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Scientists uncover ‘missing’ plastics deep in the ocean

Scientists uncover ‘missing’ plastics deep in the ocean

About 51 trillion microplastics are floating in the surface waters of oceans around the world. Originating from various types of plastics, these tiny fragments (less than 5 millimeters in length) pollute natural ecosystems.

Hundreds of studies have surveyed plastic debris on the surface or near surface of the ocean. However, these studies only “scratch the surface,” and do not provide a complete inventory of what’s lurking beneath.

A study led by Florida Atlantic University is the first to unveil the prevalence of plastics in the entire water column of an offshore plastic accumulation zone in the southern Atlantic Ocean and implicates the ocean interior as a crucial pool of ‘missing’ plastics.

Results, published in the journal Global Change Biology , demonstrate that small microplastics are critical, underexplored and integral to the oceanic plastic inventory. In addition, findings show that weak ocean current systems contribute to the formation of small microplastics hotspots at depth, suggesting a higher encounter rate for subsurface particle feeders like zooplankton.

“Our study highlights the urgency for more quantification of the deep-ocean microplastics, especially the smaller size fraction, to better understand ecosystem exposure and to predict the fate and impacts of these microplastics,” said Tracy Mincer, Ph.D., senior author and an assistant professor of biology at FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and FAU Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College.

To gain a better mechanistic understanding of how plastics sink from the ocean surface beyond the mixed layer and ultimately to abyssal depths of the ocean, the researchers sampled plastic particles in the South Atlantic Subtropical Gyre using in-situ high-volume filtration, Manta net and MultiNet sampling, combined with micro-Fourier-transform-infrared imaging.

They found that abundances and distribution patterns of small microplastics varied geographically and vertially due to the diverse and complex redistribution processes interacting with different plastic particles. They also observed large horizontal and vertical variations in the abundances of small microplastics, displaying inverse vertical trends in some cases. Small microplastics abundances in pump samples were more than two orders of magnitude higher than large microplastics concurrently collected in MultiNet samples.

Credit: Florida Atlantic University

“Small microplastics are different from large microplastics with respect to their high abundance, chemical nature, transport behavior, weathering stages, interactions with ambient environments, bioavailability and the release efficiency of plastic additives,” said Shiye Zhao, Ph.D., first author and a post-doctoral fellow at FAU Harbor Branch. “These distinct characteristics impact their environmental fate and potential impacts on marine ecosystems.”

Higher density polymers such as alkyd resins, used in most commercial oil-based coatings such as ship hull paints and polyamide, commonly used in textiles like clothing and ropes and fishing nets, made up more than 65 percent of the total pump sample count in the study. This finding highlights a discrepancy between polymer compositions from previous ocean surface-based surveys, which are typically dominated by buoyant polymers such as polyethylene used for packaging film and grocery bags and polypropylene used for plastic containers and reusable water bottles.


Almost every country in the Mediterranean Sea has at least one Marine Protected Area (MPA) where over half of its macroplastics originated from another country, according to a new study.


When Dr Deo Florence Onda found himself more than 10,000m below the surface, in the third deepest trench on the planet, he was on the lookout for mysteries hidden in the darkness.

Compared with net-collected large microplastics, small microplastics particles are more highly oxidized and appear to have a longer lifetime in the water column, suggesting increased marine ecosystem health risks through possible bio-uptake of plastic particles and associated chemicals and potential impacts to global biogeochemical cycles.

“As plastic particles disintegrate into smaller size fractions, they can become harmful in different and unpredictable ways that are only now beginning to be understood,” said Mincer. “These micron-size microplastics can move across the gut epithelium, become trapped in biomass, and have the potential to transfer through marine food webs, posing an unknown ecological risk and biogeochemical impacts.”

As commercial fishing efforts scale up to harvest marine species for human consumption, the researchers say that studies focusing on smaller microplastics ingestion are urgently needed to assess the extent of plastic contamination in biomass.

The combined analysis procedure used by Mincer, Zhao and collaborators from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute provided a more integrative view of the distribution, abundance, dimensions and chemical nature of plastic particles in the interior of an ocean gyre.


Gisele Galoustian, Florida Atlantic University via phys.org

The Mediterranean Sea is filled with plastics that come from elsewhere

The Mediterranean Sea is filled with plastics that come from elsewhere

Plastics are all over, especially in protected areas.

Almost every country in the Mediterranean Sea has at least one Marine Protected Area (MPA) where over half of its macroplastics originated from another country, according to a new study. The findings highlight that plastic pollution is an international problem and we need international collaboration in order to tackle it, the researchers argue.

Slowly but surely, plastic pollution has become one of the major environmental issues of our times, comparable to the climate crisis and overfishing. While much recent research focused on microplastics, this new effort looked at how macroplastics (plastic bits bigger than five millimeters) affect the marine ecosystem, as organisms ingest or become entangled in plastic litter — often with dramatic consequences. 

Plastic pieces (especially small ones) can travel very long distances and end far from their original sources. They come in unseen for multiple, often distant sources, threatening wildlife and their habitats in marine areas. Previous studies in the Arctic, the Pacific and the Atlantic have shown MPAs are very affected by plastic pollution. 

In the new study, a group of researchers focused on the Mediterranean Sea, one of the most polluted regions globally which also happens to be an important biodiversity hotspot. It’s shared by numerous countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia, which brings big differences in terms of governance, politics, and cultures — which makes it difficult to implement common regulations of marine ecosystems. 

About 229,000 tons of plastic leak every year into the Mediterranean Sea, according to a report by IUCN from 2020, equivalent to 500 shipping containers. Roughly speaking, it’s like dumping a container and a half of plastic straight into the sea. Egypt, Italy, and Turkey were identified as the countries with the highest plastic leakage rates into the Mediterranean, mainly because of mismanaged waste and large coastal cities.

“Our study shows that specific sites, important for the conservation of biodiversity, concentrate high amounts of plastics,” Dr Yannis Hatzonikolkis, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Although marine protected areas are protected by restrictions from other threats as tourism, plastic acts like an ‘invisible’ enemy.” 

Plastics and the Mediterranean

Image credit: The researchers.

The researchers carried out a three-year simulation (from 2016 to 2018) of the distribution of plastic particles in the Mediterranean Sea. They used a particle drift model that considers the main dispersion processes such as winds and currents, incorporating three land-based sources of plastic particles – wastewater discharge, rivers, and cities. 

The findings showed that coastal zones were the hardest hit, both by macroplastics and microplastics (plastic pieces smaller than five millimeters). As MPAs tend to be closer to coastal zones, they accumulated more plastic waste than sites in offshore waters. Most plastics were traced back to land-based sources, which means the issue has to be tackled at source.

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When Dr Deo Florence Onda found himself more than 10,000m below the surface, in the third deepest trench on the planet, he was on the lookout for mysteries hidden in the darkness.

Ship paint fragments were found to make up most of the samples the scientists found - SWNS


Scientists studying the origins of microplastics in Antarctica have discovered that 89 per cent of the samples they analysed came from the paint on their own ship.

The average concentration of macroplastics in inshore waters was larger than five kilograms per squared kilometer, while offshore waters had over 1.5 kilograms. Meanwhile, average microplastics concentration in inshore waters was higher than 1.5 million particles per squared kilometer, and 0.5 million particles in offshore waters. 

“The most effective way to reduce plastic pollution in protected areas is by reducing marine litter at the sources. A management plan including litter reduction at its sources can occasionally be successfully implemented locally,” the researchers wrote, suggesting the use of a floating barrier installation and a pre-filtering device. 


Fermin Koop at ZME Science

On the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, scientists find a surprise: Coastal life

On the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, scientists find a surprise: Coastal life

Scientists documented more than 40 coastal species clinging to plastic trash, including mussels, barnacles and shrimp-like amphipods.

Coastal marine species carried out to sea on debris are not only surviving, they’re colonizing the high seas and making new communities on the floating plastic detritus that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

Scientists, writing in the journal Nature Communications, report coastal plants and animals are sustaining themselves and even reproducing in the patch, an accumulation of trash stuck in ocean currents that’s estimated to be about twice the size of Texas. 

Scientists have documented more than 40 coastal species clinging to plastic trash, including mussels, barnacles and shrimp-like amphipods, said Greg Ruiz, a senior scientist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and an author of the report. 

Scientists have known that coastal species could catch rides out to sea on logs and seawood in the past. But those materials would quickly disintegrate and become a one-way ticket to nowhere. 

Researchers were shocked to find that plastic debris now is allowing plants and animals to take up residence in the middle of nowhere and that the open ocean provides enough food to sustain them. 

Linsey Haram during an expedition to British Columbia.
Linsey Haram during an expedition to British Columbia. Stephen Page

“It’s almost like a new island has emerged,” said Ruiz, adding that the new habitat “represents a paradigm shift of what we thought was possible.” 

The finding raises questions about how these communities function, how they develop and what implications they have for the movement of invasive species. 

The findings echo discoveries that forced scientists to reconsider how some forms of life survive on the open ocean. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan rattled the country and sent a pulse of trash — much of it plastic — into the Pacific. About 18 months later, debris began to wash up on the shores of North America, dotting Hawaii, Oregon and Washington state with debris carried by ocean currents. 

What scientists found in the debris shattered old conceptions. 

Coastal ecosystems are more productive. They’re richer with food and nutrients than the open ocean. 

Luz Quiñones, a scientist in SERC's Marine Invasions Lab, analyzes a mix of coastal organisms (the podded hydroid Aglaophenia pluma) and open-ocean organisms (Lepas gooseneck barnacles) on a colonized net.
Luz Quiñones, a scientist in SERC’s Marine Invasions Lab, analyzes a mix of coastal organisms (the podded hydroid Aglaophenia pluma) and open-ocean organisms (Lepas gooseneck barnacles) on a colonized net. Smithsonian Institution

“Prior to this we thought many of those coastal organisms wouldn’t be able to persist for a long period of time in a less food-rich area, let alone grow and reproduce,” Ruiz said. “Much to our surprise, a lot of coastal organisms were alive on that debris.”

Nearly 300 species landed on the shores of the Pacific Northwest, according to a peer-reviewed 2017 article published in Science

Analysis of trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch further surprised scientists. 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch first caught public attention in 1997, after yachtsman Charles Moore sailed through remote ocean waters and documented toothbrushes, soap bottles and fishing nets  floating past. 

The patch results from ocean currents that swirl in a vortex and leave trash captured in their center. It’s one of several plastic-collecting ocean gyres. 

study published in 2018 estimated that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contained at least 79,000 metric tons of plastic, including items like fishing nets, plastic bottles and tiny fragments called microplastics. Trash from the Japanese tsunami has also collected in the patch. 

Coastal podded hydroid Aglaophenia pluma, open-ocean Planes crab and open-ocean Lepas gooseneck barnacles colonize a piece of floating debris.
Coastal podded hydroid Aglaophenia pluma, open-ocean Planes crab and open-ocean Lepas gooseneck barnacles colonize a piece of floating debris. Smithsonian Institution

Ruiz and other researchers partnered with the Ocean Voyages Institute, which sailed to the patch and collected trash, before photographing, preserving and shipping it to researchers. 

Multiple generations of coastal species were found in the debris. Some were producing larvae or young. 

The scientists found that a mix of coastal and open ocean species have joined together on the plastic — creating something entirely new. 

“It’s clear, there’s a merger of two different communities,” Ruiz said. The researchers don’t know how these species will interact or what it will mean. They suspect it could cause changes to the food web.

Image: Coastal podded hydroid Aglaophenia pluma and gooseneck barnacle Lepas from the open ocean on a colonized net.
Coastal podded hydroid Aglaophenia pluma and gooseneck barnacle Lepas from the open ocean on a colonized net. Smithsonian Institution

Other questions will take years to answer. Could coastal species evolve to be more suited to their new habitat on plastic rafts in the remote ocean? 

“The rate of evolutionary change could be quite rapid,” Ruiz said. “We don’t know the answer for the organisms in the garbage patch. Certainly the potential is there.” 

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The system, known as System002 or “Jenny”, left Victoria, British Columbia last Month on board a Maersk offshore supply vessel. “Jenny” builds on earlier tests conducted 2018 and 2019 and is the first full-scale system (800 meters in length) to be tested. Compared to the earlier systems, “Jenny” is larger and includes new technology such as active propulsion.

The proliferation of plastics on land along with more frequent and intense coastal storms because of climate change could send more waste into the ocean, creating additional habitat.

The islands of plastic could also become temporary waystations that harbor invasive species, only to spit them out as currents shift and send them floating away to islands or shorelines that don’t often receive hideaways from other coasts. 

“The more invasions you have, the more likely you’ll have a species come in that’s impactful,” Ruiz said.


Evan Bush at NBC News

‘Deluge of plastic waste’: US is world’s biggest plastic polluter

‘Deluge of plastic waste’: US is world’s biggest plastic polluter

At 42m metric tons of plastic waste a year, the US generates more waste than all EU countries combined

The US is the world’s biggest culprit in generating plastic waste and the country urgently needs a new strategy to curb the vast amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans, a new report submitted to the federal government has found.

The advent of cheap, versatile plastics has created “a global scale deluge of plastic waste seemingly everywhere we look”, the report states, with the US a leading contributor of disposable plastics that ends up entangling and choking marine life, harming ecosystems and bringing harmful pollution up through the food chain.

Plastic waste has increased sharply in the US since 1960, with the country now generating about 42m metric tons of plastic waste a year, amounting to about 130kg of waste for every person in America. This total is more than all European Union member countries combined. The overall amount of municipal waste created in the US is also two to eight times greater than comparable countries around the world, the report found.

Recycling infrastructure has failed to keep pace with the huge growth in American plastic production. Littering, dumping and inefficient waste disposal in landfills has caused up to 2.2m tons of plastic – including everything from plastic bottles and straws to packaging – to “leak” into the environment each year. The total waste may be even greater than this due to data gaps in tracking it.

Much of this plastic ends up, via rivers and streams, in the world’s oceans.

Worldwide, at least 8.8m tons of plastic waste enters the marine environment each year, the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck filled with plastic into the ocean every single minute. If current trends continue, scientists have estimated this total could leap to 53m tons annually by 2030, which is roughly half of the weight of all fish caught from the oceans globally each year.

“Plastic waste is an environmental and social crisis that the US needs to affirmatively address from source to sea,” said Margaret Spring, chief conservation and science officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Spring chaired a committee of experts who compiled the congressionally mandated report for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act introduced by Democratic lawmakers, would be the most ambitious regulation the US plastics industry has ever seen.
The proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced by Democratic lawmakers, would be the most ambitious regulation the US plastics industry has ever seen. Photograph: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

Spring added: “Plastic waste generated by the US has so many consequences, impacting inland and coastal communities, polluting our rivers, lakes, beaches, bays, and waterways, placing social and economic burdens on vulnerable populations, endangering marine habitats and wildlife and contaminating waters upon which humans depend for food and livelihoods.”

The committee’s report recommends that a new national strategy is required by the end of next year to stem the flow of plastics into the ocean. The strategy, the report states, should aim to slash plastic production, particularly for plastics not reusable or recyclable, help promote alternative materials that can be reused and set better standards for waste collection and capture.

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A new eco-friendly plastic made from salmon sperm has been invented by scientists in China.

Two short strands of DNA from the sperm were combined with a chemical from vegetable oil that binds them together. What this creates is a squishy material known as hydrogel.

Broader international and industrial trends will influence any effort to cut plastic pollution. The US, along with many other developed countries, used to outsource its waste problem by shipping plastics to China but these imports were halted by the Chinese in 2018. This has led to an increase in plastic waste sent to other countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand, as well as “recycled” plastic being burned in domestic landfills unable to cope with the sheer volume of waste.

The fossil fuel industry, meanwhile, is considering a huge expansion in plastic production as it sees its primary business squeezed due to concerns over the climate crisis. Plastic polymers can be formed from a feedstock of crude oil and the industry is pinning its hopes on a glut of new plastic to flood the market and therefore waterways, beaches and oceans, in the coming years.

“There is an urgency to the issue because production is increasing, waste generation is increasing and therefore leakage impacts have the potential to increase too,” said Jenna Jambeck, a member of the scientific committee behind the report.


Oliver Milman at The Guardian

Baby Poop Is Loaded With Microplastics

Baby Poop Is Loaded With Microplastics

An alarming new study finds that infant feces contain 10 times more polyethylene terephthalate (aka polyester) than an adult’s.

Whenever a plastic bag or bottle degrades, it breaks into ever smaller pieces that work their way into nooks in the environment. When you wash synthetic fabrics, tiny plastic fibers break loose and flow out to sea. When you drive, plastic bits fly off your tires and brakes. That’s why literally everywhere scientists look, they’re finding microplastics—specks of synthetic material that measure less than 5 millimeters long. They’re on the most remote mountaintops and in the deepest oceans. They’re blowing vast distances in the wind to sully once pristine regions like the Arctic. In 11 protected areas in the western US, the equivalent of 120 million ground-up plastic bottles are falling out of the sky each year.

And now, microplastics are coming out of babies. In a pilot study published today, scientists describe sifting through infants’ dirty diapers and finding an average of 36,000 nanograms of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) per gram of feces, 10 times the amount they found in adult feces. They even found it in newborns’ first feces. PET is an extremely common polymer that’s known as polyester when it’s used in clothing, and it is also used to make plastic bottles. The finding comes a year after another team of researchers calculated that preparing hot formula in plastic bottles severely erodes the material, which could dose babies with several million microplastic particles a day, and perhaps nearly a billion a year. 

Although adults are bigger, scientists think that in some ways infants have more exposure. In addition to drinking from bottles, babies could be ingesting microplastics in a dizzying number of ways. They have a habit of putting everything in their mouths—plastic toys of all kinds, but they’ll also chew on fabrics. (Microplastics that shed from synthetic textiles are known more specifically as microfibers, but they’re plastic all the same.) Babies’ foods are wrapped in single-use plastics. Children drink from plastic sippy cups and eat off plastic plates. The carpets they crawl on are often made of polyester. Even hardwood floors are coated in polymers that shed microplastics. Any of this could generate tiny particles that children breathe or swallow. 

Small Plastic pellets on the finger

Indoor dust is also emerging as a major route of microplastic exposure, especially for infants. (In general, indoor air is absolutely lousy with them; each year you could be inhaling tens of thousands of particles.) Several studies of indoor spaces have shown that each day in a typical household, 10,000 microfibers might land on a single square meter of floor, having flown off of clothing, couches, and bed sheets. Infants spend a significant amount of their time crawling through the stuff, agitating the settled fibers and kicking them up into the air. 

“Unfortunately, with the modern lifestyle, babies are exposed to so many different things for which we don’t know what kind of effect they can have later in their life,” says Kurunthachalam Kannan, an environmental health scientist at New York University School of Medicine and coauthor of the new paper, which appears in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters

The researchers did their tally by collecting dirty diapers from six 1-year-olds and running the feces through a filter to collect the microplastics. They did the same with three samples of meconium—a newborn’s first feces—and stool samples from 10 adults. In addition to analyzing the samples for PET, they also looked for polycarbonate plastic, which is used as a lightweight alternative to glass, for instance in eyeglass lenses. To make sure that they only counted the microplastics that came from the infants’ guts, and not from their diapers, they ruled out the plastic that the diapers were made of: polypropylene, a polymer that’s distinct from polycarbonate and PET.

All told, PET concentrations were 10 times higher in infants than in adults, while polycarbonate levels were more even between the two groups. The researchers found smaller amounts of both polymers in the meconium, suggesting that babies are born with plastics already in their systems. This echoes previous studies that have found microplastics in human placentas and meconium.

What this all means for human health—and, more urgently, for infant health—scientists are now racing to find out. Different varieties of plastic can contain any of at least 10,000 different chemicals, a quarter of which are of concern for people, according to a recent study from researchers at ​​ETH Zürich in Switzerland. These additives serve all kinds of plastic-making purposes, like providing flexibility, extra strength, or protection from UV bombardment, which degrades the material. Microplastics may contain heavy metals like lead, but they also tend to accumulate heavy metals and other pollutants as they tumble through the environment. They also readily grow a microbial community of viruses, bacteria, and fungi, many of which are human pathogens.

Of particular concern are a class of chemicals called endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which disrupt hormones and have been connected to reproductive, neurological, and metabolic problems, for instance increased obesity. The infamous plastic ingredient bisphenol A, or BPA, is one such EDC that has been linked to various cancers

“We should be concerned because the EDCs in microplastics have been shown to be linked with several adverse outcomes in human and animal studies,” says Jodi Flaws, a reproductive toxicologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led a 2020 study from the Endocrine Society on plastics. (She wasn’t involved in this new research.) “Some of the microplastics contain chemicals that can interfere with the normal function of the endocrine system.” 

Infants are especially vulnerable to EDCs, since the development of their bodies depends on a healthy endocrine system. “I strongly believe that these chemicals do affect early life stages,” says Kannan. “That’s a vulnerable period.”

This new research adds to a growing body of evidence that babies are highly exposed to microplastic. “This is a very interesting paper with some very worrying numbers,” says University of Strathclyde microplastic researcher Deonie Allen, who wasn’t involved in the study. “We need to look at everything a child is exposed to, not just their bottles and toys.”

Since infants are passing microplastics in their feces, that means the gut could be absorbing some of the particles, like it would absorb nutrients from food. This is known as translocation: Particularly small particles might pass through the gut wall and end up in other organs, including the brain. Researchers have actually demonstrated this in carp by feeding them plastic particles, which translocated through the gut and worked their way to the head, where they caused brain damage that manifested as behavioral problems: Compared to control fish, the individuals with plastic particles in their brains were less active and ate more slowly.

But that was done with very high concentrations of particles, and in an entirely different species. While scientists know that EDCs are bad news, they don’t yet know what level of microplastic exposure it would take to cause problems in the human body. “We need many more studies to confirm the doses and types of chemicals in microplastics that lead to adverse outcomes,” says Flaws.

In the meantime, microplastics researchers say you can limit children’s contact with particles. Do not prepare infant formula with hot water in a plastic bottle—use a glass bottle and transfer it over to the plastic one once the liquid reaches room temperature. Vacuum and sweep to keep floors clear of microfibers. Avoid plastic wrappers and containers when possible. Microplastics have contaminated every aspect of our lives, so while you’ll never get rid of them, you can at least reduce your family’s exposure.


Matt Simon at Wired

The companies polluting the planet have spent millions to make you think carpooling and recycling will save us

The companies polluting the planet have spent millions to make you think carpooling and recycling will save us

Plastics companies spent millions to kickstart recycling programs, and it helped them avoid bans.

Decades later, fossil-fuel interests spend millions to promote carpooling and reducing energy use.

Activists and researchers say this individual-action narrative distracts from the biggest polluters.

Ben Franta is trying to collect every climate-related ad the oil and gas industry has ever produced.

Franta, who is pursuing a law degree and PhD at Stanford, is among a small cohort of researchers who track fossil-fuel industry propaganda. These historians, social scientists, and activists have documented the extent to which major oil companies knew their products were changing the climate as early as the 1960s, and how they poured tens of millions of dollars into sowing doubt about the science through the 1990s.

“Not to get too tin-hat-y, but once you start to see these ads over and over again, you see the common elements arise,” Franta told Insider.

So it was clear to him that around the year 2000, fossil-fuel companies changed marketing tactics. After decades of denial, they pivoted to blaming the climate crisis on you and me.

Franta pointed to a 2007 Chevron ad campaign called “Will you join us?” Each poster featured a person’s face and a pledge — promises like, “I will leave the car at home more” and “I will finally get a programmable thermostat.” In small print, Chevron describes its own initiatives to be energy-efficient.

On the campaign’s now-defunct website, users could even make pledges like carpooling to work a few days per week, and a calculator would tell them how many DVDs they could watch with the energy saved.

“The framing is: ‘No, we the companies are the good ones. We’re working on the problem and we want you, the consumer, to join us in our positive efforts,'” Franta said.

This approach — telling people to solve a crisis by changing their own habits — is a tried and true corporate tactic, pioneered by the tobacco and plastics industries. Now, fossil-fuel giants like Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil have spent millions to convince the public that consumer choices and lifestyle changes will solve the problem.

“It’s almost become natural, when people think about the climate crisis, to think of individual action,” Denali Nalamalapu, a communications specialist for the climate organization 350.org, told Insider. “Which is super convenient for fossil-fuel corporations.”

But at this point, personal lifestyle changes will not turn the climate crisis around. A report from the International Energy Agency, which lays out a path to a net-zero-emissions energy system by 2050, estimates that individual behavioral changes would only account for about 4% of the necessary reductions. 

To have even a 50% chance of stopping the world’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to a study published this month, 90% of coal and 60% of oil and gas reserves must stay in the ground.

A blame campaign: litterbugs and recyclers

garbage sorted recycling plastic bottles
Garbage sits in sorting bins during a concert at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, July 7, 2007. 

In 1971, TVs across the US blasted a heart-wrenching PSA. In it, an actor in ambiguous American-Indian garb, his hair in two long braids, climbs into a canoe and paddles across a river full of discarded newspapers. He passes an industrial barge. Smokestacks puff in the background. He pulls his canoe onto a garbage-strewn shoreline and climbs to a busy highway. A passing motorist chucks a bag of fast food at his moccasined feet.

“People start pollution. People can stop it,” a narrator says as the actor looks into the camera, a tear rolling down his cheek.

This “Crying Indian PSA,” as it’s now known, came from a nonprofit called Keep America Beautiful — a group funded by companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dixie Cups. It debuted at a time when single-use packaging lined streets, beaches, and parks, and environmental activists had begun to rail against plastic pollution.

“That was an intentional, well-funded effort to convince us all that the responsibility for pollution was on us, on individuals, on litterbugs, rather than the companies that were flooding the world with single-use packaging,” John Hocevar, a marine biologist who leads Greenpeace’s oceans campaigns, told Insider.

The tobacco industry did something similar in the 1950s, hiring PR firms to create campaigns blaming smoking-related illness on smokers. But the plastics industry took the strategy further.

As local governments considered banning single-use plastics, a council of plastic-producing companies — including Chevron, Exxon, Dow, and DuPont — spent millions to implement recycling programs across the US. Their own scientists, however, had told them that recycling wouldn’t work on a large scale, according to an investigation by PBS and NPR.

“Making recycling work was a way to keep their products in the marketplace,” Ron Liesemer, a former Du Pont manager who led the effort, told PBS and NPR. “It improves the image of the material.”

recycling blue bins garbage curb
A resident wheels a recycling container to the curb for pickup in San Francisco, November 4, 2009. 

By 2015, the quantity of plastic produced each year had increased 10-fold from 1971. Less than 10% of that material has ever been recycled. Each square kilometer of ocean contains an average of about 13,000 pieces of plastic.

Microplastics — fragments smaller than a fingernail that never fully break down — have been found in the Mariana Trench and at the top of Mount Everest. The average American ingests about 50,000 microplastic particles each year and inhales about the same amount. 

plastic pollution ocean waste environment.JPG
A boy in the Philippines collects plastic material near a polluted coastline to sell. 

Plastic production is expected to double by 2040 and triple by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.

“Just about everybody understands that we need to do something about plastic,” Hocevar said. “The challenge is that many companies — well, most companies — and many politicians are still thinking in this personal-responsibility frame and putting the emphasis on individual consumers. And so that really keeps the conversation focused on solutions that can’t solve the problem.”

Fossil-fuel companies recycled the plastics tactic

Bumper to bumper traffic
Bumper to bumper traffic (file photo). 

Exxon was on the council that led the charge for recycling, and it soon started promoting personal-responsibility solutions to another crisis: global warming.

“Be smart about electricity use,” suggested a 2007 ad from the company (now ExxonMobil). “Heat and cool your home efficiently.” “Improve your gas mileage.”

Science historian Naomi Oreskes has studied ExxonMobil’s climate communications for years.

“They talk about energy demand, they talk about need, they talk about use, and they use the term ‘consumers.’ And this is basically a way of shifting responsibility away from the producers — that is to say them, ExxonMobil — and onto the consumer,” Oreskes told Insider.

In a recent study, Oreskes analyzed 180 ExxonMobil documents discussing climate change from 1977 to 2014. The set includes internal communications, peer-reviewed publications, and “advertorials” — ads that looked like editorials and ran in The New York Times.

Internal documents mentioned carbon dioxide more than 1,000 times. Terms that appeared most included “atmosphere” and “fossil fuel.” Advertorials, by contrast, relied on the terms “energy efficient,” “demand,” and “need.”

hurricane katrina damage
Debris is scattered across Canal Street in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina made landfall. 

BP (formerly called British Petroleum) took a similar approach. In 2004, it created the first “carbon footprint calculator,” a way to pin greenhouse-gas emissions to people’s daily activities.

“The carbon footprint calculator then took off as an idea and as a concept, and really distracted us from looking at the industry itself,” Janet Redman, the director of Greenpeace USA’s climate campaign, told Insider.

Nalamalapu said she calculated her carbon footprint as one of her first climate-change lessons in elementary school. So did I. By 2010, the popularity of the phrase “carbon footprint” had increased by about 1,600% from 2006.

Multiple firefighters walk through the forest.
Cal Fire firefighters battle the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, California, July 23, 2021. 

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus told ProPublica about how much he took this idea to heart. To reduce his carbon footprint, Kalmus has raised chickens in his yard, converted an old car to biodiesel, and built an outdoor toilet to compost his family’s poop. He’s had nightmares about plane rides.

“It feels like the plane is flying on ground-up babies to me,” Kalmus told ProPublica.

BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil say they’re changing

In statements to Insider, spokespeople for Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil pointed to their companies’ efforts to reduce emissions.

seven adults wade through tropical storm harvey floodwaters carrying children and bags
Residents wade through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, August 28, 2017. 

“Chevron is investing more than $3 billion from now to 2028 to advance the energy transition,” Chevron spokesperson Sean Comey said. “Chevron believes the world’s demand for oil and gas should be supplied by the most efficient, least carbon-intensive producers.”

Comey also said the company is working to reduce emissions from its oil and gas extraction and is exceeding the goals it set for itself for 2023. He said that although “too much plastic waste ends up in landfills, oceans, and rivers,” plastics “are essential to modern life and help improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world.”

BP declined to comment on the company’s carbon-footprint calculator, but pointed to its net-zero goals and a recent acquisition of solar-energy projects, which it aims to more than double by 2025. 

“BP believes we have an important role to play in addressing climate change,” spokesperson Joshua Hicks said. “That’s why we launched a new ambition last year to become a net-zero company by 2050 or sooner, and to help the world get there too. In line with that ambition, we’ve set targets for drastically reducing our emissions and increasing our low-carbon investments, and we’re actively advocating for policies that support net zero.”

crude oil pump jack in texas field sunset backdrop
The sun sets behind a crude oil pump jack on a drill pad in Loving County, Texas, November 24, 2019. 

ExxonMobil, meanwhile, said it “is working to reduce company emissions and helping customers reduce their emissions while working on new lower-emission technologies and advocating for effective policies.”

The company alleges that Oreskes has a conflict of interest, pointing to her expert testimony in a climate-related lawsuit last year.

“This research is clearly part of a litigation strategy against ExxonMobil and other energy companies,” a statement shared by spokesperson Casey Norton said.

Oreskes said she has offered expertise “in a number of capacities to groups and organizations involved in fighting climate change,” and does not see any conflict of interest.

BP still advertises its calculator today. One of its subsidiaries backs an app that tracks your carbon footprint in real time, Grist reported. BP also made its biggest acquisition in 20 years in 2018: $10.5 billion of west Texas oil fields.

“They don’t want a price on carbon, they don’t want incentives for renewable energy, they don’t want to block new fossil-fuel infrastructure,” atmospheric scientist Michael Mann told Insider. “So they say: ‘No, it’s just about you being a better person, you being more responsible in your day to day activities.'”

A Chevron lawyer even said as much in federal court, according to Grist: In 2018, the company argued that it’s not oil production causing climate change, “it’s the way people are living their lives.”

A million-dollar distraction

carbon emissions
Smoke rises from the chimneys of a power plant in Shanghai in December 2009. 

The ads Oreskes and Franta have collected show how much money fossil-fuel interests have poured into influencing the narrative on climate change. The American Petroleum Institute, a fossil-fuel trade association, spent $663 million on PR and advertising between 2008 and 2017, according to a report from the Climate Investigations Center.

The results, Redman said, can be insidious.

“It’s easy to see that rhetoric, that it’s about individual responsibility, and feel paralyzed and not take the kinds of political action that we need,” she said.

The stakes are only getting higher, according to the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For every half-degree of warming, the frequency and intensity of heat waves and droughts increase. Even in the best-case climate scenario, sea levels will rise nearly a foot over the next 80 years.

Still, if you’ve dedicated time and energy to recycling or biking to work — don’t despair. These choices, if lots of people make them, can make a difference. Nalamalapu takes reusable bags to the grocery store. Mann drives a hybrid car and doesn’t eat meat. Oreskes has solar panels on her roof.

“We do all have personal responsibility. The question is: How do we balance that personal responsibility with the larger structural and political questions at stake? And what is the role of the fossil-fuel industry?” Oreskes said.

“Riding our bikes is important. And turning off the lights, not cranking the AC with a window open, all that stuff is really important, for sure,” Redman said. “But it pales in comparison to political activity to change the rules about how our energy system is structured, who the actors are, who benefits, who pays.”


Morgan McFall-Johnsen & Aylin Woodward at Business Insider

Bottled water is 3,500 times worse for the environment than tap water, say scientists

Bottled water is 3,500 times worse for the environment than tap water, say scientists

Tap water is thousands of times better for the environment than bottled water, according to scientists. In fact, it takes three times as much water to produce a plastic bottle as it can hold.

This might not come as a surprise but researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) have crunched the numbers to work out just how much better it actually is.

The research focused on Barcelona, Spain which is home to around 1.35 million people – nearly 60 per cent of whom consume bottled water at least some of the time.

They used something called a “life cycle assessment” which estimates the environmental impact of an item over its entire lifespan. That includes the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, use and disposal.

In the US alone water bottle manufacturing takes 1.5 million barrels of oil every year – more than it would take to power 100,000 homes. And that is without the fossil fuel or emissions costs of transporting them to shops.

The ISGlobal study found that if every resident in Barcelona switched to bottled water, extracting the raw materials would cost more than €70 million and lead to the loss of 1.43 animal species every year.

This would be 1400 times more of an impact on ecosystems and 3500 times higher cost to the environment for resources, than if the whole city were to drink tap water instead.

Are there any health risks to tap water?

The use of bottled water has risen in recent years in part due to factors such as taste, odour, marketing campaigns and lack of public faith in the quality of tap water.

ISGlobal researcher Cristina Villaneuva says there have been substantial improvements in the quality of tap water in Barcelona over the last few years.

“However, this considerable improvement has not been mirrored by an increase in tap water consumption, which suggests that water consumption could be motivated by subjective factors other than quality.”


One of the problems is the perceived presence of chemical compounds such as trihalomethanes. In an innovative move, data about the lifecycle of bottled water was also compared to a framework that is used to measure health.

They found that any risk to health was small and adding a domestic filtration system reduced that risk considerably.

“Our results show that considering both the environmental and the health effects, tap water is a better option than bottled water, because bottled water generates a wider range of impacts”, says ISGlobal researcher Cathryn Tonne.



Above The Noise

The Ocean Cleanup Deploys Full-Scale System to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Ocean Cleanup Deploys Full-Scale System to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Ocean Cleanup has deployed its first full-scale system designed to clean-up ocean plastics to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The system, known as System002 or “Jenny”, left Victoria, British Columbia last Month on board a Maersk offshore supply vessel. “Jenny” builds on earlier tests conducted 2018 and 2019 and is the first full-scale system (800 meters in length) to be tested. Compared to the earlier systems, “Jenny” is larger and includes new technology such as active propulsion.

Founded in 2013, The Ocean Cleanup’s mission is to develop and advance technologies to cleanup plastic pollution at sea and also stop the inflow via rivers. Over the last several years, the company has been developing a large-scale system that essentially concentrates floating plastic for removal. The company then uses the plastic to create products that help raise funds for its efforts.

The company continues to aim for the removal of 90% of ocean plastic by 2040.

The Ocean Cleanup and Maersk Supply Service have been working together since 2018 and, earlier this year, agreed to a new 3-year partnership. Maersk Supply Service role is to provide marine offshore support and also end-to-end supply chain management.

With “Jenny” now in place at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, The Ocean Cleanup is set to conduct more than 70 tests planned for the next 6 weeks.

The Ocean Cleanup ultimately aims to deploy dozens of the systems to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over the coming years. If successful, the fleet could be enough to remove half of the nearly 2 trillion pieces of plastic estimated to be floating on or near the surface of the Pacific Ocean in just five years.

Located between California and Hawaii, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest concentration of ocean plastic in the world.


Mike Schuler at gCaptain

Spare Yourself the Guilt Trip This Earth Day – It’s Companies That Need to Clean Up Their Acts

Spare Yourself the Guilt Trip This Earth Day – It’s Companies That Need to Clean Up Their Acts

Coined in the 1970s, the classic Earth Day mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” has encouraged consumers to take stock of the materials they buy, use, and often quickly pitch — all in the name of curbing pollution and saving the earth’s resources. Most of us listened, or lord knows we tried.

 We’ve carried totes and refused straws and dutifully rinsed yogurt cartons before placing them in the appropriately marked bins. And yet, nearly half a century later, the United States still produces more than 35 million tons of plastic annually, and sends more and more of it into our oceanslakessoils, and bodies.

Clearly, something isn’t working, but as a consumer, I’m sick of the weight of those millions of tons of trash falling squarely on consumers’ shoulders. While I’ll continue to do my part, it’s high time that the companies profiting from all this waste also step up and help us deal with their ever-growing footprint on our planet.

An investigation last year by NPR and PBS confirmed that polluting industries have long relied on recycling as a greenwashing scapegoat. If the public came to view recycling as a panacea for sky-high plastic consumption, manufacturers—as well as the oil and gas companies that sell the raw materials that make up plastics—bet they could continue deluging the market with their products.

There are currently no laws that require manufacturers to help pay for expensive recycling programs or make the process easier, but a promising trend is emerging. Earlier this year, New York legislators Todd Kaminsky and Steven Englebright proposed a billthe “Extended Producer Responsibility Act“—that would make manufacturers in the state responsible for the disposal of their products.

Other laws exist in some states for hazardous wastes, such as electronics, car batteries, paint, and pesticide containers. Paint manufacturers in nearly a dozen states, for example, must manage easy-access recycling drop-off sites for leftover paint. Those laws have so far kept more than 16 million gallons of paint from contaminating the environment. But for the first time, manufacturers could soon be on the hook for much broader categories of trash—including everyday paper, metal, glass, and plastic packaging—by paying fees to the municipalities that run waste management systems. In addition to New York, the states of California, Washington, and Colorado also currently have such bills in the works.

“The New York bill would be a foundation on which a modern, more sustainable waste management system could be built,” says NRDC waste expert Eric Goldstein.

Full story by Courtney Lindwall at EcoWatch


How much plastic are you eating?

How much plastic are you eating?

What’s for dinner? Lego sushi, credit card burgers, or a well-done piece of PVC pipe? These examples may sound extreme, but can easily represent over time the cumulative amount of microscopic pieces of plastic we consume every day.

People could be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card of plastic a week, a 2019 study by WWF International concluded, mainly in plastic-infused drinking water but also via food like shellfish, which tends to be eaten whole so the plastic in their digestive systems is also consumed.

Plastic cards weighing 7 grams, which is equivalent to the amount of plastic that someone could eat in ten days, are displayed inside a tuna salad sandwich with a cup of milk.

Reuters used the findings of the study to illustrate what this amount of plastic actually looks like over various periods of time. In a month, we ingest the weight of a 4×2 Lego brick in plastic, and in a year, the amount of plastic in a fireman’s helmet. This may not sound like much, but it can add up. At this rate of consumption, in a decade, we could be eating 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) in plastic, the equivalent of over two sizable pieces of plastic pipe.

A plastic pipe weighing 1 kilogram, which is equivalent to the amount of plastic that someone could eat in four years, is displayed on a cutting board.

And over a lifetime, we consume about 20 kg (44 lb) of microplastic. Plastic production has surged in the last 50 years with the widespread use of inexpensive disposable products. As plastic is not biodegradable, but only breaks down into smaller pieces, it ultimately ends up everywhere, cluttering beaches and choking marine wildlife, as well as in the food chain.

Standing on the shoreline of a wildlife-protected saltmarsh in southern England, Malcolm Hudson, a professor of environmental science at the University of Southampton, shows Reuters small, bead-like plastic pellets that permeate the marsh. Hudson says that most research has been done on these microplastics, but there are increasing amounts of even smaller particles called nanoplastics in the environment that are far more difficult to detect, which we are likely ingesting as well.

Plastic toy beads weighing a total of 125 grams, which is equivalent to the amount of plastic that someone could eat in 6 months, are displayed inside a cereal bowl filled with milk.

“It could pass into our blood or lymphatic system and end up in our organs,” said Hudson.” Those plastic particles are little time bombs waiting to break down small enough to be absorbed by wildlife or by people and then potentially have harmful consequences.”

Full story by Mathew Stock at Reuters, Photography by Kim Kyung-Hoon