Tag Archives: plastic

‘There’s too much plastic on Earth’, a new study warns

The quantity of plastic on our planet has massively exceeded the safe limits for humans and wildlife, says a new study. Although efforts to recycle have increased substantially over the last few decades, they are falling woefully short of solving the issue; the paper suggests placing limits on plastic production as a necessary solution.

Image via Pixabay.

The study was penned by the Stockholm Resilience Centre ahead of a UN meeting in Nairobi at the end of the month. This meeting, the Fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, plans to tackle the issue of plastic pollution “from source to sea”, according to a statement by UN Environment Programme head Inger Andersen said on Monday.

There are an estimated 350,000 different manufactured chemicals on the market today, and large quantities of them end up dumped in the environment in one way or another, the study explains.

Over capacity

“The impacts that we’re starting to see today are large enough to be impacting crucial functions of planet Earth and its systems”, says Bethanie Carney Almroth, co-author of the study. “Some chemicals are interfering with hormone systems, disrupting growth, metabolism and reproduction in wildlife.”

Pesticides and plastics are the main sources of damage to ecosystems and wildlife, the team explains. They impact biodiversity and pile a lot of stress on natural systems that are already crumbling under the pressure of human activity. Pesticides kill living organisms en masse, and plastics hurt wildlife as they are confused for food or entangle various animals.

We as a global society need to put more effort into preventing such substances from reaching the natural environment, the authors conclude. Recycling has, so far, not been sufficient; less than 10% of the world’s plastic is being recycled currently, while production of these materials has doubled to 367 million tons since 2000.

This has led us to an extreme quantity of plastic piling up on our planet. According to previous research cited by the study, the total weight of plastic on Earth today is four times greater than the biomass of living animals.

“What we’re trying to say is that maybe we have to say, ‘Enough is enough’. Maybe we can’t tolerate more,” Almroth adds “Maybe we have to put a cap on production. Maybe we need to say, ‘We can’t produce more than this’.”

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has been researching “planetary boundaries” for several years now. These quantify the Earth’s stability over nine areas and includes elements such as greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater usage, and the integrity of the ozone layer. The aim of this research is to pencil out a “safe operating space” for humanity — how much we can use of the planet across nine dimensions without putting life on Earth at risk.

“Novel entities” — man-made chemical products such as plastics, pesticides, medicine, and non-natural metals — have an impact on the environment. Until now, the team explains, exactly what this impact was remained unclear. This is due to how recent some of them are — most have been developed in the past 70 years — and the fact that data on these materials is often handled as corporate secrets.

Even the most comprehensive databases to date, such as the EU’s REACH inventory, only cover 150,000 of these products; only a third of those have been the subject of detailed toxicity studies, the team adds.

“We are only beginning to understand the large-scale, long-term effects of these exposure. And we’re talking about 350,000 different substances,” Carney Almroth said. “We don’t have knowledge on the vast majority of those, in terms of how much are produced or their stability. Or their fate in the environment or their toxicity.”

“Looking at changes over time and trends in production volumes lost in the environment […] and connecting that to the little bit we do know about impacts, we could say that every arrow is pointing in the wrong direction.”

Although the findings are not encouraging, the team is confident that things can still be set right, if we take “urgent and ambitious actions” at an international level. There’s no easy fix, however, since society as it is today relies on many of these chemicals and materials. What we can do, the team proposes, is to set production caps for these materials, instead.

“This seems very obvious to say but it’s only recently accepted as truth: The more you produce, the more you release,” Carney Almroth concludes.

The paper “Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities” has been published in the journal ACS Publications.

Your food may soon come wrapped in self-cleaning, biodegradable plastic inspired by the lotus

Researchers are developing a self-cleaning, eco-friendly bioplastic by taking inspiration from the lotus leaf.

Image via Wikimedia.

Plastic waste is one of the most widespread types of pollution on the planet, with particles of this material permeating soil, water, and the atmosphere. The main drivers of this issue are single-use plastics combined with inadequate recycling capacity. Since plastic is very chemically-stable, it doesn’t break down in the wild, leading to rapid build-ups.plastic

In a bid to help address this issue, researchers at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a self-cleaning bioplastic that degrades rapidly once it comes into contact with soils. The team envisions their material being used in packaging for fresh foods and takeaway. Since it is compostable (breaks down naturally), swapping regular plastic for this new bioplastic in these applications would lead to tremendous environmental benefits, as food packaging is one of the main applications for single-use plastic.

Lotus-inspired

Plastic waste is one of our biggest environmental challenges but the alternatives we develop need to be both eco-friendly and cost-effective, to have a chance of widespread use,” says RMIT PhD researcher Mehran Ghasemlou, lead author of a duo of papers describing the material.

“We designed this new bioplastic with large-scale fabrication in mind, ensuring it was simple to make and could easily be integrated with industrial manufacturing processes.”

Ghasemlou explains that nature is full of ingenious designs and solutions to a variety of problems researchers are trying to solve, and we can draw on this wealth of natural expertise when designing new, high-performance materials that can serve a variety of roles. The new bioplastic is one example of this.

During the development process, the team replicated the “phenomenally water-repellent structure of lotus leaves” into their material to ensure it has excellent hygienic properties. Lotus leaves are covered in tiny pillars, all covered in a layer of wax. This prevents water droplets from adhering to their surface, instead simply rolling off as gravity or wind pulls at them. As they slide off, these droplets carry away any particles from the leaves, keeping them clean.

Image credits Mehran Ghasemlou et al., (2022), ACS Publ.

The surface of the new material is imprinted with a pattern similar to that on lotus leaves. A protective layer of silicon-based organic polymer (PDMS) is then applied. The bioplastic itself is made from starch and cellulose, cheap and widely-available materials in use in a great number of applications today; this means that the logistics needed to create the bioplastic are already well-developed, making it much easier for commercial actors to use the material.

Its manufacturing process requires only simple equipment and requires no high temperatures. Such a process can be carried out cheaply and many areas of the world have the technical capability for it. The team is confident that these traits will help with getting production of the bioplastic rolling en masse.

These materials also promote biodegradability and are non-toxic, meaning that the bioplastic can be used as compost after serving its purpose and actually support natural environments instead of polluting them.

It also offers good physical properties such as strength, making it a suitable replacement for current plastics in a wide range of consumer applications. Due to its biodegradable nature, short-lived items such as single-use containers would be most suited for this bioplastic.

Most compostable or biodegradable plastics today need to undergo industrial processes and be exposed to high temperatures to break down, the team explains. Their bioplastic, however, requires no such intervention — it breaks down naturally and quickly in soils.

“There are big differences between plant-based materials — just because something is made from green ingredients doesn’t mean it will easily degrade,” Ghasemlou said. “We carefully selected our raw materials for compostability and this is reflected in the results from our soil studies, where we can see our bioplastic rapidly breaks down simply with exposure to the bacteria and bugs in soil.”

“Our ultimate aim is to deliver packaging that could be added to your backyard compost or thrown into a green bin alongside other organic waste, so that food waste can be composted together with the container it came in, to help prevent food contamination of recycling.”

The papers “Biodegradation of novel bioplastics made of starch, polyhydroxyurethanes and cellulose nanocrystals in soil environment” and “Robust and Eco-Friendly Superhydrophobic Starch Nanohybrid Materials with Engineered Lotus Leaf Mimetic Multiscale Hierarchical Structures” have been published in the journals Science of The Total Environment and ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, respectively.

Snowfall in the Alps is full of plastics particles

New research from the Swiss Federal Laboratories For Materials Science And Technology (EMPA), Utrecht University, and the Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geophysics showcase the scale and huge range of pollution carried through the atmosphere.

The research site at Sonnblick. Image credits ZAMG / Christian Schober via Flickr.

The findings suggest that around 3,000 tons of nanoplastic particles are deposited in Switzerland every year, including the most remote Alpine regions. Most are produced in cities around the country, but others are particles from the ocean that get introduced into the atmosphere by waves. Some of these travel as far as 2000 kilometers through the air before settling, the team explains, originating from the Atlantic.

Such results build on a previous body of research showing that plastic pollution has become ubiquitous on Earth, with nano- and microplastics, in particular, being pervasive on the planet.

Plastic snow

Although we’re confident that the Earth has a plastic problem, judging by the overall data we have so far, the details of how nanoplastics travel through the air are still poorly understood. The current study gives us the most accurate record of plastic pollution in the air to date, according to the authors.

For the study, the researchers developed a novel chemical method that uses a mass spectrometer to measure the plastic contamination levels of different samples. These samples were obtained from a small area on the Hoher Sonnenblick mountain in the Hohe Tauern National Park, Austria, at an altitude of around 3100 meters from sea level. This area was selected as an observatory of the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics and has been in operation here since 1886.

The samples were collected on a daily basis, in all types of weather, at 8 AM. They consisted of samples of the top layer of snow, which were harvested and processed taking extreme care not to contaminate them with nanoplastics from the air or the researchers’ clothes. According to their measurements, about 43 trillion miniature plastic particles land in Switzerland every year — equivalent to around 3,000 tons.

In the lab, the team measured nanoplastic content in each sample and then analyzed these particles to try and determine their origin. Wind and weather data from all over Europe were also used in order to help determine the particles’ origins. Most of the particles were likely produced and released into the atmosphere in dense urban areas. Roughly one-third of the particles found in the samples came from within 200 kilometers. However, around 10% of the total (judging from their level of degradation and other characteristics) were blown to the mountain from over 2000 kilometers away, from the Atlantic; these particles were likely formed in the ocean from larger debris and introduced into the atmosphere by the spray of waves.

Plastic nanoparticles are produced by weathering and mechanical abrasion from larger pieces of plastic. These are light enough to be comparable to a gas in behavior. Their effect on human health is not yet known, but we do know that they end up deep into our lungs, where they could enter our bloodstream. What they do there, however, is still a mystery.

The current study doesn’t help us understand their effects any better, but it does put the scale of nanoplastic pollution into perspective. These estimates are very high compared to other studies, and more research is needed to verify them — but for now, they paint a very concerning picture.

The paper “Nanoplastics transport to the remote, high-altitude Alps” has been published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Startup turns non-recyclable plastic into building blocks

Credit: ByFusion.

Although Americans do their part and dutifully put items into their recycling bins, much of it doesn’t actually end up recycled. According to the EPA, of the 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste generated by Americans in 2017, only 94.2 million tons were recycled or composted. Just 8% of plastics were recycled, the same report stated.

There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs. Up until recently, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of plastic, paper, metal waste to China, essentially outsourcing much of its waste processing, passing the responsibility to other countries. Some of this waste was incinerated by China to fuel its booming manufacturing sector, releasing toxic emissions in the process, while the rest end up in the countryside and ocean, contaminating the water, ruining crops, and affecting human health. But since 2018, China has banned the import of most plastics and other materials that were not up to very stringent purity standards. Without China’s market for plastic waste, the U.S. recycling industry has been caught with its pants down, woefully lacking in infrastructure.

Furthermore, recycling plastic is a major challenge even if the U.S. had a good recycling infrastructure and coherent federal strategy — recycling decision-making is currently in the hands of 20,000 communities, all of which make their own choices about whether they recycle and what gets recycled — due to contamination. Items placed in the wrong bin or food contamination can prevent large batches of material from being recycled and, as a result, a large portion of the waste placed into recycling bins has to be incinerated or discarded into landfills.

ByFusion, a startup from Los Angeles, wants to turn this problem into an opportunity. The company builds huge machines called Blockers that squeeze mounds of plastic into standard building blocks called ByBlocks. Each ByBlock is 16x8x8 inches and comes in three variations: flat, molded with pegs so they can be interlocked, or a combination of the two. According to Fast Company, ByBlocks are about 10 pounds (4.5 kg) lighter than hollow cement blocks.

Credit: ByFusion.

The world loves to use plastic because it’s cheap and highly durable. The same appealing properties are a curse when plastic reaches the end of its lifecycle. But guess where else durability and low cost are prized? That’s right, the construction industry.

Virtually any kind of plastic, with the exception of Styrofoam, can be compressed into a ByBlock. “You [can] literally eat your lunch, throw in [the leftover plastic], make a block, then stick it in the wall,” Heidi Kujawa, who founded ByFusion in 2017, told Fast Company.

The only major drawback of ByBlocks is that they’re very susceptible to degradation due to sunlight, but this can be easily circumvented by coating their surface with paint or using another weather-resistant material. This was demonstrated in the city of Boise, Idaho, where residential plastic waste (grocery bags, bubble wrap, fast-food containers, etc.) was turned into building blocks used to erect a small building in a local park.

A small building made with ByBlocks. Credit: ByFusion.
The same building after it was treated with paint and decorations. Credit: ByFusion.

Since it began operation, ByFusion has recycled over 100 tons of plastic, with the lofty goal of scaling to 100 million tons by 2030. At the moment, there’s only one full production unit in L.A., which can process 450 tons of plastic a year, but the startup has partnered with Tucson and Boise, and plans to expand in the rest of the country. The aim is to have a Blocker machine in every city in the US, where they can be integrated with existing municipal waste processing facilities or even run by corporations that want to process their waste on-site.

That’s a commendable mission but with a price tag of $1.3 million for the largest Blocker machine, many willing stakeholders may simply not be able to afford this solution. On the other hand, plastic waste has its own, often hidden, costs, so doing nothing about it may actually prove more expensive as our plastic problem compounds over time. 

France bans plastic wrapping for most fruits and vegetables

A new law banning plastic wrapping for a large number of fruits and vegetables has come into force in France with the New Year, hoping to end with what the government has described as the “aberration” of overwrapped apples, bananas, and carrots. The move is part of a country-wide effort to gradually phase out all single-use plastics by 2040 and establish France as a leader in this field.

Image credit: Flickr / Green Communications.

Over 35% of fruits and vegetables in France are currently sold in plastic packages, according to government estimations. This is largely similar in all developed nations. The new measure hopes to eliminate over a billion wrappings per year and it will be fully applicable by 2026 — complying with the European Union’s goals to promote the circular economy and to reduce plastic waste. 

The initiative started in 2019 when France adopted a plan to eliminate plastic, especially in the food supply chain. Takeout boxes, cups cutlery, and plastic straws were then banned in 2021. This year, food chains will be banned from handing over toys made out of plastic and public spaces will have to be equipped with water fountains to cut the use of plastic bottles.

Fruits and vegetables

“We use an outrageous amount of single-use plastic in our daily lives. The circular economy law aims at cutting back the use of throwaway plastic and boost its substitution by other materials or reusable and recyclable packaging,” the Environment Ministry said in a statement, describing the ban as “a real revolution.”

Under the new legislation, tomatoes, apples, pears, leeks, carrots, and about other 30 items will not be sold in plastic anymore. Instead, supermarkets and stores will have to wrap them in recyclable materials. More fragile fruits such as berries and peaches will still be allowed to be sold in plastic wrapping, but this will have to be phased out in a few years as well. 

Although France’s decision was widely hailed, the exemptions were questioned by environmental NGOs, such as Zero Waste Europe (ZWE). Moïra Tourneur, advocacy manager at ZWE, said in a statement the exemptions will delay and reduce the scope of France’s plastic phase-out. “Why should there be an exemption for peaches [when] around 73% of them are already sold without plastic,” she added.

For campaigners, whether the ban is successful or not will depend on retailers and consumers taking on different packaging practices than changing one material with another. A report by the Rethink Plastic Alliance found that a reusable packaging target of 50% in key sectors would significantly reduce emissions, waste, and water consumption.

Elipso, a professional association that represents plastic manufacturers in France, has disagreed with the decision. The association said in a statement that companies “will have to stop their fruit and vegetable packing activity, even though they have been working on alternatives using less plastic or recycled plastic for several years”. Elipso has already appealed to France’s State Council with other associations, seeking the ban to be removed, though this is unlikely. 

A poll by WWF France in 2019 found that 85% of the population is in favor of prohibiting the use of single-use plastic products and packaging. The use of plastic wrapping has exasperated consumers in Europe, with three-quarters of British people experiencing frustration over the amount of plastic that comes with their shopping, according to a poll by Friends of the Earth.

Other countries will soon join France in a similar move. From next year, Spain will also ban plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables weighing less than 1.5kg. As in France, the law aims to encourage people to buy loose fruit and vegetables in their own reusable containers or other environmentally friendly packets. However, such moves are much more difficult in places like the US, especially as a third of US states have legislation preventing plastic bans.

Wild microorganisms are evolving to eat plastic pollution

Microorganisms around the world are likely evolving to be able to degrade and consume plastic materials.

Image via Pixabay.

A new global assessment of microorganism genomes, the largest study of its kind, found that wild bacteria and microbes are evolving to be able to consume plastics. Overall, the authors report that an average of one in four of the organisms analyzed in the study carried at least one enzyme that could degrade plastic. Furthermore, the number and types of enzymes matched the amount and type of plastic pollution at the location where samples of different organisms were collected — suggesting that this is a natural, ongoing process, caused by the presence of plastic in the environment.

These results are evidence that plastic pollution is producing “a measurable effect” on the world’s microbes, the authors conclude.

Plastic bacteria

“We found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution — a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” said Prof Aleksej Zelezniak, at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Millions of tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans and landfills every year, and plastic pollution has become endemic everywhere on Earth. Addressing this issue will be one of the defining challenges of future generations along with efforts to reduce our reliance on such materials and improve our ability to recycle and cleanly dispose of used plastic. However, plastics are hard to degrade — that hardiness is one of their selling points to begin with.

According to the findings, microbes in soils and oceans across the globe are also hard at work on the same project. The study analyzed over 200 million genes from DNA samples taken from environments all around the world and found 30,000 different enzymes that could degrade 10 different types of plastics. such compounds could serve us well in our efforts to recycle plastics, breaking them down into their building blocks. Having more efficient recycling methods on hand would go a long way towards cutting our need to produce more plastics.

“We did not expect to find such a large number of enzymes across so many different microbes and environmental habitats. This is a surprising discovery that really illustrates the scale of the issue,” says Jan Zrimec, also at Chalmers University, first author of the study.

The team started with a dataset of 95 microbial enzymes already known to degrade plastic; these compounds were identified in species of bacteria found in dumps and similar places rife with plastic.

They then looked at the genes that encode those enzymes and looked for similar genes in environmental DNA samples collected at 236 sites around the world. To rule out any false positives, they compared the enzymes with enzymes from the human gut — all of which are known to be unable to degrade plastic.

Roughly 12,000 new enzymes were identified from ocean samples. Higher levels of degrading enzymes were routinely found in samples taken at deeper points, which is consistent with how plastic pollution levels vary with depth. Some 18,000 suitable genes were identified in soil samples. Here, too, the researchers underscore the effect of environmental factors: soils tend to contain higher levels of plastics with phthalate additives than the ocean, and more enzymes that can attack these substances were identified in soil samples.

Overall, roughly 60% of the enzymes identified in this study did not fit into a previously-known class, suggesting that they act through chemical pathways that were previously unknown to science.

“The next step would be to test the most promising enzyme candidates in the lab to closely investigate their properties and the rate of plastic degradation they can achieve,” said Zelezniak. “From there you could engineer microbial communities with targeted degrading functions for specific polymer types.”

The paper “Plastic-Degrading Potential across the Global Microbiome Correlates with Recent Pollution Trends” has been published in the journal Microbial Ecology.

Could we use plastic to end the ocean’s plastic problem? A new paper says: “Yes!”

The world’s oceans have a plastic problem. However, a bold new approach from researchers at several institutions says that the same plastic could also be the solution.

Image via Pixabay.

The team, with members from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Harvard University, believes that the plastic clogging up our oceans can be used as fuel for ships that work to clean the oceans of plastic. In a new study, they describe the process through which plastic can be converted to ship fuel in order to support such a scheme.

If applied, this approach would allow ships to operate continuously to clean the oceans.

Putting it to good use

“Plastic waste accumulating in the world’s oceans forms massive ‘plastic islands’ in the oceanic gyres. Removing [it] offers an opportunity to restore our oceans to a more pristine state,” the authors explain. “To clean the gyres, ships must collect and store the plastic before transporting it to port, often thousands of kilometers away. Instead, ocean plastic waste can be converted into fuel shipboard, for example, using hydrothermal liquefaction”.

Millions of tons of plastic find their way into the ocean year after year. The smaller fragments disperse, while larger pieces of plastic clump together forming plastic ‘islands’. These tend to end up in ocean gyres, large systems of ocean currents generated by winds and the rotation of the planet that ‘spin’ in place.

Plastic waste poses a very real threat to marine life. As such, efforts to clean up the seas have been repeatedly attempted over time. Ships are sent out to garbage patches where they collect as much plastic as they can hold and bring it back to port for processing. Although this approach works, it’s by no means ideal. Going back and forth between these patches and port areas takes time, fuel, and slows down the efforts overall.

The authors of this study propose using the plastic itself as fuel for the ships and machines used to process the waste. This could have a powerful dual benefit. It would dramatically improve the efficiency of clean-up efforts by slashing downtime, while also being a greener option overall, as it would reduce emissions associated with fuel use (and ships can be very polluting).

Plastic waste can be converted to a type of oil via a process known as hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), the authors explain. During HTL, plastic is heated to around 300–550 degrees Celsius (572-1022 Fahrenheit) at high pressure — 250 to 300 times the standard atmospheric pressure.

According to their estimates, one ship equipped with an HTL converter could produce enough oil to be self-sustainable (i.e. to keep both the ship and the converter operational). They envision a system where permanent collection booms would be stationed at multiple sites around a large garbage patch and maintain a steady supply of plastic for the ships to convert.

Such an approach is not without its problems. The HTL process itself, as well as the burning of the oil it produces, would obviously release carbon dioxide. That being said, the authors explain that it would still be a lower quantity than what a ship burning conventional fuel would emit during a clean-up mission. There would still be practical constraints on how long a mission could carry on for; the HTL process would produce a relatively small quantity of solid waste that would eventually need to be returned to port, and there’s only so much time a crew’s supplies and sanity can last for on the open seas. However, it would reduce the need for round trips down to once every few months or so, which would also be fueled by the oil produced by the converters.

I personally like the idea of such an approach. It makes practical sense, and I’m sold on the idea of turning a problem into an opportunity or solution. So far the idea is still in its theoretical stage, but it definitely has promise. Fingers crossed that we’ll see it implemented in the not-so-distant future.

The paper “Thermodynamic feasibility of shipboard conversion of marine plastics to blue diesel for self-powered ocean cleanup” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Cows could help us in the plastic crisis — with the bacteria in their guts

Cows, which are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, could end up helping in another environmental crisis. According to a new study, the cow gut can digest certain types of plastic and offer a sustainable way of reducing plastic litter — not by having cows eat plastic, but by recreating the bacteria in a controlled environment.

Unlikely allies in our fight versus plastics. Image credits: Claudio Schwarz.

The stomachs of cows (like other ruminants) have four compartments, the largest of which is called the rumen. The rumen favors the development of a microbial community that is essential to the cows’ wellbeing. Cows can’t technically digest much of the food they eat, so instead, microbes in the rumen ferment the food and produce volatile fatty acids, which are the cows’ main source of energy.

Researchers suspected that these bacteria could disintegrate some plastics, because the cow diet already contains some natural plant polyesters.

“A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum and is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals,” said Dr Doris Ribitsch, of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, “so we suspected that some biological activities could also be used for polyester hydrolysis,” a type of chemical reaction that results in decomposition.

The researchers tested how well cow rumen could degrade three types of plastic:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — A very common and lightweight plastic found in many types of packaging (including water bottles);
  • Polybutylene adipate-co-terephthalate (PBAT) — A type of biodegradable plastic used to produce compostable plastics;
  • Polyethylene furanoate (PEF) — A plastic made from renewable materials that serves as an alternative to PET.

The bacteria inside the cow rumen was very good at breaking down all these types of plastics successfully and in a sustainable way. The results on PET are particularly exciting since it’s one of the most common plastics in the world, and it keeps accumulating in landfills and oceans. According to some estimates, the world is already producing over 500 billion PET bottles a year — and twice as much PET is used in synthetic fibers.

PET is notoriously hard to break down, and although the rumen microbes were less active in digesting PET than the other types of plastic, it could still offer a way to deal with this type of plastic. However, scaling the operation is still challenging. Researchers suggest that rumen material from slaughterhouses could be used for this purpose with relative ease.

Ideally though, the cow gut system could be recreated in a controlled environment and scaled up significantly. While this type of research can be very expensive, Ribitsch is looking forward to further research on the topic, emphasizing that microbial communities are underexplored as a potential eco-friendly resource.

The study has been published in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

We can now track ocean microplastics from space, by looking at how winds and water interact

Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) have developed a new approach to tracking microplastics in ocean waters, anywhere in the world, on a daily basis. This relies on satellites from the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), which can provide a global view of the seas or zoom in on particular areas for a high-resolution look.

Image via Pixabay.

The team says this approach is a major improvement over current options, as most tracking methods today rely on field reports from plankton trawlers — which are unreliable. While there are still unknowns, the technique seems reliable so far.

Plastic and small

“We’re still early in the research process, but I hope this can be part of a fundamental change in how we track and manage microplastic pollution,” said Chris Ruf, the Frederick Bartman Collegiate Professor of Climate and Space Science at U-M, principal investigator of CYGNSS and senior author on a newly published paper on the work.

Microplastics, as the name suggests, are very small pieces of plastic. They’re either produced like this for use in products like exfoliants, or result from the breakdown of larger plastics. An estimated eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, and, eventually, they all degrade into microplastics. Since they’re hard to biodegrade, these particles can travel hundreds of thousands of miles on ocean currents, harming sea life and marine ecosystems as they go.

Accurately tracking microplastic movements is quite difficult, mostly due to how small they are. The new approach developed at U-M draws on CYGNSS, a constellation of satellites launched in 2016 to monitor weather patterns at the heart of large storms (and thus better predict their severity).

In order to track the microplastics in the sea, the team looks at local ocean surface roughness — a characteristic that CYGNSS was already designed to measure, using on-board radars. These are meant to allow researchers to calculate wind speeds inside hurricanes, but the team adapted the method to help them estimate microplastic content in the water.

“We’d been taking these radar measurements of surface roughness and using them to measure wind speed, and we knew that the presence of stuff in the water alters its responsiveness to the environment,” Ruf said. “So I got the idea of doing the whole thing backward, using changes in responsiveness to predict the presence of stuff in the water.”

Using independent wind speed measurements (supplied by NOAA — the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the authors searched for stretches of the ocean that seemed less rough than they should be, considering local wind speeds. Then, they drew on field reports  from plankton trawlers to estimate local microplastic content, and then ocean current models in order to estimate which direction these would flow towards.

All in all, they report that there’s a strong correlation between areas that are ‘too smooth’ and those that have higher levels of microplastics. These changes in surface texture are likely not caused by the microplastics themselves, but by the surfactants they contain. Surfactants are a chemical family which includes several oily and soapy compounds, which got their name because they lower the surface tension of liquids they’re mixed into. The two are often released together or accumulate as they have similar behaviors in the ocean, so they travel and collect in similar ways.

“Areas of high microplastic concentration, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, exist because they’re located in convergence zones of ocean currents and eddies. The microplastics get transported by the motion of the water and end up collecting in one place,” Ruf said. “Surfactants behave in a similar way, and it’s very likely that they’re acting as sort of a tracer for the microplastics.”

The authors are now working on proving their approach, collaborating with their colleagues at the  Aaron Friedman Marine Hydrodynamics Lab to better understand the relationship between water surface roughness and the levels of microplastics / surfactants it contains.

“We can see the relationship between surface roughness and the presence of microplastics and surfactants, so the goal now is to understand the precise relationship between the three variables, as well as the reasons behind them,” Pan said. “The wave tank and its ultrasonic sensors enable us to focus on those relationships by taking measurements under very precisely monitored wave, surfactant and microplastic conditions.”

As for the results we have available so far, the team reports that microplastic levels in the ocean seem to vary by season. In the Northern Hemisphere, they peak during June and July, while in the Southern Hemisphere they peak between January and February. Levels were generally lower during the summer months for both hemispheres, likely due to the influence of stronger water currents driving some of them to greater depths.

The paper “Toward the Detection and Imaging of Ocean Microplastics With a Spaceborne Radar” has been published in the journal IEEE Transactions of Geoscience and Remote Sensing.

Plastic-eating bacteria turns waste into vanilla flavoring

Example of PET waste. Credit: pixabay.

The invention of plastic has been one of the most important cornerstones to raising our standard of living in the past century. However, the same qualities that make plastic so desirable to consumers — in particular, its very low cost and high durability — also make it a bane to the environment. This is why scientists across the world are busy researching sustainable solutions to our growing plastic litter problem, either at the source (i.e. finding biodegradable alternatives) or during waste treatment.

One such effort focused on the latter. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland devised an experimental method that converts treated polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — the lightweight plastic used to package everything from beverages to food — into vanillin, the primary ingredient extracted from vanilla beans that creates the characteristic taste and smell of vanilla.

To do so, the researchers turned to the common E. coli bacteria, which is found virtually everywhere, including your lower intestines. They engineered a strain to consume terephthalic acid, a molecule derived from PET, and transform the substance in vanillin, through a series of chemical reactions.

During one experiment, the E. coli turned a used plastic bottle into vanillin which should be fit for human consumption. Subsequent research will determine whether or not this plastic-derived vanilla compound is indeed safe to eat.

“This is the first example of using a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and this has very exciting implications for the circular economy. “The results from our research have major implications for the field of plastic sustainability and demonstrate the power of synthetic biology to address real-world challenges,” said study first author Joanna Sadler of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

This research is exciting because it could solve two problems in one go. Every year, people across the globe produce about 50 million tonnes of PET waste with important economic and environmental consequences. Whilst PET is one of the most easily recyclable plastics, most still ends up in landfills or, worse, the ocean.

Meanwhile, people love vanilla! In 2018, global demand for vanillin was in excess of 37,000 tonnes. The compound is not only used in food but also in other industries from cosmetics to herbicides.

Thus, using bacteria to convert a harmful waste into a valuable product is a fantastic one-two punch.

“Our work challenges the perception of plastic being a problematic waste and instead demonstrates its use as a new carbon resource from which high-value products can be obtained,” said Stephen Wallace, co-author of the new study and a researcher at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

In the future, the researchers in Scotland plan on performing further strain engineering, process optimization, and extend the pathway to other metabolites so they might turn plastic into useful compounds other than vanillin.

The findings appeared in the journal Green Chemistry.

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.

Cheap plastics could soon be turned into sustainable fabrics

Every year, the textile industry produces 62 million tons of fabrics. It’s one of the most polluting industries on Earth, second only to the oil and gas industry, using massive amounts of water and generating a lot of waste in the process. But it could become a bit more sustainable by incorporating plastic and using it as fabrics.

Plastic made fabrics. Image credits: Svetlana Boriskina.

In April 2016, world leaders gathered in Paris to sign an agreement to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. At the major event, mixed between countless press conferences and presentations, one small stand showed how plastic could be used to make fabric. The resulting fabric is surprisingly soft and durable, and a great way to repurpose plastic. The idea got lost in the great turmoil caused by the Paris Agreement — but it warrants more attention, researchers say.

The fashion industry is responsible for 5-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not just manufacturing — maintenance and chemical treatments often consume even more energy (and water) than the production phase. But polyethylene yarns are resistant by default.

Svetlana Boriskina and colleagues at MIT focused on polyethylene because it is one of the most commonly used plastics. It’s lightweight and durable, which makes it excellent as a packaging material, but horrendous as a pollutant. Its uses rang for films, tubes, plastic parts, etc — and it’s still widely used throughout the world.

Sweater knitted by Emily Holtzman, who is also modelling it. Image courtesy of Svetlana Boriskina.

Polyethylene (PE) can be colored cheaply through environmentally friendly methods and is durable, offering exactly the type of properties you want in clothing. It offers the potential to create sustainable fabrics, Boriskina says, and the whole process is quite cheap.

“The process of converting PE materials to textiles is indeed cost-effective, scalable and eco-friendly,” Boriskina explains for ZME Science. “Even starting from fossil PE provides a more environmentally-friendly textile solution, but there is also a possibility to recycle vast amounts of already accumulated PE waste into high-added-value-products such as fabrics and garments. Finally, it has been shown that PE can be derived from biomass, making the fabrics bio derived yet completely recyclable.”

A close-up of the plastic-made fabrics. Image credits: Svetlana Boriskina.

Using plastic for clothes isn’t as crazy as it seems. Throughout history, the textile industry generally made use of natural fibers such as wool, cotton, silk, and linen. In the past century, however, synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon have become a common occurrence. Polyethylene has been generally overlooked until now.

The authors found that PE fabrics are resistant to staining and allow for fast drying, as well as efficient moisture-wicking. These properties, along with the cheap price and durability, make PE an excellent alternatives for existing fabrics.

“This work shows that not only the full lifecycle analysis confirms that PE is more environmentally friendly than other materials, but also the alternative way of dry-coloring further reduces the environmental footprint and allows adding other properties to the fabrics beyond color,” Boriskina tells me.

Finally, the conversion process from plastic to textiles is also cheap and scalable, and it’s possible to use plastic already accumulating in waste sites.

“The process of converting PE materials to textiles is indeed cost-effective, scalable and eco-friendly. Even starting from fossil PE provides a more environmentally-friendly textile solution, but there is also a possibility to recycle vast amounts of already accumulated PE waste into high-added-value-products such as fabrics and garments. Finally, it has been shown that PE can be derived from biomass, making the fabrics bio-derived yet completely recyclable,” Boriskina adds.

Image credits: Svetlana Boriskina.

Polyethylene seems like a truly well-suited material for clothes. But will it catch on? The fashion industry is often unpredictable and it doesn’t often choose the most sustainable or efficient materials. But PE has an advantage that could make it more attractive, especially in the summer.

“It is literally cool to wear our PE textiles, and the pun is intended. The fabric offers a ‘cold touch’ tactile sensation and keeps the wearer cool, dry, and comfortable,” Boriskina concludes.

As of 2017, over 100 million tonnes of polyethylene resins are being produced annually, accounting for 34% of the total plastics market.

The study “Sustainable polyethylene fabrics with engineered moisture transport for passive cooling” has been published in Nature Sustainability.

Mangroves are particularly at risk from plastic pollution from rivers, study finds

Plastic pollution has steadily become one of the biggest environmental problems today. But not all ecosystems are equally affected by it, according to a new study. Researchers found that mangroves are particularly highly at risk of being polluted with plastic waste carried from rivers to the sea, especially in Asia.

Image credit: Flickr /Bachellier Christian

Worldwide, over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, half of which is used for single-use items such as cups and straws. Around eight million tons make their way into the oceans every year, killing marine life and even entering the human food chain — an average person ingests up to 5 grams of plastic a week.

Countless previous studies have shown the need to address plastic pollution and carry out large-scale clean-up activities, but we’re also learning something new every day about this problem. The recent study carried out by University of Bergen researchers is the first global assessment of coastal environments’ exposure to river-borne plastic pollution. The Norway-based researchers overlaid maps of coastal ecosystems with the most current information on the input of river-borne plastic to sea, finding out which ecosystems are most affected by plastic waste.

River-dominated coasts comprise less than 1% of the global coast and yet they receive 52% of plastic pollution delivered by fluvial systems, according to the findings. In contrast, rocky shores, which represent over 70% of the global coast, including fjords and coral reefs, only receive 6.4% of the river-borne plastic pollution. All types of coastal environments were affected by plastics to some extent.

The researchers also looked at the exposure of mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass, and saltmarsh to rivers that discharge high amounts of plastic into the sea, in excess of one ton per year. They found that mangroves were the most affected, with 54$ of their habitat located within 20 km of a river that discharges plastic. The less affected were coral reefs, with 17% of them near of a polluting river.

“To effectively fight the growing problem of marine plastic pollution, we need to know how plastic waste is distributed and which ecosystems are most affected,” Peter Harris, lead author of the paper and managing director of GRID-Arendal, said in a statement. “Now that we know mangroves have a higher likelihood of being severely affected by plastic waste, leaders can take steps to protect these critical habitats.”

Of all the regions in the world, the study show Southeast Asia was the most affected by river-borne plastic pollution. This agrees with previous studies that found 86% of plastic pollution enters the oceans from Asian rivers, making mangroves, coral reefs and other ecosystems in the region particularly vulnerable to plastic waste.

Canary in the coal mine

Mangroves are a group of trees and shrubs living in the coastal intertidal zone, with about 80 different species that grow in areas with low-oxygen soil and slow-moving waters. They can only exist at tropical and subtropical latitudes near the equator because they can’t tolerate cold temperatures. They have densely tangled roots, which makes them appear to be standing on stills above water.

They carry out very important tasks such as reducing erosion from storm surges and stabilizing the coastal line. Local fishermen depend on them, as the root system makes the forest attractive to fish and other organisms looking for shelter. Still, they are being challenged by pollution and climate change. Studies have shown many of them won’t be able to adapt to the forecasted sea-level rise.

Because mangroves are so useful but so vulnerable to environmental threats, they’re sometimes considered a ‘canary in the coal mine’ — whenever there’s pollution in sight, they will be among the first to suffer.

For the researchers, the conclusions behind the new study are relevant to monitoring and policy responses to coastal plastic pollution, providing a basis for targeted strategies that reflect differences between exposure to river-sourced plastic pollution, coastal dynamics and ecology. They suggested authorities prioritizing reducing plastic waste in the most affected areas.

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

Archaeologists just found a lot of plastic at an archaeological site

There’s plastic everywhere. We’re living in a plastic age, and we see this every day around us: on the ground, in the seas, even in the air we breathe — and that’s not even it. Now, researchers have even found plastic (including a Godzilla thermos wrapper) inside an archaeological site.

The roundhouses that were demolished. Image credit: The researchers

Located in Wales, Castell Henllys Iron Age Village is an archeological site and a tourist attraction. It’s essentially an Iron Age fort with reconstructed roundhouses that visitors can walk through while learning about history. The roadhouses were reconstructed on the same spot where the original structures stood around 2,000 years ago.

Two of those reconstructed roundhouses ended their heritage life in 2017 and 2018 after 35 and 30 years of use respectively. They were demolished and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, which runs the site, arranged for them to be excavated, acknowledging their value from an archeological perspective.

The first house, known as the Cookhouse, was 9.5 meters in diameter and was first erected in 1982. It was predominantly used to show what a domestic Iron Age house would’ve looked like. Meanwhile, the second one, known as Earthwatch, was erected in 1984 and had curved benches inside it where visitors could sit.

Taking a close look at the site where the houses stood represented a valuable opportunity for archeologists. They could study decay processes, determine which human activities result in leftover waste, and understand how replicated structures might affect the integrity of prehistoric structures located at the same site.

While there has been a lot of research into how plastic ends up in the ocean, there has been much less into its presence on the land. Studies were done in areas where plastic is expected to collect such as urban areas, but looking at this specific site was the opportunity of looking at what was described as a “benign” environment.

UK researchers Harold Mytum and James Meek found more than 2,300 individual pieces of plastic such as candy wrappers, straws, and a Motorola phone battery in the ground when excavating the reconstruction sites. This is a very rural setting in the countryside, so the large amount was very surprising for the researchers.

“We thought we would find items that were lost during the use of the houses, but the amounts were disturbing in their environmental implications,” Mytum told CNN. “To find that here gives the site a new importance — it shows how our plastic discards affect everywhere.”

The plastic was thought to come from visitors, with most of it being found in the Earthwatch roundhouse. Researchers believe this was because it was less well-lit and visitors spent longer in this space. In bad weather, this is where they would eat their packed lunches, which explains the finding of plastic cutlery and food wrappers.

A complete Golden Wonder noodles foil lid, 21 plasticized apple stickers, plastic clothing items, and one pair of glasses were some of the plastic products found on the site. Other surprising findings were a Godzilla-themed thermos wrapper, bottle caps, plastic straws, and the plastic wrapping that affixes straws to drink cartons.

Image credit: The researchers

Candy wrappers made up the biggest single category, with around 1,100 fragments found between both roundhouses. Most of the items were small and fragmentary in nature, such as torn packages, which explains why not all of the garbage was collected. There were no obvious signs of the plastic having decayed at all.

Other items found are related to heritage interpretations given at the site. Back when the houses were houses, guides represented local tribes that once inhabited this part of Wales. Visitors did role-playing activities, which included cooking and face painting. Several plastic face paint containers were uncovered.

Looking ahead, the researchers hope to continue working with Pembrokeshire Coast National Park to educate the public on these matters and to find more effective ways of keeping these important spaces clean. But this won’t be easy, calling for all of us to rethink our lifestyle needs to tackle plastic waste.

“Even rural, well-managed locations can have a significant build-up of plastics in the soil,” Mytum told Gizmodo. “The Plastic Age has indeed come not only to the oceans of the Blue Planet, but also to its soils. Reducing use of plastics is essential—this debris was a by-product of our lifestyles even in a place where any obviously modern materials, such as plastic litter, is cleared away to avoid affecting the heritage visitor experience.”

The research was published in the journal Antiquity.

Mexico City kicks off the new year with a ban on single-use plastics

Mexico’s capital, one of the largest cities in Latin America with over nine million people, has just introduced a ban on single-use plastics after a year-long preparation. The city follows many others around the world that are trying to address plastic pollution, one of the biggest and most challenging environmental problems the world is facing at this point.

Image credit: FLICKR / VV Nincic

The sale of plastic forks, knives, straws, single-use containers, cotton buds, and coffee capsules, among other single-use plastic products, is now officially banned in Mexico City. Lawmakers approved the ban in 2019 and since then the city has been working to adjust to the legislation. Plastic bags had already been banned, and now the full ban entered into force.

“Disposable plastics take many years to degrade. By saying goodbye to disposables we are giving our planet a breather and creating a sustainable city,” Mexico’s Environment Secretariat (SEDEMA) wrote on Twitter, encouraging citizens to follow the new rule. Mexicans use about six million tons of plastic per year, SEDEMA added.

The government won’t apply sanctions during the first few months and, on the contrary, it will seek to inform citizens regarding the new regulation to encourage compliance. Over 1,400 restaurants and food stands have already been visited in 2019 by SEDEMA officials to raise awareness over the problems created by single-use plastics.

Worldwide, over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, half of which is used to design single-use items such as 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 2019 study, this passes up the food change up to humans, and the average person ingests up to 5 grams of plastic a week.

Speaking to EFE news agency, Greenpeace campaigner Ornela Garelli described the ban as “a good measure, even in times of the pandemic.” Still, to be effective, the measure will need the support of Mexican citizens, who will have to change their consumption habits and aim at more sustainable lifestyles, Garelli added. Introducing legislation is only the first step — compliance is sometimes a very different problem.

At least 20 of the 32 states that are part of Mexico have already agreed to limit the use of single-use plastics. Due to its size, Mexico City could now make a big difference by joining that list. Nevertheless, the move will likely be challenging, as vendors and market stalls currently use plastic all over the city for tamales and tacos, among other food products.

Representatives from the plastic industry have largely questioned the new rule, claiming that at least 50 companies could go bankrupt very soon leaving over 30,000 people without jobs. They said to be looking for new materials to replace plastic but described this as difficult because of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Aldimir Torres, head of the Plastic Industries Association, told Televisa that companies can’t travel to Europe, Asia, or the US to find new alternatives because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Monica Conde, head of Ambiente Plastico, a local news site focused on plastics, said prices could go up in restaurants because of the new rule.

As Mexico along with other cities and countries around the world are gradually waking up to the scale of the plastic pollution problem, introducing bans on certain products will likely become the norm in many parts of the world. This has become highly necessary as only a small part of the plastic products manufactured are actually recycled. Instead, they are incinerated or thrown in landfills, where they are often mismanaged and end up in rivers and oceans.

Eight states across the US— California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont— have already banned single-use plastic bags. Nevertheless, seventeen other states have also said it’s illegal to ban plastic items, placing a ban on a ban, likely aided by the plastic industry.

The European Union has a goal to ensure all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2030. A ban on some disposable plastics such as cutlery, glasses, and plates will be implemented this year. That’s also the case in Canada, with a ban set to kick in 2021. The country uses 15 billion plastic bags per year and 57 million plastic straws per day.

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.

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.

Americans are responsible for much more plastic waste than previously thought

The United States generates a much larger share of the plastic waste polluting the oceans than previously thought, a new study showed. Researchers found that the US produces the most plastic waste in total, and ranks first in the world in per capita plastic waste released in the oceans.

Credit Flickr Paolo Margari

Asian countries such as China have always ranked much higher than the US on the list of coastal plastic polluters. A previous study had ranked the US 20th among countries that mismanaged plastic waste the most in 2010. But the study didn’t look at whether waste was mismanaged after it was exported to another country for recycling.

“Plastic pollution globally is at a crisis level,” said Nick Mallos, senior director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program and co-author of the paper. “Most problematic is that rather than looking the problem in the eye, for more than 30 years, [the US] outsourced our waste problem to developing countries.”

The researchers looked at data for 2016 and considered how waste was treated after it was shipped abroad. They found that the US share of mismanaged plastic waste jumped by up to 400% compared to the 2010 figure. Americans, in total, generate the most plastic waste in the world, according to the study.

On average, an American is responsible for over 280 pounds (127 kilograms) of plastic waste every year compared to about 120 pounds (54 kilograms) for a European. After the European Union, India generated the next largest amount of plastic waste per capita, with about 44 pounds per year, the researchers found.

The US sent more than half of its massive pile of plastic recyclables to other countries. That amounted to close to 2 million metric tons shipped overseas, of which up to 1 million metric tons likely ended up polluting the environment. Almost 90% of the exports ended up in countries where it was mismanaged.

“For years, so much of the plastic we have put into the blue bin has been exported for recycling to countries that struggle to manage their own waste,” said lead author Kara Lavender Law. “And when you consider how much of our plastic waste isn’t actually recyclable because it is low-value, contaminated or difficult to process, it’s not surprising that a lot of it ends up polluting the environment.”

The authors were able to gather global data from 2016, since more recent figures weren’t available. Since then, recycling has changed significantly. China, which used to accept most of the recyclables from the US, decided in 2018 that it would stop accepting low-grade plastics. That led to plastics being shipped to other countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia.

They previously didn’t receive such a high volume of waste so this meant a big challenge for their waste infrastructure. Those places inundated by a flood of new waste might burn the discarded plastic or dump it in open pits, where winds and floods can easily push lightweight materials out to the ocean.

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.

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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.

Up to 14 million tons of microplastics believed to be on the seafloor

The world’s seafloor is filled with 14 million tons of microplastics, broken down from the masses of rubbish entering the oceans every year, according to a new study. It’s the first global estimate of sea-floor microplastics and the amount registered is 25 times greater than that shown by previous localized studies.

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Researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) looked at the deep ocean 380km (236 miles) from the coast of South Australia. They found that the number of microplastics on the seafloor was more than double the amount of plastic pollution on the surface of the sea globally.

“Our research found that the deep ocean is a sink for microplastics,” lead research scientist Denise Hardesty said in a statement. “We were surprised to observe high microplastic loads in such a remote location.”

Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is an internationally recognized environmental problem. Millions of tons of plastic enter marine ecosystems every year, and quantities are expected to increase in the coming years. Over time, plastic items in the ocean can degrade or break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. These can range in size from 5mm, or the size of a rice grain, down to microscopic size, which makes it easy for them to be ingested by sea creatures. They also include small pieces of synthetic fibers and plastic beads used in cosmetic items, toothpaste, and laundry powder soap.

The researchers used a robotic submarine to collect samples of deep-sea sediments up to 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) deep from six sites in the Great Australian Bight, 380 kilometers off the coast. They analyzed 51 samples and found an average of 1.26 microplastic pieces per gram of sediment, much more than previous studies.

While the findings show a large number of microplastics on the seafloor, the researchers said it’s just a fraction of the total amount of plastic that is dumped into the world’s seas each year. Around 150 million metric tons of plastic are already floating in our oceans, with eight million more tons ending up in the water each year.

“By identifying where and how much microplastic there is, we get a better picture of the extent of the problem,” said Hardesty in a statement. “This will help to inform waste management strategies and create behavioral change and opportunities to stop plastic and other rubbish entering our environment.”

The results showcase the urgency of finding effective solutions to stop plastic pollution before it reaches the oceans, the researchers argued. They called to cut back the use of plastic in general, mainly thinking of single-use plastics, while also advocating for increased recycling across the globe.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers.