Environment

Humans Have Produced Whopping 9 Billion Tons of Plastic

A new study, which is the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever made, finds that since large-scale manufacturing of plastics took off in the 1950s and until 2015, humans have produced approximately 9 billion tons (8.3 billion metric tons) of plastic.

To put that in perspective, all that plastic would be equivalent to 85,567 aircraft “supercarriers” like the USS Gerald R. Ford, which weighs 107,000 tons (97,000 metric tons).

Of those 9 billion tons, half was made in the last 13 years, said Roland Geyer, an associate professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the new study, which was published online today (July 19) in the journal Science Advances.

As of 2015, about 7 billion tons (6.3 billion metric tons) of plastic have been disposed of as waste, with only 9 percent of it recycled, 12 percent incinerated, and a whopping 79 percent finding its way into landfills, the researchers report.

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Environment

Plastic-eating caterpillar

A caterpillar that munches on plastic bags could hold the key to tackling plastic pollution, scientists say.

Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered that the larvae of the moth, which eats wax in bee hives, can also degrade plastic. Experiments show the insect can break down the chemical bonds of plastic in a similar way to digesting beeswax.

Each year, about 80 million tonnes of the plastic polyethylene are produced around the world. The plastic is used to make shopping bags and food packaging, among other things, but it can take hundreds of years to decompose completely.

However, caterpillars of the moth (Galleria mellonella) can make holes in a plastic bag in under an hour.

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Environment

The Arctic Ocean May Soon Have Its Very Own ‘Garbage Patch’

In findings published this week, a 2013 Arctic Ocean expedition found plastic “was abundant and widespread” in the waters east of Greenland in the Barents Sea, off the coasts of northern Russia and Scandinavia.

A multinational expedition that skimmed the Arctic Ocean in 2013 found plastic “was abundant and widespread” in waters east of Greenland in the Barents Sea, off northern Russia and Scandinavia. In some parts of those waters, they found hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic per square kilometer of surface, the researchers reported this week.

“The growing level of human activity in an increasingly warm and ice-free Arctic, with wider open areas available for the spread of microplastics, suggests that high loads of marine plastic pollution may become prevalent in the Arctic in the future,” the researchers warned.

Nearly all the plastic was concentrated in the stretch between Greenland and the Russian islands of Novaya Zemla. Those waters “constitute a dead end” for the currents that flow northward from the Atlantic, bringing with them trash from the coasts of Europe and North America, the study found.

“The total load of floating plastic for the ice-free waters of the Arctic Ocean was estimated to range from around 100 to 1,200 tons, with 400 tons composed of an estimated 300 billion plastic items as a midrange estimate,” the scientists wrote.

Wildlife

Seabirds’ Plastic-Eating Habits Remain Puzzling

Imagine that you are constantly eating, but slowly starving to death. Hundreds of species of marine mammals, fish, birds, and sea turtles face this risk every day when they mistake plastic debris for food.

Plastic debris can be found in oceans around the world. Scientists have estimated that there are over five trillion pieces of plastic weighing more than a quarter of a million tons floating at sea globally. Most of this plastic debris comes from sources on land and ends up in oceans and bays due largely to poor waste management.

Plastic does not biodegrade, but at sea large pieces of plastic break down into increasingly smaller fragments that are easy for animals to consume. Nothing good comes to animals that mistake plastic for a meal. They may suffer from malnutrition, intestinal blockage, or slow poisoning from chemicals in or attached to the plastic.

Despite the pervasiveness and severity of this problem, scientists still do not fully understand why so many marine animals make this mistake in the first place. It has been commonly assumed, but rarely tested, that seabirds eat plastic debris because it looks like the birds’ natural prey. However, in a study that my coauthors and I just published in Science Advances, we propose a new explanation: For many imperiled species, marine plastic debris also produces an odour that the birds associate with food.

A new study, just out in the journal Science Advances, may shed some light on the mystery . The study finds that plastic in the ocean gives off a specific chemical compound with a distinctive smell, signalling to some seabirds that it’s dinnertime.

Environment

Researchers find plastic-eating bacteria in recycling plant

Plastic is everywhere around us. We drink out of plastic cups, buy disposable water bottles, unwrap new electronics from plastic packaging, take home plastic shopping bags, and even wear plastic in polyester fabrics.

Some 311 million tons of plastic is produced across the globe annually, and just 10 percent makes it back to a recycling plant. The rest ends up in landfills, or as litter on land or in the ocean, where it remains for decades and longer.

As for the plastic that has been recycled, it has given rise to an unintended side effect: A team of scientists searching through sediments at a plastic bottle recycling plant in Osaka, Japan have found a strain of bacteria that has evolved to consume the most common type of plastic.

Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 can degrade poly (ethylene terephthalate), commonly called PET or PETE, in as little as six weeks, they report in a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science. Common uses of PET include polyester fibers, disposable bottles, and food containers.

However, more research needs to be done to find practical applications for the bacteria which, although is can degrade the plastic, is also able to subsist independently, having many options in nature for food.

Environment

Plastic Pollution Now Blankets the Seas

Almost all of the world’s ocean surfaces are littered with plastic, mainly household items like bags, food and beverage containers, kitchen utensils and toys, a new study finds.

Researchers from Spain’s University of Cádiz found that the five largest accumulations of plastic waste in the open ocean are in the five major gyres, or twists in ocean circulation. But the researchers say they found far less of the manmade litter floating on the ocean’s surface than expected.

“Ocean currents carry plastic objects which split into smaller and smaller fragments due to solar radiation,” said researcher Andrés Cózar. “Those little pieces of plastic, known as microplastics, can last hundreds of years and were detected in 88 percent of the ocean surface sampled during the Malaspina Expedition 2010.”

He warns that the microplastics “have an influence on the behaviour and food chain of marine organisms.”

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimates that the oceans contain between 7,000 and 35,000 tons of floating plastic, but scientists had expected to find evidence of 100 times that amount.

Cózar says that the missing plastic may have accumulated in the deep ocean or become attached to marine plants and animals in a process dubbed “biofouling,” which makes the plastic so heavy it can no longer float.

“We are putting, certainly by any estimate, a large amount of a synthetic material into a natural environment,” said oceanographer Kara Lavender Law, who studies plastic pollution at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She told The Associated Press that we’re “fundamentally changing the composition of the ocean.”

Plastic waste in oceans is causing $13 billion of damage each year, according to a United Nations Environment Program report. Some say that figure is much higher.

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Environment

Tiny Plastic Bits Polluting Great Lakes

Tiny bits of plastic are polluting the world’s waterways, including North America’s Great Lakes.

Scientists are skimming the waters of the North American Great Lakes this summer to see how pervasive a pollutant known as “microplastic” has become.

The waterway’s ecosystems have already suffered other manmade ravages, such as invasive mussels brought in by shipping, industrial pollution and agricultural runoff that has triggered blooms of toxic algae.

But now scientists are finding increasing amounts of tiny plastic particles in the water and lake beds that are, in part, what is left when plastic bottles and other items break down over time.

But many of the particles are abrasive “microbeads” used in personal care products like body washes and toothpaste.

Manufacturers such as Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have announced plans to phase out the production of the pollutants, which are too small to be filtered out by municipal wastewater systems.

It’s not yet clear how long the microplastic pollution has been in the lakes or if fish are eating it.

Initial studies indicate Lake Erie is the most affected, since it receives outflow from lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron to the north.

But Lorena Rios Mendoza, a chemist with the University of Wisconsin, says that “Lake Ontario is as contaminated (with the particles) as Lake Erie, if not more so.”

New studies hope to find out if the particles are soaking up toxins in the water, possibly contaminating fish that eat them.

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Wildlife

Orca Spotted with Plastic Bag in Mouth

Researchers snapped a picture of a baby killer whale in the Pacific Northwest holding a plastic bag in its mouth, just the latest example of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Last month, scientists from the Centre for Whale Research monitoring orcas in the Salish Sea say they spotted a calf playing with what at first looked like a small scrap of blubber. When the baby whale dropped the item from its mouth, they realized it was actually a plastic bag.

Rogue plastic trash can be a problem when it gets into the mouths of the ocean’s animals like whales, turtles and seals, but it can even harm creatures deep beneath the surface. One group of researchers recently published a database of trash on the seafloor from California to Canada and offshore of Hawaii. They found that most garbage in their catalogue was plastic, and of those items, more than half were plastic bags, some choking corals nearly 7,000 feet (2,115 meters) below.

Baby orca