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Microplastics have been found in snow close to the peak of Mount Everest. Humanity has now polluted every corner of the world, from the highest mountain to the deepest point on Earth

The study, published in the journal One Earth, found microplastics within a few hundred metres of the top of Mount Everest, at a spot known as the balcony. From snow samples collected from 11 locations on the mountain-ranging from 5 300 metres to 8 440 metres high, microplastics were found in all of them. The highest concentration of microplastics were found around Base Camp. The fibres likely came from clothing, tents and ropes used by mountaineers. 

What is Happening?

Imogen Napper from the University of Plymouth, who led the new research, says, “It really surprised me to find microplastics in every single snow sample I analysed. Mount Everest is somewhere I have always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener.”

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While reducing, reusing and recycling large items of plastic waste is important to reduce the amount of waste breaking down into microplastics, microplastics can also be shed from clothing made from synthetic fabrics. We need to focus on creating clothing with better fabrics, as well as using natural fibres such as cotton when possible. 

If you are drinking coffee while reading this story, you’re likely ingesting a few micrograms of plastic. The same is true if you’re drinking tea. Or if you’re eating cereal, chicken soup, or anything made with water. Regardless where that water came from, chances are it brought some microscopic plastic particles with it that you are now eating. You may not see them floating around your coffee cup, but when these microscopic particles are heaped up, the piles look shockingly plentiful.

A recent Reuters infographic titled “A plateful of plastic” serves as a stark reminder of how much plastic we are actually eating. According to that story, we ingest about five grams of plastic every week—a spoonful that weighs about as much as a bottle cap. Every month we swallow an equivalent of five casino dice—or about half a rice bowl. At the end of the year it totals half a pound—or a heaping dinner plate. And after 10 years, we each consume over five pounds of plastic—the equivalent of a standard life buoy. How much over the course of our lifetime? About 44 pounds total.

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To date, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic—or 25,000 times the weight of the Empire State Building. About 8 million tons of it washes into the oceans every year, where it doesn’t biodegrade—because its large polymer molecules were designed to last forever, and they do. Instead, bigger plastic objects break down into smaller, microscopic fragments, littering marine ecosystems from deep ocean sediments to polar icecaps. And as they float down the rivers and into the ocean these miniature fragments come back to us with the water we consume.

Although this plastic isn’t immediately poisonous, it has been shown to have detrimental affects on living organisms. Plastic molecules are endocrine disruptors—they mimic certain hormones present in humans and animals, interfering with reproductive systems. One study showed that when marine oysters lived in waters polluted with microscopic plastic for two months during their critical reproductive cycle, they produced fewer eggs and had slow swimming sperm. The larvae of these plastic-affected oysters also grew slower than normal. When exposed to environmentally relevant levels of plastic in its food, fish named Japanese medaka experienced liver stress and signs of endocrine disruption. Even for smaller marine organisms, reduced reproductive or growing success is a recurring theme after chronic exposure to microplastics. Planktonic copepods exposed to plastic-laden water, wold be eating less—and reproducing less. Lugworms raised in plastic-containing sediment, ate less and had only half of the normal energy reserves stored in their bodies. Even microbes aren’t spared. Marine bacteria Prochlorococcus, which produces ten percent of the oxygen we breathe, grows slower than normal because plastic pollution changes its gene expression. Humans also experience the deleterious effects of microplastics—numerous studies have linked bisphenol A (BPA)-containing plastic to health issues. But even BPA-free plastics can mimic human hormones, and may be just as harmful.

With tons of plastic debris floating in the ocean, our water supply is already tainted. Is there anything we can do to clean up our tap water? Several companies claim that their tested filter technologies can sieve out microplastic from the water we drink. For example, LifeStraw filter comes in a variety of forms, including a pitcher and TAPP attaches to water faucets. Ironically, both systems use at least some plastic components—it seems unavoidable.

In the short-term such filters can diminish the amount of plastic in our diets. But the only way to truly reduce plastic pollution worldwide is to eliminate single-use plastic, develop better recycling solutions, and make biodegradable alternatives.

This article was originally published on JSTOR Daily, written by Lina Zeldovich, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

In recent years, microplastics have been appearing in news headlines with the same creeping ubiquity with which they permeate our everyday lives and the natural world. Microplastics are defined as fragments of plastic smaller than 5mm and larger than 1 micron (1/1000th of a millimetre) in length, and their impact as one of the most common and pervasive pollutants on Earth is only just beginning to be subject to rigorous investigation. 

Common examples of microplastics include materials such as glitter, microbeads and fragments from larger pieces of plastic debris, as well as from items of clothing. Over a matter of decades, these substances have become widespread in bodies of water, the digestive systems of wildlife, in the food we eat and in the air we breathe. The ingestion of microplastics by marine wildlife means that the substances have ‘the potential to bioaccumulate and threaten ecosystem health’, and can introduce harmful organic substances into the food chain. 

An investigation conducted by researchers from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Universities of Oxford and Leeds and Common Seas, discovered that the estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans in 2016 could increase nearly threefold to 29 million tonnes every year by 2040. A crucial factor in the projected increase, the researchers state, is the prospected doubling of the volume of plastic on the market by 2040 if governments and businesses do not take preventative action. Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Manchester found that urban ‘hotspots’ in the north-west of England contained the highest concentrations of microplastics in their study, including a section of the River Tame in Denton which contained over 500 000 plastic particles per square metre.

The risks posed to organisms found in rivers are further illustrated in a study by Royal Holloway, University of London, which focused on the River Thames. According to the study, some 94 000 fragments of microplastics flow down certain sections of the river every second, a level which exceeds that of rivers such as the Danube and the Rhine in Europe. The bodies of crabs inhabiting the Thames were found to contain microplastic fragments, and 75% of the river’s European flounder population showed evidence of microplastic ingestion. Researchers also reported evidence of microplastics in 80% of London’s tap water. 

The fact that these substances do not decompose means that the uncontrollable accumulation of microplastics on the planet is already a reality. Plastic production is expected to increase from today’s 300 million metric tonnes to 33 billion metric tonnes per year by 2050. Despite the gloomy outlook, however, there are several steps humankind can take to tackle the problem. The most significant of these is the need to dramatically reduce the use of single-use plastic items and increase recycling. In Europe, however, only 30% of plastic is recycled, and only 9% in the USA is recycled. The figure for Southeast Asia is also 9%. China has stopped importing plastic waste intended for landfill in the USA; therefore the USA needs to develop recycling capacities, in order to deal with the increased volume of plastic waste that would previously have been imported to China. A 2020 Greenpeace report found that just 14% of the nation’s recycling facilities can process containers commonly used in takeout food, fruit and baked goods. Just 11% can recycle plastic cups; 4% plastic bags and 1% can process plastic plates, cutlery and straws. 

A long-term solution would be to develop new methods to break plastic down and more eco-friendly materials, such as biodegradable plastics. While some plastics are labelled as biodegradable, they can only be broken down by extremely high temperatures. One problem, however, is that the substances needed to create fully biodegradable plastics – polymers that can degrade into carbon, oxygen and other elements in water or soil – would not be useful as food packaging, for example. While this kind of biodegradable plastic could potentially be used for quick-use products such as plastic cutlery or food wrappers, it could not be used to replace all substances which cause microplastic particles to break off. 

There has been evidence to show that certain aquatic organisms can break down microplastics that enter their systems. However, certain polymers, such as the polyethylene used in plastic shopping bags or polystyrene, are more difficult to break down. It seems that the first steps to tackle this problem lie in better quality waste-management facilities and more investigation into how polymers can be broken down. If the problem is not brought under control soon, humankind could be facing a future saturated in microplastics. 

Featured image by: Oregon State University

Plastic Free Seas, a Hong Kong-based environmental charity, is calling for an investigation into the source of the black granule microplastics which have been washing up onto the beach in Discovery Bay since late July. A cleanup operation resulted in the recovery of over two tons of the black crumb-like material, as well as other debris. 

The NGO has expressed their frustrations with the lack of a coordinated emergency response and investigation by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) and other departments in Hong Kong. It says that after a 2012 incident in which 150 tons of plastic pellets fell into the ocean from a container ship, as well as a palm oil spill in 2017, this need is ever more important. 

While Clean Shorelines, an Interdepartmental Working Group, was set up after the pellet spill, the group focuses on cleanup rather than investigation, penalties and incident prevention.

From an internal investigation, Plastic Free Seas found that the microplastics material appears to be rubber infill used in AstroTurf, similar to that used on the North Plaza pitch in Discovery Bay. Infill from the pitch has been seen in and around storm drains which surround the pitch. 

Dana Winograd, director of operations at Plastic Free Seas, says, “Even with the obvious and significant amounts of infill which can be seen in drains less than 200m away from the water’s edge, there is still corporate denial of any responsibility for the problem and there has been no attempt to even remove the infill from the drains to prevent further pollution.” 

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plastic free seas microplastics

The rubber crumbs collected by the Plastic Free Seas team (Source: provided by Plastic Free Seas).

This infill is typically made from ground up tyres, from which chemicals and heavy metals make their way into seawater. 

Winograd says, “In the world of plastic marine pollution, there is often too much focus on cleanup and managing plastic pollution and not enough real action taken on prevention. A government investigation is slow and ongoing, and only as a result of a significant push from Plastic Free Seas. We need the government to find out the source of this problem, ensure that the ongoing pollution problem at this pitch is solved, and also to assess all the synthetic pitches in Hong Kong and mandate best practices for management to ensure the rubber crumb infill does not continue to pollute our seas and waterways.

More broadly, PFS has also urged the government for more transparency and communication with supporting NGOs. 

This article comes from the frontline activities of Plastic Free Seas, whose mission is to reduce plastic pollution in Hong Kong and beyond through education and action.

About Plastic Free Seas

Plastic Free Seas is a Hong Kong-based environmental charity focused on changing the way we all view and use plastics in society today, through education and action campaigns. Learn more at www.plasticfreeseas.org

A new research technique now allows for microplastic and nanoplastic particles to be discoverable in human organs. This will allow scientists to determine the level of plastic contamination as well as the health impact of these particles on human health, which is currently unknown. 

The researchers expect to find these nano- and microplastic particles in human organs and have already found chemical traces of plastic in human tissue. However, characterising these traces is difficult. To test this new technique, researchers added micro- and nanoplastic particles to 47 samples of lung, liver, spleen and kidney tissue. Microplastics were detected in every sample. These organs were studied as they are the ones most likely to be exposed to microplastic. 

The analytical method allowed the research team to identify dozens  of types of plastic, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in plastic bottles and the polyethylene used in plastic bags. They also found bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make plastics, in all 47 samples. BPA is a ‘reproductive, developmental and systemic toxicant in animal studies’, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

Varum Kelkar of Arizona State University and part of the research team, says, “We never want to be alarmist, but it is concerning that these non-biodegradable materials that are present everywhere may enter and accumulate in human tissues, and we don’t know the possible health effects. Once we get a better idea of what’s in the tissues, we can conduct epidemiological studies to assess human health outcomes- that way, we can start to understand the potential health risks, if any.”

This new technique developed by the team will be shared online so that other researchers can report their results in a standardised way and allow them to compare exposures in organs and groups of people over time and geographic space.

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Microplastics have been found all over the planet, from Antarctic ice and the food we eat to the deepest parts of the ocean. Previous studies have also shown that people eat and breathe in at least 50 000 particles of microplastic a year. 

Charles Rolsky, another member of the team, says, “In a few short decades, we’ve gone from seeing plastic as a wonderful benefit to considering it a threat.”

Microplastics are those less than 5mm in diameter and nanoplastics have a diameter of less than 0.001mm. Both are formed largely from the abrasion of larger pieces of plastic dumped into the environment. Research in wildlife and lab animals has linked these plastics to infertility, inflammation and cancer. 

Featured image by: Oregon State University

Of all the serious issues currently threatening life in the oceans, plastic is among the most pervasive, visible and relentless. You’ve probably heard all the familiar stats by now- 8 million tons of marine plastic pollution every year, a garbage truck every minute, more plastic than fish by 2050- but take a second to pause and really imagine the plastic reality we inhabit. Billions of plastic items are created and used briefly every day.

Causes of Plastic Pollution

Less than 10% of all plastic is recycled, so the majority persists on our planet. Much of it ends up in airless landfills, destined to linger for hundreds or even thousands of years – but a massive amount escapes our waste systems, permeates the soil, flows continually down into our waterways and ends up in the oceans.

Microplastic Pollution

Once a piece of plastic touches the surface of a stream, river, lake or ocean it becomes very hard to recover. Over time, plastic accumulates in coastal ecosystems, coats the seafloor, strangles and starves marine life and, most insidiously, breaks apart into smaller and smaller fragments, becoming virtually impossible to ever clean up. These microplastics, and the others released by manufacturing, vehicle tires and textiles, have now been found from the peaks of the Pyrenees to the Arctic sea ice to the bottom of the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean.

Plastic is literally everywhere – it is in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. Scientists have even found it inside our bodies. Most mind-blowing of all? Fossil fuel extraction and plastic production is set to increase drastically in the coming decades.

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Plastic pollution isn’t the only threat to the survival of our oceans. Overfishing has stripped the oceans of 90% of big fish, putting entire ecosystems at risk. According to the UN, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. Climate change is rendering the very ocean water that supports life more warm and acidic, which could doom coral, phytoplankton and other fundamental ocean species. Agricultural runoff is creating vast dead zones in places like the Gulf of Mexico, and dumping at sea (both routine and illegal) kills off marine life with toxic substances that can persist and accumulate in species like killer whales.

These issues are vital, and Parley supports efforts within our Network and beyond to address them. But as we’ll see, plastic is inextricably linked to carbon emissions, fishing, industrial pollution and other issues. If we can solve these massive problems working together, nature is powerful and resilient. If we tackle emissions soon, the oceans can cool. Pesticides and other toxins will disperse. Fish stocks can recover, often within a decade. But plastic will persist for thousands of years, and plastic is our problem. We drive its unnecessary creation, and we – the creative community – must own the issue. The fashion industry, e-commerce, food delivery services, product packaging and all the other plastic-wrapped commodities that underpin our lifestyles need to be redesigned. We can create novel new materials and systems that co-exist with nature instead of destroying it. We are the people who need to tackle this.

What is Plastic?

Let’s briefly go back to basics and explore exactly what plastic is. Before 1907, modern synthetic plastic didn’t even exist on Earth. Since then, we have created an ever-expanding number of new plastics. The word itself comes from the Greek “plastikos” – meaning moldable. Dating back 3500 years, bio-based plastic was naturally derived from the sap of gum trees to make rubber-like artefacts. Later examples of polymer materials include silk, wool, glass and rubber.

Today, the term “plastic” is used to describe synthetic materials belonging to the polymer family. Polymers are made up of chains of repeating carbon-containing, shorter compounds called monomers. Plastic monomers are built on hydrogen and carbon atoms (hydrocarbons), which are extracted from fossil fuels. Chemists are able to make different types of plastic qualities based on the monomer composition and arrangement.

The process of producing plastic begins with the extraction of crude oil. It contains ethylene and propylene – the two hydrocarbons that make up monomers. Through a process known as cracking, the hydrocarbons are broken down into smaller molecules and turned into hydrocarbon monomers. Polymerization then takes place, which links the the molecules together to form polymers called resins. During this process, ethylene is converted into the resin polyethylene and propylene into polypropylene. Crucially, this can include the addition of plasticizers, dyes and flame-retardant chemicals. The resins are cooled down and cut to form pellets or beads, sometimes called nurdles, which are transported to manufacturers to make products.

Effects of Plastic Pollution

Long before it becomes the all-too-familiar marine pollution you find at the beach, plastic enters the environment in other forms. Pellets and nurdles can and do spill out at every stage of their journey – from refinery to finished products. Researchers in the Gulf of Mexico have uncovered extensive and devastating nurdle pollution, and a massive pellet spill on a Hong Kong beach in 2012 showed the inherent risks of shipping them around the world.

Once they hit the water, nurdles and microplastics can absorb bacteria and chemical contaminants from surrounding environments. In marine wildlife studies, microplastics have been shown to transfer these harmful chemicals from their plastic hosts onto—or into—tissues, which in turn adversely affects the animals. At a nanometer in size, plastic fibers can penetrate cells, which means they can make their way into organs.

It’s not just marine life at risk. A 2018 study tested 259 bottled waters from 11 leading brands worldwide. Six sampled bottles were glass, the rest were packaged in plastic. All the bottles had plastic bottle caps. Plastic debris contamination was widespread throughout, with 93% of sampled bottles containing microplastic particles and a global average of 325 particles per liter of bottled water. One bottle showed an excess of 10,000 microplastic particles per liter — enough to make you never want to drink from a plastic bottle again.

The very durability and flexibility that makes plastic so useful also makes in pretty immortal. In the ocean environment, plastic slowly breaks apart – but not before taking a heavy toll on wildlife. More than 100,000 marine mammals die every year from entanglement in plastic debris. Whales wash ashore with stomachs full of plastic bags, cups, bottles and other everyday detritus. Almost all of the world’s seabirds and sea turtles have ingested plastic.

If we fail to replace plastic and halt the continued pollution of the oceans, we are facing the potential extinction of many sea life species and the interruption of the entire marine ecosystem. We also risk the survival of our own species – since over 4.3 billion depend on the oceans for food, many in small island developing states.

plastic pollution
Photo from ALBATROSS by Chris Jordan

Beyond the damaged caused by the material itself, many plastics come with extra baggage in the form of toxic chemicals used to make it softer, or harder, or more fire-resistant, or other properties. In the ocean environment, these chemicals can concentrate in the fish and marine mammals that consume plastic.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and phthalate compounds have been found in whales and dolphins, where they can affect growth and reproduction patterns. The same blubber that insulates animals like killer whales from the frigid oceans can also become a storehouse for such chemicals, leading to depleted populations like those off the US and Canadian west coast.

A few years back, plastic pollution pioneer and Parley ambassador Emily Penn tested her blood specifically for chemicals banned by the United Nations. Out of 35 banned chemicals, Emily’s blood contained 29. These included traces of pesticides and flame retardants, which are especially concerning in terms of women’s health. Endocrine disruptors mimic hormones that can impact women’s pregnancies and be passed onto offspring through childbirth and breastfeeding.

The production of plastic is intrinsically linked to climate change. Already, 6% of global oil consumption goes towards creating plastics – and for certain types of plastic like polyethylene (PET) the rate of carbon emissions can be as high as 6:1. So for every kilogram of plastic produced, 6 kilograms of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere. The average plastic drink bottle for instance, comes with .4 of a kilogram of carbon emissions.

In 2018, Parley Science Advisor and marine plastics researcher Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Royer and her colleagues at the University of Hawaii revealed another, previously unknown link between plastics and climate change. They demonstrated that many plastics actually give off powerful greenhouse gases as they break down, contributing to climate change. Of particular concern is the plastic type which releases gases at the highest rate: low-density polyethylene (or LDPE). This is also the most prevalent discarded plastic in the ocean today.

LDPE has a weaker and less dense chemical structure than most plastics, meaning it breaks down more easily. The more surface area a piece of plastic has, the more gas is given off. A plastic bottle, for example, after years of photo-degradation, will have a surface area thousands of times greater than its original surface area. Over time, plastics give off more and more gas. Light (and to a lesser extent heat) are the primary catalysts for this gaseous release. This leads to an alarming feedback loop: as the climate changes, the planet gets hotter, the plastic gives off more methane, increasing the rate of climate change and the circle continues.

Featured image by: Giacomo Cosua for Parley 

This article was originally published on Parley, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

In the first of its kind, a study into plastic pollution in the River Nile has found that three-quarters of sampled fish contained microplastics, sparking concern about the implications of plastic entering the human food chain. 

Conducted in collaboration with Sky News, the study found that over 75% of the 43 fish sampled contained microplastics in their gastrointestinal tracts. From these fish, 211 items of plastic were recovered. The highest number of microplastics recovered from a single fish was 20 individual items. 

The researchers say that the amount of microplastics found in fish from the Nile River appears to be higher than those reported in other locations. For comparison, rates of microplastics in sampled fish from the North Sea and in the North and Baltic Seas are 2.6% and 5.5% respectively, while those sampled from the Portuguese coast, the English Channel and the Balearic Islands in Spain are 19.8%, 37% and 68%. In the Turkish waters of the Mediterranean Sea, 41% of sampled fish contain microplastics in their digestive tracts.

This study is the first assessment of microplastic pollution in the Nile River, and only the second known study on plastic pollution in freshwater rivers in Africa. According to the researchers, the level of microplastic ingestion in the Nile River is ‘rarely found’ and that fish sampled from the river are ‘potentially among the most in danger of consuming microplastics on the planet’. 

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Three-Quarters of Fish in The Nile River Contain Microplastics- Report
Plastic blocking parts of the River Nile (Source: Sky News). 

The Sky team worked in collaboration with Dr Farhan Khan, who oversaw the research. Dr Khan’s team collected samples of two of the Nile River’s most common fish- the Nile tilapia and catfish- from Dahab Island in the centre of Cairo. These fish were purchased from local sellers, and their gastrointestinal tracts were dissected and examined for microplastics through isolating them in a strong alkaline solution.

An investigative team from Sky News spent two months travelling along the Nile, gathering visual evidence and testimony from farmers, fishermen, politicians and scientists, among others. They found the river extensively polluted all along the route ‘from its source in Lake Victoria to where it eventually empties into the Mediterranean Sea’. 

The team says that some of the plastics found inside the fish guts could be seen by the naked eye. Dr Khan expressed concern that the density of plastic in the fish and the large percentage of fish affected had worrying implications on the future of all marine life in the Nile.

He says, “A collection of these types of fibres can really have an impact on how well a fish is able to find and digest its food, which could have a knock-on effect on, for example, feeding behaviour and nutrient uptake. This in turn could affect growth and reproduction and therefore the fish population itself.” 

These microplastics act like bodies, which attracts toxic substances and which these toxics can bind to. This means there’s an increased danger that pollutants and pesticides which bind to the microplastics can also end up in the fish guts.

Dr Khan explains, “In most water systems, there’s a class of pollutants which includes pesticides which don’t mix well with water- so whenever they are in the water they are looking for materials to combine with and plastics provide that- so all these surfaces provide areas for contaminants to bind…what’s happening is the fish are feeding on plastics and they’re ingesting these plastics and these contaminants are making their way into the fish.”

While extensive research has been conducted on the presence of microplastics in the world’s oceans, there is a scarcity of their effects on the planet’s rivers, and almost none in Africa. This study bridges this gap and shines light on a problem not considered by many. 

The study was conceived as part of the documentary, “The Plastic Nile,” produced by Sky News International. The research was carried out in secret labs in Egypt and the researchers asked to remain anonymous. In the past, Egyptian authorities have jailed those who have spoken in derogatory terms about the Nile or, in one case, questioned the cleanliness of the river. The Sky team applauded the researchers for their ‘considerable bravery, expertise and help’ in carrying out the study.

The Nile River is the longest river in the world at 6 693km, running through 11 countries in Africa. An estimated 250 million people rely on the river for food, water or tourism.

The team calls for more research into the effects of plastic pollution in freshwater rivers, and especially into the impact that contaminated fish are likely to have on those who depend on the river. They also urge for immediate action to mitigate microplastic pollution in the Nile River. 

Featured image by: Sam valadi

 

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