THE PLAS­TICS PROB­LEM

As plas­tic pol­lu­tion cov­ers the globe, can science pro­vide so­lu­tions? MICHAEL LUCY in­ves­ti­gates.

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NURDLES, AS THEY are dis­arm­ingly called, are pel­lets of plas­tic resin, the raw ma­te­rial shipped to man­u­fac­tur­ers mak­ing plas­tic goods, and I am search­ing for them on a foggy mid­win­ter morn­ing at Shelly Beach in south­east­ern Aus­tralia, a seem­ingly pris­tine cove where en­dan­gered hooded plover nest among the rocks and waves roll in off wa­ter that stretches a clear 3,000 km to Antarc­tica.

My nur­dle-hunt­ing teacher and guide, Colleen Hugh­son, holds up sev­eral ex­am­ples for in­spec­tion. Hugh­son is a film­maker and pro­ducer who lives nearby in the town of War­rnam­bool. She has be­come some­thing of an ex­pert since nurdles be­gan wash­ing up on Shelly Beach in the hun­dreds of thou­sands in Novem­ber 2017.

It takes a minute or two sift­ing through the sand and sev­eral false starts be­fore I find my own: first a smooth speck of pumice, then two shell frag­ments, and fi­nally a nur­dle. Once I have my eye in I spot nurdles ev­ery­where, tiny mon­u­ments to hu­man en­deav­our that might live on here for cen­turies.

When Hugh­son first saw the nurdles, she says the whole beach “was just cov­ered”. She had started a Face­book group of vol­un­teers to tidy up lit­ter on beaches around War­rnam­bool, in­spired by the ef­forts of en­vi­ron­men­tally minded surfers who set out to pro­tect the world-fa­mous Bells Beach 180 km to the east. One Sun­day she got a call from a mem­ber of the group who told her Shelly Beach was awash in plas­tic beads. “So I went down there the next morn­ing to have a look.”

Over the next few days the light­weight, highly buoy­ant nurdles washed up along a 30 km stretch of coast. Hugh­son con­tacted the Vic­to­rian En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Au­thor­ity, as well as Wan­non Wa­ter, the lo­cal wa­ter au­thor­ity in charge of a sewer that dis­charges into the sea near Shelly Beach. The event was de­clared a state emer­gency.

The sewer out­let was quickly con­firmed as the source. An un­known quan­tity of pel­lets – per­haps more than 4 mil­lion – had been dumped by a truck emp­ty­ing a sep­tic tank into a “sludge ac­cep­tance point” near War­rnam­bool Golf Course. The wa­ter treat­ment sys­tem was de­signed to catch ob­jects sized down to 6 mm. About 3 mil­lion nurdles were caught in­side the plant, but many slipped through, go­ing down the drain and out to the sea.

No one knows how the nurdles got into the sep­tic tank in the first place, or if they do they’re not talk­ing. Wan­non Wa­ter’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion nar­rowed it down to 20 sus­pects, but went no fur­ther.

As dif­fi­cult as nurdles are to clean up, an es­ti­mated 570,000 were re­cov­ered from the coast over sev­eral months. An un­known num­ber re­main at large. Storms reg­u­larly churn up more from deep in the sand.

Now, more than six months later, af­ter sift­ing through the sand for about 15 min­utes we – mostly Hugh­son, whose sense for nurdles is unerring – col­lect a hand­ful of nurdles and some other plas­tic de­bris.

The pol­lu­tion feels par­tic­u­larly stark against the ap­par­ent iso­la­tion and pu­rity of Shelly Beach, which Hugh­son de­scribes as “the beach you come to if you don’t want to see any­one”. In War­rnam­bool, a town of 35,000, that’s say­ing some­thing. But no place is iso­lated enough to avoid plas­tic now. Mount Ever­est is lit­tered with wa­ter bot­tles; the Mar­i­ana Trench, the deep­est spot in the oceans, is strewn with plas­tic bags. Mi­croplas­tic frag­ments dot the Arc­tic ice and re­mote South Pa­cific is­land beaches are cov­ered by a tide of trash. The prob­lem is ev­ery­where.

More than 8 bil­lion tonnes of plas­tics have been pro­duced since the 1950s, and most of that has been thrown away. By 2050, on cur­rent trends, plas­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing will ac­count for 20% of global oil use and 15% of car­bon emis­sions. But ar­guably the most dev­as­tat­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact is caused by the amount of plas­tic waste washed into wa­ter­ways and ul­ti­mately out to sea. More than 8 mil­lion tonnes ends up in the oceans each year, and that num­ber too is grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially. By mid-cen­tury it is es­ti­mated the amount of plas­tic in the world’s oceans will out­weigh all the fish.

The mil­lions of bot­tles and other plas­tic items that wash up on re­mote beaches are just the most vis­i­ble tip of the plas­tic berg. Bags, straws and wrap­ping stran­gle fish, tur­tles and birds. Of greater con­cern is what hap­pens to plas­tic ex­posed to the el­e­ments. Plas­tic is not biodegrad­able but it is pho­todegrad­able: sun­light breaks it down into pro­gres­sively smaller pieces. Th­ese frag­ments turn the ocean into a plas­tic-- laced soup, its morsels slowly sink­ing to the bot­tom or eaten by fish. Mis­taken for plank­ton, they are de­voured by ev­ery­thing from krill to whales. This poses health dan­gers not only to those an­i­mals but to the en­tire food web, in­clud­ing hu­mans.

The plas­tics them­selves can con­tain tox­ins – of­ten ad­di­tives such as ph­tha­lates and bisphe­nol-a, which are used to change the prop­er­ties of the plas­tic, but may be “en­docrine dis­rup­tors”, which have un­de­sir­able hor­monal ef­fects on an­i­mals. Float­ing plas­tic par­ti­cles can also be­have like sponges, soak­ing up pol­lu­tants in sea­wa­ter and de­liv­er­ing a con­cen­trated dose to what­ever is un­lucky enough to eat them.

Hu­man in­take of mi­croplas­tics is al­ready wide­spread. The health im­pacts are still un­known but in 2017 a Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal ed­i­to­rial de­clared it “time to pull our heads from the sand” re­gard­ing the risks.

The nur­dle I held in my hand at Shelly Beach, gave me a small grip on a prob­lem of un­fath­omable di­men­sions. Thought it weighs a frac­tion of a gram and is worth around a thou­sandth of a cent, it will no doubt out­live me.

It sits on my desk as I won­der: can science, which cre­ated plas­tic, also pro­vide so­lu­tions?

FROM THE CAR­BONIF­ER­OUS TO THE AN­THRO­POCENE

The nurdles at Shelly Beach are tiny lumps of polypropy­lene, the sec­ond most com­mon kind of plas­tic, af­ter poly­eth­yl­ene.

Like most plas­tics they are made from pe­tro­leum

byprod­ucts, which means their story likely be­gan hun­dreds of mil­lions of years ago, when al­gae or zoo­plank­ton died and set­tled to the bot­tom of the an­cient ocean. As sed­i­ment col­lected above, the heat and pres­sure grew and the sludgy mix­ture formed a solid sub­stance called kero­gen, made up of both or­ganic and min­eral ma­te­rial. Mil­lions of years passed and the kero­gen sank deeper into the Earth’s crust, where more heat and pres­sure slowly trans­formed it into the hy­dro­car­bon slurry we know as pe­tro­leum. There it sat as the ages went by, un­til hu­mans ap­peared on the sur­face above and de­vel­oped the tools to tap its chem­i­cal prop­er­ties.

In the 19th cen­tury, the af­ter­math of the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion saw a de­mand for new ma­te­ri­als – at first as sub­sti­tutes for rare or ex­pen­sive ma­te­ri­als like ivory – and the sci­en­tific and man­u­fac­tur­ing knowhow to make them mass com­modi­ties. The first widely avail­able plas­tic, cel­lu­loid, was plant-de­rived, made from a ni­tro­cel­lu­lose and cam­phor resin. Patented in 1869 by an Amer­i­can in­ven­tor named John Wes­ley Hy­att, cel­lu­loid was de­signed to win a prize of­fered by a bil­liard-ta­ble man­u­fac­turer seek­ing a syn­thetic re­place­ment for ivory bil­liard balls. Cel­lu­loid did the trick, though it was not with­out its draw­backs: as Hy­att re­called in 1914, “oc­ca­sion­ally the vi­o­lent con­tact of the balls would pro­duce a mild ex­plo­sion like a per­cus­sion gun­cap”. (Ni­tro­cel­lu­lose is highly ex­plo­sive.)

Nonethe­less the age of plas­tic had be­gun. As oil ex­trac­tion grew in the sec­ond half of the cen­tury (in 1859 US oil pro­duc­tion was 2,000 bar­rels, by 1899 it was 57 mil­lion), to pro­vide fuel oil and kerosene, chemists turned to pe­tro­leum as a source of the raw mol­e­cules that bind to­gether into the long chains of car­bon and hy­dro­gen which give plas­tics their char­ac­ter­is­tic com­bi­na­tions of mal­leabil­ity and tough­ness.

By the 1940s, plas­tics were be­com­ing part of every­day life. They were in the cel­lu­loid film that made mo­tion pic­tures pos­si­ble, in the ubiq­ui­tous Art Deco Bake­lite jew­ellery, in the cheap tooth­brushes in any cor­ner shop. Ac­cord­ing to a 1941 ar­ti­cle in Harper’s Mag­a­zine, they were “won­der ma­te­ri­als” made from “such sim­ple in­gre­di­ents as air, coal and wa­ter”.

It was World War II that re­ally helped plas­tics come into their own. As met­als and other ma­te­ri­als were req­ui­si­tioned for mil­i­tary use, man­u­fac­tur­ers sought al­ter­na­tives. Ny­lon, for in­stance, be­came pop­u­lar for stock­ings be­cause all the silk was go­ing to make para­chutes. The mil­i­tary also em­braced plas­tics for their de­sir­able prop­er­ties of strength, heat re­sis­tance, elec­tri­cal in­su­la­tion and flex­i­bil­ity.

By 1955 dis­pos­able and sin­gle-use plas­tics were cel­e­brated. A LIFE mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle ti­tled ‘Throw­away Liv­ing’ showed a fam­ily joy­fully toss­ing away food con­tain­ers, vases, cur­tains, nap­pies, and dozens of other items in a modern tri­umph over the drudgery of clean­ing and reuse.

World­wide pro­duc­tion of plas­tics quadru­pled from 2 mil­lion to 8 mil­lion tonnes a year in the 1950s. By 1970, it was 35 mil­lion tonnes. In 2017, it was 400 mil­lion tonnes. Pro­duc­tion is es­ti­mated to con­tinue dou­bling ev­ery dozen years. Of the 8 bil­lion tonnes of plas­tic pro­duced in the past seven decades, more than half has been pro­duced in the past two. Of that, 30% is still in use, about 10% has been in­cin­er­ated and al­most 60% has ended up in land­fill or as lit­ter. And be­cause hu­mans tend to live near wa­ter­ways, a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of that plas­tic lit­ter gets washed into rivers and the ocean – some 80% of ocean plas­tic ar­rives this way. The rest is what’s tossed out of boats.

With dis­carded plas­tic now form­ing a thick­en­ing skin over the planet, the pres­ence of plas­tics has been pro­posed as one of the key mark­ers of the An­thro­pocene, the present epoch in which the planet has been un­mis­tak­ably trans­formed by hu­man ac­tiv­ity. In­deed, ar­chae­ol­o­gists are al­ready us­ing strata of dif­fer­ent kinds of plas­tic poly­mers to es­tab­lish eras.

How long plas­tic par­ti­cles will stay in the en­vi­ron­ment is un­known, says oceanog­ra­pher Ju­liana As­sunção Ivar do Sul of the Leib­niz In­sti­tute for Baltic Sea Re­search in Ger­many. She is the plas­tics ex­pert in the An­thro­pocene Work­ing Group of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion on Stratig­ra­phy, which sets the of­fi­cial names and bound­aries of pe­ri­ods in the deep his­tory of Earth.

“Once plas­tic is de­posited in sed­i­ment we know it de­grades very slowly,” she says.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Just as there is no sin­gle “cure for can­cer”, there is un­likely to be a sin­gle cure for plas­tic pol­lu­tion. Plas­tics com­prise hun­dreds of ma­te­ri­als used for thou­sands

World­wide pro­duc­tion of plas­tics was 2 mil­lion tonnes in 1950. In 2017, it was 400 mil­lion tonnes.

03 | Colleen Hugh­son, plas­tic cru­sader.

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