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Plastic Pollution Is Drowning Earth. A Global Treaty Could Help

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Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Our world is increasingly plastic. Back in the 1950s, humanity produced just 5 million metric tons of plastic per year; today it’s 400 million metric tons. Since plastic can take hundreds or thousands of years to biodegrade, pretty much all of it is still around, except for the roughly 20 percent that’s been burned. By some estimates, there are now eight gigatons of accumulated plastic on Earth — twice as much as the weight of all animal life.Much of this plastic is still in use, in products like cars and homes, but a lot is junk; 40 percent of plastic production goes toward packaging that’s typically tossed after being used once. Some of our plastic waste is recycled, responsibly incinerated or properly landfilled, but tens of millions of tons are mismanaged annually — burned in open pits or left to pollute the environment. Plastic pollution has been found at the poles and the bottom of the ocean, in our clouds and soils, in human blood and mothers’ milk. If things keep going as they are, it is predicted that annual rates of plastic flowing into the sea will triple from 2016 to 2040.The impacts are manifold. Debris can choke and tangle wildlife; even zooplankton can fill up on microplastics instead of food, altering how much oxygen is in the ocean. And some of the chemicals used in plastics — including additives that make plastics flexible or fire-resistant — can leach out into water, soil or our bodies. Some of these are carcinogenic or endocrine disruptors, capable of interfering with development or reproduction. The net impacts of our lifelong exposure to this chemical soup are hard to tease out, but one recent study concluded that it cost the United States $249 billion in extra health care in 2018.On supporting science journalismIf you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.Delegates are working now on the world’s first plastic pollution treaty, which is due to be completed by the end of this year. That treaty might cap plastic production, phase out problem chemicals and regulate how waste is managed — but how ambitious this treaty will be is yet to be seen. (See box.)Imogen Napper, a marine science postdoc at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom who specializes in plastic pollution, is one of many scientists whose research is informing the treaty process. Her detective work has documented plastic pollution in surprising places and pointed to solutions that have made their way into government regulations around the world. Knowable Magazine spoke with her about the plastic problem and what we can all do about it. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.Why did you decide to focus on plastic pollution as a researcher?I was lucky to grow up in a small seaside town in the southwest of the UK. I don’t remember any discussion about plastic pollution or beach cleanups when I was younger. But now, going back home, plastic pollution is one of the most obvious environmental challenges that we have, because it’s so visible.I’m hoping that plastic pollution can be used as a gateway issue to other environmental concerns. Climate change, I’d argue, is a far bigger beast than plastic pollution. But for plastic pollution, we’ve got all the tools that we need — we’ve got potential solutions, and discussion happening now through the plastics treaty. We have that burning fire of desire to make a change. We can fix it.You and many other researchers spend a lot of time documenting where plastic is in the wild, and how it gets there. Why is this so hard?When it comes to microscopic pieces in, say, a soil or water sample, it takes a lot of grunt work. I have spent a lot of time looking under the microscope trying to identify, just from the look of it, whether something is cellulosic — coming from plants, like cotton — or plastic. You get a good eye for it. But it can be really tricky.Nor is it easy to document the accumulation and distribution of bigger, macro-sized chunks of plastic. There are so many sources, leakage points and places where plastic is building up. In one of our studies, led by Emily Duncan at the University of Exeter, we put GPS tags in plastic bottles and tracked them thousands of kilometers down the Ganges River. That sort of work helps to improve scientific models.The commonly used estimate is that about 8 million metric tons of macroplastic enter the ocean each year. We know a lot less about the land. Technology is getting far better, with remote sensing, drones and satellite imagery. That will be very useful in the next few years to help us accurately identify how much plastic is going into the environment.A lot of plastic litter is single-use products that have been tossed aside: In the UK, one survey showed that more than half of plastic litter was beverage-related, including cups, lids and straws. But some sources are more surprising, like tiny pieces of plastic thrown up by tire wear on highways.That was also surprising to me. It’s so obvious — it’s right in front of you — but often we just don’t consider it. Research has only really focused on tire wear in the last few years, but it’s predicted to be one of the biggest single sources of microplastics — it has been estimated to make up five to 10 percent of the plastic entering the ocean.In our lab, we have done a lot of research looking at clothing. I’d say about 60 percent of our wardrobe contains plastic, like polyester, acrylic or a natural-synthetic blend. A big part of my PhD research was centered around building a washing machine lab, and I tested for the first time different fabrics to see how many fibers would come off in a typical wash.We found that for acrylic it was the most, at 700,000 fibers per wash. For polyester-cotton blend, it was a lot less, around 130,000 fibers. This started discussions about how we might make clothes differently or change our washing machines. In France, by 2025 all new washing machines will have to come with a filter, which is exciting. It’ll be really interesting to see how that develops. Ideally, the filter should be reusable, so we’re not just making more potential rubbish. There are a lot of different options; independent testing will be important.Where does all this plastic wind up?You could argue that plastic really is everywhere. We did some research that found plastic fibers just below the summit of Mount Everest. In some regions, plastic microfibers can go down the drain into the sewage treatment plants; the collected solids, called sewage sludge, is then treated and then often applied on agricultural land as fertilizer. There’s evidence that the chemicals in those plastics can then be absorbed into plants.There are some surprising ecological effects, too. I have read that some plastic pieces, because of their dark colors, absorb heat, which means they’re contributing to melting snow and ice.Yes. Plastic can also increase sand temperature, and this has been found in turtle nesting sites. And turtle sex is dependent on the temperature of the sand. So we might end up with a lot more female turtles.What’s the best thing to do with plastic at the end of its life?Landfill isn’t great, but it does contain and control waste when done right. Incineration has pros and cons; it gets rid of the plastic and can be used to make energy. A lot of small island developing states may use incineration because they haven’t got the space for landfill, but then it’s often open burning, which is not good for the planet or your health.People often think that recycling is a golden solution. But recycling is not fully circular — the recycled plastic is often made into a polymer of worsening quality. At some point, it will not be recyclable. Recycling can also generate problematic microplastics. And if there isn’t a market for the recycled material, it can end up in landfill.None of this gets rid of the core issue. It’s just delaying it. I’m a big believer of tackling the problem at its source. My supervisor, Richard Thompson, says plastic pollution is like an overfilling bath. We’re very good at mopping up the floor, but the bath keeps overflowing. What we need to do is turn off the tap.Are there good alternatives to conventional plastic, like biodegradable or compostable plastics, or bioplastics that are made from plants rather than from fossil fuels?We did some research on this. We did a study looking at biodegradable carrier bags: We buried them in the soil, we submerged them in the ocean, and we left them hanging outside for three years. The ones outside completely fragmented into tiny bits — the plastic didn’t disappear, it just got smaller. The ones in the soil and in the ocean could still hold a full bag of shopping.Biodegradable plastics that are marketed today need to go into a really specific waste management facility with high moisture, high heat, maybe a certain pH, to disappear.Many bioplastics used today — such as bio-polyethylene — are chemically the same as other plastics, just made from a different source. They’re made from plant carbon instead of from fossil fuel carbon, but they may behave exactly like all other plastic. If they’re still single use, is that any better?There’s a lot of work going into alternative products, but we need to be careful that they’re actually better for our health and the environment.How is the plastics treaty (see box) coming along?It’s going to take a lot of discussion, and I will be delighted if it happens this year, but realistically, I think it is going to take a little bit more time. It is difficult to get nations to agree to firm action, because a lot of it comes down to money — both the money to be made from manufacturing plastic, and the money it costs to deal with waste.This is an amazing opportunity that we have, where globally we can have a unified decision on how to protect our planet. The treaty needs to be ambitious, it needs to be specific, and it needs to be binding.Is it reasonable to think that some plastics might be banned?Legislation has already banned some plastics and additives in some countries or regions. Our lab quantified microbeads in beauty products: We found that 3 million microbeads could be in a bottle of facial scrub. So there can be thousands in a squirt on your hand. We took this research, we published it, and then one day I came in to work and I had so many emails in my inbox from journalists. It was making quite a stir. And there were campaigns like “Beat the microbead,” because consumers didn’t want to wash their faces with plastic.So the consumers started to boycott the products, then industry voluntarily removed microbeads and showcased that information in their own marketing. And then governments around the world started to ban microbeads in facial scrubs.Research is all about providing information. And then, with that information, people can take it forward and make a change. I feel very privileged to be in a position that I can be part of that.If you were in charge, would you ban specific plastics or chemicals?I’d flip the question on its head and ask: What would I keep? We don’t need all the plastic we make. And instead of using a big chemical cocktail of additives that we don’t know anything about, let’s just have a list of the chemicals that we can use.When I started my PhD, I wrongly thought that plastic was evil. Plastics are incredibly useful and can solve other environmental and health problems. Plastic can keep our food fresh, and food waste is a huge problem. During the pandemic, it helped to keep people safe. It is lightweight, so products need less energy for transport.But let’s think, right from when we’re designing it, how can we make sure it’s sustainable? Often, we’re not thinking about that right at the beginning, we’re thinking about it far down at the end of its life.Treaty timelineIn 2022, 175 nations at the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed to draft a legally binding treaty against plastic pollution by 2024. That work is now underway, but progress has been slow, leaving observers wondering if it will be completed as planned at the meeting in Busan, South Korea, this December — and, if so, how ambitious it will be.In 2023, delegates released an updated, 70-page pre-draft outlining issues to be tackled, along with a handful of options for how to address them. The issues span the full lifecycle of plastics — from their creation, including the greenhouse gases emitted during their production, through to the uses of plastics (including as single-use products and microbeads), to recycling and waste management. Topics such as tax schemes and pots of money for capacity-building in poorer nations get their share of coverage too.The options for each issue range from hard to soft: Even the options for the stated objective of the treaty, for example, span from “to end plastic pollution” to the much gentler “to protect human health and the environment from plastic pollution.”Many observers at the treaty’s third meeting, in Nairobi in November 2023, said that agreement on firm solutions seemed far away, with delegates from some fossil fuel-rich nations, including Saudi Arabia, pushing against hard production caps. Analysts have noted that as the planet cracks down on burning fossil fuels for energy, the oil industry has increasingly focused on plastic production as a profitable market.On the other hand, a group of nations led by Norway and Rwanda — called the “high ambition coalition” — is pressing for strong action. “It’s a bit of a roller coaster,” says marine biologist Richard Thompson, Imogen Napper’s PhD supervisor at the University of Plymouth; he attended the treaty meeting as one of the coordinators of the independent Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty. “There’s great support and traction in one direction — and half an hour later, things seem to turn.”One scientific model shows that it will take an extremely ambitious bundle of policies to drive mismanaged waste down. By this model, for example, cutting mismanaged plastic waste by 85 percent by 2050 would require implementing a 90 percent reduction in single-use packaging, a cap on primary plastic production at 2025 levels, and a mandate that at least 40 percent of plastics be recycled and that more than 40 percent of new products be made from recycled content — along with heavy taxes and more than $200 billion of investments in global waste infrastructure.Scientists are also thinking hard about the treaty’s proposed list of polymers and chemicals of concern, which could be used to guide bans by specific dates, or just to encourage regulation. Such a list could include, for example, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene — often called “the toxic two” by environmental groups — alongside additives including phthalates (which are often used to make PVC more flexible and some of which are endocrine disrupters).Many analysts and concerned observers would like to see the plastic treaty modeled after the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, which in 1986 famously phased out specific chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons with hard, time-targeted commitments. But it might, alternatively, be modeled more like the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which allows nations to determine their own targets for action. That might be easier to agree upon, but less ambitious.“It’s difficult to get all these nations to agree on all the nuts and bolts,” says Thompson. It remains to be seen how things will pan out at the next meeting, scheduled for Ottawa, Canada, this April.Thompson remains hopeful for a big change in how society uses plastic. “It’s so cheap we can use it for a few seconds before throwing it away. That’s the problem,” he says. But, he adds, “a problem we can solve.”— Nicola JonesThis article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

A marine scientist discusses the problem of plastic pollution and her hopes for an international treaty to tackle it

Our world is increasingly plastic. Back in the 1950s, humanity produced just 5 million metric tons of plastic per year; today it’s 400 million metric tons. Since plastic can take hundreds or thousands of years to biodegrade, pretty much all of it is still around, except for the roughly 20 percent that’s been burned. By some estimates, there are now eight gigatons of accumulated plastic on Earth — twice as much as the weight of all animal life.

Much of this plastic is still in use, in products like cars and homes, but a lot is junk; 40 percent of plastic production goes toward packaging that’s typically tossed after being used once. Some of our plastic waste is recycled, responsibly incinerated or properly landfilled, but tens of millions of tons are mismanaged annually — burned in open pits or left to pollute the environment. Plastic pollution has been found at the poles and the bottom of the ocean, in our clouds and soils, in human blood and mothers’ milk. If things keep going as they are, it is predicted that annual rates of plastic flowing into the sea will triple from 2016 to 2040.

The impacts are manifold. Debris can choke and tangle wildlife; even zooplankton can fill up on microplastics instead of food, altering how much oxygen is in the ocean. And some of the chemicals used in plastics — including additives that make plastics flexible or fire-resistant — can leach out into water, soil or our bodies. Some of these are carcinogenic or endocrine disruptors, capable of interfering with development or reproduction. The net impacts of our lifelong exposure to this chemical soup are hard to tease out, but one recent study concluded that it cost the United States $249 billion in extra health care in 2018.


On supporting science journalism

If you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.


Delegates are working now on the world’s first plastic pollution treaty, which is due to be completed by the end of this year. That treaty might cap plastic production, phase out problem chemicals and regulate how waste is managed — but how ambitious this treaty will be is yet to be seen. (See box.)

Imogen Napper, a marine science postdoc at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom who specializes in plastic pollution, is one of many scientists whose research is informing the treaty process. Her detective work has documented plastic pollution in surprising places and pointed to solutions that have made their way into government regulations around the world. Knowable Magazine spoke with her about the plastic problem and what we can all do about it. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to focus on plastic pollution as a researcher?

I was lucky to grow up in a small seaside town in the southwest of the UK. I don’t remember any discussion about plastic pollution or beach cleanups when I was younger. But now, going back home, plastic pollution is one of the most obvious environmental challenges that we have, because it’s so visible.

I’m hoping that plastic pollution can be used as a gateway issue to other environmental concerns. Climate change, I’d argue, is a far bigger beast than plastic pollution. But for plastic pollution, we’ve got all the tools that we need — we’ve got potential solutions, and discussion happening now through the plastics treaty. We have that burning fire of desire to make a change. We can fix it.

You and many other researchers spend a lot of time documenting where plastic is in the wild, and how it gets there. Why is this so hard?

When it comes to microscopic pieces in, say, a soil or water sample, it takes a lot of grunt work. I have spent a lot of time looking under the microscope trying to identify, just from the look of it, whether something is cellulosic — coming from plants, like cotton — or plastic. You get a good eye for it. But it can be really tricky.

Nor is it easy to document the accumulation and distribution of bigger, macro-sized chunks of plastic. There are so many sources, leakage points and places where plastic is building up. In one of our studies, led by Emily Duncan at the University of Exeter, we put GPS tags in plastic bottles and tracked them thousands of kilometers down the Ganges River. That sort of work helps to improve scientific models.

The commonly used estimate is that about 8 million metric tons of macroplastic enter the ocean each year. We know a lot less about the land. Technology is getting far better, with remote sensing, drones and satellite imagery. That will be very useful in the next few years to help us accurately identify how much plastic is going into the environment.

A lot of plastic litter is single-use products that have been tossed aside: In the UK, one survey showed that more than half of plastic litter was beverage-related, including cups, lids and straws. But some sources are more surprising, like tiny pieces of plastic thrown up by tire wear on highways.

That was also surprising to me. It’s so obvious — it’s right in front of you — but often we just don’t consider it. Research has only really focused on tire wear in the last few years, but it’s predicted to be one of the biggest single sources of microplastics — it has been estimated to make up five to 10 percent of the plastic entering the ocean.

In our lab, we have done a lot of research looking at clothing. I’d say about 60 percent of our wardrobe contains plastic, like polyester, acrylic or a natural-synthetic blend. A big part of my PhD research was centered around building a washing machine lab, and I tested for the first time different fabrics to see how many fibers would come off in a typical wash.

We found that for acrylic it was the most, at 700,000 fibers per wash. For polyester-cotton blend, it was a lot less, around 130,000 fibers. This started discussions about how we might make clothes differently or change our washing machines. In France, by 2025 all new washing machines will have to come with a filter, which is exciting. It’ll be really interesting to see how that develops. Ideally, the filter should be reusable, so we’re not just making more potential rubbish. There are a lot of different options; independent testing will be important.

Where does all this plastic wind up?

You could argue that plastic really is everywhere. We did some research that found plastic fibers just below the summit of Mount Everest. In some regions, plastic microfibers can go down the drain into the sewage treatment plants; the collected solids, called sewage sludge, is then treated and then often applied on agricultural land as fertilizer. There’s evidence that the chemicals in those plastics can then be absorbed into plants.

There are some surprising ecological effects, too. I have read that some plastic pieces, because of their dark colors, absorb heat, which means they’re contributing to melting snow and ice.

Yes. Plastic can also increase sand temperature, and this has been found in turtle nesting sites. And turtle sex is dependent on the temperature of the sand. So we might end up with a lot more female turtles.

What’s the best thing to do with plastic at the end of its life?

Landfill isn’t great, but it does contain and control waste when done right. Incineration has pros and cons; it gets rid of the plastic and can be used to make energy. A lot of small island developing states may use incineration because they haven’t got the space for landfill, but then it’s often open burning, which is not good for the planet or your health.

People often think that recycling is a golden solution. But recycling is not fully circular — the recycled plastic is often made into a polymer of worsening quality. At some point, it will not be recyclable. Recycling can also generate problematic microplastics. And if there isn’t a market for the recycled material, it can end up in landfill.

None of this gets rid of the core issue. It’s just delaying it. I’m a big believer of tackling the problem at its source. My supervisor, Richard Thompson, says plastic pollution is like an overfilling bath. We’re very good at mopping up the floor, but the bath keeps overflowing. What we need to do is turn off the tap.

Are there good alternatives to conventional plastic, like biodegradable or compostable plastics, or bioplastics that are made from plants rather than from fossil fuels?

We did some research on this. We did a study looking at biodegradable carrier bags: We buried them in the soil, we submerged them in the ocean, and we left them hanging outside for three years. The ones outside completely fragmented into tiny bits — the plastic didn’t disappear, it just got smaller. The ones in the soil and in the ocean could still hold a full bag of shopping.

Biodegradable plastics that are marketed today need to go into a really specific waste management facility with high moisture, high heat, maybe a certain pH, to disappear.

Many bioplastics used today — such as bio-polyethylene — are chemically the same as other plastics, just made from a different source. They’re made from plant carbon instead of from fossil fuel carbon, but they may behave exactly like all other plastic. If they’re still single use, is that any better?

There’s a lot of work going into alternative products, but we need to be careful that they’re actually better for our health and the environment.

How is the plastics treaty (see box) coming along?

It’s going to take a lot of discussion, and I will be delighted if it happens this year, but realistically, I think it is going to take a little bit more time. It is difficult to get nations to agree to firm action, because a lot of it comes down to money — both the money to be made from manufacturing plastic, and the money it costs to deal with waste.

This is an amazing opportunity that we have, where globally we can have a unified decision on how to protect our planet. The treaty needs to be ambitious, it needs to be specific, and it needs to be binding.

Is it reasonable to think that some plastics might be banned?

Legislation has already banned some plastics and additives in some countries or regions. Our lab quantified microbeads in beauty products: We found that 3 million microbeads could be in a bottle of facial scrub. So there can be thousands in a squirt on your hand. We took this research, we published it, and then one day I came in to work and I had so many emails in my inbox from journalists. It was making quite a stir. And there were campaigns like “Beat the microbead,” because consumers didn’t want to wash their faces with plastic.

So the consumers started to boycott the products, then industry voluntarily removed microbeads and showcased that information in their own marketing. And then governments around the world started to ban microbeads in facial scrubs.

Research is all about providing information. And then, with that information, people can take it forward and make a change. I feel very privileged to be in a position that I can be part of that.

If you were in charge, would you ban specific plastics or chemicals?

I’d flip the question on its head and ask: What would I keep? We don’t need all the plastic we make. And instead of using a big chemical cocktail of additives that we don’t know anything about, let’s just have a list of the chemicals that we can use.

When I started my PhD, I wrongly thought that plastic was evil. Plastics are incredibly useful and can solve other environmental and health problems. Plastic can keep our food fresh, and food waste is a huge problem. During the pandemic, it helped to keep people safe. It is lightweight, so products need less energy for transport.

But let’s think, right from when we’re designing it, how can we make sure it’s sustainable? Often, we’re not thinking about that right at the beginning, we’re thinking about it far down at the end of its life.


Treaty timeline

In 2022, 175 nations at the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed to draft a legally binding treaty against plastic pollution by 2024. That work is now underway, but progress has been slow, leaving observers wondering if it will be completed as planned at the meeting in Busan, South Korea, this December — and, if so, how ambitious it will be.

In 2023, delegates released an updated, 70-page pre-draft outlining issues to be tackled, along with a handful of options for how to address them. The issues span the full lifecycle of plastics — from their creation, including the greenhouse gases emitted during their production, through to the uses of plastics (including as single-use products and microbeads), to recycling and waste management. Topics such as tax schemes and pots of money for capacity-building in poorer nations get their share of coverage too.

The options for each issue range from hard to soft: Even the options for the stated objective of the treaty, for example, span from “to end plastic pollution” to the much gentler “to protect human health and the environment from plastic pollution.”

Many observers at the treaty’s third meeting, in Nairobi in November 2023, said that agreement on firm solutions seemed far away, with delegates from some fossil fuel-rich nations, including Saudi Arabia, pushing against hard production caps. Analysts have noted that as the planet cracks down on burning fossil fuels for energy, the oil industry has increasingly focused on plastic production as a profitable market.

On the other hand, a group of nations led by Norway and Rwanda — called the “high ambition coalition” — is pressing for strong action. “It’s a bit of a roller coaster,” says marine biologist Richard Thompson, Imogen Napper’s PhD supervisor at the University of Plymouth; he attended the treaty meeting as one of the coordinators of the independent Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty. “There’s great support and traction in one direction — and half an hour later, things seem to turn.”

One scientific model shows that it will take an extremely ambitious bundle of policies to drive mismanaged waste down. By this model, for example, cutting mismanaged plastic waste by 85 percent by 2050 would require implementing a 90 percent reduction in single-use packaging, a cap on primary plastic production at 2025 levels, and a mandate that at least 40 percent of plastics be recycled and that more than 40 percent of new products be made from recycled content — along with heavy taxes and more than $200 billion of investments in global waste infrastructure.

Scientists are also thinking hard about the treaty’s proposed list of polymers and chemicals of concern, which could be used to guide bans by specific dates, or just to encourage regulation. Such a list could include, for example, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene — often called “the toxic two” by environmental groups — alongside additives including phthalates (which are often used to make PVC more flexible and some of which are endocrine disrupters).

Many analysts and concerned observers would like to see the plastic treaty modeled after the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, which in 1986 famously phased out specific chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons with hard, time-targeted commitments. But it might, alternatively, be modeled more like the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which allows nations to determine their own targets for action. That might be easier to agree upon, but less ambitious.

“It’s difficult to get all these nations to agree on all the nuts and bolts,” says Thompson. It remains to be seen how things will pan out at the next meeting, scheduled for Ottawa, Canada, this April.

Thompson remains hopeful for a big change in how society uses plastic. “It’s so cheap we can use it for a few seconds before throwing it away. That’s the problem,” he says. But, he adds, “a problem we can solve.”

— Nicola Jones


This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

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Mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows worsens due to ongoing pollution

A recent study highlights that industrial pollution is increasing methylmercury levels in the Grassy Narrows region, exacerbating a decades-old environmental health crisis.Sarah Law reports for CBC News.In short:New research indicates that wastewater discharge from the Dryden Paper Mill has intensified mercury contamination in northwestern Ontario’s English-Wabigoon River.The methylmercury, more toxic than other forms, accumulates in fish and affects the health of Grassy Narrows residents who rely on fish as a dietary staple.The federal government has committed $77M to build a Mercury Care Home, with construction starting this summer, to support affected individuals.Key quote: "We continue to be poisoned." — Rudy Turtle, Chief of Grassy Narrows First NationWhy this matters: Mercury poisoning poses severe health risks, including neuromuscular problems and cognitive dysfunction. Addressing this ongoing pollution is crucial for the well-being of the Grassy Narrows community and reflects broader environmental justice issues. Read more: Whose job is it to reduce toxic mercury in the Ohio River?

A recent study highlights that industrial pollution is increasing methylmercury levels in the Grassy Narrows region, exacerbating a decades-old environmental health crisis.Sarah Law reports for CBC News.In short:New research indicates that wastewater discharge from the Dryden Paper Mill has intensified mercury contamination in northwestern Ontario’s English-Wabigoon River.The methylmercury, more toxic than other forms, accumulates in fish and affects the health of Grassy Narrows residents who rely on fish as a dietary staple.The federal government has committed $77M to build a Mercury Care Home, with construction starting this summer, to support affected individuals.Key quote: "We continue to be poisoned." — Rudy Turtle, Chief of Grassy Narrows First NationWhy this matters: Mercury poisoning poses severe health risks, including neuromuscular problems and cognitive dysfunction. Addressing this ongoing pollution is crucial for the well-being of the Grassy Narrows community and reflects broader environmental justice issues. Read more: Whose job is it to reduce toxic mercury in the Ohio River?

Congestion Pricing Could Bring Cleaner Air. But Maybe Not for Everyone.

Officials expect New York City’s new tolling system to reduce air pollution, as well as carbon emissions. The impact may be uneven.

When congestion pricing takes effect in New York City next month, officials say it will create an array of benefits: The system’s tolls will generate revenue for improving mass transit while prompting some drivers to avoid Manhattan, potentially reducing traffic and air pollution, as well as carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.Some of those goals are already within sight: Devices that will monitor cars and send bills to drivers are in place, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which will operate the system, has begun to detail the transit repairs and upgrades it plans to spend its windfall on.For now, though, it is unclear how much the program will contribute to New York State’s ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse emissions 85 percent by 2050. And some people worry that less air pollution in some areas will be offset by more in others, despite efforts to keep that from happening.According to an environmental assessment by the authority, congestion pricing could decrease air pollution overall in three boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The concern is that rerouted traffic could increase it in the Bronx and on Staten Island.“It’s safe to say the direct air-quality benefits would be modest but measurable overall,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney and New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The plan, he added, is worthwhile because of its benefits for public transit, whose health is crucial for luring people away from private vehicles.“If you look at London and Stockholm, they had improved traffic, modest air quality, and jolts of adrenaline to their transportation systems,” he said, referring to similar programs in those cities.Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Cape Cod Weighs Big-Ticket Pollution Solutions

Toxic algal blooms are forcing Cape Cod communities to consider expensive sewer and septic system projects.

This story was co-published with WBUR in Boston and produced with assistance from the Pulitzer Center. Read WBUR’s coverage of efforts to improve Cape Cod’s water pollution, including a “pee-cycling” project being considered by one innovative town. And check out a documentary short exploring these issues that was co-produced by WBUR and Scientific American.[CLIP: Theme music]Rachel Feltman: Cape Cod’s ponds and bays have suffered from decades of pollution. But scientific detective work has finally pinpointed the worst culprit: human urine. When household septic systems flush nitrogen and other nutrients into the water, they provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for algae blooms. More algae means less sunlight and oxygen for other marine life, which means trouble for the people of Cape Cod.On supporting science journalismIf you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.For Science Quickly, I’m Rachel Feltman. Today we’re bringing you the second installment in our three-part Fascination series on Cape Cod’s yellow tide. In this episode WBUR environmental correspondent Barbara Moran looks at some of the big-ticket pollution solutions up for consideration—and unpacks why they’re so controversial.So without further ado, here’s part two: “Sticker Shock.”[CLIP: Gerard Martin speaks at a Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) hearing: “All right, excuse me, everybody, I think we’re gonna get going.”]Barbara Moran: Starting in late 2022 and continuing into the next year, concerned residents gathered for a series of public meetings with representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The residents were there to share their thoughts.[CLIP: Martin continues to speak at the hearing: “The hearing is being recorded and conducted in a hybrid format.”]Moran: The state was proposing new rules that would require communities to reduce their nitrogen pollution. In some places that meant people would potentially have to install new $35,000 septic systems. Here’s what Frank King of Brewster, Massachusetts, had to say about that.[CLIP: Frank King speaks at the MassDEP hearing: “If that is correct, you are looking at a massive protest on the scale of another Boston Tea Party.”][CLIP: Chris Shanahan speaks at the MassDEP hearing: “Thirty or thirty-five thousand dollars a year? That’s a complete misrepresentation.”]Moran: That’s Chris Shanahan of Falmouth, Massachusetts.[CLIP: Shanahan continues to speak at the hearing: “You can buy a system for that. You gotta maintain it. You gotta fix parts. It just never ends. So lifetime expense is more like eighty or a hundred thousand over 30 years.”][CLIP: Joan Hutchings speaks at the MassDEP hearing: “I’m not somebody that has a McMansion. I’ve got a three-bedroom home that’s been in my family for a bazillion years.”]Moran: Joan Hutchings of North Truro, Massachusetts. She said her town already made her upgrade her septic system.[CLIP: Hutchings continues to speak at the hearing: “Now the state’s gonna have me do something else? I don’t know, I might put an outhouse out back—seriously.”]Moran: People are concerned about the cost, as you heard. But they’re also concerned about whether these new systems even work. Can they actually prevent water pollution? I wondered the same thing. So I went to see an expert.Brian Baumgaertel: My name is Brian Baumgaertel. I’m the director of the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center.Moran: You met Brian briefly in Episode One. Now we’re on his home turf: a two-and-a-half acre outdoor laboratory on Cape Cod known as MASSTC.Brian’s team is on a mission to find the best septic systems in the world—and it’s not a job for the squeamish.[CLIP: Sound of wastewater channel]Moran (tape): All right, so I’m looking into this hole, and there’s, like, water pouring in and some scummy stuff floating around there.Baumgaertel: Yeah, that’s the raw wastewater coming in from Joint Base Cape Cod. And it doesn’t look like what most people would think of when—you know, when you’re thinking of wastewater, you think it’s pretty disgusting. I—you know, maybe I’ve just gotten so used to it. I don’t know.Moran (tape): It is a little disgusting. [Laughs]Baumgaertel: It’s got kind of a smell. You know, it’s one of the less glorious parts of MASSTC, but it’s a necessity. [Laughs] It’s brown gold, brown gold for us.Moran: MASSTC uses that brown gold to test prototype septic systems from all over the world. I ask Brian to show me one—although it’s hard to see much at the facility.Baumgaertel: A lot of what we do here is underground because of course, for the most part, septic systems in homes would be underground.Moran: Brian walks over to a grassy mound that looks weirdly like a burial site—which it is, actually. He says that buried underneath our feet is a new kind of septic system that removes nitrogen from wastewater.Here’s how it works: Wastewater flows into a tank, and all the solid stuff sinks to the bottom. The liquid left floating on top includes our pee, which is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients. This liquid flows out of the tank …Baumgaertel: And then flows into the actual unit itself …Moran (tape): Another tank that’s under our feet.Baumgaertel: Yep, yep. There’s another tank that’s about 12 feet long right here.Moran (tape): Okay.Baumgaertel: And inside that tank are a number of compartments.Moran: The compartments contain limestone rocks and wood chips. These ingredients create a breeding ground for bacteria that eat nitrogen. They convert it into harmless nitrogen gas before it gets into the groundwater.Other systems remove nitrogen in different ways. Brian and his team test the water coming out of each system to see how well it works. And he says this one has been working pretty well.Baumgaertel: So far the data look very encouraging. Every day we get a little bit more data, we get a little bit more confidence that the technology can work.[CLIP: “We Are Giants,” by Silver Maple]Moran: Others are also heartened by the data, including Zenas Crocker, who goes by Zee. He’s executive director of the nonprofit Barnstable Clean Water Coalition.Zenas Crocker: And this system is so successful that in the data that we’re seeing now, it will remove between 95 and 97 percent of nitrogen going into the groundwater.Moran: Zee’s group was so impressed with how well these systems remove nitrogen that it launched a pilot project. The group is installing more than a dozen in a neighborhood by Shubael Pond in Barnstable, Massachusetts—including one when I visited last September.[CLIP: Sound of chains being attached to a tank, followed by it being lifted]Moran: As we watch, a crane operator uses chains to lift a concrete tank and lower it into a hole in the ground.[CLIP: Sound of the tank being lowered and men talking]Moran: Zee’s group is working with the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor how well the new systems keep nitrogen out of the groundwater.Crocker: We chose this location in particular because these are all small lots. We’re also in a working-class community. Generally we’re looking at full-time residents here and people who really can’t afford, necessarily, to upgrade their septic systems.Moran: The Barnstable Clean Water Coalition paid to install the systems in this neighborhood; the homeowners paid nothing—which won’t be an option for the whole cape.But there is another approach to stopping wastewater pollution: switching from septic tanks to sewage pipes, which would bring the waste to a treatment plant. And that’s what Barnstable is doing in other parts of the town.I went to Barnstable’s town hall to meet the guy in charge.Moran (tape): Hi, how’re you doing? I have a nine o’clock interview with Mark Ells.Receptionist: Okay, sure, he’ll be right with you.Moran: Mark Ells is Barnstable’s town manager.Mark Ells: We’ve seen a significant deterioration of our bays to the point where we don’t have shellfish, we don’t have finfish. So we want to make sure that we put in place solutions that help us to address not only what we know today but what we’re anticipating tomorrow.Moran: Barnstable is the largest town on the cape, and parts are pretty urban, with houses and commercial buildings relatively close together. In places like this, sewer systems are a practical and cost-effective choice.So the town has begun a massive expansion of its sewer system, planning to extend service to almost 12,000 properties.[CLIP: “Let There Be Rain,” by Silver Maple]It’ll take 30 years and cost more than $1 billion. The town got local, state and federal funding to help cover the expansion costs. But homeowners will still have to pay.First there’s a town assessment of up to $10,000. Then homeowners have to pay to get their house hooked up to the sewer line and pay for someone to deal with their old septic tank. And then they’ll have a monthly sewer bill. The final cost, spread over decades, is probably in the range of $20,000 to $30,000—or more—per house.[CLIP: Construction sounds]Moran: And there’s another cost to installing sewer lines: seemingly constant roadwork and traffic jams.One day last fall cars crawled along as superintendent Mike Donovan’s crew dug up the main road into Barnstable.Moran (tape): Is this going to be, like, what your company does for, like, the next three decades?Mike Donovan: We—well, hopefully, yeah. That’s what we do for a living. We’re installing sewer all over the cape right now.Moran: But even this ambitious, expensive sewer expansion will take decades to reach some neighborhoods in Barnstable.Pat Uhlman lives across the street from Shubael Pond. And she’s seen it turn green with toxic algae. She says a few decades is too long to keep polluting the water.Pat Uhlman: If we don’t start cleaning it up now, you know, you might not even want to walk down by that pond by then.Moran: Luckily Pat is part of the neighborhood pilot project that got new septic systems installed for free. She says she understands that other homeowners are feeling sticker shock, but the pollution has to stop.Uhlman: The cape economy is still people coming here in the summer. So if they can’t swim in our ponds, they can’t swim in our ocean, they can’t boat, there’s not gonna be any reason for them to come here.[CLIP: Theme music]Moran: There may be another solution, a cheaper one. It won’t solve all the cape’s water problems, but it could help—a lot. We’ll talk about that next week in the final part of this Scientific American–WBUR Fascination miniseries.Feltman: Thanks for listening. Tune in next Friday for the final installment in this miniseries—which, spoiler alert, involves a little something called “pee-cycling.” You don’t want to miss it.Can’t wait for next Friday to get here? Don’t worry. We are taking Monday off for Memorial Day, but we’ll be back in your feed on Wednesday with some tips for protecting wildlife from the comfort of your own backyard.This series is a co-production of WBUR and Scientific American. It’s reported and hosted by WBUR’s Barbara Moran.Science Quickly is produced by Jeff DelViscio, Kelso Harper, Madison Goldberg and Rachel Feltman. Our theme music was composed by Dominic Smith. Shayna Posses and Aaron Shattuck fact-checked this series, and Duy Linh Tu and Sebastian Tuinder contributed reporting and sound. WBUR’s Kathleen Masterson edited this series. Additional funding was provided by the Pulitzer Center.For Scientific American’s Science Quickly, I’m Rachel Feltman.

New Plant-Based Plastic Releases 9 Times Less Microplastics

Recent research shows that plant-based plastics release far fewer microplastics than traditional plastics in marine environments, suggesting they could be a more environmentally friendly option....

A study by the University of Portsmouth and the Flanders Marine Institute has found that a plant-based plastic material emits significantly fewer microplastics than traditional plastic when subjected to sunlight and seawater. The research highlights the resilience of bio-based plastics and emphasizes the need for further investigation into their environmental impact, particularly in marine settings. Despite the promising results, the release of any microplastics remains concerning, pointing to a continued need for innovation and stricter environmental policies.Recent research shows that plant-based plastics release far fewer microplastics than traditional plastics in marine environments, suggesting they could be a more environmentally friendly option. However, continued research is crucial to fully assess their impact.A recent study has discovered that a new plant-based plastic material releases nine times fewer microplastics compared to traditional plastic when subjected to sunlight and seawater. Conducted by researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) in Belgium, the study examined the degradation of two different types of plastic under harsh conditions.A bio-based plastic material made from natural feedstocks held up better when exposed to intense UV light and seawater for 76 days – the equivalent of 24 months of sun exposure in central Europe – than a conventional plastic made from petroleum derivatives. Environmental Impacts of Bio-Based PlasticsProfessor of Mechanical Engineering, Hom Dhakal, from the University’s School of Mechanical and Design Engineering, and a member of Revolution Plastics said: “Bio-based plastics are gaining interest as alternatives to conventional plastics, but little is known about their potential source of microplastics pollution in the marine environment.Professor Hom Dhakal. Credit: University of Portsmouth“It’s important to understand how these materials behave when they’re exposed to extreme environments, so we can predict how they’ll work when they’re used in marine applications, like building a boat hull, and what impact they might have on ocean life.“By knowing the effect of different types of plastics on the environment, we can make better choices to protect our oceans.”According to the Plastic Oceans International Organization, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic is poured into the oceans every minute of the day. When this plastic waste is exposed to the environment, it breaks down into smaller particles that are less than 5mm in size.These particles are known as ‘microplastics’ and have been observed in most marine ecosystems, posing a serious threat to aquatic life.“We wanted to look at a conventional industrial polymer, polypropylene, which is non-biodegradable and difficult to recycle, against polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable polymer,” Professor Dhakal explained.“Although our findings show that the PLA released fewer microplastics, which means using plant-based plastics instead of oil-based ones might seem like a good idea to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, we need to be careful as microplastics are still clearly being released and that remains a concern.”Research Findings and Future DirectionsThe research also found that the size and shape of the tiny plastic pieces released depended on the type of plastic. The conventional plastic released smaller pieces and had fewer fiber-like shapes compared to the plant-based plastic.Professor Dhakal added: “Overall our research provides valuable insights into the behavior of different plastic types under environmental stressors, which is important for our future work to tackle plastic pollution. There is a clear need for continued research and proactive measures to mitigate the impact of microplastics on marine ecosystems.”Reference: “Accelerated fragmentation of two thermoplastics (polylactic acid and polypropylene) into microplastics after UV radiation and seawater immersion” by Zhiyue Niu, Marco Curto, Maelenn Le Gall, Elke Demeyer, Jana Asselman, Colin R Janssen, Hom Nath Dhakal, Peter Davies, Ana Isabel Catarino and Gert Everaert, 19 January 2024, Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety.DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoenv.2024.115981Professor Dhakal is a member of the Revolution Plastics initiative that has been instrumental in informing national and global policies on plastics, pioneering advanced enzyme recycling techniques, and contributing to critical discussions on the UN treaty to end plastic pollution.The study was led by experts from the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), in Belgium, under collaborative international work within the SeaBioComp project, which received funding from the Interreg 2 Seas Programme co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

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