A blog set out to explore, archive & relate plastic pollution happening world-wide, while learning about on-going efforts and solutions to help break free of our addiction to single-use plastics & sharing this awareness with a community of clean water lovers everywhere!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

7 Dangerous Lies About Plastic

Big Plastic is big money and survives regulatory scrutiny by creating big spin. Here's what you need to know.
Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library: fish1968 by LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.
To receive a Ph.D in industrial chemistry in the United States, no American university requires candidates to take even a single toxicology class as part of their course work. We churn out new chemists with the divine power to manipulate the very structure of nature itself, without teaching them the divine wisdom of how to wield that power.

Nearly everything we consume or even interact with these days is made of plastic. The industry that produces plastic, largely represented by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), has an annual budget of over $120 million to protect its interests. But as the plague of plastic that wreaks havoc on our environment slowly gains the attention of policymakers, concerned citizens and the media, the makers of plastic resins and the companies that package their products have become increasingly aggressive about defending their respective bottom lines.

Taking tactics from Big Tobacco's playbook, the industry engages in bully tactics, politician buys and wide-scale misinformation campaigns meant to confuse the public and turn truth to speculation. Big Plastic is big money and survives regulatory scrutiny by creating big spin.

Because of slashed budgets to regulatory agencies, little private-sector money for watchdogging industry, and a lazy mainstream press that simply regurgitates its claims, the petrochemical industry goes largely unchecked. Here are some of the biggest whoppers.

Lie #1: Plastics are safe.
To date, we use over 248,000 chemicals in commerce and we don't know which ones are harmful or safe. Why? Because the vast amount of research on plastics we use in our lives comes from the plastic industry.

Much of the plastic we see on a daily basis we know by its designated recycling numbers 1 through 7. These plastics are not pure; rather, they're a proprietary formulation of additives, some of which have been shown to be endocrine disrupters, carcinogenic and pose countless other health concerns, but very, very little data exists on additives, toxicologically speaking. In the United States, chemicals that make plastics are innocent until proven guilty, leaving the burden of proof of toxicity to the vastly underfunded and under-staffed Environmental Protection Agency.

With 248,000 chemicals on the market, don't expect any light shed here anytime soon.
Perhaps the best-known additive is bisphenol-A, or BPA. Though it's gained media traction having been shown to cause sexual mutations, cardiovascular disorders, obesity, and diabetes, the $6 billion annual industry makes the plastics industry protect it fiercely, even though Centers for Disease Control studies have shown that 93 percent of the adult population has BPA present in their urine. BPA has been on the radar of environmentalists for years but few policy victories have been won because industry-funded studies repeatedly don't show adverse effects, though all the independent studies do.

Lie #2: The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch does not exist.
In a 25-page report for the Save the Bag Coalition, meant to refute claims made by the media and environmentalists about the presence of plastic in the ocean, attorney Stephen Joseph wrote that the "so-called 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch,' which is alleged to be twice the size of Texas, does not exist." To keep the speculation on the table, industry hammers on a single point; in early 2011, Oregon State University issued a press release titled, "Oceanic "Garbage Patch' Not Nearly As Big As Portrayed By Media" and a huge media storm ensued calling out environmentalists as a result.

Why this press release was so widely distributed is strange, because the woman who issued it isn't even a relevant name in the plastics research world. But seeing an opportunity to pound environmentalists, the plastic industry created a PR blitz sending press releases to media and form letters to lawmakers. What's interesting is that no one can attribute who first made the Texas-sized analogy, and no primary source for the quote exists, though it certainly went viral.

The researcher from OSU, Angelique White, is correct in her assessment from the best available data, but the data available isn't enough by several degrees of scale to accurately predict spatial distribution of plastics in the gyres (which any scientist who works on the issue will tell you, explicitly), or the ocean in general. To do so would mean that 70 percent of the surface of the earth surface had been sampled.

Well, that's not going to happen anytime soon, as research vessels cost about $30,000 a day and funding is very limited in this field, because so many corporate interests that might sponsor such research depend on plastic to deliver their products. What scientists do know is that 200 billion pounds of plastic are produced each year, and that number is on the rise, and mitigation strategies for keeping plastics out of the ocean are failing, horribly. Greenpeace estimates that of the 200 billion pounds produced annually, 10 percent makes it into the ocean.

To date, the best estimate of how much plastic is in the gyres comes from Columbia University. Researchers took all the major data sets (of which there are very, very few) that exist and calculated 73,878,000 pounds of plastic in the area of the gyres, which accounts for just 16 million of the earth's 315 million square kilometers of ocean surface.

Another problem with determining the scale of plastic pollution is that half of the plastics that are made sink and to date no data exists on how much plastic lies beneath the surface of the water. But when speaking only of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles, a type of plastic that sinks, we know that Americans alone discard 22 billion a year. Scientists who work on plastic in the ocean often refer to it as, "the world's largest dump." But without "conclusive" data, industry can stay on the offensive.

Lie #3: Plastics don't kill sea life or pose a threat to people eating fish.
While occasionally industry will acknowledge that marine animals do eat plastics from time to time, they make a point of stating that they don't know if the plastics are definitively responsible for the animal's death. To date, 177 species of marine life have been shown to ingest plastics and the number is likely to get much higher as more research is done. Recently published evidence has shown that shards of plastic eroded from synthetic clothing in the washing machine is so small that it can enter an animal at the cellular level.

But determining death, or eventual death of an animal based on a necropsy (autopsy for animals) is notoriously difficult in some cases. What's at issue is that again, industry takes advantage of the "unknowns" to make the assertion that their products don't cause morbidity. Scientists can't absolutely know what causes an animal's death unless it lives and dies in a controlled environment. But opening up a turtle stomach and finding pounds of plastic in it might give them a clue. How long would a turtle have survived with this much plastic garbage in his guts?

We know that most types of plastic aren't passed by a turtle and that it wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. We also know that carrying around a stomach full of plastic is going to slow him down and change his natural buoyancy. Sharper plastics, cause gut impaction and the potential for stomach wall and intestinal perforation. In the wild, everything about an animal's health and agility matters in determining his survival quotient.

In December, a study was published in Science Of The Total Environment that looked to see if the digestive juices of turtles could make plastic bags decay. Three common types of shopping bags (including bioplastic) were subjected to the gastrointestinal fluids of Green and Loggerheads turtles. Without exception, the ubiquitous High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) bag showed "negligible" biodegradability -- which means if a turtle can't pass it, he's stuck with it forever.

Beyond turtles, 9 percent of base food chain fish (which represents as much as 50 percent of the biomass of fish in the entire ocean) sampled in the North Pacific have been shown to ingest plastics, and along with it a toxic soup of PAHs, flame retardants, DDE (a persistent form of the outlawed DDT) and PCBs. Concentrations of these chemicals in ocean-borne plastics have been shown to be up to a million times higher than the ambient sea water around it.

Bigger fish eat the fish that eat these toxic bombs and so do humans at the top of the food chain. All humans have levels of these toxins in their blood and men can't get rid of them. Women can only pass the chemicals through the umbilical chord and through breast milk, and thus, a higher and higher chemical burden in the human body will result from generation to generation.

Lie #4: It shouldn't be called "plastic pollution" but rather "marine debris."
What's the most common type of plastic found on the surface of the ocean? According to the Ocean Conservancy's annual report, 11 percent of beach litter is plastic bags. But what happens when a plastic bag enters the ocean? Plastic doesn't biodegrade in any meaningful timeframe, but it photo-degrades. Thin, flimsy plastic like HDPE with a lot of surface area (like the common bag from grocery stores) photo-degrades faster than thicker plastic.

Ultraviolet rays from the sun break the polymer chains of hydrocarbon molecules into smaller pieces and what you end up with is small fragments. So, you might not find a plastic bag in the "garbage patch" but you surely will find the remnants of them. Plastic bags are of the class of plastics recyclers refer to as "blow trash" as they tend to be picked up by the wind and blown out to sea. They're huge offenders of plastic pollution as Americans consume more than 100 billion a year.

Keith Christman, managing director for plastics markets at the ACC, maintained that "marine debris" is a better phrase than "plastic pollution" for describing the trash in the ocean even though 90 percent of the contents of the gyres is plastic. Christman, understanding the negative implications of his product's association with the word "pollution," mentioned that it's not just plastic, but derelict fishing gear as well. All modern fishing gear is made of polypropylene, i.e. plastic. This is a sore spot for the ACC, and marine plastics research and education groups that receive funding from the ACC are typically "mandated" to refer to oceanic trash as marine debris to keep the burden of guilt from resting squarely on their shoulders.

Lie #5: "Plastic retail carry-out bags are 100-percent recyclable and made from clean natural gas."
This is a direct statement issued by the American Progressive Bag Alliance to the city of Dana Point, California in a letter regarding a proposed bag ban. That plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable isn't the issue; it's that by and large, they are not recycled. Plastic bag recycling is governed by supply and demand. People assume that if they place a bag in a recycling receptacle this means the bag will in fact be recycled. That's not necessarily true.

In order to show (very) modest positive trending in recycling, industry lops all polyethylene (PE) films, wraps and bags all into one category. But for bags discretely, which are high-density polyethylene, the numbers are atrocious. In 2009, the rate for recycling is 6.1 percent; in 2010, the rate is 4.3 percent.

Thus one of the main targets legislatively, is plastic shopping bags. The biggest player in the bag market, Hilex Poly, has become a master of spin tactics to attempt to paint a rosy picture of its business. Hilex, the largest recycler in the US, writes posts on its Web site patting itself on the back for increased recycling rates claiming that PE rates are up from 2009 to 2010. What it fails to mention is the distinction between the different types of PE, and that EPA itself doesn't independently audit the recycling industry, it just compiles industry's reporting.

There's another problem with plastic bag recyclability. According to Mark Daniels of Hilex Poly, only 30-percent post-consumer HDPE can be used to make a new bag, which means 70 percent of a "recycled" plastic bag comes from virgin sources (natural gas). Sometimes, recycled HDPE gets down-cycled into other products like decking materials. The problem here is that plastic decking materials have a lifespan as well, and no strategy for reclaiming them at the end of their lifespan has been introduced to the recycling markets.

When speaking of plastics in general (including plastic bags), even when there is a modest gain in recycling rates, those rates are far outpaced by higher consumption. From 2009 to 2010, plastics generated in the municipal waste stream jumped from 59,660,000 to 62,080,000 pounds. This is an increase of 2,420,000 pounds. In terms of recycling gains, the EPA reports 440,000 more pounds of all plastics recovered from 2009 to 2010.

So, if we subtract the increase in gains in recovery from the increase in generation we still get an increase of plastic generation of 1,980,000 pounds. This is the central conspiracy of the plastics industry tactically. If industry can convince the public that the environmental consequences of their consumption habits are offset by the industry-backed solution of recycling, industry is guaranteed that its bottom line will grow by hoodwinking the public into believing the myth of recycling.

What about natural gas, the stock for plastic bags? It is becoming scarcer and dirtier to get. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 35 percent of domestic natural gas drilling comes from fracking, and will reach 47 percent by 2035. Though natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, getting it out of the ground by fracking creates potent greenhouse gas emissions of methane and other undesired consequences. According to a congressional report released in April, the 14 biggest fracking companies released 3 billion liters of fracking fluid into the environment, including 29 chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogenic to humans. This is where your plastic bag comes from -- or at least 70 pecent of it.

Lie #6: Reusable bags are dangerous.
The American Chemistry Council is worried that Americans might not understand the danger of things when they get dirty. Like your underwear, if you don't wash your reusable bag, bacteria might grow in it. So, rather than issue a press release telling people to wash their bags, they funded a study looking at bacterial contamination of reusable bags.

Bacteria are myriad on everything we touch, but the presence of bacteria is natural and the microbe kingdom has a pretty good system of checks and balances. The study found that 12 percent of its 84-bag sample size found E. coli, and all samples but one contained bacteria. This finding spawned scary headlines in newspapers such as the Washington Post that read "Reusable Bags Found To Be Full Of Bacteria." But here's the problem: None of the bacteria (salmonella and listeria were not found), or the strains of E. coli present in reusable bags are harmful to humans.

The ACC, though absolutely knowing this, still went ahead on a PR blitz trying to scare the hell out of people about bacterial exposure. Thankfully, the study was officially debunked by Consumer Reports. My favorite bit from the article comes from a senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports, who said, "A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study."

Lie #7: We care about polar bears and recycling.
Coca-Cola is one the world's largest producers of plastic waste. Coke creates cause marketing campaigns with corporate-aligned NGOs like World Wildlife Fund which is working with the Canadian government to to find an area of ice that can withstand climate change to create a sort of polar bear refuge, hoping to save the white bears from drowning because Artic ice is melting.

In total, Coke has pledged $2 million and another $1 million matching funds to consumer donations. What's ironic is that Coke uses a plastic bottle for much of its product's packaging and one-third of the volume of a plastic Coke bottle is what it takes to produce it from oil, and another third is what it takes to transport it to market. That's a lot of fossil fuel burning. Fossil fuel burning that melts polar ice that kills polar bears.

But perhaps the most egregious offense is that Coke vehemently opposes the only program proven to reduce its bottles' impact on the environment: bottle bills. Statistically, for states that have bottle deposits, the recovery rates for recycling are off the charts compared to those that don't. In California, recovery rates top 70 percent for PET bottles.

So what's a citizen to do? Unfortunately, cutting through the spin is a difficult task, but as always, when there is a lot of money to be had, injecting oneself with a healthy does of skepticism about the intentions of chemical companies that manipulate nature for profit is a good start. What's the best solution? Remember this: if you don't consume it in the first place, it can't damage you or the environment.

Avoiding plastics is not just a personal responsibility, it's an environmental mandate and should be as common in our global society as turning off the lights when you leave the room. There is no silver bullet solution to plastic pollution, more like a silver buckshot, but it all starts with you saying two words: "No Plastic."

Stiv Wilson is a freelance journalist and communications and policy director for the 5 Gyres Institute, a global NGO working on plastic and chemical pollution in the world's oceans and watersheds.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cans without BPA

A list of cans with, and cans without, BPA.

Are you willing to pay 2.2 cents more per can to get the BPA out of our canned food?

BPA free cans


Eden Foods:  All 33 of its organic beans, chili, rice & beans, refried, and flavored.

Trader Joe's Brand:  Canned corn, tomatoes, beans (except baked beans), tunafish, anchovies, poultry, beef, coconut milk, fruit (except mandarins) and vegetables (except artichokes).

Hunt's Tomato Products:  Only their plain tomatoes - but great first step!!!

Whole Foods: 27% of its store-brand canned goods. No specifics given!*

Native Factor Coconut Water.

Native Forest:  Organic coconut milk, asparagus, mushrooms, hearts of palm and all of their canned fruits.

Ecofish (Henry & Lisa's):  Canned Tuna.

Oregon's Choice:  Canned Tuna.

Vital Choice:  Canned salmon, albacore tuna, sardines and mackerel.

Wild Planet:  Canned Tuna.

Nature's One:  Organic powdered baby milks.

Muir Glen:  Is 'just' starting to transition to BPA-free - (only its) tomato products. I would wait for six months before purchasing.

Tetra-pak (aseptic containers) are lined with Polyethylene, not BPA. 'Pomi' Brand Chopped tomatoes in tetra-paks are becoming more widely available.


Eden Foods
: Canned tomato products (look for their new - glass jars)

Trader Joe's Brand:  All soups, chilis and stews. Plus; Sardines, Crab, Cherrystone Clams & Oysters, Mandarins, Hatch Chilies, Artichokes, Organic Baked Beans.

Whole Foods: 73% of its store-brand canned goods.

ALL food cans out there other than those listed above...

Amy's, Annie's, Bionaturae, Brad's, Muir Glen, Westbrae, cans are lined with BPA.

Most All  Aluminum Cans are lined with BPA.

Polycarbonate plastic (grouped in #7) contains BPA and BPAF (worse!).

Many shiny thermal receipts contain BPA.
(ATM receipts, cash register receipts, prescription labels, lottery/airline tickets, etc)
Don’t hand children receipts that might contain BPA!
Don’t recycle receipts that might contain BPA!

Since 1999 Eden Foods has used steel cans coated with a 'baked-on oleoresinous c-enamel', which does not contain BPA. Oleoresin is a non-toxic mixture of oil and resin extracted from plants, such as pine or balsam fir.'(1) The cost is currently 2.2 cents more (14%) than cans with industry-standard BPA epoxy liners. Yet that natural liner is not approved by the FDA for acid foods, such as tomatoes. Hopefully in the very near future, alternative liners will be put on the market as more research is completed. But as of now, be aware that canned tomatoes, soups and pastas are your highest sources of BPA due to their acid consuming the lining of the can.

The Environmental Working Group estimates that BPA exposure is 'unsafe' in 11 percent of all canned food and an unbelievable one-third of all infant formula.(2) When BPA was detected, the EWG found a single serving contained enough BPA to expose a woman or infant to levels more than 200 times the government's safe level of exposure for industrial chemicals. In the 2010 study, 'No Silver Lining', food from 50 cans collected from 19 US states and Ontario, Canada were tested for BPA contamination. Over 90% of the cans tested had detectable levels of BPA, and some at much higher levels than had been detected previously.(3) The study's tests show that meals involving one or more cans of food can "cause a pregnant woman to ingest levels of BPA that have been shown to cause health effects in developing fetuses in laboratory animal studies."(3) Consumer Reports' latest tests of canned foods found that almost all of the 19 name-brand foods they tested contain some BPA. "A 165-pound adult eating one serving of canned green beans from their sample, could ingest about 0.2 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, about 80 times higher than the experts' recommended daily upper limit."(4)

The Breast Cancer Fund recently released a product testing report called "BPA in Thanksgiving Canned Food." For the study canned goods were purchased in California, Massachusetts, New York and Minnesota. Four cans of each of the common Thanksgiving staples: Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, Campbell’s Turkey Gravy, Carnation Evaporated Milk (by Nestle), Del Monte Fresh Cut Sweet Corn (Cream Style), Green Giant Cut Green Beans (by General Mills), Libby’s Pumpkin (by Nestle) and Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce were purchased. The results showed a tremendous variability in BPA levels in the canned foods tested, from non-detectable to 221 parts per billion. Variabily was extreme even among cans of the same product made by the same company, which means that consumers have no way of knowing how much BPA is in the canned food they’re buying and consuming. www.breastcancerfund.org

A 2011 study by Harvard University analysized the urine of seventy-five people for BPA. Each participant ate a 12-ounce serving of either fresh or canned soup for five days in a row. They were advised not to otherwise alter their regular eating habits. After a two-day break, the groups switched and ate the opposite type of soup. The study showed the canned soup eaters had 1,221 per cent higher levels of BPA in their urine than those who ate the fresh soup.5

The Good Guys:

BPA free cans

BPA free cans

BPA free cans

BPA free cans

BPA free cans

BPA free cans

BPA free cans

BPA free cans

BPA free cans

BPA free cans


*) www.wholefoodsmarket.com/products/bisphenol-a

1) www.edenfoods.com   Read this!

2) www.ewg.org/node/20936

3) www.contaminatedwithoutconsent.org/nosilverlining

4) www.consumerreports.org

5) www.canada.com

According to the Environmental Working Group, the amount of BPA in receipts can be 1,000 times that found in cans or bottles. "Retail workers carry an average of 30 percent more BPA in their bodies than other adults. The Japan Paper Association began to halt the use of BPA in 1998, completing the phase-out by 2003." www.ewg.org/bpa-in-store-receipts

Although the rest of us can most likely count cans as our largest source. See www.ehp03.niehs.nih.gov study shows that returning to fresh, uncanned foods reduces (not eliminates) BPA levels considerably in a rather short time.



www.inspirationgreen.org/plastics-bpa.html   Numerous studies listed.



www.traderjoes.com   All TJ products non-GMO!



www.blog.wholefoodsmarket.com/2010/01 - good post

What can you do?

How about an e-mail to those companies you purchase canned food from...

You are welcome to copy and paste this example if you would like.

Dear Food Company,

Although it is true that the scientific studies regarding BPA exposure are conflicting and confusing, why not be safe rather than sorry and line your cans without the addition of the hormone distruptor BPA. Eden foods has been doing that for more than a decade and they estimate an initial additional cost of 2.2 cents per can (until a safer, cheaper, more natural solution comes to light).

As a customer, I promise to pay the additional 2 cents for your product if you go BPA-free. But if you do not, my only recourse is to discontinue use of your product.


BPA is
Found In:

    * Food and drink packaging
    * Store Receipts
    * The lining of food cans
    * The lining of aluminum cans
    * Milk container linings
    * The inside of bottle tops
    * Water Pipes
    * Dental sealants
    * Polycarbonate tableware
    * Plastic Wrap
    * Some Newspaper Ink
    * Carbonless Copy Paper

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Microplastics in the Ocean

By Nickie Polson, posted in Canada.com February 17, 2012

When we think of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, most of us imagine floating masses of plastic bags, or heaps of bottles washing up on beaches. But that might be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Most plastics don't decompose the way other organic materials do. When natural organics decompose, they break down into new compounds that are useful to natural cycles. When plastics break down, they tend to simply become smaller and smaller fragments of plastic.

In fact, they can become so small that we can't see them any more unless we look very carefully. But that doesn't mean that they aren't a problem.

The world's beaches are collecting more and more plastic.

Even in the tropical paradise of Hawaii - far from the world's factories - plastic is changing the beaches. The visible plastic we have come to expect can easily be cleaned up - toothbrushes, shoes, bottles, bags, and the like. But in actual fact, even that process of cleaning up is not easy because the wind and waves will bring in another load the next day.

Taking a closer look at a Hawaiian sand beach may reveal another plastic pollution issue - nurdles. These are the tiny plastic pellets used as the raw material for manufacturing plastic goods.

More than 250 billion pounds of nurdles are shipped around the world each year. They escape from ships, factories and port facilities and wind up on beaches everywhere. Five years ago, Greenpeace estimated that 10 per cent of plastic debris on beaches was nurdles.

Removing nurdles from a beach seems to be close to impossible. Tiny balls of white plastic are not easy to pick up.

But they are not the worst of it. Digging farther into the sand, one can find countless tiny specks of plastic that are the remains of plastic items beaten up by the waves. Some beaches are said to be more plastic than sand.

Even a beach that looks clean may have up to 5,000 plastic bits in a litre of sand.

But that is still not the end of it. Perhaps the most disturbing are the plastic fibres that are too small to be seen with the human eye. Fragments of plastic smaller than the width of a human hair contaminate surface waters and shoreline habitats worldwide, according to research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology last year.

Researchers sampled 18 sites representing six continents from the poles to the equator. Every site showed some level of this microplastic fibre pollution.

Where do these fibres come from? It turns out the microplastic fibres found in ocean sediments contained polyester and acrylic fibres in the same proportion that is found in sewage discharge.

And where do those fibres in sewage come from? Possibly, probably, from our washing machines. Researchers found that a single garment in a household washing machine can lose nearly 2,000 fibres per wash. The worst offender is the fabric we have grown to love - fleece.

Which leaves us in a dilemma. What's a caring individual to do? Throw away our fleece? Stop washing our clothes? On the individual level, this is not something we can easily resolve.

The question is now posed to clothing manufacturers, washing machine makers and those who run sewage treatment plants. Can they figure out how to somehow filter out these tiny plastic fibres so they do not make it to the sea?

But the bigger question that begs for an answer is how much trouble are we in with all these tiny bits of plastic getting out into the world's oceans?

There is plenty of evidence for plastic bits of various sizes betting into the digestive systems of creatures and plugging them up. Birds, turtles, fish, dolphins and others suffer for our plastic spillage.

Plastic as 'food' is happening at the microscopic level too. Certain bacteria are eating the plastic bits. A recent study coming out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution finds that some marine bacteria are actually eating the tiny bits of plastic.

Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen. Researchers now want to know if the digestion produces harmless byproducts or whether it puts poisons into the food chain.

They also want to know more about these particular bacteria. They are different from the bacteria normally found in seawater or on seaweed. In fact, some of them are similar to cholera bacteria.

We have more questions than we have answers. While we wait for those answers, we must carefully consider our use of plastics.


Monday, February 13, 2012

How plastic bags are poisoning the planet's greatest predators: 65ft long sperm whales are being killed by human pollution

By Philip Hoare posted in the Daily Mail February 8th, 2012

You quickly run out of superlatives when talking about whales.
They are the largest, loudest and longest-lived animals on our planet. How amazing, then, that we should still know so little about them — and that our ignorance has led these beautiful creatures into clear and present danger.

As a writer, I’ve studied whales around the world — from majestic blue whales off Sri Lanka to the playful humpbacks of Cape Cod. But it is the enigmatic sperm whale which fascinates me.
The sperm whale - at 65ft long, the greatest that has ever existed - spends 90 per cent of its life in the profound depths, able to dive deeper than any other animal
The sperm whale - at 65ft long, 'the greatest that has ever existed' - spends 90 per cent of its life in the profound depths, able to dive deeper than any other animal

It has the biggest brain of any animal — a massive 18lb to our human 3lb — yet we really have no idea what it does with it.

This magnificent predator — at 65ft long, the greatest that has ever existed — spends 90 per cent of its life in the profound depths, able to dive deeper than any other animal.

For precisely that reason, it is the least studied of all the great whales.
And of all whales, it is under the greatest threat, too — from what we humans are doing to its environment. Only now are we beginning to understand these creatures.

But is it too late?

This week the results of the first Whale Symposium ever held in Britain were published in a book I co-edited.

It contains new scientific research revealing the true nature of this most mysterious ocean giant, but also the devastating impact we humans are having on them — not least because we pollute their habitat with plastic bags and other waste — and the terrible problems they face as a result. 

The sperm whale is a natural submarine, a miracle of evolutionary engineering. It is actually able to change the physical shape of its body to accomplish its dives.
A sperm whale can dive down for more than a mile, to depths which would crush a human being's internal organs at a pressure of 500lb per square inch
A sperm whale can dive down for more than a mile, to depths which would crush a human being's internal organs at a pressure of 500lb per square inch

At the surface, it will breathe deeply, like an athlete getting ready for an event. It exchanges all the carbon dioxide in its body for oxygen, storing it in its muscles. 

Humans do this to a certain extent, but the whales’ muscles are far more efficient at the process, as demonstrated by their almost black colour, an indication of how supercharged they are with myoglobin, which binds the oxygen to their blood.

As it prepares to dive, the sperm whale undergoes one of nature’s most amazing transformations. Its characteristically square head is in fact an extended nose. Fifteen feet long from nostril to shoulder, it contains a massive reservoir of spermaceti oil. This waxy oil has remarkable bio-acoustical properties. It is used to amplify the sonar clicks that echo along the animal’s head and out into the ocean.

The result is the loudest noise created by any animal — 230 decibels, as loud as a jet engine and powerful enough to be heard six miles away.

As the whale dives, its massive nose, which is plump and bulbous when at the surface, is squeezed into a narrow, hydrodynamic wedge shape — the better to allow the animal’s plunge into the abyss. 

The whale then shuts down every organ in its body, except heart and brain, in order to conserve energy and oxygen.

Its lungs collapse as the animal’s ribs close in on bony hinges, lubricated by special mucus. If they did not, the increased pressure below would snap its ribcage. Any air left in its body is confined to its nasal passages, where it is needed to generate the sonar clicks the animal uses to hunt.

Its flippers fit into its sides like an aircraft’s undercarriage. Everything is streamlined. Finally, the whale uses the rippling muscles in its tail to jack-knife downwards with an astonishing power.

Having witnessed this feat from water-level, I can attest to its amazing dexterity. The animal is so beautifully designed that it barely leaves a ripple at the surface. Amazingly, when it reappears, it will do so at almost exactly the same point.

A sperm whale can dive down for more than a mile, to depths which would crush a human being’s internal organs at a pressure of 500lb per square inch.  In just five minutes, it can reach a depth of 500 metres, the limit at which a human diver can work. 

Soon it will far exceed that, reaching 1,000m — its favoured hunting ground. We do not know exactly how the whale’s body resists such pressure. But it must be comfortable down there, since it can spend two hours underwater.

In the inky darkness, the whale hunts by using its sonar as a sweeping scan, in search of its favourite food: squid. Their prey ranges from shoals of creatures little bigger than cuttlefish to gargantuan giant squid up to 50ft long.
By virtue of its position at the top of the marine food chain, the pollution we dump in the sea affects sperm whales more than any other creature
By virtue of its position at the top of the marine food chain, the pollution we dump in the sea affects sperm whales more than any other creature

As they zone in on them, the whales appear to communicate in strange growls and buzzes. Are they indicating the direction and source of their food?  Maybe they’re just happy at eating.

Each sperm whale must consume up to 1,000 squid a day — that’s 1,100lb or half a ton of calamari! Although it has a 10ft-long jaw studded with 42 of the biggest teeth in the animal kingdom (each up to 2ft long), it does not bite its prey.

Instead, it sucks up its food like a giant vacuum cleaner, swallowing the squid whole. We know this from the stomach contents of dissected whales.

Or, as I have seen myself in the Azores, from the loose tentacles that break off in the process and float to the surface. Unlike the whale, which decompresses as it resurfaces, a squid’s body cannot survive the rapid change in pressure. It liquifies to a gooey, soupy mess.

Occasionally, however, a sperm whale will feed at the surface. Off Kaikoura in New Zealand, where the waters run six miles deep, I watched a massive, 50ft male sperm whale at the surface.

Around it were circular patches of disturbed water — the result of the ultra-loud sonar bursts it was using to knock out yard-long kingfish — almost like a sonic gun. It is a lethal weapon unique to sperm whales, so intense that they can kill prey at a distance.

I watched as the whales’s great head erupted from the waves, a stunned fish in its huge toothed jaws. It looked as if it were triumphantly claiming its prize. But no one has ever witnessed a sperm whale feeding at depth — although that may be about to change.

Professor Hal Whitehead is one of the world’s most pre-eminent experts on this amazing species. He told me recently that new equipment currently being developed will allow scientists to attach cameras to whales and record their foraging behaviour.

Already, using high resolution digital electronic tags which monitor exact movements, speed and ocean depths, Hal and his colleagues have been able to trace much of what sperm whales get up to in the deep.

But it may be some time before we can see for ourselves the greatest battle known to nature — the mythical struggle between the sperm whale and the giant squid. It has even been claimed that the squid will use its tentacles to smother the whale’s blow hole in an ultimately futile attempt to defeat its foe.
We humans are having a devastating impact on sperm whales - not least because we pollute their habitat with plastic bags and other waste - and the terrible problems they face as a result
We humans are having a devastating impact on sperm whales - not least because we pollute their habitat with plastic bags and other waste - and the terrible problems they face as a result

For centuries man has hunted the sperm whale, principally for that precious oil in its pugnacious head. Before the discovery of mineral oil, sperm whale oil burned in street lights and oil lamps. It lubricated the machines of the Industrial Revolution. It was even used in the NASA space missions as lubrication for space probes, since it does not freeze in sub-zero temperatures.

In 200 years we managed to reduce their population from two million to 360,000. Luckily, most of the world no longer hunts these beautiful creatures. But now, tragically, there are new dangers to their wellbeing.

By virtue of its position at the top of the marine food chain, the pollution we dump in the sea affects sperm whales more than any other creature.

One of the greatest problems faced by any marine species is the sheer amount of plastic in the ocean, especially plastic bags, as has been highlighted by the Daily Mail’s campaign against the profligate use of them.

Dr Ruth Leeney notes in the book I co-edited, Dominion: A Whale Symposium, these bags don’t biodegrade. They break down into smaller fragments that enter the food chain — and eventually the whales’ bodies.

‘It is ironic that a plastic shopping bag, with so short a lifespan in a person’s existence, can have a powerfully negative impact elsewhere, by causing unnecessary death’, says Dr Leeney.

As my fellow editor, artist Angela Cockayne notes, a minke whale recently stranded itself on the French coast. Its stomach was clogged with 800kg of plastic, including British supermarket bags.

One problem for the sperm whale is, ironically, its awesome success. It inhabits every ocean and almost every sea, from the vast Pacific to the enclosed Mediterranean. This is because it has evolved to find the perfect feeding niche, albeit a mile below the surface of the ocean.

It is a staggering fact that sperm whales eat more squid and fish each year — 100 million tons, than the 70 million tons we humans catch and consume per annum. The sperm whale has to eat so much to fuel its huge brain, which is highly expensive, in calorific terms, to run.

Given the size of their brains, sperm whale society is remarkably complex. Like the African elephant, it is matriarchal. So much so that females which are unrelated genetically will ‘baby-sit’ each other’s calves when they dive to feed.

The whales also travel almost inconceivable distances. Every year, male sperm whales migrate towards the poles, returning toward the equator to breed. One male may travel more than 1,000km a month.
It is a staggering fact that sperm whales eat more squid and fish each year - 100 million tons, than the 70 million tons we humans catch and consume per annum
It is a staggering fact that sperm whales eat more squid and fish each year - 100 million tons, than the 70 million tons we humans catch and consume per annum

They communicate in a complex system of Morse-code-like clicks, and each ‘clan’ has a different dialect, in the way a Yorkshire accent differs from a Devon one. Individual animals may be miles apart but they are always in intimate contact, through their extraordinary sense of hearing.

Such supreme adaptability means that sperm whales live to great ages, at least 100 years old. Bowhead whales, their cousins, live to even greater ages — up to 300 years and perhaps even older, making them the planet’s longest living mammal.

We know this from ancient harpoons that have been found embedded in the blubber of bowheads, and which have been Carbon-14 dated to 235 years and older.

It means whales may be swimming in the sea now which were alive before Victoria ascended the throne or Captain Cook discovered Australia.

By living so long, whales are of course susceptible to diseases of old age, like humans. But they are also subject to the effect our modern habits are having on their world.

On a recent trip to the U.S. University of Southern Maine in Portland, Dr John Wise showed me new research he has been conducting into the way contaminants from the chemical industry are entering the sperm whales’ bodies.

He explained how chromium, a deadly carcinogen which induces lung cancer in humans, is released from chemical processing plants into the air.

The whales, which pass by such plants on the coast of Queensland, northern Australia on their migratory routes, absorb the chromium because they breathe so deeply at the surface. 

The result is causing changes to immune systems, and fertility, creating birth defects analogous to Down’s syndrome in humans.

In another recent and tragic case, a group of seven sperm whales stranded themselves on a Mediterranean beach. They had been driven into shallow waters, possibly by military sonar exercises. There they were unable to feed on squid. And since whales get their liquid from their food, they began to dehydrate.

Then, their starving bodies began to break down fat — to deadly effect. The pollutants they’d absorbed from the ocean and had been deposited in their fat were released. 

They included heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium, and organochlorines like PCBs and DDTs, even fire-retardants used on modern furnishings.

In effect, the whales were poisoning themselves. Fatally weakened, they stranded themselves together on the shore, demonstrating the unswerving loyalty to each other for which their species is renowned.

And when their carcases were dissected, it came as no surprise to discover an unusual amount of plastic, including the dreaded plastic bags, in their stomachs.

What a tragic end for such magnificent animals. And what a salutary lesson for us humans.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

5 Simple Steps to Remember Your Reusable Bags!

by Jennifer Lance on January 24, 2012 in ecochildsplay.com

I am finally in the habit of taking my reusable bags in every store, not just the grocery store! It was one of my “eco-sins” for awhile, as I could never remember them, but I finally have a system.

They key to remembering to use reusable bags is to have plenty of them! We were just sent a great bag by ReUseThisBag.com . The bag is very sturdy and washable.

Here’s my system for remembering my bags:
  1. Keep plenty of bags in the car at all times.
  2. If you forget to bring a bag in a store, you either have to go back to the car or simply carry your goods out in the cart or by hand.
  3. When you bring your bags inside the house, put them in the laundry to be washed.
  4. Have a large basket by the door where you keep the clean bags.
  5. When headed to the car, restock your supply.

It really is simple to remember your bags once you get into a routine, and you will look with scorn at all of the single use paper and plastic bags being used by others.  Here are some interesting facts about why you should use reusable bags:
FACT: The largest opposition to the ban of plastic bags comes from the petroleum and plastics industries and of course, consumers that don’t want to change their habits.
FACT: Effective July 1, 2010. Los Angeles County Shoppers can either bring their own bags or pay 25 cents for a paper or biodegradable bag
FACT: Ireland imposed a tax on plastic grocery bags in 2002, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban conventional plastic grocery bags, in 2007, and Los Angeles followed suit in 2010
FACT: plastic is the largest source of ocean litter. The second most abundant ocean pollution, is cigarettes.
FACT: Ocean debris worldwide kills at least 1 million sea birds and 100,000 mammals each year, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has estimated. The litter is most severe in the East Asian seas region, which includes countries such as China with a population 1.3 billion people and where, according to UN figures, almost 60 percent of men smoke.
FACT:  4 trillion to 5 trillion: Number of non-degradable plastic bags used worldwide annually.
FACT:  About 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year
FACT: Australians were using nearly 7 billion bags a year, and nearly 1.2 billion bags a year were being passed out free in Ireland before government restrictions, according to government estimates.
FACT: Plastic industry trade associations were unable to provide estimates of plastic bag use in the United States. However, based on studies of plastic bag use in other nations, the environmental group Californians Against Waste estimates Americans use 84 billion plastic bags annually.
FACT: The first plastic sandwich bags were introduced in 1957. Department stores started using plastic bags in the late 1970s and supermarket chains introduced the bags in the early 1980s.
FACT: About 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and other marine animals are killed by plastic bags each year worldwide, according to Planet Ark, an international environmental group.
FACT: Last September, more than 354,000 bags — most of them plastic — were collected during an international cleanup of costal areas in the United States and 100 other countries, according to the Ocean Conservancy
Please make an effort to end the single use plastic or paper bag habit!

Disclosure: The products described above were sent to us as free samples. Prior assurances as to the nature of the reviews, whether positive or negative, were not given. No financial payments were accepted in exchange for the reviews. The reviews reflect our honest, authentic opinions.

Amazing Documentary by Chris Jordan

Midway: A Message from the Gyre trailer by Chris Jordan

Check out Chris Jordan's website - here's the link to his "Running the Numbers" gallery, where he uses computer tricks to create huge large scale works depicting things like: number of pieces of junk mail mailed every 3 seconds in the US, or number of plastic bottles consumed each minute.

Filmmaker sounds alarm over plastic

published 2012-02-06 in kalahari.com

Hong Kong - On Midway atoll in the North Pacific, dozens of young albatross lie dead in the sand, their stomachs filled with cigarette lighters, toy soldiers and other plastic scraps their parents mistook for food.

That sad and surreal sight is one of the many symptoms of a plague afflicting the world's oceans, food chains and human communities: The onslaught of discarded plastic, said Hong Kong-based film director Craig Leeson.

"Every piece of plastic ever made since the 1950s exists in some shape or form on the planet," Leeson said. "We throw plastic into a bin, it's taken away from us and we never see it again - but it still comes back at us."

Over the past year, the Australian director has been following the menace of plastic from Sardinia to Canada to the Indian Ocean for a film that aims to combine the art of nature documentary with a campaigning quest.

Provisionally called Away, the movie - backed by David Attenborough and the UK-based Plastic Oceans Foundation - brings together new research on the spread of plastic with missions by "explorers" such as Britain's Ben Fogle to show the diverse effects of plastic trash.


Its message is that while you may throw out your plastic goods, they are never really thrown "away".

Crews under Leeson's direction have so far swum with blue whales, taken a deep-sea submarine to the depths of the Mediterranean and found swirling clumps of plastic trash in the Indian Ocean.

They have used a harpoon-like instrument to take biopsies from whales and dissected a dead Corsican turtle in a laboratory - "dead turtles are the smelliest things you can imagine", he said. Sea lions are yet to come.

The foundation cites research showing that at least 250 species are known to have ingested or become entangled in plastic in the seas.

They put forward plastic ingestion as one of the main causes of "skinny whale syndrome", in which whales are discovered mysteriously starved.

The 250 million tons of plastic we discard each year make their way for thousands of miles around the oceans, and Leeson's team - many of whom have backgrounds in the BBC's Natural History Unit - are determined to document this in spectacular fashion.

But beyond this, their goal is to show that the environmental damage is systemic, going far beyond a series of water-borne trash heaps.

Health problems

In fact, Leeson said, the mass of plastic the size of Texas often said to exist in the North Pacific is a myth. Instead, particles of plastic lurk there invisibly, in seemingly clear water.

"If you trawl for it with these special nets that they've developed, you come back with this glutinous mass - it's microplastics that are in the water along with the plankton," he said.

"The problem is that it's being mistaken for food and being eaten by plankton eaters, who are then eaten by bigger fish, and so it goes on, and it ends up on our dinner tables."

Studies have linked this with health problems in humans including cancer, diabetes and immune disruption.

And it is not just the plastic itself that enters the food chain, but other man-made substances from sources such as industrial waste that attach themselves to plastics in the water.

The team will be shooting until mid-2012 and will also visit communities living beside rivers that are heavily polluted with plastic to see its more direct effects on human life.

This is not the first high-profile campaign on the subject: Greenpeace, currently researching plastic in the Arctic Ocean, has warned that urgent action is needed to address the sources of plastic waste, and campaign group WWF calls the problem "staggering".


But Leeson hopes the images in his film will jolt viewers out of their complacency about rubbish that apparently disappears into the waste collection system.

"When you see a toy soldier or a lighter that's manufactured in China that ends up in the stomach of an albatross at Midway Point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that just shows you how much effect you're having on the environment," he said.

Leeson will not divulge all the findings from new research carried out for the film, but it is clear the message will be an alarming one.

Does he think his team can compete in the busy market for alarming messages, currently dominated by the threat of climate change?

"Clearly climate change is one of the most pressing issues, if not the most pressing issue that we face, because it affects everything we do," Leeson said.

But plastic and carbon emissions are directly linked: Plastic is estimated to account for around eight percent of the world's fossil fuel use, half of it in energy consumed during its manufacturing.

The film will question the "disposable lifestyle" behind discarded plastic, but not advocate banning the substance altogether.

It will also look at solutions to the waste mountain, including plastic recycling and biogenesis, in which plastic is reduced back to its core elements while producing energy.

An initial aim is to persuade consumers and manufacturers to reconsider their use of disposable plastics such as mineral water bottles.

Leeson said responsibility for waste cuts across different environmental issues, including climate.

"Plastic is part of that, but also if we are raising awareness about issues such as plastic then we’re raising awareness about what does actually affect the planet we live on, and I think that’s a good thing," he said.