Algalita Marine Research Blog

BPA Regulatory Reform Moves Glacially Slow

Posted by: Sarah Mosko

Pregnant Women Should Not Wait to Protect Fetuses

Mothers of infants and toddlers can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that BPA (bisphenol-A), an estrogen hormone-mimicking endocrine disruptor, was banned nationwide from baby bottles and sippy cups last year and from infant formula containers just months ago.

For decades, BPA has been a key component of both polycarbonate baby bottles & cups and the resin lining of most canned goods, including infant formula. BPA can migrate from the packaging into the contents. Literally hundreds of studies in lab animals and humans have linked BPA to such diverse medical problems as breast and prostate cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, miscarriage, low birth weight, reproductive and sexual dysfunction, and altered cognitive and behavioral development.

BPA things 6However, fetal exposure to BPA is far from a thing of the past, as pregnant women – and hence their fetuses – are still routinely exposed to BPA from canned foods & beverages and reusable plastic bottles, as well as thermal cash register receipts. Unfortunately, there seems little chance the federal government will step in any time soon to limit pregnant women’s exposure, even though scientists who study the health effects of BPA say there is more than enough scientific evidence to warrant it.

The Breast Cancer Fund (BCF), a non-profit dedicated to eliminating environmental causes of breast cancer, agrees. In a Sept. 2013 report titled “Disrupted Development: the Dangers of Prenatal BPA Exposure,” BCF summarized the latest research showing that exposure to BPA early in development sets the stage for diseases in adulthood. The organization’s “Cans, Not Cancer” campaign is focused on protecting pregnant women by pressuring manufacturers and policy makers to eliminate BPA from all food cans: Dietary intake is thought to be the greatest source of human exposure.

Many other groups are also clamoring for restrictions on BPA. For example, Environmental Working Group and a partner organization Keep-A-Breast just listed BPA in their dirty dozen most dangerous endocrine disruptors common in consumer products.

A look below at how federal BPA regulatory reform is stuck in quicksand explains why tighter restrictions on BPA in consumer products won’t likely happen until consumers demand it. In the meanwhile, health advocacy groups want the public to know anyone can minimize exposure to BPA by making informed consumer choices.

National Chemical Policy
The antiquated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), which charges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with protecting the public from dangerous chemicals, nonetheless gives EPA almost no power to impose restrictions on the 60,000 chemicals, including BPA, which were originally grandfathered in with no EPA testing.

Even now, TSCA allows new chemicals to enter the marketplace with little or no safety testing. Just over 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in commerce today have been required to undergo testing, and only five have been banned.

Widespread cries for chemical policy reform has finally produced a bipartisan-backed Senate bill aimed at modernizing TSCA by requiring EPA to identify, test the safety of, and impose appropriate restrictions on the riskier chemicals in its register (Chemical Safety Improvement Act). For the first time, the chemical industry, which has squelched previous pushes for TSCA reform, is generally voicing support for the bill as long as industry has a hand in amending it. This shift reflects the increasing chaos industry envisions as more states join the dozens of state and local governments already implementing their own chemical safety reforms.

However, many environmental health groups, spear-headed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, are withholding support because the bill pre-empts tougher restrictions passed by individual states, effectively weakening regional regulations on substances like BPA. Also, companies could still withhold the identity of chemicals in their products from the public.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates BPA too as an “indirect food additive” that leaches into foods from can linings and polycarbonate packaging. But, FDA has been anything but a leader in protecting the public from BPA. It imposed a national BPA ban in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012 only after manufacturers had already responded to public pressure by voluntarily removed BPA from those products and after 11 states had implemented their own bans. Similarly, four states had banned BPA from infant formula packaging before FDA followed suit in July, 2013.

Public pressure is even now nudging industry away from using BPA in reusable drink bottles designed for adults and older children, though the FDA has given no sign of intention to act on this issue.

Science and Government at Odds
Human exposure to BPA is widespread, with over 90 percent of adults testing positive. Moreover, BPA was detected in every sample in a recent study of fetal umbilical cord blood from pregnant women in California, with over one-third showing levels higher or comparable to those associated with developmental problems in animal studies.

NewbornThe government’s foot-dragging on addressing exposure in pregnant women stems in part from an out-dated model for determining the toxicity of a substance, designed before the term “endocrine disruptor” was even coined. That model assumes a “monotonic” relationship between dose and response, meaning that very low doses have negligible impact and negative effects appear and worsen as the dose goes up.

However, an enormous body of research, pioneered by University of Missouri developmental biologist Frederick vom Saal in the late 1990s, indicates that BPA behaves differently. Administered to pregnant animals, BPA produces more developmental havoc and adulthood diseases in the offspring when doses are below the government’s safety cut-off, probably because the body is designed to be sensitive to minute levels of natural hormones like estrogens.

Vom Saal and other BPA experts have been very vocal in their view that the government should be more proactive in protecting pregnant women and their fetuses.

The FDA claims to be continually reviewing the avalanche of recent low-dose studies, but in 2012 concluded that “the scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe.” However, a 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program stated there is “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children at current human exposures to BPA.”

California Inches Forward
California’s own ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups just took effect in July, but the state is not among the handful that has also prohibited BPA in infant formula packaging. And, Connecticut stands alone so far in prohibiting BPA-containing cash register receipts.

Proposition 65 is California’s “right to know” law, passed by voters in 1986 and requiring warning labels alerting consumers to products that contain possible carcinogens or reproductive toxicants. The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) added BPA as a reproductive toxicant to the Prop 65 list in April 2013 but removed it just six days later because a lawsuit was filed in response by the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association. OEHHA’s chief counsel states that the judge involved felt BPA should be delisted until the case is decided, which could be a while.

However, BPA is likely to be targeted also under California’s new Safer Consumer Products regulations which took effect October 1. Instead of the piecemeal approach of banning single chemicals in given products (like BPA in baby bottles), the state will select classes of products, like food packaging or nail polish, and make manufacturers responsible for analyzing whether replacement of hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives is possible.

This new approach is an outgrowth of the Green Chemistry Law passed during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship. The first list of products to be examined might not be finalized for a year, however.

How to Protect Yourself
Groups like BCF are urging the public, especially pregnant women, not to wait for industry or government to act, but to adopt practical habits to avoid unnecessary risk from BPA.

Market produceForemost is electing to eat meals made from fresh ingredients in lieu of canned foods. A 2011 study from BCF and Silent Spring Institute documented an average 60 percent drop in urinary BPA levels when typical American families avoided canned foods (and eating out) for just three days. But, when canned items are needed, reach for brands that claim to have already moved either away from BPA-containing can linings &/or to glass jars – Eden Organics, Amy’s Kitchen and Annie’s Homegrown, to name a few.

Also avoid eating or heating foods in plastics. Avoid especially those labelled with the plastic recycling code #7 which includes polycarbonate plastics. Some pliable PVC products (#3) also contain BPA. Use glass or stainless steel containers for storing foods.

Minimize contact with cash register receipts, and wash hands before eating to eliminate BPA residues.

Lastly, keep the pressure on mainstream food companies like Campbell’s Soup, Heinz and Nestle which claim to be working toward eliminating BPA from all canned foods. The domino effect that will move industry and eventually government begins with the public.
Photos sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Date Posted: December 3, 2013 @ 11:11 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Plastic Water Bottles: Harmful to the Ocean, Air, and You

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

“If you eliminate the scourge of bottled water, you’ll be eliminating one of the biggest problems facing our environment”

-Capt. Charles Moore

            For the past couple months, I’ve been back at community college taking pre-requisites for an environmental science grad school program. One of my professors recently had us watch a documentary called “Tapped” (featuring Capt. Moore), which discusses, among other issues, the negative environmental and health effects linked to disposable plastic water bottles, from their initial creation and bottling to their inevitable disposal. In addition to their contributions to ocean pollution and waste accumulation, there are a few other things I think we should all be aware of when it comes to the one-time use plastic items.

To recap a bit from previous posts, disposable plastic bottles (as well as other disposable plastic items) never fully biodegrade once they are thrown away. Bottles that aren’t recycled and are improperly disposed of often end up in landfills and the ocean. Though a combination of light rays and/or water help to degrade the bottles, tiny pieces of plastic still remain. It’s those tiny pieces that contain many of the harmful chemicals that were involved in manufacturing the bottles and that end up in the stomachs of countless marine animals and shorebirds. When we eat fish that have eaten plastic, we’re taking in traces of that plastic too.

But what do water bottles have to do with air quality? As the documentary also discusses, water bottles are manufactured in petrochemical plants that release harmful air contaminants. Various citizens interviewed who live near these plants reported numerous health problems, such as respiratory issues, that they believe were caused by the air pollutants emitting from the plants. Beth Terry’s “What’s Plastic Got to Do With Clean Air?” on the Moms Clean Air Force website offers additional information on the types of air contaminants involved in the plastic manufacturing process. (Link will be included at the end of this post).

What makes the use of plastic water bottles even harder to swallow are the chemicals we’re potentially ingesting with every sip. If harmful chemicals are going into plastic bottle production, it makes sense that those chemicals would still be present in the plastic once the manufacturing process is over. Plastic water bottles are known to leech or release harmful chemicals into the water they contain, especially when left in warm/hot environments (like in the trunks of our cars for soccer games, or in our garages until we need another case). The documentary particularly focuses on the bottles’ tendency to contain and release Bisphenol A, better known as BPA. BPA is a compound that imitates hormones in our bodies, and has been linked to a variety of health problems, such as breast and prostate cancer and low sperm count.

The good news is that we have the ability to keep from exposing ourselves, others, and the environment to the harmful effects associated with plastic water bottles. We can choose to invest in safer, sustainable alternatives, such as BPA-free reusable bottles and do away with harmful disposables for good.


Date Posted: October 11, 2013 @ 3:28 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Citizen Science: New Ways of Getting Involved

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

A little while ago, Katie, a member of the Algalita team, shared an article with me on the topic of citizen science. After doing a bit more research on the topic, I’m excited to share what I’ve learned about the ever-growing movement and the simple, fun ways we can contribute to scientific/environmental research.

Citizen science, as defined by National Geographic’s encyclopedic entry, “is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge” ( Through a variety of projects, activities, and even smartphone apps, citizens of all ages are able to share their findings and observations of the world around them with scientists. As noted by Timothy Clemson, author of “Citizen Science Heading for World Domination,” this form of information sharing between the public and the scientific community proves especially helpful in studies such as wildlife surveys and “important conservation work” ( The roots of citizen science go way back and include the efforts of the National Audubon society, whose Christmas Bird Count allows volunteers to contribute to wildlife census (nationalgeographic).

Advancements in technology have made it even easier for citizens to share their data and findings with scientists. Organizations such as NOAA’s Marine Debris Division in partnership with the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative have taken advantage of the technological boom by creating the Marine Debris Tracker app for cell phones ( The app allows users to track and report sightings of marine debris which goes towards data collection. Another great example of citizen scientists at work is the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, in which participants help with river bank clean-ups and have access to an “online greenhouse gas reduction calculator” (nationalgeographic).

With the growing number of citizen science projects out there, it is exciting to report that Algalita will also soon be a part of the citizen science movement. Algalita currently has plans to incorporate citizen science into its research, specifically into its GIS mapping database, which executive director Marieta Francis notes would be “critical for gathering information about plastic pollution.”

In addition to the numerous environmental benefits the citizen science movement presents, one of the most exciting, at least to me, is its potential enlightening effect on the participants. Before action and involvement comes an awareness and understanding of the issues, and citizen science allows its participants to accomplish both. Public awareness and response is essential for the success of any environmental effort and citizen science is proving how simple it can be to help make a difference in tracking and improving the state of the environment and its inhabitants.


Date Posted: September 5, 2013 @ 8:52 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Plastic Alternatives and Tips

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

Hello Algalita readers!

First and foremost I just want to send a huge thank you to everyone who read the last post (and any/all of the other ones on the Algalita blog). It means the world to know that people are reading up on ways we can decrease disposable plastic use and ultimately keep plastic out of the ocean.

In my research for this post, I came across some great articles with suggestions for sustainable, eco-friendly tips and alternatives to harmful disposable plastics (including some adorable eco-friendly diapers, but more on that later), and I thought I’d share some of them with you all. Happy reading!

Look for products with biodegradable and/or compostable packaging

They may be a little hard to find, but they are out there, and choosing products with biodegradable or compostable packaging can go a long way in helping reduce the amount of plastic waste created from more “traditional” packaging. One great summer find recommended by Anna Cummins, who worked with Algalita for several years, is Avasol’s “Surfer’s Barrier Stick” sunscreen, which is not only natural and organic, but comes in a biodegradable tube made from recycled paper.

Buy in bulk and skip the plastic produce bags

Buying food from bulk containers at the grocery store is another great way to help decrease the amount of plastic waste produced from product packaging and what’s best is that there’s a green way to do it. Several articles recommend using refillable/reusable cotton or cloth sacks instead of single-use disposable plastic bags when purchasing grocery essentials like cereal, rice, pasta, and even produce.

Make packing lunch a green affair…

There are several reusable, plastic-free alternatives available to decrease and/or eliminate plastic waste from packing meals. Reusable food containers come in all shapes and sizes and are just as effective in storing sandwiches and other portable meal staples as disposable plastic baggies without the excess waste. If you’re looking to try something a little different and unique, suggests trying out products from OM Goods, which sells stainless steel tiffins (“traditional Indian food containers composed of stackable tiers”). Additionally, has a line of reusable sandwich and snack bags with fun stylish designs.

…And diaper-changing too

As the Green Education Foundation reports, “The EPA estimates that 7.6 billion pounds of disposable diapers are discarded in the US each year,” and most of those diapers contain plastic. In addition to cloth diaper alternatives, there are also some great eco-friendly disposable diaper options as well, like the ones found on The Honest Company’s website, which are plant-based (and come in some pretty cool designs, I might add).


Date Posted: July 22, 2013 @ 12:17 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Green Summer Tips

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

With the official start to summer just around the corner (can you believe it’s almost here?), what better way to get ready for upcoming summer “funtivities” than to plan ahead to make them green and sustainable? Here are a few easy-to-follow tips  to reduce plastic use and make this summer a fun, eco-friendly one:

-Make picnics and camping trips green (via

Earthshare’s “Green Picnic Guide” and “Green Your Camping Trip” page suggest several helpful, easy ways to reduce unnecessary waste this summer, such as purchasing local grown fruit and veggies from farmers markets (which eliminates the need for pre-packaged plastic wrap), and opting for reusable, biodegradable, compostable, and/or recyclable supplies (ie, reusable grocery totes instead of plastic bags and reusable canisters instead of individual disposable beverage containers). Both pages also emphasize making sure that all waste is properly disposed of and not left at picnic/camping sites where it can make its way to storm drains/the ocean or harm any other natural habitats or creatures.

-Avoid using disposable bottles

With all the traveling about that usually takes place over the summer, it can be hard to resist the temptation to stock up on disposable plastic bottles. However, making use of reusable bottles can be just as effective and greatly reduces the amount of potential plastic waste produced. For example, if you’re going on a long road trip, you can fill large thermoses, canisters, and/or coolers with spouts with water to refill your smaller bottles on the trips.  Moreover, most parks, beaches, and other public places usually have water fountains, which makes it easier to refill reusable bottles and eliminates the need to purchase additional disposable bottles.

-Tupperware vs. plastic baggies

Taking the kids out to the park for a day? Instead of using up a bunch of disposable plastic baggies to transport snacks, why not store the snacks in reusable containers like Tupperware? Most brands offer containers in various sizes, making it easy to store and access snacks and eliminating any unnecessary waste from plastic bags. Plus, you only have to purchase the containers once and can use them for multiple trips rather than spend to restock on bags every time. (And you can transport the containers in your reusable grocery totes – it’s an eco-friendly win-win all around).

Date Posted: June 8, 2013 @ 7:23 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Mid-Ocean Plastics Cleanup Schemes: Too Little Too Late?

Posted by: Sarah Mosko

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImagine using a thimble to empty a bathtub, with the faucet still running. That’s how experts on ocean plastics pollution generally see schemes focused on extracting the debris from the open ocean instead of strategies to prevent plastic waste from getting there in the first place.

Interest in methods to rid the oceans of plastic debris is motivated by very real threats to the entire ocean food web. The “North Pacific Garbage Patch” is the most studied of the five subtropical gyres, gigantic whirlpools where waste is picked up and concentrated by slow-swirling currents. There, plastic debris already outweighs zooplankton, tiny creatures at the base of the food web, by a factor of 36:1, according to the latest trawls by Algalita.

Subtropical guresConventional plastics do not biodegrade on land or in water, but become brittle in sunlight and break apart into ever smaller bits of plastic, still containing toxic substances introduced during manufacture – like phthalates, bisphenol-A and flame retardants. Plastics also attract and concentrate persistent oily pollutants present in seawater. So plastic debris not only threatens sea creatures through entanglement or by clogging their digestive tracts, but also introduces dangerous chemicals into the food chain.

Except for the tiny fraction of plastics which has been incinerated, all plastic ever manufactured is still somewhere on the planet. And, with virgin plastics production still greatly outpacing recycling – which in the United States averaged only eight percent in 2010 – our oceans will continue to become more polluted with plastics until something is done to stop it. But given the vastness of the oceans, which cover 71% of the earth’s surface or some 360 million square kilometers, the question is, what realistically can be done?

rainbow runnerThere are obvious realities which have to be confronted in any offshore cleanup plan, starting with how to find the debris. Gyres are loosely-defined expanses the size of continents. Even in the center where debris accumulation peaks, the effect is of a plastic soup with fragments distributed throughout the water column to a depth of roughly 20 meters. And, plastics are in no way confined to gyres, but amassing throughout marine environments as diverse as shoreline mangroves and the Arctic seafloor.

Next is the challenge of selectively extracting plastics, which become microscopic over time, without destroying sea life, and what about plastics already colonized by sea creatures? Then follows the dilemma of what to do with the plastics once extracted and, of course, how to fund the operation. Moreover, any device deployed in the sea would have to contend with the highly corrosive forces wrought by constant motion, violent storms, and accumulation of bird droppings and barnacles.

Two very different, recently proposed cleanup schemes serve to illustrate inherent challenges.

The Clean Oceans Project (TCOP) is a Santa Cruz-based non-profit proposing to build a manned, 65-foot sailing catamaran designed to skim from the sea’s surface four common types of plastics that float: #2HDPE, #4LDPE, #5PP, & #6PS. Polymers that don’t float, like nylon or #3PVC, could not be targeted. However, as 80 percent of marine plastic pollution is from land-based sources and predominantly from single-use products made of the targeted polymers, a meaningful dent might be made in the millions of tons of plastic debris believed to pollute the N. Pacific Gyre alone.

Gyre currents conveniently sweep floating debris into “streams” called windrows, visible to the naked eye. TCOP’s co-founder, Jim Holm, says that sophisticated technologies already on the open market enable both pinpointing the densest streams for cherry picking and removing floating debris from the water. Plastics are reaped onto a conveyor that, by vibrating, wards off turtles and swimming fish. Creatures which have colonized the debris would be stripped by hand and returned to the sea.

The plan is to target only debris captured by a ¼ inch mesh, as removing the larger stuff should, consequently, diminish microplastics over time. A hand-held spectrophotometer would aid in sorting plastics by polymer.

For TCOP, the game changer was stumbling upon a Japanese company, Blest, that already markets a plastics-to-light crude oil converter that can generate a gallon of fuel from eight pounds of plastic waste. There are no toxic air emissions (just water vapor and carbon dioxide) because the plastics are not incinerated, just heated for distillation into fuels.

TCOP hopes to create the first-ever shipboard converter to generate enough fuel to supplement the wind and solar sail technology that would power the catamaran. The costly transfer of collected plastics to landfills or recyclers (located primarily in China) would be eliminated. Priced at $199,000, the converter is designed to handle ~500 pounds of plastic in a day.

TCOP is seeking funding to deploy a test run in the N. Pacific Gyre. Holm is forthright in dismissing any fantasy that the endeavor would be profitable, acknowledging the indispensable support from corporate and philanthropic organizations.

A Dutch engineering student, Boyan Slat, recently made a media splash for a different cleanup design which capitalizes instead on a gyre’s natural currents to sweep debris to a fixed collection vessel anchored to the seafloor. Though few details are offered at this point, Slat conceives of a giant manta ray-shaped platform sporting two long, arm-like booms in an open “V” configuration for trapping floating debris ushered in by the current.

The round-surfaced booms would encourage plankton and other creatures to slide under unharmed, while plankton captured accidentally would somehow be separated out by gentle centrifugation. Slat has boldly predicted that only 24 such devices, staggered in a zigzagging line spanning one radius of the N. Pacific Gyre, could virtually clean it up in just five years by removing an estimated 7,250,000,000 kg of plastic debris. He postulates that the venture could be paid for by selling collected plastics to recyclers.

Slat’s design is still in the early idea stage, as his Ocean Cleanup Foundation was just founded this year, and he is seeking donations totaling $80,000 to conduct feasibility studies.

There’s been no shortage of skepticism about Slat’s proposal. For example, Stiv Wilson, policy director for the non-profit 5 Gyres Institute dedicated to remediating ocean plastic pollution, points out that the average depth of the open ocean is nearly 4,000 feet, twice the deepest successful moorings to date, and that a violent storm can destroy the sturdiest anchoring. Wilson also believes the cost alone of hauling plastics back to shore and to recyclers would exceed their market value. Add to this costly spectrophotometric analysis for sorting by polymer.

C Moore with colonized plasticThe issue of whether there could ever be a market for plastics reaped from the sea definitely looms. Recycling weakens plastics’ polymer bonds, so plastics are generally “down-cycled” just once into end-products destined for landfills, like lumber. The first-ever plastic bottle with any post-ocean content, so far housing just one “Method” brand soap, is being marketed primarily to raise awareness about the need for packaging with recycled content. Infrastructure for recycling plastics in general within the United States remains very limited. Also, whether China will continue to accept the majority of U.S.’s plastic waste is brought into question by Operation Green Fence, China’s new policy blocking highly contaminated waste materials from entering.

Even if any gyre cleanup devices are ever successfully deployed, alone they could not solve the crisis of ocean plastics pollution, a conclusion that both Holm and Slat share. After recycling, the average American still generates a half pound of plastic refuse daily (USEPA). As consumption of plastics generally parallels development, worldwide plastic waste generation is expected to continue to rise into the future. It seems delusional to believe that open ocean cleanup schemes could keep pace with new plastics entering the oceans.

The only rational approach is to focus first and foremost on stemming the flow of plastics into marine environments. In addition to maximizing recycling and placing barriers at obvious ocean entry points like river mouths, significant societal transformations are needed: for consumers, a shift away from single-use plastics and, for industry, embracing “extended producer responsibility” policies which make producers responsible for the sustainability of what they manufacture.

A good start might entail a producer fee on products made of virgin plastics, asking manufacturers to take back and recycle their products, and an end to planned product obsolescence. A study recently published in Marine Pollution Bulletin confirms that marine litter is reduced when plastics are better managed on land.

Beach LitterFor plastics pollution already at sea, oceanographer and flotsam expert Curtis Ebbesmeyer points out that maybe half a gyre’s contents is jettisoned each rotation, ferried eventually by currents onto shores. This means anyone can lend a hand in gyre cleanup by participating in the annual International Coastal Cleanup organized by the Ocean Conservancy. The next one is on Sept. 21. (Photo right: Ocean Conservancy)

Date Posted: May 29, 2013 @ 6:14 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

After visiting Algalita’s lab and seeing how much plastic there can be in a small sample of ocean water, I decided to turn my research towards trying to find out just how plastic-filled our oceans are. Not so surprisingly though, the research has proved a bit difficult as there isn’t exactly a counter that ticks away numbers as plastic and other trash makes its way into the ocean.

Many sources cite a United Nations Environment Program figure, which estimates that there are about 13,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer of ocean. The figure sounds a bit unbelievable, but after seeing how many plastic particles there can be in a small Petri dish, it unfortunately may not be too far off. Other sources report that of the amount of marine debris found in the ocean, 60%-80% of it is made up of plastic.

What’s worse is that the size of most of the plastic makes it difficult to simply clean up or scoop out. When I spoke to Katie, a member of Algalita’s staff about the misconceptions concerning marine debris size, she mused that she almost wished it was a “plastic island” we were dealing with because that implies we could go in and take it out, but she noted that the situation is much more complicated than that.

Sadly, complicated might not even begin to cover it. As one source points out, “the majority of the plastic found in the ocean are tiny pieces less than 1 cm. in size, with the mass of 1/10 of a paper clip” (Cho). This not only makes the plastic difficult to see/distinguish (as I learned in the lab), but the size of the particles makes it difficult to extract too. NOAA explains that “straining ocean waters for plastics (e.g., microplastics) would capture the plankton that are the base of the marine food web and responsible for 50% of the photosynthesis on earth…roughly equivalent to all land plants!” (

Working in the lab and learning from the research really helped to put the scope of ocean plastic pollution into greater perspective for me. And even though it might be easy to become discouraged from the findings, I think the experience and research has increased my resolve to make efforts to keep any more plastic and other trash from reaching the ocean. Just as I’ve written about before, we all have the chance to make a positive impact on the situation by opting for more responsible, sustainable alternatives, reducing our consumption, and making sure our trash is properly disposed of.

Date Posted: May 20, 2013 @ 7:14 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Cheers for the Cheers for Change Fundraiser

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

Last Saturday I had the privilege of attending Algalita’s Cheers for Change Fundraiser in Long Beach. There I was able to meet more of Algalita’s team, and had the great honor of meeting Captain Moore. It was a truly wonderful and gratifying experience to see supporters come out, and I’m told that the silent auction went very well.

Staying true to sustainable practices, the fundraiser was kept plastic free. When we think of traditional social gatherings that involve serving food and drinks, this feat might sound quite difficult, but Algalita and its partners proved that plastic isn’t always necessary and that a plastic-free night is possible. Rather than Styrofoam or plastic cups, plates, or trash bags, the caterer (Whole Foods) brought eco-friendly plates and brown paper trash bags while glass glasses were provided by Algalita. To top it off, the plates and any leftover food were collected in the paper bags to be composted at a later time.

After observing these efforts, I think that what I got most out of the experience at the fundraiser was a sense of what a difference even a little bit of effort can make in reducing waste and helping the environment. It was just as easy to have compostable supplies over non-compostable ones, and all it took were simple decisions and requests on behalf of the consumers. As a result, there were a few paper bags of reusable/compostable materials versus the typical bulging plastic trash bags full of items that would have simply been discarded. I think it was nice to see how a little bit truly does go a long way towards reducing our environmental footprint and how it really isn’t as difficult as it may seem to incorporate sustainable practices.

Date Posted: May 4, 2013 @ 6:26 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Tales from the Algalita Research Lab

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

A couple weeks ago while I was on my spring break, I had the chance to spend a couple of afternoons at Algalita’s lab, located at the SEA Lab in Redondo Beach. There I met Ann, one of Algalita’s biologists and my source of information and guidance during my visits.

Once I arrived, Ann gave me a brief overview of the different types of tasks she performs and set me right to work on gaining some experience of my own.

The majority of my time at the lab was spent picking plastic particles out of water samples (a task dubbed by Ann as my “lab training”), which proved to be a lot more difficult than I anticipated. Ann showed me how to prepare a sample in a Petri dish from a larger sample of water collected from the ocean. I examined the Petri dish sample under a dissection microscope and used a couple different tweezers to separate and pick out plastic particles from other materials in the sample, like tiny pieces of wood and even microscopic organisms. The plastic particles I collected were placed in a smaller separate vial where I could watch as pieces of plastic slowly but surely accumulated.

If it sounds a bit tedious to pick plastic particles out of a water sample, it’s because it is. But more than that, the experience was also pretty eye-opening and insightful. I found that I was (and still am) most taken aback by how tiny a majority of the plastic particles I collected were, which made identifying the pieces a task in and of itself. The sheer amount of plastic I was able to collect from Petri dish-sized samples was also something to mull over; on both days that I visited, I spent two hours working with each sample and was not able to collect all the plastic particles from either. My second sample was particularly riddled with tiny pieces of Styrofoam that liked to stick to the sides of the dish (and pretty much everything else in the sample), making them especially difficult to collect.

As I worked, I had several thoughts running through my head: if I couldn’t always distinguish plastic particles from organic materials, how could fish and other marine life be expected to do the same? And if a small sample of ocean water contained that much plastic, how much would larger samples hold if they were to be examined? How much is actually floating around in the ocean? When I showed Ann how many pieces I collected and how there were still several pieces left in each sample at the end of my “training sessions,” she remarked that if anything, it was indication of how bad ocean plastic pollution actually is.

Along with developing even greater appreciation and admiration for Algalita’s research and work, I also came away from my time in the lab with a new outlook on waste disposal. Most of the time it seems like the general attitude about leaving trash behind is that a couple of pieces here and there can’t do much harm, but from what I saw in the lab, those few pieces left behind turn into thousands of harmful pieces when they’re left to decompose in places they shouldn’t. But just as a little bit goes a long way to add to the problem, a little bit can go along way in solving it too, and it may be as easy as tossing that abandoned water bottle in the recycling bin instead of leaving it behind.

Date Posted: April 23, 2013 @ 3:17 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Plastics-Free Living: Beyond the Low Hanging Fruit

Posted by: Sarah Mosko

Perhaps you already bring your own reusable grocery bags, have kicked the bottled water habit and know better than to microwave in plastics, but still find daily life swimming in plastics and want to use less of it.  After recycling, the average American still generates a half pound of plastic refuse daily, a concrete indicator of how deeply entrenched are plastic materials in our 21st century lifestyle (USEPA, 2010).

Rational reasons to cut back on plastics fall into one of two spheres: limiting exposure to hazardous chemicals associated with plastics – like bisphenol-A, phthalates and flame retardants – or reducing the harm to the environment incurred at all stages in plastics’ lifecycle, from extraction of the petroleum needed for manufacturing to disposal of the non-biodegradable finished products.

Short of adopting a Tarzan-like jungle existence, it’s probably impossible to completely eliminate plastics from modern day life, but with a little digging and shopping savvy, you can enlarge that dent in your plastics consumption.  Some ideas follow.

GROCERIES:  It can be daunting to find anything at conventional supermarket chains (e.g. Albertsons, Ralphs, Vons/Safeway) not packaged in plastic.  Stores select inventories based on their market niche which, for conventional supermarkets, is mainstream brands that emphasize value at competitive prices.  Plastic packaging is simply cheaper to produce and transport than, say, glass, so packaging choices are limited for most products.

Avoiding plastic packaging is much easier at so-called natural foods markets that serve a different market niche.  They stock a plethora of brands where the manufacturer has responded to consumer interests in a healthier lifestyle and alternative packaging.  Non-plastic options are available for most items storewide, many of which are also organic, though you can expect to pay more than for the mainstream brands.  Here are some specifics I found perusing my local Mothers, Sprouts and Whole Foods markets.

There are anywhere from a few to many options in glass containers for common pantry items including ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, molasses, spices, nut butters, steak & barbeque sauces, vegetable oils, vinegars, fruit juices, sodas and bottled water.  Many of the labels might be less familiar to mainstream shoppers, like Cadia, Annie’s Naturals, Lakewood Organic, and OOgavé.  A wide assortment of vitamins and dietary supplements are sold in glass too.

Milk typically comes in plastic jugs or plastic-coated paperboard cartons.  I located four brands in returnable/refillable glass bottles: Straus Family Creamery, Broguiere’s, Claravale Farm and Whole Foods label.  Likewise, two yogurt brands come in pint or quart glass jars, White Mountain and Saint Benoit, and the latter also offers single servings in ceramic cups.  Though butter in paper or foil-wrapped sticks is commonplace, I found only one margarine brand, Earth Balance, in sticks instead of plastic tubs.

No matter where you shop, you’ll cart away less plastic by investing in a handful of reusable bags designed for fresh produce and bulk items like nuts and dried fruits.  Many washable produce bags are available on the web, made from mesh or cloth.  Or, they are easy enough to sew yourself from fabric scraps.

PERSONAL HYGIENE:  Natural foods stores also stock several lines of facial care products (cleansers, toners) and skin moisturizes offered in glass, like Suki, John Masters Organic and Evanhealy.  Some cosmetics brands have committed to using glass or metal containers too.  There is even a brand of deodorant sold in glass spray bottles (Weleda), or you can go for a deodorant bar made of Himalayan crystal salt in paperboard packaging (Deo-Bar).  All-cotton swabs, without the plastic stick, are available too.

My personally favorite find is Eco-DenT, a brand of dental floss offering silk floss and vegetable oil wax alternatives to mainstream nylon floss with petrochemical wax.  It comes in a recyclable cardboard case.

DINING:  Keep a few sets of silverware in the car’s glove box for visiting eateries that serve plastic utensils, and carry reusable take-out containers in the trunk for leftovers.  If frozen coffee store drinks are your weakness, keep a travel drink container handy too.  When throwing parties, do like our grandmothers did, use real dishes and silverware, or at least choose service items carried at natural foods stores made from renewables, like corn starch and wheat straw.

HOME MAINTENANCE:  Though powder detergents are sometimes packaged in cardboard, even environmentally friendly liquid cleaning agents are sold in plastic.  However, it’s quite easy to make your own cleaning supplies from simple ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and lemon.  Enter “homemade cleaning products” in your search engine for recipes to tackle every household cleaning job.

When undertaking home remodeling, choose renewable materials whenever possible, like wood windows & doors, cork flooring and cellulose or cotton insulation.  Be aware that plastic decking lumber can’t be recycled so will eventually be landfilled.

SCHOOL AND OFFICE:  Choose backpacks made of canvas over vinyl ones.  Use paper lunch bags or reusable cloth totes in lieu of vinyl lunch boxes.  Waxed, parchment and butcher papers are all good substitutions for plastic sandwich bags and cling wrap.

The Center for Health and Environmental Justice in New Yorkmaintains extensive online inventories of non-plastic alternatives for every sort of school/office supply and where to purchase.  In addition to necessities like 3-ring binders, files, organizers and address books, the listing includes some surprising options, like bamboo-cased flash drives and highlighter wood pencils.  Many items are available at mainstream office supply stores.

DRIVING:  A vehicle’s interior plastics (dashboard and seating, e.g.) contribute to that infamous “new car smell” by off-gassing dozens of volatile chemicals, many known to be hazardous.  To help car buyers avoid the biggest offenders, last year the Ecology Center in Michigan released its latest rankings of over 200 recent models.  The Honda Civic and Toyota Prius were rated first and second best.  Eliminating polyvinyl plastics from interior components contributed to the Civic’s high status, though other plastics were substituted.  So consumers might still be limited to selecting a car with safer, but not less, plastics.

The explosion of consumer plastics was an outgrowth of petroleum-based industries developed in World War II.  That plastics are so durable and do not biodegrade seemed a good thing at the time, and the toxic nature of many chemicals associated with plastics was unknown.  Today, the wisdom of a culture so entrenched in plastic materials is being reevaluated.  While scientists continue to delineate all the health and environmental impacts of plastics, we already know that fetuses and young children are most susceptible to toxins and that plastics are amassing in even remote ocean regions.

It’s incumbent on us all to rethink our consumer choices and opt for materials we know are safer for our children and the rest of the planet too.

Date Posted: April 12, 2013 @ 8:48 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

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