Ocean Action Hub

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Tires: The plastic polluter you never thought about

4 Nov 2019 - Because tires are made of natural rubber and plastic, it’s easy to miss just how much they contribute to pollution in our oceans.

4 Nov 2019 - In 2014 biologist John Weinstein and his graduate students went looking for microplastics—the small bits of degraded plastic that researchers have discovered are spread throughout the environment.

The team was based at The Citadel military college in Charleston, South Carolina, where Weinstein is a professor. Working in a coastal city, they expected to find at least some evidence of microplastics, which are swept into the ocean. And sure enough, samples kept turning up.

Much of what they collected came from anticipated, identifiable sources, such as broken-down plastic bags. But more than half of the pieces were black, tubular, and microscopic, with no obvious origins.

“They’re elongated, almost like cigars,” says Weinstein. “It was a mystery.”

Weinstein and his students looked around the Charleston harbor at common black plastic items—such as fishing nets—searching for a comparison. But there weren’t any matches. The breakthrough came when they found very similar cigar-shaped plastics in a waterway right off of a main road. Then it dawned on them what they were dealing with: tiny bits of car tires.

“It was a surprise,” says Weinstein. “Usually you don't find what you're not looking for.”

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/09/tires-unseen-plastic-polluter/

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How tampons and pads became so unsustainable

1 Nov 2019 - A combination of technology and social pressure drove us toward sanitary products shot through with plastic. Is there a better solution?

1 Nov 2019 - Plastic pervades modern life, and menstruation is no exception. Since the middle of the 20th century, many tampons and menstrual pads have contained somewhere between a little and a lot of plastic in their basic design—sometimes for reasons that “improve” the design, but often for reasons less crucial.

Getting a handle on how much plastic waste comes from menstrual products is tough, in part because it’s labeled as medical waste and does not need to be tracked, and in part because so little research has even looked at the scope of the problem. But rough estimates for the likely output are staggering: In 2018 alone, people in the U.S. bought 5.8 billion tampons, and over the course of a lifetime, a single menstruator will use somewhere between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons, the vast majority of which will wind up in landfills as plastic waste.

To dislodge plastic from menstrual care, though, will take more than design disruption, because the reasons plastic has lodged itself so deep in the design in the first place are tangled in a web of culture, shame, science, and more.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/09/how-tampons-pads-became-unsustainable-story-of-plastic/

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Plastic food packaging was most common beach trash in 2018

5 Sept 2019 - A million volunteer-strong beach clean-up effort spanned 120 countries; it also turned up an artificial Christmas tree and a typewriter.

5 Sept 2019 - The lowly cucumber remains crisp for three days at your local market. Wrap it in polyethylene shrink wrap and its longevity extends to 14. That, in short, explains the rapid growth of plastic food packaging, projected to become a $370 billion market next year.

With those numbers, it comes as little surprise that the way humans buy and consume food is having such a tangible impact on the oceans. Nine of the Ocean Conservancy’s top ten items retrieved from its annual beach cleanups are related to food and drink. Food packaging remains the second most common trash item collected during the group’s annual beach cleanup in 2018. And now for the first time, plastic forks, knives, and spoons have made the list, according to the group’s new report.

Aside from food packaging—more than 3.7 million individual wrappers were collected—the list of disposable plastics includes straws, stirrers, cutlerybottles and caps, grocery bags and other plastic bags (for food and other uses), lids, cups, and plates.

The exception is cigarette butts, which contain plastic filters, and has remained the No. 1 item for many years.

“Cigarette butts are a separate issue and they win the race every year,” says George Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy’s chief scientist.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/09/plastic-food-packaging-top-trash-global-beach-cleanup-2018/

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Dead zones, explained

6 Aug 2019 - NatGeo - Few marine organisms can survive the toxic low-oxygen conditions of dead zones. Here’s how our agricultural practices make them worse.

6 Aug 2019 - NatGeo - Few marine organisms can survive the toxic low-oxygen conditions of dead zones. Here’s how our agricultural practices make them worse.

“Dead zones” are deadly: Few or no organisms can survive in their oxygen-depleted, or hypoxic, waters. Often encompassing large swaths of ocean (and even lakes and ponds), dead zones become oceanic deserts, devoid of the usual aquatic biodiversity.

Though hypoxic zones can occur naturally, many more are caused by agricultural practices across the world—a big problem for wildlife and for people.

Nutrient run-off triggers dead zones

After the 1970s, dead zones became more widespread, almost doubling each decade since the 1960s. A 2008 study found more than 400 dead zones exist worldwide—anywhere excess nutrients travel downstream and into a body of water. (Read about a large dead zone in the Baltic Sea.)

The largest dead zone in the world lies in the Arabian Sea, covering almost the entire 63,700-square mile Gulf of Oman. The second largest sits in the Gulf of Mexico in the United States, averaging almost 6,000 square miles in size.

Dead zones appear annually, May through September, in the Gulf of Mexico, after tons of nutrients from fertilizer use and sewage in the Mississippi watershed wash downstream into the Gulf. Excess nutrients spark an algal explosion, giving rise to a dead zone.

CONTINUE READING ONLINE HERE: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/oceans/dead-zones/


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Exposed to extreme heat, plastic bottles may ultimately become unsafe

25 July 2019 - The hotter it gets, the more the stuff in plastic can move into food or drinking water.

25 July 2019 - Millions of people along the East Coast and in the Midwestern United States are under a heat watch this weekend as a massive heat wave bears down. This scorching July weekend follows what NOAA recently reported was the hottest June on record.

But before you reach for a plastic water bottle to keep hydrated, you might think twice about whether it too has been wilting under a hot sun.

“The hotter it gets, the more the stuff in plastic can move into food or drinking water,” says Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute.

Most plastic items release a tiny amount of chemicals into the beverages or food they contain. As temperature and time increase, the chemical bonds in the plastic increasingly break down and chemicals are more likely to leach. According to the FDA, the amounts of the chemicals are too minuscule to cause health problems, but scientists looking at the long-term effects of filling our lives with plastic say all those small doses could add up in a big way.

A single-use bottle on a hot summer day

Most of the water bottles you find on supermarket shelves are made of a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. It’s recognizable by the recycling number one and accepted by most curbside recycling programs.

A study conducted by scientists at Arizona State University in 2008 looked at how heat sped up the release of antimony in PET bottles. Antimony is used to manufacture the plastic and can be toxic in high doses, the NIH reports. In mild, 70-degree weather, the researchers measured safe levels of the chemicalin the bottled water. But the hotter the day, the less time it took for water to become contaminated.

A hot car can reach temperatures over 150 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. In experiments, it took 38 days for water bottles heated to that temperature in a lab to show levels of antimony that exceeded safety recommendations.

“As a general rule, yes, heat helps break down chemical bonds in plastics like plastic bottles, and those chemicals can migrate into beverages they contain,” emails Julia Taylor, a scientist who researched plastic at the University of Missouri.

In 2014 scientists found high traces of antimony and a toxic compound called BPA in water sold in Chinese water bottles. In 2016 scientists found high antimony levels in bottled water sold in Mexico. Both studies tested water under conditions that exceeded 150 degrees Fahrenheit, representing worst-case scenarios.

According to industry group the International Bottled Water Association, bottled water should be kept in the same conditions that consumers keep other groceries.

“Bottled water has an important role in emergency situations. If you’re at risk of dehydration, it doesn’t matter what container that comes in. But for the average consumer,” says Halden, “there is really no benefit for using all these bottles.”

What about reusable containers?

Water bottles that can be used repeatedly are most often made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or polycarbonate. HDPE is largely accepted by recycling programs (recycling code number two), but polycarbonate is more difficult to recycle (recycling code number seven).

To make those bottles hard and shiny, manufacturers often use bisphenol-A or BPA, a compound that has come under fire for its toxicity. BPA is an endocrine disrupter, which means it can disrupt normal hormone function and lead to a slew of dangerous health issues. Studies have linked the compound to breast cancer.

The FDA bans BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, but has found no evidence to support additional restrictions.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/07/exposed-to-extreme-heat-plastic-bottles-may-become-unsafe-over-time/?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=crm-email::src=ngp::cmp=editorial::add=Science_20190724::rid=00000000021890014955

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These corals choose to eat plastic over food

9 Jul 2019 - Tiny plastic particles may also be a vehicle for microbes that sicken or even kill corals, a new study finds.

9 Jul 2019 - Tiny plastic particles may also be a vehicle for microbes that sicken or even kill corals, a new study finds.

SCIENTISTS HAVE FOR the first time shown that some wild corals are feeding on tiny shreds of plastic trash. Worse, the animals seem to prefer those ‘microplastics’ over their natural food—even when the plastic is carrying bacteria that can kill them.

The new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, focused on a temperate species of coral collected off Rhode Island, one that builds small clusters no larger than a human fist. But researchers say the findings suggest that more familiar tropical, reef-building corals may also be consuming—and being harmed by—microplastics, which are defined as bits of plastic waste smaller than a fifth of an inch across.

The new results add to the growing sense that microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment, from tall mountain peaks to the deepest ocean trenches. Many organisms, from fish to birds, have been found to eat small bits of plastic. So do humans, through tainted water and food sources.


CONTINUE READING ONLINE HERE: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/these-corals-choose-to-eat-plastic-over-food/

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How plastics are impacting our oceans - National Geographic

17 Jun 2019 - Plastic waste is impacting our oceans and our land on a massive scale. The urgency of the moment calls for all players to contribute to the effort.

17 Jun 2019 - Plastic waste is impacting our oceans and our land on a massive scale. The urgency of the moment calls for all the players on the field — individuals, governments and businesses — to make contributions to the effort. Anyone and everyone can play a role in trying to ensure a brighter future for our planet and for the amazing life that it sustains.

By Jean Case, Chairman of the board of trustees, National Geographic Society’s

“Can you see it?” the young scientist asked as I struggled to focus on the image through the microscope. I was visiting an important laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, where a team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are tackling a truly daunting and vexing problem: marine plastics and debris. The object of my attempted focus was a larval fish, part of a larger collection of young fish ranging from larval stage to 10 days old, that, while so small you need a microscope to see them, are particularly important to our oceans as we know them. My inability to focus in that moment had nothing to do with the technical settings of the microscope, but rather with the tears welling up in my eyes.

I had come to the lab to meet the team after reading about their work in our May 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine. The focus of the article is microplastics and the threat they represent not just to young marine life, but to a broader ecosystem that relies on healthy stocks of young fish. Just as the article conveys, the scientists described their work collecting samples from a thin slick of surface water just off the shore of the Hawaiian Islands. Teeming with sea life and organic particles, nowadays these slicks also contain abundant amounts of tiny plastic that the fish scoop up along with the organic sources of fish food. As National Geographic has chronicled, plastics are routinely found in the stomachs of marine life — from the smallest marine life to even the largest whales, some of which have washed up on shores with scores of plastic bags obstructing their digestive tracts.


CONTINUE READING ONLINE HERE: https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2019/05/21/through-the-lens-of-a-microscope-how-plastics-are-impacting-our-oceans/

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Biodiversity Day: Ocean species are disappearing faster than those on land

22 April 2019 - NatGeo - As temperatures creep higher, marine animals are far more vulnerable to extinctions than their earthbound counterparts, according to a new analysis of more than 400 cold-blooded species.

22 April 2019 - NatGeo - As the world's average temperatures creep higher, marine animals are far more vulnerable to extinctions than their earthbound counterparts, according to a new analysis of more than 400 cold-blooded species.

With fewer ways to seek refuge from warming, ocean-dwelling species are disappearing from their habitats at twice the rate of those on land, notes the research published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The study, led by researchers from New Jersey's Rutgers University, is the first to compare the impacts of higher temperatures in the ocean and on land for a range of cold-blooded wildlife, from fish and mollusks to lizards and dragonflies.


CONTINUE READING ONLINE HERE: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/ocean-species-disappear-faster-climate-change-impacts-cold-blooded-animals-harder/

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This island is going trash free—by recycling all of its waste

22 Apr 2019 - The Danish island of Bornholm has an aging incinerator that will soon need replacement. Instead, the local government is adopting a totally new system.

22 Apr 2019 - The Danish island of Bornholm has an aging incinerator that will soon need replacement. Instead, the local government is adopting a totally new system.

IMAGINE A WHOLE community reusing or recycling every last scrap of waste. That may sound utopian, but perhaps not on the Danish island of Bornholm.

By 2032 all waste on Bornholm will be treated as resources, say officials. Garbage sorting, recycling, minimizing waste, and a lot of new technology are the tools envisioned to turn Bornholm into one of the first garbage-free communities on the planet.

Bornholm, the easternmost island of Denmark, is a 227 square-mile (588 square-kilometer) granite rock jutting out of the Baltic Sea. Known for its quaint fishing villages and sunny climate, it is a popular vacation destination with a permanent population of 40,000 and another 600,000 annual visitors.

“By 2032 we aim to reuse or recycle everything,” says Jens Hjul-Nielsen, CEO of BOFA, the island’s waste management company and key architect behind the garbage-free vision. “How we get to that point is an exciting process, because there is so much we don’t yet know. We have a vision, but no clear-cut plan on how to get there.”

As the island’s only waste-incineration facility is wearing out, the bold decision was made last December to close it down in 2032 and make the transition towards a garbage-free society.

“Operating a waste management company on such a small scale as we do here has its challenges, so instead of investing in a new incineration facility, we decided to simply eliminate landfill and incineration as waste management options. We wanted to try something different and utilize that we are a society in miniature, complete with businesses, private households and tourism, where we can experiment and gain knowledge that later may be scaled up to a national or even a global level,” explains Hjul-Nielsen.

The vision

In BOFA’s vision of the future, the citizens of Bornholm will sort all their waste into different fractions, easy to collect and use in new resource loops. Metal, plastics, glass, paper, and cardboard are widely recycled, and new waste fractions such as fishing nets and insulation materials will be added to the sorting and recycling system. Meanwhile, organic waste will be converted into energy together with green garden and park waste, while the nutrient-rich residue from the energy extraction is used as fertilizer in fields, parks and gardens, writes BOFA.

In this circular economy, the inhabitants will reuse everything from furniture to children’s clothing and make use of sharing economy services—for instance lending, renting, or bartering goods through the internet or peer communities.

In elementary schools children will be educated as “resource heroes” with practical lessons in waste, resources, the environment, and nature. And a university research center on models of green transition and the circular economy will be established on Bornholm.

The “Green Island”

It was a unanimous municipal council that decided to close the incineration facility and embrace this bold vision back in December.

But a green mind-set is not new to the local government. The municipality already adopted a “Bright Green Island” strategy to position itself as a leader in sustainable development, aiming to be CO2-neutral by 2025, convert to green energy sources, and expand the island’s organic farm land.

CONTINUE READING ONLINE: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/bornholm-island-denmark-goes-trash-free-by-recycling/

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The beauty industry generates a lot of plastic waste. Can it change?

19 Apr 2019 - Shampoo, lotion, deodorant: They all come swathed in plastic. But some companies are trying to change that.

19 Apr 2019 - Shampoo, lotion, deodorant: They all come swathed in plastic. But some companies are trying to change that.

FOR TARA PELLETIER, it came down to deodorant.

Her company, Meow Meow Tweet, had developed a formula for deodorant that she loved. It worked, it smelled great, and it was ready to make its way out into the armpits of her eager customers. The hold-up? The packaging.

Most deodorants on the market come in hard plastic cases with many tiny components, each of which is made of a different type of plastic, and most of which are not readily recyclable, even if a customer were dedicated enough to dismantle the whole thing.

Why, she thought, should a deodorant that she’d use for a few weeks or months come in a plastic case that would be around for longer than she’d be alive?

So she searched and searched for an alternative. Glass jars with metal lids worked fairly well, but some people objected to scooping the paste out with their fingers. Bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics had their own sets of environmental drawbacks. It seemed like all the packaging options she could find were some variant on bad.

Eventually, after months of searching, she found a company that made sturdy paper tubes that cradled the product neatly. Finally, a solution, she thought.

She and her coworkers have to hand-fill each tube, and their profit margins are thin because the cardboard tubes cost 60 times as much as mass-produced plastic options. And the tubes aren’t quite as convenient to use as the plastic cases familiar to most consumers. But it’s worth it, she says, not just because it makes ethical sense but to help demonstrate to others across the industry that there are alternatives—workable, functional, creative alternatives—to the plastic that has infiltrated every aspect of modern commerce.

The booming $500 billion per year global personal care industry relies on plastic. That shampoo? Housed in a plastic bottle—often fully or partly unrecyclable. That body wash? Same. But for some producers, the pervasive, often excessive plastic packaging is too much. To pare down their plastic footprint, they’re trying to reconsider the nature of the products, packaging, and supply chain itself.

How did we end up with so much plastic?

In the not-too-distant past, personal care items did not involve plastic packaging. Soaps came in bar form. Perfumes, a symbol of luxury, were packaged in elaborate glass containers. Hair-care products were powders or pomades packaged in tins or jars.

After World War I, the United States emerged as the most prolific producer and consumer of personal care and beauty products, while the European market was recovering.

During the war, the military had imposed strict hygiene codes as a way to prevent disease from spreading amongst the troops, and when those soldiers returned home, they brought with them ingrained habits of washing, shaving, and tooth-brushing. By the mid-1920s, a whole industry of “personal care” popped up; in 1926, the Lever company (which would later become Unilever, a major multinational personal care product company) kicked off an ad campaign outlining the damage “body odor” could do to one’s career and social prospects.

Simultaneously, the market for face creams, cosmetics, and other personal care products marketed to women exploded, in tandem with the rise of Hollywood movies and the invention of American glamour and beauty standards. During World War II, the U.S. government went so far as to declare lipstick a “wartime necessity,” a critical component of cultural life and morale-building.

CONTINUE READING ONLINE: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/beauty-personal-care-industry-plastic/