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!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tara Oceans Finds Plastic Among Plankton

by  • October 1, 2012 • Animals, Science & Nature

Plastic Plankton
New findings from the Tara Oceans research expedition reveals a startling discovery – the presence of plastic fragments in all of the world’s oceans. Based in the French research vessel Tara, a team of 15 scientists are on a comprehensive, 2.5 year voyage spanning 70,000 miles in search of the ocean’s smallest citizens: plankton.

The team has currently sampled and labelled 1.5 million species of plankton, which is twice the previous estimate of existing plankton species. During their search, however, the team noticed more than just oceanic animal samples; the team found a startling amount of microscopic plastic, with some areas reaching over 50,000 plastic fragments per square kilometre.

What is perhaps most surprising about their discovery is that they found these plastic fragments in the Antarctic, an areas once thought pristine due to its isolation. In fact, despite this assumption, the team found 50,000 plastic fragments per square kilometre – an amount starkly close to the global average.

It appears that oceanic drift has allowed mankind to affect even the most remote oceans of the world.

These microscopic fragments, which can be smaller than the size of a cell, present themselves as chemical hazards for both the plankton and the fish swimming with them.

Plastics are inedible, and cannot be degraded by a fish’s digestive system; if these fragments manage to accumulate, they could cause fatal constipation by blocking the digestive system partially or entirely. As well, some plastics are known to be toxic, with others capable of attracting other toxins such as DDT and PCB.

With so much plastic floating alongside the plankton, animals that eat plankton can accidentally ingest these fragments in the process. If an animal eats enough of these plastic fragments (and associated toxins), it could prove fatal.

What’s worse is that the fragments and toxins accumulated in the animal could transfer to others when the animal is eaten, potentially killing more animals in the process. Notably, the life of these plastic fragments could take thousands of years to fully decompose; these fragments could end up wreaking havoc upon oceanic ecosystems for thousands of years to come.

What is perhaps the most depressing thing about these fragments is how they are not going to slowly disappear – they will only continue to increase from here. Larger, more visible plastics – which can range from water bottles to large plastic containers – are also in abundance in the oceans, with an average of 46,000 visible plastics per square kilometre.

Due to photodegradation (wherein the sunlight breaks the plastics down into smaller chains and pieces), these larger plastics degrade into the small, microscopic fragments that  the Tara Oceans expedition team found.

If all the several hundred billion tons of large plastics in the ocean today degrade into these fragments, the ocean would be in a tight predicament. Plastic fragments would overwhelm plankton populations, making it that much harder for these small but crucial animals to survive.

Since phytoplankton (plankton capable of photosynthesis) generate almost half the amount of oxygen we breath each year, we could very well end up choking for breath just as much as the plankton are in their plastic soup.

What this means is that we cannot be passive about all the plastic in the oceans. If we ever wish to make our ocean healthy again, it would have to be through dynamic action, such as collecting the waste and recycling it ourselves.

Invasive Plastic Hitchhikers

Posted by Jonathan Waterman in Ocean Views on October 15, 2012

Ecklund plastic ball
Hitchhikers on a plastic ball collected Sunday October 14. Photo by Matt Ecklund

We’re ten days and 690 nautical miles out from the nearest land in California.  In that time, we’ve conducted 21 net deployments to collect and analyze plastic.  We’ve counted a total of 3,190 pieces of plastic, most of it in the North Pacific subtropical gyre.  Here in this gigantic eddy-like “trap,” the concentration of floating plastic has increased exponentially.

We’re finding grain-size and quarter-size pieces of plastic in the net cod ends.  Occasionally nets have counts as low as ten—versus counts of 1,372 pieces.  Why? 

Because of the gyre’s patchiness, some places are loaded with plastic and others are not.  On calm days, often times the plastic can be seen floating by the ship, other times the sea looks clear and free of plastic until you filter it and discover plastic pieces that are invisible to the human eye.

One project (among many onboard) is to count microscopic plastics that aren’t normally tallied with the larger and more visible pieces in the neuston net due to the fact that they pass out of the mesh net as it’s being towed.  To measure these, a liter of seawater is dyed pink and vacuumed through a micrometer-sized filter mesh. 

The dye doesn’t stick to plastic, therefore, the pieces can be seen clear of other microbial life and counted through a microscope.  Over the last week, microscopic plastic counts have ranged from 56 to 224 pieces per liter of seawater.

One of the greater mysteries being studied onboard is how pieces of floating plastic act as a host or “island” to creatures large and small, from crabs to zooplankton to microbes.   Past studies have shown, for instance, how surface-level plastic gives the water strider insect (Halobates sericeus) a platform on which to lay its eggs.

The hypothesis is that the favorable nature of this “plastisphere” for many species could cause a quantum shift in life across the ocean ecosystem.  After all, Halobates (or thousands of other species) feed upon the zooplankton and in turn, become part of the food chain for birds, fish and turtles.  Yet, until plastics arrived in the gyre, the population of Halobates was naturally limited by what little floating material it could lay its eggs upon.

Until recently, rafting insects and other ocean organisms relied only upon driftwood—coconuts, trees, or an occasional stray buoy.  Now these rafters have miniature ocean island chains of floating plastic to travel upon, according to one scientist on board. 

Mike Gil, from the University of Florida, has joined this cruise holding the equilibrium theory of island biogeography as a framework for his investigation of floating debris.  This 45-year-old theory proposes that the larger an island, the more species it will hold, and Mike points out that floating plastic qualifies as islands.  He is hoping to compare large and small floating objects and come up with accurate resident species counts.

And like most of the crew, Mike is fascinated with the amount of species-rich biomass bearding the objects we’ve been pulling aboard.  When quizzed about the number of species, let alone family taxonomy, he wisely won’t even hazard a guess.  As for what we’ve seen, several crabs—up to 1.5 inches wide—were living on a four-inch ball; a three-foot-wide buoy is weighed down by twice its weight in barnacles and worms; a small car’s tire and rim, heavy with algae and organisms, is plainly embossed “Made in Japan.”

Two buoys we pulled onboard were also marked with Japanese characters, one reading “Nichimou” (the name of a fishery industry complex), the other pronounced “Do Nan” which means the equipment came from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, 3,360 miles west of our present position.

So as small plastic pieces from around the Pacific Rim countries are mixing with larger debris from Japan, a non-scientist sailor like myself feels safe in saying that we have entered the tsunami debris zone.   But I return to Mike to get the bigger picture.

“We’re potentially seeding the ocean with a transport mechanism to take invasive species across the ocean,” Mike says.  “Species invasions can have devastating effects on natural ecosystems.”  Since conservation biologists believe in preserving the biodiversity of species, he is concerned about biodiversity being compromised by foreign hitchhikers.  “It is possible that plastic litter could increase species invasions to new coastlines.”

Aviator Plans Intercontinental Trip Using Plastics for Fuel

Posted 10/16/12 on Mother Nature Network, Written by John Platt
 On Wings of Waste, intercontinental flight, plastic-powered plane
Photo: Pilot Jeremy Rowsell will fly from Australia to England using fuel made from old plastics. Photo: On Wings of Waste

Discarded plastics choke our oceans and waterways, but what if they could be used to fly over the oceans instead? That's the idea behind Australian pilot Jeremy Rowsell's upcoming On Wings of Waste flight, which will take him 12,000 miles from Australia to England using fuel made from old plastics.

The 41-year-old Rowsell tells GE's Ecomagination site that he frequently sees plastic floating in the ocean when he flies. "You look down at that garbage in the Pacific, and you see the result of what it's doing. I'm doing this because I believe that unless we do something to give back to the planet, we're stuffed."

Read: Never Use Foil or Plastic Wrap Again

Rowsell and his team have scooped up some of that Pacific Ocean plastic to include in the trash that will be melted down and reconstituted into 4,000 liters of liquid aviation fuel. An Irish company called Cynar plc will create the fuel through a process called pyrolysis, in which the plastic is thermochemically decomposed at high temperatures without the use of oxygen.

Pyrolysis is also used to convert biomass into fuels such as biochar and syngas. In this case, it will produce aviation-grade diesel fuel. According to Cynar, one ton of petroleum-based plastic can be converted into 900 liters of diesel.

Rowsell will be flying a single-engine Cessna 172 airplane which can use the plastic-based fuel but doesn't have a big storage capacity. This means they'll need to make several stops over the one- to two-week journey, which could start before the end of the year. Although the exact flight plan has yet to be finalized, they expect to fly out of Sydney and make potential refueling stops in Christmas Island, Oman, Jordan and Malta, among other locations. They plan to land in London.

Don't Miss: Recycling Robots and Other Groundbreaking Eco-Machines

Social networking will be a big part of the journey. Rowsell is already tweeting about plans for the trip and will check in on Google Maps as the flight progresses.

None of this will come cheap. The trip has a projected $1.4 million budget, mostly due to the logistics of delivering the plastic fuel to each of Rowsell's refueling stops.

The journey may not be all that safe, either. Rowsell is taking survival courses to learn what to do if his plane crashes or plunges into the ocean. He's also taken specialized training in what to do if he gets kidnapped along the way, as you can see in this short video:


You can learn more about Cynar plc's end-of-life plastic to diesel fuel process and the process the company uses to create it here:


More from Mother Nature Network:
What is the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch?
9 habits that may do more harm than good
Method debuts bottle made from ocean plastic
The secret life of garbage [Infographic]

Tanzania: Pemba Records Success in Purging Plastic Bags

Pemba — DECLARING war on the use of plastic bags has not been easy in many countries, but Pemba Islands in Indian Ocean can be a model after its admirable success.

Pemba is now taking measures to eliminate plastic bags in a bid to cut waste and conserve environment. Unguja and Pemba form Zanzibar and authorities in the Islands declared ban of use of plastic bags in the islands in February this year.

Pemba residents appear to take the ban seriously by turning to traditional bags and other environmental friendly bags. "If we can stop using plastic bags, then it's good for us and the environment," said a fishmonger Mzee Kombo, who was wrapping fish in a paper bag to his customer at Chakechake market.

Kombo says almost all residents in 'big' towns of Chakechake, Mkoani, and Wete in Pemba are aware of the negative impact of plastic bags and have been cautious in accepting any plastic bag. Under the 'environmental management for sustainable development Act No. 2 of 1996 (amended),' businesses are prohibited from manufacturing, distributing, selling or using all kinds of plastic bags.

Head of department of environment, Pemba Islands Mr Mwalimu Khamis Mwalimu said that ban on use of plastic were imposed on different dates in the past decade with little achievements, "but now administrative regulation and followthrough is carefully monitored."Our success is attributed to commitment and collaboration.

The anti- plastic bags task force includes town council authorities, and police officers, and community leaders," Mwinyi said adding that community-policing was also helping to combat the use of plastic bags. Mwinyi said that awareness campaign was going on well through media, different gathering, and use of signboard located in strategic points such as busy streets, ports, and market.

"We have left no stone unturned in Pemba in our efforts to restrict use of plastic bags in Pemba, and we are heading to declare success," Mwinyi said. However, he said used plastic bottles, and plastic used to wrap clothes and foodstuffs will remain a problem.

He said that his office was now encouraging people to return to traditional bags to abandon the use of plastic bags, "fortunately many people in Pemba have shifted to environmental friendly bags." A quick survey by the daily news in many parts of the busy town of Chakechake shows that use of plastic bags has disappeared in the Pemba busiest town.

The story is different from the main town of Zanzibar where authorities are still fighting to control the bags. The Zanzibar Director of environment Mr Sheha Mjaja says more efforts are still needed to control dishonest members of the business community continuing to import and sale plastic bags. "But another big challenge in Zanzibar town is the influx of people from Dar es Salaam carrying plastic bags.

We try to control the entry by confiscating the bags, but it is still a challenge," Mjaja says. Environmentalists say that people or customers in various places around the globe including Zanzibar started to be given flimsy plastic bags when they buy goods in the past two decades.

The cheap bags were given in retail shops and markets, eliminating the need for shoppers to bring their own bags. "While plastic bags provide convenience to consumers, this has caused a serious environmental concern including pollution because of excessive usage, inappropriate waste disposal, and lack of recycling and other reasons," Mjaja said.

Zanzibar re-launched a nationwide campaign against importation and use of plastics bags in the islands, early this year involving police officers. The ongoing crackdown has led to arrest of hundreds of people including importers and vendors who have either paid fine or served in jail.

Similar crackdown on plastics bags was implemented in 2006 recording great achievement in two years with noticeable reduction of plastics in the islands, before it emerged again in 2008.

The minister of state (environment) Ms Fatma Abdulhabib Fereji has also blamed tourists' hotels close to the sea for pollution mainly mismanagement of liquid and solid wastes including plastic bags poses a great threat to Zanzibar environment.

"We still do not have reliable national data on solid and liquid wastes, but about 260 tons of solid wastes are produced daily in Zanzibar municipality yet only 40 per cent of wastes are collected and disposed, while 2,200 cubic litres of liquid waste is disposed to the sea untreated," she said.

Internationally, legislation to discourage plastic bag use has been going on such as South Africa, Rwanda, Ireland and Taiwan, where authorities either tax shoppers who use them or impose fees on companies that distribute them.

Haiti has been, probably the latest country to ban importation and use of plastic bags. In European Union (EU) some countries have been taking measures in reducing use of plastic bags, including shying away from giving away plastic bags. EU countries have also imposed stiff fees to pay for the mess created by all the plastic trash.

But in the United States, the plastics industry has launched a concerted campaign to derail and defeat anti-bag measures nationwide. The effort includes well-placed political donations, and intensive lobbying at both the state and national levels. It is estimated that the world consumes one million plastic shopping bags every minute - and the industry is fighting hard to keep it that way.

Reduce Plastic Pollution in Our Oceans

Plastic waste, such as plastic bags, bottles, and containers, are littering the world’s oceans and causing harm to marine animals.

Birds often mistake small pieces of plastic for food and swallow them, but because birds are unable to digest plastic, the plastic pieces fill up their stomachs and prohibit the birds from eating actual food.

When the birds’ stomachs are too full of plastic to process food, they starve to death. Birds and endangered animals such as seals and sea turtles can get tangled in plastic bags, strangling themselves. It is estimated that one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals die as a result of plastic pollution every year.

“Plastic makes up 60 percent to 80 percent of ocean debris; there are 3 million tons of it in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In parts of the ocean this means there is six times more plastic than plankton, the base of the marine food web. The same durability we value in plastic makes it a persistent pollutant,” says the Center for Biological Diversity.

Plastic pollution is present in all of the world’s oceans and waterways and is a persistent global problem. The plastic that pollutes our oceans is not biodegradable and will not disappear from the environment.

Although plastic does not biodegrade, it does break up into small pieces, which float far out into the ocean and become problematic as marine animals, including fish, mistake them for food.

These plastic particles are difficult to clean up because of their small size, and contain carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals (such as Bisphenol-A, or BPA) that can leach into the fish’s bodies – and then into our bodies when we eat the fish. These chemicals can also leach into the water, disrupting ocean ecosystems and polluting the sea, and can attract more chemicals like DDT.

Furthermore, plastic pollution on beaches is unsightly and dirty and can deter visitors from tourist areas, resulting in a loss of tourism money in areas that rely on income from vacationers.

The environmental organization has drafted a petition asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create water quality standards for plastic pollution in America’s oceans in order to reduce toxic plastic pollution, make the oceans safer for wildlife, and maintain the natural beauty of coastal environments.

The petition asks EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to lead the effort to rid the oceans of plastic and “create a strong standard of zero plastic that will prompt action under the Clean Water Act” that would “improve the monitoring, cleanup and prevention of plastic pollution.”

Add your name to the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition today to encourage the EPA to adopt regulations that will clean up our coasts and oceans, and forward this petition to your friends and family to encourage them to take action as well!

To take further action in your daily life, set targeted and specific goals to reduce your consumption of disposable plastic products such as plastic bags, containers, and foam takeout containers and replace these items with reusable and sustainable alternatives.

When you do use plastics, like yogurt cups or milk cartons, recycle these items rather than dumping them in the trash bin. You can also take part in local beach cleanups if you live near an ocean, lake, or river.

If your area does not have regular organized beach cleanups, you can help start one! Being proactive in cleaning up plastic and litter from waterways is a great way to serve your community, help the environment, and save animals, as well as a good opportunity to promote the cause by getting others from your community involved.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/kevinkrejci/4408273247

Manmade Environmental Disaster Movie of the Day: Plastic Paradise

Posted by Henry Grabar Nov. 02, 2012 in theAtlanticCities.com

Speaking of humanity's impact on the climate, have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling gyre of plastic trash hundred of miles wide?

If you have, you are a step ahead of me. But either way, you should watch this trailer for Plastic Paradise, a movie that will remind San Franciscans why they are not allowed to have plastic bags.