Plastic Pollution

“The unprecedented plastic waste tide plaguing our oceans and shores, can become as limited as our chosen relationship with plastics, which involves a dramatic behavioral change on our part…” — Claire Le Guern

September 10, 2023

Multi-colored plastic drinking straws (by Marco Verch CC BY 2.0 via Flickr).

The Straw That Hijacked the Plastic Pollution Movement – Hakai Magazine

Plastic straws used to be “environmental enemy number one.” Was the fight against them in vain?

The video begins with a close-up of the turtle’s head, its dark-green, pebbled skin out of place against the stark-white boat deck. Nathan Robinson’s hands approach, moving the pliers toward the turtle’s nostril. The tool clamps down on the edge of something—a barnacle? a worm?—barely visible within the dark tunnel. The creature squirms and dribbles blood as the pulling begins. A long, thin object begins to emerge, inch by excruciating inch.

It was August 10, 2015, and marine conservation biologist Christine Figgener was collecting data for her PhD a few kilometers off the coast of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. She and Robinson were researching olive ridley sea turtles when they noticed a male had something encrusted in its nose. The pair decided to try to extract the object. Robinson flipped open his Swiss army knife’s pliers and Figgener grabbed her phone and began to film.

“We had no idea what we were frigging looking at,” Figgener says in a newer, annotated version of the video. It wasn’t until one of the researchers cut off a piece of the object that they realized what it was: a 10-centimeter piece of plastic straw.

“We couldn’t believe that such a mundane object that we really use on a daily basis … that we found it in the turtle’s nose … that a tiny object caused so much suffering,” she says in the video.

When Figgener uploaded the turtle straw video to her YouTube account eight years ago, it went viral. For a few years, plastic straws were the trendy rallying cry for sustainability. In many ways, the campaign was a success story—one that elevated our awareness of single-use plastics to the point where it resulted in actual policy change. But upon reflection, not all the solutions that spun out of the anti-straw movement actually held water. In recent years, many environmental pundits have focused on the movement’s shortcomings.

To many environmentalists fighting plastic pollution, anti-straw advocacy now feels passé—out of touch with the broader need to address all forms of single-use plastic. But the movement’s rise and fall still holds lessons for the activists of today.

From soda bottles to yogurt containers, there is a lot of plastic pollution out there. So how did we end up so obsessed with straws?

The anti-plastic straw movement didn’t actually originate with Figgener’s turtle video. Back in 2011, a nine-year-old named Milo Cress found it odd that the restaurants he would go to with his mom in Burlington, Vermont, would automatically serve drinks with a straw, whether or not their customer wanted one. He approached the owner of Leunig’s Bistro and Café in Burlington, and eventually, Leunig’s became one of the first establishments in the country to ask customers whether they wanted a straw or not…


More on Plastic Pollution . . .

"Liquid Avalanche" Sandy Beach in Oahu, Hawaii (by Floyd Manzano CC BY 2.0 via Flickr).

The overwhelming plastic waste Hawaii visitors leave behind – SFGATE

Plastics like in-room toiletries provided by resorts, plus to-go containers and cutlery provided by restaurants, are used and discarded by guests day after day. A single hotel chain can use hundreds of millions of little bottles of shampoo and conditioner every year.

When visitors leave, a lot of these items end up in the trash, yet Hawaii doesn’t have the infrastructure to recycle the immense amount of plastic left behind…

Asphalt (by katsuuu 44 CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr).

Using ‘recycled plastic’ in construction materials may not be a great idea after all – Grist Magazine

Last month, the American Chemistry Council, a petrochemical industry trade group, sent out a newsletter highlighting a major new report on what it presented as a promising solution to the plastic pollution crisis: using “recycled” plastic in construction materials. At first blush, it might seem like a pretty good idea — shred discarded plastic into tiny pieces and you can reprocess it into everything from roads and bridges to railroad ties…

Plastic input into the oceans: Despite knowledge of the role played by rivers, there are no global estimates of the amount of man-made debris reaching the ocean at river mouths. Therefore, of the estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of litter which enter the marine environment in 2010 from land-based sources within a 50 km-wide coastal zone (Jambeck et al., 2015) Illustration by Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni, courtesy of GRID-Arendal CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via

There Might Be Less Plastic in the Sea Than We Thought. But Read On – the New York Times

There’s less plastic pollution flowing into the ocean from land than scientists previously thought, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The researchers estimated that about 500,000 metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, with about half from land. The other half comes from the fishing industry in the form of nets, ropes, buoys and other equipment…

Rocks called "plastiglomerates" - because they are made of a mixture of sedimentary granules and other debris held together by plastic, mainly fishing nets - have been found in Brazil's volcanic Trindade Island. Researchers view this as evidence of humans' growing influence over the earth's geological cycles (screenshot taken from Global News video "Mutated "plastic rocks" discovered on remote Brazilian island," March 23, 2023, via Youtube).

Plastic-rock hybrids found on the Andaman Islands – Mongabay

A study found the formation of plastic-rock hybrids in the intertidal zone of remote beaches of Aves Island in the Andaman archipelago. This is a first record of these hybrid rocks, known as plastiglomerates, from India.
Samples from the island that were analysed contained polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride. Incineration of plastic litter could have led to their formation.
The impact of plastiglomerates on marine ecosystems is yet to be understood as research on plastiglomerates is an emerging field…

"Don't waste water" (by Kumar Jhuremalani CC BY 2.0 via Flickr).

How Plastics Are Poisoning Us – the New Yorker

They both release and attract toxic chemicals, and appear everywhere from human placentas to chasms thirty-six thousand feet beneath the sea…How worried should we be about what’s become known as “the plastic pollution crisis”? And what can be done about it? These questions lie at the heart of several recent books that take up what one author calls “the plastic trap…”

Fishers Island, New York (by Daniel Piraino CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr).

The ‘Sisyphus of Trash’ Struggles to Clean Relentless Waves of Plastic From a New York Island’s Beaches – Inside Climate News

Michele Klimczak’s passion for cleaning the beaches of Fishers Island led to a full-time, year-round job, but she still can’t keep up with the flood of plastic waste.
In just three years, Michele Klimczak has picked, hauled, weighed, documented and sorted more than 32,000 pounds of garbage from the shores of Fishers Island, New York. She finds plastics stamped with product expiration dates going back two decades washed up all around the roughly four square mile stretch of land in the Long Island Sound…

Plastic Bottles for Recycling (by CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr).

Recycled plastic can be more toxic and is no fix for pollution, Greenpeace warns – the Guardian

“Plastics are inherently incompatible with a circular economy,” the global environmental network said in a report that brings together research showing recycled plastics are more toxic than their virgin constituents.

The report, timed to coincide with the beginning of fresh talks for a potential global plastics treaty, comes as separate research has found breaking down plastics for recycling scatters microplastic pollution into the environment…

Microplastics On The Beach (by Petr Kratochvil CC0 Public Domain).

Fossil-Fuel Interests Try to Weaken Global Plastics Treaty – Scientific American

An international effort to rein in plastic pollution is running into resistance from China, Saudi Arabia and other nations that see a future in plastics amid declining demand for oil, gas and coal. That debate is playing out over the terms of a prospective global treaty that could set limits on plastic production and consumption. Environmentalists last year scored a landmark victory when 175 countries agreed to write a treaty designed to address the problems with plastic…

State Senator Craig Miner tours the Strategic Materials recycling plant in South Windsor, CT, April 4, 2017 (by CT Senate Republicans CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr).

Who owns our trash—and why does it matter? – National Geographic

Who owns our trash? It’s a heated question being asked by waste pickers around the world who are uniting to fight for their survival. What we throw away, they insist, should be available to all.

Globally, up to 56 million people collect and resell the metal, glass, cardboard, and plastic that the rest of us toss…

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