There's so much plastic floating on the ocean surface, it's spawning new marine communities

The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, otherwise known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” is considered the world’s largest accumulation of ocean plastic. It’s so massive, in fact, that researchers found it has been colonized by species — hundreds of miles away from their natural home. The research, published in the journal Nature on Thursday, found that species usually confined to coastal areas — including crabs, mussels and barnacles — have latched onto, and unexpectedly survived on, massive patches of ocean plastic. 

Neopelagic communities are composed of pelagic species, evolved to live on floating marine substrates and marine animals, and coastal species, once assumed incapable of surviving long periods of time on the high seas. 

Illustrated by © 2021 Alex Boersma

Coastal species such as these were once thought incapable of surviving on the high seas for long periods of time. Only oceanic neuston, organisms that float or swim just below the ocean surface, have historically been found near these patches, as they thrive in open ocean. 

But the mingling of the neuston and coastal species is “likely recent,” researchers said, and was caused largely because of the accumulation of “long-lived plastic rafts” that have been growing since the middle of the 20th century. Just by itself, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawai’i, is estimated to have at least 79,000 tons of plastic within a 1.6 million-square-kilometer area, according to research published in 2018. There are at least four other similar patches throughout the world’s oceans. And the accumulation of ocean plastic is only anticipated to get worse. Researchers expect that plastic waste is going to “exponentially increase,” and by 2050, there will be 25,000 million metric tons of plastic waste. This new community, researchers said, “presents a paradigm shift” in the understanding of marine biogeography. 

“The open ocean has long been considered a physical and biological barrier for dispersal of most coastal marine species, creating geographic boundaries and limiting distributions,” researchers said. “This situation no longer appears to be the case, as suitable habitat now exists in the open ocean and coastal organisms can both survive at sea for years and reproduce, leading to self-sustaining coastal communities on the high seas.”For lead author Linsey Haram, the research shows that physical harm to larger marine species should not be the only concern when it comes to pollution and plastic waste. “The issues of plastic go beyond just ingestion and entanglement,” Haram said in a statement. “It’s creating opportunities for coastal species’ biogeography to greatly expand beyond what we previously thought was possible.” But that expansion could come at a cost. “Coastal species are directly competing with these oceanic rafters,” Haram said. “They’re competing for space. They’re competing for resources. And those interactions are very poorly understood.”There is also a possibility that expansions of these plastic communities could cause problems with invasive species. A lot of plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is debris from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan, which carried organisms from Japan to North America. Over time, researchers believe, these communities could act as reservoirs that will provide opportunities for coastal species to invade new ecosystems. There are still many questions researchers say need to be answered about these new plastic-living communities — like how common they are and if they can exist outside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — but the discovery could change ocean ecosystems on a global scale, especially as climate change exacerbates the situation. 

“Greater frequency and amounts of plastics on land, coupled with climate change-induced increases in coastal storm frequency ejecting more plastics into the ocean, will provide both more rafting material and coastal species inoculations, increasing the prevalence of the neopelagic community,” researchers said. “As a result, rafting events that were rare in the past could alter ocean ecosystems and change invasion dynamics on a global scale, furthering the urgent need to address the diverse and growing effects of plastic pollution on land and sea.”

U.S. is top contributor to plastic waste, report shows

“The developing plastic waste crisis has been building for decades,” the National Academy of Sciences study said, noting the world’s current predicament stems from years of technological advances. “The success of the 20th century miracle invention of plastics has also produced a global scale deluge of plastic waste seemingly everywhere we look.”The United States contributes more to this deluge than any other nation, according to the analysis, generating about 287 pounds of plastics per person. Overall, the United States produced 42 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2016 — almost twice as much as China, and more than the entire European Union combined.“The volume is astounding,” said Monterey Bay Aquarium’s chief conservation and science officer, Margaret Spring, who chaired the NAS committee, in an interview.The researchers estimated that between 1.13 million to 2.24 million metric tons of the United States’ plastic waste leak into the environment each year. About 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean a year, and under the current trajectory that number could climb to 53 million by the end of the decade.That amount of waste would be the equivalent to “roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually,” the report said.Congress last year ordered the National Academy of Sciences study, which drew on expertise from American and Canadian institutions, when it passed Save Our Seas 2.0 in an effort to address plastic waste.“This report is a sobering reminder of the scale of this problem,” the legislation’s co-author, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), said in a statement. “The research and findings compiled here by our best scientists will serve as a springboard to our future legislative efforts to tackle this entirely solvable environmental challenge and better protect our marine ecosystems, fisheries, and coastal economies.”Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), the law’s primary Democratic sponsor, said, “I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to keep making progress cleaning up this harmful mess.”Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for advocacy group Oceana, said in a statement that the findings show the extent of U.S. responsibility for a global problem.“We can no longer ignore the United States’ role in the plastic pollution crisis, one of the biggest environmental threats facing our oceans and our planet today,” she said. “The finger-pointing stops now.”Spring said that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency would be best positioned to develop a national strategy to curb plastic waste.“There’s more activity and testing of solutions at the state level as compared with other countries that are taking it at a national level,” she said. “Plastics and microplastics are ubiquitous in inland states too,” Spring said, referring to rivers, lakes and other waterways.“A lot of U.S. focus to date has been on the cleaning it up part,” said Spring. “There needs to be more attention to the creation of plastic.”The American Chemistry Council, a trade association, endorsed the idea of a national approach but said it opposed efforts to curtail the use of plastics in society.“Plastic is a valuable resource that should be kept in our economy and out of our environment,” said the group’s vice president of plastics, Joshua Baca, in a statement. “Unfortunately, the report also suggests restricting plastic production to reduce marine debris. This is misguided and would lead to supply chain disruptions.”The bipartisan oceans bill enacted last year also calls for a number of other analyses to be completed by the end of 2022, on topics ranging from the impacts of microfibers to derelict fishing gear.“You can’t just focus on one thing,” Spring said. “This really all has to be done with the end in mind, which is what is going to happen to this stuff when you’re finished with it.”

I counted every bit of my trash for one month on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Walking from Mexico to Canada, I suppose, simply wasn’t tedious enough for me. So in late July, just as I reached the northern edge of California during a 2,653-mile thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I decided to start counting every single scrap of trash I created for an entire month. I carried it all for days on end in a disgusting Ziploc bag stuffed into my backpack—always gross, sometimes embarrassing, permanently revealing.
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For the first three months of my trek, I’d seen trashcans at almost every trailhead or convenience store my fellow Hiker Trash friends frequented, overflowing with our collective refuse. There were snapped trekking poles and overspent hiking shoes, empty pouches of dehydrated food and crumpled vestiges of instant coffee. The sheer quantity was impressive in a Mad Max prequel kind of way. How much stuff, I wondered, was I wasting?
So from Oregon’s enchanting Crater Lake to the faux Bavarian burg of Leavenworth, Washington, I catalogued every bit of my waste, chronicling each outgoing parcel in a single cellphone note that grew so long scanning it began to feel like a personal doomscroll. I trashed nine hummus containers and 30 Ziploc bags, two shoes and 34 cans of stove fuel, beer, and soda water. There were 17 ketchup packets, almost as much hot sauce, and one plastic pint of Southern Comfort. I discarded so many compostable coffee pouches that I could not compost that I now cannot bear to type the number.
On and on it went, from pizza boxes to joint containers, red pepper pouches to two garlic bulbs. By the start of September, I’d somehow discarded 686 separate items, or more than 20 each day. And those were only the ones I remembered to count during a month when I tried to curb my waste. That was less than a quarter of my hike, meaning I’d likely tossed an excess of 3,000 bits of junk overall, more than one per mile. I reached the Canadian border a week later, toting more than a twinge of guilt.
If we hikers, who live outdoors and ostensibly for it, aren’t obsessive stewards of shared resources, how can we expect anyone else to be? We must do better.
Like much of the outdoors industry, hiking has a waste problem. In our dauntless quests to achieve ultralight enlightenment, make four-day food carries less burdensome, or have the latest gear with the most Reddit cred, we have created a slash-and-burn superstructure, where the fulfillment of our goals or ideals trumps their environmental impacts. We purchase the tiniest portions of food. We bail on gear that isn’t perfect or, back home, stockpile things we never again need. We buy more than our bellies can handle in trail towns, gorging until we toss what remains. I confess to it all.
Much of this happens for the sake of convenience, for making a difficult endeavor that much easier. Some of it stems from a deference to apathy, since, as we often shrug, our footprint is so much smaller in the woods than when we’re back in “the real world.”
But if we hikers, who live outdoors and ostensibly for it, aren’t obsessive stewards of shared resources, how can we expect anyone else to be? We must do better. Good news: with a little inconvenience, expense, and planning, we can.

In the waning days of my experiment, I was delighted to learn about another PCT hiker who was paying even more attention to her trash—or, really, her near-complete lack of it. In mid-April, Ana Lucía departed the trail’s southern end, bound north with an unprecedented mission: to hike to Canada without generating any refuse. “Waste-Free PCT,” she dubbed it.
“For me, waste-free means trying not to have a lot going into landfills,” Lucía said in mid-September, less than a month before she reached the trail’s northern terminus. “It’s impossible to be 100 percent waste-free if you’re on a trail, but it’s about being more mindful of the trash you are producing and asking, ‘What can I do better?’”
A 26-year-old native of Mexico City, Lucía fell for hiking and environmental causes in tandem half a decade ago. After learning about the exploitation involved in unsustainable tropical palm oil production, she began changing her habits as a consumer. Vegetarianism and veganism soon followed, as did stints at animal-rehabilitation centers. After reading about “Plastic Free July,” a decade-old international movement involving a month-long pause on plastic, she decided to curb her overall waste dramatically, too.
Meanwhile, Lucía daydreamed about the PCT since she first saw Reese Witherspoon lug her overstuffed bag to the Bridge of the Gods at the end of Wild, soon after the movie’s 2014 release. For years, earning her psychology degree at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and a subsequent teaching stint put that ambition on hold. She decided to make her attempt at last in 2021, before beginning a doctorate program in neuroscience.
Ana Lucía in search of a composting coffee shop (Photo: Lucía)
Another obstacle appeared. She couldn’t find anyone who had documented such a waste-free long haul, let alone explained its pragmatic complications. On message boards and blogs, fellow hikers scoffed at the notion—too much work, they concurred, in a world that would go on making waste with or without her. Lucía was torn between hiking the PCT and trying to remain as waste-free as she had learned to become at home. “It felt like doing this dream meant having to renounce my values,” she said.
Rather than give up, she dug in, shaping schemes that would let her pursue both goals. She found a family friend in California who was willing to buy trail mix, peas, and gummy bears in bulk for six months and mail them to isolated trail towns. He even used compostable BioBags and paper tape. She emailed niche brands like Gossamer Gear and Katabatic to inquire about used packs and quilts they could sell her to assist the mission. (Both said yes.) She scoured Reddit boards in search of secondhand supplies, insisting on buying as little new as possible; when she couldn’t find the exact model she wanted, she settled for her second choice.
To offset the expenses of these impracticalities, she also launched a crowdfunding campaign, pledging 26 percent—that is, one percent for every 100 miles she intended to hike—of it to the Mexican Center for Environmental Law. “I wanted to balance out the impact of doing the trail and shipping these boxes by giving,” said Lucía. She ultimately raised more than $4,000.
Lucía couldn’t hike on bulk trail mixes alone. Same as other hikers, she wanted energy bars and dehydrated meals, simply housed in compostable packaging. She found one supplier for each: LivBar, a solar-powered vegan bar maker in Salem, Oregon, and Fernweh Food, a tiny startup in Portland, Oregon, that might just be making the best dehydrated meals on the market right now.
She hauled her used wrappers into trail towns, found coffee shops that composted their grounds, and asked if they would do the same for her packaging. In Northern California, where towns with coffee shops are either limited or very far from trail, she mailed her wrappers to Fernweh founder Ashley Lance back in Portland, reckoning the energy spent doing so meant less waste than throwing them away. Lance composted them in her backyard, then offered the same service to other hikers.
“If you were a guest in your friend’s house, you wouldn’t leave your trash everywhere. Taking care of the trail and making less waste is like paying rent.”
Both Lance and LivBar CEO Wade Brooks admitted to me that the battle to make compostable wrappers common is an uphill one. Brooks, for instance, repeatedly raved about a new machine that would allow LivBar to package its goods with less labor, eventually lowering the price point to be more competitive with the plastic-clad likes of Kind or Clif. Fernweh spends more than a dollar on every meal’s compostable label and wrapper. Despite a price point between $9.50 and $15, Lance still earns only 10 cents per bag.
But they both sensed a mutual momentum, a feeling that the behemoths were paying attention. “Small companies make a change, and big companies see that people are choosing them,” Lance said. “Those companies eventually acquire those habits in their own way.”
Lucía hoped her own journey would inspire similar shifts among hikers. Now that someone had done the work of figuring it out, she suggested, others could more easily follow. Future thru-hikers have already told her she altered the way they will plan their walks. She wondered if trail towns or the Pacific Crest Trail Association might someday install roadside compost or recycling stations.
“Nature is free. It’s not asking anything of you,” said Lucía, who rightly adopted the trail name “Eco” on the PCT. “If you were a guest in your friend’s house, you wouldn’t leave your trash everywhere. Taking care of the trail and making less waste is like paying rent.”

I am neither naïve nor conceited enough to think that hikers eating out of compostable wrappers or frequenting gear exchanges more often will make an appreciable difference in our ballooning environmental calamity. Among our society’s possible causes of death, the inability to find a composting center in some trail town of Southern Appalachia won’t rank at all.
Meanwhile, the picture just gets grimmer: A 2020 study published in Science estimated that the world dropped 5.3 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean in 2016, a number that could increase nearly sixfold in just two decades. The political ambitions of 52 U.S. Senators seem again poised to cripple long-overdue climate reform, even after the United Nations gathered again to fret over our folly. And Saudi Arabia now intends to convert an expired oil rig into an “extreme park,” a seabound monument to our collective ostrich effect.
Why should you care about tampons or toilet paper in the woods or how much plastic you route to landfills when that’s happening? Or when pipelines crisscross the Appalachian Trail and interstate systems, our country’s collective arteries of disposable goods, cleave the Pacific Crest Trail in pieces? I get it.
But in his rambling autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt—the problematic godhead of our public lands, with all their blessings and faults—gets to the essence of why this all matters, even when it’s frustrating or inconvenient or expensive. “The greatest happiness is the happiness that comes as a by-product of striving to do what must be done, even though sorrow is met in the doing,” he writes. He goes on to quote a friend who ran a mill just north of Damascus, Virginia, arguably the epicenter of Appalachian Trail culture for its legendary hiker hostels and annual Trail Days celebration: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
I choose Roosevelt’s advice. I will find ways to reduce my environmental impact while on trail, though I know my efforts will cost me and will amount to less than a candle’s flicker in a consumerist gale.
I will mail myself bits of bulk toiletries. I will use Ziplocs or BioBags not until they look like a septic tank but instead until the seams split. I will lug a little extra food weight from one stop to the next if it means using a little less plastic and, gradually, reducing what I toss. And I will buy, as best I can, products from manufacturers that agree they can’t change everything but are at least, per Roosevelt, “striving to do what must be done.”
None of this will be perfect. But when I count my trash and scraps on the next trail, I want to feel empowered by what I have fixed, not embarrassed by what I ignored simply for the sake of convenience.

‘Deluge of plastic waste’: US is world’s biggest plastic polluter

‘Deluge of plastic waste’: US is world’s biggest plastic polluter At 42m metric tons of plastic waste a year, the US generates more waste than all EU countries combined The US is the world’s biggest culprit in generating plastic waste and the country urgently needs a new strategy to curb the vast amount of plastic …

Why women in Senegal are protesting a ban on plastic

Discarded plastic is hard to ignore in Senegal. The litter can’t go unnoticed on a boat ride to the Unesco world heritage site Goree Island or on the shoreline of la Baie de Hann in the capital of Dakar. The Senegalese government has responded by becoming one of the latest African countries to expand a ban on single-use plastics starting Dec. 31. But the new rule has drawn attention to another problem: access to clean drinking water and the women who make a living filtering, packaging and re-selling tap water in plastic bags across Senegal’s biggest cities. An estimated 30,000 jobs are at risk, according to the Collective of Filtered Water Actors (CAES), a union that represents the industry’s manufacturers and sellers.

How New Yorkers won the right to a “healthful environment”

Robinson Township is a small community of about 15,000 people located west of Pittsburgh, and, like much of western Pennsylvania, it sits atop one of the largest deposits of shale gas in the United States. In 2012, the state assembly passed Act 13, which made it easier for fossil fuel companies to extract gas—in part by limiting the ability of local governments to determine where drilling could take place. Maya K. van Rossum, the CEO of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, was alarmed. “By virtue of this law, you could have an operating drilling-and-fracking well pad in the heart of a residential community, located as close as 300 feet from people’s homes,” she says. Determined to make a change, Robinson Township petitioned the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to strike down the zoning law and other provisions of Act 13. “Seven municipalities joined us in our legal action because their authority had been taken from them.”
To make their case, the coalition turned to a long-neglected provision in the commonwealth’s constitution. In 1971, Pennsylvania voters ratified an amendment that established an explicit right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment.” Not only were sections of Act 13 a bad deal, argued Robinson Township, but they were unconstitutional.  
That argument was convincing for four out of the seven judges on the Commonwealth Court, which ruled that two of Act 13’s provisions violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. “I really thought about the power of what we had accomplished,” van Rossum says. “It was a success that we likely would not have been able to accomplish any other way.” 
The victory inspired her to start a movement to get “green amendments” into every state constitution, and soon after, she joined up with environmental groups who were working toward that goal in neighboring New York State. Their effort was supported by groups including the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, the League of Women Voters, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, and conservation organizations throughout the state.  
On November 2, New York voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal 2, a ballot measure to establish a right to a healthy environment. More than two-thirds of New Yorkers—a total of 68.9 percent of voters—agreed to add a one-sentence line to the state constitution that reads, “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” 
With the measure’s passage, New York becomes the sixth state to enshrine a right to a clean environment in law (the others, aside from Pennsylvania, are Montana, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Hawai’i). How exactly the amendment will influence environmental protection in New York going forward is unclear. But advocates say the ballot measure’s success is an important step in protecting New York communities from pollution. 
The concepts expressed in the new constitutional amendment have been circulating among environmental groups for several decades, says Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY. Per the state’s Bill of Rights, New Yorkers have the right to worker’s compensation, freedom of worship, and even the right to bet on horse races and play bingo. It only makes sense that they would have a right to breathe clean air and drink clean water, Iwanowicz says. But “in the eyes of New York State law, there was no such right.”
Iwanowicz and other advocates first worked with legislators in Albany to introduce a bill to establish a right to a healthy environment in 2017. It quickly passed through the state assembly. But the Republican senate leadership refused to pick it up, Iwanowicz says, “knowing full well that if they brought this up for a vote, it would pass—and pass with bipartisan support.”  
On November 2, New York voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal 2, a ballot measure to establish a right to a healthy environment.
But advocates persisted and managed to pass legislation in 2019 and 2021 to put the issue before New York voters. (Under the New York law, a proposed constitutional amendment has to pass the legislature in two concurrent sessions before it goes to a referendum.) The measure received overwhelming support—passing the assembly 124 to 25 and the senate 48 to 14—but opposition persisted. Opponents argued that the proposed constitutional amendment was too vague and would create unnecessary legal battles. “I’m all for clean air and clean water. Who isn’t?” Daniel G. Stec, a Republican member of the senate, told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in January. “But in the face of ambiguity you will have distrust, you will have lawsuits, you will have costs, and I’m trying to avoid that.”
The amendment’s supporters and law professors told Sierra that expansive, aspirational language is common in declarations of universal rights. For example, courts are still debating the limits and nuances of the right to free speech, says Iwanowicz. New York’s new constitutional amendment will similarly be shaped on a case-by-case basis. 
“It will be up to the courts to determine what the amendment means,” says Michael Gerrard, a professor of law at Columbia University. “The New York courts could find that it has great force, or not much, or something in between. We don’t know yet.” The particulars will be worked out in the coming years as lawyers invoke the text in their arguments and judges decide how it can be used, Gerrard says.
Pennsylvania provides a case study of how this might play out. Shortly after Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment became part of the commonwealth’s constitution, lawyers put it to the test. “What almost immediately happened is that it got into the courts, and the courts took out a bit of the punch,” says Grant MacIntyre, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. One case in 1973 involved a private landowner who wanted to build a viewing tower next to Gettysburg National Cemetery, which one observer, writing in The New York Times, called “a new low in historical tastelessness.” The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sued on the grounds that the tower would violate Pennsylvanians’ new environmental rights. But the argument failed to convince the judge, and another case the same year established a new legal test that effectively neutered the amendment.  
“In the early cases, the courts were really, really nervous that [the amendment] could shut down economic development,” says John Dernbach, a law professor at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. As a result, the amendment went mostly unused for several decades while Dernbach and others tried to get the courts to take it seriously. The Robinson Township case marked something of a turning point, and environmental lawyers have gradually moved the jurisprudence forward case-by-case since then.
New York’s green amendment was inspired by cases like the water crisis in Hoosick Falls, Iwanowicz says. In 2015, tests of the drinking water there showed high levels of PFOA—a chemical associated with various health risks including cancer—from a nearby plastic-manufacturing operation. Residents in Hoosick Falls ultimately reached a settlement with companies including Honeywell and 3M earlier this year. 
“It’s hard to know how an environmental amendment would have impacted poor decisions that were made in the past,” Iwanowicz says. But “the next time somebody proposes something, we can go to the government and say, ‘You can’t do this because we have this right to clean air,’ or ‘you have to move quicker to clean up my water.’”
The consequences of the new constitutional amendment may not always be straightforward. Things could get tricky in cases where a development proposal might have both positive and negative effects on the environment, says Columbia Law School’s Gerrard. Windmills, for example, are a central component in government plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But they can also kill birds, and residents opposed to building windmills might reference the amendment in their arguments. 
New York’s constitution has an existing set of provisions for conservation, but these have made it the legislature’s responsibility to take action, and so far courts have not required them to do so, says Gerrard. Courts also haven’t given New Yorkers the ability to sue if the legislature doesn’t act. By contrast, “the new amendment does not depend on the legislature; it seems to give power directly to the people,” he wrote in an email.  
As advocates in other states pursue their own version of environmental rights legislation, they will likely see their own conflicts over the particulars of each bill. Van Rossum is now working to get green amendments passed in New Jersey, Maine, and New Mexico. The language is slightly different in each case, which could influence the way different states interpret the amendment.
For van Rossum, getting the wording just right is worth the effort. “We all know in our hearts and our minds, as people here on this earth, that we have inalienable rights to things like clean water and clean air,” she says. “[But] if they’re not enforceable legally, you don’t actually have them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plastic pollution making its way into bodies of wildlife, humans

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