The Weekend Wonk: One Word – Plastics

August 5, 2018


OK, you know the basics, but bear with me, or go BBC item below, if you are rushed..

Agence France-Presse:

The vast dump of plastic waste swirling in the Pacific ocean is now bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined — far larger than previously feared — and is growing rapidly, a study published Thursday warned.

Researchers based in the Netherlands used a fleet of boats and aircraft to scan the immense accumulation of bottles, containers, fishing nets and microparticles known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (GPGP) and found an astonishing build-up of plastic waste.

“We found about 80,000 tonnes of buoyant plastic currently in the GPGP,” Laurent Lebreton, lead author of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports, told AFP.

That’s around the weight of 500 jumbo jets, and up to sixteen times greater than the plastic mass uncovered there in previous studies.

But what really shocked the team was the amount of plastic pieces that have built up on the marine gyre between Hawaii and California in recent years.

They found that the dump now contains around 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, posing a dual threat to marine life.

Barents Observer:

The shore is hundreds of kilometers from nearest civilization, the Kiepert Island south in the Hinlopen Strait east of Spitsbergen. A polar bear is seen in distance. You could think this is about as far from anything as it is possible to get.

Last week, crewmembers from “KV Nordkapp” went on shore to the island. They were all shocked by the sight of the rubbish.

“I could never believe it was this bad,” one of the conscripts said in a tweet posted by the Coast Guard. They describe the location’s remoteness as “the back side of the moon.”

About 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the world oceans annually. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, there could be more plastic in oceans than fish.

worryingly –


It’s your classic movie eureka moment.

Young researcher Sarah-Jeanne Royer set out to measure methane gas coming from biological activity in sea water.

Instead, in a “happy accident” she found that the plastic bottles holding the samples were a bigger source of this powerful warming molecule than the bugs in the water.

Now she’s published further details in a study into the potential warming impact of gases seeping from plastic waste.


“It was a totally unexpected discovery,” Dr Royer told BBC News.

“Some members of the lab were experimenting with high density polyethylene bottles looking at methane biological production, but the concentrations were much higher than expected.”

“So we realised that the emissions were not just coming from the biology but from the bottle that we were using for the experiment.”

After graduating from university in Barcelona, Dr Royer found herself in Hawaii, leading teams of volunteers who were helping to remove plastic from beaches at weekends, while working on the chemistry of the substance during the week.

Dr Royer found that the most widely-used plastic, the stuff used to make shopping bags, is the one that produces the greatest amount of these warming gases.

At the end of the study, after 212 days in the sun, this plastic emitted 176 times more methane than at the start of the experiment.

Ironically, when plastics were exposed to air the amount of methane emitted was double the level from sea water.

While the amounts of methane and ethylene being produced right now from plastics are very small, Dr Royer is concerned about the future and the fact that as plastic breaks down, more surface area is exposed, increasing the amount of the gases that drifts into the atmosphere.

“If we look at all the plastic produced since 1950, it’s pretty much all still on the planet, and it’s just degrading into smaller and smaller pieces, so we know the industry is booming and in the next 30 years and more and more greenhouse gases will be produced – that’s a big thing.”

Nothing much at this point. According to Dr Royer, when she approached companies in the field, they weren’t keen on talking about it.

“I told them I was a scientist and I was trying to understand the chemistry of the plastic,” she said.

“I was trying to order some plastics of different densities and I was asking questions about the process and they all said we don’t want to have contact with you anymore.

“I think the plastic industry absolutely knows, and they don’t want this to be shared with the world.”

There is hope that we might finally get action if this story below gets any traction among rich white guys.  It does explain a lot about motivations for NRA membership.

Sydney Morning Herald:

Penises are shrinking, and more boys are being born with genital defects, two Melbourne scientists claim.

Their controversial stance is based on studies of animals exposed to the chemicals, as well as human data they say shows rates of hypospadia – a penis birth defect causing a range of functionality problems – have doubled in Australia.

“Exposure to these chemicals, this is the No.1 reproductive issue for men,” says Associate Professor Andrew Pask, who leads a lab at Melbourne University researching male reproduction.

However, government regulators say the best-available science shows these chemicals are not having an effect on humans. Other experts say a link is possible but that the evidence is a long way from settled.

Some plastics can release chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, that can mimic human sex hormones. In animal studies, exposure when pregnant can have profound effects on an animal’s offspring, including infertility, undescended testes and hypospadia.

There is no strong evidence about what they do to humans.

But we all have observable levels in our blood because they are so common in everyday life. Dr Pask points to several chemicals that may have an effect on humans: BPA, phthalates (both used in plastics), parabens (used in toothpastes and beauty products) and atrazine (herbicide).

Despite a large number of studies overseas, Dr Pask and his Melbourne University colleague Dr Mark Green believe they are Australia’s only scientists studying the chemicals’ effect on male reproduction.

A 2007 study found the rate of severe hypospadia had almost doubled between 1980 and 2000 in Western Australia, with one in 118 male babies born with the birth defect. A Victorian study from 1998 reported similar findings. But a review of studies around the world reported the data was too inconsistent to draw strong conclusions.

A small French study in 2015 found a “strong” link between exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals during pregnancy and hypospadia, as did another in Italy.

“No one likes to talk about this. Often parents don’t even like to tell their kids they had it – it gets surgically repaired but often the surgeries don’t work very well,” says Dr Pask.

“When it’s doubling, it cannot be genetic defects – it takes years for that to spread through a population. So we know it has to be environmental in origin.”

10 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: One Word – Plastics”

  1. Lionel Smith Says:

    Unfortunately there has been push back against the idea of this Pacific Garbage patch often in in the usual suspects such The Telegraph so some may come across such trails of false information:

    ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is a myth, warn experts, as survey shows there is no ‘rubbish island’

    It is now know that the Pacific is not the only ocean to see this, indeed the Pacific now has more than one.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      That Telegraph article is another painful example of the headline* misrepresenting the content: The “myth” is merely that the gyre is a coherent raft of plastic (an “island”), but the article goes on to describe the excess density of plastic and the other problem of micro-plastics.

      *I fantasize about making printed articles also note who wrote the headlines.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      There are many plastic “garbage patches” developing in oceans all over the planet. The Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, for instance.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    In addition to the great “burn fossil fuels and see what happens” experiment we are conducting on the planet, we are conducting the great “what happens to all those NOT naturally occurring chemicals?” experiments, the main one being plastics. Talk about unknown unknowns, the idea that plastics ultimately release GHG is a real kick in the butt.

    As far as hypospadia and other such problems, this is nothing new. I have mentioned before the book “Our Stolen Future: Are we threatening our fertility, intelligence, and survival—a scientific detective story” by Colborn, Dumanoski, and Myers—-a book published TWENTY-TWO YEARS AGO in 1996 (with a foreword by Al Gore, of course—some excerpts below).


    Vice President Al Gore—January 22,1996

    “Last year I wrote a foreword to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Rachel Carson’s classic work, Silent Spring. Little did I realize that I would so soon be writing a foreword to a book that is in many respects its sequel—

    Now Our Stolen Future raises questions just as profound as those Carson raised thirty years ago—questions for which we must seek answers—

    —-evidence linking synthetic chemicals to aberrant sexual development and behavioral and reproductive problems…reports in leading medical journals point ominously to hormone-disrupting chemicals’ effects on our fertility—on our children. Our Stolen Future provides a vivid and readable account of emerging scientific research about how a wide range of man made chemicals disrupt delicate hormone systems.

    Just as with AGW, we are diddling along busily making some people obscenely rich with plastics (and of course “improving the quality of life for humans”). Just as with AGW, we will likely do too little, too late.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      PS In case it was not obvious, the last paragraph was DOG speaking, not Al Gore.

    • Lionel Smith Says:

      I have mentioned before the book “Our Stolen Future: Are we threatening our fertility, intelligence, and survival—a scientific detective story” by Colborn, Dumanoski, and Myers

      As have I and I thoroughly recommend it.

      For those who don’t have access to a copy here is a presentation on the topic: Our Stolen Future – Revisited 15 Years Later.

      I had intended to clarify my ‘pushback’ theme indeed had a post in prep’ but had an emergency here which is ongoing and I don’t like to make posts without checking facts so excuse me the moment has passed.

      Climate change and the problems of over harvesting and over extraction with attendant despoliation of the environment are features that will have their effects added to by the issues of chemical poisoning. With that latter there are so many human created compounds now lose in the environment that nobody knows what their combined effects will eventually be.

      CFCs were only the beginning.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    A short piece about the release of GHG from plastics study:

  4. […] Horrifying new study […]

  5. Sir Charles Says:

    Graphs here => More plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, says Ellen MacArthur

    One refuse truck’s-worth of plastic is dumped into the sea every minute, and the situation is getting worse

Leave a Reply to dumboldguy Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: