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!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Volunteers Hit the Beach for 2014 International Coastal Cleanup Day

Published on The Weather Channel by Allie Goolrick, Sept 20, 2014

We tend to think of the beach as an unspoiled paradise with miles of white sand, palm trees and turquoise waters. But what if you added 2 million cigarette butts and 1.6 million food wrappers into that picture?

The sad reality is that across the globe, many of our most gorgeous beaches have turned into repositories for garbage, whether washed up or left behind by visitors.

(MORE: 2013 International Coastal Cleanup Day Finds)

But there is some hope. On Saturday, volunteers around the globe will flock to the shore for International Coastal Cleanup Day, an annual call-to-action for people to help tidy up summer hotspots after the busy tourism season is over.

And the sheer amount of trash that volunteers can collect during these annual cleanups is staggering.
Event sponsor Ocean Conservancy reports that last year,  collected over 12.3 million pounds of trash during the one-day event, which is one of the largest volunteer gatherings on the planet. Along with millions of cigarette butts and food wrappers, workers in 92 countries collected thousands of plastic and glass bottles, plastic and paper bags – even an entire apartment’s worth of discarded furniture. Some of the weirder finds? An iPad, a plastic eye, a lava lamp, a loaded gun and all the staples of a wedding, including a wedding dress and ring.

(WATCH: A Stunning Find Off the California Coast)

It may seem like sort of an oddball treasure hunt, but Ocean Conservancy hopes the cleanup can not only put a dent in the trash strewn across beaches around the world, but also bring awareness to how damaging littering can be to both beaches and the ocean.

"Our goal isn't just to clean the beaches, it is to educate people about in the first place," Park Ranger Mike Aymond with the Gulf Islands National Seashore told the Pensacola News Journal. "Some pieces of debris can outlive the oldest fish in the sea."

Data from the event helps Ocean Conservancy and other ocean and environmental organizations to figure out what sorts of garbage are the most harmful and how to keep them out of the ocean, according to Ocean Conservancy.

If you’re too far from the beach to make a day trip, Deep Sea News proposes some alternate suggestions for how to , from buying from eco-conscious companies to simply recycling.
To sign up for a cleanup near you, visit .

MORE ON WEATHER.COM: Cleaning Up Our Oceans

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

California Just Banned Free Plastic Bags, but Hold the Rejoicing

For a paper bag to be better, you have to use it three times.

Published in citylab by Katie Rose Quandt, Sept. 15, 2014
Washed-up plastic bags along the Los Angeles River. (Josh Morgan/AP)
Last month, California became the first state to pass a bill banning the ubiquitous disposable plastic bag. If signed into law, the measure will prohibit grocery and retail stores from providing single-use plastic bags and require them to charge at least 10 cents for paper bags, compostable bags, and reusable plastic bags. The bill, introduced by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Los Angeles), will also provide funding for California-based plastic bag companies to develop sturdier, reusable options.

Worldwide, consumers use an estimated 1 trillion plastic bags each year—nearly 2 million a minute—with the use time of a typical bag just 12 minutes. Californians alone throw away 14 billion a year, creating 123,000 tons of waste and untold amounts of litter.

There is evidence that bag bans and taxes can cut down on some of this waste: Ireland's 2002 tax cut bag usage between 75 and 90 percent. An analysis ofbag use in Australia found that 72 percent of customers accepted single-use bags that were offered for free. When a nominal fee was charged, usage dropped to 27 percent (33 percent switched to reusable bags and 40 percent made do without).
In fact, Californians faced with municipal bag fees often opt to skip the bag altogether. In an analysis of three major California municipalities with bag bans, 39 percent of customers left the store without a bag (opposed to 17 percent pre-ban).*

Although customers avoiding bags is an obvious environmental win, the same study found that paper bag use increased from 3 to 16 percent. While disposable plastic bags' manufacture is relatively energy intensive—according to the Australian government, a car could drive 36 feet with the amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag—paper bags aren't any better. In fact, a paper bag (which will still be available for ten cents) must be used three times before its global warming impact is lower than continuing to use single-use plastic bags, according to a study by the UK Environment Agency.

What about the customers who switch to reusable bags? The California study found that, faced with bag bans, customers increased reusable bag use from 5 to 45 percent. It is unclear which varieties of reusable bags are the most popular, but one common type, the non-woven polypropylene bag (the kind you might buy in the Whole Foods checkout line), must be used 11 times before its global warming impact is less than disposable bags.

A standard cotton tote requires 131 uses. Although the study does not factor in other benefits of reusable bags, such as reduced litter, it underscores the fact that reusable bags are only beneficial if they're actually used. Freebie branded totes gathering dust in closets are not worth the energy they took to produce.

Still, despite the higher production toll, the environmental think tank Earth Policy Institute (EPI), which has studied plastic bag bans, is "definitely in favor of reusable bags," Director of Research Janet Larsen tells Mother Jones. "Overall, we're advocating for a movement away from the disposable society and use-and-toss mentality."

One-third of Californians already live in municipalities with plastic bag bans, including those in San Francisco and Los Angeles. EPI tracks all known bag restrictions, 133 of which are in the United States:

No one is sure how long a plastic bag takes to decompose, but estimates range from 500 to 1,000 years. Even then, they never fully biodegrade; they just break down into ever-tinier plastic pellets. Each year, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die after getting entangled with bags or mistaking them for food. In 2010, a gray whale that was beached and died in Seattle was found to have more than 20 plastic bags in its stomach.

Designated plastic bag recycling facilities exist, but the EPA estimates only 12 percent of bags make it there. CalRecycle puts the statewide number even lower at 3 percent. Even when bags are returned to the proper bin, they aren't truly recycled, but downcycled. "Because plastic bags have a variety of dyes and other additives, it's hard to know exactly what you're getting if you melt down a bunch of bags that consumers have used," explains Larsen. Instead, used bags "generally get turned into something else, such as park benches or flooring material.

"Improperly recycled bags also cause problems for recycling centers like San Francisco's Recology. "When people put them in the recycling bin—and they should not do that—they wind up down at the recycling plant and they wrap around a lot of the recycling equipment," public relations manager Robert Reed tells Mother Jones. About twice a day, "you have to turn your equipment off and send mechanics in with box knives to cut them out."

Proposed plastic bag restrictions almost always meet opposition. In 2007, a Safeway lobbyist in Annapolis, Maryland, called a proposed bag tax "un-American." Padilla's last attempt, a similar bill introduced last year, was defeated by three votes. This time around, his bill includes a grant program to help bag factories transition from single-use to reusable bags. Even with this provision, many manufacturers like California-based Crown Poly oppose the bill, saying it will force industry layoffs.
The plastic bag industry's American Progressive Bag Alliance funded attack ads calling the bill a dirty deal between politicians and grocers, who will now be able to charge for bags:

In Hong Kong, a plastics industry-funded study claims that overall plastic bag use increased after the city implemented a bag tax, since consumers who had previously reused grocery bags began purchasing reusable bags and heavy garbage bags. Some Californians have complained that they already reuse plastic bags to clean up after pets and line wastebaskets, although it seems unlikely that the average family finds uses for the 1,500 bags brought home each year.

Another plastics-industry-backed study at the University of Arizona prompted fears after finding E. coli in 12 percent of tested reusable canvas grocery bags—though the lead author of the report told NPR that the bacteria found would not make the average healthy person sick. The report also found that more than 99.9 percent of bag bacteria can be killed by machine or hand washing, something only 3 percent of bag users actually do.

Marine researcher Charles J. Moore writes in a recent New York Times op-ed that plastic pollution in the ocean may be killing more animals than climate change. "Hundreds of species mistake plastics for their natural food," he writes, not only sickening wildlife but also "adding to the increasing amount of synthetic chemicals unknown before 1950 that we now carry in our bodies."

In a press release, Nathan Weaver of Environment California says the ban is an "important step forward" that "shows that we can achieve lasting victories for ocean and environmental health. Nothing we use for a few minutes should pollute our ocean for hundreds of years."

*This post has been updated to address the various alternatives to single-use bags.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Has A 20-Year-Old Found A Cheap Way To Clean The Planet's Oceans?

Dutch aerospace student Boyan Slat, 20, has an idea that could conceivably remove millions of tons of toxic trash from the world's waters. It even has a revenue model. But will it work?


Published in WorldCrunch.com by Josephine Pabst Sept. 4, 2014
Article illustrative image  
 Boyan Slat next to a drawing of his Ocean Cleanup project 
BERLIN — Twenty-year-old Boyan Slat studies aerospace engineering in the Netherlands, enjoys diving, doesn't bother much with haircuts, and prefers to spend his vacations in Greece. A fairly normal profile for a European student.

But in one crucial respect, Slat differs from thousands of his peers: He has an idea that 100 scientists worldwide find convincing — indeed some of them regard it as groundbreaking — and that could save billions, if it works.

Slat's brainchild aims to rid millions of tons of plastic garbage from the world's oceans. Exactly how much of it there is can only be estimated, and experts have differing views. The figures vary from 100 to 142 million tons. And the amount is constantly growing.

According to the United Nations, some 225 million tons of plastic is produced annually. Of that, 6.4 million tons wind up in the oceans and tend to stay there for decades without decomposing. Instead, they disintegrate into smaller and smaller particles.

Studies have shown that it takes less than a year for ultraviolet light, salt water and mechanical forces to jump-start the disintegration process. The problem is that this process releases toxic chemicals that even in modest quantities can cause severe damage to both ocean life and human beings. And they can end up in humans with astonishing ease — via fish, mussels and other seafood that take in the bits of plastic because they confuse them with plankton or other food.

Birds and garbage on Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean — Forest & Kim Starr

And that's not all: The plastic garbage itself leads to the mass deaths of sea birds, fish and sea mammals. A two-year study conducted by Dutch research group Alterra had researchers performing autopsies on 600 fulmars — gull-like birds — that had washed up on the North Sea coast. They concluded that 90% of them had consumed indigestible trash, on average 44 plastic bits per bird.

The silver bullet?
Of course, Boyan Slat is not the first person to try to solve the problem. But unlike most concepts suggested so far, his has significant advantages. It is far less costly and holds the promise of markedly higher efficiency than the usual methods — for example, sending fishermen out with nets to trawl for trash.

Measures taken up to now in the Asia-Pacific region have cost some 967 million euros annually. "The Ocean Cleanup," as Slat's model is called, would require only two million and would be a good deal more effective.

"The amount of garbage retrieved by such projects is extremely slight compared to the entire amount in the oceans," says marine biologist Lars Gutow, who works for the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. You only have to look at overfished regions in comparison to total ocean size to see that, he adds.

To deal with the problem more efficiently, the oceans' natural dumping grounds need to be researched. These are trash vortexes called ocean gyres in which plastic garbage amass naturally.

Charles Moore, an American marine researcher, was the first person to see the gigantic rotating currents when his ship ended up in the middle of one in 1997 on the way back to California from Hawaii. In the meantime, researchers say there are a total of five such massive vortexes. The largest one runs clockwise between Asia and North America.

The phenomenon is called the "North Pacific Gyre," and the area is more informally known as the Great Pacific garbage patch. This, the largest, is the subject of Slat's focus. Within five years, if his ambitious plan works, it should be history.

The model itself looks like a bird's-eye view of a gigantic V. Its two hose-like arms, each 50 kilometers (31 miles), would lie on the ocean's surface. Every 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), they would be weighted and attached to the ocean floor. Filters would be attached to the hoses that would catch garbage but pose no danger to marine creatures.

There's even a revenue model
The debris would be housed in tower-like containers that would be emptied by ship every 45 days. Then the garbage would be recycled. If the system works, it would be worth good money: A ton of plastic debris sells on average for 50 euros. Recycled, according to estimates from the German Council for Sustainable Development, it would be worth more like 300 to 400 euros. That would mean that cleaning plastic debris from the ocean could create 56.8 billion euros in revenue.

While most of the plastic garbage lies on the top three meters of the ocean, the concept would allow for most of the existing garbage to be collected. The model stocks energy in solar panels. Because no nets would be used, no harm would come to marine wildlife, according to documentation of the project, on which 100 researchers, scientists and engineers have worked.

The ambitious plan is due to be financed through crowdfunding. Slat raised $800,000 for a trial run. He and fellow researchers have already established that the idea works, at least on a small scale.

Overall, marine biologist Lars Gutow sees the project critically. "I’m no engineer," he stresses. "But I believe that a vehicle as big as this one, that spans several hundred meters, is unworkable."

There has never been a project this large that works reliably under conditions that can include storms, meter-high waves and inconceivable forces. If there should be damage, what then? Who would be in a position so far away from land to responsibly manage the system and repair it if necessary?

Gutow also sees other problems. "If half the world now thinks that a construction like this makes it possible to fish all the plastic garbage out of the world's oceans, then there is hardly any incentive for researchers to keep working on making sure no further plastic is produced, and if so, that it doesn't end up in the oceans," he says. "And that would be disastrous."

Math Might Help Nail Oceans' Plastic 'Garbage Patch' Polluters

Published in NBC News by

Who's flushing plastic pollution into the oceans, creating tiny time bombs that kill fish, birds and sea turtles ingesting what they think is food? That question has been around since 1997, when the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" was discovered, and a new mathematical model could provide the tool needed to track down the culprits.

The model shows that pollution can cross what scientists thought were boundaries between oceans and especially its five gyres — large circular currents that are now known to trap floating debris in what have been dubbed garbage patches. Most of that trash is not even visible: It's tiny plastic pellets floating at or just below the surface. 

"The breaking of the geographic ocean boundaries should shift the way people think of where oceans begin and end," modeler and mathematician Gary Froyland told NBC News. "The interactions that we've shown between the different oceans shows that no ocean is isolated and that local effects can have impacts far from the source." 

Large Garbage Patch Floating in the Pacific Ocean

Froyland and two colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, described their model in a paper published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Chaos

The work builds off an earlier, but less sophisticated, online tool (adrift.org.au) that allows users to project how plastic pollution travels in ocean currents. 

The trio's math comes from a field known as ergodic theory, which has been used to study interconnectedness — think complex systems like the Internet, or even humanity. 

For their model, the team divided the entire ocean into seven regions whose waters mix very little. Their projections tracked well with existing ocean circulation models and refined those to the point where they found that parts of the Pacific and Indian oceans are actually most closely coupled to the south Atlantic, while part of the Indian Ocean really belongs in the South Pacific. 

A follow-up study will look at how porous those boundaries are. "We first wanted to see where the boundaries are, the next step is to study the amount of plastic crossing these boundaries," said Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer with the team.
Image:  Andres Cozar Cabanas published a study last July showing where plastic debris has been found in the five gyres

Scientist Andres Cozar Cabanas published a study last July showing where plastic debris has been found in the five gyres around the world.
Scientists not involved in the modeling welcomed the tool. 

"I could imagine using their model to generate hypotheses about the likely source regions of debris in each of the 'garbage patches' that could be tested with on-the-ground sampling in these coastal regions," said Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer with the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass. 

"We already know that once debris leaves a harbor or coastline it is fairly quickly carried to the open ocean to these subtropical accumulation zones," she adds, "but what we might not have guessed is that debris in the accumulation zones may have originated from the next ocean basin over." 

For Spanish marine ecologist Andres Cozar Cabanas, who published a study last July that mapped plastic ocean debris across the globe, the model shows that plastic pollution "is a global issue that can be effectively addressed only … at a global level." 

That's exactly how the Aussie trio want the tool to be used. "At a political level," says Froyland, "the realization that even the garbage patches exchange garbage may make governments realize that 'we're all in it together,' hopefully producing some global action."

NOAA Marine Debris Program
Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean.

More about Ocean Gyres:

The vastness of the oceans had once lulled mankind into a false sense of safety with little knowledge that the capacity of oceans to take garbage and refuse is not infinite. The plastics have compounded the problem still further. Plastic pollution in the oceans is killing fish, birds and sea turtles. The great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997 and the question, who’s flushing all the plastic pollution into the oceans?

The great Pacific Garbage is a collection of marine debris located in the North Pacific Ocean. The high-pressure area between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California is the precipitating factor for the Pacific Garbage phenomenon. The area lies in then centre of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is a circular ocean currents which has been formed by Earth wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of Earth. The middle of the gyre is very calm. The circular motion of the Gyre pulls in the debris into the center. A similar garbage patch exists in the Atlantic Ocean, in the North Atlantic Gyre.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Choking the Oceans With Plastic

Published in the New York Times by Charles Moore August 25, 2014


LOS ANGELES — The world is awash in plastic. It’s in our cars and our carpets, we wrap it around the food we eat and virtually every other product we consume; it has become a key lubricant of globalization — but it’s choking our future in ways that most of us are barely aware.

I have just returned with a team of scientists from six weeks at sea conducting research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the Equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts. 

Although it was my 10th voyage to the area, I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. Plastics of every description, from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.

Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth.

No scientist, environmentalist, entrepreneur, national or international government agency has yet been able to establish a comprehensive way of recycling the plastic trash that covers our land and inevitably blows and washes down to the sea. In a 2010 study of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, my colleagues and I estimated that some 2.3 billion pieces of plastic — from polystyrene foam to tiny fragments and pellets — had flowed from Southern California’s urban centers into its coastal waters in just three days of sampling.

The deleterious consequences of humanity’s “plastic footprint” are many, some known and some yet to be discovered. We know that plastics biodegrade exceptionally slowly, breaking into tiny fragments in a centuries-long process. 

We know that plastic debris entangles and slowly kills millions of sea creatures; that hundreds of species mistake plastics for their natural food, ingesting toxicants that cause liver and stomach abnormalities in fish and birds, often choking them to death. We know that one of the main bait fish in the ocean, the lantern fish, eats copious quantities of plastic fragments, threatening their future as a nutritious food source to the tuna, salmon, and other pelagic fish we consume, adding to the increasing amount of synthetic chemicals unknown before 1950 that we now carry in our bodies.

We suspect that more animals are killed by vagrant plastic waste than by even climate change — a hypothesis that needs to be seriously tested. During our most recent voyage, we studied the effects of pollution, taking blood and liver samples from fish as we searched for invasive species and plastic-linked pollutants that cause protein and hormone abnormalities. While we hope our studies will yield important contributions to scientific knowledge, they address but a small part of a broader issue.

The reality is that only by preventing synthetic debris  — most of which is disposable plastic — from getting into the ocean in the first place will a measurable reduction in the ocean’s plastic load be accomplished. Clean-up schemes are legion, but have never been put into practice in the garbage patches.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States supports environmentalist groups that remove debris from beaches. But the sieve-like skimmers they use, no matter how technologically sophisticated, will never be able to clean up remote garbage gyres: There’s too much turbulent ocean dispersing and mixing up the mess.

The problem is compounded by the aquaculture industry, which uses enormous amounts of plastic in its floats, nets, lines and tubes. The most common floats and tubes I’ve found in the deep ocean and on Hawaiian beaches come from huge sea-urchin and oyster farms like the one that created the oyster-buoy island we discovered. Those buoys were torn from their moorings by the tsunami that walloped Japan on March 11, 2011. 

But no regulatory remedies exist to deal with tons of plastic equipment lost accidentally and in storms. Government and industry organizations purporting to certify sustainably farmed seafood, despite their dozens of pages of standards, fail to mention gear that is lost and floats away. Governments, which are rightly concerned with depletion of marine food sources, should ensure that plastic from cages, buoys and other equipment used for aquaculture does not escape into the waters.

But, in the end, the real challenge is to combat an economic model that thrives on wasteful products and packaging, and leaves the associated problem of clean-up costs. Changing the way we produce and consume plastics is a challenge greater than reining in our production of carbon dioxide.

Plastics are a nightmare to recycle. They are very hard to clean. They can melt at low temperatures, so impurities are not vaporized. It makes no difference whether a synthetic polymer like polyethylene is derived from petroleum or plants; it is still a persistent pollutant. Biodegradable plastics exist, but manufacturers are quick to point out that marine degradable does not mean “marine disposable.”

Scientists in Britain and the Netherlands have proposed to cut plastic pollution by the institution of a “circular economy.” The basic concept is that products must be designed with end-of-life recovery in mind. They propose a precycling premium to provide incentives to eliminate the possibility that a product will become waste.

In the United States, especially in California, the focus has been on so-called structural controls, such as covering gutters and catch basins with screens. This has reduced the amount of debris flowing down rivers to the sea. Activists around the world are lobbying for bans on the most polluting plastics — the bottles, bags and containers that deliver food and drink. Many have been successful. In California, nearly 100 municipalities have passed ordinances banning throwaway plastic bags and the Senate is considering a statewide ban.

Until we shut off the flow of plastic to the sea, the newest global threat to our Anthropocene age will only get worse.

Charles J. Moore is a captain in the U.S. merchant marine and founder of the Algalita Marine Research and Education Institute in Long Beach, California.

Garbage Patches Make Up As Much As 40 Percent of Ocean Surface

Garbage in water

Charles J. Moore, a captain in the US merchant marines and founder of the Algalita Marine Research and Education Institute, recently returned from a six-week research trip at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He wrote in the New York Times that what he saw during his voyage shocked him.

Moore, who has made ten of these trips to the Great Pacific, one of five major garbage patches drifting in ocean waters near the equator, said the increase in the quantity of plastic waste since his last trip in 2009 was “enormous.”

“Plastics of every description,” Moore said, “from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end.” He said there was even a floating island of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture “that had solid areas you could walk on.”

Plastic is ubiquitous in everyday life. It can be found in some form in nearly every product that we use, and it is now one of the most widely found pollutants of ocean waters worldwide.
“Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth.”
The currently exists no comprehensive way of recycling the plastic garbage that makes its way out to sea, and there is a lot of it.

“In a 2010 study of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers,” said Moore, “my colleagues and I estimated that some 2.3 billion pieces of plastic — from polystyrene foam to tiny fragments and pellets — had flowed from Southern California’s urban centers into its coastal waters in just three days of sampling.

Moore said that he and his team “suspect that more animals are killed by vagrant plastic waste than by even climate change,” and that “only by preventing synthetic debris … from getting into the ocean in the first place will a measurable reduction in the ocean’s plastic load be accomplished.”
He applauded efforts by environment and conservation workers to clean up debris from beaches, but said that no matter how technologically advanced their “sieve-like skimmers they use” will not be able to clean up the giant garbage gyres.

“The real challenge is to combat an economic model that thrives on wasteful products and packaging, and leaves the associated problem of cleanup costs,” Moore said. “Changing the way we produce and consume plastics is a challenge greater than reining in our production of carbon dioxide.”

Nearly 100 municipalities in California have banned throwaway plastic bags, and a statewide ban is currently under consideration by the state Senate. But Moore concluded by saying that until “we shut off the flow of plastics to the sea, the newest global threat to our Anthropocene age will only get worse.”

Amy is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @AEddings31.

California Bans Plastic Bags

Published August 30, 2014 in EcoWatch by Stefanie Spear

The California Senate voted 22-15 late last night to pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. The bill, SB 270, will phase out single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and pharmacies beginning July 2015, and in convenience stores one year later, and create a mandatory minimum ten-cent fee for recycled paper, reusable plastic and compostable bags.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
“This important step forward shows that we can achieve lasting victories for ocean and environmental health.” Photo credit: Shutterstock
The bill, which passed both houses of the California State Legislature now heads to the Governor’s desk. If signed, California will become the first state in the U.S. to ban what advocates call “the most ubiquitous consumer item on the planet.”

Senators Alex Padilla, Kevin de León and Ricardo Lara authored the measure that will implement a ban while promoting recycling and California manufacturing, and provides financial incentives to maintain and retrain California employees in affected industries.

“In crafting this compromise, it was imperative to me that we achieve the goals of doing away with single-use plastic bags, help change consumer behavior, and importantly, support and expand California jobs,” said Senate President pro Tempore-elect Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). “SB 270 is a win-win for the environment and for California workers.”

Senate Bill 270 will:
  • Increase the use of recycled content for reusable plastic bags to promote recycling and California manufacturing.  In 2016, bags will be required to have 20 percent recycled content and in 2020 be made of 40 percentrecycled content.
  • Support recycling of agriculture plastic film which is currently sent to landfills.
  • Require large grocery store chains to take back used bags for continued recycling.
  • Require third party certification of reusable plastic bags to ensure compliance with bag standards which support California manufacturing.
  • Grandfathers existing local ordinances related to grocery bags.
More than 120 California local governments have already banned single-use plastic bags with more than 1 in 3 Californians already living somewhere with a plastic bag ban in place, in an effort to drive consumers towards sustainable behavior change.

The Clean Seas Coalition, a growing group of environmentalists, scientists, California lawmakers, students and community leaders has worked since 2008 to reduce sources of plastic pollution, and help pass this legislation.

“Data from the over 121 local plastic bag bans, like Los Angeles City, Los Angeles County, San Jose and San Mateo has proven that bans are effective at reducing litter and changing consumer attitudes, and have refuted industry’s claims of apocalyptic impacts on jobs and poor communities,” said Leslie Tamminen, director Seventh Generation Advisors and facilitator for the Clean Seas Coalition. “A state plastic bag ban saves taxpayers huge amounts of money spent on litter cleanup, and protects the environment.” 

Plastic bags create a direct threat to wildlife, like the Pacific leatherback sea turtles, that mistake the bags for food. A study of more than 370 leatherback sea turtle autopsies found that one in three had plastic in their stomach, most often a plastic bag. Plastic bags are also one of the most common items littered on California’s beaches according to Ocean Conservancy’s annual beach cleanup data, according to Ocean Conservancy.

“This important step forward shows that we can achieve lasting victories for ocean and environmental health,” said Nathan Weaver, oceans advocate with Environment California. “Nothing we use for a few minutes should pollute our ocean for hundreds of years. I congratulate Senators Padilla, de León, and Lara for their victory today, and I thank them for their leadership to protect our environment.”

“The experience of over 120 cities shows that this policy works,” concluded Weaver. “I urge Governor Brown to sign SB 270 into law.”

California bans plastic bags, Miami Beach bans styrofoam containers

California, long known for its progressive stance on the environment, took a major step forward in solidifying this position as the California State Senate finalized its approval of the legislation on Friday, August 29, 2014. The measure is now being moved forward to Gov. Jerry Brown awaiting his signature.

The Senate bill SB-270 Solid Waste: Single-use Carryout Bags would begin the phasing out of single use plastic bags. Beginning July 1, 2015, stores that have a specified amount of sales or retail floor space would be prohibited from providing their customer a single-use plastic bag. The stores would only be allowed to provide a paper bag at a cost of not less than 10 cents.

In the next phase of implementation, starting on July 1, 2016, the bill would additionally impose these prohibitions and requirements on convenience food stores, foodmarts, and entities engaged in the sale of a limited line of goods, or goods intended to be consumed off premises, and that hold a specified license with regard to alcoholic beverages. There are additional considerations and requirements regarding reusable bags and recycling efforts included in the bill's language.

Precedents such as these should be recognized and applauded for taking concrete measures to address over consumption, the increase of landfills and plastic oceans.

Plastic oceans also known as gyers are an increasing concern as they degrade water quality and have a direct impact on the health of marine wildlife. A gyre, a naturally occurring vortex of wind and currents, rotate in a clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere creating a whirlpool effect where marine plastic debris collects. There are 5 major gyres in the oceans worldwide, one of the largest is the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, estimated to be twice the size of Texas and swirls in the Pacific Ocean roughly between the coast of California and Hawaii.

Plastic bags, with a potential life of one hundred years, never fully decompose instead breaking into smaller and smaller pieces mistaken by the marine wildlife to be food. While their stomachs may be full, lacking in nutritional content, the health of our wildlife is severely compromised often resulting in death.

Even paper bags which seem to be a better environmental choice, are environmentally comprised in production utilizing chemicals and processes that are not environmentally beneficial. There are compostable plastic and paper bags, however, to be truly effective, recycling centers must have the type of facilities that allow for the bags to decompose. These are not always available.

Miami Beach also set a precedent on July 27, 2014 banning all styrofoam containers at all city parks, events, buildings and sidewalk cafes. These had already been banned from their beaches. Facing a fine of $100, tourists as well can be ticketed. The styrofoam ban by Miami Beach is a first for the state of Florida. It is hoped that this will be the beginning of a trend that will be matched by all the cities in the state.

Styrofoam, like plastic bags, essentially never decomposes but rather continues to break down into smaller and smaller pieces polluting water ways and compromising the health of our wildlife. According to the EPA in a publication, "Marine Litter - Trash that Kills", it goes into more detail regarding the crisis of plastic and our environment.

Kudos to California and Miami Beach for taking steps in the right direction!

California Senate bill SB-270 Solid Waste: Single-use Carryout Bags

Monday, September 1, 2014

In Plastics and Cans, a Threat to Women

Cans containing the widely used industrial compound bisphenol A, or BPA.Credit Philippe Desmazes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Deborah Blum writes about chemicals and the environment.

A few years ago, Jodi Flaws, a bioscientist at the University of Illinois, began testing a theory about the risks to women posed by the widely used industrial compound bisphenol A, or BPA. 

A series of studies had suggested that it could damage developing ovaries. But nobody knew how. So for a month, Dr. Flaws dosed young female mice with a BPA solution at a level comparable to estimated human exposure in the United States. She then examined their ovaries, focusing on the follicles, which contain the eggs. 

The effect of the BPA was immediately obvious. 

Compared with normal mice, the follicles of the treated mice were fewer and smaller. Further analysis showed that estradiol, the sex hormone essential for normal reproductive development, was not being produced at normal levels. BPA, it seemed, interferes with enzymes essential in the production of such hormones. Another study published by her laboratory this spring found that treated mice stopped producing viable eggs at an abnormally young age. 

Scientists have discovered similar effects across an increasingly broad range of mammals, from sheep to monkeys to, alas, humans. The accumulating research fuels rising concern among scientists that childhood exposure to BPA may well contribute to female infertility, and that adult exposure may result in a shorter reproductive life span.

“I think most scientists working today agree that BPA is an ovarian toxicant,” Dr. Flaws said. A review of research into BPA, published this summer in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, noted that ovarian toxicity is among the most consistent and strongest effects found “in both animal models and in women.” 

Discovered in the late 19th century, BPA came into wide commercial use in the mid-20th century. It is an ingredient in products like polycarbonate plastics, thermal coatings on cash register receipts and protective linings in cans and pipes. 

Concerns about its health risks didn’t really arise until the late 1990s, when researchers first reported that it appeared to disrupt normal hormone function. Consumer worry led the Food and Drug Administration to ban it in baby products, such as bottles, and manufacturers voluntarily scaled back its use in other goods. But because good substitutes are hard to find, BPA is still used in many materials, and studies have found that a majority of Americans still test positive for exposure.

What that means for our health has turned out to be a complicated subject; manufacturers have pointed out that more than decade of research has produced often inconsistent results. Still many experts worry that the evidence that this chemical damages young ovaries is consistent — and growing. 

“There are so many studies of BPA that it’s often difficult to weed out the real effects,” said Tracey Woodruff, the director of the program on reproductive health and the environment at the University of California, San Francisco. “But on this question of ovarian toxicity, all the studies are starting to line up.” 

Genetics, lifestyle, and other chemical exposures also play a role in infertility, and scientists are still struggling to figure out where BPA ranks among the risks. “We’re incredibly difficult creatures to study, especially because we’re looking at effects that may take a generation to show up,” said Patricia Hunt, a genetics professor at Washington State University. 

She and her colleagues decided to study the compound’s effects in another primate species, the rhesus monkey. They exposed monkeys in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy to levels of BPA comparable to those that humans received. The investigators were looking for the effects on developing ovaries, similar to the changes in rodents. And they found them. The exposure in both trimesters altered follicles and oocytes (the germ cells that develop into eggs). Similar effects might easily occur in developing human females as well, Dr. Hunt concluded.

Researchers at Harvard University have been trying to assess how BPA affects humans through studies of women enrolled at in-vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. In a recent study, 80 percent of the women tested positive for BPA in urine. Higher BPA levels were linked to a reduced number of follicles — and therefore fewer fertile eggs. 

Noting that BPA also turned up in follicular fluid, the investigators also looked at 357 discarded oocytes from more than 120 women visiting the clinics. Higher levels of BPA were linked to stunted human oocytes, as well as indications of chromosomal damage – a finding also found in animals studied by Dr. Hunt. “Together with prior animal studies, the data support the negative influences of BPA on oocyte maturation,” the Harvard team concluded.

Despite the growing body of research, a more complete assessment of BPA’s effects on human reproduction remains a tricky prospect. 

“As a species, we tend to have a lot more chromosomal abnormalities anyway than animals like mice,” Dr. Hunt said. “And then people are waiting longer to have children, and that’s also a complicating factor.”

Dr. Woodruff said that a detailed systematic review of BPA was in the works, part of a National Toxicology Program reassessment of chemical risks. It should provide a better sense of how to navigate through recent findings. Her best advice for now? Avoid the compound when possible and, other than that, “don’t drive yourself crazy.”

“We’re still figuring this out, and the burden is on us — researchers, health care providers, manufactures — to do that well,” she said.