The waste plastic deluge fouling the world’s beaches could be more than just an eyesore. It could be a toxic timebomb.
LONDON, 8 July, 2021 − European researchers have warned that the wave of pollution engulfing the globe could be nearing a tipping point. The waste plastic deluge could become an irreversible crisis.
Somewhere between 9 and 23 million tonnes of polymers get into the rivers, lakes and seas of the world every year. Even more may be getting into the terrestrial soils and by 2025 − unless the world changes its ways − these levels of pollution will have doubled.
And, the researchers warn, the uncertain and as yet unknown effects of weathering on such volumes of plastic could bring what has been called “a global toxicity debt” as drinking bottles, bits of fishing gear, coffee cups and carrier bags become covered with microbial life; as plastic particles foul the sea’s surface, become suspended in the water column, and build up in the sediments of the ocean.
Plastic waste has now been found everywhere: on the world’s highest mountains, in the deepest oceanic trenches, on the beaches of desolate islands in the Southern Ocean, in the Arctic ice, and in the tissues of living creatures, from seabirds to whales.
Worsening climate crisis
“Right now we are loading up the environment with increasing amounts of poorly reversible plastic pollution. So far we don’t see widespread evidence of bad consequences but if weathering plastic triggers a really bad effect we are not likely to be able to reverse it,” said Matthew Macleod of Stockholm University in Sweden.
“The cost of ignoring the accumulation of persistent plastic pollution in the environment could be enormous. The rational thing to do is act as quickly as we can to reduce emissions of plastic into the environment.”
Professor Macleod and colleagues warn in the journal Science that alongside threats to wildlife, and the potential hazard of environmental poisoning, there could be a number of other hypothetical consequences.
Plastic pollutants could exacerbate climate change by disrupting the traffic of carbon between the natural world and the atmosphere, and they could heighten biodiversity loss in the already over-fished oceans.
Researchers do not yet know of the long-term non-toxicological effects of plastic pollution on carbon and nutrient cycles, soil and sediment fertility, and biodiversity. Nor has there been any assessment of the potential for delayed toxic effects as the plastic polymers are altered by weathering.
“The rational thing to do is act as quickly as we can to reduce emissions of plastic into the environment”
And if there are such effects, then they could persist, to trigger what the scientists call a “tipping point”, long after people have stopped discarding plastic waste into the environment.
“The world promotes technological solutions for recycling and to remove plastic from the environment. As consumers, we believe that when we properly separate our plastic trash, all of it will magically be recycled,” said Mine Tekman, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, and a co-author.
“Technologically, recycling of plastic has many limitations, and countries that have good infrastructures have been exporting their plastic waste to countries with worse facilities. Reducing emissions requires drastic actions, like capping the production of virgin plastic to increase the value of recycled plastic, and banning the export of plastic waste unless it is to a country with better recycling.”
And her colleague Annika Jahnke of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany warned: “In remote environments, plastic debris cannot be removed by cleanups, and weathering of large plastic items will inevitably result in the generation of large numbers of micro- and nano-plastic particles as well as leaching of chemicals that were intentionally added to the plastic and other chemicals that break off the plastic polymer backbone.
“So, plastic in the environment is a constantly moving target of increasing complexity and mobility. Where it accumulates and what effects it may cause are challenging or maybe even impossible to predict.” − Climate News Network
Nzambi Matee is an entrepreneur with an incredible goal — to turn plastic destined for the landfill into sustainable, strong building material. Her company, Gjenge Makers, uses the plastic waste of commercial facilities to create bricks that can withstand twice the weight threshold of concrete.
Gjenge Makers is based in Nairobi, Kenya, where plastic waste pollution has become a severe problem. A study supported by the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) found that more than 50% of cattle near urban areas in Kenya had plastic in their stomachs. To combat this issue, the Kenyan government outlawed the use of plastic bags in 2017, and imposed a ban on all single-use plastic in protected natural areas last year. However, these bans only address the issue of consumer single-use plastic. Commercial waste is still a deep-seated problem within the country.
Nzambi Matee told reporters she was “tired of being on the sidelines,” and decided to create a solution of her own for commercial plastic waste. With a career in materials engineering, she was able to design a brick made of recycled plastic and sand, compressed and heated to create a strong and sustainable alternative to concrete. The fibrous structure of the plastic makes it not only more lightweight but also less brittle than concrete.
“Our product is almost five to seven times stronger than concrete,” Matee told Reuters about the current line of Gjenge Makers pavers and bricks. While she purchases some plastic from recycling companies, she also receives free shipments of plastic waste from local packaging factories. Currently, the Gjenge Makers factory can produce up to 1,500 bricks each day, according to Reuters.
The company offers pavers for residential and commercial uses. The heavy-duty 60 mm paver is strong enough to be used for parking lots and roads, while the 30 mm light-duty paver can be used for household patios and walkways. The light-duty paver is twice the strength of concrete and comes in a variety of colors.
The factory is only in its beginning stages, but it has already recycled 20 tons of plastic since 2017 and created 120 jobs in Nairobi. In addition, Gjenge bricks are also one of the more affordable options on the market. They cost approximately $7.70 per square meter, as opposed to $98 per square yard for concrete produced in the U.S.
However, it hasn’t been an easy road. Matee says about the founding of her company, “I jumped in, off a cliff without even a parachute. I was building it as I was falling down. But isn’t that how great things are done?”
With entrepreneurs like Matee, there is a beacon of hope for the worldwide plastic pollution crisis. To learn more about Gjenge Makers process and impact, you can visit their website or YouTube channel. Or, read this to learn more about ways you can help fight against plastic pollution in your community.
New Jersey is one step closer to passing what environmental advocates say is the strongest anti-plastic legislation in the nation.
The state Legislature passed a sweeping measure Thursday that would ban plastic bags from stores and restaurants and single-use food and drink containers made from polystyrene foam, The New York Times reported. The ban is noteworthy for being the first in the country to include supermarket paper bags as well as plastic ones.
“This is the single most comprehensive plastics and paper reduction bill in the nation,” former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regional Administrator and Beyond Plastics President Judith Enck said in a statement published by Insider NJ. “Building on the success of local laws adopted throughout New Jersey to reduce plastic pollution, the NJ State Legislature listened to the people and not the polluters and embraced a sensible environmental strategy.”
The bill now passes to Gov. Philip Murphy, who intends to sign it, a spokesperson told The New York Times. The bans on bags and containers will go into effect 18 months after he does so, NorthJersey.com reported.
In addition to banning plastic and paper bags and plastic food containers, the bill will also limit plastic straws in restaurants so that they will only be available upon request. There are exemptions for newspaper bags; bags used for loose produce, fish or meat; dry-cleaning bags and prescription drug bags.
The measure effectively settles a long-running debate about whether plastic or paper bags are worse for the environment by banning both. Plastic bags account for about 12 percent of U.S. plastic pollution, according to The New York Times. But paper bags need more energy, and therefore more climate pollution, to make. New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittle said the new legislation would encourage people to use more sustainable, reusable shopping bags.
However, the ban on paper bags was also the key to getting an important supermarket trade group to support the bill, NorthJersey.com reported. The organization argued that it would cost stores too much to supply customers with only paper bags.
“The ban on paper bags is critically important to the success of this legislation,” New Jersey Food Council President Linda Doherty said ahead of Thursday’s vote. “Without a ban, consumers will simply move to paper single-use bags and we will not address the underlying goal of reducing our reliance on single-use products.”
However, the food council originally opposed any sort of statewide bag ban, NJ Spotlight News reported. It changed its position after as many as 57 communities passed their own separate bans and it decided it would be easier to deal with a single, statewide law than a patchwork of local ones.
Not everyone has been persuaded, however. American Forest and Paper Association President and Chief Executive Heidi Brock said the bill unfairly targeted her industry.
“The New Jersey Legislature has undermined an environmentally responsible option for consumers,” she said in a statement reported by The New York Times. “Furthermore, the ban on paper bags sends an alarming message in devaluing family wage jobs, which are often union labor, in addition to the indirect jobs supported by the paper and wood products industry in the state.”
Republican Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, meanwhile, argued that the bill would put an additional burden on a restaurant industry already struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re essentially kicking them in the head,” she said, as NJ Spotlight News reported.
On the other hand, environmental advocates argued that plastic has long polluted New Jersey waterways. In recent years, more than 80 percent of the litter gathered on beaches by Clean Ocean Action from Cape May to Sandy Hook has been plastic, NorthJersey.com reported. The material has even been found in some of the state’s most pristine rivers and creeks.
“Now, we can all look forward to picking up less trash on our beaches,” Clean Ocean Action executive director Cindy Zipf told NorthJersey.com. “There will be less plastics in the ocean to cause harm and death to marine life.”
German researchers have identified a strain of bacterium that not only breaks down toxic plastic, but also uses it as food to fuel the process, according to The Guardian
The scientists discovered the strain of bacteria, known as pseudomonas bacteria, at a dump site loaded with plastic waste , where they noticed that it was attacking polyurethane. Polyurethane’s are ubiquitous in plastic products because they are pliable and durable. However, when they reach the end of their usefulness and end up in landfills, they decompose slowly and slowly release toxic chemicals into the soil as they degrade. They are also notoriously difficult to recycle, according to Courthouse News.
Since it is so difficult to recycle, millions and millions of products containing polyurethane like sneakers, diapers, kitchen sponges and foam installation end up in landfills. Polyurethane usually kills most bacteria too, so it surprised the researchers to find a strain that not only survived, but also used polyurethane to thrive, according to The Guardian. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.
“The bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy,” Hermann J. Heipieper, a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ in Leipzig, Germany and co-author of the new paper, said in a statement. “These findings represent an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle polyurethane products.”
Pseudomonas bacteria are part of a family of microorganisms known for its ability to withstand harsh conditions, such as high temperatures and acidic environments.
While the little germs offer hope for a solution to the plastic crisis polluting land and water around the globe, scientists are still a long way away from being able to use the bacteria on a large scale. Heipieper estimated that it could be 10 years before the bacteria are ready to consume plastic at a large scale. He added that in the meantime, it is important to reduce the use of non-recyclable plastic and to cut the amount of plastic used around the world, according to The Guardian.
Our reliance on plastic has created a waste crisis. In 2015, polyurethane products alone accounted for 3.5 million tons of the plastics produced in Europe, according to a press release from the journal that published the study. More than 8 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, according to The Guardian, and a vast majority of it has polluted the world’s land and oceans, or ends up in landfills. Scientists say it threatens a “near permanent contamination of the natural environment.”
As for polyurethane, its heat resistance make it a difficult and energy intensive to melt down. Because of that, it is disproportionately tossed into landfills around the world where its slow degradation releases toxic — and often carcinogenic — chemicals, according to Courthouse News.
In the laboratory, the researchers fed key components of polyurethane to the bugs. “We found the bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy,” Heipieper said, as The Guardian reported.
“When you have huge amounts of plastic in the environment, that means there is a lot of carbon and there will be evolution to use this as food,” Heipieper said as The Guardian reported.
“Bacteria are there in huge numbers and their evolution is very fast. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that the work of microbiologists can lead to a complete solution,” he added. “The main message should be to avoid plastic being released into the environment in the first place.”
Scientists are learning more about a caterpillar that is very hungry for plastics!
The plastic-munching abilities of the greater wax moth caterpillar were first discovered in 2017 when a scientist and amateur beekeeper put some of the insects, who also eat beeswax, into a plastic bag only to discover that they had eaten their way out. Now, researchers at the University of Brandon have discovered that the larval greater wax moths can survive solely on polyethylene — the type of plastic that makes grocery shopping bags.
“They are voracious feeders during these larval stages,” lead study author and Brandon University associate biology professor Bryan Cassone told USA today
We’re all too aware of the consequences of plastics in the oceans and on land. However, beyond the visible pollution of our once pristine habitats, plastics are having a grave impact on the climate too.
Newly published research calculates that across their lifecycle, plastics account for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s almost double the emissions of the aviation sector. If it were a country, the “Plastic Kingdom” would be the fifth-highest emitter in the world.
Demand is set to rise, too. At 380m tonnes a year, we produce 190 times more plastic than we did in 1950. If the demand for plastic continues to grow at its current rate of 4% a year, emissions from plastic production will reach 15% of global emissions by 2050.
More than 99% of plastics are manufactured from petrochemicals, most commonly from petroleum and natural gas. These raw materials are refined to form ethylene, propylene, butene, and other basic plastic building blocks, before being transported to manufacturers.
The production and transport of these resins requires an awful lot of energy – and therefore fuel. Greenhouse gas emissions also occur during the refining process itself – the “cracking” of larger hydrocarbons from petrochemicals into smaller ones suitable for making plastic releases carbon dioxide and methane. According to the study, about 61% of total plastic greenhouse gas emissions comes from the resin production and transport stage.
A further 30% is emitted at the product manufacturing stage. The vast majority of these emissions come from the energy required to power the plants that turn raw plastic materials into the bottles, bin bags and bicycle helmets we use today. The remainder occurs as a result of chemical and manufacturing processes – for example, the production of plastic foams uses HFCs, particularly potent greenhouse gases.
The remaining carbon footprint occurs when plastics are thrown away. Incineration releases all of the stored carbon in the plastic into the atmosphere, as well as air pollutants such as dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, which are toxic and damaging to human health.
As plastics take centuries to degrade, disposal in landfill makes only a small contribution to emissions in theory. However, as much as 40% of landfill waste is burnt in open skies, dramatically speeding up the release of otherwise locked-up carbon.
If we are to combat climate breakdown, reductions in plastic emissions are clearly needed. Thankfully, the solution with the biggest potential is already in motion, albeit snow. In showing that transitioning to a zero carbon energy system has the potential to reduce emissions from plastic by 51%, the study provides yet another reason to rapidly phase out fossil fuels.
However, beyond urgently required global decarbonisation, we need to reduce our seemingly insatiable demand for carbon-based plastic. Increasing recycling rates is one simple way of doing this. The highest-quality plastics can be recycled many times, and nearly all plastic can be recycled to some extent – but only 18% was actually recycled worldwide in 2015. Although each recycle process requires a small amount of new plastics, we can greatly increase the life cycle of the material by efficiently reusing what we make.
A more fundamental solution is to switch to making plastics from biodegradable sources such as wood, corn starch, and sugar cane. The materials themselves are carbon neutral, although renewable power is essential to eliminate the climate impact of energy costs during production, transport and waste processing.
However, a massive ramping up in the production of bioplastics – which currently make up less than 1% of total plastic production – would require vast swathes of agricultural land. With the population set to arise dramatically, increasingly coveted arable space may not be able to satisfy demand.
Since the year 2000, we’ve used more plastic than in all the years before.
On average, we each use 53 kilograms of plastic a year and generate a collective total of more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste.
By 2030, this is predicted to double, with the brunt of the impacts expected to hit our ocean.
These are just some of the figures to come from WWF’s global plastic report, solving plastics through accountability, released today.
The report urges policy makers to draft a global, legally binding agreement to stop plastic entering marine environments, and to establish strong national targets to cut down on plastic use.
About 40 per cent of plastics we consume today are single-use — things like cutlery, plates, food containers, electronics packaging.
Single-use plastics simply have to go, according to Richard Leck, WWF’s Head of Oceans and Sustainable Development.
“In terms of the calls to action, absolutely the ban around single-use plastics is very important,” he said.
“There needs to be incentives for producers to use products that aren’t single use.”
And WWF isn’t alone.
This week, Hobart City Council voted 8-4 in favour of phasing out single of plastics by 2020, and a Senate inquiry last year recommended a national ban to be implemented over the next five years.
In what he described at the time as a “rare display of political consensus”, Greens Senator and inquiry chairman Peter Whish-Wilson said the Senate had “laid down a clear pathway for Australia to create a circular economy and stop piles of plastic, paper and glass being stockpiled or heading to landfill”.
But what would that actually look like?
Single-use plastics have become so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine doing things any other way.
Somewhere along the line we’ve constructed a system in which it makes more sense to mine the oil to make the plastic cutlery to use once and throw away, than it does to put our steel cutlery in a dishwasher.
The way forward is to transition to a circular economy, where everything is made to be reused, according to Candice Quartermain, founder and CEO of Circular Economy Australia.
“The fact that we’re seeing stats coming out now saying there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2025 is insane,” she said.
“Circular economy is changing the economy entirely as we know it. It’s really about saying we can’t carry on the way that we are, something has to change, and the focus needs to be on quality and finding more effective ways of doing things.”
In creating plastic we’ve effectively designed a material that is too good. It’s cheap, versatile and lasts a long time.
To help shift us towards a circular economy, single-use plastic needs to be more expensive to produce, according to Mr Leck.
For that to happen, producers need to be accountable for the entire lifecycle of their products.
For instance, a soft-drink bottle floating in the ocean must be the property of the company that made the bottle, and they must have factored in the cost of retrieving the bottle into their business model.
“The issue around plastic is the classic example of ‘who pays?’ At the moment, the polluters aren’t paying,” he said.
“We have to make sure that the cost of plastics to nature is incorporated into the price.”
While plastic is cheap for manufactures to produce, the UN Environment Program estimates ocean plastic pollution costs around $US8 billion each year through impacts on things like fisheries, tourism and maritime operators.
But if manufacturers cleaning up their waste sounds far-fetched, it’s already happening in parts of Europe, according to waste management expert Helen Millicer.
She’s been touring Europe on a Churchill Fellowship, and said parts of Europe are already making huge strides toward achieving a circular economy.
“Companies that don’t design or enable products to be reused or recycled, are penalised,” she said.
The European Commission is now phasing out plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws and drink stirrers in all member states. Single-use plastic bottles with detachable lids are also being banned.
A European Commission statement has outlined a shift in responsibility from consumers and onto producers for the entire lifespan of their products, from their production right through to disposal.
“Producers will help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness-raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers, drinks containers and cups, tobacco products with filters, wet wipes, balloons, and lightweight plastic bags,” an EU Commission statement said.
“The industry will also be given incentives to develop less-polluting alternatives for these products.”
For its part the Australian Senate report included a stipulation that the Federal Government have mandatory targets for the inclusion of recycled materials in its procurement process.
Recycling industry leaders have previously criticised states and the Federal Government for using virgin materials in projects like road and infrastructure building, while recycled stockpiles have been growing higher.
And Senator Whish-Wilson called for more incentives for businesses to use recycled products, after last year’s inquiry.
“Without incentivising domestic markets for the end-use of these waste streams it will keep piling up at rubbish tips around the country,” he said.
Incentives are needed to balance the market.
According to WWF, the cost to recycle plastic in Europe is almost double what that plastic is then worth.
While market-based mechanisms will be the most effective method for driving change, some US based artists have been taking a more conceptual approach to the issue.
The size of the installations are equal to the average amount of plastic cups, bottles and straws that each American uses in a year.
Feeling frustrated by the lack of action by her own government, Ms Cruder said she wanted to make something “so freaking big” they couldn’t ignore it.
“We’re not blaming anyone,” Ms Cruder said.
“We’re asking people to pay attention to their behaviours and examine them, [but] I think most people don’t know where to start.”
While reimagining a world without single-use plastics might be hard, doubling the world’s plastic pollution by 2030 will be worse, according to Mr Leck.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean contains about 78,000 tonnes of plastics, according to the latest estimates.
It’s one of five massive ocean greys rapidly accumulating plastic waste.
“We use the analogy that, imagine if there was about 8 million tonnes of oil being pumped into the oceans each year, there would be a massive public outcry,” Mr Leck said.
“If the global plastics system is left to function as it does currently then the plastic pollution crisis risks spiralling out of control.”