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NEWS

Every plastic bag has a story. 


It begins in a plastic factory, where tubs of molten polyethylene are blown through a tube and cut into squares. The bags are shipped to your local grocery store, the shopping mall, your favorite restaurant. When you pick up takeout spaghetti and garlic bread from that restaurant, the bag will help you carry the food to the car and from the vehicle to your home, and then you’ll stow it away in a cabinet. The pasta is delicious, by the way. Twenty days later, you pull the bag back out to throw away scraps of the apple you just peeled. You toss the bag in the garbage disposal. Next Tuesday, as the garbage truck empties a week’s worth of waste into its dark recesses, the bag tumbles from the side of the black bin and escapes onto the street. Egged on by the wind, the bag escapes your neighborhood, floats under the freeway overpass, and finds itself in the creek alongside the local smelt fish. The water carries the bag out to sea. Your bag is already tattered when it arrives there, but the waves and rapid current break it into further pieces as it drifts further and further away from the coast.


Your bag is gone, right?


Not exactly. Along its journey, it’s been shedding small fragments of its body, little white bits of shrapnel often invisible to the human eyes.


Microplastics. Commonly defined as any plastic particle less than five millimeters in length, they’re absolutely everywhere. 


A 2019 study calculates that humans consume up to 50,000 microplastics every year. Severe estimates say that this is the equivalent of one credit card per week. 


Let’s go back to that plastic bag. As you untie the knot, it sprinkles microplastics across your pasta container lid the same way you shake parmesan across a plate of spaghetti. As the bag floats from the street across the highway into the river, scratching against the pavement and riled by winds, it leaves behind microplastics. And when it dissolves into the ocean waves, it releases tens of thousands, perhaps millions, more.


A 2023 study estimates that there may be up to 170 trillion microplastics in the ocean, and describes this pollution as a “growing plastic smog.” Another researcher put it as a “thickening plastic soup.” While scientists currently don’t have conclusive results about their possible health impacts, current research indicates that they are likely harmful. Microplastics have been found to absorb hazardous substances like heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and more. They also may accumulate in narrow passages in the human body, resulting in blockages, inflammation, and other adverse health effects.


Why do we still not know the exact effects of microplastics, even though they’re everywhere? The reason for this is because they’re everywhere. In fact, scientists can’t find a control group of people who have never been exposed to microplastics. This is shocking in and of itself. There are very few things that every human has experienced or known. The sun. Gravity. Eating food. Sleep. And now among those things — microplastics. Despite this, many governments haven’t yet implemented policies to address microplastic contamination.


California is now the first government in the world to require the testing of microplastics in drinking water. Senate Bill 1422 required the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt a definition of microplastics by July 2020 and to develop a standard methodology for the detection of microplastics in drinking water by July 2021. 


In November 2021, the State Water Board published the Microplastics in Drinking Water Policy Handbook, which details some of the progress they’ve made. The document defines “nanoplastics” as any particle between 1 nanometer (the size of ten atoms) and 100 microns (the thickness of an average human hair). “Large microplastics” are any particle between 100 microns and 2.5 centimeters (the size of a peanut). These size comparisons demonstrate the vast disparities in the size and shape of microplastics. With enough degradation, pieces of your plastic bag might even reach the nanoplastic level.


The Board also established two primary methods for the detection of microplastics: Raman spectroscopy and infrared spectroscopy. Both these techniques use similar approaches to identify plastics. In Raman spectroscopy, high-intensity light is used to excite the molecules within individual particles. The Raman scattered light that is returned can be used to analyze the particle’s chemical composition. In infrared spectroscopy, a machine measures the vibration of molecules through infrared light. 


While both these methods are effective at accurately identifying microplastics, spectroscopy still has some distinct disadvantages. The procedure uses highly complex and expensive devices that require trained personnel to operate, making it inapplicable to many scenarios where microplastic detection is needed. As a result, the California Water Board is considering “surrogate methods” such as flow cytometry, turbidity, and total suspended solids to more cheaply and efficiently detect microplastics while maintaining a high degree of accuracy.


Lastly, the California Water Board has begun the process of monitoring plastic content in drinking water across the state. They’ve been accomplishing this by partnering with accredited labs to develop a comprehensive testing process. Now, thirty Californian water providers will be required to perform quarterly tests on their source water, beginning this fall.


All this is a fantastic start for the first government in the world to pass legislation surrounding microplastics. It’s also the first standardized drinking water monitoring plan for microplastics. But a lot more needs to be done, and some fear that we might already be too late.


Senate Bill 1422 does not discuss the filtration of microplastics from drinking water. Such a topic needs to be addressed in future pieces of legislation or independently researched by the Water Board. Other researchers are excited about California’s progress, but many are concerned that microplastics in drinking water aren’t even the biggest issue. Humans inhale just as many plastics through the air. 


With our earth looking more and more like plastic smog or a plastic soup, the question is not only how to remove microplastics from existing water sources, but also how to prevent future plastics from being created and distributed. Of course, there’s Senate Bill 54, which requires all packaging in California to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. And all Californians are familiar with Senate Bill 270, the policy that bans single-use plastic bags at stores. 


Independent innovator Boyan Slat constructed his own solution to cutting off plastic pollution in oceans through a cleanup system called the Interceptor. When he discovered that rivers are the primary source of ocean plastic pollution, he designed an autonomous, solar-powered solution to intercept all downstream river contaminants before they enter the ocean. Interceptors have been placed in rivers across the world, and October 2022 saw the grand opening of the newest boat in Ballona Creek, Los Angeles. The Ocean Cleanup, Slat’s non-profit organization, aims to clean up 90% of floating ocean plastic pollution.


Non-profits, independent inventors, and government policymakers are all pooling their energy and expertise to address the issue of plastic and microplastic contamination in our waters. Some good news is that recent efforts have removed record amounts of plastics from high-density areas of contamination like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 


If all goes well, let’s see what changes we’ll have to make to the story of your plastic bag:


In ten years, a ship will scoop the bag from the middle of the Pacific alongside millions of tons of other plastic waste.


In fifteen, your bag will be caught at the mouth of the river by an interceptor before it even gets lost at sea. 


And in twenty, the bag won’t be made out of plastic at all. 


Citations


Becker, Rachel. “California Approves Microplastics Testing of Drinking Water Sources.” CalMatters, 7 Sept. 2022. calmatters.org, http://calmatters.org/environment/2022/09/california-microplastics-testing-drinking-water-sources/.


Bill Text - SB-54 Solid Waste: Reporting, Packaging, and Plastic Food Service Ware. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=202120220SB54. Accessed 23 July 2023.


Bill Text - SB-270 Solid Waste: Single-Use Carryout Bags. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140SB270. Accessed 23 July 2023.


Bill Text - SB-1422 California Safe Drinking Water Act: Microplastics. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB1422. Accessed 23 July 2023.


Cox, Kieran D., et al. “Human Consumption of Microplastics.” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 53, no. 12, June 2019, pp. 7068–74. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.9b01517.


Eriksen, Marcus, et al. “A Growing Plastic Smog, Now Estimated to Be over 170 Trillion Plastic Particles Afloat in the World’s Oceans—Urgent Solutions Required.” PLOS ONE, vol. 18, no. 3, Mar. 2023, p. e0281596. PLoS Journals, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0281596.


Gruber, Elisabeth S., et al. “To Waste or Not to Waste: Questioning Potential Health Risks of Micro- and Nanoplastics with a Focus on Their Ingestion and Potential Carcinogenicity.” Exposure and Health, vol. 15, no. 1, Mar. 2023, pp. 33–51. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12403-022-00470-8.


US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What Are Microplastics? https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html. Accessed 23 July 2023.

In 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled an executive order that represented California’s most ambitious move in its crusade to combat climate change. By the year 2035, all passenger vehicles (cars and trucks) must be zero emission to be sold in California. What does this mean for the environment? The monumental shift from gas-powered cars to rare earth materials-based batteries represents a unique opportunity to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Tailpipe emissions have been the cause of poor air quality in urban centers, and it is an indisputable fact that man-made pollution has been the single driving factor for quickly accelerating climate change.


However, it would be short-sighted to limit our analysis of electric vehicles to the local impacts on air quality and reductions in greenhouse gasses in the United States. Climate change is a global problem and should be viewed through the lens of a cost-benefit analysis. What this means is that we must look at all of the implications of a certain policy and contrast it with the entirety of its detriments.


First, let’s begin with a general analysis. This two-prong initiative (the executive order and legislation introduced) would reduce tailpipe emissions on a local basis and would more than likely reduce smog and improve air quality. Simple logic dictates that if a majority of cars in an urban or suburban setting don’t have a tailpipe, then there simply is no possibility for carbon emissions to be released.

Similar to how most disapproval of conventional cars centers around the usage of fossil fuels, the criticism of electric vehicles will similarly be centered around its power source: batteries. There are serious environmental impacts in the mining, manufacturing, and disposal of these batteries. Keep in mind that a state like California, which has the highest amount of vehicle registrations at 14.2 million, serves as a microcosm of what environmental policy could look like when translated on a federal or even global scale.


An article written by MIT’s climate portal finds that 15 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the air for every ton of lithium mined. The authors also found that mining these raw materials can leave long-term contaminants like toxic chemicals behind in local communities. This assertion is supported by a 2020 report released by the Institute for Energy Research which cited numerous examples from Australia, South America, Asia, and North America in which wildlife were harmed in the vicinity (up to 100 miles in some cases) of lithium mines. The MIT panel also stated that lithium mining requires enormous amounts of water, and the same IER report sets that number at 500,000 gallons per ton mined. It is estimated that between 2021 and 2030, about 12.85 million tons of EV lithium ion batteries will go offline worldwide, and over 10 million tons of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese will be mined for new batteries.


We must also consider the environmental impacts that manufacturing the batteries for commercial use has. Manufacturing lithium ion batteries has a CED, or cumulative energy demand, three times as high as a conventional car battery. About 40 percent of the climate impact from the production of lithium-ion batteries comes from the mining and processing of the minerals needed. Mining and refining of battery materials, and manufacturing of the cells, modules, and battery packs require significant amounts of energy which generate greenhouse gas emissions.


Lastly, recycling these batteries is problematic with the technology that is currently available. Recycling of lithium-ion batteries is being pushed by governments due to the environmental waste issues associated with them and the growing demand for batteries as more and more electric vehicles are sold. Only about 5 percent of the world’s lithium batteries are recycled, compared to 99 percent of lead car batteries recycled in the United States. Recycling lithium batteries, however, can be hazardous. Cutting too deep into a cell or in the wrong place can result in it short-circuiting, combusting, and releasing toxic fumes. Because batteries differ widely in chemistry and construction, it’s difficult to create efficient recycling systems.


California’s ambitious move to electric forms of transport by 2035 has its benefits in terms of reducing carbon emissions, but a more efficient system to create and recycle batteries is needed in order to ensure a smooth transition to carbon net zero.


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