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Rivers of Plastic: Oceans of Waste; Corals Are Wasting Away

February 25, 2018
Prachi Patel / Scientific American & Wenonah Hauter / YES! Magazine & Chelsea Harvey / Scientific American & Helen Briggs / BBC

Our seas are choking on plastic. Eight million metric tons wind up in oceans every year. A recent study estimates that more than a quarter of all that waste could be pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight of them in Asia. The Yangtze alone pours up to an estimated 1.5 million metric tons into the Yellow Sea. Meanwhile, new data show that ocean acidification not only stops corals from building, it tears them down.


Stemming the Plastic Tide:
10 Rivers Contribute Most of the Plastic in the Oceans

Prachi Patel / Scientific American

(February 17, 2018) -- Our seas are choking on plastic. A staggering eight million metric tons wind up in oceans every year, and unraveling exactly how it gets there is critical. A recent study estimates that more than a quarter of all that waste could be pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight of them in Asia.

"Rivers carry trash over long distances and connect nearly all land surfaces with the oceans," making them a major battleground in the fight against sea pollution, explains Christian Schmidt, a hydrogeologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany.

Schmidt and his colleagues dug up published data on the plastic concentration in 57 rivers of various sizes around the world. These measurements included bottles and bags, as well as microscopic fibers and beads.

The researchers multiplied these concentrations by the rivers' water discharge to calculate the total weight of plastic flowing into the sea. They then fed these data into a model that compared them with the estimated weight of plastic litter generated per-person-per-day along each river.

The results, published last November in Environmental Science & Technology, show that rivers collectively dump anywhere from 0.47 million to 2.75 million metric tons of plastic into the seas every year, depending on the data used in the models.

The 10 rivers that carry 93 percent of that trash are the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges Delta in Asia, and the Niger and Nile in Africa. The Yangtze alone dumps up to an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste into the Yellow Sea.

Better waste collection and management practices in the most polluted regions would help stem the tide, Schmidt says, but raising public awareness is also crucial.

We Are Drowning in Plastic, and Fracking Companies Are Profiting
Plastic production wreaks havoc on people and the planet
from fracking wells and pipelines in Pennsylvania,
to air pollution from plastic plants in Scotland

Wenonah Hauter / YES! Magazine

(February 15, 2018) -- We are choking the planet in plastic. Everything from wasteful water bottles to grocery shopping bags are polluting our waterways, and endangering marine life and the natural environment. It's fair to say that even the most casual news consumer has probably encountered a Facebook post, TV report, or radio segment about the garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean.

But what's less well-known is what is fueling this plastics binge: fracking. As the Guardian recently reported, in less than a decade, tens of billions of dollars have been invested in creating new manufacturing sites around the world to turn fossil fuels into resin pellets used to manufacture plastic products. The companies profiting off this surge in plastics are contributing to a growing climate crisis while generating mountains of plastic garbage.

One company behind this plastics surge is the U.K.-based chemical company Ineos. While not a household name like Shell or Exxon, Ineos is at the center of this growing plastics industry -- but the damage caused by the company extends beyond the mounds of discarded waste littering beaches and waterways.

The company's 75 manufacturing facilities across 22 countries are responsible for chemical leaks, fires, explosions, and air and climate pollution. This record includes a 2008 chemical fire in Germany and air pollution in Scotland, where the company's Grangemouth facilities were the country's single largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2016.

And the Ineos business model also relies on polluting communities thousands of miles away in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the fracking industry is scarring the landscape, polluting water, and threatening public health.

The company uses the liquid gas found in the shale formations there to feed its chemical plants. To meet this demand, the company recently built a fleet of so-called "dragon ships" to carry volatile gas liquids across the Atlantic.

And Ineos wants to continue ramping up. After the first crossing of one of these liquid gas transport ships from the US to the U.K., the chairman of Ineos called the event a "gamechanger" that could "spark a shale gas revolution," according to a company news release.

Expanding this business will require new pipelines like the Mariner East 2, now under construction across Pennsylvania. The project belongs to Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline that generated international opposition.

There is a movement to stop the Mariner East, too, in places across the state where residents have lost their land to Sunoco through the companies use of eminent domain and are being told that they must allow the pipeline to be built near their schools, homes, and community centers.

Sunoco's safety record was a concern before the drilling started; since 2010, the company has had a higher rate of oil pipeline spills than its competitors. And this record of spills continued once construction of the pipeline began. Dozens of drilling spills and accidents and several cases of tainted water supplies eventually forced the state government to shut down the construction at the beginning of this year.

Pennsylvania environmental regulators deemed Sunoco's "egregious and willful violations" of environmental laws serious enough to apply the brakes on a project that had been rushed through the regulatory process by drilling-friendly politicians of both major parties.

On February 8, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection allowed construction of the pipeline to resume, after issuing a $12.6 million civil penalty against Sunoco.

While plastic junk floating in the oceans gets the headlines, the truth is that the entire business model wreaks havoc on communities and the planet -- from the fracking wells in Pennsylvania and the pipelines that carry the materials in the US, to the air pollution from petrochemical plants producing plastics in the U.K.

Pennsylvania was right to hit the pause button on this fracking-for-plastics pipeline, but if we're to create a stable climate and a healthy planet for all, we need state legislators to stop construction altogether. And we need political leaders in Europe willing to stop fracking before it starts.

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch. She has worked extensively on food, water, energy and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Her book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America examines the corporate consolidation and control over our food system and what it means for farmers and consumers. She has an M.S. in Applied Anthropology from the University of Maryland.

Corals Are Dissolving Away
Chelsea Harvey / Scientific American

(February 24, 2018) -- Coral reefs aren't just bleaching -- they're literally dissolving away because of climate change. And before the end of the century, most reefs around the world may be dissolving faster than they can build themselves back up, according to new research.

It's an often overlooked -- but potentially serious -- consequence of ocean acidification, says a new study published yesterday in the journal Science. Ocean acidification occurs when carbon dioxide dissolves out of the atmosphere and into the ocean, where it chemically reacts and lowers the water's pH. The process is sometimes dubbed the "evil twin" of climate change because of the harmful effects it may have on marine ecosystems.

One widely discussed concern is that acidification may make it harder for certain marine organisms -- including coral, as well as shellfish and certain types of plankton -- to build the hard outer shells they need to survive. That's because the process tends to deplete a certain type of chemical compound in the water called calcium carbonate, which is a major building block these animals use to make their shells.

Scientists are now realizing that acidification not only hinders corals from building themselves up -- it can also help tear them down. As calcium carbonate levels drop, existing coral structures start to dissolve away into the water. These include the living corals' skeletons, but also the sediment platforms they build on top of, which form the bulk of the reefs.

"There's very little research that's being done on basically carbonate sediment dissolution," said lead study author Bradley Eyre, a researcher at Southern Cross University in Australia. Most research on the effects of ocean acidification so far has focused on its impact on calcification, or the building process.

To investigate the possible dissolving effect, the researchers monitored 57 locations at five coral reefs around the world, including sites near Hawaii, Bermuda, Australia and the Cook Islands.

They found a strong correlation between the dissolving process and calcium carbonate levels in the water. In fact, the dissolving process seems to be even more sensitive to ocean acidification than the building process -- the effect on dissolving is up to 10 times stronger.

This may be the study's most important finding, according to coral expert Chris Langdon of the University of Miami.

"We've been making projections on when reefs would get in trouble based on the sensitivity of calcification," he told E&E News. "So we might be drastically underestimating the seriousness of the problem, given that dissolution is 10 times more sensitive."

The researchers also discovered that there tends to be a kind of tipping point, or a specific low point in local calcium carbonate levels, beyond which coral reefs start dissolving faster than they can build. The study site in Hawaii has already hit this point, they noted.

Using this information, the researchers created a model to predict future changes in calcium carbonate levels and global reef responses. For now, conditions in the tropical oceans still generally favor more building than dissolving. But at current rates of acidification, average water conditions are expected to reach the tipping point by 2080 or so, at which point reefs will start to dissolve faster than they can build themselves up.

That's just looking at average water chemistry throughout the world's tropical waters, the researchers are careful to note. While the oceans are generally acidifying all over the world, water chemistry can differ widely from one location to the next, influenced by pollution, organic matter in the water and other regional factors.

This means not every reef will necessarily hit its tipping point at the exact same time. Still, the research suggests that many of them are on track to meet such a fate within this century.

And the corals around Hawaii may not be the only ones already at that point. A 2016 study, co-authored by Langdon, found that parts of the Florida Reef Tract -- the third-largest barrier reef ecosystem in the world -- are eroding away, particularly during the fall and winter months. And more recent monitoring efforts suggest the process is still occurring and may even be affecting more of the reef than before, Langdon said.

How severely this dissolving process will affect the reefs -- both in Florida and around the world -- remains in question, Eyre said. Because scientists are just starting to document the process, it's unclear how rapidly reefs may erode once the process starts. But it's likely that other ongoing impacts of climate change, such as coral bleaching, may weaken reefs even further in the future and make them more vulnerable to the dissolving process.

In light of such uncertainty, Eyre said, the best course of action is to continue working to slow ocean acidification, and climate change generally, before its effects grow too much worse.

"I think the take-home message . . . is that we really need to reduce the amount of CO2 that we're putting into the atmosphere," he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire and E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.

Third of Coral Reefs 'Entangled With Plastic'
Helen Briggs / BBC

(January 30, 2018) -- Plastic is one of the biggest threats to the future of coral reefs after ocean warming, say scientists. More than 11 billion items of plastic were found on a third of coral reefs surveyed in the Asia-Pacific region. This figure is predicted to increase to more than 15 billion by 2025.

Plastic raises by 20-fold the risk of disease outbreaks on coral reefs, according to research. Plastic bags, bottles and rice sacks were among the items found.

"Plastic is one of the biggest threats in the ocean at the moment, I would say, apart from climate change," said Dr Joleah Lamb of Cornell University in Ithaca, US. "It's sad how many pieces of plastic there are in the coral reefs . . .if we can start targeting those big polluters of plastic, hopefully we can start reducing the amount that is going on to these reefs."

More than 275 million people rely on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism income, and cultural importance.

It's thought that plastic allows diseases that prey on the marine invertebrates that make-up coral reefs to flourish. Branching or finger-like forms of corals are most likely to get entangled in plastic debris. These are important habitats for fish and fisheries, the scientists say.

"A lot of times we come across big rice sacks or draping plastic bags," said Dr Lamb, who led the study. "What we do find is these corals with a lot of complexity like branches and finger-like corals will become eight times more likely to be entangled in these types of plastics."

In the study, published in the journal Science, international researchers surveyed more than 150 reefs from four countries in the Asia-Pacific region between 2011 and 2014.

Plastic was found on one-third of the coral reefs surveyed. Reefs near Indonesia were loaded with most plastic, while Australian reefs showed the lowest concentration. Thailand and Myanmar were in the middle.

"The country's estimated amount of mismanaged plastics -- so the way they deal with their plastic waste -- was a strong predictor of how much we would see on the reef," said Dr Lamb.

Coral reefs face many threats. Coral bleaching is caused by unusually warm water. Coral polyps loose algae from their tissues, which drains them of their colour. They may recover if temperature changes are reversed in a reasonably short time, but this process can take many years.

In the case of diseases, organisms attack coral, leading to likely death. Previous research has found that plastic debris can stress coral through blocking out light and oxygen, thereby giving pathogens a chance to take hold.

Based on projections of plastic waste going into the ocean, the researchers suggest that the number of plastic items snagged on Asia-Pacific corals may increase from 11.1 billion to 15.7 billion plastic items by 2025.

An estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean in a single year. More than three-quarters of this plastic is thought to originate on land.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




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