Saturday, August 1, 2015

Trawling for Plastic: Sketches from the Bermuda Triangle

I recently had the privilege of being a crew member aboard the 5 Gyres SEA Change research expedition to the Bermuda Triangle. The purpose of the trip was to capture and document the plastic floating on the ocean’s surface through the North Atlantic Gyre – a conglomeration of swirling ocean currents, which form a vortex that captures floating trash.
5 Gyres is a unique organization. Founded by husband and wife team, Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, the organization has conducted research expeditions to all four corners of the globe, painstakingly documenting the size and scope of the problem that has come to be known as “plastic pollution.” Not content to only document the problem, Anna and Marcus built world class public education and advocacy components into their work to engage the world’s people in solving it.
As part of each expedition, 5 Gyres seeks to engage influentials to help conduct citizen science and become global ambassadors on the issue. My leg of the trip from the Bahamas to Bermuda was packed with a remarkable mix of people from B-Corp businesses, the media, music, adventure sports, and advocacy organizations. More on this later. First…

The Gyres

Generally when I speak with most people about the gyres, they usually say, “Oh right, those are the big islands of trash floating in the middle of the world’s oceans.” Some of the early media stories led to this concept of floating “garbage patches,” and the idea stuck. Contrary to conventional wisdom, plastic in the ocean more closely resembles the concept of “smog” than an island of garbage. Here’s why:
Our sewers, storm drains and rivers act like “horizontal smokestacks” that carry plastic bags, soda bottles, disposable cutlery, etc. into our oceans. A significant amount sinks to the ocean floor or washes up on beaches throughout the world. The remaining floating plastic gets carried out to sea, where ocean currents swirl much of it into the gyres. Gyres exist in every major ocean and act like giant swirling “blenders” that assist sunlight in shredding plastic debris into smaller particles called microplastics. These tiny bits of plastic are mostly what you find when you go into the gyres in search of plastic pollution.

The Research


5 Gyres research focuses on documenting the prevalence of microplastics in our oceans and supporting the efforts to understand how this affects the health of marine ecosystems around the world. During the 800-mile leg from the Bahamas to Bermuda, we trawled for plastic nearly the entire time. The research crew would carefully rig and lower a number of different trawls, which are essentially floating traps with fine mesh screens that hang several meters behind the opening. The duration that the trawl is in the water and the speed of the boat are tracked to estimate the amount of plastic being captured over a certain distance. Then comes the fun part.
The trawl is hoisted up and its contents sifted through a screen. All the organic material (mostly a floating seaweed called sargassum) has to be hand-picked to remove the plastic and then thrown overboard. After the sample has been collected and screened, the plastic is hand-counted – by the hundreds and thousands – and then recorded.
5 Gyres can then use the data to estimate how much microplastic is floating on our oceans and where it’s concentrated. What they’ve discovered is that these tiny bits of plastic aren’t just contained in the gyres, but can be found all over the world’s oceans, major freshwater bodies and on our beaches.
Throughout the marine food chain, organisms big and small are eating microplastics. What’s worse is that the plastic acts as a sponge for persistent organic pollutants in the environment. All the long-lived toxic chemicals – like DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, etc – that we’ve pumped into the environment over the last 50 years are absorbed by the plastic. Studies show that the concentration of toxic chemicals can be 1,000 times greater on the surface or marine plastic than in the surrounding water. So essentially, the plastic in our oceans is acting like a toxic conveyor belt, attracting and concentrating toxic chemicals up the marine food chain and into our bodies. That’s the bad news.

The Crew 

The good news is that over the last 10 years – efforts to combat marine plastic pollution have grown from a handful of scientists to a global movement with constituents ranging from community-based advocacy groups, to government and corporate actors, to powerful national and international NGOs. Thanks to the hard work of 5 Gyres and many other groups and individuals, plastic pollution is an issue that is starting to crest in the public’s awareness in the United States and around the world.
And the participants on this trip were a testament to that growing movement. Over all three legs of the trip from Florida to New York, 5 Gyres assembled more than 50 individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise to become “citizen scientists” during the voyage and lifelong ambassadors following. My leg included noteworthy crew like the musician and philanthropist – Jack Johnson, documentary filmmakers – Ian Cheney and Simon Beins, surf legends and brothers – Dan and Keith Malloy, professional free diver and spear-fisherwoman – Kimi Werner, acclaimed writer – Adam Skolnick, and bodysurfing icon – Mark Cunningham.
The expedition also included representatives from B-Corp businesses making products and contributing significant financial resources to solve ocean plastic pollution, including entrepreneur Andy Keller (a.k.a. the “Bagmonster”) from Chico Bag, Caroleigh Pierce from Klean Kanteen and Pearl Gottschall from Lush Cosmetics. On the NGO side, I was joined by Jeroen Dagevos, Program Director for the Plastic Soup Foundation, one of the major European organizations focused working on the issue, and Krystal Ambrose, from the Bahamas Plastic Movement, a remarkable young woman who is building an organization to stem the tide of disposable plastic on the islands she calls home.
There were also a number of other extraordinary people with a variety of backgrounds on board, including several engaged and passionate college students. Over the six days at sea, each person had to give a presentation. While mine fell into the “plastics geek” category, many of the talks revolved around people’s lives and their connection to – and love for – the ocean.
I was struck by how many of the people on board had made sacrifices to pursue their passion in life. And by how those singular decisions helped define them and create the circumstances for their success and life’s work. This was emblematic in Marcus’s personal story of diving into research and school following a difficult tour as a soldier during the first Gulf War. His choice to pursue science and find meaning in unraveling one of the great environmental catastrophes of our time has defined his success and even led to meeting his wife and partner, Anna.
Over the week at sea, I was deeply touched and humbled by the way the crew opened themselves up to the experience and to each other. A high point of the trip was an impromptu jam session after a wine-tasting on the deck as the crew watched the sunset over the ocean. The guitar players traded songs, while hand drums roared and the crew sang along for hours. We were bonded tight at that point, like kids at summer camp for the first time.

Next Steps

Well… I was committed before, but now, I’m hooked. Thanks to the 5 Gyres crew, I’m now a lifelong plastic pollution advocate. And as you may have read in earlier blogs, UPSTREAM is shifting more of our projects to focus on solving ocean plastic pollution. If ever there was an issue that is ripe for extended producer responsibility, it’s this one. We’ve just launched our new Plastic Pollution Policy Project (P4) to help align the movement around solutions-oriented policies and campaigns. This is the next evolution of our work to advance sustainable packaging, and we see this project as being the highest contribution our organization can make in this area.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Don't Contribute To Plastic Pollution In The Ocean: A 5 Step Plan

At some level, we are all ocean lovers, so it’s heartbreaking to realize that plastic pollution kills one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals each year in our seas.
How do we stop that? Your daily actions can make a difference. Here are five steps to ensure that you are not contributing to plastic pollution in the ocean.
1.     Start by measuring your “plastic footprint.”
Keep a personal plastic use diary and note every product you use in a day or a week that’s plastic or packaged in plastic. You'll be surprised! Once you know your baseline, you can set specific goals to reduce or eliminate your plastic waste generation.
One easy way to get started is to go digital: for example, there is no need for plastic CDs, DVDs and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online. Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to reduce plastic in our lives and the nasty impacts of plastic pollution, and get ideas from them about creative ways to cut out plastic. Remember: with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated (which has its own environmental issues), virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form.

2.     Cut disposable plastics out of your life.

Plastic often begins its journey to the ocean when people litter or the wind blows trash out of a garbage can and into a storm drain. From there, it travels through sewer pipes, into waterways, and finally it reaches the ocean. You can prevent this by never using those disposable plastics in the first place.
Replace sandwich bags and juice cartons with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a Thermos.
Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them, which is a great way to eliminate lids, plastic cups and/or plastic-lined cups from your life.
Seek out alternatives to the plastic items that you rely on. Simple options include bringing your own bag to the store and never using those thin plastic bags. Your produce doesn't need them. Refuse single-serving packaging, excess packaging, straws and other “disposable” plastics.

3.     If you must use plastic products, reuse them.

Fifty percent of the plastic in our lives is used once and thrown away. That's just crazy! Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at cookouts, potlucks or take-out restaurants. Carry a reusable water bottle and store food in non-disposable containers. Once you have reused a plastic bottle as much as you can, then at least be sure to recycle it. If you must use plastic, be sure to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled plastics.

4.     Take the pledge to boycott products with microbeads.

Cosmetics companies have flooded hundreds of products (mostly facial scrubs but also shampoo, toothpaste and lip gloss) with microbeads: tiny balls of plastic used to exfoliate our skin. One tube of facial scrub contains more than 300,000 plastic microbeads. When you wash off those tiny pieces of plastic, they go down the drain, pass unfiltered through sewage treatment plants into our rivers and lakes, and enter the ocean. Once there, they soak up environmental pollutants like DDT before unsuspecting fish gobble them up, to be eaten by other fish or by us humans. The microbeads used in personal care products are mainly composed of polyethylene and polypropylene, so check the labels to make sure you are never buying microbeads.

5.     Take care of the beach.

Some plastic pollution gets into the ocean via the beach or a boat. You can be sure you will never contaminate the ocean with plastic by always cleaning up after yourself, whether you enjoy diving, surfing, or just relaxing on the beach. If you're on a boat, never allow any plastic bags, straws, or cups to go overboard. Go even further by encouraging others to respect the marine environment or by participating in local beach cleanups.
Get started today! 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

North Carolina meets all air quality standards for first time since 1997

North Carolina meets all air quality standards for first time since 1997

RALEIGH – The Environmental Protection Agency has officially recognized the Charlotte metropolitan area as complying with the 2008 federal air quality standard for ozone, a milestone capping years of improvements in air quality across North Carolina. North Carolina is now in attainment for all pollutants in all areas across the state.

The EPA published a notice in the Federal Register Tuesday announcing its final action to redesignate Charlotte as a maintenance area for the 8-hour ozone standard, meaning that it now meets the standard but must continue programs aimed at ensuring future compliance. The EPA also announced that it intends to relax the gasoline vapor standard for the Charlotte area, which should save motorists money due to lower fuel costs during the summer months.
“The EPA’s redesignation of the Charlotte region as attaining the 2008 ozone standard is a substantial accomplishment for the state and local governments, resulting from years of steady improvements in air quality,” said Sheila Holman, director of the N.C. Division of Air Quality, or DAQ. “The redesignation and changes to the gasoline standard should save money for businesses and individuals throughout the area.”
The Charlotte metropolitan area was the only region of North Carolina still designated as non-attainment, or non-compliance with the ozone standard. In the early 2000s, about one-third of the state’s counties were classified as non-attainment for ozone, and Code Orange and Red ozone warnings were a frequent occurrence during warmer months. The state had no exceedances of the ozone standard in 2014 and only one in 2013, the lowest levels since the state began monitoring the air for ozone in the early 1970s.
This redesignation comes less than two years after Charlotte was redesignated to attainment under the less stringent 1997 standard, and about a year after the EPA eased gasoline standards for the Triad and Triangle areas. The relaxation in fuel standards saved motorists about 7 cents per gallon in gasoline costs, or more than $18 million total, in the summer of 2014. The change in the Charlotte gasoline standard still needs to go through final approval by the EPA.
Air quality has improved across the state over the past decade due to declining emissions from motor vehicles, power plants and other industrial sources, resulting from a series of state and federal measures. The Clean Smokestacks Act, adopted in 2002, required the state’s coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions by about three-fourths. Other EPA requirements have led to lower emissions from other industrial sources, cars and trucks, as well as cleaner gasoline and diesel fuel. The EPA is expected to adopt a more stringent ozone standard in October.
More information on the ozone redesignation and fuel standard change can be found at this page on the following EPA websites:
More information on the improvements in air quality in North Carolina can be found at the DAQ website,

Monday, July 27, 2015

NOAA What are microplastics?

What are microplastics?
“Microplastics” are pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm long. Microplastics can come from larger pieces of plastic that have broken down over and over again. Or, microplastics can be manufactured. For example, pre-production industrial plastic pellets or plastic "micro-scrubbers" in face wash are considered microplastics.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

NOAA Do plastics go away when they're in the ocean or Great Lakes?

Do plastics go away when they're in the ocean or Great Lakes?
Plastics will degrade into small pieces until you can’t see them anymore (so small you’d need a microscope or better!). But, do plastics fully go away? Full degradation into carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic molecules is called mineralization (Andrady 2003). Most commonly used plastics do not mineralize (or go away) in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. We call these pieces “microplastics” if they are less than 5mm long. The rate of degradation depends on chemical composition, molecular weight, additives, environmental conditions, and other factors (Singh and Sharma 2008).
Bio-Based Plastics
There are some bio-based (e.g., corn, wheat, tapioca, algae) plastics on the market and in development. Bio-based plastics use a renewable carbon source instead of traditional plastics that source carbon from fossil fuels. Bio-based plastics are the same in terms of polymer behavior and do not degrade any faster in the environment.
Biodegradable Plastics
Biodegradable plastics are designed to break down in a compost pile or landfill where there are high temperatures and suitable microbes to assist degradation. However, these are generally not designed to degrade in the ocean at appreciable rates.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

How much plastics are in the ocean and Great Lakes?

How much plastics are in the ocean and Great Lakes?
Monitoring Large Debris
Currently, no one knows exactly how much plastic marine debris enters the ocean each day, though some estimates do exist. NOAA's Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project is one such effort to understand the amount of plastics on our shorelines.
Counting Microplastic Debris
What about the plastic debris pieces that are too small to count while at the beach? A laboratory method is needed to count small plastics <5mm in length, known as microplastics. Researchers at the University of Washington Tacoma, in partnership with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, have developed a reliable method to quantify microplastics (by weight) in a sand, sediment, or water sample. It has also been used to quantify plastics used in personal care products, such as facial cleansers and scrubs that use tiny plastics as abrasives. New research continues into a process to isolate microplastic particles and confirm their polymer composition (i.e., type of plastic) through infrared spectroscopy.

Home Electronics Disposal

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