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Space junk is classified by NASA according to whether it is of natural or artificial origin, with the latter defined as ‘any man-made object in orbit around the Earth which no longer serves a useful function’. But how does space junk affect the environment and us? The accumulation of space junk poses a particularly catastrophic threat to humankind’s future in space exploration, due to increased risk of collision with and damage to functioning satellites. It could also have detrimental effects on Earth’s environment.  

What is Space Junk?

Artificial, or orbital, space junk consists of objects ranging from paint flecks from functioning space stations, to those as large as decades-old, inoperative spacecraft. As of August 2021, the European Space Agency (ESA) reports that approximately 29,210 pieces of debris are tracked on a regular basis by Space Surveillance Networks. Statistically, however, the numbers are likely to be much higher. The count of artificial objects in orbit around the Earth that are greater than 10cm in length is likely to be approximately 34,000, with approximately 900,000 objects between 1cm and 10cm. For those objects between 1mm and 1cm, the count is some 128 million. Consequently, the sheer number of these objects currently in orbit, and their potential to slam into other objects at speeds of up to 5 miles per second, means that the risk of causing serious damage to functioning spacecraft is significant. In 2006, the International Space Station’s (ISS) fused-silica and borosilicate-glass fortified window suffered a 7mm chip due to an impact from a piece of space debris no larger than thousandths of a millimetre across. It is easy to see the threat posed by much larger objects. 

A single collision can generate thousands of particles of space trash. In 2009, the inactive Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 collided with the active American communication satellite Iridium 33 approximately 804 kms above Siberia, resulting in approximately 2,000 pieces of debris at least 10cm in diameter, and thousands more smaller pieces, entering the Earth’s atmosphere. It is estimated that over 50% of the debris from Iridium 33 will remain in orbit for at least a century, and that of Cosmos 2251 for at least 20 to 30 years. 

You might also like: The Environmental Costs of the Space Tourism Business

Space Pollution Effects and Impact of Space Debris 

Most space junk is located in what is known as low Earth orbit – the zone within approximately 2,011 km of the planet’s surface, and in which many satellites, such as the ISS and NASA’s Earth Observing Fleet System, operate. Effects of space debris can be significant; allowing space junk to accumulate, and henceforth increase the risk of further collisions similar to that of Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251, poses a great risk to the possibility of future space exploration. 

The >4700 launches that have been conducted across the globe since Sputnik 1 in 1957 have resulted in a steep upward trend in material mass in Earth orbit, which has exceeded 700 metric tons and shows no signs of relenting. According to computer simulations focusing on the next 200 years, over this time debris larger than approximately 20 cm across will multiply 1.5 times. Debris between 10 inches and 20 cm is set to multiply 3.2 times, and debris smaller than 10 cm will increase by a factor of 13 to 20. The risk this poses to satellites such as the ISS, which as of 2016 has had to perform 25 debris collision avoidance manoeuvres since 1999, is considerable. 

The problem is not confined to the risk posed to space exploration. A proportion of the space junk in low Earth orbit will gradually lose altitude and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere; larger debris, however, can occasionally impact with Earth and have detrimental effects on the environment. For example, debris from Russian Proton rockets, launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, litters the Altai region of eastern Siberia. This includes debris from old fuel tanks containing highly toxic fuel residue, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), a carcinogen which is harmful to plants and animals. While efforts are made to contain fallout from launches within a specified area, it is extremely difficult to achieve completely. 

Anatoly Kuzin, deputy director of Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre, which manufactures Proton rockets, maintains that thorough testing shows no correlation between reported illnesses in affected areas and the rocket launches. Testimonies from locals, however, refer to a disproportionate number of cancer cases in the area which many believe is related to the UDMH in the fuel tank debris; in 2007, 27 people were hospitalised in the Ust-Kansky District of Altai with cancer-related complications, many of them citing the rocket fuel as the suspected cause. 

Efforts to tackle the problem started in the 1990s, with NASA’s orbital debris mitigation policy and guidelines. The U.S. National Space Policy of 2006 and 2010 emphasises the necessity to implement the U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, which prioritise debris-release control, selection of safe flight profile and operational configuration, and the secure disposal of space apparatus after a mission. 2002 saw the first internationally-recognised standard consensus on orbital debris mitigation guidelines, but in place by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. 

However, head of the ESA’s space-debris office in Germany, Holger Krag, estimates that only half of all space emissions abide by these guidelines. The introduction of mega-constellations – mass groupings of artificial satellites – into low Earth orbit, Krag warns, will bring the need to remove failed satellites from space, on which most companies will not want to spend money. NASA warns against the accumulation of mega-constellations and miniature satellites such as CubeSats, which will do nothing to alleviate the growing problem. 

In May 2020, economists at the University of Colorado Boulder proposed attaching an annual fee, rising 14% per year, to each satellite put into orbit in the hope that the fee might discourage the unnecessary accumulation of space junk. Other measures proposed over the years have included removal of large pieces of debris with instruments such as harpoons and lasers, the development of self-removing satellites, and the coating of satellites in polymeric foam, to allow them to descend into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. As yet, however, there is no universally recognised solution to the problem. More spaceflight companies must adhere to the guidelines set out by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, and it is vital that the movement to reduce future accumulation of space junk becomes a more cohesive, vigorous effort.

A mysterious pollution outbreak in Kamchatka, Russia, has left many marine species, including seals, octopuses and sea urchins, washing up on Avacha Bay since September. Scientists have reported that as much as 95% of marine species along the seabed have been killed in what is being treated as a major marine pollution incident.

Ordinarily, the bay is a pristine 1 250-kilometre-long volcanic peninsula well-known for its exceptional landscapes with 160 large symmetrical volcanoes and diversity of wildlife.

The pollution incident came to light in early September after local surfers and swimmers reported stinging eyes and the water changing colour to a greyish-yellow with a thick milky foam on the surface. Officials later reported that people partaking in activities in the sea have sustained mild burns to their corneas.

This prompted Greenpeace to call the incident an “ecological disaster” and backlash from the public led Russia’s Investigative Committee to launch an investigation into the area for the “circulation of environmentally hazardous substances and waste.” Tests showed levels of oil products and phenol that were 3.6 and 2.5 times higher than usual, after Kamchatka’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology’s initial insistence that there was no such issue, saying that “nothing abnormal” had been recorded. 

No Answers

It is still unclear what caused the contamination; however, authorities have confirmed that all possible sources are being investigated. Officials are scrambling to find the origin after President Vladimir Putin reacted angrily to the late reporting of an oil leak in Arctic Siberia that poured thousands of tons of diesel into land and waterways in June. In turn, the ecology minister, Dmitry Kobylkin, stated that Putin had ordered him to establish the cause of the Kamchatka water contamination.

The Emergencies Ministry said it was using boats and drones to monitor the coastline but no pollution was visible. The regional governor, Vladimir Solodov, said it was a problem that the region had no unified system of environmental monitoring.

Local media outlets have speculated about a possible oil tanker leak or military drill gone wrong, which the Defence Ministry has denied. More alarming is that some experts have suggested that highly toxic rocket fuel such as heptyl, samin or mélange could have leaked into the sea. The first test site, Radygino, is about ten km from the sea and was used for drills in August.

Vladimir Burkanov, a biologist specialising in seals, suggested that old stores of rocket fuel kept in Radygino could have rusted and the fuel leaked into streams.

Moreover, the site of Kozelsky, approximately 15km from  the sea, has been used to bury toxic chemicals and pesticides, according to the regional governor’s website. Greenpeace says that stores of over 100 tonnes of toxic substances, including pesticides, had been breached.

While authorities in Russia are opening criminal cases into the Kamchatka crisis by examining man-made pollution, they have refused to rule out the possibility that the pollution could have been caused by a natural phenomena, such as seismic activity or microalgae.

You might also like: Why is China Building Oil Refineries When Fuel Demand is Stalling?

kamchatka russia pollution
Source: BBC News

Potential Threat to World Heritage Sites

While specialists continue to collect samples, scientists say. that the contaminated area is much larger than what they have examined and that the remaining marine life is under threat due to lack of food; some large fish, shrimps and crabs have survived, “but in very small quantities.” However, these too may die as their food supply has been destroyed.

After Greenpeace recently surveyed the territory, the water pollution has been identified in parts of Kamchatka’s World Heritage Site. This includes Vilyuchinskaya Bay that is home to 50% of the world’s Stellar Sea Eagle population.

Traces of the contaminants were also found in the basin and mouth of the Nalychev River, which flows through the Nalychevo Nature Park and is home to a wide variety of species, including the world’s greatest known diversity of salmonid fish, as well as brown bears and sea otters.  “The death of fish and seabed creatures is dangerous for both sea birds and mammals,” WWF says, adding that sea otters that eat urchins and clams could be among the most affected animals.

It is still unclear how much the pollutants will negatively affect the peninsula’s natural ecosystem.

Environmental Pressures

Despite Putin ordering for an immediate investigation into the cause of the Kamchatka water contamination, possibly permafrost thaw in Siberia, Russia’s environmental action is driven with no clear climate policy. As domestic policies continue to focus on its heavily subsidised oil and gas industry, with a strong emphasis on expanding natural gas exports, the Russian Ministry of Energy has explicitly identified the promotion of renewable energy to be a direct threat to planned fossil fuel expansion. Russia accounts for 4.5% of global emissions, behind China, USA and India.

Furthermore, Russia’s industries are not being encouraged to reduce emissions and deal with pollution, drawing a general consensus that there continues to be a lack of action across the board on environmental policy; hence, Russia’s environmental future remains somewhat bleak. 

However, the 2017 Russian Year of Ecology, announced by President Vladimir Putin, was a step towards changing public and policy attitudes towards pollution and other environmental problems in Russia, a welcome development. Further, there are numerous local and citizen-led projects across the country, including Greenpeace Russia, that are assisting authorities in their investigative efforts. 

Perhaps in this way, the government of Russia, supranational bodies, international partners and heavy industries can be influenced to enact much-needed environmental policies and procedures to reduce and tackle the effects of pollution, with this crisis in Kamchatka potentially acting as a turning point for the government and the public to take climate action.

Featured image by: Flickr

According to a report by the EEA, the EU environment agency, one in every eight deaths in the bloc can be linked to pollution, specifying that air and noise pollution, as well as poor water quality and exposure to chemicals, contributes.

The report, described as a “major assessment on health and the environment in Europe,” found that a total of 630 000 premature deaths in the EU were attributable to environmental factors in 2012 (the latest year for which data is available). 

Air pollution contributed to 400 000 annual deaths in the EU, with noise pollution contributing to 12 000. The remaining deaths were linked to extreme weather events such as heatwaves. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that air pollution causes the death of millions of people around the world annually and accounts for a third of fatalities from strokes, lung cancer and heart disease. Noise pollution, it says, contributes to heart problems by raising blood pressure and stress hormones. 

However, premature deaths linked to air pollution have fallen from 1 million in 1990, and water quality throughout most of Europe has improved. 

The report added that poorer communities and vulnerable people were the hardest hit by pollution. “Poorer people are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and extreme weather, including heatwaves and extreme cold. This is linked to where they live, work and go to school, often in socially deprived urban neighbourhoods close to heavy traffic” it says.

“Socially deprived communities typically struggle under a triple burden of poverty, poor quality environments and ill health,” the EEA report said. 

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What Countries Are Most Affected? 

The report found that “the burden of environmental disease” is unevenly spread across Europe, with Eastern and south-eastern Europe being more polluted than the rest of the continent. It pointed to the fact that the percentage of deaths attributable to environmental factors ranges from a low of 9% in Norways and Iceland to 23% in Albania and 27% in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

The highest environmental contribution to deaths is in Romania at 19%. Other hard-hit countries include Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. In the UK, around 12% of deaths are linked to pollution. 

What Can We Do?

“Green and blue spaces” should be prioritised as they cool cities during heatwaves, alleviate flood waters and reduce noise pollution and support urban biodiversity, the report says. 

Other recommendations include reducing road traffic and removing fossil fuel subsidies. The European Commission has suggested introducing measures to encourage greater uptake of electric vehicles. 

In 2019, London introduced a Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) to limit vehicular emissions, which involves charging drivers more to use older vehicles in certain areas. Italy has the most low emissions zones- some permanent, many seasonal. Germany has 80 and the Netherlands and the UK have 14 each. 

Meanwhile, France has implemented a €20 million subsidy scheme to encourage more cyclists, whereby everyone will be eligible for bike repairs of up to €50 at registered mechanics.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons 

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.” 

You might also like: Ocean Park Conservation Foundation’s Funding Spotlights Marine Conservation and Illegal Wildlife Trade

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

As states begin to reopen and people start to venture outdoors, they may notice new, previously unseen forms of pollution- face masks and gloves. The world has been on lockdown for about three months, and masks and gloves are now littering the streets. Moreover, they are already starting to wash up on beaches around the world. Deutsche Welle, Germany’s broadcaster reported that conservation group OceansAsia found about 100 discarded masks on an uninhabited island a few nautical miles from Hong Kong. These items have never been spotted in that remote location before.

Gloves, masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are key to keeping us safe, especially as we began to ease the lockdown rules. Yet, the environmental watchdogs worry that all that PPE will flow into the ocean. ” If they’re thrown on the streets, when it rains the gloves and masks will eventually end up in the sea,” biologist Anastasia Miliou at the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation in Greece told Deutsche Welle.

To make things worse, the discarded PPE presents a particularly nasty problem for marine life—because of how it’s made, according to John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace. “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example,” Hocevar told CNN. “The straps on masks can present entangling hazards.”

The environmentalists have reasons to worry. The world’s oceans are already drowning in plastic pollution. Every year, about 300 million tons of plastic is produced and 5 to 13 million tons of it washes into the ocean, according to the 2015 figures. The same paper lists that about 269,000 tons of the plastic floats in the ocean currents. As larger plastic debris breaks into smaller pieces, birds, turtles, and fish mistake it for food and gobble it up, which can perforate their stomachs, damage their intestines, or deprive them of nourishment, leading to starvation. Marine mammals and turtles commonly get caught into the discarded fishing gear and other items. And masks and gloves are choking hazards.

You might also like: Trump Administration Finalises Plan for Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Humans live on land, but they suffer from marine pollution too. As one study notes, Homo sapiens has lived for half a century in a throwaway society, but no “away” exists. The trash we toss away comes back to us, and as the masks example above demonstrates, it only takes a few weeks. Plastic leaches into our drinking water, too—research found that we consume a spoonful of plastic a week. And the microscopic plastic bits dissolved in the ocean water, interfere with the healthy function of Prochlorococcus—the ocean’s invisible forests that produce ten percent of all oxygen we breathe.

Some organizations are finding ways to upcycle plastic ocean-bound waste into usable materials. Fashion company Rothy’s makes bags from the plastic bottles fished out of the sea. Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) just partnered with Rash’R, a company that sells eco-friendly clothes to make masks from the plastic that once polluted the ocean.

That does divert a certain amount of plastic from the ocean currents. But while these masks aren’t single-use, they too may one day end up in the sea, if not recycled properly. Still, many face masks and gloves will remain single-use, exacerbating the pollution problem. The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey prompted a discussion of how to recycle half a million flooded cars. The amount of single-use masks and gloves discarded during the coronavirus pandemic will likely make a research subject soon.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

You might also like: Alarm as Report Finds 75% of Fish in The Nile River Contain Microplastics

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

The Consumer Council, the consumer watchdog of Hong Kong, reported various levels of metallic contaminants in samples of canned fish that could pose health risks if eaten in excess. The watchdog also found that the contaminants reported were not present in a similar study conducted in 2004.

The council examined 46 samples of canned fish in Hong Kong, all of which are available on the market. In particular, 19 types of sardines, 20 types of tuna, and seven kinds of dace fish were tested, with prices ranging from HK$7.8 to HK$149 per can. 

On average, the sardine samples were found to contain the highest amount of cadmium- a chemical which can lead to chronic poisoning or irreversible kidney damage if consumed in copious amounts- followed by tuna. The dace fish samples did not contain any cadmium. 

The Food Adulteration Regulation, which is yet to take effect in Hong Kong until November, states that the maximum amount of cadmium that is safe for consumption is 0.1 mg. Two of the sardine samples, which were imported from Thailand, contained 0.11 to 0.13 mg per kg of cadmium. 

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Half of the sardine samples also contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a carcinogenic harmful to humans as classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. 

More than 70% and 10% of the sardine and tuna samples respectively contained inorganic arsenic- a toxin which, following prolonged exposure, can cause neurological and cardiovascular diseases. However, the samples contained between 0.04 to 0.08 mg per kg, below the maximum safe limit.

Methylmercury was identified in 18 of the 20 tuna samples, with levels ranging from 0.06 to 0.28 mg per kg- within the 0.5 mg per kg upper limit in Hong Kong. Consumed in excess,however, methylmercury can hinder foetuses’ nervous system development. “Foetuses and children are more prone to the adverse health effects posed by methylmercury as their brains are still developing. Excessive intake would lead to a decrease in intelligence of toddlers,” warned the council in their latest publication

All of the seven types of dace fish samples were found to have levels of metallic contaminants and PCBs well below the maximum cut-off guidelines. 

The 2004 Study

In 2004, a similar study by the Consumer Council examined nine types of sardines and eight types of tuna and found levels of arsenic that complied with Hong Kong’s food regulations at the time, although cadmium, lead and PCBs were not found. 

Levels of methylmercury were found in four samples of canned tuna in amounts well below the safety limit in mainland China, the regulations of which were more stringent than those in Hong Kong at the time. The council did not express concern over the methylmercury content in canned fish. 

Gilly Wong Fung-han, chief executive of the council, says, “the latest study reflects the severity of environmental pollution in the food chain, which in turn shows the increased contamination in canned fish.” 

Cause for Concern 

Nora Tam Fung-yee, chairwoman of the Consumer Council’s research and testing committee, says that consumers needn’t be worried about eating canned fish in general, as ‘you have to eat a huge amount over a long period of time to be adversely affected’. 

Wong noted that consumers should not completely cut canned fish out of their diet as it is an ‘easy source of high protein’, but they should rather limit intake and eat in moderation. She however advises that pregnant women avoid canned fish so as not to risk harming foetuses.

What Does this Mean for the Future of Food Security?

Hopefully, following the enactment of Hong Kong’s Food Adulteration Regulation, the fishing industry and supermarket suppliers alike will become more strict regarding which canned fish products they make available on the market. 

In order to strengthen food security, fishermen should designate fishing sites which lack pollution, are maintained to a high degree and that care for the health of the fish and their food chain. 

Consumers should also be made aware of the potential risks of consuming canned fish to ensure they make an informed decision. 

As metallic contaminants accumulate in the fatty tissue of fish, the safety of other marine animals, who share the same ecosystem and who may rely on fish as a food source, is an additional factor to take into consideration. Humans should either cut back on their intake on fish (and meat in general) so as to avoid contamination, or address the causes of the contamination in the first place, including pollution and waste water run-off.

Single-use plastic is one of the greatest threats to the environment. According to the Hong Kong-based NGO OceansAsia, approximately 300 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide every year, with more than 8 million entering oceans annually- ultimately threatening the ecosystems of marine wildlife. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further exacerbate the scourge of plastic pollution. 

Plastic Pollution Amidst COVID-19

Naturally, the priority over the past few months has been mitigating the contagion of the virus, which includes the implementation of collaborative protective measures. Essential components to controlling the spread include the wearing of surgical face masks and the frequent disinfection of hands. Although these two measures alone cannot stop the pandemic, they play an important role in preventing infection and are therefore vital to controlling and eliminating COVID-19. 

Why is Plastic Relevant to the Pandemic? 

Both face masks and hand sanitiser production include the use of plastic. Face masks typically contain polypropylene (PP), which, due to the microfibers’ hydrophobic composition, acts as a protective layer against bodily fluid droplets. Other more intricate and expensive face masks include polyurethane (PUR) and/or polyacrylonitrile (PAN). 

PPE Litter in Oceans 

Plastic has a lifespan of approximately 450 years, and never fully degrades but rather shrinks into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics.

Joffrey Peltier, member of the environmental organisation Opération Mer Propre in France, came across large quantities of latex gloves, face masks and bottles of hand sanitiser in the Mediterranean sea upon exploration. Regarded as ‘COVID waste’, Peltier worries that this discovery indicates a new kind of pollution that adds to the already existing plastic problem, further threatening the environment. The organisation has urged the French public to use reusable face masks, and to substitute gloves with more frequent hand washing.    

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United Kingdom 

A UK-based charity, Keep Britain Tidy, fears a littering crisis amidst the relaxation of lockdown regulations and social distancing rules. With an increase in the number of people visiting beaches and parks, and gathering in public spaces, large amounts of rubbish have accumulated. Thames21, a charity that aims to maintain healthy waterways in London, suggests that people are socialising in a way that is different to before lockdown: mainly congregating outdoors. This has led to carelessness in behaviour displayed through littering, for example. Thames21 reports that the main type of rubbish found is single-use plastic, such as fast-food packaging, confectionary wrappers and drink bottles.

Keep Wales Tidy campaigners stress that significant amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) are being littered across the country. In addition to being an environmental hazard, says Jemma Bere policy and research manager for the organisation, the littering of PPE poses a contamination risk to others: many samaritans that would typically collect litter when encountering some are no longer doing so to avoid the risk of coming into contact with contaminated PPE. 

Disruption to ‘Business as Usual’ 

With the economy and ‘business as usual’ put on standby as a consequence of the pandemic, rubbish and recycling collection has been disrupted in many places. In a field experiment conducted by Cialdini and colleagues (1990) it was observed that participants were susceptible to the littering behaviour of those around them, and that people tend to litter more when in an already littered environment. The researchers explained that the littering state of an environment establishes the norm of behaviour later exhibited in said environment, such that others will tend to conform or adapt to this perceived norm. They concluded that the more litter present, the more people are likely to litter, causing a positive feedback loop. As human beings are social animals and susceptible to conformity, a way to tackle this issue is to enforce correct attitudes towards the environment through education and raising awareness. 

Shadi Moqbel, a civil engineer and waste researcher at the University of Jordan, noted that some of the patterns observed with COVID-19 are not novel, and rather mirror a similar trend observed in previous outbreaks, such as the H1N1 (swine flu) virus. As a result of the pandemic, people are gravitating towards disposable items rather than reusable ones in attempts of being hygienic. Moqbel also stated that people are using more single-use plastic plates and packaging material due to a rise in food deliveries and takeout meals. 

Hong Kong

Having previous experience tackling a coronavirus outbreak, SARS, Hong Kong citizens were quick to take health precautions after the outbreak began in China. This primarily included wearing face masks in public and communal areas, frequent hand washing and regular temperature checks.  

OceansAsia 

OceansAsia reported a stark increase in marine debris and microplastics build-up in Hong Kong since January, and found large quantities of face masks littered along beaches and rural suburbs. On a beach in Lantau Island, the organisation reported finding 70 face masks disposed across an area just 100 meters long, with an additional 30 washed up on shore. This raised concern among members as the area is relatively uninhabited and is difficult to access, providing insight into potential larger littering figures across more popular beaches.

Conservancy Association (CAHK)

Another local environmental organisation, the Conservancy Association Hong Kong (CAHK), has expressed similar uneasiness about this new type of pollution caused by careless behaviours with face masks. CAHK stresses the importance of raising awareness and educating the public on how to correctly dispose of face masks, as well as to inform on the health risks associated with incorrect disposal. Although the common consensus among medical professionals in Hong Kong is that single-use face masks are effective in mediating the spread of COVID-19, they have noted that correct disposal after use is important. The Centre of Health Protection (CHP) guidelines state that soiled tissues and used surgical face masks must be discarded in lidded bins to control the spread of the virus. 

Greeners Action 

In an attempt to tackle the plastic pollution problem amidst Covid-19, the environmental group Greeners Action in Hong Kong has urged restaurants to encourage customers to bring their own tupperware when ordering takeout. The group surveyed over 2 000 participants in early April and found that people are ordering food at a rate more than twice as high as last year, indicating a surge in single-use plastic consumption, most probably due to social distancing measures

Jac Lun, project officer of Greeners Action, suggests opting out of receiving disposable plastic materials when ordering takeout, and for consumers to pick up their food directly from the restaurant or cafe. Lun further elaborated by saying that tupperware is potentially safer than single-use plastic in terms of hygiene, and that restaurants should offer rebates to customers that bring their own food containers. The ideal solution would be to cook at home, Lun says, as this way there is less fear regarding risk of contamination and less contribution to the already troubling plastic pollution problem. 

Solutions

Short-term solutions include fines, labels on disposable items, making information on littering and how to recycle more available to the public and potentially designing more eye-catching and ‘fun’ refuse bins to encourage interaction.

As a silver-lining, Joubert and colleagues (2020) believe the environmental emphasis on plastic pollution will return to the limelight once the COVID-19 crisis is under control. In the meantime, the researchers suggest recycling single-use plastic utensils and containers, limiting food deliveries and ordering from grocery suppliers that offer more sustainable delivery packaging. 

Wearing reusable face masks, disposing of single-use face masks correctly and buying hand sanitiser contained in ecologically sustainable packaging are also here-and-now factors to consider.

With the European Green Deal underway, there is a great appeal for companies to invest in innovations that can help alleviate the plastic crisis in the long-term. Similar to the way in which ‘banning plastic straws to save the turtles’ started an influential trend, many brand owners should implement similar measures to regulate their use of plastic and to further establish environmentally sustainable products as ‘trendy’. 

Furthermore, academia should aim to best educate society, manufacturers and policymakers on how to make more environmentally-friendly decisions.

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

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an ‘extreme’ effect on daily carbon emissions, resulting in a drop of 17% in global carbon emissions, however this is unlikely to last, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal, Nature Climate Change, shows that daily emissions decreased by 17%- or 17 million tons of carbon dioxide- globally during the peak of the lockdown measures in early April compared to mean daily levels in 2019. These levels were last seen in 2006.

The team of researchers analysed government policies on confinement for 69 countries responsible for 97% of global CO2 emissions. At the peak of COVID-19 confinement measures, regions responsible for 89% of global carbon emissions were under some level of restriction. The team then looked at data on activities indicative of how much each economic sector was affected by COVID-19 which was used to estimate the change in fossil CO2 emissions for each day and country from January to April 2020.

Emissions from land transport, such as cars, account for 43% of this decrease in global emissions. Emissions from industry and power together account for a further 43% and aviation accounts for 10%. The increase in the use of residential buildings from people working at home only marginally offset the drop in emissions from other sectors.

You might also like: Ocean Microplastic Pollution is Vastly Underestimated- Study

covid-19 drop carbon emissions
Daily global carbon emissions, from 1970 to 2020, showing the drop over the past five months due to COVID-19 shutdowns (Source: Nature Climate Change).

While this is welcome news, it shows the true extent of humanity’s impact on the health of the planet and the analysis shows that social response alone will not drive the reductions needed to reach net zero emissions.

Professor Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia and leader of the study, says, “Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions. These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport or energy systems.”

“The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post COVID-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come,” she adds.

Professor Rob Jackson of Stanford University and Chair of the Global Carbon Project who co-authored the analysis agrees, saying, “We need systemic change through green energy and electric cars, not temporary reductions from enforced behaviour.”

The estimated total change in emissions from the pandemic amounts to 1048 million tonnes of carbon dioxide until the end of April. Of this, the changes are largest in China where the confinement started, with a decrease of 242 million tons, then in the US, with 207 million tons, Europe with 123 million tons and India with 98 million tons. The total change in the UK for January-April 2020 is an estimated 18 million tons of carbon.

Overall, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that global energy emissions will fall 8% this year due to a drop in demand for coal, oil and gas, reaching their lowest levels since 2010.

The agency based its prediction on an analysis of electricity demand over more than 100 days, during which much of the world was under lockdown in a bid to control the pandemic. Until COVID-19, emissions had been rising year-on-year.

With this consumption falling, the IEA said it noticed a ‘major shift’ to low-carbon sources of power, such as wind and solar, which are set to comprise 40% of global electricity generation- 6 percentage points more than coal.

This drop is similar to the amount of annual emission reductions needed year-on-year to achieve the Paris targets; the UN says that carbon emissions must fall by 7.6% annually through to 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

If pre-pandemic conditions of mobility and economic activity return by mid-June, the decline would be around 4%. If some restrictions remain worldwide until the end of the year, it would be around 7%.

How the global economy recovers from the pandemic will be key for the climate. While leaders from around the world have promised to prioritise low- and zero-carbon energy alternatives as part of the recovery from COVID-19, these pledges must be put into action to be seen as a legitimate turning point for the planet.

Featured image by: dmbosstone

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