Why microplastics found in Nigeria’s freshwaters raise a red flag



Plastic pollution remains a topmost environmental concern
Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Emmanuel O. Akindele, Obafemi Awolowo University

Freshwater ecosystems are a priority for environmental scientists because they affect the health of animals and plants on land too – as well as people. They provide food, water, transport and flood control. Freshwater ecosystems also keep nutrients moving among organisms and support diverse forms of life.

Freshwater systems make a big difference to the quality of life in any human society. But they are under great pressure. Freshwater biodiversity is declining faster than terrestrial biodiversity.

Among the three major types of habitats – terrestrial, freshwater and marine – freshwater accounts for less than 1% of the earth’s surface. Yet these habitats support more species per unit area and account for about 6% of the world’s biodiversity.

One of the biggest stresses on freshwater ecosystems is the presence of plastics. Some microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic that have broken down from bigger pieces – get into water from various sources. Some are introduced from industrial sources like cosmetics, toothpaste and shaving cream. Another major source is dumping of plastic waste like bags and bottles.

In Nigeria, an important source is the plastic sachets that contain drinking water. Over 60 million of these are consumed in a day.

Ultimately all these types of plastic waste find their way to the aquatic environment. There they stay in the water column, settle on river beds or are ingested by aquatic animals.

My research group set out to assess the load and chemical nature of microplastics in two important rivers and Gulf of Guinea tributaries in Nigeria. We looked for the presence of microplastics in aquatic insects since they often dominate aquatic animal life. Most also spend their adult stage in the terrestrial environment, once they emerge from their larvae. We found that microplastics were present in large quantities in the insect larvae. The insects are part of a food chain and could transfer the harmful effects of microplastics throughout the chain.

This further reinforces the urgent need for Nigeria to go ahead with measures to reduce the use of plastic bags and single-use plastics.

The research findings

We used three of the rivers’ aquatic insect species as bio-indicators and found that all three had ingested microplastics from the two rivers. The ingested microplastics include styrene-ethylene-butylene-styrene, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, chlorinated polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyester. The quantity of microplastics ingested by the insects was fairly high, especially in the Chironomus sp. which is a riverbed dweller recorded in the Ogun River.

The diversity of plastic polymers recorded in these insects suggests a wide range of applications of plastics in Nigeria.

The three insect species spend their larval stages in the water and later migrate to land in the adult phase. The concern is that the insect larvae could serve as a link for microplastics’ transfer to higher trophic levels in the aquatic environment. Also, the adults serve in the same capacity in the terrestrial environment. A trophic level is the group of organisms within an ecosystem which occupy the same level in a food chain.

Dragonfly larvae in the water are eaten by fish, salamanders, turtles, birds and beetles. Adult dragonflies on land are also eaten by birds and other insects.

Other research elsewhere has shown the link between microplastics and human health.

Through feeding, the transfer of microplastics in the environment could go as far as people – who caused the plastic pollution in the first place.

Evidence suggests that microplastics reduce the physiological fitness of animals. This comes through decreased food consumption, weight loss, decreased growth rate, energy depletion and susceptibility to other harmful substances. Human health could similarly be at risk on account of microplastic ingestion.

Microplastics can be retained for a longer time at the higher trophic levels where humans belong, thereby predisposing humans to serious health hazards.

Case for a plastic bags ban

A ban on plastic bags would curb the plastic pollution in Nigeria. There are alternatives to the use of plastic bags, for instance, bags made from banana stalks, coconut, palm leaf, cassava flour and chicken feathers. Unlike plastic bags, which could persist in the environments for over a century, bags made from these organic materials decompose readily in a manner that does not pose a health risk to the environment.

For a long while, the call to mitigate plastic pollution was not heeded in Nigeria. Recently, the House of Representatives passed a bill banning plastic bags. But this is yet to be implemented as the president has not assented to it.

A study in the European Union indicates that a ban on single-use plastics could reduce marine plastic pollution by about 5.5%.

It is about time Nigeria treated plastic pollution as a national emergency, considering its implications for human health and the ecological integrity of aquatic ecosystems. An approach that puts people at the centre of the issue has been suggested as one way to convince local communities to preserve the integrity of the environment.

Perhaps this approach could help restore plastic-laden aquatic ecosystems and preserve the pristine ones.The Conversation

Emmanuel O. Akindele, Senior Lecturer, Obafemi Awolowo University

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

How life-cycle assessments can be (mis)used to justify more single-use plastic packaging



Peter Endig via Getty Images

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University; Hannah Blumhardt, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington, and Takunda Y Chitaka, University of the Western Cape

After banning plastic bags last year, New Zealand now proposes to regulate single-use plastic packaging and to ban various hard-to-recycle plastics and single-use plastic items.

These moves come in response to growing public concern about plastics, increasing volumes of plastic in the environment, mounting evidence of negative environmental and health impacts of plastic pollution and the role plastics play in the global climate crisis.

Addressing plastic packaging is key to reversing these negative trends. It accounts for 42% of all non-fibre plastics produced.

But the plastics industry is pushing back. Industry representatives claim efforts to regulate plastic packaging will have negative environmental consequences because plastic is a lightweight material with a lower carbon footprint than alternatives like glass, paper and metal.

These claims are based on what’s known as life-cycle assessment (LCA). It’s a tool used to measure and compare the environmental impact of materials throughout their life, from extraction to disposal.

Industry arguments to justify plastic packaging

LCA has been used to measure the impact of packaging ever since the Coca-Cola Company commissioned the first comprehensive assessment in 1969.

While independent LCA practitioners may adopt rigorous processes, the method is vulnerable to misuse. According to European waste management consultancy Eunomia, it is limited by the questions it seeks to answer:

Ask inappropriate, misleading, narrow or uninformed questions and the process will only provide answers in that vein.

Industry-commissioned life-cycle assessments often frame single-use plastic packaging positively. These claim plastic’s light weight offsets its harmful impacts on people, wildlife and ecosystems. Some studies are even used to justify the continued expansion of plastics production.




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But plastic can come out looking good when certain important factors are overlooked. In theory, LCA considers a product’s whole-of-life environmental impact. In practice, the scope varies as practitioners select system boundaries at their discretion.

Zero Waste Europe has highlighted that life-cycle assessment for food packaging often omits important considerations. These include the potential toxicity of different materials, or the impact of leakage into the environment. Excluding factors like this gives plastics an unjustified advantage.

Plastic bag floating in the ocean
Life-cycle assessment of plastic packaging fails to account for marine pollution.
Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Researchers have acknowledged the method’s critical failure to account for marine pollution. This is now a priority for the research community, but not the plastics industry.

Even questionable LCA studies carry a veneer of authority in the public domain. The packaging industry capitalises on this to distract, delay and derail progressive plastics legislation. Rebutting industry studies that promote the environmental superiority of plastics is difficult because commissioning a robust LCA is costly and time-consuming.




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Life-cycle assessment and packaging policy

LCA appeals to policymakers aspiring to develop evidence-based packaging policy. But if the limitations are not properly acknowledged or understood, policy can reinforce inaccurate industry narratives.

The Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand report, from the office of the prime minister’s chief science adviser, has been influential in plastics policy in New Zealand.

The report dedicates an entire chapter to LCA. It includes case studies that do not actually take a full life-cycle approach from extraction to disposal. It concedes only on the last page that LCA does not account for the environmental, economic or health impacts of plastics that leak into the environment.

The report also erroneously suggests LCA is “an alternative approach” to the zero-waste hierarchy. In fact, the two tools work best together.

The zero-waste hierarchy prioritises strategies to prevent, reduce and reuse packaging. That’s based on the presumption that these approaches have lower life-cycle impacts than recycling and landfilling.

Dispensers for cereals, nuts and grains in zero waste grocery store
New Zealand has a growing number of zero-waste grocers.
Shutterstock/Ugis Riba

One of LCA’s limitations is that practitioners tend to compare materials already available on the predominantly single-use packaging market. However, an LCA guided by the waste hierarchy would include zero-packaging or reusable packaging systems in the mix. Such an assessment would contribute to sustainable packaging policy.

New Zealand already has growing numbers of zero-waste grocers, supplied by local businesses delivering their products in reusable bulk packaging. We have various reuse schemes for takeaways.

New Zealand is also a voluntary signatory to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which includes commitments by businesses and government to increase reusable packaging by 2025.

Prominent organisations, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, estimate reusables could replace 30% of single-use plastic packaging by 2040. The Pew report states:

A reduction of plastic production — through elimination, the expansion of consumer reuse options, or new delivery models — is the most attractive solution from environmental, economic and social perspectives.

The plastics industry has misused LCA to argue that attempts to reduce plastic pollution will result in bad climate outcomes. But increasingly, life-cycle assessments that compare packaging types across the waste hierarchy are revealing that this trade-off is mostly a single-use packaging problem.

Policymakers should take life-cycle assessment beyond its industry-imposed straitjacket and allow it to inform zero-packaging and reusable packaging system design. Doing so could help New Zealand reduce plastic pollution, negative health impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.The Conversation

Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University; Hannah Blumhardt, Senior Associate at the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington, and Takunda Y Chitaka, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of the Western Cape

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

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



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Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, CSIRO, and Justine Barrett, CSIRO

Nowhere, it seems, is immune from plastic pollution: plastic has been reported in the high Arctic oceans, in the sea ice around Antarctica and even in the world’s deepest waters of the Mariana Trench.

But just how bad is the problem? Our new research provides the first global estimate of microplastics on the seafloor — our research suggests there’s a staggering 8-14 million tonnes of it.

This is up to 35 times more than the estimated weight of plastic pollution on the ocean’s surface.

What’s more, plastic production and pollution is expected to increase in coming years, despite increased media, government and scientific attention on how plastic pollution can harm marine ecosystems, wildlife and human health.

These findings are yet another wake-up call. When the plastic we use in our daily lives reaches even the deepest oceans, it’s more urgent than ever to find ways to clean up our mess before it reaches the ocean, or to stop making so much of it in the first place.

Breaking down larger plastic

Our estimate of microplastics on the seafloor is huge, but it’s still a fraction of the amount of plastic dumped into the ocean. Between 4-8 million tonnes of plastic are thought to enter the sea each and every year.




Read more:
Eight million tonnes of plastic are going into the ocean each year


Most of the plastic dumped into the ocean likely ends up on the coasts, not floating around the ocean’s surface or on the seafloor. In fact, three-quarters of the rubbish found along Australia’s coastlines is plastics.

A dead albatross with plastic in its stomach from Midway Atoll
Plastic including toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, bottle caps and other hard plastic fragments are found in the stomachs of many marine species.
Britta Denise Hardesty

The larger pieces of plastic that stay in the ocean can deteriorate and break down from weathering and mechanical forces, such as ocean waves. Eventually, this material turns into microplastics, pieces smaller than 5 millimetres in diameter.

Their tiny size means they can be eaten by a variety of marine wildlife, from plankton to crustaceans and fish. And when microplastics enter the marine food web at low levels, it can move up the food chain as bigger species eat smaller ones.

But the problem isn’t as well documented for microplastics on the seafloor. While plastics, including microplastics, have been found in deep-sea sediments in all ocean basins across the world, samples have been small and scarce. This is where our research comes in.

Collecting samples in the Great Australian Bight

We collected samples using a robotic submarine in a range of sea depths, from 1,655 to 3,062 metres, in the Great Australian Bight, up to 380 kilometres offshore from South Australia. The submarine scooped up 51 samples of sand and sediment from the seafloor and we analysed them in a laboratory.

Sampling of deep sea sediments took place using an underwater robot.
CSIRO, Author provided

We dried the sediment samples, and found between zero and 13.6 plastic particles per gram. This is up to 25 times more microplastics than previous deep-sea studies. And it’s much higher than studies in other regions, including in the Arctic and Indian Oceans.

While our study looked at one general area, we can scale up to calculate a global estimate of microplastics on the seafloor.

Using the estimated size of the entire ocean — 361,132,000 square kilometres — and the average number and size of particles in our sediment samples, we determined the total, global weight as between 8.4 and 14.4 million tonnes. This range takes into account the possible weights of individual microplastics.

How did the plastic get there?

It’s important to note that since our location was remote, far from any urban population centre, this is a conservative estimate. Yet, we were surprised at just how high the microplastic loads were there.

Plastic waste floating in the ocean
Areas with floating rubbish on the ocean’s surface have plastic on the seafloor.
Shutterstock

Few studies have conclusively identified how microplastics travel to their ultimate fate.

Larger pieces of plastic that get broken down to smaller pieces can sink to the seafloor, and ocean currents and the natural movement of sediment along continental shelves can transport them widely.

But not all plastic sinks. A 2016 study suggests interaction with marine organisms is another possible transport method.

Scientists in the US have shown microbial communities, such as bacteria, can inhabit this marine “plastisphere” — a term for the ecosystems that live in plastic environments. The microbes weigh the plastic down so it no longer floats. We also know mussels and other invertebrates may colonise floating plastics, adding weight to make them sink.




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The type of rubbish will also determine whether it gets washed up on the beach or sinks to the seafloor.

For example, in a previous study we found cigarette butts, plastic fragments, bottlecaps and food wrappers are common on land, though rare on the seabed. Meanwhile, we found entangling items such fishing line, ropes and plastic bags are common on the seafloor.

Microplastics at the water's edge
We were surprised at just how high the microplastic loads were in such a remote location.
CSIRO

Interestingly, in our new study we also found the number of plastic fragments on the seafloor was generally higher in areas where there was floating rubbish on the ocean’s surface. This suggests surface “hotspots” may be reflected below.

It’s not clear why just yet, but it could be because of the geology and physical features of the seabed, or because local currents, winds and waves result in accumulating zones on the ocean’s surface and the seabed nearby.

Stop using so much plastic

Knowing how much plastic sinks to the ocean floor is an important addition to our understanding of the plastic pollution crisis. But stemming the rising tide of plastic pollution starts with individuals, communities and governments – we all have a role to play.

Reusing, refusing and recycling are good places to start. Seek alternatives and support programs, such as Clean Up Australia Day, to stop plastic waste from entering our environment in the first place, ensuring it doesn’t then become embedded in our precious oceans.




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The oceans are full of our plastic – here’s what we can do about it


The Conversation


Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Justine Barrett, Research assistant, CSIRO

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

The ocean is swimming in plastic and it’s getting worse – we need connected global policies now



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Steve Fletcher, University of Portsmouth and Keiron Philip Roberts, University of Portsmouth

It seems you cannot go a day without reading about the impact of plastic in our oceans, and for good reason. The equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic waste enters the sea every minute, and this increases every day. If we do nothing, by 2040 the amount of plastic entering the ocean will triple from 13 million tonnes this year, to 29 million tonnes in 2040. That is 50kg of waste plastic entering the ocean for every metre of coastline.

Add to that almost all the plastic that has entered the ocean is still there since it takes centuries to break down. It is either buried or broken down into smaller pieces and potentially passes up the food chain creating further problems.

Despite this, plastic has also been a saviour. During the COVID-19 pandemic plastic used in face masks, testing kits, screens and to protecting food has enabled countries to come out of lockdown during and support social distancing. We still need to use these items until sustainable and “COVID safe” alternatives are available. But we also need to look to the future to reduce our dependence on plastic and its impact on the environment. With plastic in the ocean being a global problem, we need global agreements and policies to reverse the plastic tide.




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Ambitious policies are needed

Environment ministers of the G20 group of the world’s most economically powerful countries and regions met on September 16 to discuss their immediate challenges, with marine plastic pollution a top priority. A key item for discussion was “safeguarding the planet by fostering collective efforts to protect our global commons”. This means working out how we can continue to use the planet’s resources sustainably without harming the environment.

A global analysis of plastics policies over the past two decades found that typical reactions to marine plastic litter were bans or taxes on individual or groups of plastic items within single countries. So far, 43 countries have introduced a ban, tax or levy on plastic bags. Other plastic packaging or single-use plastic products were banned in at least 25 countries, representing a population of almost 2 billion people in 2018.

But plastic waste doesn’t respect land or ocean borders, with mismanaged plastic waste easily migrating from country to country when leaked into the environment. Policies also need to consider the entire plastics life cycle to stand a chance of being effective. For example, the inclusion of easier to recycle plastics in consumer products sounds positive, but their actual recycling rate depends on effective sorting and collection of plastic waste, and appropriate infrastructure being in place.




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Ultimately, a joined up but adaptable set of rules and guidelines are needed so all plastic producers and users can prevent its leakage across all stages of the plastics life cycle.

The G20 has sought to lead action on marine plastic litter through a 2017 Action Plan on Marine Litter which set out areas of concern and possible policy interventions, and through connections to initiatives such as the UN Environment Programme’s Global Partnership on Marine Litter and most recently the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision. The Osaka vision was agreed under the Japanese G20 presidency in 2019 and commits countries to “reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050”. Although an agreement led by the G20, it now has the support of 86 countries.

But even with these agreements in place, plastic entering the ocean will still only reduce by 7% by 2040. We need ambitious new agreements as current and emerging policies do not meet the scale of the challenge.

A consensus is forming that the G20 and other global leaders must focus on a systemic change of the plastics economy. This includes focusing on “designing out” plastics, promoting technical and business innovation, immediately scaling up actions known to reduce marine plastic litter, and transitioning to a circular economy in which materials are fully recovered and reused. These actions have the potential to contribute to the G20’s vision of net-zero plastics entering the ocean by 2050, but only if ambitious actions are taken now.The Conversation

Steve Fletcher, Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy, University of Portsmouth and Keiron Philip Roberts, Research Fellow in Clean Carbon Technologies and Resource Management, University of Portsmouth

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

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



‘Biodegradable’ balloons after 16 weeks in freshwater.
Jesse Benjamin, Author provided

Morgan Gilmour, University of Tasmania and Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania

After 16 weeks in an industrial compost heap, we unearthed blue and white balloons and found them totally unscathed. The knots we spent hours painstakingly tying by hand more than four months ago were still attached, and sparkly blue balloons still glinted in the sun.

These balloons originally came from packages that advertised them as “100% biodegradable”, with the manufacturers assuring they were made of “100% natural latex rubber”. The implication is that these balloons would have no trouble breaking down in the environment.




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This appeals to eco-conscious consumers, but really just fuels corporate greenwashing — unsubstantiated claims of environmentally friendly and safe products.

Holding perfectly intact balloons in our hands after four months in industrial compost, we had cause to question these claims, and ran experiments.

What’s the problem?

This problem is two-fold. First, balloons are additional plastic waste in the environment. They are lightweight and can travel on air currents far from the point of release. For example, one 2005 study found a balloon travelled more than 200 kilometres.

alt text
Not much changed after 14 weeks.
Morgan Gilmour, Author provided

When they pop, they float back to the earth’s surface and land in, for example, the ocean or the desert, and wash up on beaches where animals can eat them, from sea turtles and seabirds to desert tortoises.

The stretchiness of balloons means they can get stuck in animals’ digestive tracts, which will cause choking, blockage, decreased nutrient absorption and effectively starve the animal.




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Second, what most consumers don’t realise, is that to shape milky natural rubber latex sap into the product we know as a balloon, many additional chemicals need to be added to the latex.

These chemicals include antioxidants and anti-fogging (to counteract that cloudy look balloons can get), plasticisers (to make it more flexible), preservatives (to enable the balloon to sit in warehouses and store shelves for months), flame retardants, fragrance and, of course, dyes and pigments.

Even more chemicals have to be used to make the additives “stick” to the latex and to stick to each other, enabling them to work in tandem to create a product we expect to use for about 24 hours. So, the balloons can’t be “100% natural rubber latex”.

A little girl on a park bench lets go of a pink balloon
Balloons can travel vast distances in the sky before they pop and are eaten by animals.
Unsplash, CC BY

And yet, despite substantial evidence of harm and the presence of these chemicals, balloon littering persists. Balloon releases are common, with only some regional regulations in place, such as in New South Wales and the Sunshine Coast.

Lying for decades

While some factions of the balloon industry denounce balloon releases, these claims are only recent.

For decades, the industry relied on one industry-funded study from 1989 which claimed that after six short weeks, balloons degraded “at about the same rate as oak tree leaves” and there was no way balloons were a threat to wildlife.

That study was not peer-reviewed, its methods are unclear and not repeatable, and the results are based on only six balloons.




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Because balloons are frequently reported to be at sea, ingested by wild animals and washed up on beaches, it’s clear they’re not breaking down in only six weeks. Anecdotal studies have tested this to varying degrees, confirming balloons don’t break down.

Only one peer-reviewed scientific study has quantified balloon degradation, and that also occurred in 1989 — the same year as the industry study. They tested elasticity for up to one year, which means the balloons were intact for that whole time.

Person with a rake buries blue latex balloons in the compost
We tested the claims of the balloon industry.
Dahlia Foo, Author provided

We wanted to know: has anything changed since 1989? And why aren’t there more studies testing balloon degradation, given the passion behind the balloon issue?

So, we set out to quantify exactly how long latex balloons would take to break down. And we asked if balloons degraded differently in different parts of the environment.

Our experiment tested their claims

Industrial composting standards require that the material completely disintegrates after 12 weeks and that the product is not distinguishable from the surrounding soil.

We designed an experiment: after exposing balloons to six hours of sunlight (to simulate typical use, for example, at an outdoor party), we put blue and white balloons in industrial compost, and in saltwater and freshwater tanks.

We allowed for aeration to simulate natural conditions, but otherwise, we left the balloons alone. Every two weeks, we randomly removed 40 balloons from each treatment. We photographed them to document degradation. Then we tested them.

The author prepares to sample latex balloons in front of water tanks
The author sampling latex balloons.
Jesse Benjamin, Author provided

Were the balloons still stretchy? We tested this in the University of Tasmania engineering lab to determine tensile (resistence) strength. We found that in water tanks, the balloons became less stretchy, losing around 75% of their tensile strength. But if they had been composted, balloons retained their stretchiness.

Were the balloons still composed of the same things they started with? We tested this by taking spectral measurements of the balloons’ surface. The balloons showed signs they were exposed to ultra violet light in the water tanks, but not in the compost. This means their chemical composition changed in water, but only slightly.

Finally, and most importantly, did the balloons lose mass?

After 16 weeks, the balloons were still recognisably balloons, though they behaved a little differently in compost, water and saltwater. Some balloons lost 1–2% mass, and some balloons in freshwater gained mass, likely due to osmotic absorption of water.

Four dirty, deflated white balloons in a row on a black background.
These are white latex balloons 16 weeks after we composted them.
Jesse Benjamin, Author provided

What can we do?

It’s clear latex balloons don’t meaningfully degrade in 16 weeks and will continue to pose a threat to wildlife. So what can we do as consumers? We offer these tips:

  • do not release balloons outdoors
  • do not use helium-filled balloons outdoors (this prevents accidental release, and saves helium), which is a critically limited resource
  • if you use balloons, deflate and bin them after use
  • consider balloon alternatives, like bubbles
  • make educated purchases with federal Green Guidelines in mind.



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The Conversation


Morgan Gilmour, Adjunct Researcher in Marine Science, University of Tasmania and Jennifer Lavers, Lecturer in Marine Science, University of Tasmania

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

How Earth’s plastic pollution problem could look by 2040



Rich Carey/Shutterstock

Costas Velis, University of Leeds and Ed Cook, University of Leeds

During a visit to a bookstore a few weeks ago, we couldn’t help but stare at a display unit featuring no fewer than ten books telling you how to rid plastics from your daily life. We’re bombarded by information on the topic of marine litter and plastic pollution, but how much do we really know about the problem?

Think about other planetary challenges, like climate change or ozone layer depletion. Mature areas of research have developed around them, allowing scientists to identify where the gases that cause these problems come from, and how much reaches the atmosphere each year.

But when it comes to plastic pollution, we know close to nothing about how and where plastic waste is generated, managed, treated and disposed of, especially in low and middle income countries. As a result, we’re struggling to limit the amount of litter accumulating in the environment.

Our research published in Science involved a herculean effort to spot, track and model the current and future flows of plastics into the world’s land and waterbodies. We found that plastic entering the marine environment is set to double by 2040 and, unless the world acts, more than 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be dumped on land and in waterbodies.

By identifying the ways in which this litter is produced and distributed, we’ve also discovered how best to reduce the plastic deluge. In the process, we found the unsung heroes on the frontline fighting the pollution crisis who could be the world’s best hope of stemming the tide.

Discarded face masks on a rocky beach.
Single-use plastic consumption has increased during the pandemic.
Fevziie/Shutterstock

The world’s plastic problem in numbers

We developed a model called Plastic-to-Ocean (P₂O) which combines years of accumulated knowledge on global flows of plastic. It compares our current production, use and management of waste with what is projected in the future.

Do you burn your waste in the garden or in the street? Do you drop it into the river? If you answered no to both of these questions then you are possibly one of the 5.5 billion people whose waste gets collected. If you were among the remaining two billion, what would you do with your uncollected waste? Would you make use of a nearby stream, cliff edge, or perhaps squirrel the odd bag in the woods after dusk?

More often than not, uncollected plastic waste is simply set on fire as a cost-free and effective method of disposal. Our model suggests that cumulatively, more than 2.2 billion tonnes of plastic will be open burned by 2040, far more than the 850 million tonnes that’s anticipated to be dumped on land and the 480 million tonnes in rivers and seas.

Having tracked the sources of plastic items through the supply chain and their fate in the environment, we explored what might help reduce aquatic pollution. We found that the single most effective intervention is to provide a service for the two billion people who currently don’t have their waste collected.

A graph showing how different measures could reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean.

Breaking the Plastic Wave, Author provided

But, of the nine interventions we tested, none solved the problem on their own. Only an integrated approach that in addition to increasing collection coverage includes interventions such as reducing demand for single-use and unrecyclable plastic and improving the business case for mechanical recycling, could be successful. For the countries suffering most from plastic pollution, this knowledge could offer a way forward.

But even in our best-case scenario, in which the world takes the kind of concerted and immediate action proposed in our study, approximately 710 million tonnes of plastic waste will be released into the environment by 2040. That may sound a lot, but it would mean an 80% reduction in the levels of plastic pollution compared to what will happen with no action over the next two decades.




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The ocean’s plastic problem is closer to home than scientists first thought


Could waste pickers save the day?

Our work also cast light on the contributions of 11 million waste pickers in low and middle-income countries. These informal workers collect waste items, including plastics, for recycling, to secure a livelihood for day-to-day survival. The model estimates that they may be responsible for 58% of all plastic waste collected for recycling worldwide – more than the combined formal collection services achieve throughout all the high-income countries put together.

Without this informal waste collection sector, the mass of plastic entering rivers and the ocean would be considerably greater. Their efforts should be integrated into municipal waste management plans, not only to recognise their tremendous contribution but to improve the appalling safety standards that they currently endure.

A man in India peddles a bicycle cart to collect rubbish.
An additional 500,000 people will need to be reached by waste collection services each day until 2040.
EPA-EFE/JAIPAL SINGH

Establishing a comprehensive baseline estimate of sources, stocks and flows of plastic pollution, and then projecting into the future, has been an immense task. When it comes to solid waste, the availability, accuracy and international compatibility of data is notoriously insufficient.

Plastic items occur throughout the world in tens of thousands of shapes, sizes, polymer types and additive combinations. There are also considerable differences in cultural attitudes towards the way waste is managed, how plastic products are consumed, and the types of infrastructure and equipment used to manage it when it becomes waste.

Our modelling effort was a delicate and tedious exercise of simplifying and generalising this complexity. To understand how reliable, accurate, and precise our findings are likely to be, think of the first models that estimated how sensitive the climate is to human influence back in the 1970s.

Hopefully, the strong evidence base we have presented today will inform a global strategy and strong local preventive action. The plastic pollution challenge can be substantially controlled within a generation’s time. So, is anyone ready to act?The Conversation

Costas Velis, Lecturer in Resource Efficiency Systems, University of Leeds and Ed Cook, Research Fellow in Circular Economy Systems, University of Leeds

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

Avoiding single-use plastic was becoming normal, until coronavirus. Here’s how we can return to good habits



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Kim Borg, Monash University; Jim Curtis, Monash University, and Jo Lindsay, Monash University

As COVID-19 restrictions start to ease, we’re unlikely to return to our previous behaviours, from our work-life balance to maintaining good hygiene.

But there are downsides to this new normal, particularly when it comes to hygiene concerns, which have led to an increase in an environmental scourge we were finally starting to get on top of: single-use plastics.

We’ve recently published research based on data collected in mid-2019 (before COVID-19). Our findings showed that not only were people avoiding single-use plastics most of the time, but one of the biggest motivators was knowing others were avoiding them too. Avoidance was becoming normal.




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But then COVID-19 changed the game. Since the pandemic started, there has been a significant increase in plastic waste, such as medical waste from protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, and increased purchases of sanitary products such as disposable wipes and liquid soap.

The good news is we can return to our plastic-avoiding habits. It just might look a little a different.

As we needed to protect ourselves with masks, we added to the waste crisis.
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Avoidance was more normal than we realised

In our representative survey of 1,001 Victorians, we asked people about their behaviours and beliefs around four single-use plastic items: bags, straws, coffee cups and take-away containers.

We found people’s beliefs about how often others were avoiding these items was one of the strongest predictors of their own intentions.

Other influences that predicted intentions included personal confidence, the perceived self and environmental benefits and financial costs associated with avoidance, and whether others would approve or disapprove of the behaviour.




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While beliefs about other peoples’ behaviour was one of the strongest predictors of intentions, there was still a gap between these beliefs and reported behaviour.

On average, 70% of our sample reported avoiding single-use plastics most of the time. But only 30% believed others were avoiding them as often.

Thankfully, our findings suggest we can encourage more people to avoid single-use plastics more often by sharing the news that most people are doing it already. The bad news is that COVID-19 has increased our reliance on single-use items.

Some single-use is necessary during a pandemic

Just when avoidance was becoming normal, the pandemic brought single-use plastics back into favour.

Despite the fact the virus survives longer on plastic compared to other surfaces and a lack of evidence that disposable items are any safer than reusable ones, many businesses are refusing to accept reusable containers, such as coffee cups.

Cafes have refused reusable cups to try to maintain better hygiene.
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Overseas and in Australia, some government departments delayed upcoming bans on single-use plastics and others overturned existing single-use plastic bag bans.

So even if consumers want to avoid single-use plastics, it’s not as easy as it used to be.

Avoiding plastic can still be part of the new normal

It is still possible to avoid unnecessary single-use plastic right now. We just need to get creative and focus on items within our control.

We can still pack shopping in reusable bags, make a coffee at home in a reusable cup, carry reusable straws when we go out – just make sure to wash reusables between each use.




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Many Victorians can even order delivery take-away food in reusable containers, thanks to the partnership between Deliveroo and Returnr, the reusable packaging scheme. Boomerang Alliance also produced guidelines for sustainable take-away options, including practical tips for contactless transfer of food.

Our research focused on public single-use plastic avoidance behaviours, but now is a good time to look at private ones too.

There are plenty of single-use plastics in the home: cling wrap, coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bottles, disposable razors and liquid soap dispensers to name a few.

Using reusable wraps for your food is a much better alternative than single-use cling wrap.
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But you can find reusable alternatives for almost everything: beeswax or silicone wraps, reusable coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bars, reusable safety razors and bars of soap, rather than liquid soap.

Buying cleaning products in bulk can also reduce plastic packaging and keeping glass jars or hard plastic containers are great for storing leftovers.




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Just because we’re in a period of change, doesn’t mean we have to lose momentum. Single-use plastics are a huge environmental problem that we can continue to address by changing our behaviours.

Many are calling on governments, businesses and individuals to use the pandemic as an opportunity to look at how we used to do things and ask – is there a better way?

When it comes to single use plastics during COVID-19, we can’t control everything. But our actions can help shape what the new normal looks like.The Conversation

Kim Borg, Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Jim Curtis, Research Fellow in Behaviour Change, Monash University, and Jo Lindsay, Professor of sociology, Monash University

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

More than 1,200 tonnes of microplastics are dumped into Aussie farmland every year from wastewater sludge


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Abbas Mohajerani, RMIT University

Every year, treated wastewater sludge called “biosolids” is recycled and spread over agricultural land. My recent research discovered this practice dumps thousands of tonnes of microplastics into farmlands around the world. In Australia, we estimate this amount as at least 1,241 tonnes per year.

Microplastics in soils can threaten land, freshwater and marine ecosystems by changing what they eat and their habitats. This causes some organisms to lose weight and have higher death rates.

But this is only the beginning of the problem. Microplastics are good at absorbing other pollutants – such as cadmium, lead and nickel – and can transfer these heavy metals to soils.

Wastewater treatment plants create biosolids, which are packed full of microplastics and toxic chemicals.
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And while microplastics alone is an enormous issue, other contaminants have also been found in biosolids used for agriculture. This includes pharmaceutical chemicals, personal care products, pesticides and herbicides, surfactants (chemicals used in detergents) and flame retardants.

We must stop using biosolids for farmlands immediately, especially when alternative ways to recycle wastewater sludge already exist.

Where do the microplastics come from?

Biosolids are mainly a mix of water and organic materials.

But many household items that contain microplastics – such as lotions, soaps, facial and body washes, and toothpaste – end up in wastewater, too. Other major sources of microplastics in wastewater are synthetic fibres from clothing, plastics in the manufacturing and processing industries, and the breakdown of larger plastic debris.

Before they’re taken to farmlands, wastewater collection systems carry all, or most, of these microplastics and other chemicals from residential, commercial and industrial sources to wastewater treatment plants.

To determine the weight of microplastics in Australia and other countries, my data analysis used the average minimum and maximum numbers of microplastics particles, per kilogram of biosolids samples, found in Germany, Ireland and the USA.




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Australia produced 371,000 tonnes of biosolids in 2019. And globally, we estimate between 50 to more than 100 million tonnes of biosolids are produced each year.

Why microplastics are harmful

Microplastics in soil can accumulate in the food web. This happens when organisms consume more microplastics than they lose. This means heavy metals attached to the microplastics in soil organisms can progress further up the food chain, increasing the risk of human exposure to toxic heavy metals.

When microplastics accumulate heavy metals, they transfer these contaminants to plants and crops, such as rice and grains, as biosolids are spread over farmland.




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After a storm, microplastics in Sydney’s Cooks River increased 40 fold


Over time, microplastics break down and become even tinier, creating nanoplastics. Crops have also been shown to absorb nanoplastics and move them to different plant tissues.

Our research results also show that after the wastewater treatment process, the absorption potential of microplastics for metals increases.

The metal cadmium, for example, is particularly susceptible to microplastics in biosolids and can be transported to plant cells. Research from 2018 showed microplastics in biosolids can absorb cadmium ten times more than virgin microplastics (new microplastics that haven’t gone through wastewater treatment).

Biosolids have a cocktail of nasty chemicals

It’s not just plastic – many industrial additives and chemicals have been found in wastewater and biosolids.

This means they may accumulate in soils and affect the equilibrium of biological systems, with negative effects on plant growth. For example, researchers have found pharmaceutical chemicals in particular can reduce plant growth and inhibit root elongation.




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Other chemical contaminants – such as PFCs, PFAS and BPA – have likewise been detected in biosolids.

The effects these chemicals have on plants may lead to problems further down the food chain, such as humans and other animals inadvertently consuming pharmaceuticals and harmful chemicals.

What can we do about it?

Given the cocktail of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and microplastics, using biosolids in agricultural soils must be stopped without delay.

The good news is there’s another way we can recycle the world’s biosolids: turning them into sustainable fired-clay bricks, called “bio-bricks”.

Bricks incorporated with biosolids are a sustainable solution to an environmental problem.
RMIT media, Author provided

My team’s research from last year found bio-bricks a sustainable solution for both the wastewater treatment and brick manufacturing industries.

If 7% of all fired-clay bricks were biosolids, it would redirect all biosolids produced and stockpiled worldwide annually, including the millions of tonnes that currently end up in farmland each year.




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We also found they’d be more energy efficient. The properties of these bio-bricks are very similar to standard bricks, but generally requires 12.5% less energy to make.

And generally, comprehensive life-cycle assessment has shown biosolid bricks are more environmentally friendly than conventional bricks. These bricks will reduce or eliminate a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions from biosolids stockpiles and will save some virgin resources, such as clay soil and water, for the brick industry.

Now, it’s up to the agriculture, wastewater and brick industries, and governments to make this important transition.The Conversation

Abbas Mohajerani, Associate Professor, School of Engineering, RMIT University

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

After a storm, microplastics in Sydney’s Cooks River increased 40 fold



A litter trap in Cook’s River.
James HItchcock, Author provided

James Hitchcock, University of Canberra

Each year the ocean is inundated with 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic washed in from land. A big proportion of this plastic is between 0.001 to 5 millimetres, and called “microplastic”.

But what happens during a storm, when lashings of rain funnel even more water from urban land into waterways? To date, no one has studied just how important storm events may be in polluting waterways with microplastics.




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So to find out, I studied my local waterway in Sydney, the Cooks River estuary. I headed out daily to measure how many microplastics were in the water, before, during, and after a major storm event in October, 2018.

The results, published on Wednesday, were startling. Microplastic particles in the river had increased more than 40 fold from the storm.

Particles of plastic found in rivers. They may be tiny, but they’re devastating to wildlife in waterways.
Author provided

To inner west Sydneysiders, the Cooks River is known to be particularly polluted. But it’s largely similar to many urban catchments around the world.

If the relationship between storm events and microplastic I found in the Cooks River holds for other urban rivers, then the concentrations of microplastics we’re exposing aquatic animals to is far higher than previously thought.

14 million plastic particles

They may be tiny, but microplastics are a major concern for aquatic life and food webs. Animals such as small fish and zooplankton directly consume the particles, and ingesting microplastics has the potential to slow growth, interfere with reproduction, and cause death.

Determining exactly how much microplastic enters rivers during storms required the rather unglamorous task of standing in the rain to collect water samples, while watching streams of unwanted debris float by (highlights included a fire extinguisher, a two-piece suit, and a litany of tennis balls).

Back in the laboratory, a multi-stage process is used to separate microplastics. This includes floating, filtering, and using strong chemical solutions to dissolve non-plastic items, before identification and counting with specialised microscopes.

Litter caught in a trap in Cooks River. These traps aren’t effective at catching microplastic.
Author provided

In the days before the October 2018 storm, there were 0.4 particles of microplastic per litre of water in the Cooks River. That jumped to 17.4 microplastics per litre after the storm.

Overall, that number averages to a total of 13.8 million microplastic particles floating around in the Cooks River estuary in the days after the storm.




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In other urban waterways around the world scientists have found similarly high numbers of microplastic.

For example in China’s Pearl River, microplastic averages 19.9 particles per litre. In the Mississippi River in the US, microplastic ranges from 28 to 60 particles per litre.

Where do microplastics come from?

We know runoff during storms is one of the main ways pollutants such as sediments and heavy metals end up in waterways. But not much is known about how microplastic gets there.

However think about your street. Wherever you see litter, there are also probably microplastics you cannot see that will eventually work their way into waterways when it rains.




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Many other sources of microplastics are less obvious. Car tyres, for example, which typically contain more plastic than rubber, are a major source of microplastics in our waterways. When your tyres lose tread over time, microscopic tyre fragments are left on roads.

Did you know your car tyres can be a major source of microplastic pollution?
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Microplastics may even build up on roads and rooftops from atmospheric deposition. Everyday, lightweight microplastics such as microfibres from synthetic clothing are carried in the wind, settling and accumulating before they’re washed into rivers and streams.

What’s more, during storms wastewater systems may overflow, contaminating waterways. Along with sewage, this can include high concentrations of synthetic microfibers from household washing machines.

And in regional areas, microplastics may be washing in from agricultural soils. Sewage sludge is often applied to soils as it is rich in nutrients, but the same sludge is also rich in microplastics.

What can be done?

There are many ways to mitigate the negative effects of stormwater on waterways.

Screens, traps, and booms can be fitted to outlets and rivers and catch large pieces of litter such as bottles and packaging. But how useful these approaches are for microplastics is unknown.

Raingardens and retention ponds are used to catch and slow stormwater down, allowing pollutants to drop to bottom rather than being transported into rivers. Artificial wetlands work in similar ways, diverting stormwater to allow natural processes to remove toxins from the water.

Almost 14 million plastic particles were floating in Cooks River after a storm two years ago.
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But while mitigating the effects of stormwater carrying microplastics is important, the only way we’ll truly stop this pollution is to reduce our reliance on plastic. We must develop policies to reduce and regulate how much plastic material is produced and sold.

Plastic is ubiquitous, and its production around the world hasn’t slowed, reaching 359 million tonnes each year. Many countries now have or plan to introduce laws regulating the sale or production of some items such as plastic bags, single-use plastics and microbeads in cleaning products.




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In Australia, most state governments have committed to banning plastic bags, but there are still no laws banning the use of microplastics in cleaning or cosmetic products, or single-use plastics.

We’ve made a good start, but we’ll need deeper changes to what we produce and consume to stem the tide of microplastics in our waterways.The Conversation

James Hitchcock, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Seafloor currents sweep microplastics into deep-sea hotspots of ocean life



A rockfish hides in a red tree coral in the deep sea.
Geofflos

Ian Kane, University of Manchester and Michael Clare, National Oceanography Centre

What if the “great ocean garbage patches” were just the tip of the iceberg? While more than ten million tonnes of plastic waste enters the sea each year, we actually see just 1% of it – the portion that floats on the ocean surface. What happens to the missing 99% has been unclear for a while.

Plastic debris is gradually broken down into smaller and smaller fragments in the ocean, until it forms particles smaller than 5mm, known as microplastics. Our new research shows that powerful currents sweep these microplastics along the seafloor into large “drifts”, which concentrate them in astounding quantities. We found up to 1.9 million pieces of microplastic in a 5cm-thick layer covering just one square metre – the highest levels of microplastics yet recorded on the ocean floor.

While microplastics have been found on the seafloor worldwide, scientists weren’t sure how they got there and how they spread. We thought that microplastics would separate out according to how big or dense they were, in a similar manner to natural sediment. But plastics are different – some float, but more than half of them sink.




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Plastics which once floated can sink as they become coated in algae, or if bound up with other sticky minerals and organic matter. Recent research has shown that rivers transport microplastics to the ocean too, and laboratory experiments revealed that giant underwater avalanches of sediment can transport these tiny particles along deep-sea canyons to greater depths.

We’ve now discovered how a global network of deep-sea currents transports microplastics, creating plastic hotspots within vast sediment drifts. By catching a ride on these currents, microplastics may be accumulating where deep-sea life is abundant.

Once plastic debris has broken down and sinks to the ocean floor, currents sweep the particles into vast drifts.
Ian Kane, Author provided

From bedroom floors to the seafloor

We surveyed an area of the Mediterranean off the western coast of Italy, known as the Tyrrhenian Sea, and studied the bottom currents that flow near the seafloor. These currents are driven by differences in water salinity and temperature as part of a system of ocean circulation that spans the globe. Seafloor drifts of sediment can be many kilometres across and hundreds of metres high, forming where these currents lose their strength.

We analysed sediment samples from the seafloor taken at depths of several hundred metres. To avoid disturbing the surface layer of sediment, we used samples taken with box-cores, which are like big cookie cutters. In the laboratory, we separated microplastics from the sediment and counted them under microscopes, analysing them using infra-red spectroscopy to find out what kinds of plastic polymer types were there.

A microplastic fibre seen under a microscope.
Ian Kane, Author provided

Most microplastics found on the seafloor are fibres from clothes and textiles. These are particularly insidious, as they can be eaten and absorbed by organisms. Although microplastics on their own are often non-toxic, studies show the build-up of toxins on their surfaces can harm organisms if ingested.

These deep ocean currents also carry oxygenated water and nutrients, meaning that the seafloor hotspots where microplastics accumulate may also be home to important ecosystems such as deep-sea coral reefs that have evolved to depend on these flows, but are now receiving huge quantities of microplastics instead.

What was once a hidden problem has now been uncovered – natural currents and the flow of plastic waste into the ocean are turning parts of the seafloor into repositories for microplastics. The cheap plastic goods we take for granted eventually end up somewhere. The clothes that may only last weeks in your wardrobe linger for decades to centuries on the seafloor, potentially harming the unique and poorly understood creatures that live there.The Conversation

Ian Kane, Reader in Geology, University of Manchester and Michael Clare, Principal Researcher in Marine Geoscience, National Oceanography Centre

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