The missing 99%: why can’t we find the vast majority of ocean plastic?

The missing 99%: why can’t we find the vast majority of ocean plastic?

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: December 31, 2019 SNIP: Every year, 8m tons of plastic enters the ocean. Images of common household waste swirling in vast garbage patches in the open sea, or tangled up with whales and seabirds, have turned plastic pollution into one of the most popular environmental issues in the world. But for at least a decade, the biggest question among scientists who study marine plastic hasn’t been why plastic in the ocean is so abundant, but why it isn’t. What scientists can see and measure, in the garbage patches and on beaches, accounts for only a tiny fraction of the total plastic entering the water. So where is the other 99% of ocean plastic? Unsettling answers have recently begun to emerge. What we commonly see accumulating at the sea surface is “less than the tip of the iceberg, maybe a half of 1% of the total,” says Erik Van Sebille, an oceanographer at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “I often joke that being an ocean plastic scientist should be an easy job, because you can always find a bit wherever you look,” says Van Sebille. But, he adds, the reality is that our maps of the ocean essentially end at the surface, and solid numbers on how much plastic is in any one location are lacking. It is becoming apparent that plastic ends up in huge quantities in the deepest parts of the ocean, buried in sediment on the seafloor, and caught like clouds of dust deep in the water column. Perhaps most frighteningly, says Helge Niemann, a biogeochemist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea...
The Plastics Pipeline: A Surge of New Production Is on the Way

The Plastics Pipeline: A Surge of New Production Is on the Way

SOURCE: Yale e360 DATE: December 19, 2019 SNIP: As public concern about plastic pollution rises, consumers are reaching for canvas bags, metal straws, and reusable water bottles. But while individuals fret over images of oceanic garbage gyres, the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are pouring billions of dollars into new plants intended to make millions more tons of plastic than they now pump out. Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Saudi Aramco are ramping up output of plastic — which is made from oil and gas, and their byproducts — to hedge against the possibility that a serious global response to climate change might reduce demand for their fuels, analysts say. Petrochemicals, the category that includes plastic, now account for 14 percent of oil use, and are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. The World Economic Forum predicts plastic production will double in the next 20 years. And because the American fracking boom is unearthing, along with natural gas, large amounts of the plastic feedstock ethane, the United States is a big growth area for plastic production. With natural gas prices low, many fracking operations are losing money, so producers have been eager to find a use for the ethane they get as a byproduct of drilling. America’s petrochemical hub has historically been the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, with a stretch along the lower Mississippi River dubbed “Cancer Alley” because of the impact of toxic emissions. Producers are expanding their footprint there with a slew of new projects, and proposals for more. They are also seeking...
What happens when hermit crabs confuse plastic trash for shells? An ‘avalanche’ of death.

What happens when hermit crabs confuse plastic trash for shells? An ‘avalanche’ of death.

SOURCE: Washington Post DATE: December 5, 2019 SNIP: A study that called attention to a remote cluster of islands off Australia’s coast was met with international concern when it published in May. In a harrowing account of their trip to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands two years prior, researchers recalled seeing beaches that were “literally drowning in plastic.” An estimated 414 million pieces of it. But Jennifer Lavers and her research team now say they made another startling observation while digging through copious amounts of litter on that 2017 trip: Many of the bottles, cans and containers were not empty. Scores of hermit crabs, mostly dead, were trapped inside. The scientists say plastic debris has caused the deaths of more than half a million hermit crabs on the Cocos Islands and the similarly remote Henderson Island in the South Pacific. Their findings illustrate yet another consequence of man-made waste that enters the world’s oceans and pollutes its beaches — defiling nature in ways that foster unsettling imagery. Turtles with straws in their nostrils. Sperm whales with pounds of garbage in their stomachs. And now, hermit crabs — lured into slippery plastic bottles they cannot climb out of. “The question was, is Cocos unique, or is this a more widespread problem that could be happening anywhere?” Lavers, a researcher with the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, said in an interview. “That’s what these two islands suggest: A lot of places where you have crabs and debris, this is probably happening.” The staggering amount of plastic waste on the beaches of Henderson and Cocos Islands is well-documented, but...
Whale dies with 100 kg ball of plastic trash in its stomach

Whale dies with 100 kg ball of plastic trash in its stomach

SOURCE: CBC News DATE: December 2, 2019 SNIP: A sperm whale that stranded and then died on a beach in Scotland had a ball of trash in its stomach heavier than most human beings. The nets, bundles of rope, plastic cups, bags, gloves, packing straps and tubing totalled about 100 kilograms, the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme reported on its Facebook page Sunday. That’s quite a bit more than the average human mass of 62 kilograms. “All this material was in a huge ball in the stomach, and some of it looked like it had been there for some time,” said the group, funded by the Scottish and U.K. governments to track marine animal strandings on Scottish coastlines. This is just the latest of several recent reports of whales being found with huge amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. Earlier this year, a Cuvier’s beaked whale was found in the Philippines with 40 kilograms of “hard, calcified plastic garbage” in its stomach. A sperm whale found in Indonesia last year had 115 plastic cups, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, 2 flip-flops, a nylon sack and more than 1,000 other assorted pieces of plastic in its stomach — totalling six kilograms. And earlier in 2018, a pilot whale that died in Thailand was found to have swallowed 80 plastic bags and other plastic items, in all weighing eight kilograms. The world’s oceans now contain an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic, about 80 to 90 per cent of it from land-based sources, reports the United Nations Environment Programme. In May, 180 countries around the world reached a deal...
The U.S. Natural Gas Boom Is Fueling A Global Plastics Boom

The U.S. Natural Gas Boom Is Fueling A Global Plastics Boom

SOURCE: NPR DATE: November 15, 2019 SNIP: Natural gas is mostly used for heating homes or fueling power plants. But when it comes out of the ground it contains another key ingredient — ethane, a building block of plastics — that is now fueling another booming industry. America is producing so much ethane that more than 300 new petrochemical and plastics plants are either planned or are under construction around the U.S. President Trump has touted the economic benefits of this, recently telling workers at a Shell ethane plant in Pennsylvania that “we are reclaiming our noble heritage as a nation of builders.” But there’s more ethane than existing U.S. plants can use, so in short order the U.S. has also become the world’s leading exporter of ethane. That’s feeding growing plastics industries in India and China, as well as Europe and those exports are expected to keep growing. Plastics and petrochemicals are increasingly important to the oil and gas industry. They’re expected to account for more than a third of growth in world oil demand by 2030, and half of all growth by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. This worries environmentalists, who point out that the plastics industry accounts for about 4% of all carbon emissions, and that number is expected to increase. Much of the growth in plastics will be in Asia, where millions of people will be moving into the middle class in the next few...