We analysed data from 29,798 clean-ups around the world to uncover some of the worst litter hotspots


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Lauren Roman, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO, and Chris Wilcox, CSIROCoastal litter is a big environmental problem. But how does this litter differ around the world, and why? In the first global analysis of its kind, we set out to answer those questions using data collected by thousands of citizen scientists.

Our analysis, released today, discovered litter hotspots on every inhabited continent, including Australia. This finding busts two persistent myths: that most of the world’s plastic pollution comes from just a few major rivers, and that countries in the Global South are largely to blame for the marine plastic problem.

Single-use plastics formed the majority of litter in this study. And in general, litter hotspots were associated with socioeconomic factors such as a concentration of built infrastructure, less national wealth, and a high level of lighting at night.

Our insights reveal the complex patterns driving coastal pollution, and suggest there is no “one size fits all” solution to cleaning up the world’s oceans. In fact, the best solution is to stop the waste problem long before it reaches the sea.

This study analyses the data collected by hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists conducting clean-ups worldwide.
Copyright PADI AWARE

A complex picture

We are scientists from the CSIRO’s Marine Debris Research team. Our study involved working closely with Ocean Conservancy and the PADI AWARE Foundation, which together hold the world’s most comprehensive litter data sets gathered by citizen scientists.

We analysed hundreds of thousands of items from 22,508 clean-ups on land (at beaches and the edge of rivers and lakes) as well as 7,290 seafloor clean-ups. The clean-ups spanned 116 and 118 countries, respectively, and involved participants recording counts for each item collected.

The analysis showed a huge diversity in the location and scale of plastic pollution hotspots. They were not limited to single countries or rivers – instead, the hotspots occurred in all inhabited continents and across many countries. In many places, litter patterns between neighbouring locations were vastly different.




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For decades, scientists puzzled over the plastic ‘missing’ from our oceans – but now it’s been found


Most litter comprised single-use items: cigarette butts, fishing line, food wrappers, and plastic bottles and bags.

In general, places with more overall litter tended to have:

  • more built infrastructure
  • less national wealth
  • bright lighting at night (which indicated urban density).

Cities and other dense urban areas around the world were linked with hotspots of “convenience” single-use plastic items, such as plastic bags, food wrappers, drink bottles, take-away containers, straws, plastic cutlery and lids. These hotspots are represented in the infographic below.



However, not all litter items followed this pattern. For example, cigarette butts followed a regional pattern and were more common in Southern Europe and North Africa.

Fishing line was most abundant in wealthier countries where recreational fishing is a popular pastime. Hotspots included Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Clusters of hotspots were often associated with partially enclosed bays, seas and lakes. These included areas such as the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the South China and Philippine seas, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, Lake Malawi and the Great Lakes of North America.

Plastic accumulation in these areas is likely due to factors such as high local littering combined with relatively contained bodies of water.

Plastic bottle hotspots were more common in tropical countries such as Costa Rica and Jamaica, among others. Plastic food wrappers were abundant in the island nations of Southeast Asia, particularly around Indonesia and the Philippines.




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It might be the world’s biggest ocean, but the mighty Pacific is in peril


fishing line and bobber wrapped around twig in water
Australia contained several global hotspots for fishing line waste.
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Cleaning up our coasts

Ultimately, our study reveals the diversity and complexity of the plastic pollution issue. We hope it helps governments make waste policy decisions based on sound scientific evidence.

The findings suggest programs to tackle ocean litter should be rolled out at the grassroots level, or within one part of a country, as well as nationally.

In Australia, for example, Zoos Victoria’s Seal The Loop program aims to tackle localised fishing line waste at locations where the pastime is common. The program includes fishing line bins placed on piers and at boat ramps to encourage responsible waste disposal.

And in Malawi and 15 other countries in southern Africa, national bans on plastic bags target this locally problematic item.

Our analysis shows much non-degradable waste found in the environment comes from pre-packaged food and beverages. So regulations specifically addressing this type of packaging can be useful.

In Australia, for example, Hobart is aiming to become the first Australian city to ban single-use plastic takeaway food packaging, as part of an ambitious goal of zero-waste to landfill by 2030.

Other strategies known to change litter behaviour include recycling incentives such as container deposit schemes, particularly in lower socioeconomic areas where littering is highest, as well as education campaigns. And levies on plastic items could also help stop litter entering the environment.

This Saturday September 18, Ocean Conservancy is holding its annual International Coastal Cleanup – come along if you can and if COVID restrictions allow. You’ll be helping your local environment and collecting data to inform tomorrow’s waste management policies.

Land-based clean-ups were conducted across 116 countries. Please join us for the next one.
Rafeed Hussain Ocean Conservancy

The authors would like to acknowledge the tireless volunteers from the International Coastal Cleanup and Dive Against Debris, and collaborators; Ocean Conservancy’s Dr George H. Leonard and Nicholas Mallos, and PADI AWARE Foundation’s Hannah Pragnell-Raasch and Ian Campbell.The Conversation

Lauren Roman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO, and Chris Wilcox, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The ocean is full of tiny plastic particles – we found a way to track them with satellites


Plastic fragments washed onto Schiavonea beach in Calabria, Italy, in a 2019 storm.
Alfonso Di Vincenzo/KONTROLAB /LightRocket via Getty Images

Christopher Ruf, University of MichiganPlastic is the most common type of debris floating in the world’s oceans. Waves and sunlight break much of it down into smaller particles called microplastics – fragments less than 5 millimeters across, roughly the size of a sesame seed.

To understand how microplastic pollution is affecting the ocean, scientists need to know how much is there and where it is accumulating. Most data on microplastic concentrations comes from commercial and research ships that tow plankton nets – long, cone-shaped nets with very fine mesh designed for collecting marine microorganisms.

But net trawling can sample only small areas and may be underestimating true plastic concentrations. Except in the North Atlantic and North Pacific gyres – large zones where ocean currents rotate, collecting floating debris – scientists have done very little sampling for microplastics. And there is scant information about how these particles’ concentrations vary over time.

Two people lower conical nets off a research ship into the water.
Researchers deploy plankton sampling nets in Lake Michigan.
NOAA, CC BY-SA

To address these questions, University of Michigan research assistant Madeline Evans and I developed a new way to detect microplastic concentrations from space using NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System. CYGNSS is a network of eight microsatellites that was launched in 2016 to help scientists predict hurricanes by analyzing tropical wind speeds. They measure how wind roughens the ocean’s surface – an indicator that we realized could also be used to detect and track large quantities of microplastics.

This story is part of Oceans 21

Our series on the global ocean opened with five in depth profiles. Look out for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead up to the UN’s next climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.

Looking for smooth zones

Annual global production of plastic has increased every year since the 1950s, reaching 359 million metric tons in 2018. Much of it ends up in open, uncontrolled landfills, where it can wash into river drainage zones and ultimately into the world’s oceans.

Researchers first documented plastic debris in the oceans in the 1970s. Today, it accounts for an estimated 80% to 85% of marine litter.

The radars on CYGNSS satellites are designed to measure winds over the ocean indirectly by measuring how they roughen the water’s surface. We knew that when there is a lot of material floating in the water, winds don’t roughen it as much. So we tried computing how much smoother measurements indicated the surface was than it should have been if winds of the same speed were blowing across clear water.

This anomaly – the “missing roughness” – turns out to be highly correlated with the concentration of microplastics near the ocean surface. Put another way, areas where surface waters appear to be unusually smooth frequently contain high concentrations of microplastics. The smoothness could be caused by the microplastics themselves, or possibly by something else that’s associated with them.

By combining all the measurements made by CYGNSS satellites as they orbit around the world, we can create global time-lapse images of ocean microplastic concentrations. Our images readily identify the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and secondary regions of high microplastic concentration in the North Atlantic and the southern oceans.

Tracking microplastic flows over time

Since CYGNSS tracks wind speeds constantly, it lets us see how microplastic concentrations change over time. By animating a year’s worth of images, we revealed seasonal variations that were not previously known.

This animation shows how satellite data can be used to track where microplastics enter the water, how they move and where they tend to collect.

We found that global microplastic concentrations tend to peak in the North Atlantic and Pacific during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months. June and July, for example, are the peak months for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Concentrations in the Southern Hemisphere peak during its summer months of January and February. Lower concentrations during the winter in both hemispheres are likely due to a combination of stronger currents that break up microplastic plumes and increased vertical mixing – the exchange between surface and deeper water – that transports some of the microplastic down below the surface.

This approach can also target smaller regions over shorter periods of time. For example, we examined episodic outflow events from the mouths of the China’s Yangtze and Qiantang rivers where they empty into the East China Sea. These events may have been associated with increases in industrial production activity, or with increases in the rate at which managers allowed the rivers to flow through dams.

Satellite images, color-coded to show density of microplastic particles in the water.
These images show microplastic concentrations (number of particles per square kilometer) at the mouths of the Yangtze and Qiantang rivers where they empty in to the East China Sea. (A) Average density year-round; (B) short-lived burst of particles from the Qiantang River; (C and D) short-lived bursts from the Yangtze River.
Evans and Ruf, 2021., CC BY

Better targeting for cleanups

Our research has several potential uses. Private organizations, such as The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit in The Netherlands, and Clewat, a Finnish company specializing in clean technology, use specially outfitted ships to collect, recycle and dispose of marine litter and debris. We have begun conversations with both groups and hope eventually to help them deploy their fleets more effectively.

Our spaceborne imagery may also be used to validate and improve numerical prediction models that attempt to track how microplastics move through the oceans using ocean circulation patterns. Scholars are developing several such models.

Large barge with conveyor belt pulling plastic debris out of river.
A solar-powered barge that filters plastic out of water, designed by Dutch NGO The Ocean Cleanup, deployed in the Rio Ozama, Dominican Republic, in 2020.
The Ocean Cleanup, CC BY

While the ocean roughness anomalies that we observed correlate strongly with microplastic concentrations, our estimates of concentration are based on the correlations that we observed, not on a known physical relationship between floating microplastics and ocean roughness. It could be that the roughness anomalies are caused by something else that is also correlated with the presence of microplastics.

One possibility is surfactants on the ocean surface. These liquid chemical compounds, which are widely used in detergents and other products, move through the oceans in ways similar to microplastics, and they also have a damping effect on wind-driven ocean roughening.

Further study is needed to identify how the smooth areas that we identified occur, and if they are caused indirectly by surfactants, to better understand exactly how their transport mechanisms are related to those of microplastics. But I hope this research can be part of a fundamental change in tracking and managing microplastic pollution.

[The Conversation’s science, health and technology editors pick their favorite stories. Weekly on Wednesdays.]The Conversation

Christopher Ruf, Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We’re all ingesting microplastics at home, and these might be toxic for our health. Here are some tips to reduce your risk


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Mark Patrick Taylor, Macquarie University; Neda Sharifi Soltani, Macquarie University, and Scott P. Wilson, Macquarie UniversityAustralians are eating and inhaling significant numbers of tiny plastics at home, our new research shows.

These “microplastics”, which are derived from petrochemicals extracted from oil and gas products, are settling in dust around the house.

Some of these particles are toxic to humans — they can carry carcinogenic or mutagenic chemicals, meaning they potentially cause cancer and/or damage our DNA.

We still don’t know the true impact of these microplastics on human health. But the good news is, having hard floors, using more natural fibres in clothing, furnishings and homewares, along with vacuuming at least weekly can reduce your exposure.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic particles less than five millimetres across. They come from a range of household and everyday items such as the clothes we wear, home furnishings, and food and beverage packaging.

We know microplastics are pervasive outdoors, reaching remote and inaccessible locations such as the Arctic, the Mariana Trench (the world’s deepest ocean trench), and the Italian Alps.

Our study demonstrates it’s an inescapable reality that we’re living in a sea of microplastics — they’re in our food and drinks, our oceans, and our homes.




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What we did and what we found

While research has focused mainly on microplastics in the natural environment, a handful of studies have looked at how much we’re exposed to indoors.

People spend up to 90% of their time indoors and therefore the greatest risk of exposure to microplastics is in the home.

Our study is the first to examine how much microplastic we’re exposed to in Australian homes. We analysed dust deposited from indoor air in 32 homes across Sydney over a one-month period in 2019.

We asked members of the public to collect dust in specially prepared glass dishes, which we then analysed.

A graphic showing how microplastics suspended in a home
Here’s how microplastics can be generated, suspended, ingested and inhaled inside a house.
Monique Chilton, Author provided

We found 39% of the deposited dust particles were microplastics; 42% were natural fibres such as cotton, hair and wool; and 18% were transformed natural-based fibres such as viscose and cellophane. The remaining 1% were film and fragments consisting of various materials.

Between 22 and 6,169 microfibres were deposited as dust per square metre, each day.

Homes with carpet as the main floor covering had nearly double the number of petrochemical-based fibres (including polyethylene, polyamide and polyacrylic) than homes without carpeted floors.

Conversely, polyvinyl fibres (synthetic fibres made of vinyl chloride) were two times more prevalent in homes without carpet. This is because the coating applied to hard flooring degrades over time, producing polyvinyl fibres in house dust.

Microplastics can be toxic

Microplastics can carry a range of contaminants such as trace metals and some potentially harmful organic chemicals.

These chemicals can leach from the plastic surface once in the body, increasing the potential for toxic effects. Microplastics can have carcinogenic properties, meaning they potentially cause cancer. They can also be mutagenic, meaning they can damage DNA.




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However, even though some of the microplastics measured in our study are composed of potentially carcinogenic and/or mutagenic compounds, the actual risk to human health is unclear.

Given the pervasiveness of microplastics not only in homes but in food and beverages, the crucial next step in this research area is to establish what, if any, are safe levels of exposure.




Read more:
You’re eating microplastics in ways you don’t even realise


How much are we exposed to? And can this be minimised?

Roughly a quarter of all of the fibres we recorded were less than 250 micrometres in size, meaning they can be inhaled. This means we can be internally exposed to these microplastics and any contaminants attached to them.

Using human exposure models, we calculated that inhalation and ingestion rates were greatest in children under six years old. This is due to their lower relative body weight, smaller size, and higher breathing rate than adults. What’s more, young children typically have more contact with the floor, and tend to put their hands in their mouths more often than adults.

Small bits of plastic floating in the sea
Microplastics are found not only in the sea, but in our food, beverages, and our homes.
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Children under six inhale around three times more microplastics than the average — 18,000 fibres, or 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per year. They would also ingest on average 6.1 milligrams of microplastics in dust per kg of body weight per year.

For a five-year-old, this would be equivalent to eating a garden pea’s worth of microplastics over the course of a year. But for many of these plastics there is no established safe level of exposure.

Our study indicated there are effective ways to minimise exposure.

First is the choice of flooring, with hard surfaces, including polished wood floors, likely to have fewer microplastics than carpeted floors.

Also, how often you clean makes a difference. Vacuuming floors at least weekly was associated with less microplastics in dust than those that were less frequently cleaned. So get cleaning!The Conversation

Mark Patrick Taylor, Professor of Environmental Science and Human Health, Macquarie University; Neda Sharifi Soltani, Academic Casual, Macquarie University, and Scott P. Wilson, , Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 ways fungi could change the world, from cleaning water to breaking down plastics


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Mitchell P. Jones, Vienna University of TechnologyFungi — a scientific goldmine? Well, that’s what a review published today in the journal Trends in Biotechnology indicates. You may think mushrooms are a long chalk from the caped crusaders of sustainability. But think again.

Many of us have heard of fungi’s role in creating more sustainable leather substitutes. Amadou vegan leather crafted from fungal-fruiting bodies has been around for some 5,000 years.

More recently, mycelium leather substitutes have taken the stage. These are produced from the root-like structure mycelium, which snakes through dead wood or soil beneath mushrooms.

You might even know about how fungi help us make many fermented food and drinks such as beer, wine, bread, soy sauce and tempeh. Many popular vegan protein products, including Quorn, are just flavoured masses of fungal mycelium.

But what makes fungi so versatile? And what else can they do?

Show me foamy and flexible

Fungal growth offers a cheap, simple and environmentally friendly way to bind agricultural byproducts (such as rice hulls, wheat straw, sugarcane bagasse and molasses) into biodegradable and carbon-neutral foams.

Fungal foams are becoming increasingly popular as sustainable packaging materials; IKEA is one company that has indicated a commitment to using them.

Fungal foams can also be used in the construction industry for insulation, flooring and panelling. Research has revealed them to be strong competitors against commercial materials in terms of having effective sound and heat insulation properties.

Rigid and flexible fungal foams have several construction applications including (a) particle board and insulation cores, (b) acoustic absorbers, (c) flexible foams and (d) flooring.
Jones et al

Moreover, adding in industrial wastes such as glass fines (crushed glass bits) in these foams can improve their fire resistance.

And isolating only the mycelium can produce a more flexible and spongy foam suitable for products such as facial sponges, artificial skin, ink and dye carriers, shoe insoles, lightweight insulation lofts, cushioning, soft furnishings and textiles.




Read more:
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Paper that doesn’t come from trees? No, chitin

For other products, it’s the composition of fungi that matters. Fungal filaments contain chitin: a remarkable polymer also found in crab shells and insect exoskeletons.

Chitin has a fibrous structure, similar to cellulose in wood. This means fungal fibre can be processed into sheets the same way paper is made.

When stretched, fungal papers are stronger than many plastics and not much weaker than some steels of the same thickness. We’ve yet to test its properties when subject to different forces.

Fungal paper’s strength can be substituted for rubbery flexibility by using specific fungal species, or a different part of the mushroom. The paper’s transparency can be customised in the same way.

Paper sheets with varying transparency derived from the brown crab’s shell (C. pagurus) (column 1), fungi Daedaleopsis confragosa (column 2) and the mushroom Agaricus bisporus (column 6). Columns 3, 4 and 5 show fungal papers of varying transparencies based on mixtures of the two species.
Wan Nawawi et al

Growing fungi in mineral-rich environments results in inherent fire resistance for the fungus, as it absorbs the inflammable minerals, incorporating them into its structure. Add to this that water doesn’t wet fungal surfaces, but rolls off, and you’ve got yourself some pretty useful paper.

A clear solution to dirty water

Some might ask: what’s the point of fungal paper when we already get paper from wood? That’s where the other interesting attributes of chitin come into play — or more specifically, the attributes of its derivative, chitosan.

Chitosan is chitin that has been chemically modified through exposure to an acid or alkali. This means with a few simple steps, fungal paper can adopt a whole new range of applications.

For instance, chitosan is electrically charged and can be used to attract heavy metal ions. So what happens if you couple it with a mycelium filament network that is intricate enough to prevent solids, bacteria and even viruses (which are much smaller than bacteria) from passing through?

White-button mushroom
Fungal chitin paper derived from white-button mushrooms is an eco-friendly alternative to standard filter materials.
Shutterstock

The result is an environmentally friendly membrane with impressive water purification properties. In our research, my colleagues and I found this material to be stable, simple to make and useful for laboratory filtration.

While the technology hasn’t yet been commercialised, it holds particular promise for reducing the environmental impact of synthetic filtration materials, and providing safer drinking water where it’s not available.

Mushrooms in modern medicine

Perhaps even more interesting is chitosan’s considerable biomedical potential. Fungal materials have been used to create dressings with active wound healing properties.

Although not currently on the market, these have been proven to have antibacterial properties, stem bleeding and support cell proliferation and attachment.

Fungal enzymes can also be used to combat bacteria active in tooth decay, enhance bleaching and destroy compounds responsible for bad breath.




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Vegan leather made from mushrooms could mould the future of sustainable fashion


Then there’s the well-known role of fungi in antibiotics. Penicillin, made from the Penicillium fungi, was a scientific breakthrough that has saved millions of lives and become a staple of modern healthcare.

Many antibiotics are still produced from fungi or soil bacteria. And in an age of increasing antibiotic resistance, genome sequencing is finally enabling us to identify fungi’s untapped potential for manufacturing the antibiotics of the future.

Mushrooms mending the environment

Fungi could play a huge role in sustainability by remedying existing environmental damage.

For example, they can help clean up contaminated industrial sites through a popular technique known as mycoremediation, and can break down or absorb oils, pollutants, toxins, dyes and heavy metals.

They can also compost some synthetic plastics, such as polyurethane. In this process, the plastic is buried in regulated soil and its byproducts are digested by specific fungi as it degrades.

These incredible organisms can even help refine bio fuels. Whether or not we go as far as using fungal coffins to decompose our bodies into nutrients for plants — well, that’s a debate for another day.

But one thing is for sure: fungi have the undeniable potential to be used for a whole range of purposes we’re only beginning to grasp.

It could be the beer you drink, your next meal, antibiotics, a new faux leather bag or the packaging that delivered it to you — you never know what form the humble mushroom will take tomorrow.




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The secret life of fungi: how they use ingenious strategies to forage underground


The Conversation


Mitchell P. Jones, Postdoctoral researcher, Vienna University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Think all your plastic is being recycled? New research shows it can end up in the ocean


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Monique Retamal, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney; Nick Florin, University of Technology Sydney, and Rachael Wakefield-Rann, University of Technology Sydney

We all know it’s wrong to toss your rubbish into the ocean or another natural place. But it might surprise you to learn some plastic waste ends up in the environment, even when we thought it was being recycled.

Our study, published today, investigated how the global plastic waste trade contributes to marine pollution.

We found plastic waste most commonly leaks into the environment at the country to which it’s shipped. Plastics which are of low value to recyclers, such as lids and polystyrene foam containers, are most likely to end up polluting the environment.

The export of unsorted plastic waste from Australia is being phased out – and this will help address the problem. But there’s a long way to go before our plastic is recycled in a way that does not harm nature.

Man puts items in bins
Research shows plastic meant for recycling often ends up elsewhere.
Shutterstock

Know your plastics

Plastic waste collected for recycling is often sold for reprocessing in Asia. There, the plastics are sorted, washed, chopped, melted and turned into flakes or pellets. These can be sold to manufacturers to create new products.

The global recycled plastics market is dominated by two major plastic types:

  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which in 2017 comprised 55% of the recyclable plastics market. It’s used in beverage bottles and takeaway food containers and features a “1” on the packaging

  • high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which comprises about 33% of the recyclable plastics market. HDPE is used to create pipes and packaging such as milk and shampoo bottles, and is identified by a “2”.

The next two most commonly traded types of plastics, each with 4% of the market, are:

  • polypropylene or “5”, used in containers for yoghurt and spreads

  • low-density polyethylene known as “4”, used in clear plastic films on packaging.

The remaining plastic types comprise polyvinyl chloride (3), polystyrene (6), other mixed plastics (7), unmarked plastics and “composites”. Composite plastic packaging is made from several materials not easily separated, such as long-life milk containers with layers of foil, plastic and paper.

This final group of plastics is not generally sought after as a raw material in manufacturing, so has little value to recyclers.




Read more:
China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


Symbols on PET plastic item
Items made from PET plastic resin are marked with a ‘1’.
Shutterstock

Shifting plastic tides

China banned the import of plastic waste in January 2018 to prevent the receipt of low-value plastics and to stimulate the domestic recycling industry.

Following the bans, the global plastic waste trade shifted towards Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The largest exporters of waste plastics in 2019 were Europe, Japan and the US. Australia exported plastics primarily to Malaysia and Indonesia.

Australia’s waste export ban recently became law. From July this year, only plastics sorted into single resin types can be exported; mixed plastic bales cannot. From July next year, plastics must be sorted, cleaned and turned into flakes or pellets to be exported.

This may help address the problem of recyclables becoming marine pollution. But it will require a significant expansion of Australian plastic reprocessing capacity.

Map showing the import and export map of plastic waste globally.
Map showing the import and export map of plastic waste globally.
Authors provided

What we found

Our study was funded by the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. It involved interviews with trade experts, consultants, academics, NGOs and recyclers (in Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand) and an extensive review of existing research.

We found when it comes to the international plastic trade, plastics most often leak into the environment at the destination country, rather than at the country of origin or in transit. Low-value or “residual” plastics – those left over after more valuable plastic is recovered for recycling – are most likely to end up as pollution. So how does this happen?

In Southeast Asia, often only registered recyclers are allowed to import plastic waste. But due to high volumes, registered recyclers typically on-sell plastic bales to informal processors.

Interviewees said when plastic types were considered low value, informal processors frequently dumped them at uncontrolled landfills or into waterways. Sometimes the waste is burned.

Plastics stockpiled outdoors can be blown into the environment, including the ocean. Burning the plastic releases toxic smoke, causing harm to human health and the environment.

Interviewees also said when informal processing facilities wash plastics, small pieces end up in wastewater, which is discharged directly into waterways, and ultimately, the ocean.

However, interviewees from Southeast Asia said their own domestic waste management was a greater source of ocean pollution.

Birds fly over landfill site
Plastic waste meant for recycling can end up in overseas landfill, before it blows into the ocean.
Anupam Nath/AP

A market failure

The price of many recycled plastics has crashed in recent years due to oversupply, import restrictions and falling oil prices, (amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic). However clean bales of PET and HDPE are still in demand.

In Australia, material recovery facilities currently sort PET and HDPE into separate bales. But small contaminants of other materials (such as caps and plastic labels) remain, making it harder to recycle into high quality new products.

Before the price of many recycled plastics dropped, Australia baled and traded all other resin types together as “mixed plastics”. But the price for mixed plastics has fallen to zero and they’re now largely stockpiled or landfilled in Australia.

Several Australian facilities are, however, investing in technology to sort polypropylene so it can be recovered for recycling.

Shampoo bottles in supermarket
High-density polyethylene items such as shampoo bottles comprise a large share of the plastic waste market.
Shutterstock

Doing plastics differently

Exporting countries can help reduce the flow of plastics to the ocean by better managing trade practices. This might include:

  • improving collection and sorting in export countries

  • checking destination processing and monitoring

  • checking plastic shipments at export and import

  • improving accountability for shipments.

But this won’t be enough. The complexities involved in the global recycling trade mean we must rethink packaging design. That means using fewer low-value plastic and composites, or better yet, replacing single-use plastic packaging with reusable options.


The authors would like to acknowledge research contributions from Asia Pacific Waste Consultants (APWC) – Dr Amardeep Wander, Jack Whelan and Anne Prince, as well as Phil Manners at CIE.




Read more:
Here’s what happens to our plastic recycling when it goes offshore


The Conversation


Monique Retamal, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Rachael Wakefield-Rann, Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Biodegradable’ plastic will soon be banned in Australia. That’s a big win for the environment


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Jenni Downes, Monash University; Kim Borg, Monash University, and Nick Florin, University of Technology Sydney

To start dealing with Australia’s mounting plastic crisis, the federal government last week launched its first National Plastics Plan.

The plan will fight plastic on various fronts, such as banning plastic on beaches, ending polystyrene packaging for takeaway containers, and phasing in microplastic filters in washing machines. But we’re particularly pleased to see a main form of biodegradable plastic will also be phased out.

Biodegradable plastic promises a plastic that breaks down into natural components when it’s no longer wanted for its original purpose. The idea of a plastic that literally disappears once in the ocean, littered on land or in landfill is tantalising — but also (at this stage) a pipe dream.

Why ‘biodegradable’ ain’t that great

“Biodegradable” suggests an item is made from plant-based materials. But this isn’t always the case.

A major problem with “biodegradable” plastic is the lack of regulations or standards around how the term should be used. This means it could, and is, being used to refer to all manner of things, many of which aren’t great for the environment.

Many plastics labelled biodegradable are actually traditional fossil-fuel plastics that are simply degradable (as all plastic is) or even “oxo-degradable” — where chemical additives make the fossil-fuel plastic fragment into microplastics. The fragments are usually so small they’re invisible to the naked eye, but still exist in our landfills, water ways and soils.




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We composted ‘biodegradable’ balloons. Here’s what we found after 16 weeks


The National Plastics Plan aims to work with industry to phase out this problematic “fragmentable” plastic by July, 2022.

Some biodegradable plastics are made from plant-based materials. But it’s often unknown what type of environment they’ll break down in and how long that would take.

Those items may end up existing for decades, if not centuries, in landfill, litter or ocean as many plant-based plastics actually don’t break down any quicker than traditional plastics. This is because not all plant-based plastics are necessarily compostable, as the way some plant-based polymers form can make them incredibly durable.

Plastic cutlery with 'biodegradable' written on it
There’s no evidence to suggest anything labelled as ‘biodegradable’ is better for the environment.
Shutterstock

So it’s best to avoid all plastic labelled as biodegradable. Even after the ban eliminates fragmentation — the worst of these — there’s still no evidence remaining types of biodegradable plastics are better for the environment.

Compostable plastics aren’t much better

Compostable plastic is another label you may have come across that’s meant to be better for the environment. It’s specifically designed to break down into natural, non-toxic components in certain conditions.

Unlike biodegradable plastics, there are certification standards for compostable plastics, so it’s important to check for one the below labels. If an item doesn’t have a certification label, there’s nothing to say it isn’t some form of mislabelled “biodegradable” plastic.

Home compost label.
Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA)

But most certified compostable plastics are only for industrial composts, which reach very high temperatures. This means they’re unlikely to break down sufficiently in home composts. Even those certified as “home compostable” are assessed under perfect lab conditions, which aren’t easily achieved in the backyard.

And while certified compostable plastics are increasing, the number of industrial composting facilities that actually accept them isn’t yet keeping up.

Nor are collection systems to get your plastics to these facilities. The vast majority of kerbside organics recycling bins don’t currently accept compostable plastics and other packaging. This means placing compostable plastics in these bins is considered contamination.

Industrial compost label.
Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA)

Even if you can get your certified compostable plastics to an appropriate facility, composting plastics actually reduces their economic value as they can no longer be used in packaging and products. Instead, they’re only valuable for returning nutrients to soil and, potentially, capturing a fraction of the energy used to produce them.

Finally, if you don’t have an appropriate collection system and your compostable plastic ends up in landfill, that might actually be worse than traditional plastic. Compostable plastics could release methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — in landfill, in the same way food waste does.

So, you should only consider compostable plastics when you have a facility that will take them, and a way to get them there.

And while the National Plastics Plan and National Packaging Targets are aiming for at least 70% of plastics to be recovered by 2025 (including through composting), nothing yet has been said about how collection systems will be supported to achieve this.




Read more:
Why compostable plastics may be no better for the environment


Is recycling helpful?

Only an estimated 9% of plastics worldwide (and 18% in Australia) are actually recycled. The majority ends up in landfill, and can leak into our oceans and natural environments.

In Australia, systems for recycling the most common types of plastic packaging are well established and in many cases operate adequately. However, there are still major issues.

Compostable cup of coffee
Compostable plastics aren’t usually made for your backyard compost bin.
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For example, many plastic items can’t be recycled in our kerbside bins (including soft and flexible plastics such as bags and cling films, and small items like bottle lids, plastic cutlery and straws). Placing these items in your kerbside recycling bin can contaminate other recycling and even damage sorting machines.




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Think all your plastic is being recycled? New research shows it can end up in the ocean


What’s more, much of the plastic collected for recycling doesn’t have high value “end markets”. Only two types of plastic — PET (think water or soft drink bottles and some detergent containers) and HDPE (milk bottles, shampoo/conditioner/detergent containers) — are easily turned back into new plastic containers.

The rest end up in a stream called “mixed plastics”, much of which we have traditionally exported overseas for recycling due to low demand here. The new waste export ban may help fix this in the future.

A brief guide to help you responsibly dispose of your plastic.
University Technology Sydney, Author provided

So what do you do about plastic?

The obvious answer then, is to eliminate problematic plastic altogether, as the National Plastics Plan is attempting to do, and replace single-use plastics with reusable alternatives.

Little actions such as bringing your reusable water bottle, coffee cup and cutlery, can add up to big changes, if adequately supported by businesses and government to create a widespread culture shift. So too, could a swing away from insidious coffee capsules, cling wrap and cotton buds so many of us depend on.

Opting too, for plastic items made from recycled materials can make a big impact on the feasibility of plastic recycling.

If you do end up with plastic on your hands, take a quick glance at the graphic above, or read the University Technology Sydney’s Detailed Decision Guide to Disposing of Plastics.




Read more:
How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)


The Conversation


Jenni Downes, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia (Monash Sustainable Development Institute), Monash University; Kim Borg, Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University, and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Plastic in the ocean kills more threatened albatrosses than we thought


Lauren Roman, Author provided

Richelle Butcher, Massey University; Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO, and Lauren Roman, CSIRO

Plastic in the ocean can be deadly for marine wildlife and seabirds around the globe, but our latest study shows single-use plastics are a bigger threat to endangered albatrosses in the southern hemisphere than we previously thought.

You may have heard of the Great Pacific garbage patch in the northern Pacific, but plastic pollution in the southern hemisphere’s oceans has increased by orders of magnitude in recent years.

We examined the causes of death of 107 albatrosses received by wildlife hospitals and pathology services in Australia and New Zealand and found ocean plastic is an underestimated threat.

Plastic drink bottles, disposable utensils and balloons are among the most deadly items.

Albatrosses are some the world’s most imperiled seabirds, with 73% of species threatened with extinction. Most species live in the southern hemisphere.

We estimate plastic ingestion causes up to 17.5% of near-shore albatross deaths in the southern hemisphere and should be considered a substantial threat to albatross populations.




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These are the plastic items that most kill whales, dolphins, turtles and seabirds


Magnificent ocean wanderers

Albatrosses spend their entire lives at sea and can live for more than 70 years. They return to land only to reunite with their mate and raise a single chick during the warmer months.

Although the world’s largest flying birds are rarely seen from land, human activities are driving nearly three quarters of albatross species to extinction.

An albatross flying across the ocean.
The great albatrosses are the largest flying birds in the world, circumnavigating the southern oceans in search of food.
Lauren Roman, Author provided

Each year, thousands of albatrosses are caught as unintended bycatch and killed by fishing boats. Introduced rats and mice eat their chicks alive on remote islands and the ocean where they spend their lives is becoming increasingly warmer and filled with plastic.

Young Laysan albatrosses with their bellies full of plastic are not just a tragic tale from the remote northern Pacific. Albatrosses are dying from plastic in the southern oceans, too.

When a Royal albatross recently died in care at Wildbase Hospital after eating a plastic bottle, it was not an isolated incident.

Single-use plastics hit albatrosses close to home

A veterinarian treating a light-mantled albatross
Veterinarian Baukje Lenting treating a light-mantled albatross at The Nest Te Kōhanga at Wellington Zoo.
Wellington Zoo, Author provided

Eighteen of the world’s 22 albatross species live in the southern hemisphere, where plastic is currently considered a lesser threat. But the amount of discarded plastic is increasing every year, mostly leaked from towns and cities and accumulating near the shore.

Single-use items make up most of the trash found on coastlines around the world. Seven of the ten most common items — drink bottles, food wrappers and grocery bags — are made of plastic.

When albatrosses are found struggling near the shore in New Zealand, they are delivered to wildlife hospitals such as Wildbase Hospital and The Nest Te Kōhanga. A recent spate of plastic-linked deaths spurred us to dig a little deeper into the risk of plastic pollution to these magnificent ocean wanderers.

A thousand cuts: plastic and other threats

Of the 107 albatrosses of 12 species we examined, plastic was the cause of death in half of the birds that had ingested it. In the cases we examined, plastic deaths were more common than fisheries-related deaths or oiling.

We compared these cases with data on plastic ingestion and fishery interaction rates from other studies. Based on our findings, we used statistical methods to estimate how many albatrosses were likely to eat plastic and might die from ingesting it, and how these figures compared to other major threats such as fisheries bycatch.

We found that in the near-shore areas of Australia and New Zealand, the ingestion of plastic is likely to cause about 3.4% of albatross deaths. In more polluted near-shore areas, such as those off Brazil, we estimate plastic ingestion causes 17.5% of all albatross deaths.




Read more:
Plastic poses biggest threat to seabirds in New Zealand waters, where more breed than elsewhere


Because albatrosses are highly migratory, even those birds that live in less polluted areas are at risk as they wander the global ocean, travelling to polluted waters. Our results suggest the ingestion of plastic is at least of equivalent concern as long-line fishing in near-shore areas.

For threatened and declining albatross species, these rates of additional mortality are a serious concern and could result in further population losses.

Deadly junk food for marine life

Balloon fragments found in the stomach on an endangered albatross
The remains of two balloons in the stomach of an endangered grey-headed albatross.
Lauren Roman, Author provided

Not all types of plastic are equally deadly when eaten. Albatrosses can regurgitate many of the indigestible items they eat.

Soft plastic and rubber items (such as latex balloons), in particular, can be deadly for marine animals because they often become trapped in the gut and cause fatal blockages, leading to a long, slow death by starvation. Plastic is difficult to see with common scanning techniques, and gut blockages often remain undetected.

A plastic bottle found in the stomach of an albatross
A 500ml plastic bottle and balloon fragments were found in the stomach of a southern royal albatross which died in care at Wildbase Hospital.
Stuart Hunter, Author provided

Albatrosses like to eat squid, and inexperienced young birds are especially prone to mistaking balloons and other plastic for food, with potentially lethal consequences.

We recommend that wildlife hospitals, carers and biologists consider gastric obstruction when sick albatrosses are presented. Our publication includes a checklist to help in the detection of gastric blockages.

Global cooperation to reduce leakage of plastic items into the ocean — such as the Basel Convention and the recommendations by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy — are first steps towards preventing unnecessary deaths of marine animals.




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We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history


Stronger adherence to multilateral agreements, such as the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels which aims to reduce the impact of activities known to kill albatrosses, would help prevent the decline of breeding populations to unsustainably low levels.

If populations fall to critically endangered levels, intensive remediation including the expansion of chick and nest protection programmes, invasive species eradication and seabird translocations, may be required to prevent species extinction.


We would like to acknowledge our New Zealand and Australian colleagues who contributed to this research project. Veterinarians Baukje Lenting and Phil Kowalski care for injured seabirds and other wildlife at The Nest Te Kōhanga at Wellington Zoo. Veterinarian Megan Jolly cares for injured wildlife at Wildbase Hospital and vet pathologist Stuart Hunter provides a nationwide wildlife pathology service at Wildbase pathology at Massey University. David Stewart conducts threatened species research and monitoring at the Queensland state government’s Department of Environment and Science.The Conversation

Richelle Butcher, Veterinary Resident at Wildbase, Massey University; Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO, and Lauren Roman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These are the plastic items that most kill whales, dolphins, turtles and seabirds



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Lauren Roman, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, CSIRO

How do we save whales and other marine animals from plastic in the ocean? Our new review shows reducing plastic pollution can prevent the deaths of beloved marine species. Over 700 marine species, including half of the world’s cetaceans (such as whales and dolphins), all of its sea turtles and a third of its seabirds, are known to ingest plastic.

When animals eat plastic, it can block their digestive system, causing a long, slow death from starvation. Sharp pieces of plastic can also pierce the gut wall, causing infection and sometimes death. As little as one piece of ingested plastic can kill an animal.

About eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, so solving the problem may seem overwhelming. How do we reduce harm to whales and other marine animals from that much plastic?

Like a hospital overwhelmed with patients, we triage. By identifying the items that are deadly to the most vulnerable species, we can apply solutions that target these most deadly items.

Some plastics are deadlier than others

In 2016, experts identified four main items they considered to be most deadly to wildlife: fishing debris, plastic bags, balloons and plastic utensils.

We tested these expert predictions by assessing data from 76 published research papers incorporating 1,328 marine animals (132 cetaceans, 20 seals and sea lions, 515 sea turtles and 658 seabirds) from 80 species.

We examined which items caused the greatest number of deaths in each group, and also the “lethality” of each item (how many deaths per interaction). We found the experts got it right for three of four items.

Plastic bag floats in the ocean.
Film plastics cause the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles.
Shutterstock

Flexible plastics, such as plastic sheets, bags and packaging, can cause gut blockage and were responsible for the greatest number of deaths over all animal groups. These film plastics caused the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles. Fishing debris, such as nets, lines and tackle, caused fatalities in larger animals, particularly seals and sea lions.

Turtles and whales that eat debris can have difficulty swimming, which may increase the risk of being struck by ships or boats. In contrast, seals and sea lions don’t eat much plastic, but can die from eating fishing debris.

Balloons, ropes and rubber, meanwhile, were deadly for smaller fauna. And hard plastics caused the most deaths among seabirds. Rubber, fishing debris, metal and latex (including balloons) were the most lethal for birds, with the highest chance of causing death per recorded ingestion.




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We estimate up to 14 million tonnes of microplastics lie on the seafloor. It’s worse than we thought


What’s the solution?

The most cost-efficient way to reduce marine megafauna deaths from plastic ingestion is to target the most lethal items and prioritise their reduction in the environment.

Targeting big plastic items is also smart, as they can break down into smaller pieces. Small debris fragments such as microplastics and fibres are a lower management priority, as they cause significantly fewer deaths to megafauna and are more difficult to manage.

Image of dead bird and gloved hand containing small plastics.
Plastic found in the stomach of a fairy prion.
Photo supplied by Lauren Roman

Flexible film-like plastics, including plastic bags and packaging, rank among the ten most common items in marine debris surveys globally. Plastic bag bans and fees for bags have already been shown to reduce bags littered into the environment. Improving local disposal and engineering solutions to enable recycling and improve the life span of plastics may also help reduce littering.

Lost fishing gear is particularly lethal. Fisheries have high gear loss rates: 5.7% of all nets and 29% of all lines are lost annually in commercial fisheries. The introduction of minimum standards of loss-resistant or higher quality gear can reduce loss.




Read more:
How to get abandoned, lost and discarded ‘ghost’ fishing gear out of the ocean


Other steps can help, too, including

  • incentivising gear repairs and port disposal of damaged nets

  • penalising or prohibiting high-risk fishing activities where snags or gear loss are likely

  • and enforcing penalties associated with dumping.

Outreach and education to recreational fishers to highlight the harmful effects of fishing gear could also have benefit.

Balloons, latex and rubber are rare in the marine environment, but are disproportionately lethal, particularly to sea turtles and seabirds. Preventing intentional balloon releases and accidental release during events and celebrations would require legislation and a shift in public will.

The combination of policy change with behaviour change campaigns are known to be the most effective at reducing coastal litter across Australia.

Reducing film-like plastics, fishing debris and latex/balloons entering the environment would likely have the best outcome in directly reducing mortality of marine megafauna.




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Newly hatched Florida sea turtles are consuming dangerous quantities of floating plastic


The Conversation


Lauren Roman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.