Since modern plastic was first mass-produced, 8 billion tons have been manufactured. And when it's thrown away, it doesn't just disappear. Much of it crumbles into small pieces. Scientists call the tiny pieces "microplastics" and define them as objects smaller than 5 millimeters -- about the size of one of the letters on a computer keyboard. Researchers started to pay serious attention to microplastics in the environment about 15 years ago. They're in oceans, rivers and lakes. They're also in soil. Recent research in Germany found that fertilizer made from composted household waste contains microplastics. And, even more concerning, microplastics are in drinking water. In beer. In sea salt. In fish and shellfish. How microplastics get into animals is something of a mystery, and Chelsea Rochman is trying to solve it.rnrnSince she started studying microplastics, Rochman has found them in the outflow from sewage treatment plants. And they've shown up in insects, worms, clams, fish and birds. To study how that happens, [researcher Kennedy Bucci] makes her own microplastics from the morning's collection. She takes a postage stamp-size piece of black plastic from the jar, and grinds it into particles using a coffee grinder. "So this is the plastic that I feed to the fish," she says. The plastic particles go into beakers of water containing fish larvae from fathead minnows, the test-animals of choice in marine toxicology. Tanks full of them line the walls of the lab. Bucci uses a pipette to draw out a bunch of larvae that have already been exposed to these ground-up plastic particles. The larva's gut is translucent. We can see right into it. "You can see kind of a line of black, weirdly shaped black things," she points out. "Those are the microplastics." The larva has ingested them. Rochman says microplastic particles can sicken or even kill larvae and fish in their experiments.
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The 3D printer is a double-edged sword. It stands to transform technology and society for the better, but we also can't ignore the potential negative consequences.
New York's top cocktail bars are facing something of a crisis. A fashionable global protest movement has nightlife venues scrambling to replace their plastic straws with more sustainable alternatives, such as paper ones, on the theory that doing so will reduce plastic waste in the oceans. It all sound virtuous -- but in reality, it's likely to make matters worse. Straws make up a trifling percentage of the world's plastic products, and campaigns to eliminate them will not only be ineffective, but could distract from far more useful efforts.rnrnThe anti-straw movement took off in 2015, after a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral. Campaigns soon followed, with activists often citing studies of the growing ocean plastics problem. Intense media interest in the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- a floating, France-sized gyre of oceanic plastic -- only heightened the concern.rnrnBut this well-intentioned campaign assumes that single-use plastics, such as straws and coffee stirrers, have much to do with ocean pollution. And that assumption is based on some highly dubious data. Activists and news media often claim that Americans use 500 million plastic straws per day, for example, which sounds awful. But the source of this figure turns out to be a survey conducted by a nine-year-old. Similarly, two Australian scientists estimate that there are up to 8.3 billion plastic straws scattered on global coastlines. Yet even if all those straws were suddenly washed into the sea, they'd account for about .03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year.rnrnIn other words, skipping a plastic straw in your next Bahama Mama may feel conscientious, but it won't make a dent in the garbage patch. So what will?rnrnA recent survey by scientists affiliated with Ocean Cleanup, a group developing technologies to reduce ocean plastic, offers one answer. Using surface samples and aerial surveys, the group determined that at least 46 percent of the plastic in the garbage patch by weight comes from a single product: fishing nets. Other fishing gear makes up a good chunk of the rest.rnrnThe impact of this junk goes well beyond pollution. Ghost gear, as it's sometimes called, goes on fishing long after it's been abandoned, to the great detriment of marine habitats. In 2013, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimated that lost and abandoned crab pots take in 1.25 million blue crabs each year.rnrnThis is a complicated problem. But since the early 1990s, there's been widespread agreement on at least one solution: a system to mark commercial fishing gear, so that the person or company that bought it can be held accountable when it's abandoned. Combined with better onshore facilities to dispose of such gear -- ideally by recycling -- and penalties for dumping at sea, such a system could go a long way toward reducing marine waste. Countries belonging to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization have even agreed on guidelines for the process.rnrnBut while rich countries should be able to meet such standards with ease, in the developing world -- where waste management is largely informal -- the problem is much harder. In Indonesia, for example, one study concluded that fishermen have little incentive to bring someone else's net to a disposal point unless they're getting paid to do so.rnrnThat's where all that anti-straw energy could really help. In 1990, after years of consumer pressure, the world's three largest tuna companies agreed to stop intentionally netting dolphins. Soon after, they introduced a "dolphin safe" certification label and tuna-related dolphin deaths declined precipitously. A similar campaign to pressure global seafood companies to adopt gear-marking practices -- and to help developing regions pay for them -- could have an even more profound impact. Energized consumers and activists in rich countries could play a crucial role in such a movement.rnrnThat's a harder sell than trendy anti-straw activism, of course. But unlike those newly virtuous night clubs, it might actually accomplish something useful.
Plastic waste is a problem in the bathroom - from toothpaste tubes to shampoo bottles. Can you ditch plastic without sacrificing your beauty regimen?
Marine plastic pollution has been studied for decades, but the extent and effects of plastic pollution elsewhere is only just beginning to be explored.
A deposit scheme for bottles won't make a scrap of difference. This stuff is in our food, our clothes - and in us, writes John Vidal, a former Guardian environment editor
re:3D is raising funds for Gigabot X: Large-Scale, Recycled Plastic Pellet 3D Printer on Kickstarter! 3D printing just got more accessible! Fabricate cheaper, faster, & greener with Gigabot X, a large-scale, pellet extrusion printer.
Plastic is polluting our ocean and damaging our health, and there are widespread calls to get rid of it. But it isn't as simple as wishing the pervasive material away.
Medha Tadpatrikar helped design a machine in Pune, India, that heats up plastic to convert it to fuel. The process is eco-friendly in more ways than one.
The barriers to cleaning up ocean plastic pollution are so massive that the vast majority of the scientific and advocacy community believe it's a fool's errand. The solution starts on land.
The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization, developing the first feasible method to rid the world's ocean of plastic. Read our recent updates here.
It's 1.2 miles long, but that's not the only reason it's special.
Austrian design team harnesses plastic-eating mushrooms to help hunger.
The New York World's Fair of 1939-40 was one of the greatest expos the world had ever seen. Visitors to Flushing Meadow Park in Queens were invited to see the "world of tomorrow" giving them a first glimpse
There are five trillion pieces of plastic in the world's oceans, weighing a total of 268,000 tonnes. That's according to a paper by an international team of scientists who took a substantial amount of
UPDATE: The Ocean Cleanup released a feasibility study in June 2014 that attempted to address many of the concerns we had below. You can read our
Develops advanced technologies to rid the world's oceans of plastic. Full-scale deployment will remove 50% of the North Pacific gyre debris in 5 years.
Harvard researchers combined material from shrimp shells and silk at nano level. Result: strong form of plastic.