Algalita Marine Research Blog

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

Regardless of the exact size, mass, and location of the garbage patch, human-made debris does not belong in our oceans and waterways”

                        -National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)1

Some say it’s the size of Texas. Others say it’s at least big enough to be called a “trash island.” But in actuality, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t even a “patch.”

As Algalita and several other organizations describe, a more appropriate description would be to refer to the “patch” as a “plastic soup” whose ingredients are things that should’ve never made their way into the ocean in the first place.  The main non-so-secret ingredients: thousands upon thousands of pieces of plastic.

How did this plastic soup get cooking? As the National Geographic explains it, plastic and other debris is drawn in toward the center of ocean gyres (circular ocean currents) where it accumulates. A lot of the plastic particles that make up the patch are so small they’re not visible to the naked eye, while other pieces of debris sink to the ocean floor.2

photo from marinedebris.noaa.gov

As unpleasing as the sight of trash in the ocean is, the environmental effects of all that garbage are even worse. Fish, turtles, and seabirds unknowingly eat the plastic and other debris and often starve or rupture organs because they cannot digest the trash.2 And as Algalita’s own Captain Charles Moore explained in an interview with Forbes, “about half a dozen species of fish that are consumed by people in Southern California…are consuming plastic so we’re starting to see plastic invading the human food chain as well as the animal food chain in the ocean.”3

Capt. Moore with an example of debris found in the patch (from forbes.com)

Unfortunately, the size, scope, and depth of the garbage patch make it very difficult to simply scoop up all the debris and remove it. NOAA reminds us that most of the plastic debris is microscopic in size, and that in the process of trying to capture the microplastic, we’d be taking essential microscopic plankton along with it.

So what can we do? Again, one of the greatest changes we can make is to incorporate more sustainable practices into daily life. This can be as easy as opting for reusable products over disposable ones whenever possible (which saves money in the long run). Making sure materials are properly recycled is another step, and is one we can directly benefit from right away; any stored up or lingering disposable bottles and cans that we might have right now can be taken to local recycling centers and exchanged for cash vouchers. There is always the option of participating in cleanups around our communities and beaches too.

 


References:

[1] NOAA (2012). De-mystifying the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/patch.html#5

[2] National Geographic (2013). Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Pacific Trash Vortex. http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/?ar_a=1

[3] Hoshaw, Lindsey. Article. “Game Over: An Ocean Hero’s Call to Action.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/lindseyhoshaw/2011/10/10/game-over-an-ocean-heros-call-to-action/

Algalita.org

http://www.algalita.org/AlgalitaFAQs.htm

 

Date Posted: March 27, 2013 @ 5:57 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Dangers of Disposables

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

The scene is set: A gorgeous day out on the beach, sun shining, and water pleasantly warm. But as you get closer to the water, the record playing the soundtrack to this idyllic sight suddenly scratches. It’s not that the water was colder than expected, or that you realized you forgot to put sunscreen on. It’s that there’s a plastic bag touching your foot instead of seaweed and plastic bottle caps washing up on shore instead of seashells.
Okay, these details may have been exaggerated a bit for effect, but this nightmare could easily be the new reality. The culprits: one-time use plastic bottles and bags.
But what could possibly be so bad about products that add so much convenience to everyday life? For starters, the fact that these products are both ready to use and easily disposable also means they accumulate waste. A lot of waste.
The Clean Air Council reports that annually, Americans use about 1 billion shopping bags which create 300,000 tons of landfill waste.1 Additionally, 38 million plastic bottles make their way to American dumps every year, and that number doesn’t even include soda bottles.2
To make matters worse, while these products overwhelm landfills, they simultaneously empty pockets and oil barrels. It costs $4,000 to recycle 1 ton of plastic bags and millions of barrels of oil each year to produce plastic bottles.1
The environmental consequences paint an even bleaker picture, especially for the ocean. Thousands of pieces of plastic can be found per square mile of ocean, and every year, plastic pollution causes the deaths of thousands of marine animals and birds.3 Plastic bottles and bags left in oceans never completely go away either. Even though light breaks the plastic down, there are still toxic particles left behind. Research is showing that these particles enter our food chains when marine animals like fish ingest them and we in turn eat the fish.
The silver lining is that it’s not too late to turn things around. In fact, it only takes a few simple changes to incorporate sustainable, ocean-friendly practices.
Instead of lugging heavy 24-packs of plastic water bottles home every week, why not invest in reusable bottles? A one-time investment of around $7 will save countless trips (and dollars) to buy disposable bottles each week, and will help to significantly reduce plastic waste. If you feel like splurging a bit, many brands offer sleek, stylish reusable bottles for a few dollars more.
With more and more SoCal cities banning one-time use plastic grocery bags, why not phase out the use of these bags too? Investing in reusable grocery bags is both eco-friendly and cost-effective. Many grocery stores charge 10 cents per disposable plastic bag, while others will actually knock 5 cents off a bill for every reusable bag brought in. And just as reusable bottles come in stylish designs, so do reusable bags and totes.
As a college student fortunate enough to go to school by the beach, keeping the oceans plastic free is a cause near and dear to my heart. The best part is, going-green has proved easier and more convenient than I thought. I save much-needed gas and textbook money by using a reusable water bottle (which I always get compliments on because of its cute design), and reusable grocery totes have served me well as makeshift gym and book bags.

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[1] Clean Air Council. Waste and Recycling Facts.
www.cleanair.org/Waste/wasteFacts.html

[2] Llanos, M (2005, March 3). Article. “Plastic Bottles Pile Up As Mountains of Waste.”
www.nbcnews.com/id/5279230/#.UUSbqhdJP4t

[3] Envirosax. (2012). Dangers of Plastic Bags.
www.envirosax.com/plastic_bag_facts

Date Posted: March 16, 2013 @ 5:03 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Posted by: Justinne Manahan

Hello Algalita Readers!

My name is Justinne and for the next couple months or so I’ll be contributing blog posts and articles to Algalita’s site. I’m a senior at Cal State Long Beach, and even though I’m an English major, I love learning about the ocean and the environment. A couple semesters ago, I was able to incorporate the state of the ocean into a research paper and learned about the different issues plaguing the ocean. I was shocked to learn about the amount of man-made pollution that makes its way into marine environments and causes serious damage. Since then, I’ve developed a great interest and concern for issues of ocean pollution, particularly plastic pollution because it affects humans too.

For the most part, the blog posts and articles will focus on bringing issues of plastic pollution in marine environments to light, which I hope will be just as insightful a learning experience for readers as it is for me. I will also be sharing tips on how to reduce disposable plastic use and describing some of my own experiences with using greener alternatives.

Thanks for reading!

Date Posted: March 11, 2013 @ 9:54 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Chemicals in Plastics Foster Diseases Passed on to Future Generations

Posted by: Sarah Mosko

In pregnant women, exposure today to endocrine-disrupting substances common in everyday plastics might not only be adversely affecting the health of their fetuses, but the health and fertility of their future great grandchildren might also be at risk, according to a laboratory study just published in January.1  The health risks are not handed down via changes to the genetic DNA code (i.e. gene mutations), but rather through a parallel biological scheme of coding known as “epigenetics.”

Background
Traits are passed from one generation to the next through two distinct but interacting vehicles of inheritance.  The genes that make up our DNA were once thought to contain the entire blueprint for all inherited traits. For some time, however, scientists have understood the critical role of another coding system that literally sits atop the DNA and instructs genes to turn on or off.  Because all cells in a given animal or human have the same DNA sequence as the original fertilized egg and sperm, another mechanism is needed to explain how cell differentiation occurs during development so that a heart cell, for example, ends up so different from, say, a brain or skin cell.

The prefix “epi” means “on top of,” hence the name epigenome referring to this supplementary code affixed to DNA that orchestrates development by regulating gene expression.  For some time now, scientists have known that a person’s epigenome is also involved in establishing susceptibility to diseases because whether or when certain genes are expressed can determine if a person will fall victim to some diseases.

It is also understood that the epigenome is not fixed during a person’s lifetime, but rather can be altered by environment (chemical exposure or even diet, e.g.).  However, it is only recently that scientists have clued into the fact that changes to the epigenome acquired during a lifetime can be passed from one generation to the next right along with the genetic DNA code within sperm or egg cells.  This means that environmentally-mediated modifications in susceptibility to disease have the potential to get passed along too.

Previous studies documented that the agricultural fungicide vinclozolin, when administered to pregnant female rodents, induced permanent epigenetic changes to the sperm of developing fetuses that were replicated and passed on to subsequent generations.  The epigenetic changes were deleterious in that they promoted certain adult-onset diseases.

The present study, conducted at Washington State University, focused instead on two known types of endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in mass-produced plastics, BPA (bisphenol-A) and phthalates.  BPA is a component of both polycarbonate plastics and the epoxy resin lining of most canned foods/beverages.  Exposure during fetal life is known, through animal studies, to impact a wide spectrum of adult-onset diseases, including polycystic ovaries, prostate disease, abnormal mammary gland development, behavioral hyperactivity and aggressiveness, and altered glucose metabolism.  Phthalates are softening agents common in PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastics and also a common ingredient of beauty products and adhesives.  Phthalates have been linked to many derailments in the normal development of both male and female reproductive systems, resulting in decreased fertility in both sexes.

What did they do?
Pregnant female rats (and consequently their fetuses) were exposed to mixtures of BPA and two phthalates (DEHP and DBP) over a one-week period spanning the critical window in fetal development when gonadal sex is determined.  The incidence of adult-onset diseases of the testis, prostate, ovary and kidney were determined in those fetuses and the grandchildren of those fetuses (i.e. the great grandchildren of the exposed pregnant females) once they reached adulthood.

In understanding this study, it is important to appreciate that the fetuses’ future grandchildren are the first generation where abnormalities cannot be attributed to a direct effect of chemical exposure to any of the fetuses’ tissues, but rather must have been handed down through undesirable epigenetic changes to the exposed fetuses’ sperm or eggs which remained fixed and passed on.  Prior research has shown that gene mutations are not involved.

The best understood epigenetic mechanism is “DNA methylation” where chemical fragments called methyl groups (–CH3) attach or detach to DNA and, in doing so, regulate gene expression. Furthermore, various environmental chemicals are known to alter the pattern of methylation.  In the present study, the researchers looked for enduring and heritable epigenetic changes resulting from exposure to BPA and phthalates by examining the methylation pattern of sperm DNA from both the exposed fetuses and those fetuses’ grandchildren.

What did they find?
As adults, both the originally exposed fetuses and their grandchildren showed increases in testis disease, obesity, ovarian disease, and shifted onset of puberty.  The original fetuses also showed increases in kidney and prostate disease, but those conditions were not inherited by their grandchildren.  The type of disease abnormalities detected were not tumors per se, but rather other tissue abnormalities, like polycystic ovaries or decreased sperm production.

The researchers were also able to identify several epigenetic methylation changes to the sperm DNA of the chemically exposed fetuses that were similarly passed to their grandchildren and thought to be involved in promoting the diseases.

Implications
The central finding of this study is that, in rats, short-term fetal exposure to a mixture of chemicals found in plastics has the potential of promoting adult-onset diseases that, in turn, are handed down to subsequent generations.  The inheritance is not through gene mutations, but rather through epigenetic changes (epimutations) to the developing fetus’ sperm DNA which are not reset with the next generation but rather replicated and passed on.

Rats are mammals and, as such, are useful models for gaining insight into how environmental toxins can affect humans.  This study suggests that plastics we are interacting with today might have the legacy of making our great grandchildren, and perhaps generations beyond, more susceptible to a whole host of diseases when they grow up.

The chemical doses used in this study were low for animal studies but admittedly higher than the levels to which humans are routinely exposed.  Nevertheless, widespread human contamination with both BPA and phthalates is well-documented.  Furthermore, human exposure to these chemicals likely occurs continuously throughout our lifetimes, given the near universal role of plastics in human activities, from dining and driving cars to computer work and housecleaning.  So though the results of this study do not provide any real measure of the risk to humans associated with our current levels of exposure to endocrine-disruptors in plastics, they certainly do raise the possibility that humanity’s love affair with plastics might have lasting effects on the health and fertility of future generations.

This speculation is in line with a growing body of evidence that endocrine disrupting chemicals now widespread in our environment are contributing to the lower sperm counts, more ovarian disease and increasing rates of obesity and infertility frequently seen in human populations (see Discussion).

There are already literally hundreds of studies documenting direct health effects in lab animals and even humans of fetal exposure to BPA and phthalates. We have been playing Russian roulette with these and literally tens of thousands of other synthetic chemicals allowed into commerce since World War II without prior health safety testing.  Chemicals in the United States are still regulated by antiquated legislation (Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976) which allows industry to market chemicals without proving their safety first.

For the sake of our own health and that of our progeny, not only do we need to continue mapping out how endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA and phthalates interact with the very apparatus of inheritance, but we also need to insist that the federal government adopts a precautionary approach to chemicals regulation that requires thorough vetting of chemicals for safety to humans and other life forms before being allowed into commerce.
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1M Manikkam et al.  Plastics derived endocrine disruptors (BPA, DEHP and DBP) induce epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of obesity, reproductive disease and sperm epimutations.  PLOS ONE, Jan. 2013.

Date Posted: February 20, 2013 @ 12:06 am Comments Off | Comment Shortcut

Plastic Debris Delivers Triple Toxic Whammy, Ocean Study Shows

Posted by: Sarah Mosko

While plastic refuse on land is a familiar eyesore as litter and a burden on our landfills, in the marine environment it can be lethal to sea creatures by way of ingestion or entanglement. Now, an important new study1 adds to a growing body of evidence that ocean plastic debris is also a threat to humans because plastics are vehicles for introducing toxic chemicals of three sources into the ocean food web.

Background

Two of the sources are intrinsic to the plastic material itself and have been described in previous studies. The first is the very building blocks of plastic polymers. A molecule of plastic is made by linking (polymerizing) literally thousands of chemical fragments called “monomers.” However, polymerization is never complete, always leaving some monomers unattached and free to migrate out into whatever medium the plastic comes in contact, like foods/beverages or the guts of a sea creature that mistook it for food. Some monomers are known to be inherently toxic, like vinyl chloride that makes up polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, styrene that makes up polystyrene, and bisphenol-A (BPA), the building block of polycarbonate plastics.

The second intrinsic source of risky chemicals is the brew of additives that manufacturers mix in to impart plastics with desired properties, such as hardness or resistance to photodegradation. Additives can have toxic properties of their own (like some softening agents and flame retardants), and they are also free to leach out and contaminate their surroundings. Manufacturers generally consider their blends of additives as proprietary information kept secret.

A study just published in December in the journal Environmental Science & Technology addresses a third but external source of toxic substances associated with plastics, deriving from oily pollutants commonly found in seawater that glom onto the surface of plastic debris. Plastics are oily materials synthesized from petroleum or natural gas and, as such, repel water. In water environments like the ocean, they attract other oily chemicals floating about. This was first measured in 2001 by Japanese researchers who found that plastic production pellets (the raw materials of plastic manufacturing) collected from coastal Japanese waters had accumulated toxins at concentrations up to a million times that found in the surrounding seawater. That study was limited to polypropylene (PP) pellets exposed for just 6 days and tested for two types of persistent toxins common in seawater that were banned in the United States in the 1970s and internationally in 2001: DDE (a breakdown product of the insecticide DDT credited with near extinction of the bald eagle) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, a family of chemicals with widespread electrical applications).

The study described here from researchers at San Diego State University elaborated on the Japanese findings in that it compared how readily the five most common mass-produced plastic polymers accumulate hazardous chemicals from local seawater and how long they take to reach steady state (equilibrium) levels.

The findings are especially disturbing given that trawls of the five oceanic gyres around the world are documenting the buildup of alarmingly high densities of plastic debris. In the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” between California and Japan, the latest trawls by the Algalita Marine Research Institute found that plastic debris outweighs zooplankton (tiny creatures at the bottom of the food web) by a factor of 36:1. Plastic is amassing even in areas as remote as the Arctic seafloor.

What Did They Do?
The researchers deposited uncontaminated, preproduction pellets (2-3 mm in size) of five types of plastics at five locations in San Diego Bay, CA. Samples were recovered for analysis of adhered toxins at intervals of 1, 3, 6, 9 and 12 months. Testing was performed for a total of 42 distinct chemicals falling into two general families of persistent organic pollutants: PCBs and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – components of fossil fuels and byproducts of burning fossil fuels or forest fires).

What Did They Find?
All five plastic polymers were accumulators of both PCBs and PAHs, showing increasing concentrations over time. However, three of the polymers (HDPE, LDPE and PP) consistently soaked up both chemical families at concentrations an order of magnitude higher than did the remaining two (PVC and PET), a pattern repeated at all time points and bay locations. After 12 months of exposure for example, there was a 34-fold difference in average total PCBs amassed on LDPE compared to PET at one location. At another site, average total PAHs adhered to HDPE was nearly 30 times that of PVC. The researchers think that differences in the size and shape of the polymer molecules can explain why some accumulate more pollutants than others.

As expected, seawater concentrations of PCBs and PAHs varied somewhat over time and between bay locations. Nonetheless, the researchers were able to show that PVC and PET had generally reached equilibrium concentrations of the pollutants by 6 months, whereas the other three plastics had not always reached equilibrium by even 12 months. This is much longer than had been predicted in previous laboratory simulations where polymers were not subject to weathering at sea. Weathering produces pits and other surface irregularities, increasing the surface area available to which toxins can stick.

Implications
Numerous studies have now documented that ingestion of marine plastic debris is commonplace at all levels of the food web, whether passively by filter feeders, like krill and many fish, or actively when mistaken for food by animals as diverse as sea birds, turtles and whales. All these creatures represent entry points into the ocean food web for toxins either placed in plastics during manufacturing or extracted later from seawater. This study highlights that mass-produced plastics today are all potential vehicles for transporting hazardous chemicals found in seawater, so it will be hard to argue that any one plastic is harmless as an ocean pollutant. As example, PP is often considered inherently less toxic than PVC because vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen, yet PP soaks up far more PCBs and PAHs from seawater. The study authors did suggest, however, that PET might be considered of relatively low toxicity because it generally contains fewer additives and appears to accumulate lower concentrations of seawater pollutants.

Another disturbing implication of this study is that, even after accumulation of seawater pollutants reaches an expected equilibrium over, say, several months, marine plastic debris can actually become progressively even more chemically hazardous as weathering continues to increase the surface area available for gathering pollutants. Analogously, larger plastics debris breaks apart over time into smaller bits, also increasing total surface area. The smaller the plastic debris, the greater likelihood it can be ingested by and introduce contaminants into the smallest creatures at the bottom of the food web. Adding to this concern are studies suggesting that “microplastics” (smaller than 1 mm, e.g.) might be more common and certainly harder to measure in marine environments than readily visible debris. No one has yet analyzed how high are the concentrations of ocean pollutants stuck to such miniscule, even microscopic, bits of plastics.

The findings of this study also serve to draw fire to any notion that developing marine biodegradable plastics will automatically eliminate the threat to human health of toxins associated with conventional plastics which are non-biodegradable within any meaningful human timescale. The sole standard established to date for biodegradation of plastics in the marine environment allows that, at 6 months, plastic bits up to 2 mm can remain and that only 30 percent of the original material must have successfully undergone biodegradation, as evidenced by conversion of carbon into carbon dioxide (ASTM D7081). This standard describes a framework allowing even biodegradable plastic debris ample opportunity to deliver a triple chemical threat into the ocean food chain and maybe even onto our own dinner plates.

1Rochman, C.M. et al.  Long-Term Field Measurement of Sorption of Organic Contaminants to Five Types of Plastic Pellets: Implications for Plastic Marine Debris.  Environmental Science & Technology (2013).

Date Posted: February 2, 2013 @ 12:19 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

2012 Accomplishments and Annual Appeal

Posted by: Katie Transue

I would like to express my profound gratitude for your commitment to our mission and vision.  Our success is built upon caring individuals like you who trust our ability to positively impact communities worldwide and inspire people to eradicate marine plastic pollution.  Let’s look back and celebrate our key accomplishments in 2012!

Asia Exploration Expedition

Our Asia Exploration Expedition enabled scientists, members of the media, students, educators, and others to witness firsthand the results of the cataclysmic disaster of the Japan tsunami of March 2011.  The 3800 nautical mile voyage provided a unique opportunity to conduct experiments in oceanography and plastic debris generation and movement.  Data will be entered into our new Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping program to understand better the impact on the overall ocean environment, the food chain, and, ultimately, human health.

POPS Speaker Training

 Algalita conducted another highly successful Youth Leadership Training. Twenty-two students improved their public speaking and presentation skills related to plastic marine debris. These students have been challenged to give three presentations within the 2012-13 school year and report their results to us via our website.
2012 POPS Video >>
Inspiring student panelist Ann Garth >>
Algalita Youth In Action Timeline >>
 

2013 and Beyond

Several critical research projects are in the works for 2013. The first project is to better understand the spatial and temporal aspects of plastic debris in the environment. We will work with Esri, a world leader in global mapping, to add greater functionality and data sorting to our Global Information System. Secondly, we will complete sample analysis from the tsunami voyages, providing invaluable insight into the impact of one devastating event on the marine ecosystem.

Two new educational programs will reach students and teachers in 2013. First, Algalita’s Environmental Education Kit will provide local teachers with new tools designed to give students a greater appreciation of the marine environment, how plastic pollution effects marine life, and the impact on the ocean by the actions of individuals. We will provide the kit to 125 middle schools and high schools throughout Southern California, impacting approximately 15,000 students. Second, the hands-on Science in a Suitcase education resource will supplement classroom science curricula, answering the age-old question, “what does science have to do with me?” This educational tool conforms to California Department of Education Science Standards. 32 schools throughout Southern California and nearly 3,500 students will be reached in 2013.

Call to Action

The issue of plastic marine pollution is critical. Time is of the essence. We have set an ambitious 2013 fundraising goal of $250,000. Our groundbreaking research and science-based education will make a positive impact on the health of our planet for generations to come. We invite you to join us in making a difference by contributing $25, $50, $100 or whatever you can afford by visit our donation page to make a tax deductible contribution.  Your gift is deeply appreciated … thank you very much.

 

Sincerely,
Marieta Francis. Executive Director
 

Date Posted: December 14, 2012 @ 10:08 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Bioplastics: Are They the Solution?

Posted by: Sarah Mosko

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko

Bioplastics are simply defined as plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, like plants and microorganisms, whereas conventional plastics are synthesized from non-renewable fossil fuels, either petroleum or natural gas. It’s a common misconception, however, that a bioplastic necessarily breaks down better in the environment than conventional plastics.

Bioplastics are nevertheless marketed as being better for the environment, but how do they really compare?

The Problems with Petroleum-Based Plastics

The push to develop bioplastics emerges from alarming realities starting with the staggering quantity of plastics being produced, over 20 pounds a month for every U.S. resident, according to the latest numbers from the American Chemistry Council. Conventional plastics do not biodegrade (defined below) within any meaningful human timescale – they just break apart into smaller plastic fragments. This means that, except for a tiny fraction of plastic that is combusted for energy production, all plastic eventually ends up as trash, either in landfills or as litter.

Petroleum and natural gas are actually organic substances, but why plastics synthesized from them do not biodegrade is straightforward. The exceptionally strong carbon-carbon bonds created to form the backbone of plastic polymers do not occur naturally in nature so are foreign to microorganisms which readily eat up other organic materials.

Molecules of conventional plastic are also gigantic, making them extra difficult to digest. Each is composed of literally thousands of repeating units called “monomers” so that the weight of a finished polymer molecule is typically over 10,000 (for comparison, the weight of a single water molecule is 18). The simplest is polyethylene (grocery bags, ketchup & shampoo bottles, e.g.) which is just an enormous string of carbon atoms with attached hydrogen atoms.

Captain Charles Moore’s latest trawls in the North Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Japan revealed that the ratio of the weight of plastic debris to zooplankton has risen to 36:1, a six-fold increase in a single decade. Plastic debris is increasing in even the most remote of ocean areas, like the Arctic seafloor.

Buildup of plastics in the marine environment is particularly worrisome. Creatures as varied as sandworms, barnacles, krill, jellyfish, birds, turtles and whales are known to ingest plastic debris, which can block digestive tracts, while many forms of sea life die instead from entanglement.

Furthermore, ingested plastics are a vehicle for transfer of toxins in seawater into the food web because we know from Japanese researchers that the oily nature of plastics allows them to concentrate oily toxins (like polychlorinated biphenyls, nonylphenols and derivatives of DDT) from seawater onto their surfaces. Food web contamination from potentially risky chemicals added to plastics during their manufacture (like bisphenol-A, phthalates and nonylphenols) is a parallel concern.

To understand if bioplastics are less of a hazard to the marine and other environments, it’s first helpful to clear up the meanings of often misconstrued terms describing the breakdown of plastics.

Degradable ≠ Biodegradable ≠ Compostable
Standards for measuring how plastics break down in particular environments have emerged only recently so are still in development. Comparisons among plastics are further complicated by the fact that no one entity is universally recognized as setting those standards.

Nevertheless, international standards have been established by two bodies, ASTM International (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials) and the Switzerland-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Despite the confusion this fragmentation generates, there is consensus on the distinctions between the key terms: degradable, biodegradable and compostable.

Degradable simply means that chemical changes takes place, maybe from sunlight or heat, that alter a plastic’s structure and properties, like clouding or fragmenting. Biodegradable more narrowly denotes that the degradation results from naturally-occurring microorganisms (bacteria, fungi or algae) but makes no guarantee that the degradation products are non-toxic or make good compost. Compostable goes a step further: ASTM’s definition, for example, specifies that the microorganisms’ breakdown products must yield “CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials and leave no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue,” such as heavy metals.

Plastics can potentially be designed to meet any standard(s) set by ASTM or ISO for breakdown in either aerobic environments, like water or soil, or in anaerobic ones (lacking oxygen), like enclosed wastewater treatment systems. The sealed-off environment within conventional landfills, however, is not amenable to biodegradation of any materials, so there has been little interest in developing standards for landfills.

Plastics manufacturers submit finished products to independent testing organizations which certify whether they meet standards for biodegradable or compostable in given environments.

The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) in New York offers a single certification, guaranteeing compostability (as defined by ASTM) in an industrial composter where conditions like temperature and humidity are tightly controlled. However, the significance of this certification within the United States is undermined by the reality that there are very few industrial composting facilities nationwide.

In Europe, where development of an infrastructure for composting is further along, the organization Vinçotte offers not only certification for industrial compostable but also for home compostable, biodegradable in agricultural soil, and biodegradable in fresh water.

The sole standard for biodegradation of plastics in the marine environment basically requires that, within six months, the plastic must be disintegrated into bits smaller than two millimeters and that biodegradation must have progressed so that at least 30 percent of the carbon has been converted by microorganisms into carbon dioxide (ASTM D7081). Neither BPI nor Vinçotte yet offer certification for this, so any company making this claim would be basing it on their own testing.

A Look at Bioplastics on the Market Today
The following compares the certifications and other environmental merits of some contemporary bioplastics grouped according to the source material (i.e. feedstock). Although starch and cellulose are actually biopolymers found in the natural world which can be converted into plastics (like packing peanuts which dissolve in water), the following discussion is limited to biopolymers synthesized by microorganisms in industrial settings because they represent the frontier of bioplastics and can be processed on the same equipment as conventional plastics.

Be mindful that you can’t rely on the internationally-recognized numbered chasing arrows system to identify bioplastics. Nearly all bioplastics fall under the “#7 OTHER” label which is a catchall for plastics not made of the conventional resin types, labeled #1 – #6.

Corn
Just one company worldwide claims to make bioplastics that meet ASTM’s marine biodegradable standard, Metabolix based in Massachusetts.
Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are biodegradable monomers, naturally made by bacteria during fermentation of sugar, which can be combined to make high molecular weight polymers suitable for plastics. Metabolix is using bacteria genetically altered to produce high yields of PHAs from the sugar in corn kernels. The resulting biopolymer, Mirel™, is pure PHAs except for proprietary additives mixed in to impart desired properties. According to company spokesperson Lynne Brum, the additives do not include bisphenol-A, phthalates or nonylphenols which have been linked to health problems in lab animals or humans.

Various Mirel™ resins are available for fashioning into many typically disposable items, such as eating utensils, food storage tubs, jars and lids. All are certified for industrial composting, and some are also certified for home composting and/or biodegradation in agricultural soil or fresh water.

However, only the thinnest film grades of Mirel™, appropriate for making carryout bags, yard waste/kitchen compost bags and agricultural film, supposedly meet marine biodegradable standards because greater material thickness would impede biodegradation.

As is true of conventional plastics and organic materials in general, Mirel™ will not biodegrade in landfills. Brum stated that although closed-loop recycling of Mirel™ is certainly possible, the company’s focus thus far has been on biodegradation as an end-of-life option.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a different biopolymer derived from corn through fermentation by bacteria that naturally produce lactic acid which is then tweaked to form polymers. The primary U.S.manufacturer, NatureWorks LLC, advertises that its PLA resin family, Ingeo, relies on no genetically-modified materials and uses 50 percent less energy and produces 60 percent fewer greenhouse gases than petroleum-based polymers. The range of possible applications is very wide, including clothing, durable goods like mobile phone casings, credit cards, drink bottles and all sorts of food packaging & food service items.

Although Ingeo does not biodegrade in any water or soil environments, it has received certifications for industrial composting. NatureWorks points out that used Ingeo is being recycled in a closed loop into new Ingeo, but recycling on a large scale is not yet feasible because Ingeo products lack a unique identification code and they have to be shipped to the sole recycler inNebraska.

An Italian company, Novamont, is manufacturing a family of biodegradable resins under the label MATER-BI® which do not necessarily qualify fully as bioplastics because unspecified “monomers” derived from “fossil fuels” can be used in the proprietary blends of ingredients which include cornstarch plus other renewables, like vegetable oils. Nevertheless, MATER-BI® resins are certified for industrial composting, and the company claims the feedstocks do not rely on genetically modified crops or deforestation. MATER-BI® can be made into a myriad of products including doggie poop bags, mulching film, shopping bags, bubble wrap, pens and rulers.

Sugarcane
Polyethylene (PE), the most ubiquitous plastic, is made by polymerizing ethylene synthesized from ethanol derived conventionally from petroleum, though synthesis of ethanol from plant sources is also possible. In Brazil, where sugarcane grows abundantly, a company named Braskem is manufacturing ethylene instead from ethanol made from fermented sugarcane. Braskem touts that its ‘Green Ethylene’ is 100 percent renewable source-based and the resulting ‘Green PE’ resins are at least 84 percent renewable content.

Because Green PE is identical to that produced from petroleum, it can be made into the very same products and recycled together with conventional PE. However, this also means it is no more biodegradable than conventional PE in any environment and poses the same risks to the ocean food chain.

Nevertheless, Braskem asserts that Green PE merits its green label on other grounds, like the fact that growing sugarcane draws carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. For every kilogram of Green PE produced, 2.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide are supposedly sequestered in the resin. Also, 50 percent more ethanol can be fermented from sugarcane than from corn.

Are Plastics Really Convenient?
Single-use, disposable plastics were a direct outgrowth of industries developed during World War II and quickly became symbolic of the convenience of modern day living. The supply of fossil fuels felt endless at the time, and the fact that plastics could be made into just about anything and were so long-lasting seemed a good thing.

Nowadays, the prospect of mass conversion from conventional plastics to ones made from renewable sources is raising concerns typically centered on deforestation, monocultures, fresh water supplies, soil erosion, food supplies and food prices as arable land would be diverted to growing feedstock for bioplastics.

Bioplastics manufacturers like to point to the fact that the fraction of global food crops or farm acreage currently used to make bioplastics is miniscule, sidestepping the obvious question of what the realistic impacts would be if bioplastics ever replace conventional ones on a large scale. Consider that ethanol gas, for example, is already in competition with the food supply for available corn.

A research institute in Rotorua, New Zealand called Scion is experimenting with an alternative renewable feedstock, sewage sludge. The idea is that, by cooking sewage sludge, reusable substances can be recovered and converted into bioplastics as well as fertilizers and biofuels. However, the first pilot plant began operations just a year ago, so it will be a long while before the feasibility of making any plastics from sewage is known.

Even if the feedstock issues can be resolved, what to do with plastics at the end of their useful life looms as the more daunting problem. Global figures from 2011 say the world is currently consuming over 450 billion pounds of plastic products a year (99 percent from fossil fuels), and plastic industry experts expect demand to rise exponentially within the next five years.

Even without any change in average per capita consumption (~65 pounds/year), humanity and the planet will be burdened with well over 700 billion pounds of additional plastics each year by mid-century when the world’s population is expected to top nine billion.

Bioplastics designed to biodegrade in industrial composters are no doubt an important step in reducing the burden placed on landfills, although widespread municipal composting in less developed countries is, at best, a pipedream at this point. Furthermore, making plastics compostable does nothing to prevent the continuing buildup of plastics in the marine environment. Ocean plastics derive primarily from land-based sources, like street litter carried via storm drains which empty into rivers flowing into the sea.

While the development of marine biodegradable plastics should be encouraged, it is wishful thinking to assume they will ultimately be the solution. Marine biodegradable plastics do not just dissolve in seawater. ASTM’s marine biodegradable standard allows that decomposing plastics can linger in seawater for many months, ample time to endanger sea life by ingestion or entanglement. Furthermore, we know nothing yet about how bioplastics compare to conventional ones as vehicles for transferring oily toxins in seawater into the food chain.

It’s even conceivable that wide availability of marine biodegradable plastics would add to the volume of ocean plastics because labeling as marine biodegradable might encourage dumping at sea, even though any ocean dumping of plastics has been illegal since 1988 by international treaty (MARPOL Annex V).

Halting the flow of all types of plastics into the ocean is the most rational solution to the crisis of plastic ocean debris. On a local level, this simply entails placing secure lids on trash receptacles and well-designed grates across all storm drains and river mouths that outflow to the sea. On a societal level, however, this means a deliberate shift away from the throwaway culture that led to the exponential rise in the production of plastics in the first place.

After more than a half century of profligate consumption of plastics, we are face-to-face with the reality that there is nothing convenient about getting rid of it all and preventing it from trashing our oceans and contaminating the marine food web.

Date Posted: November 8, 2012 @ 6:20 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Onward and Upward in Tokyo

Posted by: Katie Transue

The world of the international traveler does not always expand. In some ways it shrinks.  From my perspective, Tokyo is different than Hong Kong because in Tokyo you drive on the left and walk on the left.  I have to be careful because if someone is in a hurry and wants to pass me, I have to leave the right side of an escalator or sidewalk available.  I was surprised when I got to Hong Kong because even though they drive on the left, they walk on the right.  Hong Kong is not a subway/train city like Tokyo, maybe that is why. Although people are still in a hurry, maybe a bit less in the tropics, it is a taxi/ferry city since it is full of islands and mountains.

Whether passing on the right or the left, people everywhere I go are surprised to learn about the extent and impacts of the plastic plague of waste that is a major side effect of global modernity.

In Tokyo, Patagonia clothing stores served as the grass roots venues for two Plastic Pollution Conversations.  Employees were especially interested in my information, and wanted to know about the issue of their polyester fibers polluting marine sediments, an issue which has received media attention recently.  This of course fits into my point about plastic pollution being non-point source pollution.  I suggested that washing  machines needed better filters for the thousands of micro-plastic fibers that come out with the rinse water and predicted that a forward thinking company like Patagonia was probably going to be among the first to find alternatives to polyester that don’t pollute.

A middle school that is fighting plastic pollution with filling stations for reusable bottles also hosted my talk.  Unfortunately it was during finals and the kids were exhausted from studying late.  I don’t think I have seen as many nodding heads and drooping eyelids in my audiences anywhere else I have presented.

The grand finale was at Kasumigaseki, an enormous high rise complex that was once the tallest building in Tokyo.  It was here that my host at Fight House (a converted apartment building used for victims left homeless by the tsunami where I stayed), had arranged a high level press conference both for the publishers of my book, PLASTIC OCEAN, in Japanese, NHK, and for the press to view the “Inconvenient Truth of Waste,”  Trashed, narrated by Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons.  I introduced the film with a power point presentation and took questions after the film.  As a result, I got an interview with the largest daily in Japan that everybody reads, Tokyo Shinbun.  It included pictures and was a great kick off for my Pacific Rim Plastic Pollution Conversation Tour.

More to follow from Tasmania and the Australian mainland.
As Jeanne Gallagher, my steadfast support on the home front likes to say: “Onward and Upward.”

- Captain Charles Moore

Date Posted: September 25, 2012 @ 5:39 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

On the ground at the site of largest plastic pellet spill in history

Posted by: Katie Transue

Dear All,
I am now concluding the first third of the tour in Hong Kong, the site of the largest plastic pellet spill in recorded history. One consequence of the spill was to ruin the livelihood of the fish farmers in the harbor. Since the fish in the net cages at the farms were used to having their food given to them in pellet form, they thought it was Xmas when thousands of pellets wafted into their habitat. They gorged themselves and then floated belly up on the surface, unable to move the pellets through their digestive tract. Tracey Read, who discovered the spill when she found bags and bags of the pellets on her local beach, along with Gary, a volunteer with Sea Shephard, documented this and I have video of the fish in distress swimming belly up and a dissection by one of the fish farmers of the stomach contents showing many pre-production polypropylene pellets. Dr. Takada, at Tokyo U analyzed the pellets and found them to be free from toxic additives, so there was no real danger in eating the flesh of the sick fish, but word had gotten out that the fish were dying after having eaten the pellets and all the retail outlets refused shipments, so the farmers had to organize fish frys for their friends to use the meat.
Video: Plastic Disaster (Hong Kong pellet spill)

Yesterday, I helped kick off the International Coastal Cleanup in Hong Kong, with lots of media including Nat Geo and Fox International. I visited the beach where the pellets were first found on Lantau Island and was shocked by the quantities still there. The young people cleaning the beach had been using colanders to sift the pellets out of the sand, but decided to invent a rotating screen that you put sand in one end and turn and have pellets coming out the other. Kids would turn it for fun for half an hour , so volunteer beach cleanup technology is advancing rapidly.

There are quite a few international schools in Hong Kong and I have spoken to two of them, The Canadian International School and the Li Po Chun United World College started by the founder of Outward Bound.
We have had excellent turnouts at all venues, and I believe I have reached close to one thousand individuals here in Hong Kong with information about the Plastic Plague affection our world ocean.

In Tokyo, I also spoke to a middle school and had a press conference, where I gave a Power Point Presentation in advance of the screening of Trashed with Japanese subtitles rendered with the help of Shin Takahasi. I also was hosted at two Patagonia outlets and had good book sales for Plastic Ocean in Japanese. The publisher, NHK, was very supportive and attended these events.

Today I am looking forward to getting out on the water sailing to a remote island off Hong Kong which is reported to have a dump like the one in Lebanon shown in Trashed which is bulldozing rubbish into the sea.

Tomorrow on to Hobart and Sydney,
Best to all,
Captain Charles Moore

Date Posted: September 16, 2012 @ 2:11 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Greening Laundry Day: Avoid Polyester Fabrics

Posted by: Sarah Mosko

By Sarah (Steve Mosko

A single polyester garment can shed >1900 microplastic fibers per wash

If you have already switched to an eco-friendly laundry detergent, as many people do to contribute less to water pollution, you might be surprised to learn that the pollution you generate on wash day has as much to do with the kind of fabrics your clothes, bedding and towels are made of as the detergent you wash them in.

Recent studies have revealed that a single garment made of polyester can shed innumerable tiny fibers into the wash water, and those fibers are finding their way to the ocean. The pollution they cause is worsened by the fact that, like plastic materials in general, polyester attracts oily pollutants in seawater so is a vehicle for the transfer of potentially dangerous chemicals into the food web when the fibers are ingested by sea creatures.

Although we don’t usually think of polyester fabrics as plastic per se, polyester is nonetheless a plastic material synthesized from crude oil and natural gas. And, like other plastics, polyester is a long polymer chain, making it non-biodegradable in any practical human scale of time, especially in the ocean because of the cooler temperatures.

Particular attention to ocean pollution from plastics has intensified ever since the late ‘90s when Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation based in California first trawled a now infamous area of the Pacific Ocean dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” to quantify the extent of plastic pollution. The startling discovery at that time was that plastic debris already outweighed zooplankton (organisms at the base of the ocean food web) by a factor of six to one. Moore just revisited the same area last year and reports that the ratio of plastic debris to zooplankton has increased six-fold in under a decade.

When we reflect on ocean pollution from plastics, we tend to think of larger eyesores of plastic debris, like plastic bags, foam cups, abandoned fishing nets and drink bottles & caps. It’s already well-documented that many fish, seabirds, turtles and marine mammals die each year because of ingestion or entanglement in such obvious plastic refuse. But when exposed to sunlight and other environmental stresses, plastics break apart into smaller scraps which, nevertheless, remain as a plastic polymer and non-biodegradable. Once fragmented into bits less than one millimeter (the size of a pin head), they are called “microplastics.”

The breakdown of larger plastics is not the only known source of microplastics pollution. Two others have been identified in the sewage stream: tiny plastic granules, used in beauty products and cleaning agents as scrubbers, and spillage of plastic powders and pellets which are the industrial raw materials for fabricating consumer plastics. Microplastic fibers of an unknown source are also showing up in the sewage stream.  Because waste treatment plants are not designed to filter out microplastics, any that enter the sewage stream end up in the ocean and anywhere else the outflow from waste treatment plants is dumped.

Though invisible to the casual observer, microplastics are accumulating throughout marine habitats, and research is showing that they already outnumber larger plastic fragments. For example, one study sampling a British estuary – where the ocean tide meets a river’s end – found that microplastics accounted for 65 percent of all plastic debris.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, the tiny dimension of microplastics actually adds to the dangers they represent as ocean pollutants. Since a pioneering study published in 2001, we’ve known that, because plastics are lipophylic (oil-loving), oily contaminants in seawater are drawn to them. Japanese researchers found that plastic pellets no more than a half millimeter in diameter could adsorb hazardous chemicals (like polychlorinated biphenyls, nonylphenols and derivatives of DDT) onto their surfaces at up to one million times the concentrations in the surrounding water. The kicker about microplastics is that, because of their smallness, the surface area is large relative to the overall size, providing more surface area to which chemicals can adhere: Think of a bottle filled with marbles – the total surface area of all the marbles is greater than the surface area of the bottle.

And, the miniscule size of microplastics means that even minute creatures could ingest them, either by accident or by mistaking them for food, thereby introducing any chemicals on board into the very bottom of the food chain. Adding to this worry, plastics themselves are generally complex substances with several chemical additives, some with known negative health effects in lab animals and humans. Scientists have already documented ingestion of microplastics by little ocean critters like sandworms, barnacles and small crustaceans called amphipods. Research has also shown that, once ingested by animals, microplastics are stored in tissues and cells with unknown health consequences for both the animals and us eating up at the top of the food chain.

Another obvious downside to microplastics is that their size makes them utterly impossible to clean up once they get into the ocean, or any other environment for that matter.

What all this has to do with polyester fabrics on wash day is pretty straightforward. Polyester cloths are used in innumerable items routinely laundered at home, such as blankets, towels and every sort of garment. They are by design composed of tiny plastic fibers, so on a hunch that polyester fibers from laundering are a major source of the microplastic fibers polluting ocean habitats, a team of researchers from the British Isles, Canada and Australia measured the quantity of microplastic fibers from polyester blankets, shirts and fleeces that are discharged into the wastewater from domestic washing machines. As reported in a November 2011 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology, a single polyester item can produce more than 1900 fibers in one washing. Every article tested produced more than 100 microfibers per liter of wastewater, and the worst offenders were the fleeces.

The researchers also provided strong evidence linking polyester from laundering to ocean pollution. They found that every one of 18 shorelines sampled across the globe was fouled with microplastic fibers, predominantly of polyester. The shorelines of more densely populated areas or where sewage is discharged were the most contaminated. Furthermore, by characterizing the microplastics in the outflow of sewage treatment plants, they were able to show that polyester fibers from laundering were the prime source of microplastic pollution in general, more than from fragmentation of larger plastics or from cleaning products.

Polyester fleece has been touted as a good environmental choice because it can be manufactured out of recycled plastic bottles, but these new findings on microplastics put a whole new slant on the sustainability of any polyester fabrics. Even when manufactured from recycled plastic, the persistent ocean pollution polyester inevitably creates downstream should outweigh any arguments in favor. The fact that polyester is ultimately derived from petroleum oil and natural gas, both non-renewable resources, adds further weight to such misgivings.

Human population went from 2.5 billion in 1950 to seven billion today and is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. We probably can’t do anything about the microplastics that are already contaminating our oceans and other environments, but we can stem the flow of further microplastics by making smarter, more responsible choices of what we purchase and throw into the washing machine on laundry day.

Natural fiber cloths of cotton, silk, wool, bamboo, hemp and even soy are available. All derive from renewable sources, are intrinsically biodegradable, and their fibers would not attract oily chemicals out of seawater.

Date Posted: August 20, 2012 @ 5:51 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

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