Tag Archives: plastic garbage

The Trash Islands

According to a three-year study published in Scientific Reports on March 23, 2018, the mass known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is about 1.6 million square kilometers in size — up to 16 times bigger than previous estimates. That makes it more than double the size of Texas.  Ghost nets, or discarded fishing nets, make up almost half the 80,000 metric tons of garbage floating at sea, and researchers believe that around 20% of the total volume of trash is debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

The study — conducted by an international team of scientists with The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company — utilized two aircraft surveys and 30 vessels to cross the debris field.

Along with nets to survey and collect trash, researchers used two six-meter-wide devices to measure medium to large-sized objects. An aircraft was also fitted with advanced sensors to collect 3D scans of the ocean garbage. They ended up collecting a total of 1.2 million plastic samples and scanned more than 300 square kilometers of ocean surface.  The bulk of the pile is made up of larger objects while only 8% of the mass is microplastics, or pieces smaller than 5 millimeters in size.

The patch is so big that last fall environmentalists called on the United Nations to declare the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a country, called “The Trash Isles,” complete with its own passport and currency, called debris…Research scientist Britta Denise Hardesty, who wasn’t involved in this study, said while discarded nets may make up almost half of the findings, the problem may be more nuanced.  It’s estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost to the marine environment each year.

Excerpts from A massive garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is now three times the size of France, CNN, Mar. 24, 2017

How to Spend $18 billion on Foreign Garbage

image from wikipedia

China sucked in more than half the world’s exports of scrap copper and waste paper in 2016, and half of its used plastic. All in all, China spent over $18bn on imports of rubbish in 2016. America, meanwhile, is an eager supplier. In 2016 nearly a quarter of America’s biggest exporters by volume were recyclers of paper, plastic or metal. Topping the list was America Chung Nam, a California-based supplier of waste paper which last year exported a whopping 333,900 containers, almost all of them to China.

This may soon change. On July 18, 2017 China told the World Trade Organisation that by the end of the year, it will no longer accept imports of 24 categories of solid waste as part of a government campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage”. The Ministry of Environmental Protection says restricting such imports will protect the environment and improve public health. But the proposed import ban will disrupt billions of dollars in trade. Recyclers worry that other categories of waste may soon receive the same treatment.

It is often cheaper to recycle scrap copper, iron and steel, as well as waste paper and plastic, than to make such materials from scratch, especially when commodity prices are high. So as commodity prices rose during the 2000s, the burgeoning trade in waste benefited both exporters, who made money from previously worthless trash, and importers, who gained access to a reliable stream of precious feedstock. Between 1995 and 2016 Chinese imports of waste grew tenfold, from 4.5m to 45m tonnes.

But imports of recyclable waste are often dirty, poorly sorted or contaminated with hazardous substances such as lead or mercury. In 1996 factories in Xinjiang inadvertently imported more than 100 tonnes of radioactive metal from Kazakhstan. The following year an American businessman was convicted of smuggling over 200 tonnes of unsorted rubbish labelled as waste paper. Even when the intended material is imported, it is often recycled improperly. In 2002 the authorities faced widespread criticism after a documentary showed workers in Guangdong province crudely dismantling discarded electronic devices and dumping the toxic remains into a river. Officials may have been spurred into the latest restrictions by the release of Plastic China, an unflattering documentary about the plastic-recycling industry which was screened at Sundance, a grand American film festival, in January 2017,

The government had already been campaigning to block imports of illegal and low-quality waste under a crackdown called Operation Green Fence launched in 2013….Whereas Green Fence was aimed at improving the quality of imported waste, the government’s latest move bans several types of waste outright, threatening some $5bn in trade. But…. recyclers who rely on imports may now switch to grubbier domestic stock.

Excerpts from Waste Management: Anti-Dumping, Economist, Aug. 5, 2017, at 32

Loving the Plastic Bag

Since their invention in the 1960s, disposable plastic bags have made lives easier for lazy shoppers the world over. But once used, they become a blight. This is particularly true in poor countries without good systems for disposing of them. They are not only unsightly. Filled with rainwater, they are a boon for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Dumped in the ocean, they kill fish. They may take hundreds of years to degrade. On March 15th Kenya announced that it will become the second country in Africa to ban them. It follows Rwanda, a country with a dictatorial obsession with cleanliness, which outlawed them in 2008…

As Kenyans get richer and move to cities, the amount of plastic they use is growing. By one estimate, Kenya gets through 24m bags a month, or two per person. (Americans, by comparison, use roughly three per person.) Between 2010 and 2014 annual plastic production in Kenya expanded by a third, to 400,000 tonnes. Bags made up a large part of the growth.

Kenya has tried to ban polythene bags twice before, in 2007 and 2011, without much success. This latest measure is broader, but few are ready for it. The Kenyan Association of Manufacturers says it will cost thousands of jobs. Some worry that supermarkets will simply switch to paper bags, which could add to deforestation. And then there is the question of whether Kenyan consumers will accept it. In Rwanda, since its ban was imposed, a thriving underground industry has emerged smuggling the bags from neighbouring Congo.

Excerpts African Rubbish: Plastic Bantastic, Economist, Mar. 25, 2016

Eating Fish in Microplastics

microplastics

One study has estimated that of the 275 million tonnes of plastic waste generated by 192 countries in 2010, 4.8–12.7 million tonnes could have entered the ocean. That’s a serious amount in just one year.

Luckily, some plastic waste is recyclable…However, many of the world’s coastal countries currently do not have such recycling policies nor the technical capabilities, and so large quantities of plastic are not recycled and enter landfill. The durable properties of plastics make them persistent and slow to degrade in the environment, and ultimately non-recycled plastics on land and in the rivers are left to work their way into the oceans.

It’s at this point the story of plastic ocean pollution seems to become synonymous with microplastics. Typically less than 5 mm in size, microplastics can be eroded to particles as small as 1–100 nm – nanoplastics. Using modelling tools it has been estimated a total of 15–51 trillion microplastic particles have accumulated in the ocean. Some start out as large plastic pieces, slowly eroded by water; others start off as microplastics specifically produced for certain uses, eg microbeads in cosmetic products such as facewash, soaps and shower creams. Microbeads … after they have been washed down the drain, they have been found to evade filtration systems at water treatment works and are discharged directly into the oceans…

Another emerging source of marine microplastics from household wastewater is microfibres leaching from clothing when washed. Microfibres are 1/100th the diameter of a human hair and are used for better waterproofing, breathability and flexibility in sportswear. The most common types of microfibers are made from polyesters and polyamides, and according to researchers giving evidence to the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in 2016, the number of leached microfibres in wastewater could be as many as 1900 fibres per garment.

Although it is relatively easy to develop policies and bans for microbeads and microfibers, these sources are just a drop in the ocean in terms of tonnage….

[P]lastic waste can travel great lengths. As such, waste from one place can become an issue in a region geographically distant from the original source, due to the oceans’ powerful currents…. Microplastics…, can also exist on beaches and in deeper waters of the oceans where animals feed, and it’s here the main large scale threats to wildlife…[T]he main problem is marine wildlife mistaking micro- and nanoplastics for food. Once ingested, they can cause gut blockage, physical injury, changes to oxygen levels in cells in the body, altered feeding behaviour and reduced energy levels, which impacts growth and reproduction….

[T]here is a need to change the way plastic is viewed by society: from ubiquitous, disposable waste to a valuable, recyclable raw material, much like metal and glass. It’s hoped this will increase the economic value of plastic waste.

Better process design is also needed to improve the issue, especially with regards to recyclability and biodegradability. ..[T]he invention of new, bio-based polymers could lead to improved biodegradability, and this would be greatly helped by further research into the degradation of plastics in the environment. The new plastics must retain functionality but degrade to innocuous substances much quicker.

Excerpts from Camilla Alexander-White The massive problem of microplastics,  Royal Society of Chemistry Nov. 15, 2016