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The Threat to Life from Ocean Microplastics

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad Khan

When Chelsea Rochman at the University of Toronto and colleagues began their study on medakas (small Japanese rice paddy fish), they did not expect to find what they did.

They first soaked ground-up polyethylene in San Diego Bay for three months and then fed it to these fish along with a laboratory diet.  They also fed the same diet to a comparison group of medakas but along with virgin polyethylene also ground-up.  The medakas eating the plastic immersed in the Bay suffered greater liver damage.  How much of a danger then is our seafood?  

Defined as less than 5mm in size,  microplastics have been found in 114 types of aquatic life, over half of which are consumed by humans.   Oysters exposed to food-container plastic (polystyrene) have fewer eggs and impaired less-motile sperm.  Does eating them do the same to us?  Nobody knows.  A comprehensive study of plastics in seafood and its implications for human health points to the gaps in our knowledge.  It calls for more research into the toxicity of various plastics and in identifying lower risk seafood.  

There is some evidence for the quantity of microplastic pieces per cubic meter of water — from the surface to a depth of 1000 meters in one study.  The numbers range from four pieces at the surface increasing to about a dozen at 200 meters down then declining to three or so at a 1000 meters down.  It is certainly not super dense.  At the same time, little fish ingesting it and bigger fish eating smaller ones, and one can see a problem developing, particularly for us the final consumer.  

The copious plastic debris flowing into the ocean estimated at 8 million tons annually continues to add to the 100 million tons already there.  Engineering experts at Stanford University have discussed “the potential for meaningful change” in the status quo.  They have some interesting observations:  Microplastics are now in “about a quarter of the sea foods in our markets and even in table salt.”  They are also in “94 percent of tap water samples in the US and in nearly every brand of bottled water.”  At this we checked tap water and some bottled water and did not notice any.  Insidious, if these are microscopic.   

Research in other parts of the world exemplify the global extent of the microplastics menace.  In a study of commercial fish caught off the Portuguese coast, microplastics were found in 19.8 percent of the 26 species of fish tested.  Plastic polymers, polyethylene and polypropylene as well as fibers like polyester, rayon and nylon had been ingested.  As might be expected, the fish taken off Lisbon and its environs were worst affected.  

In another study, fish and bivalves taken from markets in California and Makassar, Indonesia were  examined for anthropogenic debris.  Plastic was again confirmed in seafood sold for human consumption.  Debris was found in about a quarter of individual fish and a third of shellfish raising concerns about human health.

North Sea fish have been studied for plastic ingestion also.  Foekema and his fellow researchers found particles up to 4.8 mm in five of seven common North Sea fish species.  Usually only one particle was found and in only 2.6 percent of the 1204 individual specimens tested.  Cod showed the highest frequency with one third involved.  In another study of 400 individual fish from four species, only two particles were found, both in one individual, a sprat, confirming the relative low incidence of plastics in North Sea fish.  The particles in the sprat were microbeads.

Then there is the ubiquitous cigarette butt.  Is there something prophetic about dropping and stubbing it as the final act of a habit statistically known to shorten the lives of smokers?  Discarding butts may be socially acceptable but when 6.5 trillion cigarettes are smoked each year around the world, and an estimated two-thirds of the ends flicked away carelessly, butts become the most littered plastic item.  Made of cellulose acetate they degrade slowly, and then into tiny microplastic pieces finding their way often into waterways and oceans.

The thrown-away butt, a lethal parcel of absorbed nicotine, heavy metals and chemicals, appears to marine life as food floating on the surface.  It has been found to be deadly to fish, and to inhibit plant growth.  A new addition, e-cigarettes are growing in popularity, their discarded pods posing a similar problem  — not to mention the e-cigarette itself, a package of plastic, electric circuitry and battery.

Another disturbing trend is for manufacturers to add plastic microbeads as cheap fillers in household products like toothpaste, shampoo and cosmetics.  Washed down the drain, and small enough to bypass the water filters at reclamation plants, these eventually find their way into the ocean.  Of course some can be swallowed accidentally by product users.  A Mother Jones (May 28 , 2015) article pictures an array of products containing them.  

Fish are fooled by microbeads which are a similar size and shape to fish eggs.  Add all the other plastics and the chemicals adhering to them and they become a meal with long-term consequences for other predators as well.  The Guardian newspaper reports on five species affected by ocean plastics.  Fish-eating birds, whales with plastic-clogged stomachs, turtles snagged by plastic six-pack holders, crabs ingesting microplastics that also enter through their gills, even vital oxygen producing ocean bacteria are being harmed.   

Birds eating plastic had stunted growth and kidney problems noted a University of Tasmania study with particular reference to the near-threatened flesh-footed shearwaters (long-winged oceanic birds).  They have estimated a million seabirds dying annually from plastic ingestion, and other researchers have tagged balloons as the “no.1 marine debris risk of mortality for seabirds.”  A high-risk item, ingesting a balloon fragment is 32 times more likely to cause death than a hard plastic item.

A map of the US showing the interest levels in plastic pollution for the different states as measured by the numbers of tweets about the subject might be appropriate in our new world of politics by tweet led by the president.  None of it helps the individual dying of kidney, liver or pancreatic cancer.  Infertility clinics abound as sperm counts decline in the west and specially in the US … joining the oysters mentioned earlier.

If we reflect on the issues, a logical answer emerges; that is, to reduce plastics, ban single-use items, increase recycling, and dispose of the rest safely.  Above all, educating us remains key.  Who knew cigarette butts are not just an unsightly nuisance but deadly?  

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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Climate Smart Agriculture Can Help Balochistan bounce back

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Climate change brings disaster to the province Balochistan, which is an arid region located in west of Pakistan. The drought-stricken region struggling to increase its agricultural productivity, faced a backlash due to catastrophic floods. The predominantly agriculture-based territory reached the dead zone as farmers had stopped farming, shepherds kept their animal numbers low, which put people’s lives on stake, as it increased food insecurity. This highlighted the need to start a policy debate for climate smart agriculture.

Climate smart agriculture is an approach that is making the planet prosperous again. It is an ambition to increase the integration of food security with enhance resilience in productivity. It is a sustainable agriculture practice that promotes soil health, water management, and biodiversity conservation with economic benefits. Its practices like, cover/tunnel farming, drip irrigation, crop livestock systems can help Balochistan to go green and integrated again. These practices can sequester carbon in soil and can fight the impacts of climate change more efficiently.

Climate change is affecting the province in various ways. The region of Balochistan is characterized by extreme aridity, with annual precipitation levels below average, causing severe droughts, which is leading to a catastrophic impact on the province’s agriculture and livestock.

Flash floods in Balochistan becomes the new common during the monsoon season as a result of heavy rainfall, with the most significant in 2022. These floods have a detrimental impact on the environment, causing soil erosion, depletion, and the loss of fertile topsoil. The soil is already deficient in minerals and cannot endure further depletion, requiring several hundred years to recover and cannot support agricultural growth.

In an interview with wealthPk, Dr. Hanif-ur-Rehman AP from university of Turbat said, that high efficiency irrigation system (HEIS) can play an efficient role in climate effected regions like Turbat, Makran, Kech where farmers had traditionally cultivated the crops for source of income. The use of drip, rain guns, Centre pivot, and sprinkler have the ability to bring back the lush green pastures that have turned barren.

Climate smart agriculture could not only fetch the lost agriculture but also increase the productivity rate by making the rest of the region green. Balochistan accounts for only 6% of cultivable land for agriculture which not only failed to meet food security needs but also added little in Pakistan’s 25% agriculture GDP.

Balochistan people despite having less literacy are very conducive to cultivating lands with new cultivation techniques. In late 1990s and 2000s when the entire western part of the province was severely hit by droughts, people brought the techniques of less resilient tunnel farming to moist the soil. They grow crops beneath protective plastic tunnels. This technique helps them cope with their immediate needs but it fails to produce yield on a massive scale. Cultivation in proper climate resilient tunnels usually requires 10 to 20 acres of area or economically 3 acres feasible, and the tunnels are created by using steel pipes, or aluminum pipes that support plantations that are usually 3 to 12 feet in height and 5-10 feet wide. 

 The drip irrigation technique also has enormous potential for minimizing production costs by moderating the input use of water, fertilizers and pesticides. Drip irrigation keeps the field capacity constant by enabling the crops to easily take in water and nutrients, which result in uniform growth of plants and enhances the quality that produces well.  Drip irrigation distributes water through a network of valves, pipes, emitters, and tubing that can save 50-70% of irrigation water which can not only resolve the water scarcity issue of Balochistan, it also can produce efficient, extensive production of crops such as apples, cherries, tomatoes, and citrus.

The province also needs to move towards an integrated crop-livestock system (ICLS), which is sustainable, productive, and climate resilient compared to intensive specialized systems. ICLS have increased over time in arid regions but still, Balochistan lags behind due to lack of skills by producers, lack of investment, lack of sustainable awareness and market competition. Livestock production is the largest sector of the province’s economy. It is nearly impossible to have a dream of economic development for the rural masses without prior attention to Livestock and crop management.

After floods, the crops fields are destroyed due to which livestock become the main source of food for many rural households that make the rural farming through livestock less practicable.  It can only be enhanced by administration policies through capital funding, educational services and markets to subsistence farmers.

CSA is a method that includes several elements entrenched in local settings rather than a collection of practices that can be used everywhere. CSA requires the adoption of technologies and policies, and it refers to behaviors both on and off the farm.

According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the United Nation 2023 report, Local farmers are the foremost holders of knowledge about their environment, agro-ecosystems, crops, livestock, and climatic patterns. Therefore, the adoption of Climate Smart Agriculture should be aligned with the local farmers’ knowledge, needs, and priorities. . Farmers of Balochistan have shown a keen interest in drip irrigation, tunnel farming technique but the high cost of imported pipes, emitters, plantation of aluminum tunnels from china has become their hindrance.

Mainstreaming CSA in Balochistan requires critical stocktaking and promising practices by financial and institutional enablers that can create an initial baseline for discussion and investment from the globe. If the government of Balochistan supports the farmers through public funding or by joint ventures with farmers for covering the startup costs, the techniques can be very useful not for food security but also for economic benefits on a constant level. According to a report on Climate smart practices, the CS techniques could not only help to save water up to 50-70%, reduce the fertilizer use by 45%, increase yield up to 100-150%, reduce the production cost by 35%, but could also mature the crops with better quality for uneven topography.

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Human History and the Wonder of the Horse

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Imagine a person accustomed to traveling at 3 to 4 mph, who discovers a means (the horse) to speed up to 5 times that pace with occasional thrilling bursts doubling even that.

At 15 mph, it is then not unreasonable to assume a 1000 mile range for a week on horseback allowing for breaks and sleep at night.  It must have expanded enormously the horizons of those early Kazakhs who first domesticated the horse some 6000 years ago.

If the Kazakhs roamed west, the Mongols, a few thousand years later, roamed back and began a vast empire that eventually included all of China.  Ties with Russia were close but as a hegemon, until a few centuries later when the Russians threw off the yoke. 

As Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping shake hands forging a new treaty, China is once again a more powerful economy, the largest in the world, while Russia’s is more akin in size to Italy’s.

If the horse made the vast Central Asian steppes explorable, its remarkable navigational skills ensured the rider would eventually be able to return home.

Apparently horses are sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field, and not unlike homing pigeons can find their way home.  Confirmatory tests have shown that when magnets are slung over their withers, they get completely lost.  Observers have also noted that, in pasture. they tend to stand north-south aligned with the earth’s magnetic field.

Up until the advent of the internal combustion engine, horses were used for all kinds of transportation.  Where the rail line ended, horses took over.  They  hauled freight in covered wagons; pulled stagecoaches in the Wild West and elegant carriages in Europe; they were a cowboy’s bread and butter, and personal transportation for anyone who could afford one; horses in the cavalry delivered the punch generals were seeking in battle; in racing, they provided thrills for the audience and excitement for punters — such is true also today, and with all the special attention given to the triple crown races, the casual observer might forget the weekly calendar of racing events across the country.

Horses for courses is a common saying for they are bred for speed in short races and stamina for long steeplechases like the famous Grand National in England.

Hark back to the wagon drivers of old, when on lonely long journeys the driver could talk to his horses — like dogs they are able to understand and develop quite a vocabulary of human words plus silent signals from the reins and legs of the riders.

And pity the poor trucker now and his lonely cross-country trips —  not much to say to a noisy diesel engine!  The only chance to talk he gets is when he takes a break to eat, rest and sometimes sleep at truck stops along the way.

With all that horses did for humans, one can wonder what they got out of it.  Apparently they form close bonds with their owners, and as with dogs, the feelings are mutual.

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Race to zero in Asia and the Pacific: Our hopes in the climate fight

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The latest synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes for grim reading: Every fraction of a degree of warming comes with escalated threats, from deadly heatwaves to severe hurricanes and droughts, affecting all economies and communities. It is a reality that the people of Asia and the Pacific know only too well. “The worst April heatwaves in Asian history” last month was just a taste of the worsening climate impacts we will continue to face in the years to come.

Our latest report highlights that the sea level is creeping up in parts of the region at a slightly higher rate than the global mean, leaving low-lying atolls at existential threat. Annual socioeconomic loss due to climate change is mounting and likely to double in the worst-case climate scenario. Inequity is yet another threat as climate change sweeps across the region. Asia and the Pacific already accounts for more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions and the share is growing. 

But there is another picture of hope in our region: 39 countries have committed to carbon neutrality and net zero between 2050 and 2060. The cost of renewable energy is falling almost everywhere, with installed capacity growing more than three-fold in the past decade. Electric vehicles are entering the market en masse as countries such as China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Thailand have made electric mobility a priority.

This momentum needs to accelerate like a bullet train. Because nothing short of a breakthrough in hard-to-abate sectors will give us a good chance of stopping catastrophic global warming.

Accelerating a just and inclusive energy transition

The recent energy crisis has kicked renewable energy into a new phase of even faster growth thanks to its energy security benefits. There is opportunity now to leverage this momentum and turn it into a revolutionary moment.

Cross-border electricity grids can be the game changer. ESCAP has simulated different scenarios for grid connectivity and scaling up renewables. It shows that a green power corridor, cross-border power grid integration utilizing renewables, can help to remove the last hurdles of the transition. We are working with countries to chart a path to improved regional power grid connectivity through cooperation.

Achieving low-carbon mobility and logistics

The exceptional growth of electric vehicles has proved that electric mobility is a smart investment. And it is one that will help stave off carbon dioxide emissions from transport, which has stubbornly increased almost by 2 per cent annually the past two decades.

Through the Regional Cooperation Mechanism on Low Carbon Transport, we are working with the public and private sector to lock in the changeover to low-carbon mobility, clean energy technologies and logistics. This is complemented by peer learning and experience sharing under the Asia-Pacific Initiative on Electric Mobility to accelerate the penetration of electric vehicles and upgrading public transport fleets.

Building low-carbon industries through climate-smart trade and investment

The net zero transition is not complete without decarbonizing the industrial sector. The region accounts for nearly three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions in manufacturing and construction.

Binding climate considerations in regional trade agreements can be a powerful tool. While climate-related provisions have entered regional trade agreements involving Asian and Pacific economies, they offer few concrete and binding commitments. To unlock further benefits, they will need to be broader in scope, deeper in stringency and more precise in obligations.

As foreign investment goes green, it should also go where it is needed the most. It has not been the case for any of the least developed countries and small island developing States in the region.

Financing the transition

The transition can be only possible by investing in low- and zero-emission technologies and industries. Current domestic and international financial flows fall well short of the needed amount. The issuance of green, social and sustainability bonds is rapidly growing, reaching $210 billion in 2021 but were dominated by developed and a few developing countries. Both public and private financial institutions need to be incentivized to invest in new green technologies and make the uptake of such technologies less risky.

Linking actions and elevating ambitions

The code red to go green is ever so clear. Every government needs to raise their stake in this crisis. Every business needs to transform. Every individual needs to act. A journey to net zero should accelerate with a fresh look at our shared purpose.

At ESCAP, we are working to bring together the pieces and build the missing links at the regional level to support the net-zero transition work at the national level. The upcoming Commission session will bring countries together for the first time in an intergovernmental setting – to identify common accelerators for climate action and to chart a more ambitious pathway. This is the start of an arduous journey that requires cooperation, understanding and determination. And I believe we have what it takes to get there together.

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