Tag Archives: plastic pollution

Plastic and climate crisis are linked — we shouldn’t address one and ignore the other

Despite being frequently described as separate and even competing issues, the climate crisis and plastic pollution are more linked than we used to think, a new study found. Researchers called for governments and policymakers to urgently tackle the two issues together so as to avoid falling short on much-needed solutions.

Image credit: Flickr / Ivan Radic.

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team of scientists collected evidence on how both global problems exacerbate one another, creating a dangerous cycle. The researchers identified three significant ways that the climate change crisis and marine plastic pollution are connected. 

Most plastic production is supported by fossil fuel extraction and the consumption of limited resources, contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s also the case of plastic waste, which is either burned or deposited in landfills. While plastic alternatives are expected to increase in production, their carbon footprint is yet unclear.

Climate change is also an influential factor in the distribution of plastic pollution, something that will increase even further as extreme weather expands. At the same time, global warming has already proven to have catastrophic consequences for the marine environment, which happens simultaneously with the impacts of plastic pollution.  

“Climate change is undoubtedly one of the most critical global threats of our time. Plastic pollution is also having a global impact,” Heather Koldewey, senior author of the paper, said in a statement. “The compounding impact of both crises just exacerbates the problem. It’s not a case of debating which issue is most important.”

The plastic-climate link

Plastic production went from two million metric tons in 1950 to about 380 million in 2015, meaning an annual growth of 8.4%. This has been driven by the need for cheap and lightweight materials in our day-to-day lives. However, the demand for plastics is set to continue as economies expand, which is very bad news for the environment. 

About 56 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in greenhouse gases would be released between 2015 and 2050 because of plastic production. This is 10% of the remaining carbon budget. Only in 2015, plastic production released the equivalent of more than a billion metric tons of CO2, which equals 3% of fossil fuel emissions.

But it’s not all about emissions. Microplastics have gradually become a global problem, as they are transported through the atmosphere and can reach very remote areas. Climate change is expected to further impact plastic pollution fluxes and concentrations in its global distribution, driven mainly by extreme weather events. 

Marine plastic pollution, alongside climate change impacts, affects ecosystems that are vulnerable to climate change. This is especially concerning for vulnerable and remote environments that haven’t been affected much in the past. Let’s take the polar regions as an example, a pristine environment now with plenty of microplastics accumulated. 

A joint solution

For the researchers, the scale of the societal, economic, and commercial shift needed to avoid the worsening impacts of the climate and plastic pollution crises, requires both a top-down and bottom-up approach. Global and national economies should shift to a circular economy by decoupling growth from the use of finite resources. 

But this will be tricky, as the global society has become less circular over the past two years. That’s why a re-emphasis of the importance of reducing or reusing plastic and plastics is needed to reduce our reliance on single-use products. If growth in single-use plastic continues, it could account for 5 to 10% of global GHG emissions by 2050.

“Action on climate change has been compromised by uncertainty, aspects of human psychology and the need for acts of good global citizenship versus national interest. Plastic pollution is unequivocally due to human actions, decisions and behaviour, with few ‘plastics deniers’ that compare to ‘climate change deniers,’” the researchers wrote. 

The study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment

Just 20 companies are behind more than half of the single-use plastic waste in the world

A handful of companies are the source of more than half of all the single-use plastic items discarded globally, creating an environmental mess and fueling greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.

Image credit: Flickr / Stefan Gara

The Plastic Waste Makers Index listed the companies at the forefront of the plastic supply chain and manufacture polymers, the building block of plastics. The report, published by the Minderoo Foundation, also showed that the companies are supported by a small number of financial backers.

ExxonMobil and Dow top the list, contributing 5.9 million tons and 5.5 million tons of plastic waste respectively. They are followed by China-based Sinopec, responsible for 5.3 million tons. Eleven of the companies in the list are based in Asia, four in Europe, three in North America, one in Latin America and on in the Middle East, the report found.

After Exxon Mobil, Dow and Sinpoec, the study found these firms are the biggest producers of single-use plastic: Indorama Ventures, Saudi Aramco, PetroChina, LyondellBasell, Reliance Industries, Braskem, Alpek SA de CV, Borealis, Lotte Chemical, INEOS, Total, Jiangsu Hailun Petrochemical, Far Eastern New Century, Formosa Plastics Corporation, China Energy Investment Group, PTT and China Resources. For the large part, it’s the big oil and gas companies.

The 20 global companies generated more than half of the 130 million metric tons of single-use plastic thrown away in 2019. Their plastic production is funded by leading banks such as Barclays, HSBC, Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. Almost 60% of the finance funding the plastic waste crisis comes from just 20 banks, with US$30 billion in loans given since 2011. 

“The trajectories of the climate crisis and the plastic waste crisis are strikingly similar and increasingly intertwined,” former US Vice President Al Gore said in a statement. “As awareness of the toll of plastic pollution has grown, the petrochemical industry has told us it’s our own fault and has directed attention toward behavior change from end-users of these products.”

The study also looked at the countries that are the biggest per capita contributors to single-use plastic production. Australia and the US, respectively, were found to produce the greatest amounts of single-use plastics, at more than 50 kilograms per person per year in 2019. By contrast, the figure is as low as 4kg in India and 18kg in China. 

Single-use plastics, such as bottles, bags and food packages, are the most commonly discarded type of plastic. They are made almost exclusively from fossil fuels and are very hard to recycle, which means they usually end their short lifecycle by polluting the oceans, being burned or dumped into landfills. In recent years, governments are seeking to discourage their use, either banning them or charging extra for them. However, action is slow in some areas.

“An environmental catastrophe beckons: much of the resulting single-use plastic waste will end up as pollution in developing countries with poor waste management systems,” the authors wrote. “The projected rate of growth in the supply of these virgin polymers will likely keep new, circular models of production and reuse ‘out of the money’ without regulatory stimulus.”

The authors said the plastics industry across the world had been allowed to operate with minimal regulation and limited transparency for decades. This has undermined a shift to a circular economy, including the production of recycled polymers from plastic waste, reusing plastic and using substitute materials.

Only 2% of single-used plastic was from recycled polymers in 2019. 

More than a handful: A thousand rivers bring plastic into the oceans

The global plastic problem just got more complicated. In a new study, researchers found nearly 80% of the plastic pollution in the oceans comes from 1,000 rivers around the world. This contradicts previous studies that suggested only a handful of large continental rivers were the main culprits behind plastic pollution.  

Plastic pollution in oceans and rivers is already one of the biggest environmental problems. Plastic is rapidly accumulating on riverbanks, deltas, coastlines, and in the oceans. Of all the plastics ever made to date, 60% have been discarded in landfills or in the natural environment – threating aquatic life, ecosystems and human health.

In 2017, two separate groups of scientists found that 90% of river-borne plastic waste that flushes into the oceans is conveyed by just a handful of large, continental rivers, such as Amazon, Nile and Yangtze – the world’s three longest rivers. Cleaning up those rivers, 30 in total, would largely contribute to solving the plastic problem, they claimed. 

A new study has turned that idea on its head.

A team of researchers found most of the world’s plastic waste is distributed by more than 1,000 rivers — not 30. They also found that most of that waste is carried by small rivers that flow through densely populated urban areas, not the largest rivers, as claimed in previous studies.  

“One big difference from a few years ago is we don’t consider rivers mere conveyor belts of plastics,” Lourens J.J. Meijer, the study’s lead author, told National Geographic. “If you put plastic into the river hundreds of kilometers from the mouth, it doesn’t mean that that plastic will end up in the ocean.”

The research is based on new modeling and was done by several of the same scientists involved in both 2017 river studies. The argue that the data available back then was limited and led to focusing on the size of the river basins and the population density. Now, they looked at plastic waste in 1,656 rivers, considering activity in those rivers as well as the effects of rainfall, wind currents, and terrain.

This is because plastic flows more easily into rivers from paved urban areas, for example, than it does in forests, and travels farther in rainy climates than dry ones. The researchers also considered for the study the proximity of landfills and dump sites to river banks, finding out that those within 10 kilometers of rivers are likely to spill into them.

The researchers found that the farther plastic waste has to travel along a river, the less likely it will actually reach the seas. They also discovered that small rivers on tropical islands in Indonesia and the Philippines carried a lot of plastic waste. The same was the case of rivers in Malaysia and Central American countries, which are also fairly short.  

But that wasn’t the only discovery. They also found out that the way plastic flows into the oceans differs by climate. Rivers in tropical regions disgorge plastic into the seas continuously, while rivers in temperate regions can flush most plastic in a single month, usually August in the rainy season, or in single events, such as flash floods.

One thing that didn’t change from the previous 2017 studies was that most of the rivers that transport plastic are located in Asia. Of the first 50 rivers on the new list, 44 are in Asia, a reflection of population density, according to the authors. They also expressed concern for Africa in the near future as the population expands and the economy improves. 

The study was funded by The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit founded by Boyan Slat, a Dutch entrepreneur that wants to clean up the ocean. The NGO has developed a trash-eating machine called the Interceptor to collect trash from rivers. In 2019, Slat said he would mass produce 1,000 Interceptors and deploy them within five years. 

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

A cost-effective way to recycle plastic could be commercially available in ‘5 to 10 years’

New research reports on an approach that could finally usher in energy-efficient plastic recycling, with massive implications for the industry and the environment both.

Image via Pixabay.

Plastics are, chemically speaking, long molecules made up mostly of carbon atoms strung together. This structure is what makes them so useful, as it imparts both good physical properties and outstanding chemical resilience to the material. But that last trait is also what makes plastics very resistant to being broken back down into carbon that can be used to make more plastic, or another product entirely.

Given that simply melting the plastic down to reuse it eventually degrades it so much it’s not really viable as a material, the high energy cost of transforming plastic back into carbon is, effectively, the death knell of our efforts to recycle this material and solve the plastic waste problem. But a new study could fix that.

Reverse refining

“It’s difficult to build a house and it’s easy to smash it apart,” said Dionisios Vlachos, a professor of physics at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, for Inverse. “This is the reverse. Plastic is very easy to make and difficult to break apart.”

Millions upon millions of tons of plastic waste are generated, globally, every year. This ranges from materials used in containers or packaging to electronics and a huge range of consumable products. The problem is compounded by the fact that virtually all of that plastic was freshly produced from crude oil instead of from recycled plastics, since the processes we have of doing so are slow, inefficient, and thus, expensive. This high cost is why most recyclable plastics today are not recycled, and end up in the landfill.

The current study describes an approach that can make recycling processes cost-efficient. This would revert plastic to its chemical building blocks which can then be used to produce fresh plastics or items such as fuel. The approach involves undergoing the refining process ‘in reverse’, according to Vlachos. It relies on zeolite and platinum as catalysts (both of these are already heavily used in the plastic industry to produce it from crude oil). Both platinum and zeolite can help break down the long chemical chains that make up plastic, but neither can carry the process to completion by themselves. Put together at high pressure, however, the team found that the catalysts can completely degrade the plastic molecule.

The process effectively ‘cracks’ (a term used in the oil industry) the long polymer chains into shorter, ‘short-C’ chains, that are much easier to process. In essence, the process does exactly what you want plastic to not do normally: break down, fast. Increasing pressure during this process allows for the plastic to be broken down efficiently even at low temperatures, the team explains, which helps further bring costs down.

“This is the first technology that’s able to take the most difficult plastics and recycle them into something really useful,” Vlachos added. “It’s the best way to recycle single-use plastics and packaging like polyethylene and polypropylene.”

In effect, the platinum catalyst starts the cracking reaction, which is then completed by the zeolite. This results in high yields of liquid hydrocarbons (oil) and a small quantity of solid byproducts. Currently, the process has a yield of around 85% of the original material by weight. Virtually all the major types of plastic in use today can be recycled using this approach, the team explains, including plastic bags and bottles (PET), HDPE, PP, polystyrene (PS), even layered (PP-PE-PS) plastic composites.

Different ratios of the two catalysts can be used to change the type of product that is output. This essentially would allow engineers to produce raw materials for a wide range of products simply by adding more of either compound.

Currently, however, the process does require quite a lot of water. Around 150 liters of water are required to make a gallon (3.8 liters) of gasoline. This will probably be improved upon in the future.

Right now, the technology has been patented, and Vlachos says we could expect its successful commercialization within 5 to 10 years. One of the main hurdles before that happens is developing a failproof method of eliminating impurities like food waste from the plastic before recycling it. However, once that is done, we have a decent shot at actually removing all the plastic waste clogging up landfills and natural landscapes the world over — in a nice, clean, efficient manner.

The paper “Plastic waste to fuels by hydrocracking at mild conditions” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Dump the plastic: Scientists create edible food packaging films from seaweed

Ever been so hungry that you could hardly wait until the packaging was removed from your food? Don’t worry, this will soon be something of the past.

Researchers and companies have been working for a while now on edible, cost-effective food films as a way to tackle food waste and plastic pollution. Now, an international team has taken it a step forward, creating a film based on sodium alginate – a well-known naturally occurring seaweed biopolymer.

Rammohan Aluru and Grigoriy Zyryanov, part of the team that developed edible food films based on seaweed (stripped off solution of ferulic acid and sodium alginate in a Petri dish). Image credit: UrFu

Sodium alginate is a carbohydrate that can be used to form packaging fils, says Rammohan Aluru, a co-author of the paper describing the material, in a statement. It’s also stable enough to serve as packaging.

Alginates are refined from different species of brown seaweeds such as the giant kelp Macrocystis pyrifera and Ascophyllum nodosum. They are currently used in many industries such as food, fertilizers, textile printing, and pharmaceuticals. Even dental impression material uses alginate as its means of gelling.

The film, created with natural ingredients, is safe for health and the environment, is water-soluble, and can dissolve by almost 90% in 24 hours. The researchers crossed-linked the alginate molecules with linked with a natural antioxidant ferulic acid, making the film strong, homogeneous, rigid, and capable of prolonging the life of the products.

Grigory Zyryanov, professor at Ural Federal University and co-author of the paper, said the film keeps food fresh for a longer time thanks to its antioxidant components that slow down the oxidation processes. Plus, natural antiviral agents obtained from garlic, turmeric, and ginger can be added to the film to prevent the spread of viruses and extend the shelf life of food, thus granting it anti-pathogen properties while maintaining its all-natural appeal.

The researchers said the film could be produced without any special requirements, making it accessible by food producers and film manufacturers. They could even be produced at a polymer production plant, Zyryanov argued. And if there’s an ocean nearby, it would be even simpler for any industrial manufacturer to create the films at low cost.

The new film is part of a much larger trend of innovating research being done on edible bio-films or coating materials – with a key role in food preservation, manufacturing, and extending the shelf-life of food materials. They are eco-friendly, easily degradable, and don’t cause health issues even if you forgott to remove them. But most importantly, they would help rid us of our dependence on plastic: a whopping 40% of the plastic we produced is used for packaging.

Expanding the use of bio-films and coating materials would help address food waste, a growing problem. The UN estimates that around one-third of the world’s food is lost or wasted every year. While harvest and retail are usually the main problems, a significant amount of food is also wasted at purchase and consumption. Plus, the food films would help tackle plastic pollution, which grows every year.

Several startups have been working with them for a while now. Evoware is looking at using seaweed to create a plastic-like packaging that can be safely eaten, while Loliware has created edible cups out of seaweed and has now branched to straws. Skipping Rocks Lab is also working to replace the plastic water bottle with a seaweed alternative.

The study was published in the Journal of Food Engineering.

It’s time to figure out how to deal with the face mask waste

It was already a big problem before the Covid-19 pandemic, but plastic waste is now turning into an even larger issue – and face masks, in particular, are not helping the cause. We need them to avoid the spread of the virus but at the same time, there’s no official guidance on how to dispose of them. Most of them just end in the trash, and that needs to change.

The way we use, manufacture and dispose face masks has to change
Image credit: Flickr / Dronepicr

An impressive number of face masks are used around the world, with studies estimating 129 billion are used every month. That’s good — we’re preventing a dangerous virus from spreading. But it comes at a cost. Most are made from plastic microfibers and are not properly disposed of, which means they’ll be staying in the environment for centuries to come.

In a recent commentary piece, Elvis Genbo Xu and Zhiyong Jason Ren describe waste plastics as one of the most pervasive environmental pollutants today. Before the pandemic, over 300 million tons of plastics were produced globally per year and most if ended up in nature as waste. Plastic products can’t be readily biodegraded and then fragment into microplastics and nanoplastics.

After the pandemic, it’s only gotten worse. More people are favoring plastic-packed foods — and of course, there’s the face masks.

There’s no official data on how many masks are disposed of, but with billions needed every month the figure is likely to be very high. For the researchers, disposable masks have become as problematic as plastic bottles or even worse. While 25% of the bottles can be recycled, there’s no guidance for mask recycle and most are disposed of as solid waste.

Disposable masks are usually made of three layers. The outer one is made up of a nonabsorbent material like polyester that protects against liquid splashes. The middle one is non-woven fabrics like polystyrene that prevent droplets and aerosols, while the inner one is made of an absorbent material such as cotton so to absorb vapor. Different polymers are used in manufacturing.

Once in the environment, the mask is subjected to solar radiation and heat. But the degradation can actually take a very long time because of the plastic components, the researchers argued. If they aren’t properly collected, the masks can then be transported from land into freshwater and marine ecosystems by river flows, oceanic currents and surface run-off.

“When breaking down in the environment, the mask may release more micro-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk plastics like plastic bags. Such impacts can be worsened by a new-generation mask, nanomasks, which directly use nano-sized plastic fibers (e.g., diameter < 1 mm) and add a new source of nanoplastic pollution,” the researchers wrote in the study.

The presence of waste masks has been increasingly reported in different environments since the start of the pandemic, with posts in social media sharing images of wildlife tangled in elastic straps of masks. NGOs in Asia and Europe have collected hundreds of masks on beaches over the past few months, hoping to raise awareness through active campaigns.

For Xu and Ren, it’s urgent to launch coordinated efforts from environmental scientists, medical agencies, and solid waste managing organizations to minimize the negative impacts of disposal masks — eventually preventing it from becoming a problem too big to handle. Plastic waste is already massive and we shouldn’t add masks to that combo.

The researchers recommend a critical rethinking of the way masks are used, manufactured and disposed of. This would include carrying out a life-cycle evaluation on masks’ production and disposal, encouraging people to use washable masks and replacing single-use plastic masks. At the same time, mask-only trash cans could be set up for collection and disposal.

Researchers in Australia have already found one potential solution, developing new recycled material for building roads out of shredded face masks. The road-making material is feasible and meets civil engineering safety standards, with the plastic particles adding stiffness and strength to the final product when used in the base layer for roads and pavements.

The comment piece was published in the journal Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering.

Amazon’s plastic packaging waste could encircle the globe 500 times

The plastic packaging of the products we buy online is actually hiding a major environmental problem, a new report showed. Amazon, considered the world’s largest retailer, was responsible for 211,000 metric tons (465 million pounds) of plastic packaging waste last year, 10,000 tons (22 million pounds) of which ended up in the world’s freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Image credit: Flickr / Marco Verch

The waste includes air pillows, bubble wrap, and other plastic packaging items added to the approximately 7 billion Amazon packages delivered in 2019, said Oceana, an ocean conservation organization, who published the report. The plastic packaging waste would be enough to circle the Earth more than 500 times, the authors of the report said.

Oceana also did a survey with more than 5,000 Amazon customers in the UK, the US, and Canada in 2020 and found that 86% were concerned about plastic pollution and its impact on the oceans. At the same time, 87% said they wanted online retailers like Amazon to offer plastic-free packaging choices at checkout.

“The amount of plastic waste generated by the company is staggering and growing at a frightening rate,” Oceana’s Senior Vice President, Matt Littlejohn, said in a statement. “The plastic packaging and waste generated by Amazon’s packages is mostly destined, not for recycling, but for the landfill, the incinerator, or the environment.”

Plastic is a massive source of pollution and is creating a big effect on the world’s oceans. Studies estimated that 90% of all seabirds and more than half of all sea turtles have ingested plastic. The wild creatures mistake the kind of plastic used by Amazon for food, which can ultimately prove fatal. Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.

Most of Amazon’s plastic packaging is not really recyclable

Oceana said that the type of plastic often used in packaging by Amazon, known as plastic film, is largely not recycled, despite the company’s claims of recyclability. The company has some collection programs in grocery stores but in practice, most of the packaging ends up in curbside recycling bins.

Anthony Brocato, who manages Recology’s sorting plant in South Seattle, said the plastic mailers from Amazon are so stiff and thin that they end up in the streams of paper. At the same time, the air pillows become trapped in screens used to separate different materials, making the facility less effective.

A Greenpeace report published earlier this year showed that most of the plastics that Amazon uses in its packaging in the US are either not recyclable or have little value in the recycling market. And even when plastics are actually recyclable, there’s still a lack of recycling facilities and a low return rate.

The report raises difficult questions for Amazon’s founded Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, who created the “Earth Fund” to support climate action. Still, Oceana claims the company has already implemented changes in India, where it eliminated plastic packaging due to local law, and could do the same elsewhere.

The company said it uses about a quarter of Oceana’s estimate, according to an email reply to The Verge. Still, if that’s actually the case, Amazon would have used more than 53,000 metric tons (116 million pounds) of plastic packaging last year. The exact figure wasn’t included in its most recent sustainability report published last September.

Amazon has said in the past that since 2015 it has reduced the weight of its outbound packaging by more than 33% and cut out 900,000 tons of packaging material. It also claimed to have taken measures to make its packaging easier to recycle and that it will recycle as much as 7,000 tons of plastic film at 55 of its fulfillment centers per year.

“Amazon continues to, in response to questions about plastic use, offer anecdotes about packaging weight rather than transparency,” a spokesperson for Oceana told The Verge. “Even the low number claimed by the company for its plastic packaging footprint would still be an enormous amount of plastic waste.”

Oceana suggested Amazon to “aggressively” scale up its existing in-company programs to reduce plastic packaging, as well as broadening the use of reusable containers. They called on Amazon to improve sustainability transparency around reporting on plastic usage, and to take into account the environmental impact of plastics in its decision.

These are the companies that produce the most plastic

Plastic pollution is one of the most severe environmental problems in the world, and multinational companies are largely to blame, according to a new report. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé named the world’s top plastic polluters for the third year in a row, facing increasing criticism for their lack of action.

Image credit: Break Free From Plastic

The Break Free From Plastic’s brand audit, an annual citizen action initiative that involves counting the brands on plastic waste found in communities across the globe, collected 346,494 pieces of plastic from 55 countries, quantifying where the plastic comes from. The top waste polluting companies were the same as in previous years.

“It’s not surprising to see the same big brands on the podium as the world’s top plastic polluters for three years in a row. These companies claim to be addressing the plastic crisis yet they continue to invest in false solutions while teaming up with oil companies to produce even more plastic,” said Abigail Aguilar, campaigner.

A total of 13,834 branded Coca-Cola plastics were recorded in 51 countries, more plastic than the next two top global polluters combined. These results amount to a significant increase, as the report recorded 2,102 more Coca-Cola plastic items in 14 more countries in 2020 than in last year’s global brand audit.

Coca-Cola was harshly questioned by environmental campaigners earlier this year when it announced it would not abandon plastic bottles claiming they were popular with customers. The company produces about three million tons of plastic packaging a year, the equivalent of 200,000 bottles a minute.

PepsiCo branding was found on 5,155 in 43 countries and Nestlé branding on 8,633 in 37 countries, the second and third most significant polluters, the report showed. This represents an increase in the number of plastic products registered last year and from the number of countries in which they were reported.

Image credit: Break Free From Plastic

Across the world, the most common product types found in plastic waste were food packagings, such as food wrappers, sachets, coffee cup lids, and beverage bottles; smoking materials, such as cigarette butts; and household products, such as shampoo and laundry detergent bottles. More than 14,000 volunteers tracked the materials.

A total of 64,000 sachets were collected, the single plastic product most found, followed by 60,344 cigarette butts and 50,968 plastic bottles. Since this year’s global audit was done amid the new coronavirus pandemic, volunteers also recorded 770 discarded surgical masks and 419 surgical gloves. Most of the items were found outdoors.

“The world’s top polluting corporations claim to be working hard to solve plastic pollution, but instead they are continuing to pump out harmful single-use plastic packaging. We need to stop plastic production, phase out single-use and implement robust reuse systems,” said Emma Priestland, campaigns coordinator.

The campaigners behind the report said the top polluters must reveal how much single-use plastic they use, then set clear, measurable targets for reducing the quantity of single-use plastic items they produce. Finally, they must reinvent their product delivery systems to move beyond single-use plastic altogether. It’s not an easy task by any mean, but if this type of process doesn’t happen, our plastic pollution problem will only get worse.

Seven of the top polluters—Coca-Cola; PepsiCo; Nestlé; Unilever; Mondelez; Mars; and Colgate-Palmolive—have joined The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, an initiative to change the plastic system. Still, the signatories have only reduced their use of virgin (unrecycled) plastic by only 0.1% from 2018 to 2019.

Speaking with The Guardian, Coca-Cola disputed the claim that it wasn’t making progress and said it’s working to address packaging waste. PepsiCo said to be doing the same with partnerships, innovation, and investment, while Nestlé said to be making significant progress in sustainable packaging.

Worldwide, over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, half of which is used to design single-use items such as shopping bags, cups, and straws. Around eight million tons are dumped into the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain. According to a recent study, people ingest up to 5 grams of plastic a week.

The 10 Worst Polluters are:

  1. Coca-Cola in 51 countries with 13,834 plastics.
  2. PepsiCo in 43 countries with 5,155 plastics.
  3. Nestlé in 37 countries with 8,633 plastics.
  4. Unilever in 37 countries with 5,558 plastics.
  5. Mondelēz International in 34 countries with 1,171 plastics.
  6. Mars in 32 countries with 678 plastics.
  7. P&G in 29 countries with 3,535 plastics.
  8. Phillip Morris International in 28 countries with 2,593 plastics.
  9. Colgate Palmolive in 24 countries with 5,991 plastics.
  10. Perfetti in 24 countries with 465 plastics.

Plastic pollution can travel thousands of kilometers in just a few months

Providing water to nearly half a million people, the Ganges river is one of the most important in the world — and also one of the most polluted. It’s packed with plastic bottles, bags, and other items, which later end up in the ocean. Now, researchers have proved those bottles can travel thousands of kilometers in just a few months, shedding light on the extent of plastic pollution.

Image credit: Flickr / Vladimir Varfolomeev

Plastics make up to 12% of the global waste stream, being increasingly recognized as a threat to biodiversity, habitat quality, human health, and livelihoods across the globe. To make matters even worse, the amount of plastic discarded every year seems to be steadily on the rise.

A substantial amount of marine plastic debris is thought to originate from inland sources, with rivers acting as major transport pathways. Recent studies estimate that plastic pollution transported via rivers could account for up to 70–80% of plastics present in the marine environment, associated with urban centers. But tracking sources of plastic and how they’re transported through the environment has proven challenging.

Recently, there have been several novel efforts of utilizing technology in the tracking of plastic litter. The GhostNet project focused on ghost gear tracking, using oceanic models, drifter buoys, satellite imagery, and remote sensing instruments to locate potential convergence areas where nets were likely to accumulate.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Exeter and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) placed a GPS and satellite tags in plastic bottles in the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal. The maximum distance they tracked was 2,845km (1,768 miles) in 94 days, which shows how global the plastic pollution problem is.

“Our ‘message in a bottle’ tags show how far and how fast plastic pollution can move,” said lead author Dr. Emily Duncan of the University of Exeter in a statement. “It demonstrates that this is a truly global issue, as a piece of plastic dropped in a river or ocean could soon wash up on the other side of the world.”

Maps of bottle tag movements. Image credit: Authors

The Ganges River is one of the largest river systems in the world with the surrounding basin having a population of several hundred million people. It holds enormous cultural, religious, and industrial significance. Rapid population growth in its basin has also fueled agricultural development, urbanization, and industrialization along the river.

Recent estimates of global riverine plastic emissions consider the Ganges the second largest contributing river to ocean plastic pollution (after the Yangtze River) with a computed input of 0.12 million tons per year. But field data are limited and there’s a knowledge gap in the movement of plastic along the river.

As part of a National Geographic expedition, the researchers applied open-source tracking technology, which has been successfully used in many animal studies, to track the movements of individual plastic litter items. They used 500ml PET bottles and places them through the Ganges River system and the Bay of Bengal.

The three satellite bottle tags deployed at sea all took similar courses once they entered the Bay of Bengal; moving in a westward direction close to the East Indian coastline. After this, the bottle entered a cross-shore current and an eddy system, which are prominent features of the Bay of Bengal region.

A demonstration of the used technology. Image credits: University of Exeter.

Alasdair Davies, of conservation technology organization Arribada and ZSL, said in a statement:

“The hardware inside each plastic bottle is entirely open source, ensuring that researchers can replicate, modify, or enhance the solution we presented to track other plastics or environmental waste.”

Taken together, the initial results highlight the potential for this technology to become part of an integrative approach to oceanographic modeling of plastic debris movements in marine systems, the researchers argued. They hope the bottle tags could be a “powerful tool” to raise awareness and change behaviors.

With smaller devices, it will be possible to track smaller, more lightweight litter items in the future, which are commonly seen polluting both the freshwater and marine environment. Modern tags are also capable of being built with additional sensors that can document the ambient conditions.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The world’s largest PET producer wants to triple its plastic recycling operations

Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET, is one of the most common plastics in the world, used to make soda bottles and food containers, among others. Now, the world’s largest producer of PET has announced a plan to triple its plastic recycling operations, a goal that could help tackle plastic pollution across the world.

Image credit: Flickr / Bo Eide

PET manufacturer Indorama Ventures, based in Thailand, has been on a shopping spree in recent years. They’ve purchased and expanded several companies recycle PET, aiming to grow its recycling capacity from the current 250,000 tons to 750,000 in 2025. The goal is for recycled materials to account for 20% of the four million tons of PET produced per year.

The company has become so big that it now produces one in five PET bottles in the world. It began making PET in 1995 and has scaled up production since then, currently managing 121 factories across 33 countries. It has recently purchased factories in the US, France, Brazil, and Poland, among other countries, so there’s no sign of slowing down.

Consumers worldwide buy billions of plastic drink bottles a year. Although most of these are made from highly recyclable PET, only 14% are ever actually recycled. The rest end up in landfills or our rivers and seas, where they can take up to 50 years to degrade, creating a serious environmental problem.

Recycled PET is more expensive, but Indorama believes the global trend of reducing plastic will give it a tailwind, and consumer awareness can also help. The company is already signing partnerships with its suppliers to move ahead with its plan. It has formed a joint venture with Coca-Cola in the Philippines to build a bottle recycling plant next year.

In a statement, Indorama highlighted the difficulties of further recycling in Southeast Asia, mainly because of the lack of sorting and collecting plastic bottles and containers. Still, the company said community educational programs can help in that regard, mentioning recent examples with school programs.

Southeast Asia is by far one of the largest contributions to land-based plastic waste leaking into the world’s oceans. More than half comes from four nations: Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand, alongside China, the main single polluter. The growing demand for consumer products has led to an increase in plastic waste.

The problem has worsened following China’s decision to ban waste imports from 2018 onwards, including plastic. This has left municipalities and waste companies from Australia to the United States scrambling for alternatives, which have mainly been other Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam — but this isn’t a long-term solution for anyone.

In a recent report, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said the region, home to 641 million people across 10 countries, should introduce region-wide policies to regulate plastic packaging. Thailand has already taken the first step, recently announcing it will ban most single-use plastics next year.

Worldwide, around eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, according to UNEP estimations. Whales and sea turtles have been found dead in the region in recent years with large amounts of plastic rubbish in their stomachs.

How plastic particles move through the soils. “It’s all cyclical”

Scientists have mapped the many ways through which microplastics and other particulate pollutants travel long distances through soils and other porous media. The findings by Princeton University researchers could help us prevent or at least reduce the spread and accumulation of contaminants in food and water sources.

Image credits: Flickr / Kate Ter Haar

The extent of plastic pollution around the world is nothing short of horrifying. About 1.3 billion tons of plastic will be dumped into our environment by 2040, both on land and in the ocean, according to a global model published this year. Most of this plastic will reach landfills or waters, from where it could reach entire ecosystems and make its way back into humans (yes, we’re all ingesting plastic now).

There’s no clear solution in sight, with microplastics being a large part of the problem.

Until recently, researchers have been largely unaware of how microplastics move around and accumulate in the environment, which makes it more difficult to tackle this form of pollution. Now, a new study showed plastics get stuck when moving through porous materials but later break three, moving substantially further.

Sujit Datta, the lead researcher of the study, described it as a cyclical process. Plastic clogs are formed and then broken up by fluid pressure over time and distance, moving particles further through the pore space until clogs reform. It’s the first time this stop-and-restart process and the condition behind it have identified.

“Not only did we find these cool dynamics of particles getting stuck, clogged, building up deposits and then getting pushed through, but that process enables particles to get spread out over much larger distances than we would have thought otherwise,” said Datta in a statement.

In the study, the researchers tested two types of microplastic particles: sticky and non-sticky. These are the types of microplastics usually found in the environment. The researchers found that there wasn’t a difference between in terms of how they travel. Both particles clog and unclog themselves when exposed to high fluids. Still, there was a difference in how the clusters are formed.

The sticky particles could get trapped at any surface of the solid medium they encountered, while the non-sticky ones got stuck at a narrow passageway. Due to these dynamics, both particles can spread out over large areas and throughout hundreds of pores.

The researchers did experiments on polystyrene microplastic particles in Datta’s lab, assessing with a microscope how the particles move through a transparent porous media the team created. The media mimicked the structure of naturally-occurring environments such as soils, sediments, and groundwater aquifers.

Porous media are usually opaque, which means it’s impossible to see what microplastics are doing or how they flow through the environment. Researchers usually measure what goes in and out of the media, and try to infer the processes going on inside. That’s why the study used a transparent porous media.

“We figured out tricks to make the media transparent. Then, by using fluorescent microparticles, we can watch their dynamics in real-time using a microscope,” said Datta in a statement. “The nice thing is that we can actually see what individual particles are doing under different experimental conditions.”

The researchers hope to use their particle observations to improve parameters for larger-scale models, which would predict the amount and location of contamination. The models would be based on diverse particle sizes and various types of porous media, helping prediction contamination under different conditions.

For Datta, this is only the tip of the iceberg. “Now that we found something so surprising in a system so simple, we’re excited to see what the implications are for more complex systems,” he said. For example, they could try if the principle found in plastic particles also applies in clays, minerals, grains, quartz, viruses, and microbes.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

The Mediterranean Sea is packed with plastic waste and it could get worse soon

The Mediterranean Sea is one of the most heavily-affected environments in the world in terms of plastic pollution, with about 230,000 tons dumped there every year, according to a new report. The researchers warned that the figure could double by 2040 unless ambitious steps are taken as soon as possible.

Credit Flickr Cheasepeake

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published the report “The Mediterranean: Mare plasticum” which reviews the role of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean. It considered 33 countries, either coastal or part of a hydrological basin flowing into the Mediterranean Sea.

“The region represents a perfect model to advance our understanding of plastic. It’s a semi-enclosed sea, making the definition of plastic mass balance and the comparison between modeling approaches and field sampling approaches easier,” said Mina Epps, director of the IUCN Global Marine program, in a statement.

The total plastic accumulated in the Mediterranean is estimated at around 1,178,000 tons, the researchers found. Most of it seems to be deposited on the seafloor either in the form of microplastics in the sediments or as macroplastics and mesoplastics scattered on the seafloor.

The top three countries by the amount of plastic released into the sea are Egypt, Italy, and Turkey. But on a per capita basis, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia have the highest levels of plastic waste leakage. Plastic hotspots tend to form near the mouth of major rivers and close to large cities.

“The report refines the estimates of the quantity of plastic currently floating into the Mediterranean, based on a compilation of data from field studies and using the footprint methodology to estimate the yearly input of plastic into the Mediterranean Sea,” said Epps in a statement.

Under a business as usual scenario, the current 229,000 tons of plastic leaking every year into the Mediterranean Sea would grow to 500,000 by 2040, the researchers estimate. That’s why they argued for ambitious interventions beyond current commitments to reduce the flow of plastic into the sea.

There are concrete ways to achieve such a reduction, according to the report. Over 50,000 tons could be slashed each year if waste management was improved in the top 100 contributing cities alone. They also recommended a ban on plastic bags in the Mediterranean basin region.

“Governments, private sector, research institutions, and other industries and consumers need to work collaboratively to redesign processes and supply chains, invest in innovation and adopt sustainable consumption patterns and improved waste management practices to close the plastic tap,” said Antonio Troya, head of the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation.

Recycling is important. It’s also overrated. Here’s what truly makes a dent in environmental pollution

Credit: Pixabay.

In recent years, consumers have become much more environmentally conscious and mindful of the products they purchase. For instance, consumers might choose to avoid single-use plastic bottles or look to recycle on a consistent basis. That’s definitely a good thing. However, it can also be easy to miss the forest for the trees when making lifestyle choices with the intention of reducing one’s environmental footprint.

For instance, while it’s definitely important to recycle plastic products and avoid plastic packaging, in the grand scheme of things, there are other things that have a greater environmental impact, such as reducing and reusing products.

Writing in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology, University of Michigan environmental engineer Shelie Miller lists the five most common myths surrounding the environmental impact of single-use plastic. Her study is based on the life cycle assessment of products, which takes into account all of the energy and material needs of a product from extraction and manufacturing to the moment it ends up on the supermarket shelf. Not all products are equal in terms of their carbon and plastic footprints, so you may be surprised to learn that what may seem to be an obvious environmentally-friendly choice is not that great after all.

“I know lots of people who are trying to reduce their environmental impacts and who ask me to weigh in on what they can do to do more. In these conversations, it became apparent how much emphasis people place on reducing the solid waste that they generate, with a lot of concerns focusing on single-use plastic. My work tries to highlight the importance of understanding the full environmental impacts of products, especially the impacts that are less visible to consumers — energy use, resource extraction, and environmental damage that occur throughout the full supply chain. This article is intended to help people trying to reduce their environmental impacts to become better informed and make choices that are the most impactful.,” Miller told ZME Science.

Myth #1: plastic packaging contributes the most to a product’s environmental impact

When we see rows upon rows of plastic bottles in the supermarket or damning images of landfills stacked with them, it can be natural to conclude that herein lies the problem. So, if we were to recycle more plastic bottles and other types of plastic packaging, our contribution to environmental pollution would be greatly reduced.

False. What we see as consumers is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, it is the product inside the packaging that 99% of the time has the greatest environmental impact. It’s just that packaging is the first thing that consumers see, so they naturally believe that is the part of the product with the most potential for environmental pollution.

Myth #2: plastic is the worst packaging material for the environment

That actually depends. Single-use plastic has a much lower overall environmental impact than single-use glass or metal in the vast majority of product categories.

Myth #3: reusable products are always better than single-use products

Plastic cutlery and foam food containers are definitely a problem if you use them on a daily basis, as are all single-use plastic containers. But for a reusable product to offset the materials and energy required to manufacture them, these typically have to be reused many, many times. Otherwise, these reusable products can actually be worse than plastic.

In a 2018 life-cycle assessment, Denmark’s ministry of environment and food found that cotton bags must be reused thousands of times before they meet the environmental performance of plastic bags. What’s more, organic cotton bags have to be reused many more times than conventional cotton bags (20,000 versus 7,000 times). This study, however, does not take into account the impact of plastic litter on marine animals and other wildlife — this assessment only discusses the energy and CO2 emissions that are involved in the product’s lifecycle.

Myth #4: Recycling and composting are the most important environmental-friendly things you can do

When compared to the impact of reducing overall consumption, recycling and composting actually have low environmental benefits. What’s more, composting has its own flaws and weaknesses. For instance, many consumers tend to throw in non-compostable look-alike items into their bins. This contamination increases the use of water, energy, and other resources and drives up operating costs.

In 2018, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) performed a review of over 1,200 comparisons involving compostable packaging and over 360 comparisons for food servicewear spanning 18 years of life-cycle assessments. Most of the time, the assessment found that the use of compostable products and the process of composting resulted in a higher impact on the environment than the use of non-compostable packaging or products.

Myth #5: “Zero waste” minimizes the environmental impact of a product or event

Zero waste — a set of principles that minimizes the waste we produce and links communities, businesses and industries so that one’s waste becomes another’s feedstock — is a fantastic idea. However, in terms of single-use plastic, the benefits of diverting plastic waste from the landfill aren’t that important compared to the impact of waste reduction and mindful consumption.

“Narrowing the number of misperceptions about single use plastics to five was pretty tough!  But hopefully the five that I’ve chosen to highlight resonate with people and make them have a better understanding of some of the tradeoffs associated with single use plastic reduction,” Miller told me.

All of this is not to say that recycling is useless or that composting isn’t beneficial for the environment in some situations. It’s just that the discussion surrounding our impact on the environment has to be more nuanced.

In her study, Miller mentions the old adage of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, or the 3Rs of environmentally friendly living. However, the researcher stresses that this is actually a hierarchy. The most important thing we can do to lessen our environmental impact is simply to reduce our consumption, followed by reuse, and lastly recycling.

“The results of life cycle studies generally depend on the specific product being analyzed.  There’s lots of nuances to the hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle.  But we can definitively say that reducing consumption of environmentally intensive products is easily the most impactful thing a consumer can do to minimize environmental impact,” said Miller.

“We need to do a much better job preventing single use plastics from causing ecological damage.  Luckily, there are lots of efforts underway to reduce plastic its way into ecosystems and developing better business models to reclaim plastics to form a more circular plastic economy.”

Oftentimes, environmental messaging overemphasizes the importance of recycling packaging. While this definitely has its merits, especially in terms of reducing the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, this study paints a broader picture of the entire plastic-waste system.

“Our group tries to promote holistic, systematic thinking about sustainability and the environment.   We try to help consumers and industrial partners think beyond a single environmental problem into trying to better understand the complexity and tradeoffs of systems.  My research group is trying to help put individual actions people can take to reduce their environmental impact into more context.  Yes, it’s good to recycle, and use a smart thermostat, and take public transportation, and reduce food waste — but if you have to choose where to put your energy, which has the most bang for the buck in terms of environmental improvement versus effort expended?” Miller concluded.

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Unbreathable air could be driving plastic pollution — and your stomach is to blame

A polluted air outside makes office workers more likely to order food delivery instead of going out for lunch, which increasing plastic waste from food packaging, a new study showed.

Since this issue is unlikely to be solved anytime soon, the researchers call for more environmentally friendly packaging and improved waste management to tackle this growing issue.

Credit Lous Allen Flickr.

The pandemic has shifted much of our restaurant eating to food takeaway and delivery. But even before the pandemic, a growing number of people were using these services.

Professor Alberto Salvo and his team focused their study on China, which is one of the world’s largest users of online food delivery platforms, with 350 million registered users. An estimated 65 million meal containers are discarded each day across China, with office workers contributing over one-half of demand.

“Plastic waste is a growing global environmental concern. While we see more research on the impact plastic pollution is having on the natural environment, there has been less work trying to understand the human behavior that drives plastic pollution. This is where our study seeks to contribute,” said Salvo.

The researchers surveyed the lunch choices of 251 office workers in three often smog-filled Chinese cities, Beijing, Shenyang, and Shijiazhuang, between January and June 2018. They also accessed the 2016 Beijing order book of an online food delivery platform to complement the survey.

Data from both sources were then compared with PM2.5 measurements (fine particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) during lunchtime periods. The team found that PM2.5 levels during these periods were often well above the acceptable standard for the US, estimated at 35 μg/m³.

Correcting for weather and seasonal influences, the researchers found that a 100 μg/m³ increase in PM2.5 raised food delivery consumption by 7.2%. Such a shift increased office workers’ propensity to order delivery by a factor of six to 43%, according to the study’s findings. .

Co-author Prof Chu said: “Faced with smog or haze outside, a typical office worker at lunchtime can avoid exposure only by ordering food to be delivered to his or her doorstep. A broader base of consumers has more alternatives to avoiding the outdoor environment on a polluted day, for example, by using a home kitchen when at home.”

The researchers received over 3,000 photos of meals from office workers. This helped to quantify how much disposable plastic varies across different lunch choices, specifically meals eaten at the restaurant versus those delivered to the office. A 100 μg/m³ PM2.5 increase raised a meal’s disposable plastic use by 10 grams on average, they found.

The photographs published as part of the study showed that the average delivered meal used 2.8 single-use plastic items and an estimated 54 grams of plastic. Meanwhile, the average dine-in meal used an estimated 6.6 grams of plastic, such as in chopstick sleeves or bottles.

Based on the delivery app, the researchers estimated that on a given day, if all of China were exposed to a 100 μg/m³ PM2.5 increase in dose as is routinely observed in Beijing, 2.5 million more meals would be delivered, requiring an additional 2.5 million plastic bags and 2.5 million plastic containers.

Co-author Prof Liu said: “Our findings probably apply to other typically polluted developing-nation cities, such as in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Waste management practices vary widely, with the wind blowing plastic debris away from uncovered landfills or plastic being discarded into rivers and from there into the ocean.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Millions of LEGO pieces lost at sea 23 years ago are still washing up on the English coast

LEGO pieces found on Cornish beaches. Credit: Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition.

On February 13, 1997, stormy weather caused a Tokio Express container ship to tilt more than 45 degrees, causing 62 containers to go overboard. One of these containers carried 4.8 million pieces of LEGO. More than 23 years later, LEGO bricks are still washing up on Cornish coastlines, in southwest England.

According to Delia Webb of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC), volunteer beach cleaner are regularly finding LEGOs to this day, which is a “sobering reminder of the enduring nature of plastics in our environment”.

“We are still finding Lego pieces remarkably frequently but we get on and pick up and clear whatever is on the beach. Everyone wants to find a Lego dragon but we would much rather go to the beach and see a clean beach,” Webb told Cornwall Live.

“There is such a variety of plastics on the beaches – you also see tiny little micro-plastics which are easily ingested by sea creatures. Then we are running into how plastics get into the food chain.”

Credit: Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition.

In 2019, the shipping industry transported 226 million containers, whose cargo was valued at more than $4 trillion. Most of the time, these containers reach their destination safely. However, even with proper packing and stowage, some containers will inevitably become lost at sea.

Credit: Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition.
Credit: Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition.

The World Shipping Council estimates that between 2008 and 2019 a total of 1,382 containers were lost at sea each year, on average. The most recent years, between 2014 and 2016, saw a decline in the number of lost containers, representing close to 50% reduction.

However, containers continue to be lost due to stowage, lashing, and misdeclaration issues. Severe weather, ship groundings, structural failures, and ship collisions are also a major cause of container losses at sea.

Many of these compromised containers carry plastics and other extremely durable goods and items that can circulate through the ocean for decades, as LEGOs on Cornish beaches clearly illustrate.

Algae-based flip-flops seek to tackle plastic pollution

Flip-flops are the world’s most popular shoe — but they also represent a large percentage of the plastic waste that ends up in landfills, on seashores, and in the oceans. But now there might be a better alternative, as researchers have come up with biodegradable flip-flops entirely made from algae.

Credit University of California San Diego

Researchers from the University of California San Diego have developed polymer foams from algae oil that meet commercial specifications for midsole shoes and the foot-bed of flip-flops. They are sustainable, consumer-ready, and biodegradable materials that will eventually reach the shops.

“The paper shows that we have commercial-quality foams that biodegrade in the natural environment,” said Stephen Mayfield, co-author, in a press release.

“After hundreds of formulations, we finally achieved one that met commercial specifications. These foams are 52% biocontent, eventually we’ll get to 100%.”

The study was carried out in partnership with the startup company Algenesis Materials. They helped determine the right formulation for the commercial-quality foams and also to define the best way to make them biodegradable.

To do so, the researchers immersed the foams in traditional compost and soil, discovering it took 16 weeks for the materials to degrade. During that period, they measured the molecules shed from the materials to account for any toxicity. They also identified the organisms that degraded such foams.

“We took the enzymes from the organisms degrading the foams and showed that we could use them to depolymerize these polyurethane products, and then identified the intermediate steps that take place in the process,” said Mayfield.

“We then showed that we could isolate the depolymerized products and use those to synthesize new polyurethane monomers.”

This opens to the door to not just more eco-friendly flip-flops, but a new type of plastic product that is fully recyclable, the researchers argued. Plastic pollution in the oceans is expected to triple by 2040, according to a recent study by the NGO International Solid Waste Association, calling for action from governments and companies.

The researchers hope that the sustainable footwear, which is due to be launched through a major flip-flop brand next year, will cut the amount of plastic ending up in oceans and landfill sites. They estimated that over one billion flip-flops are made every year, accounting for major plastic pollution.

The challenge ahead will be the economics behind the production, which is something the team is trying to figure out with the manufacturing partners.

“People are coming around on plastic ocean pollution and starting to demand products that can address what has become an environmental disaster,” said Tom Cooke, president of Algenesis, in a press release.

The study was published in the journal Bioresource Technology Report.

Plastic pollution could skyrocket to 1.3 billion tons by 2040

About 1.3 billion tons of plastic will be dumped into our environment by 2040, both on land and in the ocean, according to a global model of the scale of the plastic problem.

There’s still room to improve things, and researchers call for drastic cuts to the flow of plastic waste, proposing several methods that could help.

Credit Flickr Paolo Margari (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Bad news aplenty

A new model developed by a group of researchers from the University of Leeds suggests that 710 million tons of plastic waste will be discarded into the environment by 2040, even with immediate and significant recycling efforts. Roughly 460 million tons will end up on land on land and 250 million tons in watercourses.

This shows the true impact of society’s reliance on plastic, especially single-use and film plastics that are used for packaging. Stopping its flow is crucial, as most of the plastic enters the ocean basically stays there forever, breaking down into microplastics. The techniques developed to clean the ocean so far have been tentative or straight up unsuccessful.

“This scientific inquiry has for the first time given us a comprehensive insight into the staggering amounts of plastic waste that are being dumped into the world’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. We now have a much clearer picture,” said Dr. Costas Velis, the lead investigator, in a press release.

Velis and colleagues tracked the production, use, and disposal of plastic around the world. They created a model to forecast future plastic pollution, using different scenarios. The “business as usual” scenario, based on the current trend of increasing plastic pollution, produced the 1.3 billion tons estimate by 2040. The model suggests that about 95% of the plastic packaging is only used once before being dumped. The main source of plastic pollution reported by the researchers was an uncollected solid municipal waste, coming from households. A quarter of all plastic waste is currently never collected, leaving individuals to dispose of it themselves.

 Image credits Winnie Lau et al., (2020), Science

The researchers also highlighted the large amount of plastic that is openly burnt. This is a bittersweet solution, as it reduces the amount of waste but it generates other problems, releasing toxic fumes into the atmosphere and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The model estimated that between two and a quarter billion tons of plastic waste will be burned between 2016 and 2040. That is more than twice the amount that projected to be dumped on land and oceans and rivers, according to the findings.

Ed Cook, one of the authors of the study, said that while modern incinerators emit only a few hazardous substances, open burning can lead to a range of negative health consequences.

“Those obnoxious substances are being breathed in by people who are working with waste and also in the communities that live nearby,” Cook said in a press release. “Burning is a double-edged sword. It reduces the amount of plastic that could eventually end up in the seas and on land but it also poses many other environmental problems, including a significant contribution to global warming.”

Possible solutions

While looking at the current and future scenario, the study also took a look at possible solutions to the plastic problem. The study concluded that changing waste collection services is the main factor that could reduce pollution. Around two billion people in the world do not have access to a waste collection service, according to UN estimates.

“In the absence of collection services, people have to make difficult choices about how to manage the waste themselves by openly burning it, dumping it on land, or putting it directly into rivers and coastal waters,” Dr. Velis said. “Waste collection is indeed the most effective way to prevent pollution.”

 Image credits Winnie Lau et al., (2020), Science

The researchers looked at various paths to tackle plastic pollution, using six different scenarios, gradually improving from ‘business as usual’ to substantial recycling improvements at multiple levels. While none were sufficient, if they are brought together they could reduce the plastic flow to the oceans by 80% for 2040, the study showed. This can be done using already existing technology and know-how.

Dealing with such a big problem would involve reducing growth in plastic production and consumption, substituting plastic with paper and compostable materials, designing products and packaging for recycling, and expanding waste collection, among other paths.

While in high-income countries the focus should be to decrease plastic consumption and improve product design and recycling in low-to-middle income economies, the push should be on improving waste collection and investments in sorting and recycling, the scientists argued.

“There is not one single solution. We can’t simply say we’re going to recycle everything or use less material, we need to take a holistic approach and look at the whole system. Although the report looks at the flows of plastic waste into the oceans, the benefits will extend far beyond the marine environment,” said Cook.

The study was published in the journal Science.

Reusable containers are still safe to use during the pandemic, experts agree

Reusable containers are still safe to use during the coronavirus pandemic as they don’t increase the chance of viral transmission, according to a statement signed by more than 100 scientists from around the world. The initiative comes amid a growing demand for single-use plastics around the world.

Credit Flickr

Shops and cafes in many cities have stopped accepting reusable cups during the pandemic, prompting environmentalists and researchers alike to sound the alarm. Plastic pollution represents one of the most challenging environmental problems of our time, with about 8 million tons of plastic trash leaking into the ocean annually.

Reusable bottles and cups are safe as long as they are cleaned properly

The statement was signed by a group of epidemiologists, virologists, biologists, chemists, and doctors from around the world, who argued that reusable items can still be safely used if basic hygiene is employed – according to the best available science and guidance from public health organizations.

“I hope we can come out of the Covid-19 crisis more determined than ever to solve the pernicious problems associated with plastics in the environment. In terms of the general public’s response to the COVID crisis, we should make every attempt to avoid over-consumption of single-use plastics, particularly in applications like packaging,” Charlotte Williams, one of the signatories, told The Guardian.

The scientists’ said that the novel coronavirus spreads primarily from inhaling aerosolized droplets, rather than through contact with surfaces. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC), droplets are the only documented method of transmission to date.

At the same time, the scientists claimed that disposable products present similar issues as reusable ones. Studies show the virus can remain infectious on surfaces for varying times depending on the material. For example, a study showed the virus lasts up to 24 hours on paper and between 2-3 days on plastic and steel.

“To prevent transmission through objects and surfaces, one can assume that any object or surface in a public space — reusable or disposable — could be contaminated with the virus. Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded,” the statement reads.

In their statement, the scientists provided a set of tips for the use of reusable products. The list includes washing reusable containers thoroughly with hot water and detergent or soap, employing contact-free systems for customers’ personal bags and cups and complying with food safety and health codes.

A bad outlook for the ocean

Plastics from the coronavirus epidemic are becoming a severe problem in the oceans. Divers from the French NGO Opération Mer Propre recently found dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer in the ocean — mixed with the usual plastic waste. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the NGO OceansAsia expressed similar concerns.

The plastic gloves and masks, like other plastic products, eventually break down and add to the wide collection of microplastics that can be found in the ocean. The risks of microplastics for human health is still being studied. But one possibility is that since plastics are added chemicals when they are manufactured those chemicals could be released in the body.

Restrictions on single-use plastics are also being paused or rolled back while governments deal with the health crisis. The United Kingdom suspended a charge on plastic bags, while a ban on such items was also put on hold in some states in the United States such as Maine. At the same time, retailers including Starbucks have banned the use of reusable products.

Nina Schrank, a campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian: “More and more of us own reusable cups and bottles to cut down on throwaway plastic and protect our wildlife, seas and rivers. Covid-19 has changed many of our routines, so it’s great that more than 100 experts have reassured us that reusable containers can be safe for food, drinks and other groceries during the pandemic, if washed properly. “

Coronavirus is creating a new plastic crisis as masks and gloves end up in the ocean

From surgical masks to gloves, the coronavirus crisis has led to a significant expansion of highly-needed plastic products around the globe. But the plastic always ends up somewhere, and that somewhere is often in the ocean.

Credit Flickr

French NGO Opération Mer Propre, which regularly picks up waste along the Côte d’Azur in France, sounded the alarm last month after divers found dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer in the ocean — mixed with the usual waste.

The quantities of protective equipment that ended up in the water were ‘enormous’, Joffrey Peltier, head of the NGO, told The Guardian.

The NGO shared footage on its social media networks of algae-entangled masks and soiled gloves in the sea, hoping it would lead to people start using reusable masks and replace the latex gloves with more frequent handwashing.

“With all the alternatives, plastic isn’t the solution to protect us from COVID. That’s the message,” said Peltier.

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Éric Pauget, a French politician from the Côte d’Azur Region, sent a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron, asking the government to deal with the growing ocean pollution.

“With a lifespan of 450 years, these masks are an ecological timebomb given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet,” he wrote

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the NGO OceansAsia expressed similar concerns earlier this year after finding dozens of disposable masks in the city’s Soko Islands, with no residents. “On a beach about 100 meters long, we found about 70,” Gary Stokes of OceansAsia, told The Guardian.

OceansAsia started looking at other beaches and found similar amounts of waste, claiming the masks are carried from land, boats and landfills by the wind.

“It’s just another item of marine debris,” Stokes said. “It’s no better, no worse, just another item we’re leaving as a legacy to the next generation.”

The problem isn’t new. Global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades, a study from last year found, with its authors warning that if that trend continues, the making of plastics will make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Some 8 million tons of plastic trash leak into the ocean annually.

As other types of plastic, the waste from masks and gloves raises important problems for marine wildlife.

“The structure of PPE will make it particularly hazardous for marine life,” John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA, told CNN. “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example. The straps on masks can present entangling hazards.”

The plastic gloves and masks, like other plastic products, eventually break down and add to the wide collection of microplastics that can be found in the ocean. The risks of microplastics for human health is still being studied. But one possibility is that since plastics are added chemicals when they are manufactured those chemicals could be released in the body.

Plastic regulations

While plastics from the coronavirus epidemic are becoming a severe problem in the oceans, there’s another one playing out. Restrictions on single-use plastics are being paused or rolled back while governments deal with the health crisis.

The United Kingdom suspended a charge on plastic bags, while a ban on such items was also put on hold in some states in the United States such as Maine. At the same time, retailers including Starbucks have banned the use of reusable products to protect their customers from coronavirus.

The trend has created concern from global organizations including the World Bank. “These measures have all been announced as temporary, but how long will they stick, fed by anxiety around health concerns?” Grzegorz Peszko, a lead economist at the organization, asked in a blog post last month.

Environmental campaigners fear the plastic industry may want to take advantage of the public health concerns to promote the use of its products. “Parts of the plastic industry have worked really hard to exploit fears around Covid,” Hocevar said, remaining confident that the rollbacks will only be temporary.

In March, the Plastics Industry Association wrote to the US Department of Health, asking it to “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics.” The pandemic is “forcing many Americans, businesses and government officials to realize that single-use plastics are often the safest choice,” the group said.

Four leading brands are responsible for 500,000 tons of plastic pollution per year

Plastic pollution is among the most urgent issues the world is dealing with, as bottles, sachets, packets, among many products, are filling up the ocean, affecting landscapes and harming the health of the world’s poorest people.

Credit Wikipedia Commons.

Companies have a strong role to play, with just four global drink giants responsible for more than half a million tons of plastic pollution in six developing countries each year – enough to cover 83 football pitches every day, according to a report.

The NGO Tearfund calculated the greenhouse gas emissions from the open burning of plastic bottles, sachets, and cartons produced by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever in China, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria. The report argued that the sachets, bottles, and cartons sold in the six countries are usually burned or dumped. Tearfund said the burning of plastic packaging put on to the market by these companies creates 4.6m tons of carbon dioxide equivalent – roughly the same level of emissions from two million cars.

“These companies continue to sell billions of products in single-use bottles, sachets, and packets in developing countries,” the report reads “And they do this despite knowing that waste isn’t properly managed in these contexts and their packaging therefore becomes pollution.”

Companies have climate change commitments but they rarely mention the emissions that come from the disposal of their products or packaging. That’s why Tearfund is asking them to switch to reusable packaging to avoid emissions.

“Reusable and refillable packaging preserves more of the value and natural resources embedded in each bottle and box. By contrast, recycled singleuse plastic is typically downcycled into synthetic fabrics, which then become waste again”, the NGO argued in the report.

Coca-Cola emerged as the worst polluter of the four companies in the report by far, with emissions greater than the other three combined. This is despite being the smallest company of the four in terms of sales revenue and is due largely because they use so much plastic per dollar of sales. The company creates 200,000 tons of plastic waste per year in the six countries, according to the report. The burning of such waste creates emissions equivalent to 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the same as three-quarters of their global transport and distribution emissions.

Replying to the report, a Coca-Cola spokesperson told The Guardian: “We are absolutely committed to ensuring the packaging in which we serve our products is sustainable and our efforts are focused on continuing to improve the eco-design and innovation of our packaging.”

The report included examples of the four companies adopting reusable and refillable delivery mechanisms in developing countries. Nevertheless, they are still few and far between. For example, Unilever is using a mobile dispensing delivery system run to offer refills to customers in Chile.

Tearfund is calling on the companies to reduce the number of single-use plastic products they use and sell by half in five years. Instead, they should use environmentally sustainable delivery methods such as refillable or reusable containers – working in partnership with was pickers.