Ocean Action Hub

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Can you solve the plastics problem? New prize invites ideas

11 Feb 2019 - Plastic is choking the ocean. A new innovation challenge looks for ideas on how to solve the pollution problem from anyone, anywhere.

11 Feb 2019 - Plastic is choking the ocean. A new innovation challenge looks for ideas on how to solve the pollution problem from anyone, anywhere.

Plastic is everywhere. It pools in the farthest reaches of the ocean and collects on the slopes of the highest mountains; researchers have found it in whales’ bellies and in the groundwater reserves we tap for drinking. Every day, about one megaton more is produced, enough to make almost 22 trillion water bottles—and more than 90 percent of that will never see the inside of a recycling plant.

So what should we do about it? How can we keep that plastic from drowning the planet?

Solutions to a problem as “big and knotty” as this one are going to require all hands on deck, says Valerie Craig, a deputy to the vice president at the National Geographic Society. Good ideas could come from anyone, anywhere. So to tap the entire world’s creativity and expertise, the National Geographic Society and Sky Ocean Ventures have put together the Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge to source ideas from around the world about how to address plastic waste.

“We hope we can inspire people of diverse backgrounds to utilize their own resources, to try to really solve the problems they see and reach their own goals,” says Fred Michel, the head of Sky Ocean Ventures, an impact investment arm of the London-based Sky media company. “And maybe—we hope—they’ll come up with something amazing, something transformational.”

The challenge, announced Monday, is split into three tracks, each designed to address a different part of the plastics pollution problem. Each track is eligible for prizes totaling up to $500,000 as well as the opportunity for further investments and business mentoring from Sky Ocean Ventures.

Innovators can submit their ideas until June 11. 

CONTINUE READING ONLINE HERE: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/02/plastic-innovation-challenge-prize-clean-ocean/

PHOTO: RANDY OLSON, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION

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2018 was the ocean's hottest year. We'll feel it a long time.

17 Jan 2019 - The ocean soaks up 93 percent of the heat of climate change. But that heat has a big and long-lasting impact.

17 Jan 2019 - Earth’s oceans are warmer now than at any point since humans started systematically tracking their temperatures, according to research published on January 16 in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. The oceans have sopped up more than 90 percent of the heat trapped by human-emitted greenhouse gases, slowing the warming of the atmosphere—but causing many other unwelcome changes to the planet’s climate.

Even a slightly warmer ocean can have dramatic impacts. Other new research shows that warmer oceans make waves stronger. Warmer waters fuel stronger storms, increasing the damage that hurricanes and tropical storms inflict. The added warmth hurts coral habitats and stresses fisheries. Around Antarctica, yet another new study suggests, ice is melting about six times faster than it was in the 1980s—an increase due in part to the warmer waters lapping at the continent’s edge.

“The oceans are the best thermometer we have for the planet,” says Zeke Hausfather, an energy and climate scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who used the ocean heat data published today in an analysis published last week in Science. “We can really see global warming loud and clear in the ocean record.”

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/oceans-warming-fa...

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As glaciers disappear, humans lose a lot more than ice

26 Dec 2018 - A warming world is profoundly changing human culture and history—and it may just be the beginning.

26 Dec 2018 - For a couple of years I was living on the south coast of Iceland, and one day, a man knocked on the door of my home.

He asked if I wanted to see something. No adjectives. Just, did I want to see something?

I almost didn’t hear his knock. My house was on the extreme southeastern coast of the island—literally twenty feet from the sea—and strong winds were bashing the concrete walls and making the tin roof shriek with each gust.

I considered. It was cold, the wintery light was growing dim, I was a foreigner in the area, and if I went missing, no one would go looking for me for days. But then again, it was Iceland, one of the safest places in the world. And my curiosity was piqued.

I agreed and grabbed my nine-hundred-fill down jacket, gloves, and a hat. I ran outside and stepped high up into his Icelandic super jeep—the type that requires a little ladder to climb into the cab—and we drove slowly through the orderly, windblown streets of the village of Höfn.

Höfn [pronounced Hhh-Uphn], my home for several months by that point, is a small, low-lying village of about seventeen hundred people built on a jagged spur of land jutting south off the island’s coast like a hitchhiker’s thumb. Höfn is the primary village within the Municipality of Hornafjörður, a 127-mile-long region encompassing a swath of Iceland’s southeastern coast.

Matching glacial lagoons fan out east and west on either side of Höfn, resembling murky butterfly wings from the air. Directly south, the storm-laden North Atlantic Ocean edges the town, and to the north, glaciers pour down out of the encircling coastal mountains. Höfn—and all of Hornafjörður—is Iceland’s glacier central.

And those glaciers are rapidly disappearing—not just in Iceland, but all around the world. That’s why as a geographer and glaciologist I was living in such a remote place. But what I was learning was about much more than rising temperatures and receding ice. As glaciers retreat they are altering the human story in profound ways, and I was about to get a front-row seat.

Frigid vigil

A lone road led north out of Höfn and connected to Hringvegurinn, the Ring Road, the single highway encircling the entire island. We drove for an hour west on the Hringvegurinn, then turned off the road and parked at a random moss-covered pull-off.

We both hopped out, pulled on packs and extra layers, and headed away from the road across loose rocks and thick vegetation. My host didn’t say much, and wind wrapped us into quietly murmuring cocoons. Just a few clouds dotted the sky, and the light angled low, matte-gray, matching the surrounding rocky landscape and rising mountains ahead. Winter sunlight in Iceland tends to be low and weak but highly valued.

We gradually gained elevation over the pitted terrain as we moved away from the coast, rough loose debris bulldozed into place by decades of glaciers seesawing along the low aprons of the mountains that were once the island’s coastal sea cliffs. At the top of one ridge, abruptly, the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull rose up right in front of us.

The man beside me sighed audibly in appreciation. Breiðamerkurjökull’s face—the terminus—was miles across, white but not pure white, gray and black and blue collectively impersonating white. The body of the glacier itself was lashed with thick, uneven dark moraines, ridges running tip to toe like icy tiger stripes. In the low light, the parent ice cap feeding all thirty miles of Breiðamerkurjökull, Vatanjökull, dissolved in the distance into the sky. For a moment, I was disorientated. It felt like the ice just kept sweeping vertically up into the horizon.

That’s one of the hardest things about interacting with glaciers. They are often so large that atmospheric perspective—the effect where objects appear to merge into their backgrounds over large distances—distorts our abilities to accurately assess distances, scales, change. Breiðamerkurjökull is the third-largest glacier in Iceland, with a perimeter stretching over nine miles from east to west. But it is difficult to assess the entirety of a glacier nine miles by thirty, so instead, you’re left with a feeling that the glacier just dominates.

The man and I kept a steady pace hiking towards the ice, up rocky scree slopes, and down, and back up, covering terrain in constant flux. Eventually we reached the land-ice edge and stopped briefly to put on helmets, harnesses, and crampons—spiked metal devices that strap over boots and provide traction on ice.

Moving from land to ice is tricky, as often that is where the glacier is most fragmented, brittle, and quick to break and roll in on itself, but we transitioned with little fanfare and slowly worked our way up. We wove around deep crevasses, sharp drop- offs, rock piles of debris, and stacks of wind-blown snow that had frozen into oddly-shaped pale hills. The surface of a glacier is rarely smooth; often a glacier hide is populated with shallow cuts and dips and depressions and tubes and tunnels that plummet the entire depth of the ice.

I knew we had arrived at the destination my host had in mind when he paused at the rim of a wide, shallow bowled area on the surface of the glacier. Once we reached the bottom of the depression, large seracs—towers of ice that tend to stick up like shark’s fins from the surface of the glacier—rose up on the far edge of the bowled area, and jagged pillars teetered to the west and cast deep shadows over us. Chilled, I pulled on more layers from my pack. Glacier work is all about layers.

The man removed two foam mats from his pack, handed one to me, and gestured for me to sit down. He passed me a thermos of thick coffee and a plastic adventure cup, and then he started to speak. He told me we were going to sit right there at the bottom of the ice bowl on top of the third largest glacier in Iceland right before night fell and we were going to wait.

And that’s what we did. We sipped coffee, listened to the wind blow and the ice pop and crack, and watched the light grow darker and darker. We waited and he told me a little about himself and growing up in the area, and twenty minutes went by, and then another twenty minutes, and then, right when I thought I was going to be too cold to stick it out, it started.

It was dark one minute in the cloudless Icelandic sky, and then the next minute it wasn’t, and the northern lights, the aurora borealis, appeared in the sky above us. First a dull glow, and then, like a light switch flipped on, blazing yellows, purples, greens, swirls of pinks and whites, and—wait—the glacier we were sitting on, Breiðamerkurjökull, it began picking up, internalizing, swallowing, containing the lights in the sky. The northern lights pulsed through the ice at the rim of the bowl, through the thin seracs, transforming them into icy Jedi lightsabers smoldering in kaleidoscopic concentrations. And the bowl of the glacier itself, it was whirling, throwing light like a candle-lit chandelier, like a phosphorescent ocean wave, like a field at midnight populated with hundreds of summertime fireflies.

I was engulfed. I’d never witnessed a glacier aglow with the aurora—I’d never even seen a picture of it—and standing there I felt innate companionship, as I too was as lit up as the sky.

And so we sat there on that glacier in Iceland in the middle of winter and watched. We stayed as long as we could before the clouds rolled in and obscured the sky and the lights. In the last minutes, as the ice and sky grew dim, the man turned to me and said, “This is why glaciers are worth fighting for.”

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/12/glaciers-disappea...

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A running list of action on plastic pollution

25 Oct 2018 - The world is waking up to a crisis of ocean plastic—NatGeo is tracking the developments and solutions as they happen.

25 Oct 2018 - THE WORLD HAS a plastic pollution problem and it’s snowballing—but so is public awareness and action.

Each year, an estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic waste enters the world’s ocean from coastal regions. That’s about equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash piled up on every foot of coastline on the planet. All that plastic is causing harm to the creatures that live in the ocean, from coral reefs smothered in bags, to turtles gagging on straws, to whales and seabirds that starve because their bellies are so jammed with bits of plastic that there’s no room for real food.

New research is emerging apace about the possible long-term impacts of tiny pieces of plastic on the marine food chain—raising fresh questions about how it might ultimately impact human health and food security.

About 40 percent of all plastic produced is used in packaging, and much of that is used only once and then discarded. Less than a fifth of all plastic is recycled, though many countries and businesses are trying innovative solutions to increase that number.

CONTINUE READING ONLINE HERE: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/ocean-plastic-pollution-solutions/?user.testname=none

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Turning Ocean plastic into Roads

Waste in the ocean, especially plastic is eating up the fishes making them vulnerable and close to extinction.

People near have been fishing for a very long time. Their livelihood depends on it. But due to the increasing use of plastic and more horrifying dumping of that plastic into the ocean, our marine life has been endangered. Not only the marine is affected, the nets and other equipments used by fishermen gets destroyed.
This is a story of fishermen in Kerala who designed a way to not only help the fishermen save their tools but also reduce the effect of plastic in the ocean. With help from several government agencies, they’ve set up the first-ever recycling center in the region, to clean, sort and process all the sea-tossed plastic bags, bottles, straws, flip-flops and drowned Barbies that they fish out. So far, they’ve collected about 65 metric tons (71 short tons) of plastic waste.

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To honor an elephant, Indian temples are going plastic-free

9 Oct 2018 - Hindu temples in southern India are taking a stand against single-use plastic. Other faiths are taking notice.

9 Oct 2018 - TRIVANDRUM, INDIA - There’s no scholarly consensus on when, exactly, the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple was built, though there’s evidence that a temple honoring the demon-slaying, lady-charming Hindu deity Krishna has stood on this parcel of land in southwest India since the 8th century.

Hundreds of years on, the temple appears to have absorbed objects and memories from nearly every year of its existence. There are murals from the 18th century and tarnished bronze deepam—oil lamps—that are at least a century old, as well as discolored patio chairs purchased sometime in the early aughts and gold streamers from a festival last winter.

The newest addition: Notices in bold, black lettering, printed on white A4 paper, pasted all around the temple’s inner sanctum. “Inside the temple premises, there is a compulsory ban on mobile phones, cameras, and plastic carry bags,” they say.

Disobey, and you may get stern looks from one of the dozen or so retirees who spend most of their days here, or be approached by a priest or administrator who will politely inform you that Aranmula is one of 1,058 temples in the south Indian state of Kerala that have pledged to eliminate plastic this year.

“We are trying to go back to the ancient days, when there was no threat of plastic,” says A. Padmakumar, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, an administrative body that oversees all 1,058 temples, and resident of Aranmula village. It was his idea to phase out plastic throughout Kerala temples, though he says religious leaders had been advocating for a ban for years.

And the move is in line with national policy: in June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. Individual states across the country—including Kerala—have already started to phase out, if not outright ban, certain forms of of it.

But convincing 1.3 billion Indians to give up the convenience of plastic isn’t going to be easy, Padmakumar says. “Already, just six months into our ban, we’re finding it difficult. Doing good is difficult,” he says.

“But that is why this work has to start in temples—these are our centers of culture.” If anything will convince Indians to give up plastic, he’s betting it’ll be their love for, and fear of, God.

Parabhrama or Plastic?

Actually, there’s something eerily unnatural, and ungodly, about plastic, says Thantri Suryakalady Jayasuryan Bhattathiripad, a pujari, or priest at Mangaladevi temple in northern Kerala. “I’m a farmer, as well. And it is very sad to see very old plastic packaging coming out of the soil when I plough my land,” he says. “Even the emblems, the brand names will still be on there—it’s like an immortal substance.”

With a laugh, he adds: “As far as I know, only Parabhrama—the Supreme Being—is supposed to last forever!”

The trouble is, Hindu rituals can involve lots and lots of stuff: camphor and incense to purify the air; butter, milk, and rosewater to offer at the shrine; oil to replenish the traditional lamps; turmeric and sandalwood powder to smear across the forehead and open one’s third eye. And these days, all of it is packaged in plastic, says Aneesh Mon, who sells supplies to devotees from a small stall just outside Aranmula temple.

In principle, he says, he fully agrees with the temple’s new rules. “But how is it possible when everything comes in plastic covers?”

Since the pledge took effect in January, Mon has made some changes. His convenient “pooja kits,” which include fruit and snacks to offer the gods, are now sold in reusable, biodegradable plates made from dried palm leaves, instead of plastic bags. But the mini bottles of oil and rosewater are still packaged in plastic.“This is how it comes, from the companies,” he shugs. “Though we’re working with suppliers to find some alternatives.”

Over the past few months, he’s had quite a few frustrating conversations—with the company that supplies him with rosewater, asking them if it’s really necessary to wrap their plastic bottles in an additional layer of plastic film, and with the company that makes the incense, pleading with them to consider paper packaging. And then there’s convincing his customers to pay an extra five rupees for the camphor wrapped in paper. “They say that if they come on a regular basis, the five rupees adds up.”

By next year, with help from temple administrators, he’s hoping to start buying oil by the gallon and decanting it into smaller clay or steel containers for devotees, which is a system that some temples in the region have already adopted. Other temples are avoiding packaging altogether by making their own rosewater and sourcing oil from smaller, local producers.

The problem is, the mass-produced, plastic-wrapped stuff is cheap and easy, he says. “Now we can’t even think of a world without plastic.”

Death of an Elephant

The need to imagine, and realize, a world without plastic is growing more and more urgent, says Thirumeni Rajeevararu, the head priest at Sabarimala, a shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Ayyapan in the heart of Kerala’s Periyar Tiger Reserve.

In January, a 20-year-old wild elephant in Periyar died after consuming some of the trash discarded by the tens of millions of Sabarimala pilgrims who trek, each winter, through more than twenty miles of heavily wooded forest to reach the shrine. A necropsy revealed that a large quantity of plastic had blocked up the animal’s intestines, causing internal bleeding and organ failure. Forest rangers also found a fully in-tact plastic bag in dung nearby.

“The death of the elephant in Periyar disturbed me a lot,” says Rajeevararu. “The elephant is an important animal for temples”—it is metaphysically connected to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom.

“But it’s not just elephants. Other animals have died as well after eating plastic,” he says. These include deer and birds, according to local environmental non-profit Thanal.

“God is in nature,” Rajeevararu says. “So I consider it our dharma, our duty, to stop using plastic.”

Giving Up Plastic for God

Religious leaders at Sabarimala have been trying to phase out plastic for the past five years. “We are trying our maximum to implement a full ban,” he says, though it hasn’t been easy.

Tens of millions of pilgrims carry with them bottles of water and all manner of snacks, often packaged in plastic, and they tend to tote it all around in plastic bags. There are designated trash disposal points, and for the past several years, a group of volunteers have posted themselves along the Periyar trail to help collect and manage the pilgrims’ waste. But even a couple of hundred wardens are no match for the millions who trek through the forest.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/10/kerala-india-hind...

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You Can Help Turn the Tide on Plastic. Here’s How.

31 Aug 2018 - Do these six pain-free things, and you’ll help reduce the impact plastic is having on oceans and other waterways around the world.

31 Aug 2018 - In a world that can seem overwhelmed by potentially eternal plastic waste, are biodegradables the ultimate solution? Probably not. But it’s complicated. The industry is still debating what “biodegradable” actually means. And some plastics made of fossil fuels will biodegrade, while some plant-based “bioplastics” won’t.

Biodegradable plastics have been around since the late 1980s. They initially were marketed with the implied promise that they’d somehow disappear once they were disposed of, just as leaves on the forest floor are decomposed by fungi and soil microbes. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Biodegradables don’t live up to their promise, for example, in the dark, oxygen-free environment of a commercial landfill or in the cool waters of the ocean, if they should end up there. You can’t throw them in your backyard compost either. To break down, they require the 130-degree heat of an industrial composter. Many industrial composters accept only plastics that meet certain standards, ensuring they will leave no fragments behind that can harm the environment or human health. And if you throw some biodegradables in with recyclables, you might ruin the latter, creating a mix that can no longer be relied on to make durable new plastic.

In 2015 the United Nations Environment Programme wrote off biodegradables as an unrealistic solution that will neither reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the oceans nor prevent potential chemical or physical harm to marine life. It concluded that the label “biodegradable” may actually encourage littering.

Some engineers are looking for ways around these obstacles. Jenna Jambeck and her colleagues at the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute are using polymers synthesized by microbes to make packaging they hope will compost readily and biodegrade in the ocean. Corn chip bags are their first target.

Polymateria, a British firm, is taking a different approach, developing chemical additives to help biodegrade any plastic—bio based or synthetic—more quickly. The firm aims to be the “Tesla” of biodegradable plastics; CEO Niall Dunne says the goal is a product that will “harmonize plastics with the biosphere.”

It’s a tall order. Even the best biodegradable product won’t magically disappear. A plastic container robust enough to carry a gallon of milk can’t decompose like paper. A flowerpot, one of Polymateria’s experimental products, could take up to two years to dissolve if tossed in a ditch, Dunne concedes. Biodegradables, some critics say, don’t address the fundamental problem: our throwaway culture.

“What is it that we are promoting?” asks Ramani Narayan, a Michigan State University chemical engineering professor. “Throw it away, and eventually it will go away?” The more responsible approach, he says, is a “circular economy” model, in which everything is reused or recycled and “any ‘leakage’ into the environment, whether biodegradable or not, is not acceptable.”

Norway has shown how far the recycling of plastic bottles—a big part of beach trash—can go. It now recovers 97 percent of them. Its trick: deposits as high as 2.5 kroner (32 cents) and machines, found at most supermarkets, that ingest bottles and spit out refunds.

But recycling can go only so far. Part of the solution, many say, must be to use less disposable plastic in the first place. The “zero waste” movement, which dates to the mid-1990s, is gaining favor. Hundreds of communities worldwide are embracing it—including the downtrodden industrial town of Roubaix, France, where the success of a citizens’ campaign shows that zero waste is more than an affectation of wealthy liberals.

On the contrary, the idea seems to have a cross-cutting, almost spiritual appeal. In the U.K., the Church of England asked its flock to give up plastic packaging and disposables for Lent this year. Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called for supermarkets to set up plastic-free aisles, where food is sold in bulk. She’s also considering a tax on single-use plastics such as take-out containers. It’s all part of her government’s campaign to rid the country of plastic waste within 25 years.

China is providing motivation. For nearly three decades it has bought about half the world’s recyclable plastic. But this year it called a halt to most scrap imports. Recyclables are now piling up in the countries that generated them. “That pushes the question upstream,” Jambeck says. “We hope it will push towards more circular management.”

Six Things You Can Do (and Feel No Pain)

1. Give up plastic bags. Take your own reusable ones to the store. A trillion plastic shopping bags are used worldwide every year, and 100 billion in the United States alone—that’s almost one per American per day. The average Dane, in contrast, goes through four single-use bags per year. Denmark passed the first bag tax in 1993.

2. Skip straws. Unless you have medical needs, and even then you could use paper ones. Americans toss 500 million plastic straws every day, or about 1.5 per person.

3. Pass up plastic bottles. Invest in a refillable water bottle. Some come with filters if you’re worried about water quality. A handful of cities, including Bundanoon, Australia, and San Francisco, have banned or partially banned bottled water. But around the world, nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute.

4. Avoid plastic packaging. Buy bar soap instead of liquid. Buy in bulk. Avoid produce sheathed in plastic. And while you’re at it, give up plastic plates and cups. The French are (partially) banning the stuff.

5. Recycle what you can. Even in rich countries, recycling rates are low. Globally, 18 percent of all plastic is recycled. Europe manages 30 percent, China 25—the United States only 9.

6. Don’t litter. The Ocean Conservancy has run beach cleanups for 30 years. Of the top 10 types of trash they find, the only nonplastic item is glass bottles. Worldwide, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic: cigarette butts (the filters), bottles and caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, polystyrene containers. In 2016 the conservancy collected 9,200 tons of trash in 112 countries—around a thousandth of what enters the ocean each year.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-solut...

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We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us?

30 Aug 2018 - There often are tiny bits of plastic in the fish and shellfish we eat. Scientists are racing to figure out what that means for our health.

30 Aug 2018 - In a laboratory at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in Palisades, New York, Debra Lee Magadini positions a slide under a microscope and flicks on an ultraviolet light. Scrutinizing the liquefied digestive tract of a shrimp she bought at a fish market, she makes a tsk-ing sound. After examining every millimeter of the slide, she blurts, “This shrimp is fiber city!” Inside its gut, seven squiggles of plastic, dyed with Nile red stain, fluoresce.

All over the world, researchers like Magadini are staring through microscopes at tiny pieces of plastic—fibers, fragments, or microbeads—that have made their way into marine and freshwater species, both wild caught and farmed. Scientists have found microplastics in 114 aquatic species, and more than half of those end up on our dinner plates. Now they are trying to determine what that means for human health.

So far science lacks evidence that microplastics—pieces smaller than one-fifth of an inch—are affecting fish at the population level. Our food supply doesn’t seem to be under threat—at least as far as we know. But enough research has been done now to show that the fish and shellfish we enjoy are suffering from the omnipresence of this plastic. Every year five million to 14 million tons flow into our oceans from coastal areas. Sunlight, wind, waves, and heat break down that material into smaller bits that look—to plankton, bivalves, fish, and even whales—a lot like food.

Experiments show that microplastics damage aquatic creatures, as well as turtles and birds: They block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behavior, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output. Their stomachs stuffed with plastic, some species starve and die.

In addition to mechanical effects, microplastics have chemical impacts, because free-floating pollutants that wash off the land and into our seas—such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heavy metals—tend to adhere to their surfaces.

Chelsea Rochman, a professor of ecology at the University of Toronto, soaked ground-up polyethylene, which is used to make some types of plastic bags, in San Diego Bay for three months. She then offered this contaminated plastic, along with a laboratory diet, to Japanese medakas, small fish commonly used for research, for two months. The fish that had ingested the treated plastic suffered more liver damage than those that had consumed virgin plastic. (Fish with compromised livers are less able to metabolize drugs, pesticides, and other pollutants.) Another experiment demonstrated that oysters exposed to tiny pieces of polystyrene—the stuff of take-out food containers—produce fewer eggs and less motile sperm.

The list of freshwater and marine organisms that are harmed by plastics stretches to hundreds of species.

It's difficult to parse whether microplastics affect us as individual consumers of seafood, because we’re steeped in this material—from the air we breathe to both the tap and bottled water we drink, the food we eat, and the clothing we wear. Moreover, plastic isn’t one thing. It comes in many forms and contains a wide range of additives—pigments, ultraviolet stabilizers, water repellents, flame retardants, stiffeners such as bisphenol A (BPA), and softeners called phthalates—that can leach into their surroundings.

Some of these chemicals are considered endocrine disruptors—chemicals that interfere with normal hormone function, even contributing to weight gain. Flame retardants may interfere with brain development in fetuses and children; other compounds that cling to plastics can cause cancer or birth defects. A basic tenet of toxicology holds that the dose makes the poison, but many of these chemicals—BPA and its close relatives, for example—appear to impair lab animals at levels some governments consider safe for humans.

Studying the impacts of marine microplastics on human health is challenging because people can’t be asked to eat plastics for experiments, because plastics and their additives act differently depending on physical and chemical contexts, and because their characteristics may change as creatures along the food chain consume, metabolize, or excrete them. We know virtually nothing about how food processing or cooking affects the toxicity of plastics in aquatic organisms or what level of contamination might hurt us.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-healt...

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This Machine Transforms Waste Into Walls

29 Aug 2018 - The portable Trashpresso is turning trash into building supplies.

29 Aug 2018 - Forget Bitcoin. The hottest potential new currency lies in our trash bins, Arthur Huang says, and he’s built a portable recycling plant to prove it. His solar-powered Trashpresso turns plastic waste into small tiles that can be used to build walls and floors.

“These machines are a prototype of what we think the future of recycling should be,” says Huang, a National Geographic emerging explorer. Huang has fully built two Trashpresso machines so far, hauling them by truck on 40-foot platforms to far-flung places like Yushu, a county on the Tibetan Plateau. Film star Jackie Chan features the expedition in his National Geographic television documentary Green Heroes.

No matter where a Trashpresso goes, it finds plenty of plastic to shred and compress: Yushu was no different. “That microcosm of a tiny township has exactly the same problem as big cities,” Huang says. Water bottles and other trash, often brought in by visitors, end up in rivers and eventually the oceans.

Huang imagines a network of hyperlocal trash-processing plants generating new products—and new ideas. His company, Miniwiz, is devoted to building such a circular economy. Since 2005, it has been transforming waste into furniture, accessories, buildings, even a small airplane—and encouraging people to think about packaging as a valuable commodity.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/genius-arthur-huang-...

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Can the Ocean Feed a Growing World?

17 Aug 2018 - Healthy fisheries may be the key to feeding ten billion people-if they're managed correctly.

17 Aug 2018 - If current population trends continue, experts estimate the world will need to double food production by 2050, and those same experts say fish are the answer.

“We're running out of options on land,” says Vera Agostini from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. “There's only so much we can take from the planet, so fisheries and aquaculture will be critical.”

In 2016, fisheries yielded 171 million tons of fish for consumption. By 2030, that number is expected to reach 201 million tons.

To reach that goal, fisheries face a host of environmental issues and economic concerns, and advocates are saying not all fishing might be worth the effort.

What Does the Fishing Industry Look Like?

Earlier this summer, the FAO published a comprehensive overview of the fishing industry called The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. It outlined the history of an industry they expect to play a critical role in meeting food consumption targets.

As a food source, fish can be a key source of protein. Just 150 grams of fish can provide the average adult with over half of their daily protein requirement. In developing countries with growing economies and individual wealth, like China, fish consumption is booming. In 2016, Europe, Japan, and the U.S. were consuming just under half the world's caught fish. By 2015, Asia was consuming two thirds of the world's caught fish.

Both a growing population and an increasingly wealthy one demand foods rich in protein and nutrition. A 2015 study published in the journal Food Security found that fish accounted for 10 percent of the world's food security.

The paper's authors, some former FAO analysts, wrote that they were making the case for fish to be increasingly added to the “overall debate and future policy about food security and nutrition.”

Catching Fish at Sea

Other researchers have been more skeptical about how fish can become a more bountiful food supply, particularly fish that comes from the high seas.

A paper published last week in the journal Science Advances found that fishing done on the high seas (any region 200 miles offshore any land) plays a negligible role in ensuring global food security.

“Most of the fish are sold as an upscale food items,” says ecologist Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer who authored the study. “Small local operations don't fish in the high seas. The fishing on the high seas is conducted by larger industrial fleets.”

That's because, between fuel and labor costs, high seas fishing is expensive. In another paper published by Sala in Science Advances last June, a team of researchers found that as much as 54 percent of high seas fishing would be unprofitable were it not for government subsidies.

To reach the most expansive parts of the globe, fishing vessels generally come from wealthier nations. Eighty-five percent of high seas fishing is done by China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

It's not just the high seas that are dominated by wealthy nations. On August 1, another Science Advances study confirmed that, even beyond the high seas, those five countries dominate industrial fishing as a whole.

Critics of industrial fishing, like Sala, argue that the FAO should focus on small-scale fisheries, not industrial ones, when strategizing how to feed the world.

A Rising Interest in Aquaculture

Unlike wild fish, farm-raised fish are grown in fresh water or salt water pens.

In 2014, the World Bank published a report stating that, by 2030, 62 percent of the world's seafood will be farm-raised.

In their 2016 report, the FAO found that aquaculture already accounted for 47 percent of the seafood we consume.

Nature study published in August of last year ambitiously outlined how aquaculture could potentially be scaled up to meet the world's demand for seafood without depleting ocean stocks.

In certain parts of the ocean, the study identified regions as deep as 650 feet that could be used to grow certain kinds of fish. By leveraging the available space they estimated, the study's authors concluded that 15 billion metric tones of fish could be farmed every year.

Will It Take a Toll on the Environment?

A greater emphasis on fishing worries some environmental activists.

At sea, increasing the number of wild-caught fish has led to overfishing, or entirely depleted fisheries. Strict regulations on where fishers can fish and what they can catch has been effective, says NOAA. In 2017, the organization published a report finding that overfished stocks in U.S. waters remained low. It's a significant improvement, they say, from nearly 20 years ago when several commonly eaten species were almost fished to extinction.

Fishing nets can also harm the environment. Some accidentally ensnare animals like marine mammals. Trawls can tear up habitats like coral. And old fishing nets are one of the top sources of ocean pollution.

The U.N. also intends to increase the amount of protected areas in the ocean. While some MPAs allow fishing, others are completely restricted and have previously left industry and activists competing for the same space. Both Sala and Agostini say they hope MPAs can be used as a tool to improve the health of adjacent stocks, making them more lucrative.

Farming fish, instead of catching them wild, isn’t always the silver bullet it sometimes seems.

Some fish species cope with small, contained spaces better than others, and those that don't are prone to developing and spreading diseases.

In offshore aquaculture farms, faulty cages or storms could allow diseased fish to escape, infecting wild populations nearby. Sites that are inland are also at risk from disease spread.

At the FAO, Agostini says the organization is optimistically planning to create more sustainable ocean practices while drastically increasing fish as a food source over the next 18 years.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/08/news-fisheries-aq...