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Green Planet

Can Recycling Really Solve The Plastic Problem?

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The practice of recycling has everything to commend it:  On a finite planet, it conserves resources; it is meretricious allowing us, as it does, to pin a mental merit badge on our chests as we ready the assigned recycling bin once a week; and it is an activity that is all good.  We are saving the planet, albeit in a small way, from some of the excesses of the developed world.  And when everyone does their share, the impact has to be unavoidably significant.  Right.  Or, does it?  

If we examine what we recycle, that is paper, glass, metal cans and plastic, the junk mail and other paper discarded is the most copious but plastic is close.  Almost all of it used to go to the developed world’s great recycling bin in the east … China.  It absorbed some 95 percent of EU recyclable waste and 70 percent from the US.  But China began to grow its own domestic garbage with the growth of its economy.  The consequences have not been unexpected.  China announced a new policy in 2018, named inexplicably National Sword, banning the import of most recyclables, particularly plastics and contaminated materials.  

Since then China’s import of such recyclables has fallen 99 percent.  Needless to say, metals and glass are not as seriously affected.  For the American recycling industry, it has been a major earthquake.  First, about 25 percent of recyclables are contaminated and not recyclable.  Then there are plastic bags.  Not only are these, too, not recyclable but they tend to jam up sorting machinery.

The sorting of waste sent to China had been taken over by families in port side communities.  It became their livelihood, retrieving whatever fetched a price and dumping the rest.  Piling up in ad hoc landfills, it washed down waterways into the ocean.  They were not the only culprits.  Thus we have had the phenomenon of whales being washed up dead, starved because stomachs were full of plastic — 88 pounds densely packed in the stomach of one found in the Philippines and 50 pounds inside another in Sardinia.  China’s ban on waste imports has been followed by Malaysia and Vietnam.  In March of this year, India joined them.  

As the outlets for their waste disappear and as most of the plastics are not recycled, self-reliance has been forced upon developed countries.  All to the good for the environment, because it will also curtail the use of plastics out of necessity.  The truth is only a fraction of plastic waste is recyclable, generally the white transparent bottles of which some are preferred.  Most ends up in landfills.  A 2017 study in  Science Advances determined that 90% of plastics ever produced are still in the environment.  Yet in the past six decades an estimated 8 billion tons have been produced.  Moreover, the usage trend is upwards and in 2014 some 311 million tons were produced worldwide. 

There is though a small movement to restore reusable bottles, and a company called Loop Industries may be on the right track. Their founders announced at the World Economic Forum in 2019 that they aim to return to the milkman model, reusing bottles for everything from edibles to shampoo and detergent. Loop has partnered with Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, PepsiCo, and other large companies.  Perhaps, if we all return to the milk bottle model of the 1950s  — refilling containers to be used again — there may be greater hope for the planet.  The good news is, some towns and states have already banned single-use plastic bottles. 

Another intriguing possibility is to use the millions of tons of crustacean shells discarded.  Scientists are now able to extract chitin and chitosan from shrimp and lobster shells.  Still in the research stage, the process has to be made industrially feasible, and there are also problems with hazardous waste as it uses potent chemicals like sodium hydroxide.  Biodegradable chitin and chitosan can be used as plastic substitutes to make surfboards and anti-microbial food packaging.  Scotland-based CuanTec has developed a bacterial method that has eliminated 95 percent of the sodium hydroxide and also cut energy use by a third as the bacteria do all the work.  They use shells from the langoustines common in northern Europe, and have already signed a contract with the large UK supermarket chain Waitrose to supply flexible film for packaging fish.  The film’s antibacterial properties extend fish shelf life by three days.  

An unexpected and more insidious source of plastic pollution is synthetic clothing.  Researchers have determined that acrylic clothing may release more than 700,000 plastic fibers in a single wash.  Polyester releases about 500,000 fibers, and a poly-cotton blend releases about 137,000.  These fibers end up in the water we drink and the fish we eat.  Making matters worse is the presence of microplastic at depths up to the 1000 meters, investigated by Choy et al in the deep waters of Monterey Bay using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).  The ROV collected the samples at ten different depths.  Maximum pollution was found, surprisingly, not at the surface but from 200 to 600 meters below.  They also collected red crabs and found plastics in the gastrointestinal tract.  Giant “sinkers,” the particle filtering mucous houses used for feeding by larvaceans and discarded after use, were collected at depths ranging from 251 to 2967 meters to overlap and extend the range of the research.  All contained microplastics.   Clearly, ridding the oceans of plastic pollution is an almost unsurmountable problem.  

Japanese manufacturers have come up with a washing machine filter to catch microfibers, which may provide some aid if more widely distributed.  Yet we still do not know the efficacy of such devices.  Curbing the problem at the source is still the most sensible if we wish to sustain the planet.  It is up to us.

Returning to the cheap, convenient and  therefore ubiquitous plastic bags, there is hope for now there are several different types:  the most common are conventional plastic bags, then there are compostable bags designed to be recycled in industrial composters, biodegradable bags, and two types of oxo-biodegradable bags.  The latter degrade in open landscapes or on water surfaces like oceans.  None degrade too well in landfills.  There is, however,  another problem with compostable biodegradales:  to repel water and oil these have in them perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances in which an hydrogen atom has been replaced by fluorine.  Known as PFAS, these persistent chemicals leach out of the plastic and remain in the compost to be absorbed by plants and later by humans to accumulate in their bodies.  

However, it’s back to landfills for the non-recyclables.  In 2015, the US alone produced 34.5 million tons (or 13 percent of total municipal solid waste) of plastic waste from which a small fraction (9 percent or 3.1 million tons) was recycled, 5.4 million tons was incinerated with energy recovery and about 26 million tons ended up in landfills.  Burning reduces volume by 87 percent.  However, open burning produces pollutants including dangerous dioxins, so safe combustion requires a contained environment.  

Unless there is a change, the plastic problem appears likely to keep growing.  In 1950, the world produced only about 2 million tons compared to over 300 million tons in present times.  The UN has taken a first step by adding plastic waste to the Basel agreement on hazardous waste — 187 countries have signed up, the US under the Trump administration remains an exception. 

Engineering institutions have become aware of the problem and are educating their young members.  As reported in their July 2019 issue of IET Member News, the British electrical engineering professional body has two competitions sponsored by Greenpeace and Greenseas.  For the Greenpeace prize, teams have to come up with methods, technologies and alternative delivery systems to reduce plastic packaging in supermarkets.  And the Greenseas challenge requires competitors to develop a robotic machine to clear beaches of plastic cigarette stubs.  The machine has to be large enough to collect a reasonable amount and painted brightly to attract attention and inform the public of the problem.  Then there is OceanX Group, headed by a young engineer, that is developing automated monitoring and cleanup technology to remove plastic from waterways and better to detect sources.  It employs artificial intelligence including drones.  

The inescapable upshot of all of this is a need for education.  Sorting recyclables initially and disposing non-recyclable material into the curbside waste bin could save energy later, and many man-hours.  Changes in the kind of plastic material produced may also help.  For instance, just reducing the coloring used in plastic bottles eases recycling as these additives are expensive to remove.  Also tax incentives for manufacturers can only aid recycling efforts.  However, the now evident danger to the food chain begs including the cost of safe disposal (like controlled combustion for example) in the price of items.  Above all, the total amount of plastic generated can no longer keep increasing; it has to be reduced.  

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CounterPunch.org

Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

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The global plastic problem

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Global plastic pollution is becoming increasingly severe. According to a report by the German weekly magazine ‘Focus‘, plastic particles have recently been found in samples collected all over the world, : from the Arctic to rivers and even deep seas.

Even Mount Everest, the top of the world, has been found to contain plastic particles. The United States has long accused developing countries of being the main responsible for plastic pollution. The waste approach has overshadowed the U.S. “major contribution” to the plastic pollution crisis. If we also consider the export of plastic waste and the latest statistics on illegal dumping and littering, the United States is one of the most severe sources of plastic pollution in the global coastal and marine environment, ranking third in the world.

The research report published by Science Advances clearly states that the United States blames Asian countries for the plastic waste pollution problem, although it is the world’s largest producer of plastic waste. The report was written in collaboration with scholars from the American Association for Marine Education, the University of Georgia and the National Geographic Association.

The Comprehensive Assessment Study on Global Plastic Waste Issues, published in 2015, stated that the top five countries producing most of the plastic waste are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

The latest report, however, finds that the 2015 study ignored any mismanagement of waste after it had been exported to another country for recycling.

The research report also revised the 2015 claim that China is the world’s largest emitter of marine plastic waste.

The latest research report published by Science Advances calculated the total amount of plastic waste generated by countries around the world in 2016, based on waste generation and characteristic data from 217 countries and regions reported by the World Bank.

Global plastic production in 2016 was 422 million tonnes, with a 26% increase as against 2010. The share of plastics in solid waste rose from 10% to 12% in 2010. In 2016, global plastic waste generation reached 242 million tonnes.

The report clearly states that in 2016 the United States was the country that produced the largest amount of plastic waste (42 million tonnes). It also ranked first in terms of annual per capita production of plastic waste (130 kilograms).

The 28 EU Member States ranking second produce 54.56 kilograms of plastic waste per capita per year, which is only half of the United States’ plastic waste, while India ranks third. In 2016 China ranked fourth in terms of plastic waste production (21.6 million tonnes), equivalent to half the U.S. amount, but its annual plastic waste production per capita was only 15.67 kilograms, equivalent to only 12% of the amount produced by the United States.

Nick Mallos, senior director of the Marine Conservation Organisation’s Garbage-Free Ocean Program, stated: “The plastic waste generated in the United States is the largest amount of any country, but we have been ignoring the problem, outsourcing it to developing countries. And we are making a heavy contribution to the plastic crisis in the oceans”.

In terms of rubbish, illegal dumping, littering and other improperly managed waste products on the coast, the United States ranks third among coastal countries and is the main cause of pollution in the world’s coastal areas.

The study also said that the United States collected 3.91 million tonnes of plastics in 2016, more than half of which was shipped overseas, and exported 1.99 million tonnes of plastic waste to 89 trading partners. “Over 88% of plastic waste is exported to countries that cannot properly manage and dispose of it due to insufficient resources.” Much of this exported plastic waste cannot be reused, which will eventually pollute the local environment.

One of the authors of the research report, oceanography professor Cara Lavender Law, stated: “For several years, many of the plastic products we throw in the rubbish can be exported to countries where it is already difficult to manage their own waste for recycling. Not to mention the large amount of plastics shipped from the United States. Considering the large amount of our plastic waste that is actually non-recyclable because it is of low value, contaminated or difficult to dispose of, it is not surprising that a lot of plastics will end up polluting the environment”.

Relevant data show that 5% of plastic waste generated in the United States is discarded or dumped illegally due to “improper handling and management” or cannot be disposed of properly after being transported to other countries.

The report underlines that it seems that only 5%is “improperly managed” but, considering the total amount of plastic waste, this figure cannot be ignored.

It should also be stated that eight million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans every year, which is equivalent to a plastic load being spilled into the sea every minute.

These plastic products have undertaken a long and destructive journey from the moment they have reached the sea. Winnie Liu, a senior official with The Pew Charitable Trust’s Marine Plastics Prevention Project, said: “Plastics reaching the seas will be carried far away by ocean currents. They are found all over the world, even on the edge of Antarctica and the deepest place on earth. Plastics can be found in the Mariana Trench. As they drift with currents, theywill penetrate the ecosystem and cause immeasurable damage to marine life”.

Despite the severity of this problem, global plastic production continues and is posing increasing threats to the seas. What makes the oceans so vulnerable to plastic pollution? How can we control the plastics entering the ocean? What is wrong with plastics?

In our daily lives we can hardly avoid plastics. From food packaging to toiletries, clothes, furniture, computers and cars, plastics is everywhere. Plastics durability makes it difficult to biodegrade them. In a way, it can be compared to long nuclear decay.

Depending on their type, some plastics can take decades or even millions of years to decompose in landfills. Therefore, unless plastics are incinerated (a process which, in turn, causes pollution), virtually all the plastics we have produced so far still exist in the world and, once entered the ocean, their impact will last for hundreds of years.

Where does waste come from? The world produces over 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, and this amount is still growing. Only 9% of this plastic waste is recycled. The rest is incinerated or discarded. Most of the discarded plastic waste is landfilled. The reason for this is that half of the plastics we produce is disposable plastics, i.e. plastic products such as straws, plastic bags and water bottles that are thrown away after they have been used.

It is precisely because disposable plastics are easy to produce and discard, and lead to a continuous increase in the amount of waste landfilled, that they inevitably increase the amount of plastic waste polluting the environment.

Why is the impact of plastics on the oceans so severe? The vast and deep oceans are like a retention tank for pollutants, which collects toxic material from all over the world. Besides the load dropped from ships, plastic fishing nets and longlines (known as ‘ghost fishing gear’) are also a major source of plastic waste in the oceans, accounting for about 10%. In addition, expanded polystyrene used in aquaculture to make cages is also a source of marine plastic pollution.

The vast majority of marine debris, however, comes from the land. Extreme weather conditions and strong winds sweep waste along the coast, which is quickly picked up by the tide. Oceans are also the final destination of thousands of rivers, carrying large amounts of waste from landfills, and eventually sinking it into the sea.

Once plastic waste enters the ocean, it is broken down into particles with a diameter of less than 5 mm, called microplastics. This happens because of the harsh conditions and endless ocean movements.

This form of plastics will spread ever deeper into the ocean. It will invade more biological habitats and cannot actually be recycled at all. What will happen to us if also thousands of marine animals get caught in plastic waste every year, especially ‘ghost fishing gear’? Furthermore, the harm to marine life from ingesting plastics is less evident: seabirds, sea turtles, fish and whales often mistake plastic waste for food because its colour and shape are similar to their preys. We end up eating them. Once we ingest these toxic particles, our organs will be damaged, thus making us more liable to diseases. Our fertility will also change, with great risks of genetic mutations.

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Climate politics and the future of carbon emissions

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Climate change is no longer a far-off problem, it is happening here, it is happening now and if it is happening now then efforts to curb it should be done right now rather to wait for tomorrow when tightening nature grip made us regret even more than now. To talk specifically about carbon emission, it is a single issue, a “world issue” that is demanding serious world efforts, not mere words to highlight the problems which we all know quite well. It is the right time we stand up, we fight together to save our existing and the future. Yet, like any path having its troubles, one major hurdle on the way to reduce carbon emission is the climate politics in the form of the North-South divide. The divide which has been existing ever since not only in areas of hard politics but also in areas of soft politics i.e climate change, and imposing a challenge to all future efforts and on those been done already including the Kyoto protocol, Rio+20 agreement, the Paris climate agreement, etc.

Issue here is that both the North (Developed) and the South (Developing) give their sides of the argument yet no one is ready to take the responsibility or at least willing to find a collective solution. Thus making the environment suffer and the carbon emission constantly increasing.

Looking at the North, it claims that climate change is a worldwide danger jeopardizing the biological system and is to a great extent the aftereffect of CO2 outflow by both North and the South. Thus it is a collective responsibility of both to reduce emission and to ensure carbon cut not just the North. However, in response to this the South argues, yes climate change is an issue that is raising world temperature and major emitters are in both North and South, but the North is ignoring the fact that it has been emitting gases for centuries. For instance, Europe, United States, Canada are polluting the environment since the 19th century while the developing countries have begun in 1980’s. Furthermore, what the developed world ignores is that the development of the North has already got peaked while of the developing world has just started. So based on this the North should go for the carbon cuts and use alternative sources of energy i.e hydro, wind, green energy, etc. As the South at this stage cannot afford carbon cuts which will affect its development process. Also, it does not even have enough carbon-free resources at present to ensure carbon reduction.

Hence, this N-S divide has ruined the success of so far twenty-five Conference of Parties (COP) related to climate change held each year in Nov and Dec mostly in Bonn, Germany. Taking a gander at them individually to explore how the divide has not let any single agreement on carbon emission to effectively achieve its set target.

Starting with the Kyoto protocol that came into effect in 2005 with 192 parties determining to reduce emission according to the allotted carbon quota. An important aspect of this protocol was “common but differentiated responsibility” by which the North was held largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere. However, if we analyze it deeply then from the very start commitment to the agreement had flaws. As the United States being the world hegemon should’ve lead the agreement from the front but sadly it even didn’t ratify the agreement as the then-President George W. Bush stated “Senate’s vote, 95–0, shows there is a clear consensus that the Kyoto Protocol is an unfair and ineffective means of addressing global climate change concerns. Signing protocol will cause potential damage to USA economy”. Thus a clear depiction of the USA preferring its economic development over the environmental concerns.

Then the first commitment period (2008-2012) of this agreement failed to achieve its targets with emission further increased by 32%.Moreover, Canada withdrew from the protocol in 2012 with its then environment minister, Peter Kent stated “the Kyoto protocol doesn’t cover world two largest emitters USA and China, therefore it cannot work” and as “Canada didn’t meet target so it wants to avoid $14 billion in penalties”. Seeing this response by the developed world, in the second commitment round (2012 onwards) only 37 countries had binding targets, and Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan withdrew. Not just this, but Russia, Japan, New Zealand though participated in the 1stcommitment round but refused to go for the 2ndcommitment. So, it’s clear how the N-S divide affected the commitment to reduce carbon emission with the developed world especially the largest emitters like the USA and China not even ratifying it and even those like Canada who did ratify but withdrew later. The same is with the developing south because if the developed North is unwilling then the south’s one-sided efforts are meaningless.

Now, looking at the Copenhagen agreement (2009) which aims to limit the global temperature no more than 2 °C (above pre-industrial level). It was believed to be the largest and the first-ever true agreement that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can ensure environmental stability because it was initiated by the USA along with the four other largest emitters’ china, India, Indonesia, and Brazil. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen agreement just like the Kyoto protocol had flaws and most importantly the N-S divide has again tumbledown its progress. This is because it doesn’t contain any legally binding commitments to reduce CO2 emissions as the then PM of Great Britain, Gordon Brown, stated “We have made a start” but that the agreement needs to become legally binding quickly.” Then Brazil’s climate change ambassador called the agreement “disappointing”.

This is the response of North, now looking at South. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales said, “The meeting has failed. It’s unfortunate for the planet”. Most importantly Lumumba Aping, a Sudanese diplomat who was the chief negotiator for the G77 group of developing nations at the UNFCC conference in 2009 criticized the agreement by stating “It’s an incredibly imbalanced text intended to subvert two years of negotiations. It does not recognize the proposals and the voice of developing countries. Thus we have been asked to sign a suicide pact”. Consequently, this conflict of opinion between the North and the South has again led to the failure of the Copenhagen agreement in reducing carbon emission and the world temperature.

Moving to the Rio+20 convention on biological diversity, it shows no difference from the rest. As the United States was among those four countries that have signed but not ratified the agreement. Then key world leaders including G20 members, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron have not attended the conference showing that they don’t even prioritize sustainability issues. Not just this but the developing countries too showed resentment when the USA, EU, and Switzerland rejected the G77 plan to frame the context of green economy explicitly. 

Likewise, COP-19 held in Warsaw, Poland to reduce greenhouse gases emission saw the same divide as G77 and china proposal for a new funding mechanism ($100 million every year) to help the vulnerable South deal with “loss and damage” caused by climate change was opposed by developed countries leading to 132 poor countries and major environment activist like Oxfam, Greenpeace, Action Aid, etc. walkout from the conference.

Lastly, the Paris climate agreement in 2015 which showed diversion from the rest considering it was binding on all 197 countries, and committed to achieve zero-emissionwith both developing and developed states agreed on a carbon cuts.  The agreement was achieved under the leadership of Obama as he stated “President Xi and I intend to continue working together in the months ahead to make sure our countries lead on climate”. For the first time, the two largest emitters, China and the USA, worked on common grounds. However, Donald Trump during his presidency calls it a “job-killing” and a “total disaster”as said“Obama pledges to cut emission has hurt the competitiveness of USA” and withdrew the USA on 4th-Nov, 2020. Yet, in response to this Joe Biden tweeted “Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, Biden Administration will rejoin it.” This is exactly what happened as President Joe Biden’s very first act in the Oval Office was his signing an executive order to have the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement.

To sum up, the North-South divide is at the core of global environmental politics and is a debate that prevails on the grounds of unanswered questions as to who should bear the responsibility of the environmental damages. When the North shows willingness for change then it’s the South that creates hurdles, similarly when the South steps forward then the North shows aversion. If this will continue then the future of carbon emissions is intimidating. Therefore, need is to build a global consensus to free the environment from this blame game and to move towards sustainable development based on equitable contribution and accountability. It is now high time to put an end to all the differences existing now and in the past, as being humans our survival is at great risk. The need of the day is to work together to devise a common solution to our common problem and to ensure a healthy world for our existing and future generations.

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When Sea Levels Rise And Coastal Waters Darken…

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image source: University of Oldenburg (Foto: Zielinski)

Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

The coastal waters by Wilmington, Delaware, the president’s home base, have risen a record 3 mm in the past year.  Worse, the rate of increase is itself increasing portending a foot or more in the next century.  It means a rebuilding of docks plus barriers to prevent serious tidal flooding.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS), affiliated with the College of William and Mary, has been collecting data on sea levels for the past 52 years.  It released its latest annual report recently, noting sea level rising by historic amounts — as in the case of Wilmington — as well as the accelerating rate of increase.

There are 32 tide gauges placed along the US coasts all the way to Alaska.  Maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), these measure levels every six minutes.  Researchers at VIMS take a monthly average to avoid a skewed analysis due to unusual weather patterns like storms.

The Institute’s report presents sea level changes, assesses future trends, and tries to explain the increases or even decreases at particular localities.  Sea level changes are relative to the adjoining land.  For example, the rates are actually falling in Alaska but that is caused by shifting tectonic plates raising land and off-setting the sea level rise.

Researchers describe the persistent sea level rise as a “slow emergency” — not a storm that will be hitting tomorrow but trouble ahead and the report cards can help local authorities plan for the future.

Wetlands Watch works to preserve wetlands in Virginia’s coastal areas.  Rising sea level is a particular concern because it is expected to affect most of the state’s coastal wetlands.  Therefore in addition to policy advocacy, Wetlands Watch has developed Sea Rising Solutions, which helps in mapping out where flooding is likely.

Spreading the word about sea level rise and its consequences engages the whole community and motivates legislators and developers to adapt to the new norm and prepare ahead for a changing environment. 

There is another problem with coastal areas:  a gradual darkening of the sea water.  It is serious for such a change in color and clarity poses a significant threat to marine life.  The Coastal Ocean Darkening Project at the University of Oldenburg in Germany simulated the effects by filling huge metal vats with water and phytoplankton and hanging lamps above them to simulate sunlight.  They then darkened the water using low, medium and high concentrations of a brown liquid extracted from peat to simulate decaying organic matter.  The phytoplankton were all negatively affected but particularly in the vats with medium and high concentrations which blocked off more light.  Also some phytoplankton were affected more than others.  

The adverse consequences to the elemental base of the ocean’s food threatens marine species up the chain, and especially those relying on the phytoplankton types most affected.  Moreover, reduced vision hinders those species, like fish, relying on vision to hunt, while not affecting those that do not, like jellyfish.  

Why is the water darkening?  One hint might be that environmental regulation of fertilizer use goes along with improvements in the Mediterranean, the North Sea and parts of the North American coast.  And of course reducing global warming would decrease ice melt and subsequent sea level rise.

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