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

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

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

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

Picture of Chesapeake microplastics grows clearer

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

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

Ocean Wise

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

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

Dave Harp

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

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

Whitney Pipkin

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

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

Robbie O’Donnell

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

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

Whitney Pipkin

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

Merkel urges ′ambitious′ Glasgow climate summit

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

For environmentalists, California's Legislature has been 'a bloodbath' this year

SACRAMENTO — California is often seen as a national leader on eco-friendly policy, but environmentalists say that perception doesn’t match the brutal year they’ve faced in the state Legislature.Nearly every major environmental measure at the Capitol has been killed or shelved this session, from a bill that would have required buffer zones around oil drilling sites near homes to another that would have required large corporations to report their greenhouse gas emissions.
RL Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote, an environmental advocacy group, said the failed effort to create setbacks around oil wells was a harbinger of the legislative session that has followed. She said the state — once a national laboratory for green policy — seems to have given up on ambitious climate policy, even as it faces a mega-drought and worsening wildfires.

“California has just lost its way,” Miller said. “I have nothing good to say about the Legislature this year. I’m very disappointed.”

Activists’ frustrations flared again Thursday, when the Assembly shot down a measure that would have banned online retailers from using some plastic packaging that isn’t recyclable — the third year in a row that legislation to reduce plastic waste has stalled.

The plastic packaging bill, AB1371, by Assembly Member Laura Friedman, D-Glendale (Los Angeles County), would have required large online companies to stop shipping items in plastic packaging that’s designed to be used once and tossed in the trash, such as padded Amazon envelopes or polystyrene peanuts.

Her measure died on a 36-28 vote, five votes short of the majority needed to pass. About two dozen Democrats either opposed the bill or did not vote, sparking an outcry from many activists.

Nurdlemania: Behind the climate crisis lurks the plastics crisis. Be ready.

I was with some colleagues walking on a beach on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica in 1986, just north of the crumbling town of Limón and south of a large nesting area for green sea turtles.What should have been a pristine beach was covered with small, translucent nuggets that we first thought were eggs. Eggs from turtles? Fish?It turns out they weren’t turtles, but nurdles – essentially baby plastic, a raw material to be converted into all manner of polyethylene products. Decades later, the world has barely begun to awaken to such plastics dumped, flushed, and discarded worldwide. Last month what may be plastic’s Exxon Valdez occurred off Sri Lanka’s east coast. According to reports from ABC Australia and others, the Singapore-flagged container ship MV Express Pearl caught fire. Its crew of 25 abandoned ship, and at least eight of its 1,500 containers pitched overboard. One included literally millions of nurdles, many of which washed ashore. An estimate said there were 78 metric tons (86 U.S. tons) of nurdles on board, but it’s not clear that every last nurdle spilled. Sri Lankan environmental officials told Australian ABC that some spots at the Negombo beach resort were two feet deep in nurdles, and portions of the beach that had been de-nurdled were covered again with the next incoming tide.The non-degradable, virtually indestructible nurdles thwart mostly subsistence Sri Lankan fishermen and threaten ecologically vital mangrove swamps—and they will, for all intents and purposes, forever.

From scientific whimsy to ecological menace

A rubber duck spill in the Chena River in 2011. (Credit: Jason Ahrns/flickr)
Thirty or so years ago, marine garbage spills made occasional headlines—not as an ecological menace, but as episodes of scientific whimsy.In the late 1980’s marine scientists from the then-Soviet Union reported recovering Caribbean cruise ship trash that had hitched a ride on the Gulf Stream to the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya.In May of 1990, the South Korean ship Hansu Carrier lost 21 containers in heavy mid-Pacific seas. Five of those containers held 80,000 pairs of Nike running shoes. Six months later, those shoes started beaching themselves from British Columbia to Oregon – yielding some valuable info on North Pacific eddies and currents.Two years later, 29,000 kids’ bathtub toys – mostly rubber ducks – swam free from yet another cargo ship while scientists made more scribbles. I couldn’t help thinking of these occasional ocean-plastic headlines as diversions, as one-offs.I could not have been more wrong.

Recycling isn’t going to fix it

Plastic recycling in India. (Credit: Reality Group/flickr)
Today, plastic is known to be filling the guts of whales, seabirds, turtles, and more. It’s fouling our freshwater lakes and streams. It’s indestructible, but can reach our soils, our lungs, and our bloodstreams as microplastics.And the plastic is never going away. The world produced 348 million tons of plastic in 2019 – part of a steady increase since the 1.5 tons we made in 1950.Half of that 348 million is single-use: bags, packaging, and other throwaways.We convinced ourselves that plastics recycling would blunt the impact. How’s that going? Historically, we’ve recycled about 10 percent. That’s expected to go down, as the Asian and African nations that led in receiving plastics for recycling are getting out of the business, starting with China three years ago.So, let’s get this climate thing rassled to the ground so we can start in on plastics. Time’s a-wastin’.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at or @pdykstra.His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.Banner photo: @CTF_PHOTO/flickr

Living on Earth: Beyond the Headlines

Air Date: Week of June 4, 2021

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

A humpback whale off the shore of the Gold Coast in Australia. (Photo: Steve Austin, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)
On this week’s trip Beyond the Headlines, Environmental Health News editor Peter Dykstra joins host Bobby Bascomb to talk about the resurgence of humpbacks in Australian waters. Then, a look at a Sri Lankan beach covered in 2 feet of plastic pellets called nurdles. Finally, the pair check the history books for a story where a nuclear power plant was converted into a massive park and solar-generating station.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.
BASCOMB: It’s living on Earth. I’m Bobby Bascomb. It’s time for a trip now beyond the headlines with Peter Dykstra. Peter’s and editor with Environmental Health News that’s and Hey there Peter, what do you have for us this week?
DYKSTRA: Hi Bobby. A little good news, bad news item from Australia. And we’ll get the bad news out of the way quickly. And first, the mild Australian winters that have happened in the last several years have helped cause a population explosion of crop eating mice all over the southeastern part of the country, the state of New South Wales. Farmers are desperate to control them. They’ve turned to a banned pesticide to try and control these mice. And that climate change and all those mild winters are a part of the cause.
BASCOMB: Oh man, that sounds like a problem. Well, what’s the good news from Australia?
DYKSTRA: The good news is really cool. And that’s that humpback whales, once seriously endangered in the southern hemisphere, have made an absolutely spectacular comeback. Experts estimate there are about 40,000 humpbacks that migrate each year between the southern oceans around Antarctica and the oceans around Australia. And there are 40,000 there used to be 1500 a half century ago, mostly wiped out due to wailing.
BASCOMB: Wow, that’s an amazing recovery though 1500 to 40,000 in just 50 years. How do they do it?
DYKSTRA: No whaling is a big help. Whaling was banned in Australia in 1978. The fleet’s from the former Soviet Union and Japan that used to go down to the Antarctic, no longer touch humpback whales. Japan is the only nation that goes down there at all. And humpbacks have been completely protected from hunting. Their food source is mainly krill, those tiny little crustaceans, and although krill are under some threat from fishing, in the southern oceans around Antarctica, humpbacks have still been able to get their fill of krill. And so they’re doing well.
BASCOMB: Wow, that’s amazing. Let’s hope that trajectory continues. What else do you have for us this week?
Sri Lanka braces for beach pollution as ship burns. #AFP ???? @lakruwan7— AFP Photo (@AFPphoto) May 27, 2021

DYKSTRA: We go over to the beaches of Sri Lanka. They are facing what some have called the worst beach pollution problem in history. All from a wrecked freighter, the MV Express Pearl registered in Singapore. It’s sinking and burning off the coast of Sri Lanka and releasing a big part of its cargo. Those little plastic granules called nurdles. The nurdles are washing up on the beach and in some areas of the beach they’re reportedly two feet thick. Now you live in New England two feet of snow isn’t a big deal and the snow goes away on its own. But how about nearly two feet of plastic nurdles that only go away if humans shovel it away.
BASCOMB: Oh my gosh, what a disaster. I mean, it’s both an ecological disaster as we know fish and all sorts of marine life eat those little plastic nurdles, mistaking them for food and then I would think the fishermen I mean, how you gonna make a living if the fish are polluted and the beaches are full of plastic.
DYKSTRA: And it’s a global problem. You know, I first saw tons of nurdles on a beach, a once pristine beach in Costa Rica back in 1986. And I had no idea that it would become as big a menace microplastics in all sorts of animals in our own diets as it’s become, it could be a twin menace with climate change.
BASCOMB: Yeah, it’s certainly right up there. Well, what do you have for us from the history books this week?
DYKSTRA: June 7th 1989 voters in that referendum in the city of Sacramento, California, voted to close the municipally owned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. And today that site is a 400 acre park with a sizable solar generating station.
BASCOMB: Wow, that’s amazing. So the ratepayers themselves decided to get rid of nuclear in favor of solar.

An aerial photograph in 2007 of Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, no longer in operation. (Photo: Hajhouse, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

DYKSTRA: Because at that particular plant, they were paying too much rate. The plant was very inefficient. It averaged about 40% of capacity. voters had had enough and the anti-nuke forces beat the pro-nuke forces in the campaign. And won by six points.
BASCOMB: Well, that was a pretty close vote and now they have a park to show for it.
DYKSTRA: They do and a solar station.
BASCOMB: Yeah. Hey, that’s great too. Peter Dykstra is an editor with Environmental Health News. That’s and We’ll talk to you again real soon.
DYKSTRA: All right, Bobby, thanks a lot. Talk to you soon.
BASCOMB: There’s more on these stories on the Living on Earth website. That’s

AP News | “Plague of Ravenous, Destructive Mice Tormenting Australians” Voice of America | “Australian Humpback Whale Numbers Surge but Scientists Warn of Climate Change Threat” Australian Broadcasting Corporation | “Sri Lanka Faces ‘Worst Beach Pollution’ in History from Burning Ship” Read more on Rancho Seco Recreation Area

Ontario’s recycling revamp falls short, critics say

Ontario finalized changes to blue box recycling Thursday, aiming to shift costs away from municipalities and taxpayers by making companies that create waste pay for the program. The revamped rules are a “bold step” that would standardize recycling across most of Ontario, keep more types of packaging away from landfills and encourage industry to be more efficient, provincial Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said. But critics say the new targets aren’t high enough and might leave costs in the hands of consumers.“Ontarians will still be dealing with messes of plastic packaging we can’t recycle,” Environmental Defence plastics program manager Karen Wirsig said.Get top stories in your inbox.Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that impacts you, Canada, and the world. Don’t miss out.Right now, recycling in Ontario happens through more than 250 local programs, many with differing rules. That system is largely stalling: nearly three-quarters of the province’s waste ends up in dumps, and a significant portion of it is exported to landfills in Michigan. “The system obviously wasn’t working,” Yurek told reporters Thursday. “The goal of the regulation is to ensure our blue box program remains convenient, affordable and right for communities.”The new program ⁠— to be phased in from 2023 to 2025 in all communities outside of the Far North ⁠— will combine the patchwork of systems into one with consistent standards. It would also accept more commonly used items, like paper and plastic cups and straws.Shifting the costs of that program to packaging producers would save municipalities an estimated $156 million annually, the province said. Dave Gordon, a senior policy adviser with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, said the change would be a boon for local governments struggling with the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.“I think it’s a big win for both the environment and the economy,” he said. Ontario’s new recycling system is a “bold step” that would shift costs to industry and keep more packaging away from landfills, the province says. But critics say the burden could be passed to consumers, and that new targets are too low. #onpoli Mike Chopowick, the CEO of the Ontario Waste Management Association, which represents the recycling sector, said the change is a crucial step. The province is running out of landfill space, but is facing an opportunity to do much better, he added.“We don’t really have a choice,” Chopowick said. “We need to find innovative ways to recycle and reduce the amount of waste that we currently dispose of, and blue box is a big part of that.”A Coke bottle on a beach in Skye, Scotland. Photo by Will Rose / GreenpeaceLow-income communities could bear the brunt of costs, researcher saysOntario initially announced its plans for overhauling the program last October. The government has since lowered several targets after consulting with industry, Wirsig said, and what’s included won’t be enough to force serious change.She also said a clause in the regulation allowing companies to label certain plastics as compostable could be a significant loophole ⁠— most existing facilities can’t actually process that material. The regulations would only see companies audited once every three years, and although the government has signalled it intends to create penalties for companies that don’t meet their targets, those don’t currently exist.“It’s flawed and not enough,” Wirsig said.Calvin Lakhan, a research scientist at York University’s faculty of environmental studies and urban change who has examined Ontario’s recycling program, says it’s likely that companies will pass the costs from the new set of rules on to consumers. That could result in higher grocery bills.“I think it was very dangerous for the government and municipalities to move forward with this because of the potential impact on consumers, particularly during a time where inflation is skyrocketing,” he said.The burden would disproportionately fall on people living in northern Ontario and lower-income communities, Lakhan said. Food needs more packaging to stay fresh when transported over a longer distance. And in lower-income communities ⁠— where many can’t afford to invest in things like reusable tote bags ⁠— people often seek out packaged foods because they last longer. “I characterize it as environmentalism for the affluent, where the barrier for participation is income,” Lakhan said. “These legislative changes are mostly borne by the people who have the least ability to absorb those costs increases… The idea that it’s OK to do this because we’re improving recycling flies in the face of sustainability.”Speaking to reporters Thursday, Yurek said he believes any cost increases would be minor, and the public is willing to take them on. “Most people are going to be OK with that knowing that less literal waste is going to the landfill,” he said.Not all will be able to shoulder it, Lakhan said: “You have families literally on the margin that can’t afford an extra $10 to $15 a month.”It might be more effective to reduce the amount of waste created in the first place, Lakhan said. And recycling isn’t the end-all of sustainability, he added ⁠— the process creates carbon emissions, and depending on what’s recycled, the end product might not be worth it. Plastic cling wrap, for example, can be turned into air bubble film that helps cushion packages, but it cannot be recycled. “Reduce, reuse, recycle is not just a catchy phrase, it’s the order in which we’re supposed to do things,” he said.“We’re conflating recycling with sustainability.”