Blog search results for Tag: pollution

Sustainability & Environment

Sometimes, when you try to solve one problem, you create another. A famous example is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia from Hawaii in 1935. The toads were introduced as a means of eliminating a beetle species that ravaged sugar cane crops; but now, almost a century later, Western Australia is inundated with these venomous, eco-system-meddling creatures.

In a similar spirit, disposable face masks could help tackle one urgent problem while creating another. According to researchers at Swansea University, nanoplastics and other potentially harmful pollutants have been found in many disposable face masks, including the ones some use to ward off Covid-19.

After submerging various types of common disposable face masks in water, the scientists observed the release of high levels of pollutants including lead, antimony, copper, and plastic fibres. Worryingly, they found significant levels of pollutants from all the masks tested.

SCIblog - 7th May 2021 - No masking the pollution problem - image of mask fibres

Microscope image of microfibres released from children's mask: the colourful fibres are from the cartoon patterns | Credit: Swansea University

Obviously, millions have been wearing single-use masks around the world to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the release of potentially harmful substances into the natural environment and water supply could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.

‘The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ says project lead Dr Sarper Sarp, whose team’s work has been published on Science Direct. ‘However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify.

SCIblog - 7th May 2021 - No masking the pollution problem - image of woman disposing of mask in bin

The presence of potentially toxic pollutants in some face masks could pose health and environmental risks.

‘There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.’

The Swansea scientists say stricter regulations must be enforced during manufacturing and disposal of single-use masks, and more work must be done to understand the effect of particle leaching on public health and on the environment. Another area they believe warrants investigation is the amount of particles inhaled by those wearing these masks.

‘This is a significant concern,’ adds Sarp, ‘especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.’

Sustainability & Environment

While concerns about air pollution for vehicles, power stations etc make headline news, the quality of the air in our houses is overlooked, according to researchers at the 2019 AAAS meeting held in Washington DC, US, from 14 to 17 February 2019.

Cooking, cleaning and other routine household tasks generate significant quantities of volatile and particulate chemicals inside the average home, leading to indoor air quality levels on a par with a polluted major city, said a researcher from Colorado University Boulder, US. 

cartoon kitchen gif

Originally posted by akrokus

Not only that but these chemicals, from products such as shampoo, perfume and cleaning solutions also find their way into the external environment, making up an even greater source of global atmospheric pollution than vehicles.

‘Homes have never been considered an important source of outdoor pollution and the moment is right to start exploring that,’ said Marina Vance, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder. ‘We wanted to know how do basic activities such as cooking and cleaning change the chemistry of a house?’

First Conclusions from the HOMEChem Experiment. Video: Home Performance

In 2018, Vance co-led the collaborative HOMEChem field campaign, which used advanced sensors and cameras to monitor the indoor air quality of a 112m2 manufactured home on the University of Texas Austin campus. 

Over one month, Vance and her collaborators from a number of other US universities conducted a variety of activities, including cooking toast to a full thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the summer for 12 guests, as well as cleaning and similar tasks.

 

Sustainability & Environment

Researchers have detected high levels of sunscreen chemicals in the waters of Shenzhen, China. These include beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and even tap water. In tests on zebrafish, the team showed that several of these UV filters are being transmitted through the food chain, and can have adverse effects on developing offspring.

Organic UV filters found in sunscreens, skin lotions and make-up, as well as textiles, plastics, and paints, are endocrine disruptors.

 The river and rice fields to the West of Shenzhen

The river and rice fields to the West of Shenzhen, China. Image: Wikimedia Commons 

Risk assessments for single compounds have concluded that current levels of organic UV filters pose low risk, but they don’t account for interactions of mixtures and how these interactions develop over time.

Kelvin Sze-Yin Leung’s team at Hong Kong Baptist University analysed nine common organic UV filters in surface waters of Shenzhen, a city with more than 20 popular beaches. They found seven of the nine chemicals, including benzophenone derivatives BP-3, BP-8, and BP-1, as well as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (EHMC), at public beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and in tap water.

Which sunscreen should you use? Video: Ted-Ed

Total concentrations of UV filters were relatively high at three popular public beaches – ranging from 192 to 645ngL-1 – in the summer as expected. Shenzhen Reservoir showed UV filter pollution in both seasons, while tap water was contaminated by BP-3.

If inefficient water treatment processes are to blame, then research is needed into other ways to remove these filters to protect human health, says Sze-Yin Leung.


Sustainability & Environment

Images of turtles trapped in plastic packaging or a fish nibbling on microfibres pull on the heartstrings, yet many scientists studying plastics in the oceans remain open-minded on the long-term effects.

While plastics shouldn’t be in our oceans, they say there is still insufficient evidence to determine whether microplastics – the very tiniest plastic particles, usually defined as being less than 1mm in diameter – are actually harmful.

 turtles

It is estimated that over 1,000 turtles die each year from plastic waste. Image: NOAA Marine Debris Program

On top of this, there is debate over how much plastic is actually in the sea and why so much of it remains hidden from view. Much of the research carried out to date is in its early stages – and has so far produced no definitive answers.

‘My concern is that we have to provide the authorities with good data, so they can make good decisions,’ says Torkel Gissel Nielsen, Technical University of Denmark (DTU). ‘We need strong data – not just emotions.’


Searching the sea

 Plastic shopping bags

Plastic shopping bags can be degraded into microplastics that litter the oceans. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gissel Nielsen leads a team of researchers who discovered that levels of microplastics in the Baltic Sea have remained constant over the past three decades, despite rising levels of plastics production and use.

The study – by researchers at DTU Aqua, the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Geomar, Germany – analysed levels of microplastics in fish and water samples from the Baltic Sea, taken between 1987 and 2015.

‘The result is surprising,’ says Nielsen. ‘There is the same amount of plastic in both the water and the fish when you go back 30 years.’ He claims that previous studies of microplastics levels were ‘snapshots’, while this is the first time levels have been studied over a longer period.

 microbeads

The UK introduced a ban in January this year of the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads. Image: MPCA Photos 

‘The study raises a number of questions, such as where the plastic has gone,’ he says. ‘Does it sink to the bottom, are there organisms that break it down, or is it carried away by currents? Some is in the sediment, some is in the fish, but we need to find out exactly how much plastic is there.’

In the study, more than 800 historical samples of fish were dissected and researchers found microplastics in around 20% of them. This laborious process involved diluting the stomach contents in order to remove ‘organic’ materials, then checking the filtered contents under a microscope to determine the size and concentration of plastics. It illustrates the difficulty of quantifying plastics in any sample, says Gissel Nielsen.

‘You must remove the biology to get a clear view of the plastics,’ he says.


River transport

canoe gif

Originally posted by flyngdream

Just as rivers supply the sea with water, they also act as a source of pollution. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Germany, found that 10 large rivers are responsible for transporting 90% of plastic waste into the sea.

The team collected pre-published data on plastics in rivers and collated it with upstream sites of ‘mismanaged’ plastics waste – municipal waste that is uncollected.

‘The more mismanaged plastic waste there was, the more you found in the river,’ says Christian Schmidt, UFZ. ‘There was an empirical relationship between the two.’

 The Yangtze river

The Yangtze river (pictured in Shanghai, China) is the main polluter of plastic in the ocean in the world. Image: Pedro Szekely/Flickr

Eight of these 10 rivers are in Asia, while the other two are in Africa. All of them flow through areas of high population.

‘Countries like India and China have seen huge economic growth – and now use large amounts of plastic food packaging and bottles – but have limited waste collection systems,’ he says. The data include both microplastic and ‘macro’ plastics – but microplastics data dominate ‘because scientists are more interested in that’, says Schmidt.

Plastic Ocean. Video: United Nations

While it is important to measure how much plastic is in the environment, Schmidt believes that the next step of his research will be more important – understanding the journey the plastics make from the river to the sea.

For all the uncertainty and debate over how much plastic is in the sea – and what harm it can do – one thing is clear. Future research is likely to focus more on the plastics that we can’t see, rather than the items we can.

 

Sustainability & Environment

Images of turtles trapped in plastic packaging or a fish nibbling on microfibres pull on the heartstrings, yet many scientists studying plastics in the oceans remain open-minded on the long-term effects.

While plastics shouldn’t be in our oceans, they say there is still insufficient evidence to determine whether microplastics – the very tiniest plastic particles, usually defined as being less than 1mm in diameter – are actually harmful.

 turtles

It is estimated that over 1,000 turtles die each year from plastic waste. Image: NOAA Marine Debris Program

On top of this, there is debate over how much plastic is actually in the sea and why so much of it remains hidden from view. Much of the research carried out to date is in its early stages – and has so far produced no definitive answers.

‘My concern is that we have to provide the authorities with good data, so they can make good decisions,’ says Torkel Gissel Nielsen, Technical University of Denmark (DTU). ‘We need strong data – not just emotions.’


Searching the sea

 Plastic shopping bags

Plastic shopping bags can be degraded into microplastics that litter the oceans. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gissel Nielsen leads a team of researchers who discovered that levels of microplastics in the Baltic Sea have remained constant over the past three decades, despite rising levels of plastics production and use.

The study – by researchers at DTU Aqua, the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Geomar, Germany – analysed levels of microplastics in fish and water samples from the Baltic Sea, taken between 1987 and 2015.

‘The result is surprising,’ says Nielsen. ‘There is the same amount of plastic in both the water and the fish when you go back 30 years.’ He claims that previous studies of microplastics levels were ‘snapshots’, while this is the first time levels have been studied over a longer period.

 microbeads

The UK introduced a ban in January this year of the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads. Image: MPCA Photos 

‘The study raises a number of questions, such as where the plastic has gone,’ he says. ‘Does it sink to the bottom, are there organisms that break it down, or is it carried away by currents? Some is in the sediment, some is in the fish, but we need to find out exactly how much plastic is there.’

In the study, more than 800 historical samples of fish were dissected and researchers found microplastics in around 20% of them. This laborious process involved diluting the stomach contents in order to remove ‘organic’ materials, then checking the filtered contents under a microscope to determine the size and concentration of plastics. It illustrates the difficulty of quantifying plastics in any sample, says Gissel Nielsen.

‘You must remove the biology to get a clear view of the plastics,’ he says.


River transport

canoe gif

Originally posted by flyngdream

Just as rivers supply the sea with water, they also act as a source of pollution. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Germany, found that 10 large rivers are responsible for transporting 90% of plastic waste into the sea.

The team collected pre-published data on plastics in rivers and collated it with upstream sites of ‘mismanaged’ plastics waste – municipal waste that is uncollected.

‘The more mismanaged plastic waste there was, the more you found in the river,’ says Christian Schmidt, UFZ. ‘There was an empirical relationship between the two.’

 The Yangtze river

The Yangtze river (pictured in Shanghai, China) is the main polluter of plastic in the ocean in the world. Image: Pedro Szekely/Flickr

Eight of these 10 rivers are in Asia, while the other two are in Africa. All of them flow through areas of high population.

‘Countries like India and China have seen huge economic growth – and now use large amounts of plastic food packaging and bottles – but have limited waste collection systems,’ he says. The data include both microplastic and ‘macro’ plastics – but microplastics data dominate ‘because scientists are more interested in that’, says Schmidt.

Plastic Ocean. Video: United Nations

While it is important to measure how much plastic is in the environment, Schmidt believes that the next step of his research will be more important – understanding the journey the plastics make from the river to the sea.

For all the uncertainty and debate over how much plastic is in the sea – and what harm it can do – one thing is clear. Future research is likely to focus more on the plastics that we can’t see, rather than the items we can.

 

Sustainability & Environment

In the developed world, we have seen huge steps in prioritising our environment. The UK are just one of the many nations setting an example for a greener lifestyle, after they announced a diesel and petrol car ban on all UK roads by 2040. Worldwide, countries are introducing hefty fines to companies for irresponsible and harmful acts against the environment, which include deforestation and pollution.

It is hard to forget the BP Deepwater Horizon spill that devastated the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which killed 11 people and harmed or killed 82,000 birds, 6,165 sea turtles, and 25,900 marine animals. At the time BP’s CEO Tony Hayward said the spill was ‘relatively tiny’ compared to the ‘very big ocean’; 205.8m gallons of oil was spilled.

 The Deepwater Horizon

The Deepwater Horizon disaster was the worst marine oil spill in history. Image: US Department of Defense

In 2015, BP were told to pay a record $18.7bn fine to the US justice department and the five effected US states – Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas – that sued the company for damages after the spill. The settlement is being used to fund clean-up projects. However, fines cannot be the only way to enforce environmental measures on companies, as the system does not always succeed.

One of the biggest hurdles in promoting sustainability and environmentalism is teaching industry how they can remain working productively, but in an environmentally-conscious and responsible way, as too often compromises to become greener are easily ignored. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect companies to completely reinvent their daily operations, so experts need to provide realistic steps that industry can take to become greener.

river gif

Originally posted by heroinsight

Encouraging corporate sustainably is no purely a question of morality but a sensible business move. Evidence shows that 66% of consumers are willing to pay more for goods made sustainably and companies who show a commitment to the environment have also seen a global growth of 4% in sales compared to 1% of organisations who do not identify as environmentally-friendly.


Setting the standard

Unilever, whose brands include Dove and Magnum, are at the forefront of this movement. An industry giant in food and beverages, cleaning products, and toiletries, Unilever have made sustainability a part of its corporate identity.

Unilever are leading industry into a greener future. Video: Unilever

The company’s Sustainable Living Plan has surpassed industry standards. They have developed a sustainable agriculture programme that helps farmers and suppliers worldwide increase their productivity while respecting the environment they work in, as well as aiming towards a ‘circular economy’ within Unilever that will reduce waste by recycling materials to be used in other parts of the supply chain.

The company’s efforts were recognised in 2015 by the United Nations, who presented Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, with its Champion of the Earth Award for ‘his ambitious vision and personal commitment to sustainability.’

 Plastic collects at the mouth of the Los Angeles River

Plastic collects at the mouth of the Los Angeles River, California, US. Image: Plastic Pollution Coalition@Flickr 

One of the core aims of Unilever’s circular economy is to use 100% recyclable plastic packaging by 2025, a step that has pleased researchers. ‘At the current rate, we are really heading towards a plastic planet,’ says Rolan Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California, US, whose paper on the fate of all plastics over time hit headlines this year.

Of the 9.1bn tons made so much by industry, nearly 7bn is no longer used and only 9% has been recycled, the study reports. ‘The growth is astonishing and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down soon,’ says Geyer.