says. In one spot nearby, pellets carpeted the marshy shore, “like that deep,” she told me, holding her hands about five inches apart.The volume and meticulous documentation of the samples her group gathered, plus hundreds of photos and videos, enabled Wilson’s lawyers to refute one of Formosa’s main arguments—that any plastics it discharged were only “trace” amounts, allowed by its permit. While questioning one of the company’s expert witnesses, “he was talking about ‘trace,’ and I had a video of Diane in a kayak on the creek,” says Amy Johnson, one of Wilson’s lawyers. “And all around her is a bed of plastics floating on the water, probably five or 10 feet out,” she recalls. “We all know that’s not a trace amount.”Holding Formosa to account In the end, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt found there were 736 days of illegal releases at one of Formosa’s discharge points, and 1,149 at a group of eight others. Lawyers hashed out a consent decree that gives Wilson an unusual degree of involvement in holding Formosa to its commitments. Her team scrutinizes the company’s plans for removing old pellets and stopping fresh discharges, and she can challenge any of it in court. Formosa pays for her lawyers and an engineering expert.  Meanwhile, an independent monitor tracks new spills. The company is fined $25,000 a day, per body of water, for each violation. Since the settlement, it’s racked up nearly $4 million in new fines, payable to the trust.The Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas. Formosa set up shop in 1983 south of Houston in Point Comfort. Over the years, the plant has polluted the surrounding waters with tiny plastics and plastic powder.Photograph by Mark Felix, AFP/Getty ImagesPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited. Formosa said in an email that its plant had not discharged any nurdles since November, and was working toward eliminating loss of smaller plastics, but had no estimate of current powder discharges. “Reaching zero visible plastics loss is a priority for the company,” its statement said, adding that Formosa participates in Operation Clean Sweep, a voluntary industry program to reduce plastic discharges.Johnson says the fixes Formosa has made so far are superficial measures such as filters, not the more fundamental changes needed inside the plant. In the last quarter of 2021, the monitor logged violations on 78 out of 91 days.While the scale of Wilson’s evidence collection is unusual, the “citizen suit” has long been key to American environmental enforcement. Environmentalists now worry the Supreme Court may tighten eligibility to sue in such cases, making it harder for individuals to challenge big polluters.‘You’ll never get through counting them’Meanwhile, the trust’s money is being disbursed. The biggest initiative, at $20 million, is the creation of a sustainable fishing cooperative. A Georgia-based federation of Black farming cooperatives oversees the project, aiming to revitalize the bays’ ecosystems so small fishermen and shrimpers have a future. Other grants fund beach restoration, the creation of a park, and kids’ environmental education at YMCA camps.Funding scientific research is another focus of the trust. Tunnell’s Nurdle Patrol has more than 5,000 volunteers, who have done 11,000 pellet surveys. The metric they use is how many nurdles one person can gather by hand in 10 minutes; participants scoop as many as they can, count them afterwards, and report the results.After Tunnell vets the data, it’s plotted on a map. “Now you overlay it with where the manufacturers are—boom, it matches up,” he says. Around New Orleans and through the Mississippi River Delta cluster dots of red (meaning 101 to 1,000 nurdles collected) and purple (more than 1,000 nurdles). The petrochemical hub around Houston is crowded with purple, and a steady line of red and orange (31 to 100 nurdles) goes right down to Mexico.Data is trickling in from elsewhere in the country, and it offers a glimpse of nurdles’ reach—reds on the Great Lakes; near Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey; around Charleston, South Carolina; and in the Pacific Northwest. Only one state, California, bars nurdle discharges, Tunnell says. Nurdle Patrol encourages participants to use their data to push political leaders for tighter regulations.Researchers are also studying the harm nurdles wreak. Birds and sea creatures can choke or suffer internal damage when they ingest pellets, or starve with stomachs full of plastic. Another worry is the chemicals that attach themselves to floating pellets. Dangerous toxins, including mercury, the long-outlawed pesticide DDT, and a group of hazardous industrial chemicals called PCBs have all been found on nurdles.Near the Formosa plant, Wilson’s volunteers are still out looking for plastic. On a baking day in August 2021, Ronnie Hamrick, a retired Formosa worker, takes me to a little stretch of beach near a bait stand, where a layer of white scum coats the water. “This whole bay is totally like this,” he says. “You got kids swimming in it.”Later, across a two-lane highway from the plant, I follow him down a steep embankment to the edge of Cox Creek. Mopping sweat from his face, he pulls aside thick clumps of vegetation with a rake. In the little puddle it exposes, maybe 10 inches square, hundreds of white pellets float to the surface.Everywhere Hamrick probes, there are more nurdles—a hint of how hard it will be to clean up this mess without irrevocably damaging the ecosystem. He pulls out a plant and holds it up to show me the pellets laced densely through the root system, like tiny eggs. “I’ll get you more over here, I see a bunch of them,” he tells me. When I ask Hamrick how many nurdles he guesses are in a particular spot, his reply is a reminder of the sheer volume of Formosa’s spills. So many, he answers sadly, that “you’ll never get through counting them.”Reporting for this story was supported by the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Beth Gardiner is the author of Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.

How a dramatic win in plastic waste case may curb ocean pollution

POINT COMFORT, TEXASNearly every day for three years, Diane Wilson and a handful of fellow volunteers spent hours poking through the buggy, marshy grasses of the Gulf Coast, combing stretches of pebbly sand, or kayaking beside a huge petrochemical plant, all in search of tiny plastic pellets called nurdles. They found the lentil-sized pieces everywhere, filling gallon bags with them, and submerging bottles to collect water tainted with raw plastic powder.In March of 2019, Wilson, a retired shrimp boat captain and fisherwoman, loaded a trailer with 2,400 of those samples—46 million individual pellets, she estimates—and drove her pickup truck to federal court to face down Formosa Plastics, the company responsible for the spills. The victory she won there led to what is said to be the largest ever settlement of a private citizen’s Clean Water Act lawsuit. It was a big moment in efforts to confront a type of pollution that, while accounting for a significant chunk of the microplastics choking the world’s seas, gets far less attention than the more visible tide of bottles, bags, and other post-consumer waste.Now, Wilson’s win is a warning to others making and handling nurdles that they too could face costly consequences for leaking plastics into the environment. Regulation of the pellets remains weak, but the ripples of change the case set off may be the start of a new, more stringent approach to managing them.Nurdles are the building blocks for all manner of plastic products, from yogurt containers and toothpaste tubes to car parts. Every year, Formosa’s plant turns by-products of oil and gas into millions of tons of those pellets, and plastic powder, a raw form of vinyl. The voluminous evidence Wilson’s group gathered persuaded the judge hearing her case that the complex was discharging a flood of the plastics into Cox Creek and Lavaca Bay, part of an interconnecting network of Gulf of Mexico inlets about halfway between Houston and Corpus Christi.The judge’s ruling called Formosa a “serial offender” whose “violations are enormous.” Following the verdict, the company, part of Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group—the world’s sixth largest chemical maker—agreed to pay $50 million into a trust funding local conservation projects, scientific research, and a sustainable fishing co-operative. Formosa also committed to stopping the spills and cleaning up its mess.Those costs have gotten the attention of executives elsewhere in the industry, says Karen Hansen, a lawyer in the Austin, Texas, office of the firm Beveridge & Diamond, who represents companies on water quality issues. “No company wants the liability that Formosa Plastics found itself with,” so others are now working to reduce their own nurdle leaks, she says.Wilson thinks her case is a powerful model: citizen science and activism holding a major polluter to account, and citizen enforcement making the changes stick. Hansen agrees: “The reverberations have been far-reaching.”Mind-boggling numbers The problem is not just plastic manufacturers. “Transporters, distributors—the entire supply chain” is losing pellets, says Jace Tunnell, a marine biologist with the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute. Nurdles often spill while being loaded on and off trains. They accumulate on tracks and then wash toward rivers, lakes, or coastlines when it rains, says Tunnell, who founded Nurdle Patrol, a citizen science project awarded a $1 million grant from Wilson’s trust.The numbers are mind-boggling. One study estimated that in the United Kingdom, between five and 53 billion pellets are lost into the environment each year. In 2020 more than 700 million spilled from a cargo ship on the Mississippi River near New Orleans. In Sri Lanka, pellets are still washing up on hundreds of miles of coastline after a container ship carrying 1,700 metric tons sank last year; the UN called it the biggest plastic spill on record.Overall, a 2016 report estimated, 230,000 metric tons of nurdles enter the world’s oceans each year, accounting for 24 percent of spilled microplastics and nearly 2 percent of total marine plastics.Diane Wilson holds up plastic pieces she pulled from dirt on the bank of a waterway outside the Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas, on November 3, 2021.Photograph by Mark Felix, AFP/Getty ImagesPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.Even as public awareness about plastic pollution grows, fossil fuel companies and their petrochemical subsidiaries are ramping up to make more plastic than ever in the years to come. The industry—anticipating that action on climate change may reduce demand for oil and gas—sees plastic as a promising source of revenue growth. So without action to address nurdle spills, they could get even more frequent and more damaging.The industry’s expansion is well underway on the Gulf Coast, long the hub for U.S. plastic production, with new plants opening and old ones growing. ExxonMobil and the Saudi petrochemical conglomerate SABIC just jointly fired up a giant new complex near Corpus Christi. Formosa recently completed a $5 billion expansion of the plant at the center of the nurdle case. Even before it was done, one of the company’s lawyers said the complex was producing a trillion pellets a day.Last year, in the wake of Wilson’s win, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state regulator, tightened requirements for companies making and handling nurdles. Neil McQueen, of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group, says the new language is too vague, and leaves industry wiggle room to define terms to its advantage. Hansen says companies anticipate tougher enforcement and are acting accordingly.Elsewhere, other activists are following Wilson’s lead, stepping in where regulators have failed to act. South Carolina environmentalists started collecting nurdles around Charleston Harbor after the Formosa verdict. Last year, they won a $1 million settlement—and an agreement to make changes to prevent future spills—from Frontier Logistics, a plastics distribution company.‘It was going right into the creek’Wilson is the fourth generation in her family to have earned a living on the waters tucked behind barrier islands on the Matagorda Bay system. The area’s once-rich habitats—a haven for more than 400 bird species and home to dolphins, alligators, and sea turtles—have been declining for decades, a result of development, industrial pollution, and threats such as algal blooms. That, and a growing awareness of petrochemicals’ toxic footprint, spurred Wilson to become an environmental activist more than 30 years ago.Her focus on nurdles began in 2012, when a former Formosa employee told her the plant was losing significant quantities. At first, Wilson tried to prod state regulators to do something. The agency sent inspectors, and later fined Formosa $122,000, but Wilson could see that its actions wouldn’t stop the spills.So in January 2016 she and a few others began what became near-daily nurdle- and powder-collecting outings, under the auspices of San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, a group she leads. “We started wading out on the bay,” Wilson tells me as we sit outside her little purple house, underneath a tree with Spanish moss draped over its thick, twisting branches. “Along the shores, around the boat ramps.” Once they figured out where to look, the pellets were easy to see, “and they’re everywhere.”She bought a cheap kayak and started paddling on Cox Creek, which meanders right past Formosa’s 2,500-acre complex. She found one of the discharge points, a ditch “coming right from the plant. And it was going right to the fence, and it was going right into the creek,” she says. In one spot nearby, pellets carpeted the marshy shore, “like that deep,” she told me, holding her hands about five inches apart.The volume and meticulous documentation of the samples her group gathered, plus hundreds of photos and videos, enabled Wilson’s lawyers to refute one of Formosa’s main arguments—that any plastics it discharged were only “trace” amounts, allowed by its permit. While questioning one of the company’s expert witnesses, “he was talking about ‘trace,’ and I had a video of Diane in a kayak on the creek,” says Amy Johnson, one of Wilson’s lawyers. “And all around her is a bed of plastics floating on the water, probably five or 10 feet out,” she recalls. “We all know that’s not a trace amount.”Holding Formosa to account In the end, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt found there were 736 days of illegal releases at one of Formosa’s discharge points, and 1,149 at a group of eight others. Lawyers hashed out a consent decree that gives Wilson an unusual degree of involvement in holding Formosa to its commitments. Her team scrutinizes the company’s plans for removing old pellets and stopping fresh discharges, and she can challenge any of it in court. Formosa pays for her lawyers and an engineering expert.  Meanwhile, an independent monitor tracks new spills. The company is fined $25,000 a day, per body of water, for each violation. Since the settlement, it’s racked up nearly $4 million in new fines, payable to the trust.The Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas. Formosa set up shop in 1983 south of Houston in Point Comfort. Over the years, the plant has polluted the surrounding waters with tiny plastics and plastic powder.Photograph by Mark Felix, AFP/Getty ImagesPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited. Formosa said in an email that its plant had not discharged any nurdles since November, and was working toward eliminating loss of smaller plastics, but had no estimate of current powder discharges. “Reaching zero visible plastics loss is a priority for the company,” its statement said, adding that Formosa participates in Operation Clean Sweep, a voluntary industry program to reduce plastic discharges.Johnson says the fixes Formosa has made so far are superficial measures such as filters, not the more fundamental changes needed inside the plant. In the last quarter of 2021, the monitor logged violations on 78 out of 91 days.While the scale of Wilson’s evidence collection is unusual, the “citizen suit” has long been key to American environmental enforcement. Environmentalists now worry the Supreme Court may tighten eligibility to sue in such cases, making it harder for individuals to challenge big polluters.‘You’ll never get through counting them’Meanwhile, the trust’s money is being disbursed. The biggest initiative, at $20 million, is the creation of a sustainable fishing cooperative. A Georgia-based federation of Black farming cooperatives oversees the project, aiming to revitalize the bays’ ecosystems so small fishermen and shrimpers have a future. Other grants fund beach restoration, the creation of a park, and kids’ environmental education at YMCA camps.Funding scientific research is another focus of the trust. Tunnell’s Nurdle Patrol has more than 5,000 volunteers, who have done 11,000 pellet surveys. The metric they use is how many nurdles one person can gather by hand in 10 minutes; participants scoop as many as they can, count them afterwards, and report the results.After Tunnell vets the data, it’s plotted on a map. “Now you overlay it with where the manufacturers are—boom, it matches up,” he says. Around New Orleans and through the Mississippi River Delta cluster dots of red (meaning 101 to 1,000 nurdles collected) and purple (more than 1,000 nurdles). The petrochemical hub around Houston is crowded with purple, and a steady line of red and orange (31 to 100 nurdles) goes right down to Mexico.Data is trickling in from elsewhere in the country, and it offers a glimpse of nurdles’ reach—reds on the Great Lakes; near Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey; around Charleston, South Carolina; and in the Pacific Northwest. Only one state, California, bars nurdle discharges, Tunnell says. Nurdle Patrol encourages participants to use their data to push political leaders for tighter regulations.Researchers are also studying the harm nurdles wreak. Birds and sea creatures can choke or suffer internal damage when they ingest pellets, or starve with stomachs full of plastic. Another worry is the chemicals that attach themselves to floating pellets. Dangerous toxins, including mercury, the long-outlawed pesticide DDT, and a group of hazardous industrial chemicals called PCBs have all been found on nurdles.Near the Formosa plant, Wilson’s volunteers are still out looking for plastic. On a baking day in August 2021, Ronnie Hamrick, a retired Formosa worker, takes me to a little stretch of beach near a bait stand, where a layer of white scum coats the water. “This whole bay is totally like this,” he says. “You got kids swimming in it.”Later, across a two-lane highway from the plant, I follow him down a steep embankment to the edge of Cox Creek. Mopping sweat from his face, he pulls aside thick clumps of vegetation with a rake. In the little puddle it exposes, maybe 10 inches square, hundreds of white pellets float to the surface.Everywhere Hamrick probes, there are more nurdles—a hint of how hard it will be to clean up this mess without irrevocably damaging the ecosystem. He pulls out a plant and holds it up to show me the pellets laced densely through the root system, like tiny eggs. “I’ll get you more over here, I see a bunch of them,” he tells me. When I ask Hamrick how many nurdles he guesses are in a particular spot, his reply is a reminder of the sheer volume of Formosa’s spills. So many, he answers sadly, that “you’ll never get through counting them.”Reporting for this story was supported by the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Beth Gardiner is the author of Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.

Global plastic consumption has quadrupled in 3 decades, says OECD

Paris, Feb 22 (EFE).- Plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past three decades while its production has doubled from 2000 to 2019 to reach 460 million tonnes, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said Tuesday.
The OECD warned that plastics account for 3.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since the bulk of its waste ends up in landfills, incinerated, or leaking into the environment.
In its first outlook study on plastic, the organization called for “greater use of instruments” like extended producer responsibility schemes for packaging and durables, landfill taxes, deposit-refund, and Pay-as-You-Throw systems.
The OECD report said that global plastic waste generation reached 353 million tonnes from 2000 to 2019.
“Nearly two-thirds of plastic waste comes from plastics with lifetimes of under five years, with 40 percent coming from packaging, 12 percent from consumer goods, and 11 percent from clothing and textiles,” the report said.
The report says only nine percent of plastic waste was recycled, even as 15 percent goes for recycling.
“But 40 percent of that is disposed of as residues. Another 19 percent is incinerated, 50 percent ends up in landfill and 22 percent evades waste management systems and goes into uncontrolled dumpsites, is burned in open pits or ends up in terrestrial or aquatic environments, especially in poorer countries.”
In 2019, 6.1 million tonnes of plastic waste leaked into aquatic environments, and 1.7 million tonnes flowed into oceans, said the report.
“There is now an estimated 30 million tonnes of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and a further 109 million tonnes has accumulated in rivers. The build-up of plastics in rivers implies that leakage into the ocean will continue for decades to come, even if mismanaged plastic waste could be significantly reduced.”
The report noted that almost half of all plastic waste is generated in OECD countries even as the waste generated annually per person varies from 221 kg in the United States and 114 kg in European OECD countries to 69 kg, on average, for Japan and South Korea.
Most plastic pollution comes from inadequate collection and disposal of larger plastic debris known as macro-plastics.
But the leakage of microplastics (synthetic polymers smaller than 5 mm in diameter) from things like industrial plastic pellets, synthetic textiles, road markings, and tire wear is also a serious concern.
The OECD said more needed to be done to create a separate and well-functioning market for recycled plastics, still viewed as substitutes for virgin plastic.
Setting recycled content targets and investing in improved recycling technologies could help to make secondary markets more competitive and profitable, it said.
The report, published on the eve of the UN talks to reduce plastic waste, found that the Covid-19 crisis has led to a 2.2 percent decrease in plastic use in 2020 as economic activity slowed.
But it noted a rise in littering, food takeaway packaging, and plastic medical equipment like masks had driven up littering.
“As economic activity resumed in 2021, plastics consumption has also rebounded,” it said. EFE
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Global plastic consumption has quadrupled in 3 decades, says OECD

Paris, Feb 22 (EFE).- Plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past three decades while its production has doubled from 2000 to 2019 to reach 460 million tonnes, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said Tuesday.
The OECD warned that plastics account for 3.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since the bulk of its waste ends up in landfills, incinerated, or leaking into the environment.
In its first outlook study on plastic, the organization called for “greater use of instruments” like extended producer responsibility schemes for packaging and durables, landfill taxes, deposit-refund, and Pay-as-You-Throw systems.
The OECD report said that global plastic waste generation reached 353 million tonnes from 2000 to 2019.
“Nearly two-thirds of plastic waste comes from plastics with lifetimes of under five years, with 40 percent coming from packaging, 12 percent from consumer goods, and 11 percent from clothing and textiles,” the report said.
The report says only nine percent of plastic waste was recycled, even as 15 percent goes for recycling.
“But 40 percent of that is disposed of as residues. Another 19 percent is incinerated, 50 percent ends up in landfill and 22 percent evades waste management systems and goes into uncontrolled dumpsites, is burned in open pits or ends up in terrestrial or aquatic environments, especially in poorer countries.”
In 2019, 6.1 million tonnes of plastic waste leaked into aquatic environments, and 1.7 million tonnes flowed into oceans, said the report.
“There is now an estimated 30 million tonnes of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and a further 109 million tonnes has accumulated in rivers. The build-up of plastics in rivers implies that leakage into the ocean will continue for decades to come, even if mismanaged plastic waste could be significantly reduced.”
The report noted that almost half of all plastic waste is generated in OECD countries even as the waste generated annually per person varies from 221 kg in the United States and 114 kg in European OECD countries to 69 kg, on average, for Japan and South Korea.
Most plastic pollution comes from inadequate collection and disposal of larger plastic debris known as macro-plastics.
But the leakage of microplastics (synthetic polymers smaller than 5 mm in diameter) from things like industrial plastic pellets, synthetic textiles, road markings, and tire wear is also a serious concern.
The OECD said more needed to be done to create a separate and well-functioning market for recycled plastics, still viewed as substitutes for virgin plastic.
Setting recycled content targets and investing in improved recycling technologies could help to make secondary markets more competitive and profitable, it said.
The report, published on the eve of the UN talks to reduce plastic waste, found that the Covid-19 crisis has led to a 2.2 percent decrease in plastic use in 2020 as economic activity slowed.
But it noted a rise in littering, food takeaway packaging, and plastic medical equipment like masks had driven up littering.
“As economic activity resumed in 2021, plastics consumption has also rebounded,” it said. EFE
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As California drought lingers, larger and more destructive wildfires pose new threats to water supply

Already diminished by drought and extreme heat, California’s water supply will face yet another peril as wildfires continue to incinerate ever larger areas of forested land, according to new research. In a UCLA-led study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers determined that increasing forest fire activity is “unhinging” western U.S. stream flow from its historical predictability. In areas where more than a fifth of the forest had burned, stream flow increased by an average of 30% for six years after the fire. On its surface, increased stream flow — the rate at which water is carried by rivers and streams — could be seen as a boon for the drought-stricken region. But too much water comes with hazards, including increased erosion, flooding and debris flows. “Water is a really heavy, destructive thing, so when there’s too much of it, or when we get surprised by a large amount of water at once, it’s definitely not a good thing,” said Park Williams, an associate professor of geography at UCLA and one of the study’s lead authors. The findings underscore how extreme wildfire can alter long-established water cycles. Now, as the state moves into a new era of heat, flames and dryness driven by climate change, the conversation around water in the West must increasingly account for fire. “We need to be adapting quickly, because the fires are increasing in size and intensity, despite our best efforts to continue controlling them,” Williams said. “We — and our hydrological infrastructure — are not really suited to deal with it.”The three big water basins of the Sierra Nevada — the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Tulare — “should all be on the precipice now of having experienced enough recent forest fire to cause surprisingly high stream flows,” he said. Climate & Environment ‘Burn scars’ of wildfires threaten drinking water in much of California and the West Sediment from massive blazes chokes rivers and reservoirs, contaminating water supplies. Climate change is making the problem worse. According to the study, annual forest fire area in the western United States increased by more than 1,100% from 1984 to 2020, the year of the worst wildfire season in California’s modern history.With that explosion in fire activity came a new world of hazards and threats, including entire towns leveled by flames and the emergence of new fire behavior, such as the two fires in 2021 that became the first to ever burn across the Sierra.But the relationship between wildfire and water is one that is only beginning to be understood. Much of the state’s infrastructure and water management system were designed around the climate and forests of the previous century, and are less suited to the realities of the current era. Now, the state’s increasingly large and severe fires are searing through trees, shrubs and canopies that typically absorb moisture, leaving more water to run into streams, according to the study.What’s more, severe fires can “bake” the soil, making it more waxy and water-repellent. And with less vegetation to hold topsoil in place, more flooding and erosion are occurring — sometimes with catastrophic consequences, as in the deadly mudflow in Montecito in 2018, which killed 23 people.Runoff, particularly after severe fire, is also often accompanied by large sediment loads that can reduce water quality, said Bill Short, manager of forest and watershed geology at the California Geological Survey, who was not involved in the study.After a wildfire, “you can have larger floods in these watersheds, and also other effects [such as] erosion, debris flows and water quality impacts from sediment and burned constituents,” Short said. Paradise, Calif., in November 2018 after the explosive Camp fire burned through Butte County.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times) The town of Paradise — which was devastated by the 2018 Camp fire — has been plagued by chemicals and contaminants that entered the water supply during and after the wildfire, including ash and charred soils as well as plastic pipes and other synthetic materials that burned. California Santa Barbara County knew mudslides were a risk. It did little to stop them The impact of increased stream flow will also create new challenges beyond the potential for more debris and erosion. For the state’s water managers, who are tasked each year with calibrating California’s critical supplies, releasing too much water ahead of an anticipated deluge could backfire, leading to less supply than needed during the hot and dry summer.On the other hand, failing to let out enough water could be similarly disastrous, as in the 2017 Oroville Dam crisis, which sent more than 100,000 people fleeing from from a potential surge of overflowing water.“Anytime we change the timing and rate of runoff from what historically could be expected — the results of wildfire, dry soils, increased temperatures, etc. — we challenge water management practices and have to adapt,” David Rizzardo, manager of the California Department of Water Resources’ hydrology section, said via email.According to Rizzardo, the effects of recent so-called megafires on water supplies are still a “relatively new phenomena” that forecasters are working to unpack and incorporate. “Fires do not burn uniformly, so their impacts vary greatly within a watershed,” he said. “It is quite complex and will take time to understand and learn from the experts.”Jeffrey Mount, a water scientist at the Public Policy Institute of California, said there isn’t yet a definitive strategy on how to deal with the effects of fire on water supply because “we don’t really understand it all that well.”“You see spectacular flooding after fires,” said Mount, who was not involved in the study. “Yes, you might be getting more water, but you also might be getting it when you don’t want it, getting more than you want, and it might come with a lot of sediment and debris that creates a new management headache.” California Government severely misjudged strength of Oroville emergency spillway, sparking a crisis Bill Croyle stood in front of an aerial photo of Lake Oroville and swept his hand across the top of the emergency spillway that was helping drain water out of the brimming reservoir. One of the most pressing questions has to do with the scale of the problem. If one small watershed burns and sees a 30% increase in runoff, that’s a reasonable number, Mount said, but that’s not necessarily what’s happening. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the five largest wildfires recorded in California have all burned in the last five years. Maureen Kissick, sitting in her dining room, looks through what is left of her Noritake Tahoe china, after the Carr fire in Redding, Calif., on Aug. 4, 2018.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times) And some areas are seeing far more than a fifth of their acreage burned. Since 2018, more than 54% of the Feather River watershed has been burned in blazes such as the Dixie fire, North Complex fire and Camp fire, said Cal Fire watershed protection program manager Drew Coe.Though the researchers primarily used stream flow data from smaller basins across the western U.S., the results suggest that burned areas will soon grow large enough to affect stream flow at a much larger scale. Williams, the study’s author, said forest fires are now becoming large enough that “we think it should actually be making a difference in the water budget of entire regions.”The study found a drop-off in runoff at about six years post-fire, although Williams said more research will be needed to study the longer-term effects.Today’s fires are also burning with extreme intensity because of the buildup of dense, dry vegetation throughout the state’s forests. Some experts said the conditions will create challenges for river and forest ecosystems, many of which are getting hotter and drier.“With warming climate, these forested areas are on a precipice,” Coe said. “And a larger megafire coupled with drought may force it into a completely different vegetation type, and each of those vegetation types has a different characteristic hydrologic regime associated with them.” Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, agreed. “We will be having some really major difficulties operating these systems to support native ecosystems, forest ecosystems and aquatic ecosystems,” Lund said, noting that invasive species better adapted to heat, fire and drought conditions may begin to replace the natives. Climate & Environment Western megadrought is worst in 1,200 years, intensified by climate change, study finds The West is experiencing its most severe megadrought in a millennium, according to a new study. Scientists say climate change is playing a major role. But the potential water rush isn’t all bad — and neither is more fire, the experts said. California evolved with wildfire and is in many ways adapted to its rhythms. Forest management tools such as prescribed burns could be a key piece of the puzzle, because fires in forests treated with prescribed burns and other thinning practices would be more likely to burn at a lower intensity and have a less deleterious effect on stream flows, multiple experts said. Short, of the California Geological Survey, said preparedness will also help. “Under this new and evolving climatic regime, we see these megafires and the number of fires increasing,” he said. “Water managers, water supply distributors should be evaluating their own treatment systems and assessing whether they can effectively treat water that has been impacted through these fires — whether it be sediment or the byproducts of ash or burned houses.”While the notion of increased stream flow could be seen as a welcome anomaly for the dry West, Williams cautioned that it’s very rare for there to be “just enough.”“Usually the case is not enough, or too much at once,” he said.

BPA safety: The toxic chemical limbo game

After careful evaluation of the latest science, European officials have proposed lowering the safe daily dose of bisphenol-A, or BPA, by a factor of 100,000.

The same agency had already dropped their recommended exposure limit in 2015, down 12-fold from where they set it in 2006. “It’s almost like the limbo stick: How low can we go?” Cheryl Rosenfeld, a biologist at the University of Missouri, told EHN.

Whether it’s lead, phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or BPA, nearly every time scientists assess chemicals, they lower the thresholds for safety. Doses that were previously thought innocuous, we find, turn out harmful. Why does that happen? And why does it seem to be happening yet again with BPA?

The answer: science is not static. Scientific advances constantly improve our ability to identify harmful effects, as well as help us to know where to look. “We haven’t just gotten better at measuring the pollutants in our bodies and in the environment, we’ve also gotten so much better at being able to measure their impact on people,” Laura Vandenberg, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health & Health Sciences, told EHN.

“Looking at groups of toxic chemicals decade by decade by decade, we recognize that less and less and less of these chemicals are safe for human exposure,” said Vandenberg.

For example, as blood lead levels declined in children over the decades—in response to more and more stringent regulations on the uses of lead—scientists continued to find detrimental impacts at lower and lower levels. They continued to ratchet down the limit of what they deemed safe before ultimately realizing that there was no safe level of lead exposure for children. But it wasn’t that kids in the 1970s were any less vulnerable to lead.

With the latest scientific opinion from the European Food Safety Authority, a similar storyline appears to be playing out for BPA, the plastic additive commonly used in everything from food can linings to cash register receipts. Again, it’s not that kids in the 1990s were any less vulnerable to BPA. “There’s really no safe dose for this chemical,” Pat Hunt, geneticist at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., told EHN. Her research, and the research of others, consistently links very low doses of BPA to a host of health problems, including cancer, diabetes, reproductive impacts, and behavioral problems.

“But the way our regulatory system works, we are not erring on the side of caution,” said Hunt. “So, the more data we get, the more we have to keep dropping down and dropping down—which can’t inspire confidence on the part of the general public.”

“In the case of BPA, it is clear that the toxicity is a problem” 

(Credit: Cheryl Rosenfeld)
EFSA’s recommendation only applies to food and beverage contact materials, which are likely the greatest route of BPA exposure. Once finalized, it will inform decisions taken by European Union risk managers in the European Commission, European Parliament and member states—including the amount of BPA they allow in certain products.Experts predict that the proposed daily dose all but ensures that BPA would need to be eliminated from these products. They also suggest that it will spur action in the U.S. If the proposed limit is upheld, that new safe level of BPA for Europe would fall to more than a million times lower than what U.S. regulators currently say is safe.Two factors generally drive drops over time in accepted levels of a chemical in products: changes in the estimated exposure, or dose, and changes in our understanding of the toxicity. It could be that exposures in people have increased to exceed the safe dose, or that more information is available about the toxicity of the chemical, Maricel V. Maffini, a consultant to the Environmental Defense Fund, told EHN.“In the case of BPA, it is clear that the toxicity is a problem,” said Maffini, who, along with other health researchers, last month petitioned the FDA to re-examine BPA’s safety in light of the European draft changes.Many scientific assumptions have changed over time, noted Vandenberg. She highlighted our evolved understanding about exposures in study animals compared to humans—a critical comparison when translating findings from lab research into public health policy. It had been a long-held belief that a large animal—say, a human—can tolerate more exposure than a smaller animal. But, in fact, the smaller you are, oftentimes the faster you metabolize chemicals, Vandenberg explained. “You actually have to give mice a bigger dose in order to see the same level that’s circulating in their bodies,” she said. “And EFSA finally appreciated that when they did their analyses of the studies to determine what’s a safe dose.”Our understanding of the myriad ways a chemical can wreak havoc on our biology is also constantly changing. For example, scientists have gained more knowledge over the last two decades in how BPA interferes with the normal function of hormones in the body—even in tiny amounts. Experts suggest a major shift came in the 1990s, with mounting recognition of endocrine disruption and its impacts on our health. BPA is just one of many chemicals with this hormone-mimicking potential. Notably, its chemical cousins—bisphenol-S, or BPS, and bisphenol-F, or BPF—can do the same.

Regulating chemicals as classes, not individually 

The European proposal would only affect BPA and not these related chemicals, which are also already widely used in commerce. Thomas
Zoeller, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, points out that industry had voluntarily eliminated BPA from sippy cups and baby bottles before the U.S. FDA banned such uses in 2012. “Industry saw this coming,” Zoeller told EHN. “They were already replacing BPA with BPS and BPF.”

He fears the same scenario may be happening with EFSA’s decision. “Products are being protected, not people,” said Zoeller. Does that mean we have to go through the same long-term ratchetting down of what is considered a “safe level” for each replacement?

The regrettable substitution problem has triggered a growing push for the regulation of chemicals as classes, rather than individually. Vandenberg is among the champions of this movement. “Here we have a decision on BPA, but nothing on BPS. And that’s unacceptable,” said Vandenberg.

The same goes for several other toxic chemicals that are following this same pattern of dropping limits and regrettable substitutions. “Do we really need to study all 1,000 or 5,000 PFAS chemicals?” said Vandenberg. “We’re creating problems, they’re going to have to be cleaned up at some point. And the longer we wait, the bigger the problem gets.”

Of course, conducting a risk assessment based on a group of chemicals naturally increases the chance that an exposure limit for any individual chemical would need to be lowered. The challenges mount. But there is a way off this toxic treadmill: ideally, starting
“at the beginning before a chemical goes into commerce and determine whether it has any adverse effects,” said Hunt. “Let’s decide if we should even let this stuff loose.”

Green chemistry 

More than a thousand new chemicals are introduced onto the market each year. Most come into our homes having never been tested for potential harm. “That has to change,” said Zoeller. “Before a chemical gets into the public domain, there should be an earnest attempt to ensure its safety. If those chemicals had been tested for their ability to interfere with hormone action, then we could have engineered those chemicals to be without those properties.”The process Zoeller referred to often goes by the term green chemistry. Vandenberg suggested it is a “good place to start.”“We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” she said. “So, finding less hazardous chemicals is the place to start instead of insisting that everything has no hazard. But we always need to be moving toward innovative chemicals that have the features that we want them to have without the adverse health effects.”Another part of the solution: maybe we don’t need chemicals for everything. “I do think we need to have a little bit of a societal reckoning: are we creating chemicals to solve problems that are not really problems? Do I need to be able to eat a pastrami sandwich with mustard on my sofa?” said Vandenberg, referring to a commercial for furniture that could be hosed down thanks to its chemical treatment. “That is a solution to a problem that did not exist.”Zoeller shared one promising effort in his home city of Indianapolis, where local elementary schools have long been serving student lunches in plastic dishes. “Some of the plastics are reusable, so they put them in industrial dishwashers. You couldn’t create a worse situation,” said Zoeller.A local pediatrician, Manasa Mantravadi, had the idea to replace those potential hormone-disrupting dishes with stainless steel versions. The new dishes were designed to be the same size and shape as the plastic dishes used by the schools—and can fit in the same dishwashers. “So, there are ways of doing this,” said Zoeller. “We just need to be smart about it.”Other experts anticipate that the EFSA move will promote yet more positive change: “We need a revolution food packaging, and I think this is going to push it,” said Hunt.EFSA is accepting public comments on the draft proposal until February 22.

Banner photo: From left—Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein, Dr. Ana Soto, and Dr. Silva Krause looking at mammary glands of a BPA experiment. (Credit: Ana Soto, Tufts University)

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After 25 years at sea, shipwrecked Lego pieces are still washing ashore on beaches in England

Collectors have gone out to look for rare pieces like washed-up octopuses and green dragons.
Lego Lost At Sea Via Facebook

Along the beaches of Cornwall, England’s southwestern peninsula, locals and tourists alike have been finding more than just seashells along the seashore. Colorful ocean-themed Legos of octopuses with twisting tentacles, miscellaneous scuba gear, boxy whales, and other plastic pieces have been washing ashore for the last 25 years—a grim reminder of the lasting impacts of plastic pollution.

On February 13, 1997, about five million Legos were lost at sea when a rogue wave tipped a massive cargo ship dubbed the Tokio Express. Ironically, many of the kits were sea creature themed. The event, known as the Great Lego Spill, is the worst toy-related environmental disaster of all time, and beachcombers still uncover the shipwrecked plastic treasures today, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science.

Arnold gathered a total of 240 Lego diver’s flippers during the beach clean-up event in 2017.

Rob Arnold

The Lego pieces aboard the Tokio Express were among 62 shipping containers that tumbled off the vessel. The ship was en route to New York after it loaded its cargo in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, when an unpredictable 28-foot wave smashed into a cargo ship 20 miles off the mainland, reports Jackie Butler for Cornwall Live. Other items swept to sea included 10,000 disposable lighters, superglue, and other hazardous chemicals. 

Ever since, collectors have gone out to look for “rare” pieces like octopuses and green dragons. Tracey Williams—a Cornwall local, beachcomber, and environmental campaigner—has documented the Lego spill for years on “Lego Lost at Sea” social media pages via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. More recently, she published Adrift: The Curious Tale of Lego Lost at Sea, a book detailing the Lego incident.Though the wayward novelties may inspire wonder, the tiny bricks highlight plastic pollution’s impact on oceans. Out of the 4,756,940 Lego pieces on board, about 3,178,807 were light enough to float and are what is commonly found across 40 beaches in Cornwall, eported Mario Cacciottolo for the BBC in 2014. For example, small plastic flowers and mini diver’s flippers are regularly seen along the shores.

“What we’re finding now are the pieces that sank as well as the pieces that floated,” Williams tells Live Science. “It’s providing us with an insight into what happens to plastic in the ocean, how far it drifts — both on the surface of the ocean but also along the seabed — and what happens to it as it breaks down.” 

Small plastic flowers and mini diver’s flippers are regularly seen along the shores.

Rob Arnold

In 2017, Rob Arnold, a local of Cornwall, and 12 other volunteers collected about six million pieces of microplastics from a beach near his home, reported Inverse’s Nick Lucchesi at the time. The volunteers found plenty of Lego bits among other plastic pieces, including 240 Lego divers’ flippers, on beaches two decades after the cargo ship tipped. 

Plastic can take centuries to degrade in the ocean, and as it deteriorates, it releases chemicals that can disrupt the reproductive systems of animals, Live Science reports. Future generations will likely continue to experience the aftermath of the Great Lego Spill. A study published in Environmental Pollution in 2020 found that after analyzing the structure of Legos with X-ray fluorescence, it would take about 1,300 years for the 1997 castaway Legos to degrade fully.

According to the IUCN, at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year and make up 80 percent of all marine debris found in deep-sea sediments and drifting on surface waters.

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Refillable soda bottles used to be the norm. Can they come back?

Coca-Cola says that by the end of the decade it will sell a quarter of its drinks in refillable packaging—a big step toward curbing plastic pollution. What would it take to have refillable bottles everywhere?
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The eco-friendlier future of the disposable spork

Spend an hour at any airport, mall, theme park or sporting event and you’ll find sandwiches double-wrapped in plastic, salads dressed up in styrofoam and the ubiquitous disposable forks and knives. These items contribute to the 350 million tons of petroleum-based plastic produced worldwide each year, much of which ends up in our oceans, our landfills and our bodies. Viable substitutes have remained elusive — few materials are as easy and cheap to produce. But as the number of cities and countries enacting bans on single-use plastic grows, so does the pressure — and the potential profits — involved in finding a more sustainable alternative.  In Northeastern Germany, workers are putting the finishing touches on a 22,000-square-foot factory that Eduardo Gordillo believes could manufacture this alternative. “We want to make single-use plastic unnecessary worldwide,” says the CEO of the clean-tech startup Bio-Lutions. Starting this month, his factory will begin producing sustainable food packaging made of agricultural waste.Starting this month, Gordillo’s factory will begin producing sustainable food packaging made of agricultural waste. Credit: Bio-LutionsBased in Schwedt, a small city in the historic Uckermark region near the Polish border, Gordillo’s factory will process wheat straw, rape stalks, tomato stems and other fiber-rich ag-waste discarded by local farmers, as well as hemp waste from a nearby hemp fiber factory. “Everything in a radius of less than 100 miles so the transport does not kill our CO2 balance,” Gordillo says. Workers in the new factory will wash and shred the ag-waste, and feed the fibers through shoulder-high steel machines that resemble wood chippers. Through a patented mechanical process that uses no toxic chemicals, the waste is split into self-binding fibers that the workers then mold into various shapes. Via Zoom, Gordillo shows bowls filled with shreds of wheat and straw, and then the finished products: clay-colored flower pots, plates and trays that feel like stiff cardboard. (To protect his proprietary process, he won’t disclose details about the patent or let journalists visit the new facility without signing a non-disclosure agreement.)Bio-Lutions has been developing the novel process with Zelfo Technology, a Schwedt-based engineering firm that produces sustainable self-binding fibers. Last year, the companies won the Brandenburg Innovation Award for ingenuity. “We are going to start with containers for fruit, vegetables and meat,” Gordillo says. By autumn, he plans to add disposable cutlery and to-go cup lids to his roster — exactly the kind of products for which companies are scrambling to find plastic-free alternatives. (A caveat: the material wouldn’t be suitable for hot beverages or food because it would disintegrate.) Getting beyond greenwashingThere are countless instances of greenwashed  “biodegradable” and “bioplastic” products that take advantage of the fact that these terms are not clearly defined. What’s more, even true bioplastics have well-documented problems — many require precious resources, chemicals, GMO bacteria, or vast amounts of energy, and often only degrade in the high temperatures of industrial composting facilities. But Gordillo claims that his products are truly compostable and that his manufacturing process only requires four liters of water per kilogram of finished product, though his claims are impossible to verify until his packaging hits the European market. “You can actually bury them in your yard, and after about four months, they will have disintegrated,” he says. If an animal or even a human were to digest his material, he says, it wouldn’t harm them. Varieties of fibers used by Bio-Lutions to create eco-friendly packaging. Credit: Bio-LutionsGordillo’s product is entering the market at a pivotal moment. As cities and countries around the world grapple with at-capacity landfills and stalled recycling systems, laws against single-use plastics are proliferating. Rwanda, Kenya, Taiwan and several Indian states were early adopters of full or partial single-use plastic bans. Now, an array of other cities and countries are poised to join them. The European Union has pledged to phase out single-use plastics in the coming years, and since July 2021 has banned items such as plastic plates, cutlery, q-tips, drinking straws, balloons and styrofoam cups. In Germany, suppliers are allowed to use up their existing stocks of these items, but are already prohibited from buying or producing more. Canada will implement a ban on a half-dozen common single-use plastic items this year. China banned plastic bags and utensils in major cities in 2020, and major chains are coming into compliance, though mom-and-pop stores lag behind. Even in the US, the world’s largest producer and user of plastics, lawmakers have attempted to enact national single-use plastic bans, but so far with no success.Crushed by negative news? Sign up for the Reasons to be Cheerful newsletter.Companies, too, have begun lobbying customers to bring their own reusable containers, though most still offer the option of disposables. The need to find alternatives is urgent — and complex. Which eco-friendly container will keep apples from getting smashed in transport? How do you keep fresh meat from spoiling without plastic?Bagasse, the fibrous waste product left behind after squeezing sugar cane, wood and bamboo, have emerged as alternatives to plastic, but the products have been criticized by consumer agencies for its often murky origins and resource-intensive processing. For instance, when a German lab tested twelve bamboo cups that were marketed as sustainable, the researchers found synthetic components and toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde. It concluded that the cups were mislabeled and did not qualify as sustainable under the new law.  An emerging marketGordillo moved from Colombia to Hamburg, Germany, to marry the love of his life. At the start of his career, he designed standup displays for jewelry and cosmetics that were often discarded after one season. The birth of his daughter led him to question his career. “What kind of planet am I leaving her?” he asked himself. He decided to put his industrial design skills to work for sustainability. In 2017, he built his first production facility for compostable packaging in Bangalore, India, using similar technology as for the new one in Germany. At the time, the South Indian state government had announced a ban on single-use plastics; Gordillo was euphoric about his market prospects and planned to produce up to 20,000 tons of packaging per year. Buying coconut shells and banana stalks from nearby farmers would create a win-win situation, he had hoped, “because this is ag waste they have to discard and now it provides them additional income.”But his first year exposed the challenges of trying to transform an entrenched system. “The Indian government did not enforce the ban,” he says. “You practically see no difference in India; there is plastic trash everywhere.” Then the pandemic emerged, and with it, a rapid increase in single-use plastics worldwide.Through a patented mechanical process that uses no toxic chemicals, the waste is split into self-binding fibers that the workers then mold into various shapes. Credit: Bio-LutionsHe has reason to believe that Germany will learn from these lapses because the ban has already taken effect there. “The European Union will enforce the new laws!” he says with conviction. “The big chains are urgently looking for alternative packaging.” He aims to produce 3,000 tons of compostable packaging this year, and sell it to food delivery services, food producers and supermarkets. Companies such as Delivery Hero and several food packaging outfits have already invested in his German facility.Another reason his product did not gain a bigger market share in India is the price: His material is slightly more expensive than plastic, and this will hold true at the new factory, too. “In Europe, a plastic container for vegetables costs about five cents; ours is about six or seven cents.” This makes policy all the more important – for products like Gordillo’s to succeed, single-use plastics must be phased out.This is the story of an ecological innovation that bears the marks of a true solution: a compostable, upcycled product that is locally sourced and produced with minimal resources. And yet, it is also a lesson about the challenges posed by a bigger problem: As long as the world chooses the cheapest solution, plastic wins. Even though it costs us more in the long run.This February, nations will come together at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi to discuss a global treaty for plastics. Recognizing that the issue has become as urgent and widespread as the climate crisis, the United Nations will seek to reach an international agreement to limit, for the first time, plastic production worldwide, similar to the Paris Climate Agreement. Joe Biden has signaled his support and seems to see a window of opportunity to tackle the issue. “Our goal is to create a tool that we can use to protect our oceans and all of the life that they sustain from growing global harms of plastic pollution,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Nairobi in November. “It’s crucial that the agreement call on countries to develop and enforce strong national action plans to address this problem at its source.”