Plastic Pollution Harms Ocean Bacteria That Produce 10 Percent of Earth’s Oxygen

“We found that exposure to chemicals leaching from plastic pollution interfered with the growth, photosynthesis and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria,” lead study author and Macquarie University researcher Dr. Sasha Tetu said in a Macquarie University press release.

The tests were done in a laboratory setting, which means the researchers do not yet know if plastics are currently harming the bacteria in the environment.

“Now we’d like to explore if plastic pollution is having the same impact on these microbes in the ocean,” Tetu said.

Children swims in the sea full of garbage in North Jakarta, Indonesia. Getty (left)

  

 

 

 

 

 

Children collect plastic water bottles among the garbage washed ashore at the Manila Bay. AFP/Getty (right) 

 

 

 

 

 

A man climbs down to a garbage filled river in Manila. AFP/Getty (left)

 

The study is the first of its kind to look at the potential impacts of plastic on this vital ocean bacteria, which, in addition to producing oxygen, are an essential part of the marine food web. Researchers assessed two strains of Prochlorococcus common at different depths of the ocean. They exposed the strains to chemicals leached from plastic bags and PCV matting. The chemicals had a noted impact on the bacteria, impairing their growth and the amount of oxygen they produced, as well as altering their gene expression.

“This study revealed a new and unanticipated danger of plastic pollution,” paper co-author and Macquarie University Research Fellow Lisa Moore told The Independent.

“We found that exposure to chemicals leaching from plastic pollution interfered with the growth, photosynthesis and oxygen production of the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria,” says lead author Dr Sasha Tetu.”

The researchers pointed to the importance of better understanding how plastic pollution impacts smaller organisms at the base of the food web.

“Our data shows that plastic pollution may have widespread ecosystem impacts beyond the known effects on macro-organisms, such as seabirds and turtles,” Tetu said in the university press release. “If we truly want to understand the full impact of plastic pollution in the marine environment and find ways to mitigate it, we need to consider its impact on key microbial groups, including photosynthetic microbes.”

Moore told The Independent how plastic might impact these microbes and the environment that depends on them going forward:

“If management of plastic waste is left unattended, prochlorococcus populations could decrease in some locations, which could affect the other organisms that depend on prochlorococcus for food,” Dr. Moore said.

“It is possible that some prochlorococcus are already affected when in close proximity to plastics.

“However, it would be decades before enough plastics build up in the oceans to affect prochlorococcus populations on a global scale.”

If the current rate of plastic pollution continues unchecked, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

FEATURED IMAGE: The game where one has to guess how many jelly beans or marbles can fill a jar should never be played with the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus. By some estimates, in a single liter of water as many as 100 million cells of this tiny bacterium can be found. These important organisms serve as the base of the ocean food chain and are thought to be responsible for providing up to 20% of the oxygen produced by the planet each year.  AFP/Getty

By Olivia Rosane, EcoWatch

Plastic Threatens Human Health at a Global Scale

Washington, DC—A new report released February 19, 2019 reveals that plastic is a human health crisis hiding in plain sight. Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet brings together research that exposes the distinct toxic risks plastic poses to human health at every stage of the plastic lifecycle, from extraction of fossil fuels, to consumer use, to disposal and beyond. It was authored by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), University of Exeter, and UPSTREAM,

To date, research into the human health impacts of plastic have focused narrowly on specific moments in the plastic lifecycle, often on single products, processes, or exposure pathways. This approach fails to recognize that significant, complex, and intersecting human health impacts occur at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: from wellhead to refinery, from store shelves to human bodies, and from waste management to ongoing impacts of microplastics in the air, water, and soil. Plastic & Health presents the full panorama of human health impacts of plastic and counsels that any solution to the plastic crisis must address the full lifecycle.

According to the report, uncertainties and knowledge gaps often impede regulation and the ability of consumers, communities, and policymakers to make informed decisions. However, the full scale of health impacts throughout plastic’s lifecycle are overwhelming and warrant a precautionary approach.

Full report here. Executive summary here.

KEY FINDINGS

Plastic requires a lifecycle approach. The narrow approaches to assessing and addressing plastic impacts to date are inadequate and inappropriate. Making informed decisions that address plastic risks demands a full lifecycle approach to understand the full scope of its toxic impacts on human health. Likewise, reducing toxic exposure to plastic will require a variety of solutions and options because plastic has a complex lifecycle with a diverse universe of actors.

At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposure to plastic particles themselves and associated chemicals. People worldwide are exposed at multiple stages of this lifecycle.

  • Extraction and transportation of fossil feedstocks for plastic, which releases an array of toxic substances into the air and water, including those with known health impacts like cancer, neurotoxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and impairment of the immune system;
  • Refining and production of plastic resins and additives, which releases carcinogenic and other highly toxic substances into the air, with effects including impairment of the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukemia, and genetic impacts like low birth weight;
  • Consumer products and packaging, which can lead to ingestion and/or inhalation of microplastic particles and hundreds of toxic substances;
  • Plastic waste management, especially “waste-to-energy” and other forms of incineration, releases toxic substances including heavy metals such as lead and mercury, acid gases and particulate matter, which can enter air, water, and soil causing both direct and indirect health risks for workers and nearby communities;
  • Fragmenting and microplastics, which enter the human body directly and lead to an array of health impacts (including inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis) that are linked to negative health outcomes ranging from cardiovascular disease to cancer and autoimmune conditions;
  • Cascading exposure as plastic degrades, which further leach toxic chemicals concentrated in plastic into the environment and human bodies; and
  • Ongoing environmental exposures as plastic contaminates and accumulates in food chains through agricultural soils, terrestrial and aquatic food chains, and the water supply, creating new opportunities for human exposure.

READ FULL REPORT AT: Plastic Threatens Human Health at a Global Scale – New Report

February 19, 2019

187 countries agree to restrict global plastic waste trade

The governments of 187 countries have agreed on a deal to control the movement of plastic waste between national borders by restricting shipments of hard-to-recycle plastic waste to poorer countries.

On May, 2019, the United Nations announced that Nations agreed to add plastic to the Basel Convention, a treaty that regulates movement of hazardous materials from one country to another, in order to curb the world’s plastic crisis.

But the U.S. is not a party to that convention so it did not have a vote, but attendees at the meeting said the country argued against the change, saying officials didn’t understand the repercussions it would have on the plastic waste trade.

The pact was approved at the end of a two-week meeting of UN-backed conventions in Geneva, Switzerland. The resolution means contaminated and most mixes of plastic wastes from exporting countries (including the U.S.) will require prior consent from receiving countries before they are traded, with the exceptions of mixes of PE, PP and PET, according to WWF.

Currently, countries can send lower-quality plastic waste to private entities in developing countries without getting approval from their governments.

Since China stopped accepting recycling from the US, activists say they have observed plastic waste piling up in developing countries. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia), a backer of the deal, says it found villages in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia that had “turned into dumpsites over the course of a year”.

“We were finding that there was waste from the US that was just piled up in villages throughout these countries that had once been primarily agricultural communities,” said Claire Arkin, a spokeswoman for Gaia.

See also: Is Canada’s recycling industry broken?

The legally binding framework emerged at the end of a two-week meeting of UN-backed conventions on plastic waste and toxic, hazardous chemicals that threaten the planet’s oceans and creatures.

Nearly 1 million people signed a global petition this urging the governments of the Basel Convention to take action, by preventing western countries from “dumping millions of tonnes of plastic waste on developing countries instead of recycling it.” Acknowledging the petition, Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) conventions, said in a statement: “Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, and the fact that this week close to 1 million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention Parties to take action here in Geneva at the COPs is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high.”

Plastic waste clutters pristine land, floats in huge masses in oceans and entangles and endangers wildlife.

Less valuable and harder to recycle plastic is likely to end up discarded rather than turned into new products. The deal affects products used in a broad array of industries, such as healthcare, technology, aerospace, fashion and food and beverages.

                   A man carries plastic bottles for recycling in Nairobi, Kenya. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Rolph Payet of the United Nations Environment Program called the agreement “historic”, because countries will have to monitor where plastic waste goes when it leaves their borders. Payet said the negotiations, which began 11 days ago and brought together 1,400 delegates, had gone much further than anticipated.

Payet compared plastic pollution to an “epidemic”, with “an estimated 100m tonnes of plastic now found in the oceans, 80 to 90% of which comes from land-based sources”.

                                

A recycler drags a huge bag of paper through a heap of non-recyclable plastic waste in Zimbabwe.

“This is a crucial first step towards stopping the use of developing countries as a dumping ground for the world’s plastic waste, especially those coming from rich nations,” Break Free from Plastic global coordinator, Von Hernandez, said.

“Countries at the receiving end of mixed and unsorted plastic waste from foreign sources now have the right to refuse these problematic shipments, in turn compelling source countries to ensure exports of clean, recyclable plastics only,” he added. ”Recycling will not be enough, however. Ultimately, production of plastics has to be significantly curtailed to effectively resolve the plastic pollution crisis.”

 

FEATURED IMAGE: Plastic waste pollutes the beach in Bali, Indonesia. Photograph: Johannes Christo/Reuters

SOURCES:

Over 180 countries — not including the US — agree to restrict global plastic waste trade

By Rob Picheta and Sarah Dean, CNN

May 11, 2019

Nearly all countries agree to stem flow of plastic waste into poor nations

By Emily Holden and agencies, The Guardian

May 11, 2019

 

These tiny fish reveal our oceans’ biggest problem: plastic waste

THERE’S THE PLASTIC waste we can see—bottles, bags, discarded fishing nets, and all manner of other objects littering shorelines and bobbing in oceans. And then there’s the plastic waste we can’t see: microplastics, whittled by sun, wind, and waves into bits so small that some are visible only under a microscope. Scientists are just beginning to understand the impact these particles are having on fish, the food chain, and ultimately, us.

For this month’s story about microplastics—part of National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic? initiative to reduce plastic waste—photographer David Liittschwager documented the ubiquity of plastics in ocean water samples. Writer Laura Parker’s reporting took her to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab in Honolulu, where oceanographer Jamison Gove and fish biologist Jonathan Whitney study microplastics in the slicks where larval fish spend their first days of life.

Most of us won’t see microplastics’ harm at the level that scientists do. But with about nine million tons of visible plastic debris washing into oceans each year, we see clearly how it’s hurting turtles, seabirds, whales, and many other species. Isn’t that reason enough to join the global effort to reduce plastic waste?
. . .

RELATED: ANIMALS IN A WORLD OF PLASTIC

 

 

 

Your so called biodegradable plastic bag might not actually biodegrade

At this point, images of plastic waste-filled landscapes have managed to reach and horrify much of the general public. Plastic bag bans are proliferating in response. Now, bags made from alternative, biodegradable plastics are popping up in retail stores with regularity. But will those plastics actually biodegrade?

It seems that they might not, or at least not as quickly as people might think. For one thing, they often need very specific conditions to degrade at all. For example, most products labeled as “compostable plastic” degrade only in special heat-treated industrial composting facilities. They can’t degrade in a backyard compost pile, and they can’t be recycled, because they would contaminate the recycling stream. So if the community that is using compostable plastic doesn’t have an industrial composting facility, that object is going straight to the landfill, where it will probably last a very, very long time.

Now, a new paper is casting doubt on several types of “biodegradable” plastics. The paper, published April 28 in Environmental Science & Technology, found that three types of so-called biodegradable plastic bags didn’t degrade after three years in the environment. The team of researchers from the University of Plymouth in the UK tested compostable, biodegradable, and oxo-biodegradable plastic bags, which are often marketed with statements indicating they can be “recycled back into nature much more quickly than ordinary plastic” or that they are “plant-based alternatives to plastic.” (Oxo-biodegradable plastics are meant to be able to degrade by way of exposure to heat or light, which is seen as an advantage over other degradable plastics, which only break down due to exposure to microbes.)

NAPPER, THOMPSON, UNIVERSITY OF PLYMOUTH, ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
This bag was labeled as “biodegradable.” It seems to be doing just fine after three years in seawater.

The team subjected the bags to three conditions: They buried them in soil, left them outdoors to be exposed to the sun and weather, and submerged them in seawater for three years.

At the end of the three years, the only bag that fully disappeared was the compostable plastic bag submerged in seawater. The compostable bag buried in soil remained intact after three years, though it could no longer hold weight without tearing. All three bags left in the open air degraded into scraps, but did not disappear, which raised questions for the researchers about whether biodegradable bags could be contributing the the global microplastics problem.

Perhaps most surprising was that both the “biodegradable” and “oxo-biodegradable” bags could still hold a full load of shopping after three years in the marine environment or buried in soil (the researchers loaded them with 5 lbs, or 2.25 kg, worth of objects).

In both cases, the bags were presumably exposed to naturally occurring microbes, but they weren’t broken down. It is unclear how long it may have taken—or if the rate of breakdown would have been faster than that of a conventional plastic bag.

It’s clear that none of these bags, with perhaps the exception of the compostable bag left at sea, are meaningfully solving the plastic pollution problem in the immediate future—at least not within three years. Of course, conventional plastic can last hundreds or perhaps thousands of years in the environment, so from that perspective, three years isn’t very long. But it is unclear how long it might take, and what if any standards are governing the labelling of bags that consumers are almost definitely expecting will not contribute to the global plastic pollution problem.

The eco-plastics industry is still in its infancy. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission puts out guidelines to try to hold the industry to some standards for when it can call itself “degradable.” The FTC writes:

It is deceptive to make an unqualified degradable claim for items entering the solid waste stream if the items do not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal.

Unqualified degradable claims for items that are customarily disposed in landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities are deceptive because these locations do not present conditions in which complete decomposition will occur within one year.

Biodegradable plastic is a great idea in theory. For now, avoiding buying new plastic—biodegradable or not—might be the more prudent choice.

Featured image: This supposedly biodegradable plastic bag was submerged in seawater for three years.

By Zoë Schlanger, Quartz, 

https://qz.com/1609817/your-biodegradable-plastic-bag-might-not-actually-biodegrade/?fbclid=IwAR08fgTAOdqo60uMMDVhXRp1ejlwrqcieo-WRpo3adn-oUdR3kFunUGLSiA

Invasion of the biosphere by plastics: What our current knowledge may mean for our future

In 1974, a member of the Council of the British Plastics Federation and a fellow of the Plastics Institute, stated that “Plastics litter is a very small proportion of all litter and causes no harm to the environment except as an eyesore”(Derraik, 2002). It has taken less than fifty years for that opinion to be completely discredited, indeed, that opinion was already in doubt the moment it was stated. Nevertheless, it was the strong denial by the plastic industry that plastics could cause harm that delayed the study of plastic’s environmental effects for decades. Not until Moore et al. (2001) found six times as much plastic as zooplankton by weight in the surface waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), did plastic environmental pollution begin to receive increasing attention by scientists, policy makers, regulators, and the media, who began referring to the area as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a term coined by an oceanographer, Curtis Ebbesmeyer (Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano, 2009). Today it is widely acknowledged that vagrant plastic waste is polluting oceans, rivers, soil, food, the water we consume, and even the air we breathe. The invasion of this synthetic waste into organisms is facilitated by the fact that with surface ablation and disintegration mechanisms over time, micro- and nano- sized synthetic polymers are created that can be readily assimilated into living organisms. Recent studies reveal that these micro- and nano- scale polymers, which sorb and desorb pollutants, can pass through the intestinal wall and from the lungs to the circulatory system and in contact with human cells produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are implicated in many pathologies (Schirinzi et al., 2017). As primarily a marine scientist, I focus on the threats to marine ecosystems, but the topic of plastic pollution has grown to global proportions affecting not only the biosphere, but geological formations as well. Here I present a summary of the work done to date to understand our situation and discuss briefly the future of plastic pollution.

Use of plastic in construction of natural structures:

(1) As early as 1973, Kartar et al. (1973) reported polychaetes in the Severn estuary incorporating plastic pellets into their dwelling tubes.

(2) I have observed nests of birds and rodents with plastic as a nest building material.

(3) MacIvor and Moore (2013) found bees constructing brood cells with bits of plastic bags and polyurethane sealant.

(4) Reichert et al. (2018) found that reef building corals built their bodies around adhering plastic particles.

(5) Corcoran et al. (2014) identified in Hawaii “…the appearance of a new ‘stone’ formed through intermingling of melted plastic, beach sediment, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris…which could be preserved by burying in marine sediments and signals…the occurrence of the informal Anthropocene epoch”.

(6) Beach sands are increasing the percentage of microplastics incorporated and the speculation by Gregory (1977) that mankind will sunbathe on plastic sand beaches is becoming a reality.

Use of plastic as an aid in reproduction and range extension for organisms:

(1) Gregory (2009) called out “alien invasions” on plastic: “Dispersal of aggressive alien and invasive species…could endanger sensitive, or at-risk coastal environments (both marine and terrestrial) far from their native habitats.”

(2) Zettler et al. (2013) found that these invaders were composed of unique communities that: “…are distinct from surrounding surface water, implying that plastic serves as a novel ecological habitat in the open ocean”.

(3) Goldstein et al. (2012) found that floating plastic in the NPSG… “released the pelagic insect Halobates sericeus from substrate limitation for oviposition. High concentrations of microplastic in the NPSG resulted in a positive correlation between H. sericeus and microplastic, and an overall increase in H. sericeus egg densities.”

(4) In a survey of benthic plastic, Gündoğdu et al. (2017) stated: “plastic debris as a substrate can contain a very high diversity of life just like natural substrates”. And for organisms on surface plastics, Goldstein et al. (2014) observed that: “diversity patterns on plastic debris are compatible with the concept of island biogeography”.

Given these findings, it seems logical to conclude that an increase in plastic “islands” would correspond to an increase in associated populations of organisms adapted to the introduced plastic habitat, and if in an area of limited food resources, that there would be a decrease of certain members of the indigenous population. As in any major ecosystem disruption, there will be winners and losers. In the marine environment of the depauperate gyres, where floating plastics accumulate, winners are likely to be epibionts and losers true pelagics. In the area where I work, the NPSG, I have noticed fewer salps as the number of barnacles on marine debris increases.

Ingestion of plastic by organisms:

(1) Plastic ingestion by marine megafauna (Germanov et al., 2018), fishes (Boerger et al., 2010Lusher et al., 2013Rochman et al., 2015), birds (Robards, 1993Moser and Lee, 1992van Franeker et al., 2011), jellyfish (Macali et al., 2018), marine worms (Browne et al., 2013), bivalves, corals (that have been said to find the plastic “tasty”), and zooplankton, point to the ability of synthetic polymers to mimic natural food throughout the entire food web, even in terrestrial soils, where Zhu et al. (2018) found that a common soil arthropod consumed plastic, which perturbed their gut microbiota. Plastic “food” does not provide nutrients, or decompose in the digestive tract. Rather it blocks passages, delivers pollutants and damages the epithelial lining.

(2) Plastic in its most insidious form is micro and nano sized; whether formed purposely for commerce or through the wearing and weathering of larger objects. At these size classes it has been shown to enter the brain of fishes and the physical features of the particles themselves cause more damage than the associated pollutants (Mattsson et al., 2017). The authors noted physiological and behavioral changes in the fish: less water than normal in the brain, less time feeding and less distance covered looking for food.

(3) Small plastic fibers and fragments are being ingested by humans in salt from different countries (Karami et al., 2017), in all types of water tested (Schymanski et al., 2018), and through respiration by humans, causing an inflammatory response and lesions in human cells (Prata, 2018). Catarino et al. (2018) stated that: “Our predictions of microplastics ingestion by humans via consumption of mussels is 123 particles every year for each person in the UK and can go up to 4 620 particles every year for each person in countries with a higher shellfish consumption. By comparison, the risk of plastic ingestion via mussel consumption is minimal when compared to fibre exposure during a meal via dust fallout in a household (13 731–68 415 particles every year for each person).”

Physiologists are beginning to assess the health impacts to humans and other animals caused by ingestion of micro- and nano- plastics, their two major lines of inquiry may be categorized as:

(1) Kinetics—how does the plastic get into organisms and where will it go?

(2) Effects—what will the plastic and associated toxicants do once assimilated into an organism?

These criteria are used in a request for proposals by the Dutch government, which has put up a million Euros to study human health impacts of plastics.

In Greek mythology, Zeus, king of the gods, created the first woman on earth, Pandora, in order to deliver a punishment to the first men for having obtained fire stolen from the gods. Pandora was made to be beautiful so that her delivery of the god’s punishment to mankind in a sealed earthen jar would not raise an alarm. Pandora did not know there was anything dangerous in the jar, and though she had been warned to never open it, her curiosity overcame her, and when all around her were asleep, she opened it. Out flew “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1). When she saw what she had done and felt the stings of bugs she released, she attempted to put the troubles back in the jar without success. Plastics, like fire, confer innumerable opportunities for mankind, but mankind has not kept shut the jar containing plastic waste, and it is now impossible to retrieve it. The set of troubles caused by plastic waste is of a magnitude to affect essential planetary systems such as water, air and soil.

Dust and marine sediments were formerly of mineral origin and settled out of air and water or were removed through the action of natural barriers and other mechanisms. Plastic has characteristics that vary widely depending on type of polymer, but many plastics become neutrally buoyant, yet sediment-like and proliferate at different levels in the water column in complex ways, and their similarity to natural fibers allows them to occupy environmental niches formerly occupied by natural, biodegradable materials. The dictum that “in ecosystems, nothing is wasted” is challenged by synthetic polymers. Plastic waste accumulates and becomes more than ecosystems can process. This situation has been conceived of as the crossing of a “planetary boundary”. Three criteria are used to determine if plastic pollution is a planetary boundary threat: Is it poorly reversible? Are there effects only visible at a planetary scale? Is there a disruptive effect on Earth-system processes?

Criteria 1 has clearly been met. It will be impossible to remove plastic waste from most niches of the environment.

Criteria 2: Villarrubia-Gómez et al. (2017) state: “…despite the fragmented state of current evidence, the mismanagement of discarded plastic is already implicated in globally systemic alteration to food webs, habitats, and biogeochemical flows”. If it is not clear that criteria 2 has already been met, it shortly will be. In my own research, I have identified large areas of the ocean where surface plastics outweigh and in some cases outnumber the associated zooplankton (Moore et al., 2001).

Criteria 3: While most investigators believe that this question remains to be answered, and their focus is mainly on how ocean plastics retard carbon sequestration (Villarrubia-Gómez et al., 2017), I believe there is enough evidence from widely diverse sources to make the claim that the fitness of earth’s biology as a whole is negatively affected by plastics and their associated chemicals. I believe that there are only negative consequences of plastic ingestion, that it is occurring on a planetary scale, and that it is rapidly increasing. Curtis Ebbesmeyer has termed ocean plastic pollution, “the greatest infection of the sea”, and plastic pollution of air and fresh water threatens the circular loop of the water cycle as a clean source for drinking.

Over a decade ago, it was recognized at a conference where I presented, held by the World Federation of Scientists in Erice, Sicily, that the pollution of water by plastic was a planetary emergency. During that conference, I was able to enlist an editor of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society to devote an issue to the problem. I was one of the editors of “Our Plastic Age”, along with Richard Thompson, Fred vom Saal and Shanna Swan (Thompson et al., 2009). We were able to publish the first connection between chemicals sorbed to plastics and their transmission to wildlife (Teuten et al., 2009). Vagrant plastics may not be the main link in the transfer of manmade toxicants to biological systems, but their role is ever increasing.

The timid response to this planetary emergency caused by misuse of what I term “the solid phase of petroleum” is in part due to the adoption of petroleum industry tactics by the plastics industry. In papers quantifying plastic entering the environment, “leakage” is a term often used. Although plastic is a solid, it can spill (Webster definition: to cause or allow accidentally or unintentionally to fall, flow, or run out so as to be lost or wasted). Industries’ modus operandi is to spillstudy and stall. Compared to the petroleum industry, the plastic industry has done little to study the problem of plastic waste, preferring to put the blame on consumers for irresponsible disposal, and the cost of research and cleanup is borne by both governmental and non-governmental institutions and society at large. Industry lobbyists have spent millions of dollars to stall proposed remedies such as carrier bag bans. Industry has not, however, resisted the regulating of plastic pellet loss from factories in the State of California, acknowledging the loss of virgin polymer feedstock as their “personal responsibility problem”. Thus, based on my research funded by the California Water Resources Control Board to find how much of this plastic industry feedstock was lost to the aquatic environment; we were able to pass legislation to make their discharge illegal in California. As with most regulations, enforcement lags behind legislation.

Natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and tsunamis also release millions of tons of plastic into the environment. If plastic were liquid petroleum, technologies would be deployed to retrieve the material after a disaster, but no laws or regulations mandate such a response for plastic, even though plastic will persist far longer in the environment than petroleum, and potentially cause more harm over time.

Part of the problem with our response to the plastic pollution crisis is the unrealistic assessment of possibilities by researchers themselves. In a paper titled “Global research priorities to mitigate plastic pollution impacts on marine wildlife”, Vegter et al. (2014) concludes by saying: “Although there are still many questions surrounding the issue, the numerous negative impacts of plastic pollution make it clear that we must strive to reduce the amount of plastics reaching our oceans. If the methods for doing so are attainable (e.g., reducing plastic use, improvements in waste management, better access to recycling) and the costs are non-prohibitive, it would be feasible to deal with what is ultimately an entirely avoidable problem.” It seems that at just this point, the scientists stop being objective and revert to fantasy. On a global scale, there is no evidence that the methods enumerated for reducing the amount of plastics entering the ocean are attainable. Plastic use will surge with 3-D printing of everything imaginable, recycling costs are prohibitive and the fraction of plastic waste recycled globally remains under 10%. Waste management is focused globally on incineration and landfilling, both of which create greenhouse gasses and waste the billions of dollars spent on the fabrication of valuable commodities from plastic feedstocks. Given the difficulty of capturing ubiquitous plastic of all types and sizes from earth orbit to the ocean depths, I ask: In what fantasy universe is plastic pollution “an entirely avoidable problem”?

In the Greek myth, Pandora, after releasing the world’s torments, tried to put the lid back on the jar where they were once contained, but she failed. As she sat crying, one last creature flew out. Zeus had sent Hope to compensate mankind for its perpetual struggle. While there may be no hope of cleaning plastic from the environment in the foreseeable future, there is hope that mankind can respect and fear plastic enough to treat it with great care, by designing products and creating take-back infrastructure that makes plastic benign. It is difficult to imagine this, however, in a world where plastic is the omnipresent facilitator of global trade by packaging commodities in a vapor and moisture barrier, preserving “newness”. But when the wrapper is ripped off, it becomes useless, and for many of the products it contains, the newness quickly fades, and they are replaced sooner rather than later. Hope seems a weak ally in the fight against the plastic plague overtaking our precious ocean, our land, our air, our water, and even the space around us with millions of waste plastics in earth orbit. The only ally powerful enough to push back against the “Plastic Attack”, is us, all of us, and it will require that we fear plastic sufficiently to demand reduction in its use drastically. That fear will only come when plastic’s dangers are widely exposed. Scientists are helping in this effort, as nature herself begins to spew plastic vomit worldwide. A world economy dependent on making and reproducing persistent, destructive and unrecoverable waste en masse is in no sense, sustainable.

Feature Image: Captain Charles Moore

By Charles Moore, Algalita Marine Research and Education

May, 2019

http://aos.manuscripts.cn/article/id/38c58896-6bed-4363-8e90-4947559abe45?pageType=en

Is Canada’s recycling industry broken?

At the Loraas recycling plant in Saskatoon, 650 bales of worthless plastic pile up outside. Among the towers of packaging: a crumpled parmesan cheese container, a spray bottle of tile cleaner and a tub of garlic mayo.

“This material here is very hard to move,” said Dale Schmidt, manager of Loraas Recycle. “Currently, it moves at a negative value and it only moves once in a while. We’re having a real hard time getting this stuff to market.”

What once could be sold for profit now costs money to haul away, and the notion that Canadians are saving the planet by putting things in a blue bin is proving to be a delusion.

The recycling industry in Canada is having its moment of reckoning.

“It’s a watershed moment. We have to come clean, we have to be honest, we have to get back to truth, to reality with these programs,” said Lorenzo Donini, director of government affairs and municipal relationships for GFL Environmental in Western Canada.

In a months-long investigation, Global News spoke with dozens of communities, companies and industry leaders across the country about the mounting challenges faced by Canada’s recycling industry. The result is dire: with few exceptions, more recycling is being sent to landfill, fewer items are being accepted in the blue bin and the financial toll of running these programs has become a burden for some municipalities.

While recycling has never been a money-making venture, cities and recycling companies rely on the revenue from the products they collect at the curb — things like plastic, paper, aluminum and cardboard — to offset the cost of sorting and processing.

Everything had a value — for a time.

Now, commodity prices have crashed. Some products have no buyers, and recyclers are paying to get rid of some things.

“Everyone has to come to the table and basically get real now,” Donini said.

“If we don’t, we will keep going towards a cliff that we go off of that totally erodes all public trust in the program.”

What put Canada in this position was its dependency on China.

“It became a drug almost for this country — and in North America — that ‘Oh, China will take it. China will take it,’” Schmidt said.

For years, Canada shipped roughly half of its recycling exports to China with the belief it was all being transformed on the other side of the Pacific.  

“It’s since come to light that, in fact, what they were doing was mining out the valuable materials, and they were, in large part, burning the low-valuable materials,” Donini said.

But at the start of 2018, China declared it didn’t want to be a dumping ground anymore, banning 24 types of waste, including certain types of plastic and paper. Any material that is still accepted has to be of the highest quality, meaning the country won’t take dirty pizza boxes and leftover shreds of cheap plastic.

Other Asian countries have tried to fill the void. From 2016 to 2018, a 98 per cent drop in Canadian plastic exports to China was countered by a more than 1,000 per cent increase in exports to Malaysia. But Malaysia couldn’t handle the flood of materials and, in October 2018, banned plastic imports as well. India did the same. Vietnam imposed restrictions. So did Taiwan.

The drug that was China was gone. The message from the rest of Asia was clear: we don’t want your trash.

“Now, we’re going through withdrawal from that drug,” Schmidt said.

 

Withdrawal has been predictably unpleasant.

The North American supply of recycling — things like paper, cardboard and plastic — has far exceeded demand, and for months, cities scrambled to find new buyers.

In Cowansville, Que., a recycling facility went bankrupt. The Quebec government responded with a $13-million bailout for the industry and a pledge of another $100 million in the 2019 budget.

In the U.S., some towns have resorted to burning their recycling and even cancelled recycling programs altogether.

While much has improved since the initial shock in Canada, the new reality is dreary.

“The problem is in North America itself. We don’t have enough mills to fully process the material that we’ve got,” Schmidt said.

The fallout is that more recycling is ending up in landfills than at any time in recent memory. It’s measured by something that’s called the residual rate — the leftover. The residual rate tallies how much of the recycling a plant receives actually ends up being trash.

“(At) a good plant, the rule of thumb was that if you could keep your residual rate to eight to 10 per cent … that was a good measure,” Donini said. “Now, you’re looking at more of a 25 percent residual rate if you’re doing well … I’ve heard of residual rates as high as 40  percent.”

The City of Toronto’s residual rate was 22 per cent in 2015. Today, it’s hovering around 30 percent.

“We need a very high-quality standard of material to be able to move at a good value so, ultimately, some materials are removed from the system and end up as garbage,” said Matt Keliher, general manager of solid waste management services for the City of Toronto.

Instead of landfilling products at the end of processing, some cities have simply told residents they will accept fewer items to start with — a move contrary to the ethos of recycling.

The City of St. Albert, north of Edmonton, stopped taking five types of packaging last November.

We wanted to make sure that the items that we collected in our blue bags were able to be recycled to be made into new products,” said Olivia Kwok, the city’s supervisor of waste and diversion programs.

Items no longer accepted for curbside recycling include glass bottles, single-use cups such as coffee and yogurt cups, plastic clamshell packaging – the type used for berries and pastries, chip cans and non-deposit Tetra Pak containers, which are commonly used for soup and broth packaging.

“Those are items that go to the garbage,” Kwok said.

At the Bluewater Recycling Association plant near London, Ont., milk cartons, aluminum pie plates, aluminum food cans and small yogurt cups are no longer accepted.

“Every resident wants to do more, not less, and we share their frustration. We’d love nothing more (than) to come out and say, ‘Hey, we can accept these materials,” said president Francis Veilleux. “But the fact is today we’ve gone just a little bit too far. We need to take a step back, refocus on the acceptable materials, and let’s do those right and make sure they get marketed.”

Determined not to send his products to a landfill, Schmidt of Loraas Recycle in Saskatoon was paying for someone to take his plastic film. “Then, finally, that company closed … and the market for plastic film or low-density polyethylene totally collapsed,” he explained.

Without a buyer to take it, plastic film had to be cut from Loraas’ recycling program. Now, it goes straight to the landfill.

EFS-plastics, one of the few processing plants that accepts plastic film in Canada, is turning down multiple requests a week from recyclers and municipalities across North America desperate to offload their product.

“It’s purely a matter of capacity that we can’t do it for them,” said Eadaoin Quinn, director of business development and procurement for the company, which is located outside of Stratford, Ont. The EFS-plastics plant is taking all that it can, but it simply can’t absorb the world’s excess supply. It’s a huge problem.”

The crossroads where the recycling industry finds itself may hold its biggest test to date: how to find a new way forward and, perhaps, a new mantra — recover, reinvigorate and reinvent.

“I think there is nothing about this situation that can’t be salvaged. But it does need some course correction,” said Donini of GFL, optimistically at first. But then he warns, “If we don’t make these changes, we are going to start flirting with real disaster.”

The losing economics of recycling: Canada’s green industry is deep in the red

At the Bluewater Recycling Association plant outside of London, Ont., an aluminum pop can is the most precious item they receive. It’s worth more than paper. More than plastic. More than cardboard.

Selling these products is how recyclers make a profit — and aluminum is the moneymaker. Though it only makes up two percent of everything that’s trucked into the Bluewater plant, the metal is worth 25 percent of the company’s revenue. And yet, even aluminum isn’t immune to an industry whose profits are plunging.

“Last year this time, we were selling it for about $1,900 a tonne,” said Bluewater Recycling Association president Francis Veilleux. “This year, it’s closer to $1,300 to $1,400 a tonne.”

After China stopped accepting much of the world’s recycling at the start of 2018, the market was flooded with product. The dwindling number of buyers who are left demand only the highest-quality material — and at a fraction of the cost. Only two plants still accept Veilleux’s aluminum. Aluminum pie plates and cat food tins are no longer accepted. Just pop cans and beer cans.

In today’s bleak new recycling reality, the price of commodities — like paper, plastic and glass — has tanked.

Some items, like cheap plastic, don’t even have buyers anymore. Recyclers are having to pay to get rid of them. And while recycling was never a money-making venture, the business model was feasible.

Now, for some, it’s a burden.

“Garbage and recycling is the number 1 rising cost that municipalities are facing right now. Higher than police or ambulance or medical or anything else,” said Amanda O’Neill, director of the West Yellowhead Waste Resource Authority, which handles recycling for 20 rural municipalities in midwestern Saskatchewan. “The costs are going up and up exponentially.”

In Ontario alone, the average market price for mixed paper fell 110 percent from August 2017 to January 2019. The values of newspaper and cardboard dropped 50 per cent each. Film plastic — the kind used in shopping bags — dropped 53 per cent.

Toronto has lost millions in revenue. “We’re looking at a between $8-million and $9-million hit last year with our lost revenue,” said Matt Keliher, general manager of solid waste management services for the City of Toronto.

The sharp drop in profits has put municipalities at a crossroads: raise taxes or cut programs.

Matt Keliher, general manager of solid waste management services for the City of Toronto

Matt Keliher, general manager of solid waste management services for the City of Toronto, Global News

In Kawartha Lakes, Ont., where there’s no appetite for a tax increase, the city has backed away from teaching kids the virtues of recycling.

“Going into schools to try to carry the message of recycling, we’ve had to scale back on that,” said David Kerr, manager of the city’s environmental services.

The timing of the commodities crash couldn’t have been worse for the City of Thunder Bay. When its recycling contract came up for renewal last December, the price more than doubled. “We went from approximately a $1.2-million program to approximately a $2.4-million program,” said Jason Sherband, manager of solid waste and recycling services in Thunder Bay.

“Nobody’s thrilled, but at the end of the day, it’s … the new world that we’re living in.”

In the U.S., the financial burden of recycling has proven too great for some communities like Franklin, N.H., and Broadway, Va., which have cancelled their recycling programs. But in Ontario, that’s not an option: communities over 5,000 people are mandated by the province to recycle.

Exacerbating the financial problem are rapidly rising labour costs. Buyers who are still accepting recycling will only take the highest quality. Gone are the days when a greasy pizza box in a bale of cardboard or a piece of plastic slipped into a package of glass was passable. Now, plants are being forced to sort and sometimes re-sort products to meet stringent requirements, driving up manpower costs.

“It’s up 30 percent, for sure,” said Lorenzo Donini, director of government affairs and municipal relationships for GFL Environmental in Western Canada. “That’s at a good plant that relies on a lot of optical sorters and modern technology … If you’re a plant that was based only on labour, your labour costs may have actually doubled.”

Lorenzo Donini, director of government affairs and municipal relationships for GFL Environmental in Western Canada

Lorenzo Donini, director of government affairs and municipal relationships for GFL Environmental in Western Canada

Global News

At some plants, they are considering adding staff to handle the strain.

“It’s become so much work for them to process the stuff twice,” said Holly Schell, Alberta operations manager with Environmental 360 Solutions.

“I just had a conversation today with our … facility supervisor and he said, ‘My guys, this is tough on them, and I don’t know what else to do. We’re going to have to rethink the process and revamp the hours we’re working and maybe get another team of people working a night shift just to try to keep up with it.’”

Realizing they’re going to have to spend the money either way, communities with deep enough pockets are trying to get ahead of the curve.

The Region of Peel, Ont., is investing $23 million in new sorting technology at its recycling facility. “It’ll open up new markets, and we expect to get better pricing,” said Norm Lee, director of waste management for the Region of Peel. Lee expects the investment will pay for itself within five years.

The Bluewater Recycling Association plant is also investing in upgrades. To Veilleux, its president, there’s no other choice. “Brace yourself: this is not a temporary thing. If you don’t adapt and modify your facilities, your infrastructure and maybe refocus the materials that you actually collect that can be recycled, you’re going to be in trouble.”

—With files from Christian D’Avino

Global News

April 29, 2019

SEE FULL ARTICLE AT: https://globalnews.ca/news/5199883/canada-recycling-programs/