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!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

First of Its Kind Map Reveals Extent of Ocean Plastic

     Published in National Geographic July 15, 2014 by Laura Parker

When marine ecologist Andres Cozar Cabañas and a team of researchers completed the first ever map of ocean trash, something didn't quite add up.

Their work, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did find millions of pieces of plastic debris floating in five large subtropical gyres in the world's oceans.

But plastic production has quadrupled since the 1980s, and wind, waves, and sun break all that plastic into tiny bits the size of rice grains. So there should have been a lot more plastic floating on the surface than the scientists found.

"Our observations show that large loads of plastic fragments, with sizes from microns to some millimeters, are unaccounted for in the surface loads," says Cozar, who teaches at the University of Cadiz in Spain, by e-mail. "But we don't know what this plastic is doing.

The plastic is somewhere—in the ocean life, in the depths, or broken down into fine particles undetectable by nets."

What effect those plastic fragments will have on the deep ocean—the largest and least explored ecosystem on Earth—is anyone's guess. "Sadly," Cozar says, "the accumulation of plastic in the deep ocean would be modifying this enigmatic ecosystem before we can really know it."

But where exactly is the unaccounted-for plastic? In what amounts? And how did it get there?

"We must learn more about the pathway and ultimate fate of the 'missing' plastic," Cozar says.

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere
One reason so many questions remain unanswered is that the science of marine debris is so young. Plastic was invented in the mid-1800s and has been mass produced since the end of World War II. In contrast, ocean garbage has been studied for slightly more than a decade.

"This is new mainly because people always thought that the solution to pollution was dilution, meaning that we could turn our head, and once it is washed away—out of sight, out of mind," says Douglas Woodring, co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, a Hong Kong-based charitable group working to reduce the flow of plastic into the oceans.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch, a loose collection of drifting debris that accumulates in the northern Pacific, first drew notice when it was  discovered in 1997 by adventurer Charles Moore as he sailed back to California after competing in a yachting competition.

A turning point came in 2004, when Richard Thompson, a British marine biologist at Plymouth University, concluded that most marine debris was plastic.

Research on marine debris is also complicated by the need to include a multidiscipline group of experts, ranging from oceanographers to solid-waste-management engineers.

"We are at the very early stages of understanding the accounting," says Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association, based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  "If we think ten or a hundred times more plastic is entering the ocean than we can account for, then where is it? We still haven't answered that question.

"And if we don't know where it is or how it is impacting organisms," she adds, "we can't tell the person on the street how big the problem is."

Law, along with Thompson, is one of 22 scientists researching marine debris for the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The group is grappling with some of these questions and plans to publish a series of papers later this year.
One of the most significant contributions made by Cozar's team, says Law, was data collected in the Southern Hemisphere: "I can't tell you how rare that is."

New Maps Document Floating Plastic Trash

Tens of thousands of tons of plastic garbage float on the surface waters in the world's oceans, according to researchers who mapped giant accumulation zones of trash in all five subtropical ocean gyres. Ocean currents act as "conveyor belts," researchers say, carrying debris into massive convergence zones that are estimated to contain millions of plastic items per square kilometer in their inner cores.
Map shows plastic debris in surface water of world's oceans. Created in-house by Jamie Hawk (Ryan Morris).
One Answer
Cozar's team was part of the Malaspina expedition of 2010, a nine-month research project led by the Spanish National Research Council to study the effects of global warming on the oceans and the biodiversity of the deep ocean ecosystem. 

Originally Cozar was assigned to study small fauna living on the ocean surface. But when tiny plastic fragments kept turning up in water samples collected by the expedition scientists, Cozar was reassigned to assess the level of plastic pollution.

The two-ship expedition spent nine months circumnavigating the world. But Cozar also used data gathered by four other ships that had traveled to the polar regions, the South Pacific, and the North Atlantic to complete the map.

The team analyzed 3,070 water samples. "One of the most striking observations was the conspicuous presence of plastic in the surface samples, even thousands of kilometers from the continents," he says. "The plastic garbage patch in the South Atlantic Gyre was one of the most striking."

See how scientists and artists have gathered and studied ocean debris to put the problem of trash into perspective.
Cozar says that one answer to the missing-plastic mystery is that some of the tiniest bits of plastic are being consumed by small fish, which live in the murky mesopelagic zone, 600 feet to 3,300 feet (180 to 1,000 meters) below the surface. 

Little is known about these mesopelagic fish, Cozar says, other than that they're abundant. They hide in the darkness of the ocean to avoid predators and swim to the surface at night to feed.

"We found plastics in the stomachs of the fishes collected during Malaspina's circumnavigation," he says. "We are working on this now."

One of the most common mesopelagic fish is the lantern fish, which lives in the central ocean gyres and is the main link in the tropical zone between plankton and marine vertebrates. Because lantern fish serve as a primary food source for commercially harvested fish, including tuna and swordfish, any plastic they eat ends up in the food chain.

"There are signs enough to suggest that plankton-eaters, the small fishes, are important conduits for plastic pollution and associated contaminants," Cozar says. "If this assumption is confirmed, the impacts of a man-sustained plastic pollution could extend over the ocean predators on a large scale."

Follow Laura Parker on Twitter

Every single ocean has a massive swirling plastic garbage patch

Published in Vox.com by Brad Plumer on July 14, 2014
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of many areas in the ocean where marine debris naturally concentrates because of ocean currents. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
What happens to our plastic bottles and lids and containers after we throw them out? This turns out to be something of a scientific mystery.

there are 35,000 tons of plastic floating in the ocean — and more may be hiding elsewhere
We know that the vast majority of plastic trash ends up in landfills, just sitting there and taking thousands of years to degrade. A smaller fraction gets recycled (about 9 percent in the United States).

But another large portion finds its way into the oceans, either by people chucking litter directly into the sea or by storm-water runoff carrying plastic debris to the coasts. One conservative estimate suggests that at least 1 million tons of plastic has entered the ocean since the 1970s.

Now here's the catch: We still don't know where all that ocean plastic actually went. Scientists have recently identified massive swirling garbage patches in each of the world's oceans that contain up 35,000 tons of plastic.

But those patches account for less than 1 percent of the plastic thought to be in the oceans — and no one quite knows where the other 99 percent went. One possibility is that fish are eating the rest of the plastic and it's somehow entering the food chain. But no one quite knows for sure.

Every ocean has a massive plastic garbage patch

Concentrations of plastic debris in surface waters of the global ocean. Colored circles indicate mass concentrations (legend on top right). The map shows average concentrations in 442 sites (1,127 surface net tows. Cozar et al, 2014.

Perhaps you've heard of the Great Pacific garbage patch — a giant patch of trash that's accumulated in a swirling subtropical gyre in northern Pacific Ocean.*

There are at least five giant floating garbage patches

Well, it turns out that there are at least five of these floating garbage patches around the world. That's according to a recent study in The Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, led by Andres Cózar of the Universidad de Cadiz and informed by the results of a 2010 circumnavigation cruise.

These garbage patches aren't visible from space — or even, necessarily, from a passing boat — since most of the plastic is bobbing just beneath the surface, and most of the particles are smaller than 1 centimeter in diameter. Over time, the plastic bits get broken down into ever smaller pieces as they get battered by waves and degraded by the sun.

But these garbage patches are massive, collectively holding some 7,000 to 35,000 tons of plastic in all. The patch in the North Pacific was by far the biggest — containing about one-third of all the floating plastic found. (Much of the plastic debris from eastern China, for instance, collects here.)

And yet, what was most surprising to researchers was that these plastic garbage patches weren't big enough. Conservative estimates had suggested that there should be millions of tons of plastic in the oceans. But these subtropical gyres only contained up to 35,000 tons.

In particular, there seemed to be much less plastic smaller than 1 millimeter in diameter than expected. 

So where did the rest of the plastic go?

99% of the plastic in the ocean is missing — where did it go?


In the PNAS paper, the authors offer a couple of possible explanations for why they didn't find nearly as much floating plastic as they expected. The most troubling is that fish and other organisms are eating all the plastic:

One possibility is that plankton and fish are eating the plastic

1) Maybe the plastic is washing back ashore. The problem with this hypothesis is that most of the missing plastic was less than 1 millimeter in diameter. It's unclear why only smaller bits would have washed up ashore.

2) Perhaps the plastic somehow breaks down into really, really tiny, undetectable pieces. This is possible, although the authors note that "there is no reason to assume that the rate of solar-induced fragmentation increased since the 1980s."

3) Maybe small organisms are growing on some of the plastic bits, causing them to get heavier and sink deeper into the ocean. This is also plausible, although the authors note that studies have found that when these plastic pieces sink, the organisms on them typically die and the plastic bobs back up to the surface.

4) Plankton and fish are eating the plastic. This one's a more plausible hypothesis. After all, the tiny plastic bits that seem to have vanished are small enough to be eaten by zooplankton, who are known to munch on plastic. The authors also argue that mesopelagic fish beneath the surface may be eating a lot of plastic too — and, perhaps, pooping it out down to the ocean bottom. This needs further testing though.

Assuming fish are eating all that plastic and it's entering the food chain, it's still unclear how dangerous that is. Obviously some marine organisms, like seabirds, can get digestive problems (and can die) if they eat large pieces of plastic. But what about very tiny pieces?

There's some evidence that toxic chemicals can cling to plastic in the ocean and accumulate — but there's still scant research on how much harm this might actually do as it passes through the food chain.

5) It's accumulating in the ice caps. Meanwhile, a separate recent study in Earth's Future suggested that a great deal of microplastic is accumulating in the polar ice caps. As sea ice forms and expands, the argument goes, it essentially "scavenges" the plastic from the seawater. This, too, might be part of the story.

6) Perhaps we're overestimating how much trash goes into the oceans. Of course, it's also possible that the estimates of how much plastic is entering the oceans in the first place are wrong. The seminal work on this was done by the National Academy of Sciences way back in the 1970s. That may need to be revisited.

Either way, something doesn't add up — the current numbers suggest that the vast majority of plastic trash in the ocean is vanishing, and no one seems to know where it went.

Further reading: Dianna Parker of NOAA's Marine Debris Program talks about possible ways to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Dutch student tackles environmental catastrophe with 'Ocean Cleanup' project

Boyan Slat has invented a concept that could remove nearly half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the next decade — and he’s not even 20 years old yet.
photo courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup
Boyan Slat (Photo courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup)

Slat, 19, has dedicated thousands of hours to working with a team comprised of more than 100 individuals who are working to prove the feasibility of Boyan’s concept: The Ocean Cleanup.

Temporarily quitting his aerospace engineering study, he has focused his efforts completely on continuing to develop a plastic collection and capture method that is not only innovative, but also financially beneficial.

“The ocean is not only important in terms of housing most of Earth’s biodiversity. It is essential as a food source, and also for the global economy,” Boyan said in an e-mail.

“The clean-up operation we developed is certainly more cost effective than the billions spent on a yearly basis in order to pay for damaged ships, the loss of biodiversity, and the clean-up of beaches,” he said.

While scuba diving in Greece, Slat was frustrated with the fact that there was more plastic than fish under the water. When he returned home, Boyan set to work, recruiting more than 70 authors for his feasibility research.

Throughout this journey, he has been recognized as one of Intel’s 20 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs Worldwide (Intel EYE50), as well as awarded Best Technical Design at the Delft University of Technology. He also earned the second place spot for the iSea sustainable innovation award, granted by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.

Though Slat is making unbelievable progress in both ideology and creation of feasibility research, the war on plastic is far from over. It has barely just begun.

Researchers now know that gyres, which are giant ocean current vortices, are the final resting place for the carelessly discarded water bottles and plastic bags that countless people fail to recycle.

“The North Pacific gyre is by far the most polluted of the gyres, and this is the location where we plan to implement the system after we’ve done successfully completed testing,” Slat said.

“In total, five gyres have been identified where the plastic concentrates. We have several other potential locations for the pilots in mind at this moment, but no decision has been made yet. For now we would like to focus on the start of pilot testing once we have generated sufficient funding.”

Slat believes that attention from both the government and the public will make his concept a reality, and that funding can be found.

“Although we’ve now shown we can clean up almost half the pacific garbage patch in 10 years, we should also make sure no more plastic enters the ocean in the first place,” said Slat. “For this, awareness is the most important part.”

He continued, saying: “To accomplish awareness, we need attention from both the governments and the public. Governments can support this by rules and regulations, but of course, also by release funding in order to clean up the mess we’ve made so far.

“However, everybody can support. This is why we started a crowd funding initiative.”
To learn more about Slat’s innovative initiative, visit www.TheOceanCleanup.com.

U.N. report: Our oceans are trashed with plastic

Published in CNN by Casey Tolan, July 7, 2014

A Chinese boy runs along the trash-strewn beach along the sea coast in Anquan village, which is in Hainan province, in 2011.  
 Chinese boy runs along the trash-strewn beach along the sea coast in Anquan village, which is in Hainan province, in 2011.
  • Plastic waste in oceans is causing $13 billion of damage to marine ecosystems each year, new reports say
  • Microplastics smaller than 5 millimeters, which are common in consumer goods, are especially dangerous
  • The solution to the problem is increasing recycling and decreasing unneeded use of plastics
(CNN) -- A series of new reports are raising concerns about the damage plastic waste is doing to oceans -- harming marine animals, destroying sensitive ecosystems, and contaminating the fish we eat.

But experts say that the solution to the problem isn't in the ocean -- it's on land.

The United Nations Environment Programme, as well as the NGOs Global Ocean Commission and Plastic Disclosure Project, released reports on Monday ringing the alarm bell about the environmental impact of debris on marine life.

Plastic waste in oceans is causing $13 billion of damage each year, according to the UNEP report, and that figure could be much higher. Worldwide plastic production is projected to reach 33 billion tons by 2050, and plastic makes up 80% of litter on oceans and shorelines.

"Plastics undoubtedly play a crucial role in modern life, but the environmental impacts of the way we use them cannot be ignored," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a press release.

Ten to 20 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, from litter, runoff from poorly managed landfills, and other sources. Once it's in the water, plastic does not degrade but instead breaks into smaller pieces and swirls in massive ocean gyres, creating soupy surfaces peppered with the material.

Scientists are especially worried about the growing prevalence of tiny microplastics which are smaller than 5 millimeters. These include microbeads, which are used in toothpaste, gels, facial cleansers and other consumer goods. Microplastics aren't filtered by sewage treatment plants, and can be ingested by marine animals with deadly effect.

Ocean debris isn't just an environmental issue -- it also complicated the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 earlier this year, as floating debris confused satellite images.

What can be done?
It's expensive and ineffective to clean up existing marine debris. Picking trash off beaches or sweeping it from the ocean surface "does nothing to fix the problem at the source," said Doug Woodring, the co-founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, the NGO behind the Plastic Disclosure Project.

"It's not just an ocean problem, it's a business and a municipal issue," Woodring said. "The ocean is just downstream of our activities. The real solution is upstream at the producer and user end."

Governments can help solve the problem by regulating the use of plastics and creating infrastructure to recycle them. For example, dozens of nations have banned plastic bags at supermarkets or restricted their use.

That's a "good start," said Ada Kong, a campaigner at Greenpeace. But they can go further, she said. "Governments should enforce laws to regulate the cosmetic manufactures to label the ingredients (of consumer goods), including all the microplastics."

The general public can also be conscious about their plastic footprint by simply purchasing goods without a lot of excess plastic packaging. People should also separate their plastic from other waste and recycle it, Woodring said.

From waste to resource
Companies that produce plastic goods have perhaps the biggest opportunity to make a difference, Woodring said. They can engage their customers with rebate or deposit programs, giving them incentives to bring back plastic for recycling.

"Everything from bottles to food packaging can be made from recycled plastic," Woodring said. "The technology is there today to reuse it."

(Plastic is) a valuable material, pound-for-pound worth more than steel, and we're just not capitalizing on it today.

Doug Woodring, the co-founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance
His organization is hosting a "Plasticity Forum" in New York City on Tuesday featuring presentations about how to creatively reuse plastic.

Plastic isn't just waste -- it's "a valuable material, pound-for-pound worth more than steel, and we're just not capitalizing on it today," Woodring said.

The new reports come on the eve of the first-ever United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, a forum for environmental ministers, scientists, and others to discuss strategies to combat climate change and other environmental problems. An ocean conference hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C. last week also focused on marine pollution.

Perhaps the greatest sign of the problem is the rapidly-growing Great Pacific Trash Patch, a massive sheet of plastic and other debris that circles in a gyre across the ocean.

U.S. State Department hosts meeting on plastic in marine debris

Published in Plastic News.com  June 20, 2014 by Gayle S. Putrich

Image By: Nestle Waters North America Nestle Waters' Brian Flaherty at the U.S. State Department's "Our Ocean" conference.

WASHINGTON — Pledges to reduce plastic marine debris were major components of a two-day crash course in ocean protection hosted by the U.S. State Department in Washington and Secretary of State John Kerry.

What was missing was the usual maligning of plastics or calling for sweeping bans.

“Why do we use so much plastic? Well, because it’s great!” said Daniella Dimitrova Russo, CEO of Think Beyond Plastic.

The problem with plastic, she said, is that the essential properties that make plastic such a versatile and desirable material in so many applications become design flaws when it comes to the sea, particularly its lightweight nature and its chemical effects.

“Plastic lasts forever,” Russo said. “Yet we increasingly use it to make single-use products.” Exponential growth in plastics processing since the 1950s has not come with an end-of-life plan for the products, she said, a problem that extends well beyond the United States.

“Above all, our ability to collect plastic lags severely behind our consumption rate,” she said, and while hundreds of environmentalists and groups mostly tell people not to use plastic, “that’s not a good enough answer.”

Russo called for more innovation in dealing with waste plastic, calling it “a great investment opportunity.” She also introduced the Think Beyond Plastic Innovation Forum, which at its heart, she said, is business accelerator and investment fund aimed at helping create and commercialize alternatives.

A mix of industry representatives, senior government officials, scientists, environmentalists and foundations from more than 80 countries attended the June 16-17 “Our Ocean” conference in Washington. The event was aimed at increasing awareness and highlighting the importance of marine issues in business decisions and foreign policy matters.

New initiatives and pledges of financial support were widespread at the event.

Actor and philanthropist Leonardo DiCaprio pledged $7 million over the next two years for marine protection projects under the DiCaprio Foundation banner.

President Barack Obama, in a video message to the more than 400 attendees, launched a new effort to protect U.S. marine landscapes, including expanding the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument and nominating marine sanctuaries off U.S. coasts and in the Great Lakes.

The president is also directing federal agencies to develop a comprehensive program for combating seafood fraud and the black-market fish trade.

“But for this effort to succeed, it has to be bigger than just one country,” Obama said.

Brian Flaherty, vice president of public policy at Nestle Waters North America, discussed plastic marine debris and the company’s “zero waste” efforts, particularly focusing on plastic bottle recycling and reuse.

Nestle Waters is moving from the “source to shelf” responsibility view to a “cradle to cradle approach,” Flaherty said, starting with container design and light weighting and eventually implementing market-based recycling, which would include the cost of recycling in the price of their bottled water.

The company’s ZephyrHills brand, which sources its water from Florida, has made an agreement with organizations In Tampa Bay to conduct an eight-month cleanup and education program for the area, Flaherty announced in D.C.

The plastics industry itself was well represented with the American Chemistry Council’s President and CEO Cal Dooley, who was invited to speak about the plastics industry’s role in launching public-private partnerships and other cooperative action to prevent plastics from reaching our oceans in a closed session, alongside Society of the Plastics Industry President and CEO Bill Carteaux.

Carteaux said the event provided a unique opportunity, not only for global networking and forming partnerships but also for groups and individuals trying to tackle marine debris and other issues to actually talk about the problems and possible solutions, face to face.

“I heard it from four different people, NGO people… ‘plastics isn’t the problem, people are’,” Carteaux said. “We are a wasteful society and we throw a lot of things away. It’s a plastics issue but it’s also an aluminum issue, a glass issue… but it is a major plastics issue and it was very encouraging to hear people outside our industry say that.”

VIDEO: Obama Announces Action on Waste Plastic as Part of Plan to Clean Up the Oceans

TheVIDEO: Obama Announces Action on Waste Plastic as Part of Plan to Clean Up the Oceans at Our Oceans Conference U.S. State Department hosted two-day conference earlier this week which saw new executive actions announced to protect the oceans and cut marine pollution.

The Our Oceans conference drew Heads of State, Foreign Ministers, policy makers, environmentalists, scientists and entrepreneurs from nearly 90 countries.

The U.S. used the conference to highlight its Trash Free Waters program to stop waste and debris from entering the ocean, through sustainable product design, increased material recovery and reuse, and a new nationwide trash prevention ethic.

Daniella Russo, co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, announced the Think Beyond Plastic™ Innovation Forum to advance entrepreneurship and to inspire innovations to reduce global plastic pollution, including in our ocean.

Norway meanwhile, is to allocate up to $1 million for a study on measures to combat marine plastic waste and microplastics.

Part of the Action Plan agreed at the conference called for significant reductions of debris, especially plastic waste, into the marine environment so as to achieve measurable reductions of marine debris by 2025.

President Obama underlined the importance of tackling the issue in a video message to the conference which can be seen in this week’s Newscast below.

Video Link:  http://bcove.me/wjqawe4a

Friday, July 11, 2014

Floating Park in Netherlands to Trap Plastic Junk from Reaching the Ocean

Published in Industry Leaders Magazine by Anna Domanska | Jul 09, 2014

As the plastic is trapped, architects plan to reuse it into building blocks for new floating parks in the river stream.
As the plastic is trapped, architects plan to reuse it into building blocks for new floating parks in the river stream.

One of the greatest difficulties of cleaning up the billions of bits of plastic on the oceans is that those fragments are so little. Water bottles and plastic bags in the long run break apart into much smaller pieces that spread all through the water body in to a mess. While the perfect solution may be making sure that plastic makes it to recycling bins, or utilize fewer plastic items – an alternate methodology to improve work of getting plastic junk simply before it sways into the ocean.

In the Netherlands, an innovative project plans to a “plastic fisher” set up at the edge of a harbor to trap wrappers, plastic bottles, and other garbage as it floats by. The collection device glides in the water, with two folding arms that reach down several meters in order to catch the plastic junk. Since most sea plastic originates from urban drainage, the group behind the venture believes that the device can abate contamination in the North Sea.

As the plastic is trapped, architects plan to reuse it into building blocks for new floating parks in the river stream. “Industrialization has damaged the ecosystem in and around the water,” says Ramon Knoester, who is leading the project for Rotterdam-based WHIM Architecture. “With the floating parks we will reintroduce a surface for nature.”

The transposable plastic pieces condense into tiny platforms that can help trees, plants, and space for birds over the water, utilizing strategies like gardening on roofs. Under the water, the platforms will give shelter to fish, mussels, and water plants. “We want to take the pollution from the river and give something back in return to restore and rebuild the ecosystem,” Knoester says.

More platforms will be put by the shoreline to include new space for recreation. At this moment, a great part of the river stream is lined with stone walls and no parks or green space.

WHIM Architecture anticipates starting fishing for plastics this September. In the wake of exploring different avenues regarding the best solution for reusing the plastic and looking for additionally funding, the group also hopes strategize a plan to build a prototype model of the first park a year from now.

India's 'Plastic Man' Turns Litter Into Paved Roads

India's 'Plastic Man' Turns Litter Into Paved Roads
Photograph by Chiara Goia

For as far as the eye can see, there’s stinking, smoking, untreated garbage. It’s concentrated in the municipal dump, in the South Indian city of Madurai, but not contained by it. The surrounding fields are also piled with trash. Stray dogs nibble at mounds of rotting food. The trees are denuded and covered with shredded plastic, the blue and pink and yellow bags like some kind of sinister confetti.

The road to the dump, and beyond it to Madurai’s airport, is like a Hollywood vision of dystopian ruin: lifeless, black, choked with human refuse. And that’s why Rajagopalan Vasudevan’s enthusiasm is so jarring. As he makes his way through the rubbish, he’s like a child on a treasure hunt.

“Wonderful resource,” he says, admiring a jumble of plastic bags, jerrycans, and torn food packets. “With all this plastic, I could lay the whole road to the airport.”

It is difficult to exaggerate India’s garbage problem. Jairam Ramesh, the nation’s former environment minister, has said that if there were a “Nobel prize for dirt and filth,” India would win it. As much as 40 percent of the country’s municipal waste remains uncollected, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Of the waste that is collected, almost none is recycled. Most of it sits in open dumps such as the one in Madurai, leaching into the soil and contaminating groundwater. Some of it is burned, releasing dioxins and other toxic chemicals into the air.
Much of India’s garbage is made up of plastic—a scourge of the nation’s new consumer economy. The country’s Central Pollution Control Board says more than 15,000 tons of plastic waste are generated daily.

Although the nation’s per capita consumption of plastic is low compared with that of the U.S., it’s expected to double over the next five years as India continues to develop. This poses huge environmental, social, and economic challenges. As the Supreme Court of India recently observed: “We are sitting on a plastic time bomb.”

Vasudevan sees an opportunity. A professor of chemistry at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, near Madurai, he insists that plastic gets a bad rap. Rather than an incipient environmental calamity, plastic, in Vasudevan’s opinion, is a “gift from the gods”; it’s up to humans to use it wisely. And he’s devised a way to transform common plastic litter—not only thicker acrylics and bottles but also grocery bags and wrappers—into a partial substitute for bitumen in asphalt.

In recent years his method has been gaining recognition. He’s become known as Plastic Man and travels throughout India instructing engineers how to apply it. The college holds a patent for his technique but often licenses it for free.

To date, more than 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) of plastic roads have been laid in at least 11 states. The Central Pollution Control Board and the Indian Roads Congress, two leading government bodies, have endorsed the method.
VasudevanPhotograph by Chiara GoiaVasudevan

Almitra Patel, one of India’s leading experts on garbage, who has advised several state governments on their waste policies, considers Vasudevan’s technology a “win-win-win.” It consumes an unwanted and mostly nonrecyclable resource; it results in stronger roads; and because it replaces as much as 15 percent of more expensive bitumen in the mix used to lay roads, the technology also holds the potential to lower the cost of infrastructure.

She adds that one of the chief advantages of Vasudevan’s method is that it can accommodate the multilayered wrappings often used to pack snacks such as chips and cookies. These wrappings (typically consisting of a layer each of plastic, polyester, and aluminum) make up an increasingly large volume of waste in the country. They’re just about impossible to recycle, but they can easily be shredded and reused in Vasudevan’s roads.

“It’s really a wonderful situation,” Patel says. “I think it is an absolutely transformational technology that could clean up India overnight.”

Another advantage of Vasudevan’s method is its simplicity. It requires no significant technical knowledge and no large investments or changes to existing road-laying procedures. His whole operation is a good example of the Indian method known as jugaad, or “frugal innovation.”

Jugaad makes a virtue of necessity: It extols the work-around, the shortcut that uses (and sometimes improves on) limited resources. “I do it all the Indian way,” Vasudevan says. “What is the use to spend thousands of rupees when we can do it much more cheaply?”

Vasudevan, 69, spent the first few decades of his career inducting students into what he calls “the wonders of chemistry” before turning his attention to plastic in 2001. He’s very much the professor—voluble, digressive, a little distracted. He laughs easily and is self-deprecating. “Because of waste,” he jokes about himself, “a waste has become useful.”

His laboratory sits amid the heavy granite buildings and dusty playing fields of Thiagarajar College. Students drive around on scooters, the boys in jeans and T-shirts, the girls in two-piece salwar kameez outfits that signal modernity. 

The lab building is unimposing—more of a shack, with cracked concrete floors and asbestos roofing. It’s astonishingly low-tech. The inside smells of tar. It’s here that Vasudevan has arranged a demonstration of his plastic-to-pavement technique.

As one of his students, a young man named Ramalinga Chandrasekar, prepares the demo, Vasudevan sits at a table, in the draft of a rattling floor fan, and opens a Tupperware box containing shredded plastic and a few pieces of plastic-coated granite. He runs a couple of stones through his fingers, caressing them like gems. “Feel it, feel it,” he says, praising the glossy, slippery finish.
“What is the use to spend thousands of rupees when we can do it much more cheaply?”
Chandrasekar sets up a gas burner on the floor and places a black cast-iron pot, like a rounded wok, on the stove. He throws a few granite pebbles in and starts stirring with a sawed-off PVC pipe.

As Chandrasekar stirs the stones, Vasudevan checks their temperature with a handheld infrared thermometer—virtually the only sophisticated piece of equipment in the lab. (It costs less than $150.) Chandrasekar explains that the optimal temperature for the mix is about 150C (302F). Lower than that, and the plastic doesn’t melt evenly; higher, and it can release toxic gases.
When the temperature is just right, Chandrasekar throws in a couple of handfuls of shredded plastic. Vasudevan looks over his shoulder. “It’s not well done. It’s not well done,” he mutters, picking up a metal slotted spoon to stir the mixture himself.

In the early days, Vasudevan says, he would mix plastic directly into liquid tar, stirring until the plastic melted. He found, however, that while the method worked with small samples in the lab, it was difficult to stir the large quantities of thick, viscous tar used on an actual road.

When he began experimenting with what he calls the dry method—in which the plastic is melted directly onto the stones—he found that the plastic adhered better and more uniformly.

This reduced air pockets in the tar and limited water penetration—contributing to stronger roads. He estimates that he conducted more than 400 experiments before getting his technique right.

It takes another minute, but the plastic begins to coat the stones to his satisfaction. Chandrasekar adds a ball of bitumen; it dissolves and flattens, like a black omelet.

When the stones are dark, covered with tar, Vasudevan scoops them out and holds them under my nose. “You see, you see?” he asks, triumphantly. He is a proud cook. “What a beautiful coating.”

After he perfected his method, Vasudevan recalls, he faced difficulty getting it implemented. It wasn’t until 2004, when he got a chance to display his work in front of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the state in which he lives, that he achieved a breakthrough.

She was impressed and directed that 1,000 kilometers of plasticized asphalt should be laid in the state, the first of the 5,000 kilometers since completed.

Yet for all the progress he’s made, solving India’s garbage problem requires more than a technological solution. In a country where throwing garbage onto the roads and littering in public areas are acceptable behaviors, it’s going to require a social transformation. “With respect to the technology it has been proven already,” Vasudevan says. “Culture is now the most important part.”

The shed is in a residential area of Madurai. It overlooks a canal clogged with plastic bags—a familiar, dismal sight. Vasudevan has brought me to the offices of a small women’s association, a self-help group that has in recent years been collecting and recycling plastic waste.

The blue-tiled room is stacked with bags containing colorful shreds of plastic. On a wall, a gold frame contains images of a mosque, Ganesh, and Jesus, side by side. It’s in places such as this, Vasudevan says, that the most important work on India’s garbage crisis is being done.

Gurusamy Bodhilakshmi, secretary of Naganakulam Panchayat-Level Federation of the SHGs (self-help groups), explains how the women buy plastic from a network of local businesses and homes and how they conduct awareness drives in schools and colleges.

They are trying to build a local market around plastic, so it is treated as a commodity rather than as garbage. The group has had some success. It collects plastic from about 8,000 households. It buys plastic at 7 rupees a kilo (12¢ per 2.2 pounds) and sells about 1,000 kilos a month, at 30 rupees a kilo, to government agencies that use it for roads. Many of the group’s members make a modest living off the enterprise.

Bodhilakshmi’s words are encouraging, but the scale of the challenge is daunting. Although 8,000 households work with her group, many more are indifferent or even hostile to their efforts. 

Bodhilakshmi says many families, especially among the better-off, are unwilling to recycle or think about what happens to their waste. For them, garbage is a problem of the poor.

“The upper classes have everything. They have servants to attend to their needs, so they don’t bother with anything,” she says. “Though we are doing work that is sacred, some people look down at us as if we are doing dirty work. They speak disrespectfully to us.”

Vasudevan interjects. “What I always say is, let us just ignore the upper classes and the middle classes,” he says. “They are the biggest obstacle. Let us start with people like this, who are more sincere, and once these people are successful, the movement will spread.”

He says that in his college, he’s often the only one who will bend down and pick up a piece of litter from the ground (“even though I am a dean,” he adds).

Other staff and students think it’s beneath them. They just throw garbage onto the floor and expect someone else to pick it up. When he tries to correct his students, they tell him that others will mock them if they start picking up waste. “Humility is essential if we want to solve this problem,” Vasudevan says. “Without humility, nothing can be done.”

The women of the self-help group line up and show off a folder with news clippings about their work. Then they give a demonstration of a cleaning machine they use to remove dust and debris from plastic.

As plastic bags whip around in the machine, Vasudevan talks about the economic barriers that stand in the way of large-scale adoption of his method, such as inefficient markets for plastic and contractors who may not believe it’s in their best interest to build more sustainable roads.

“I have to discover a technology not only to change the use of plastic,” he says, running his hand through his thinning hair and smiling, “but also to change human minds.”

Bill would ban BPA in food packaging

Democrats in both chambers of Congress introduced legislation to ban from food packaging Bisephenol-A (BPA), a synthetic additive that has been linked to cancer, fetal development problems and infertility in large volumes.

Reps. Lois Capps (Calif.) and Grace Meng (N.Y.), along with Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.), said the bill would also encourage the development of alternatives to BPA, which is used in resins and plastics, and require a safety review of all substances currently used in food packaging.

“The dangers of BPA are well-documented, and we must do everything we can to ensure that both the factory workers who package food, and the people who consume our food, are safe,” Capps said in a statement.
“The Ban Poisonous Additives Act will help ensure that our factories and our entire food supply are free from this damaging chemical,” Markey said. “It’s time to ban BPA and move to safer alternatives.”

BPA has been in the spotlight in recent years, following a 2010 report on its harms from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Last year, the FDA concluded that BPA is safe in the small volumes that are used in food packaging.

In 2012, the FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and children’s cups, though manufacturers had already voluntarily stopped using the substance.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents the plastics industry, said the legislation is unnecessary and unwarranted.

“Sen. Markey has unfortunately chosen to reintroduce unnecessary legislation that ignores the expert analysis of government scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which strongly supports the continued use of BPA in food-contact materials,” Steven Hentges, who leads the Chemistry Council’s group focusing on BPA.

Monday, July 7, 2014

BPA triggers changes in rats that may lead to breast cancer

Published in Environmental Health News July 2, 2014 By Brian Bienkowski

Ed Uthman,flickr
New research reports that the chemical BPA, used to make polycarbonate plastics, changes how genes function in the mammary glands of rats.

New research suggests that the chemical BPA changes how genes function in the mammary glands of rats exposed in their mother’s womb, leaving them more vulnerable to breast cancer later in life.

The study is the first to examine what impact fetal exposure to bisphenol A has on the DNA of mammary glands as they age. The researchers said their findings indicate that exposure to low amounts of the ubiquitous chemical, which mimics estrogen, might cause permanent changes in gene activity that lead to breast cancer.

The mother rats were injected with amounts that “we would expect to find in humans,” said Dr. Ana Soto, a Tufts University professor and senior author of the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
“We saw the mammary glands start to develop in an erroneous way,” Soto said. “The glands later on had increased probability of getting cancer.”

Soto previously reported that female rats exposed to BPA while in the womb were more likely to have pre-cancerous lesions in their mammary glands. The new findings suggest that this is likely due to epigenetic changes, which are heritable changes in how genes are activated.

BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastics, as well as the liners of some canned foods and beverages, paper receipts and dental sealants. It is found in nearly all people tested.

The rat studies should be a red flag for humans, said Michael Skinner, a professor and researcher at Washington State University who specializes in epigenetics. Skinner was not involved in the study.

WikiMedia Commons
About 230,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year.
“Biology is extremely conserved for all mammals. From rats to mice to humans to primates, we all have almost exactly the same organ system and very similar endocrinology,” Skinner said.

Breast cancer affects about one out of every eight U.S. women. An estimated 230,000 are diagnosed with the disease each year.

Women are at higher risk as they age, or if they are heavy drinkers, obese or have “inherited genetic alterations,” according to the National Cancer Institute.

The new research doesn’t mean BPA causes cancer; rather it could increase their risk, Skinner said.

“The actual steps to getting breast cancer don’t change,” Skinner said. “But if you affect 500 or so genes in any cell, you’re going to have abnormal cell biology, therefore making it more susceptible to disease.”

Epigenetic changes do not alter “what’s written and etched in stone in DNA” but rather how the “genetic blueprint is transcribed into new copies,” said Dr. Wolfgang Liedtke, a professor at Duke University Medical Center who was not involved in the study.

BPA seems to change how genes express themselves – or turn on and off – in several different tissues. These changes are permanent, can manifest later in life and can be passed to future generations even if they are unexposed, Liedtke said.

Chemical industry representatives have said that BPA, used in plastics for half a century, is safe because people are exposed to low doses and it leaves the body quickly. They also take issue with the way that lab animals are exposed.

“Injection of BPA into laboratory animals is of limited relevance to human health,” Steven Hentges, a representative at the American Chemistry Council, said in a prepared statement.

"The actual steps to getting breast cancer don't change. But if you affect 500 or so genes in any cell, you're going to have abnormal cell biology, therefore making it more susceptible to disease." –Michael Skinner, Washington State University Soto, however, disagreed. The exposure route is not what’s most important in these studies, rather the amount of BPA in the rodents that hasn’t been metabolized, she said. “We measured plasma levels in this study and found that the free or unmetabolized BPA level is a level that’s within those reported in humans,” Soto said.

It’s not the first time fetal BPA exposure has triggered changes in gene activity in lab animals. The chemical impaired genetic function of the prostates of male rats exposed to low doses as a fetus, according to one study. The changes left the male rats at higher risk for prostate cancer.

Previous studies have found other problems for female rodents exposed to BPA while still developing in the womb, including early onset of puberty, early vaginal opening, increased body weight, decreased hormone levels and reduced fertility.

Soto said the sum of all of these health problems should prompt alarm over BPA exposure.
“We should all be concerned,” she said. “BPA does so many things. The sheer amount of health effects we see means it’s affecting too many targets.”

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author's name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN's version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Editor in Chief Marla Cone at mcone@ehn.org.
Follow Brian Bienkowski on Twitter.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Published by NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Making Waves: Episode 126

While 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' is a term often used by the media, it does not paint an accurate picture of the marine debris problem in the North Pacific ocean. Marine debris concentrates in various regions of the North Pacific, not just in one area. The exact size, content, and location of the 'garbage patches' are difficult to accurately predict.

An Ocean-Sized Problem

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of many areas in the ocean where marine debris naturally concentrates because of ocean currents. In this episode, Dianna Parker from the NOAA Marine Debris Program explains what a garbage patch is and isn't, what we know and don't know, and what we can do about this ocean-sized problem.


What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? What does it look like? Why can't we just clean it up?



This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm Troy Kitch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I bet you've heard of it. It's a phrase that's really caught on in the past few years. And it's easy to see why: it conjures up a powerful image ... a vast vortex of human waste — plastic bags, tires, cans, barrels, you name it ... floating out there in the ocean. But here's the thing: it doesn't really look like that at all. What it looks like to the human eye, from satellites, is, for the most part, well ... not much at all. Most of it is all but invisible. How can that be?

Well, I recently sat down with Dianna Parker from the NOAA Marine Debris Program to find out what the garbage patch is and isn't, what we know and don't know, and what we can do about this ocean-sized problem. Dianna, welcome and thanks for joining us. Let's start with the obvious question: what are we talking about when we say 'garbage patch?'

[Dianna Parker] “A lot of people hear the word patch and they immediately think of almost like a blanket of trash that can easily be scooped up, but actually these areas are always moving and changing with the currents, and it's mostly these tiny plastics that you can't immediately see with the naked eye."

I noticed that you said garbage patch 'areas.' So the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only one area in the ocean where marine debris concentrates?

[Dianna Parker] "There are garbage patches all over the world. These are areas where debris naturally accumulates. So there are garbage patches of all different sizes and shapes and compositions. The one that we know the most about is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which lies in an area between Hawaii and California. What we know about this area is that it's made up of tiny micro plastics, almost akin to a peppery soup, with scattered larger items, fishing gear, those kind of items swirling around."
A peppery soup? Could you explain that again?

[Dianna Parker] "Well, imagine tiny, tiny micro plastics just swirling around, mixing in the water column from waves and wind, that's always moving and changing with the currents. These are tiny plastics that you might not even see if you sailed through the middle of the garbage patch, they're so small and mixed throughout the water column."

I would think that most of the plastics that ends up in the ocean are bigger pieces ... like bags and bottles and plastic toys. But you're saying that most of the plastic is so small that's it's hard or impossible to see. Can you talk a little more about the plastic debris in the ocean ... why it's so small?

[Dianna Parker] "There are many different kinds of plastics out in the ocean and they come from a number of different sources. So, there are teeny, tiny micro plastics out there that were either manufactured to be small — for example, the microbeads in face wash can be plastic; there are also little, tiny plastic pellets that we sometimes call ‘'nurdles' that are used to make larger items  but then there are also tiny plastics that are shards of larger items. Plastics never really go away. They just break down over and over and over again until they become smaller and smaller from sunlight and other environmental factors [like] waves, big storms, those kind of things."

So we have these vast regions in the ocean where the water column looks like a peppery soup because of all these small bits and pieces of plastic.  I would imagine this plastic kind of looks like food. Do we know if fish and birds are eating this stuff?

[Dianna Parker] "We know that some species of birds and fish eat micro plastics. They even eat some larger plastics. So for example, the Laysan Albatross in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, we know that just about every dead albatross found on Midway Atoll has some form of plastic in its stomach. We don't know if that's what killed it, but we know that this is becoming a big problem. So we know that there are micro plastics in the ocean. We know that birds and fish and even some larger marine mammals eat these plastics. We know there are chemicals in the plastics and we know that the chemicals can absorb other toxic chemicals that are floating around in the ocean. So now the big question is, what are those plastics doing to the animals that eat them."

I'm sure you get this question a lot: we know marine debris in the ocean is a bad thing ... so why don't we just clean it up? Especially if most of the trash is contained in 'garbage patch' areas because of the way the debris naturally accumulates because of ocean currents.

[Dianna Parker] "The words 'garbage patch' accurately describes what it is, because these are patches of ocean that contain our garbage. But they're not areas where you can easily go through and skim trash off the surface. First of all, because they are tiny micro plastics that aren't easily removable from the ocean. But also just because of the size of this area. We did some quick calculations that if you tried to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean it would take 67 ships one year to clean up that portion. And the bottom line is that until we prevent debris from entering the ocean at the source, it's just going to keep congregating in these areas. We could go out and clean it all up and then still have the same problem on our hands as long as there's debris entering the ocean."

And that's really the big problem — to prevent the debris from entering the ocean in the first place. So what can you, me, or anyone do to help?

[Dianna Parker] "There's so much that we can do to keep debris from entering the ocean. It's as simple as changing your individual behavior every day, creating less waste, reusing what you can, remembering to recycle ... littering is obviously a no-no. And then going out and joining a beach clean up. It's difficult to really understand the problem until you get out there and see it first-hand, how bad the problem is." And I imagine you've had plenty of opportunities to go out there and see how bad it is first-hand.

[Dianna Parker] "I absolutely have. For example, every year I go out with the International Coastal Cleanup and work to pick up trash from the Anacostia and Potomac in Washington, DC, and the amount of trash you find on the shorelines is just incredible. Bottles, bags, aerosol cans, all mixed together. In some places it's like a thick mat.

And so these are really populous, urban areas. But then we also see the same kind of trash on really remote beaches. For example, I was on beach in Lanai in Hawaii and we found everything from plastic bottles to flip flops, fishing gear, we found an entire couch. And some of this debris was clearly local and some of it had clearly come from other countries around the Pacific Rim. So debris can touch even the most remote places."

Given what you know, working on this problem day in and day out, I would think it would feel kind of like a hopeless, overwhelming problem.

[Dianna Parker] "It's not a hopeless situation. Marine debris is absolutely a solvable problem because it comes from us humans and our everyday practices. We can take any number of steps to keep it from entering the ocean and that can happen at the highest level with governments and it can happen at the lowest level individuals and everyday choices."

Thanks, Dianna, for taking the time to chat with us about this. That was Dianna Parker, communications specialist with NOAA's Marine Debris Program.

Want to learn more? Check our show notes for the links. You can find us on the web at oceanservice.noaa.gov. Have a question? Shoot us an email at nos.info@noaa.gov.

 And thanks for listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.