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The EFM Notebook

Photo by Robert Badger and Nita Winter

A Biweekly Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

The EFM Notebook is a resource for information about the environment and climate change. In each post I’ll bring you news and insights from experts, activists, and policy makers and I will suggest ideas for moving towards environmental sustainabilitySubscribe to the EFM email list and we will send you new Notebook posts when they are published.  #EFMNotebook

by Susan Holloway | Bio


Plastic in the Ocean: How Did It Get There and How Do We Get Rid of It?

16 Jul 2020 4:19 PM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)

Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escape into the oceans from coastal nations. At this rate, it has been estimated that plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish by 2050.

Five accumulation zones of marine debris have formed across the world. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the biggest one of them all, twice the size of Texas.

The cost to wildlife of plastic consumption is high. Millions of birds, mammals, and fish are killed by plastic objects in the ocean every year. Seals, turtles, whales, and other mammals are tangled in plastic bags and strangled by plastic six-pack rings. Plastic items block animals’ digestive tracts, pierce their organs, or pack their stomachs so that they cannot or will not eat.

Microplastic Particles: Stealth Villains of the Plastic Story

Elephant seals  

 
An even more serious peril to animal and human health occurs as plastic disintegrates, breaking down into small pieces no bigger than a raisin. These microplastic particles are often ingested by fish, sea crabs, and other small marine animals that mistake them for food.

The research on how ingestion of microplastic affects living organisms is in its infancy but preliminary evidence suggests that these substances can be very toxic. For one thing, we know that microplastics absorb and give off harmful bacteria and chemical pollutants such as DDT and PCBs. Certain of these chemicals are highly toxic to fish and other ocean animals. If you eat a fish that has ingested microplastics you may be exposing yourself to these toxins as well. 


No Butts on the Beach!

It’s hard to make jokes about cigarettes, but that hasn’t stopped many writers from working amusing puns into articles on cigarette butts in the world’s waterways. But that’s where the hilarity ends because the story itself is grim.

Who knew????

  • In 1900 the average American adult smoked 54 cigarettes
    per year; by 1960, the number had risen to 400.

  • 4.5 trillion cigarettes are discarded into the environment
    every year making them the “most littered item on earth.”

   

Plastics are in cigarettes, too: their filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate. Like other plastic objects, cigarette filters are harmful to wildlife when consumed and they last in the environment for decades if not centuries. Cigarettes—and their filters—are full of chemicals including pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides, which leach out when cigarette butts are washed into the ocean. A study published in 2011 found that cigarette filters are “acutely toxic” to small marine and freshwater fish.

Vaping and e-cigarettes produce even more plastic pollution than conventional cigarettes. The plastic pod that holds the “e-juice” is sometimes reusable, but in the case of disposable e-cigarettes the heating element, battery and mouthpiece are all thrown away! They are a hazardous waste as well as e-waste.

Close to Home

 

Deep-sea octopus from Monterey Bay

 


When I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge or take a walk on Limantour Beach I am not able to see any plastic floating around. However, microplastic particles can be found very close to home.

In fact, the San Francisco Bay contains abundant amounts of this “relentless toxic confetti.” Recent research shows that water passing through urban streets carries bits of trash into the storm drains and from there into the Bay. Microplastics are also present in water dumped into the bay from our 40 local sewage treatment plants. It was surprising and hard to hear that washing my fleece jacket causes the synthetic elements in the fabric to shed microplastic into the wash water.

Indeed, the comparatively high concentration of plastic particles in the San Francisco Bay has taken many people by surprise. As reported by the San Jose Mercury News, Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, admits that microplastic pollution is “one of these things that has kind of crept up on us.”

Part of our microplastic problem is caused by the narrow Golden Gate opening, which limits tidal actions and natural flushing from the bay to the ocean. But it’s important to remember that microplastic pollution is swept everywhere across the globe by ocean currents, often migrating far from its point of origin. Even the Monterey Bay, a national marine sanctuary far from major population centers and polluting industries, contains proportionately as much plastic debris as does the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. So local actions are not enough to protect our own shores.

Here’s a link to an informative Mercury article about San Francisco Bay: https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/10/02/7-trillion-pieces-of-microplastic-wash-into-san-francisco-bay-every-year-new-study-shows/

What can we do?

Ocean Cleanup ship in San Francisco Bay  


 

Faced with devastating images of animals strangling on plastic straws, a common human impulse is to try and clean things up. For example, the waters of Baltimore Harbor are patrolled by anthropomorphic litter interceptors (say hello to Mr. Trash Wheel) that cruise around and suck up plastic objects from the water. On a larger scale, Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat and his nonprofit organization called The Ocean Cleanup have developed a large interceptor that they are currently testing in several highly impacted areas around the world. It is not clear whether these interceptors can remove microplastic particles as well as larger items, although Slat and his group claim they can.

 

Mr. Trash Wheel at rest in Baltimore Harbor

 

Cleaning up heavily polluted coastal areas may be part of the solution but it is a sisyphean task. How do we attack the problem at its source?

Reduce, Reuse, and….Recycle???

Clearly we need to reduce the manufacture and consumption of plastic items, particularly single-use products. Clamshell packaging is one target of many plastic pollution activists, along with plastic bags, foodware, and cigarette products. The reduce-and-reuse concept is not difficult to understand. But it is no small matter to overcome the power of the gas, oil, and other industries with a financial stake in continuing to produce plastic. If you are interested in learning more about this struggle, take a look at this well-researched article in Rolling Stone by Tim Dickinson: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/plastic-problem-recycling-myth-big-oil-950957/

In the last few years, the utility of recycling has been increasingly called into question. The bottom line is that recycled plastic has little economic value. It’s cheaper to make virgin plastic than to recycle the old stuff. The industries that generate the most plastic, with Coca-Cola topping the list, are spending money on developing new technology to improve recycling, but this is not something that many climate scientists think is a feasible solution to our overall plastic problem.

Senator Tom Udall Representative Alan Lowenthal


 
And furthermore, why should local communities foot the bill to recycle an endless stream of pollution while companies who generate it pay nothing? In the Break Free from Pollution Act, co-sponsors Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico and House Representative Alan Lowenthal directly address the failure of the recycling effort to date, and argue that the plastics industry should pay for clean-up and recycling efforts. As Senator Udall says, his core principle is that “the polluter pays.”

Udall and Lowenthal’s bill would ban some single-use plastics such as plastic bags, styrofoam items, and plastic utensils. It would also impose a deposit on beverage containers to encourage return for recycling. It would ban the export of plastic waste and halt construction of new plastics facilities until the EPA can develop more effective regulations. Check out Senator Udall’s forceful comments in this 8-minute presentation: https://www.ksfr.org/post/senator-udall-break-free-plastic-pollution-act


The New Normal

As I write this installment of the Notebook, Covid-19 cases in California are on the rise. An estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used around the world every month to protect us from the virus. However, single-use masks and gloves contain plastic that poses a significant risk to animal and plant life. We need these items in order to survive but should make sure they do not end up in the ocean.

Another unintended consequence of the pandemic is that many communities have suspended their bans on single-use plastic bags. At the same time, a surge in takeout and delivery orders has increased consumption of disposable plastic food containers and cutlery.

Even during these really challenging times, we have options for reducing plastic waste. Here are a few ideas:

  • See if you can find a takeout place that uses paper rather than plastic containers and avoid using plastic straws or cutlery.

  • If you are shopping online for home delivery, use companies that minimize the plastic they use in their packaging. For example, I try to order pet food from Chewy because they typically pack items in paper rather than plastic bubble wrap.

  • If you shop for groceries in a store that doesn’t allow you to bring your own bags, ask if you can put the items directly back in the cart after they are rung up and then put them in your recyclable bags when you are back at your car.

  • If you have children, help them discover and inventory the plastic objects in your home and brainstorm about alternatives.

As always, support government efforts to change the way we produce, use, and dispose of plastics. You can write a letter to your local representatives in support of a single-use foodware ban in your community. Or contact your elected officials in the US House of Representatives and Senate to signal your support for the Break Away from Pollution Act. And with elections coming up, work for or contribute to the campaigns of candidates with a good environmental track record.

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at susanh@marinefm.org.


Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Nita and Rob’s award-winning call-to-action book is available at www.wildflowerbook.com. To see more birds and other images visit www.winterbadger.com.




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