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The European Commission and Pellet Loss


Amsterdam, January 24, 2018
— Everyday, four shipping containers spill into the sea worldwide. Sometimes, these containers are filled with pellets: oval-shaped plastic granules about a half centimeter wide that constitute the raw material that is needed to produce plastic objects. These pellets are transported all over the world. 

Last year, on October 10th, there was a violent storm. In the port of Durban, a container ship collided with another ship. Two containers, each filled with 990 bags of polyethylene pellets, were severely damaged. A large portion of the pellets ended up in the sea. Millions of pellets washed up on the beaches of Durban as a result. The owner of the containership did not acknowledge any liability; he placed the blame on the extreme weather circumstances. 

Now, more than three months later, volunteers are still cleaning up the washed-up pellets. This is almost impossible because the small grains are now not only widely distributed, but they are often difficult to distinguish from shells. 

Pellet loss contributes to the plastic soup considerably. The European Commission announced measures against pellet loss as part of its Plastic Strategy earlier this month. Plastic pellet spills are not only of concern during the transportation phase; pellets may leak into the environment during the production and processing phases as well. 

What measures exactly the commission has in mind are not included. In fact, only one measure is imaginable to prevent a disaster such as Durban; prohibit the intercontinental sea transport of pellets. 

Photo: Lisa Guastalla. Pellets found in Durban, South Africa, last Saturday

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Plastic Strategy: The European Commission’s Vision for Plastic

Amsterdam, January 17, 2018 — In the spirit of turning challenges into chances, the European Commission presented its Plastic Strategy yesterday. The European Union (EU) wants nothing less than to create a “new plastic economy”. The dilemma was put into words by Commissioner Frans Timmermans in his presentation to the European Parliament: “We can no longer live without plastic, but that very same plastic can be deadly”.

In order to find a solution to this dilemma, the EU wants to drastically reform the plastic industry. On the production side, new demands to make plastic more recyclable are arising. In 2030, all plastic must be either highly reusable or easily recyclable. The focus on recycling lies especially with C02 profit, which is in line with the climate accord that was agreed upon in Paris in 2015.

What does the EU hope to do about the increasing plastic pollution in the environment? A tax on single-use plastic is being considered, and container-deposit systems are also being heavily simulated. The possibility of an overall ban on microplastics in cosmetics is furthermore being researched. The plans, however, strongly rely on voluntary participation from the industry. 

The Plastic Strategy undeniably offers a framework through which to drastically take on plastic pollution. Whether or not this will happen in practice remains yet to be seen. Firstly, there is the relatively unambitious deadline of 2030. Between now and then, plastic production will increase enormously. The plans to place a tax on single-use plastic used for packaging are vague, while concrete reduction goals have yet to be formulated.

The EU has presented the plastic Strategy at an opportune moment. As of January 1st, China no longer accepts plastic waste from the EU. Europe must now process its own plastic waste. This creates a large opening for innovations in the recycling industry and gives the momentum needed to introduce necessary measures.

The Commission wants to turn challenges into opportunities. The danger is that the EU sees the combination of economic growth and sustainability through rose-colored glasses. When the focus lies on “better plastic” instead of the drastic reduction of the overall plastic use, the chance of leaks into the environments remains large. 

Vlokreeft (Orchestia Gammarellus)
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Gammarids shred a single plastic bag into 1.75 million pieces

Amsterdam, 12 December 2017 – Plastic bags gradually disintegrate in the marine environment as the result of the effects of sunlight, oxygen and waves. However, it was unknown whether marine organisms accelerate the process by ingesting and secreting plastic. Now it turns out that gammarids (Orchestia gammarellus) appear to do so.

Laboratory research in Great Britain has shown that this amphipod shreds a plastic bag into endless numbers of microscopic pieces with an average diameter of 488,59 µm. Although this happens with all types of plastic, the fragmentation process is four times faster when the plastic has accumulated a biofilm. A gammarid produces over 8 fragments a day. Research on the shoreline confirms the presence of such fragments in and around this creature’s excrement. A study into gammarids, which inhabit the shores of northern and western Europe, was carried out by the University of Plymouth and published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Head of the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, Professor Richard Thompson says, ‘An estimated 120 million tonnes of single-use plastic items – such as carrier bags – are produced each year. This research shows species might also be contributing to the spread of such debris.’  See the university’s press release.

Research had already shown that the northern fulmar grinds plastic in its stomach and secretes it as tiny microplastics. This means there are more species which accelerate the tempo in which plastic becomes fragmented into miniscule pieces.

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New measurement method: many more microplastics in sea than thought

Amsterdam, 2 December 2017 – British researchers have developed a cost-effective method of detecting and counting microplastics in water. They add a fluorescent dye that binds to plastic particles, making them easy to see with a microscope. The method clearly shows that there is much more microplastics in the top layer of sea water than previously thought. The research is published in Environmental Science & Technology.

It has been known for a while that there is more microplastics (< 5 mm) in the top layer of water than larger pieces. The current measurement methods however, were unable to determine the proportion of microplastics smaller than 1 mm. The new method can do this, and the results show that it is precisely the smallest plastics (20 to 1000 μm) that form the largest proportion of plastics in the sea. It has already been argued that much less plastic is found in sea than that enters the sea. The question is where all that plastic is, and up to now there has not been a satisfactory answer. The researchers say that their method helps explain that much of the ‘lost’ plastic has become so small that the measurement methods used to date simply overlooked them.

Plastics in the environment degrade into ever smaller pieces. As the pieces become smaller, the number of pieces increases exponentially. That proportionately there are many more tiny plastic particles in water is confirmed by this method. The researchers also point out that the smaller the plastic particles, the higher the number of organisms that ingest them.

The method detects lightweight plastics (polypropylene, polyethylene, polystyrene and nylon-6) best. These plastics are mostly used for packaging that is thrown away after use and nylon-6 comes from machine washed synthetic clothing.

Screenshot of the My Little Plastic Footprint commercial
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Softlaunch My Little Plastic Footprint

 

Alicante, 18 October 2017 – Our long awaited app, My Little Plastic Footprint, had its soft launch this morning. The launch took place during the very first Ocean Summit of the 13th Volvo Ocean Race which starts in Alicante, Spain. This app allows people anywhere in the world to reduce their plastic footprint and learn more about the plastic soup in the oceans.

The plastic soup is growing and everybody contributes to it – citizens, companies and governments. Of all the plastic that we use, we throw 40% away within twenty minutes. Of this, 3% ultimately ends up in the water. This can change. It has to change!

My Little Plastic Footprint offers an interactive platform where you can do something about the plastic soup in the ocean. You could explore the issue and test your knowledge in a quiz. You can also reduce your own ‘footprint’ by making pledges and sharing them with your friends and contacts on social media. Examples of pledges could be:

  • I will not use plastic straws anymore;
  • I will not accept any plastic bags in shops anymore.
Features of the app

Some screens of My Little Plastic Footprint

 

The app starts with 60 pledges. The number will grow over time. The smaller your plastic footprint becomes, the bigger your chance to be nominated as Ocean Champion.

In the third part of the app, you can be inspired by Ocean Heroes, celebrities who take action against plastic pollution. See the Ocean Heroes by downloading the app or by going to mylittleplasticfootprint.org.

We would like to ask you, our followers, to test this first version of the app.

Help us reduce humanity’s plastic footprint.

We have six weeks in which to remove any bugs and errors, and we can only do this with your help.

Will you help us? The app is available at the App Store and via Google Play. For more information about the app, check out www.mylittleplasticfootprint.org.

The app is built by: the Plastic Soup Foundation in the Netherlands, EA in Switzerland, Smäll in Barcelona and the Ocean Recovery Alliance in Hong Kong.

Ioniqa recyclen
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Ioniqa technology enables limitless PET recycling

Up to now, mechanical methods for recycling PET bottles have only been able to be applied six times on the same plastic bottles before the quality of the material becomes too poor for it to be reused. Ioniqa, an Eindhoven University of Technology  spin-off, has developed a technique making it possible to recycle PET and polyester clothing endlessly.

Ioniqa has developed a process in which all kinds of colored plastic can be reduced to pure raw material or virgin quality plastic. During the process the polymers are broken down and impurities such as color are removed from the plastic, leaving behind a white powder which can be recycled endlessly. Another objective of this technique is to prevent plastic from entering the ocean.

In 2006 Ioniqa won the  Accenture Innovation Award in the category Circular Economy for this innovation. Every year these awards generate attention for the Netherlands most innovative products, technologies and services. According to the jury, this attention could precipitate a worldwide break-through for the start-up. Attention is great but it’s not enough according to Tonnis Hooghoudt, founder of Ioniqa. In an interview with  RTL Z he explained that the market wants to see that the technology really works: “In the past year we have built a demo factory in Rotterdam. Now many large brands have brought their PET waste here to be tested and to see the technology with their own eyes.”

In the future the company wants to apply the process to other sorts of plastics and bioplastics. Hooghoudt told the Plastic Soup Foundation that he expected the technique to work on plastic litter. “As long as it is PET-packaging or polyester so far it has always been possible to produce the pure raw material.” However, he says tests have not yet been done on plastic litter. Harmen Spek, Innovations & Solutions expert at the Plastic Soup Foundation: “If this technology can be applied to both plastic waste and plastic litter, the environmental value would be huge. It would be a big step towards a closed loop system for plastic.”

bags
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Bioplastic bags endangers life at ocean floor

Many organisms, animals and plants alike, live on or in the sediment. Plastic bags that sink to the bottom of the water can close of a part of the sediment. It was already known that microorganisms that get trapped under a plastic bag die because of a lack of oxygen, light and food. Italian scientists have now studied the effects that biodegradable plastic bags have on the sediments of the Mediterranean Sea. Bags made from natural materials are increasing as an alternative for plastic bags made from oil. It turnes out however, that the biodegradable bags barely break down: they weighed 85% of their original weight. If they sink to the bottom, they end up on big fields of seagrass, which is an important part of the marine ecosystem. Because of a lack of oxygen, the balance between the grass and animal species started to shift. This can have severe consequences fot the ecosystem. The researchers even fear that these important seagrass habitats will be severely threatened because of this.

Click here to read more about how plastic soup threatens animals.

Picture: seacyprus.org

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Garbage patch larger than France and Germany discovered in the South Pacific Ocean

The Algalita Marine Research and Education Foundation has returned from an expedition to the South Pacific Gyre in the South Pacific Ocean. The organisation found a worrying amount of plastic there.

The expedition was led by Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the plastic soup in 1997 and gave it its name. Since then he has done thorough research into the plastic soup in the North Pacific Gyre, a rotating ocean current in the North Pacific Ocean. Given the vast amount of plastic that is accumulating there, it is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Algalita gave the name the South Pacific Garbage Patch to the high concentration of plastic that it recently discovered in the South Pacific Ocean. The South Pacific Garbage Patch covers an area of at least one million square kilometers, which is larger than the surface area of Germany and France combined. Most of the plastic consists of microplastics such as microbeads, microfibers from clothing, and small fragments from weathered large pieces of plastic.

Click here for our file on Microplastics

In 2009, Algalita recorded six kilos of plastic for every kilo of plankton in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The ratio of plastic to plankton is not yet known for the South Pacific Garbage Patch. However, Charles Moore expects that the amount of plastic there is about 10 years behind the northern gyre.

Click here for our file on Gyres and Hotspots

The difference in the amount of plastic used between the northern and southern hemispheres could explain this. Europe and the United States of America have used huge amounts of plastic for years, while regions such as South America and Asia are now catching up.

According to the researchers, the solution lies in reducing the amount of plastic that people produce, use and dispose of around the world. It is important to stop plastic leakage into the environment at source. This is the only way that we can ultimately stop plastic from entering the ocean. Once it is in the ocean, it is virtually impossible to remove.

new figures
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New figures about plastic soup

Since the massive introduction of plastic after the Second World War, 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced. Of this, 6.3 billion tons ended up as waste. Of this waste plastic, only 9% is recycled and 12% incinerated. The remaining 79% has ended up in dumps or in the environment. The worldwide plastic production rose from 2 million tons in 1950 to over 400 million tons in 2015. About half of this was produced only in the last 13 years. If the current trend continues, by 2050 there will be an estimated 12 billion tons of plastic in dumps and in the environment. This is the first time that an estimate has been made of the world-wide production of plastic and what happens to it. The American research appeared in the journal Science Advances.

None of the plastics that are produced at large scale degrade in the environment. Of the 9% that is recycled, only 10% was made from previously recycled plastic. Recycling may lengthen the time it takes for the plastic to enter the environment, but it does not prevent it. Recycling is thus not a real solution for reducing the plastic soup.

Read more about this in our What to do with plastic waste? folder.

Antarctica
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Microplastic pollution in Antarctica extremely serious

Until now Antarctica was seen as a pristine and untouched wilderness with relatively little plastic pollution, but the opposite is true. According to a recently published study the quantity of microplastics in the waters around Antarctica are five times greater that presumed up to now.

The Antarctic Ocean covers around 8.5 million square kilometers and represents 5.4% of the earth’s oceans. The marine ecosystem is vulnerable. Krill (small shrimplike animals) make up a large and important component for whales, seals and penguins inhabiting this area. Krill which mistakes microplastics for food are a potentially poisonous source of food.

British researchers have studied all available information about the flow or microplastics to the Antarctic Sea. They have calculated that up to 500 kilos of microbeads from personal care products and 25.5 billion synthetic fibers enter the waters per decade as a result of tourism, fishing and scientific activities in the area. It is unknown whether microplastics flow there from other oceans.

Although the scientific data on exact quantities is limited, it is known that microplastics are found in all layers of the Antarctic Ocean, including the sea floor off the coast of the South Pole. Recent research by Adventure Science shows that the sea around the Antarctic Peninsula contains an average 22 pieces of microplastic per liter. Another study carried out off the Southern Shetland Islands discovered up to 766 plastic particles per square meter at depths between six and 11 meters.

Dr. Catherine Waller, ecology expert and marine biologist at the British University of Hull said in a press release by British Antarctic Survey: “Our results indicate that urgent research needs to be done into the quantities of microplastics in the Antarctic Ocean and around the Antarctic continent.”

Consult our microplastic soup dossier for more information on this subject.