Maine to ban “forever chemicals” by 2030


Via Flickr

Elizabeth Miglin | August 4, 2021

Maine is the first state in the nation to ban around 9,000 compounds known as “forever chemicals” by 2030.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl or PFAS are often used to make products water and stain resistant. The highly effective substances are used across dozens of industries and added to a range of products such as cosmetics, cookware, food packaging and floss. However, PFAS are unable to fully break down and instead accumulate in the environment and humans. Increasingly, studies have shown the chemicals are toxic to humans, even at low exposure levels, and are linked to a range of health problems such as cancer and liver disease. 

The new law requires manufacturers who intentionally add PFAS to products sold in Maine report their use beginning in 2023. The new law additionally provides a caveat of instances where PFAS usage is “currently unavoidable” such as items in medical devices according to The Guardian

Supporters hope other states follow suit in order pressure industries to stop using PFAS and encourage the federal government to enact a similar law. The European Union is also advancing its own plan to phase out the substances in all products by 2030,however it has yet to be adopted as binding. 

Microplastics And Biofilms Can Promote The Antibiotic Resistance Of Pathogens


Via Flickr

A recent study conducted at the New Jersey Institute of Technology demonstrated that biofilms formed on microplastic surfaces can serve as reservoirs for pathogens and promote antibiotic resistance.

Researchers found microplastic particles in wastewater treatment facilities boosted the antibiotic resistance of measured pathogens by around 30 times. Plastic surfaces are relatively hydrophobic which can result in the formation of biofilms that allow pathogens to interact with antibiotics in the wastewater.  When pathogens in the biofilms are able develop antibiotic resistance they can create a new challenge by sharing their resistance with other pathogens using antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs).  Increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics has been labeled a significant global threat which is now likely to be influenced by the prevalence of microplastics our wastewater. 

Microplastics are either manufactured for products like toothpaste or handsoaps, and can also be found as debris from other plastic products.  These plastic pollutants have been detected across the globe in many different environments and they present a unique public health challenge.  Additionally, toxic chemicals are known to be attracted to plastic debris in the oceans which can then be released into organisms when they ingest plastics. 

We currently don’t fully understand how low level chronic exposure to microplastics and the contaminants they may release has on the human body, but there is evidence that these particles can act as endocrine disruptors and cause significant harm. 

U.S. Ships More Plastic Waste Overseas Despite New Global Restrictions


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | March 15, 2021

Over 180 countries agreed last year to place strict limits on plastic waste exportation to poor countries, but new trade data from January shows that plastic exports from the United States have increased.

Participating nations met at Geneva in 2019 to add plastic scrap to the Basel Convention, a treaty that places restrictions on shipping hazardous waste. The new addition makes it illegal for most nations to accept plastic scrap shipments unless they are in their purest form. However, the U.S. has continued to send large shipments overseas to poor countries in the months since the addition took effect in January, according to a New York Times article.

The lack of compliance likely stems back to the United States’ refusal to ratify the global ban. The U.S. is one of the few countries that did not ratify the convention, but it is still subject to its laws since participating nations are banned from trading with non-participating nations. So far, this has not stopped American companies from exporting more scrap plastic than ever. January reports showed that the U.S. exported 48 million tons that month, a 3 million-ton increase from the previous January.

The convention’s main goal was to reduce the amount of plastic wealthier countries, like the U.S., were shipping over to poorer countries. The waste often ends up in landfills, oceans or other natural landscapes instead of being recycled, and poorer nations often can’t safely handle the amount of waste coming in from the U.S. Of the 25 million tons of plastic waste the U.S. sent to poorer countries in January, much of it went to Malaysia, one of the convention’s participating countries. Advocates worry that continued lack of compliance on this level will cause more problems in the future. Even if receiving countries refuse to accept American plastic at their ports, American companies could refuse to take it back and find a way to send it elsewhere.

The U.S. government would need to pass legislation to ratify the convention, and it will remain limited in its ability to stop the exports until that happens.

Mississippi River Cities Join New Initiative to Track and Reduce Plastic Pollution


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | March 8, 2021

Cities along the Mississippi River will take part in a new project to help identify where plastic pollution entering the Gulf of Mexico is coming from.

The Mississippi River serves as a drainage system for 40% of the United States and sends huge amounts of plastic pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. To combat the problem, the new project will allow “citizen scientists” to record sources of litter they observe along the river on a mobile app. Officials will then enter the data onto a virtual map that policymakers can use to develop ordinances and plans to reduce plastic pollution, according to an Associated Press article.

Most plastic pollution enters the river through municipal storm drains and tributary streams. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic flow into oceans every year, and the debris often kills or severely injures fish and other marine life. Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer with the University of Georgia, hopes the project will spark conversation between mayors, stakeholders and community members.

“Mayors can use the data to bring stakeholders together to have conversations about what kinds of interventions make sense for their towns,” Jambeck said. “And community members can use the data to bring people together to discuss the issue and discuss what kind of actions they want to take.”

The new project follows an agreement made in 2018 by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative to reduce plastic pollution in the Mississippi River valley. Baton Rouge, Louisiana; St. Louis, Missouri and St. Paul, Minnesota are leading the effort, and they are currently working on community education and outreach efforts. Webinars will be available this month to community members who wish to use the mobile Debris Tracker to help.

Iowa Senate Subcommittee Advances Plan to Let Grocers Opt Out of the Bottle Bill


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | February 22, 2021

An Iowa Senate subcommittee passed legislation last week that would allow grocers to stop accepting cans and bottles if they are within 20 miles of the nearest redemption center.

The bill’s purpose is to address the concerns of grocers and other beverage retailers that wish to opt out of the bottle bill. However, some worry that the new bill would not be convenient for consumers and encourage recycling. Sen. Claire Celsi, a democrat from West Des Moines, told the committee that it would also fail to reduce the amount of litter going into Iowa’s landfills and waterways, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Iowa Sierra Club representative Jess Mazour agreed with Sen. Celsi, adding that the new bill should be expanded to include containers like water, iced tea and sports drink bottles.

“We know that the bottle deposit law is wildly popular with Iowans and that you should expand it, not take this opportunity to gut it and make it less convenient for Iowans across the state,” Mazour added.

Other sections of the bill would require the Alcoholic Beverage Division (ABD) to track unclaimed refunds and enforce the new law. Any unclaimed deposits would also go into a “taxpayer relief fund,” preventing distributors from continuing to keep them. However, Jon Murphy of the Iowa Beverage Association said that the ABD might lack “enforcement capabilities,” an issue that the Iowa DNR is facing with the current bill.

The proposed legislation will now move to the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee for consideration.

New Report Suggests Human Health is Threatened by Plastics


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | December 22nd, 2020

A recent report by the Endocrine Society, and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) presents a concerning summary of the widespread health effects from plastic pollution.

Within the report, around 144 hazardous chemicals are highlighted because they are used in plastics for a variety of purposes, such as flame retardants, and because they are hazardous for human health.  These chemicals can leach from the plastic products throughout the entire lifespan of the material increasing the potential for human exposure.  Unfortunately, human exposure has been measured and the study reports that nearly everyone tested for endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), tested positive.  While testing positive for EDCs doesn’t mean the person tested has acute health risks, little is known about what chronic exposure to a mix of the 144 chemicals culminates in.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that influence how hormones in the body behave and are commonly linked to developmental and reproductive issues.  Some of these chemicals are widely known, such as Bisphenol A (BPA), while others, such as Per- and Polyfluoroalkly substances (PFAS) are beginning to capture attention.

It is projected that plastic production is likely to increase within the next six years, and as plastic production increases, so too does human exposure to these harmful chemicals.  Effective public policy is needed to gain a better understanding of how the chemicals used in plastic manufacturing influence human health, and how to address human exposure to them.

Scientists say War on Plastic Could Distract from Bigger Environmental Threats


Via Flickr

A team of environmental experts with the University of Nottingham has warned that, while plastic waste is an important issue, its prominence in public concern is taking attention away from greater threats like climate change and biodiversity loss.

The team of 13 published an article in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, WIREs Water. In it, they argue that the discourse around plastic waste is not always representative of the environments being sampled, and the aversion to plastic can promote the production of alternative materials with potentially greater harmful effects, according to a Science Daily article.

The authors also warn that the general public’s concern over plastic pollution has been exploited politically. Emotional imagery of wild animals stuck in plastic, small political gestures like banning microplastics in some cosmetics and promoting reusable bags and containers, for example, can instill societal complacency towards other, less tangible environmental issues made worse by today’s throw-away culture.

The authors use their article to urge governments to minimize the environmental impacts of over-consumption no matter how inconvenient, and they call on media outlets to make sure that the realities of plastic pollution are represented accurately. To do this, they say governments and other entities should also focus on environmental degradation associated with alternative materials, promote recyclable materials that have their end-of-life built in and ensure that more markets and facilities exist to recycle plastic waste.

The authors’ full article, It’s the product not the polymer: Rethinking plastic pollution, is accessible on the Wiley Online Library website.

Areas Devastated by Wildfires Face Emerging Water Contamination Challenge


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | October 6th, 2020

Attention is being drawn to municipal water contamination in Californian towns after exposure to devastating wildfires.

After the Camp fires ravaged California in 2018, testing of municipal water systems revealed widespread contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Unfortunately, it isn’t known exactly how VOCs infiltrate the water pipes, however, it is thought that potentially melted plastics, or contaminated air and broken pipes could be the cause. Another issue for the recovering areas is that many water pipes in California are polyethylene based, which can melt during fires.  These pipes can absorb VOCs flowing through them and release them over a longer time period at lower concentrations.

One chemical measured in water tests that could be absorbed and leeched over time is Benzene, a known human carcinogen.  Benzene showed up at levels over two thousand times the federal level in drinking water samples after the Tubbs fire in 2017.  Benzene is part of a family of contaminants called BTEX which are connected to petroleum products. 

Fire damaged drinking water systems pose another challenge for struggling families returning to their homes after wildfires.  Contamination at the levels observed after wildfire events can lead to acute and chronic health outcomes, which will leave their mark on the affected communities for years to come.

Microplastics In Farm Soils Have Adverse Effects On Wheat Crops


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | September 8th, 2020

Microplastics in soils have recently been linked to increased cadmium uptake and root damage in wheat plants.

Researchers at Kansas State University have demonstrated that crops grown in the presence of microplastics are more likely to be contaminated with cadmium than crops grown in the absence of microplastics.  Cadmium is a heavy metal that is known to be carcinogenic and is commonly found in the environment from industrial and agricultural sources.  The researchers also found that microplastics were able to damage the roots of the wheat plants by clogging soil pores and preventing water uptake.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic products that are 5 millimeters or less in length, which is about the size of a sesame seed.  The influence these particulate plastics have on the environment and human health is still not well understood, and they are a growing environmental concern.  While most of the attention microplastics have received is in relation to the amount found in the oceans, a study published in 2016 demonstrates that microplastics actually accumulate more on land surfaces. 

Unsurprisingly, there have been microplastics found in Storm Lake, Iowa.  These pollutants can be found almost everywhere in the world which suggests we need a better understanding of microplastics and their effect on the environment. We also need to make changes to our behavior to prevent further pollution on top of what plastics have already been deposited across the globe.

Researchers Develop a New Method for Capturing Micropastics in Water


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | July 13, 2020

Researchers at Shinshu University developed a promising new method for removing microplastics from water that involves using acoustics to separate and capture them.

Because microplastics are so small, traditional methods for removing them, like using filters and sieves, have been insufficient in filtering out the majority of microplastics from oceans and rivers. Filters are too big to filter out tiny particles and are prone to clogging, so they need to be regularly cleaned or replaced and are impractical for large-scale use.

Professor Hiroshi Moriwaki and Associate Professor Yoshitake Akiyama at Shinshu University created a device that uses piezo vibrations to collect microplastics and microplastic fibers. By using acoustics at a force and amplitude appropriate for size and compressibility of the microplastics, they found they could successfully collect it in the middle of a three-channel device, according to an ENN article. This device gathers debris in a middle channel while clean water flows out the two side channels.

This process could greatly improve our ability to filter microplastics from oceans and rivers in the future. However, improvements to the device’s draining system and further developments in its ability to capture tiny nanoplastics must occur before it can be implemented worldwide.