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  1. A Worrisome Discovery in High Arctic Snowfall Snow from the Far North can contain thousands of particles of microplastic, a new study finds. Industrial pollution from across the Northern Hemisphere, such as from this nickel plant in Norilsk, Russia, eventually collects in the Arctic.Ilya Naymushin / Reuters When Melanie Bergmann, an ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, collected snow and ice samples for her new study, she had to work extra hard not to contaminate them. She and her colleagues always looked for the freshest snow. They always stood with their backs to the wind. They picked up the ice with unorthodox metal tools—including, at one point, a household soup ladle—and deposited it in glassware. And—most unusually—they always worked with their bare hands, never touching the plastic gloves that most scientists automatically don in the field. “Plastic gloves,” Bergmann told me, “are not the best if you want to sample microplastics.” In just the past decade, scientists have discovered that microplastics—defined as any plastic detritus that’s about the size of a sesame seed or smaller—are a major new pollutant, the spread of which we’re only now understanding. Microplastics are present in 94 percent of tap water in the United States, according to one study. They form as larger plastic items—toys, clothing, paint chips, car tires—get worn down and torn to shreds. In a new study, published today in Science Advances, Bergmann and her colleagues looked at whether microplastics collect in the air, as well. They looked for microplastics trapped in snow from the Alps, sea ice from the Arctic Ocean, and snow from the High Arctic island of Svalbard. Snow tends to be good at shaking out particles hanging in the air, so any microplastics in the snow would likely have come from the air, especially in the remote Arctic locations. Not only did they find microplastics; the “sheer number” the team uncovered shocked Bergmann. “We did expect to find microplastics, but the numbers that we found were a big surprise,” she said. Thousands of particles of microplastic were in nearly every sample from the Arctic; a single liter of snow contained 14,000 grains of the stuff. Microplastics were even more abundant in Europe, where there were as many as 150,000 grains of microplastic per liter of snow. To translate: If you melted down enough Arctic ice to fill a one-gallon milk jug, it might contain as many as 53,000 shreds of microplastic. Those microplastics may have fallen as snow, but they arrived in the Arctic through the atmosphere. The study shows that microplastics, shorn from human products and carried by global trade winds, are now accumulating in some of the harshest, most remote places on Earth. The study also offers some of the strongest evidence so far that microplastics—for which human health risks are still very poorly understood—might be virtually ubiquitous in the air, water, and human environment. Tiny shreds of plastic might enter your lungs when you sniff a spring breeze, the study suggests, and they might slosh around your stomach when you drink a glass of water. Yet we still have little grasp on what, if anything, microplastics do once inside the human body. In the animal world, microplastics seem to already be causing harm. They can block the digestive tracts of fish and insects. Some chemicals present in plastic might affect animal endocrine systems. In April, a dead sperm whale with 48 pounds of plastic in its system washed ashore in Sardinia. Microplastics may pose a particular threat to Arctic life because the Arctic serves as a meeting point for ocean currents and trade winds from across the Northern Hemisphere. A recent study found that the Arctic Ocean contains more plastic waste than any other ocean, with roughly 300 billion pieces of detritus. When Bergmann and her colleagues combed the deep-sea floor, they found roughly 6,000 pieces of microplastic per kilogram of dry sediment. “That’s a lot,” she said. To avoid plastic contamination, the researchers collected samples with their bare hands, removing their gloves even in the harsh Arctic environment. (Mine Tekman / Alfred Wegener Institute) The new study makes for “interesting and terrifying stuff,” said Joe McConnell, a professor at the Desert Research Institute, in an email. He studies how Arctic snow collects other forms of air pollution, and he was not connected to the microplastic research. “The Arctic has been contaminated by mid-latitude industrial emissions for most of the past three millennia—starting as early as the Romans and likely even earlier—so I don’t find it too surprising that very small [microplastic] particles are transported to and deposited in remote regions such as the Arctic or the Alps,” he said. What was worrying, he said, was that Bergmann and her colleagues found the most particles at the smallest range they looked for. (The new paper could not detect microplastics smaller than 11 micrometers across, which is about the same width as cling wrap.) Since pollution particles are generally more harmful at smaller sizes, it suggests that the study doesn’t capture the most dangerous risks. “The very, very small particles—which likely have the most serious health risks—may be even more ubiquitous in the remote environment, which is especially troubling,” McConnell said. Bergmann, meanwhile, found herself most surprised by the origin of the microplastics. When she and her colleagues analyzed their samples, they imagined they might find a lot of polyethylene, the most common plastic in the world, which makes up kids’ toys and single-use plastic bags. And they did. But far and away the most common type of plastic was from varnish. It occurred in every sample, in many different sizes, “even in the Arctic,” she said. It seemed weird. “I’ve seen [varnish microplastic] in deep-sea sediment, but there you can assume it’s from ship paint,” she told me. But how does varnish get into the air? “I started thinking, and it occurred to me how many of our surfaces are actually coated in polymer-based varnish these days,” she said. “Many buildings, offshore construction, cars, ships. [Then] it’s exposed to sunlight, wind, wear and tear, and smaller fragments become loose and get transported with the air.” And the second-most-common type of microplastic in their samples was rubber, like the kind used to make car tires. Bergmann, with admirable understatement, called these results “kind of problematic.” “With our current political and economic system, we find it difficult to reduce single-use plastic, but that’s actually the easy part,” she said. “Reducing varnish or the use of car tires … that’s a lot more difficult.” Source: A Worrisome Discovery in High Arctic Snowfall
  2. The Riddle, and Controversy, of All That Missing Plastic The contentious Ocean Cleanup campaign has an idea where marine plastic ends up. But it's already stirring debate. Photograph: The Ocean Cleanup Humans unleash mountains of plastic into the sea each year, and that rate is only accelerating as plastic production grows around the world. The confounding bit is that scientists know little about where all that plastic is ending up—in gyres like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, yes, but that’s just a fraction of the debris released into the ocean each year. The folks behind the controversial Ocean Cleanup campaign, which is experimenting with a massive U-shaped catcher in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, have an idea of where all the trash is going and how it’s degrading—or not degrading—over time. That may have big implications for how Ocean Cleanup and other plastic campaigns end up tackling this mess. But several plastics researchers are already disputing this new work, as well as Ocean Cleanup’s approach to the pollution problem. When plastic debris end up in the ocean, they break into smaller microplastics, often invisible to the human eye, that swirl in the water column or sink to the bottom of the sea. Two recent studies have backed that up: One sampled water down thousands of feet in Monterey Bay and found particles, while the other took sediment samples off the coast of Southern California and found plastic in layers dating back to the 1940s, when its production began in earnest. Photograph: The Ocean Cleanup Ocean Cleanup says it’s discovered a complicating factor here in the age of the plastics. These researchers are, of course, quite familiar with the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where macroplastics have turned up that are years, even decades old. “The age and the look of plastic in coastal environments versus the plastic that we find in offshore waters is completely different,” says Laurent Lebreton, chief scientist at Ocean Cleanup and lead author of a new paper in Nature Scientific Reports detailing the findings. Along the coast, you’ll find plastic that’s typically less than five years old. “You can really recognize it,” says Lebreton. “It still has the labels, it still has the branding, and so on.” The plastic they find out at sea, by contrast, is older and more weathered. Illustration: The Ocean Cleanup To complement these findings, Ocean Cleanup used data on winds and currents to show that when pieces of plastic come out of, say, rivers, they tend to stick around the coastline. Maybe they’re washing out a little ways, then washing back ashore. Perhaps they bury in coastal sediments, then resurface due to erosion. Ocean Cleanup reckons that in total, just .06 percent of plastics from the shore and coastline make their way into gyres. But the plastics that do make it there can stick around for perhaps decades—the researchers say they’ve pulled out plastics from the 1970s. They even found a Game Boy. “Plastic fragments mostly by layers,” adds Lebreton. “We call it the onion peel.” But different kinds of plastic polymers, in varying shapes, degrade at different rates. A Game Boy, for instance, has a better chance of surviving for years than a plastic bag. Photograph: The Ocean Cleanup But a problem with this study, at least for Marcus Eriksen, who studies ocean plastic and directs the 5 Gyres Institute, is that the observations are based on only 50 pieces of plastic that could be dated as old. “For this paper to come out and say hey, we found 50 objects with dates on them, and we think trash is in the ocean for decades and therefore we must continue this cleanup narrative, is wrong,” he says. "That's my personal opinion." An old piece of trash could have fallen off a boat a month ago, for instance, instead of starting its ocean journey from shore sometime during the last century. (Ocean Cleanup says it collected 83,000 pieces, of which 50 had production dates, but only found one object dated past 2010. The group contends that if the sampled debris had been recently discarded, it should have found more new pieces.) Scripps oceanographer Jennifer Brandon agrees that just because a piece of plastic in the gyre is old doesn’t mean it’s been adrift for a long time. And even if .06 percent of plastics from the shore and coastline make their way into gyres, Ocean Cleanup’s device isn’t equipped to capture microplastics. “One sticking point that I've always had with the people at Ocean Cleanup is I think personally they always underestimate the microplastic,” she says. The group notes that because it would be difficult to collect microplastics in the sea, it's important for them to collect macroplastics before they fragment into smaller pieces. The science of ocean plastic pollution is so new, it’s still hard to tell what’s doing the most harm, and what most needs fixing. Macroplastics like single-use bags get into sea turtle stomachs, but microplastics are small enough to embed in organisms like shellfish. Scientists still don’t know how the chemicals that leach off plastics might affect marine organisms like the bacteria that produce our oxygen. If this new study is correct in that plastics ejected at the coast tend to stick to the coast, as other modelers have generally found, you might argue that cleanup efforts should focus on those areas. After all, biodiversity is especially high around the coasts—think of bustling reefs. “I'm really less concerned environmentally about this nasty garbage patch than I am about all the plastics that are right along the coastline,” says University of Michigan eco-toxicologist Allen Burton, who studies plastic pollution. Photograph: The Ocean Cleanup Nevertheless, what Ocean Cleanup has engineered is staggering: A 600-meter-long tube that collects plastic for ships to haul away. It cost tens of millions of dollars to build and deploy. Upon its launch it didn’t catch much plastic, and then it split in two. Ocean Cleanup is now testing a new iteration, but that does nothing to address the core problem of humans pumping endless quantities of plastics into the sea. To stop it, we need to address the source. Baltimore, for instance, has deployed giant trash wheels complete with googly eyes to pull plastics out of the water before they hit the ocean. “Upstream prevention is how we solve these big, environmental, global issues—precedent shows that,” says Eriksen. This new paper is an important piece of the narrative because if older objects are indeed persisting in the Pacific patch, that gives Ocean Cleanup’s mission more urgency: If we don’t clean up these messes, they’ll just keep growing bigger. But again, that’s based on 50 pieces of old plastic they pulled from a sea of debris. For all its size and fame, the Garbage Patch might not be our biggest plastic problem. “I think it's wrong to keep pushing this and using that wiggle room in science to get these papers out that say these big, stretched ideas about ocean accumulation,” says Eriksen. If you were expecting this problem of epic proportions to get any less epic, today is not your day. Source: The Riddle, and Controversy, of All That Missing Plastic
  3. After bronze and iron, welcome to the plastic age, say scientists Plastic pollution has entered the fossil record, research shows Scientists in Long Beach, California, studying the effects of oceanic microplastic pollution on the ecosystem. Photograph: UIG/Getty Plastic pollution is being deposited into the fossil record, research has found, with contamination increasing exponentially since 1945. Scientists suggest the plastic layers could be used to mark the start of the Anthropocene, the proposed geological epoch in which human activities have come to dominate the planet. They say after the bronze and iron ages, the current period may become known as the plastic age. The study, the first detailed analysis of the rise in plastic pollution in sediments, examined annual layers off the coast of California back to 1834. They discovered the plastic in the layers mirrors precisely the exponential rise in plastic production over the past 70 years. Most of the plastic particles were fibres from synthetic fabrics used in clothes, indicating that plastics are flowing freely into the ocean through waste water. “Our love of plastic is being left behind in our fossil record,” said Jennifer Brandon, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, who led the study. “It is bad for the animals that live at the bottom of the ocean: coral reefs, mussels, oysters and so on. But the fact that it is getting into our fossil record is more of an existential question. “We all learn in school about the stone age, the bronze age and iron age – is this going to be known as the plastic age?” she said. “It is a scary thing that this is what our generations will be remembered for.” Sir David Attenborough, whose Blue Planet 2 TV series raised the profile of plastic pollution in the ocean, said in July attitudes were changing. He predicted polluting the planet would soon provoke as much abhorrence as human slavery. Studies show a multidecadal increase in plastic particles in coastal ocean sediments. Photograph: William Jones/Science Advances The research, published in the journal Science Advances, found that since the 1940s the amount of microscopic plastics in the sediments has doubled about every 15 years. In 2010, the most recent year analysed, the pollution had reached almost 40 particles per 10cm by 10cm patch of ocean floor every year. Two-thirds of the particles were plastic fibres, a fifth were broken-down fragments of other plastic and a 10th were plastic film. “It is a very clear signature,” Brandon said. “Plastic was invented and pretty much immediately we can see it appear in the sedimentary record.” A study in 2016 showed a single clothes wash could release 700,000 microplastic fibres. “They are definitely not being disposed of properly,” Brandon said. “We are not filtering them out properly at household or waste treatment plant level. I think that is the next big frontier: what are we doing about our waste water and what we make our clothes out of, because clearly [the plastic] is washing straight into the ocean?” Many millions of tonnes of plastic are discarded into the environment every year and are broken down into small particles and fibres that do not biodegrade. Microplastics have been found everywhere from the deepest oceans to high mountains and even the Arctic air, showing pervasive pollution of the planet. The core cut open, showing the laminated sediment layers of mud. Photograph: William Jones/Science Advances Research is limited but eating plastic is known to harm marine creatures. Humans are believed to consume at least 50,000 microplastic particles a year through food and water. The health impact is unknown but microplastics can release toxic substances and may penetrate tissues. The latest research analysed a sediment core taken more than a mile offshore from Santa Barbara and close to the 4 million people that live in Los Angeles. This basin is naturally devoid of oxygen due to local current patterns, meaning there are no animals burrowing into the sediments and destroying the delicate annual layering. The 36cm-long core was originally taken to assess fish populations over time. It had been wrapped in a plastic liner, but the scientists used a laser signature to identify this specific type of plastic and discount the small amount of contamination from their analysis. The core was taken in 2010 but Brandon said there was no reason to think the exponential rise in plastic pollution had been curbed since then, as plastic production continued to rise. “I hope our study shows this is a very serious problem,” she said. Source: After bronze and iron, welcome to the plastic age, say scientists
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