Best of our wild blogs: 29 Mar 18

Marvellous March at the Marine Park
Sisters' Island Marine Park

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5 companies and schools receive Singapore's highest award for water conservation

Fabian Koh Straits Times 28 Mar 18;

SINGAPORE - Singapore's highest award for water conservation has been given to three companies and two schools this year.

The Watermark Award was handed to Singapore Refining Company Private Limited, United Microelectronics Corporation (Singapore branch), Carlton City Hotel Singapore, Qifa Primary School and Chung Cheng High School (Main).

The winners received the award from Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli in a ceremony at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park on Wednesday (March 28).

The award, first introduced by the national water agency PUB in 2007, gives recognition to efforts in raising awareness on water conservation and introducing initiatives to use water efficiently.

In Carlton City Hotel Singapore in Tanjong Pagar, staff are not the only ones asked to conserve water. Message cards are placed in the 386 rooms to encourage guests to reuse their linens and towels, hence saving the amount of water used for laundry services.

Other initiatives include reusing condensation from air handling units for cooling towers and using a remote monitoring system to detect possible water wastage.

With these measures, the 29-storey hotel saw a drop of about 4,233 cubic m in water consumption between 2014 and 2016. That is equivalent to over 1½ Olympic-sized swimming pools .

Qifa Primary School's Chinese Drums Troupe performing at the Watermark Awards 2018 ceremony

Mr Augustine Cheong, the hotel's executive assistant manager, said that most of the hotel guests are supportive of water conservation.

"Most of our feedback comes in the form of guests' actions. They place the card on their beds to tell our staff not to change the linen and towels. But on our part, we still change them once every two days for hygiene purposes."

For Qifa Primary School in West Coast, its cohort of over 1,300 students were given handmade bookmarks bearing water conservation messages so that they could share them with families and neighbours.

Last year, its Primary 5 pupils took part in a "Water is Precious" project. One task involved them tracking their household water bills for three months, and spreading awareness of water conservation at home.

One of the challenges faced, according to the school's principal May Tan, was that most of the parents themselves were not tracking the bills, since a majority of them had their payments deducted automatically through Giro.

"We found a lack of awareness. A lot of the parents don't check the bills, and when you don't keep track, then you won't know how much water you're using."

But Madam Tan was encouraged by the involvement of the students. "They really subscribed to the message. That's the thing with children. When they believe in it, then they will be more enthusiastic about it."

PUB chief executive Ng Joo Hee said it is important to know that water is a scarce resource and should be used wisely, especially "amid the threat of climate change".

"As we celebrate the achievements of the winning organisations, we hope that they will inspire other organisations to explore further ways to bring about greater water efficiency and water savings in their operations."

PUB had launched a guidebook - Best Practice Guide for Water Efficiency - Buildings - earlier this year.

It is the first best practice guide to be launched. Others which will be launched later this year include guides for the wafer fabrication and semiconductor sector, and the refineries, petrochemicals and chemicals sector.

"We believe the Best Practices guides will serve as useful resources for the industries to strive for higher water efficiency," said Mr Ng.

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Researchers create anti-bacterial surface coating inspired by dragonflies

Channel NewsAsia 28 Mar 18;

SINGAPORE: The wings of dragonflies and cicadas inspired a group of researchers from A*STAR's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) to invent an anti-bacterial nano-coating that could be used to disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, tables and lift buttons.

In a news release on Wednesday (Mar 28), A*STAR said that studies have shown that the wings of these insects are covered in tiny structures called nanopillars, making them look like a bed of nails. When bacteria come into contact with these surfaces, their cell membranes get ripped apart immediately and they are killed.

Inspired by these studies, a group of IBN scientists grew nanopillars of zinc oxide, a compound known for its anti-bacterial and non-toxic properties. The zinc oxide nanopillars can kill a broad range of germs like E. coli and S. aureus that are commonly transmitted from surface contact, according to A*STAR.

Their new research was recently published in the journal Small.

This technology will prove particularly useful in creating bacteria-free surfaces in places like hospitals and clinics, where sterilisation is important to help control the spread of infections, the agency said.

A*STAR noted that 80 per cent of common infections are spread by hands, and said that while disinfecting commonly touched surfaces helps to reduce the spread of harmful germs in this way, it requires manual and repeated disinfection because germs grow rapidly.

Current disinfectants may also contain chemicals like triclosan which may lead to bacterial resistance and environmental contamination if used extensively, it stated in the media release.

“There is an urgent need for a better way to disinfect surfaces without causing bacterial resistance or harm to the environment. This will help us to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases from contact with surfaces," IBN executive director Jackie Ying said.

Tests on ceramic, glass, titanium and zinc surfaces showed that the coating effectively killed up to 99.9 per cent of germs found on the surfaces.

"As the bacteria are killed mechanically rather than chemically, the use of the nano coating would not contribute to environmental pollution. Also, the bacteria will not be able to develop resistance as they are completely destroyed when their cell walls are pierced by the nanopillars upon contact," A*STAR said in the media release.

In addition, the nano-coating worked best when it was applied on zinc surfaces, according to the agency. On zinc surfaces, the zinc oxide nanopillars in the coating could kill even nearby bacteria that were not in direct contact with the surface.

The researchers studied the effect of placing a piece of zinc that had been coated with zinc oxide nanopillars into water containing E. coli. All the bacteria were killed, suggesting that this material could potentially be used for water purification, it added.

The research team behind the invention is led by Dr Yugen Zhang. Dr Zhang said that the researchers hope to use the technology to create bacteria-free surfaces in a "safe, inexpensive and effective manner", especially in places where germs tend to accumulate.

IBN has received a grant from the National Research Foundation to develop this coating technology, in collaboration with Tan Tock Seng Hospital, for commercial application over the next five years, according to the media release.

Source: CNA/mz(hm)

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Why Hong Kong has the toughest coral in the world, and how agnès b is on a mission to help save it

The French scientific vessel Tara, brainchild of agnès b owner Agnès Troublé, is on a two-year mission to explore Pacific corals. It called in on Hong Kong where it discovered that Hong Kong coral is surprisingly resilient
Stuart Heaver South China Morning Post 28 Mar 18;

The large schooner berthed at Central Pier 9 earlier this month had travelled some 32,400 nautical miles before arriving in Hong Kong.

The French research vessel Tara set sail from Lorient, northern France, in May 2016 and is on an epic two-year oceanographic mission to explore the coral reefs of the Pacific. On its 10-day port call in Hong Kong the 16-person team, known as “Taranauts”, hosted hundreds of visitors, but they were here primarily to study coral.

“Hong Kong is an interesting place to sample coral because of the economic development and its impact on ocean biodiversity; we look at the impact of the pollution,” says scientist Sarah Romac from Roscoff, France, speaking in the vessel’s wet laboratory.

The biggest surprise, the team found, was local coral’s resilience.

Sarah Romac, a scientist on board the ocean research vessel Tara. Photo: Jonathan Wong
The Tara Pacific 2016-18 expedition is not a French government, European Union or official university initiative. Backers of the foundation that runs the project are associated more with the catwalk than the laboratory.

The Tara project is the brainchild of Parisian fashion designer Agnès Troublé owner of the label agnès b and her son Etienne Bourgois, who bought the 36-metre aluminium sailing vessel in 2003. She started her fashion and design empire in a Paris shop in 1975. Today it has 2,100 employees and more than 332 stores and outlets around the world, including 25 in Hong Kong.

Cynics might expect a marine scientific project initiated by a well-known fashion house to be more focused on stylish crew uniforms than high-level scientific investigation, but as one of Hong Kong’s leading coral scientists is keen to point out, that is definitely not the case with Tara.

David Baker, assistant professor at University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Science, insists that the Tara expeditions are all about “absolutely essential hard science”. Four members of his laboratory team assisted the Taranauts in a coral sampling mission in local waters.

By all accounts, the Tara Expedition Foundation has never been just an exercise in corporate social responsibility or a wealthy family’s vanity project.

In the boat’s crowded saloon, the executive director of the foundation, Romain Troublé (a nephew of Agnès) illustrates the group’s scientific credentials. He slaps a copy of the journal Science, dated May 22, 2015, on the table with a cover headline that reads “A world of plankton”.

The edition reports the findings of the Tara’s previous Oceans Expedition (2009-13), which involved the collection of plankton samples from 600 locations around the world. The project enabled the creation of catalogues of species and genes on a scale never before undertaken.

By continuing the investigation of the biggest database compiled on the planktonic ecosystem, researchers from France’s leading scientific laboratories, including the French National Centre for Scientific Research, achieved a new milestone by analysing the expression of more than 100 million genes belonging to complex organisms, from microscopic algae to small planktonic animals.

“After we had our plankton research published in Science, our scientific credibility was established,” says Troublé.

They are now partnered with 27 of the world’s best-known research institutes, including Nasa and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Ten partner laboratories send up to seven scientists to us for about one month at a time,” he says, and goes on to outline the importance of the current expedition.

“We are trying to establish how coral actually works, by sampling at 35 different reefs with three locations on each reef.”

The Taranauts, he adds, have already visited 25 locations between Panama and Japan.

In all the trip will equate to 20,000 samples and 3,500 dives. It is on a scale never attempted before, over the Pacific Ocean, which is home to about 40 per cent of the world’s coral.

Coral health is important, because these fragile ecosystems are widely regarded as the nurseries of the seas and oases of marine life. Although they cover less than 0.2 per cent of the ocean floor, they represent 30 per cent of all marine diversity. Tara scientists believe even a minor increase in sea surface temperature of about 0.5 per cent is likely to produce cataclysmic levels of coral bleaching.

The boat is essentially a floating data gathering platform, granting ecologists, marine biologists, plankton experts and oceanographers from the world’s leading institutes access to big data from a wide geographical spread. It also conducts its own investigations.

On-board experts, including Romac, a plankton molecular ecologist from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, collaborate to establish an extensive genomic, genetic, viral and bacterial on-site analysis of coral biodiversity.

“What we are seeing is that although climate change is a stress factor, the impact is heterogeneous even between sites on the same reef. Local stresses such as sewage, sedimentation and overfishing also make an impact,” says Troublé.

It is those stresses that brought Tara to Hong Kong’s coastline, which is routinely subject to all three.
While unspoilt coral reefs in exotic locations make for stunning underwater videos, these scientists are equally interested in coral communities located in the murky waters of highly developed Hong Kong. Here, local coral communities appear to have developed an unusual resilience to both climate change and intensive urban development. Local scientists are keen to collaborate with the Taranauts to investigate how Hong Kong’s special corals manage to survive, when they are subject to such persistent abuse.

“Hong Kong’s corals may be the strongest on Earth, as they have survived more than a century of coastal development,” Baker says. His team at the Swire institute are keen to compare local coral data with other data sets and work with the Taranauts to try and understand what makes Hong Kong corals so special.

“Scientists in Hong Kong can compare familiar local reefs with our data gathered over many different sites, and that is of great interest to them,” Troublé says.

After leaving Pier 9, Tara spent two days sampling at Ngo Mei Chau (Crescent island), about two nautical miles north east of Plover Cove, and at Sham Wan (Turtle Bay), in the south of Lamma Island. At both sites the Taranauts were joined by four members of the Baker’s team: Shelby McIlroy, Jane Wong, Vriko Yu and Till Röthig, who all dived at the sites.

“We targeted the coral Porites lobata [also known by the common name lobe coral, which is a species of stony coral],” Röthig says.

“Additionally, plankton and sediment samples were taken. We saw a lot of different corals, maybe 20 to 30 species, but only targeted the Porites for Tara’s comparative sampling effort.”
Röthig explains how, once underwater, his team first take photographs of the coral colonies, then use a hammer and chisel to break off tissue from the colonies.

Those small samples are stored in sterile ziplock bags before being transported to the Tara on completion of the dive. Once on board, the samples are split seven ways and preserved by flash-freezing in liquid nitrogen, or with chemicals such as formaldehyde, for further processing at the respective destination institute.

“In the end we get a picture of population, structure, symbiotic association with algae, bacteria, viruses, health or stress state,” he says, adding that the high tolerance of Hong Kong’s corals makes them fascinating.

“It’s a small but important piece of this gigantic scientific puzzle which Tara is trying to solve,” he says.

Romac says the on board team will report back once the detailed analysis is complete. “We will compile a health report on Hong Kong’s corals in collaboration with our partners at Swims [the Swire institute],” she says, before the vessel’s departure for the western shores of Taiwan.

Diving for coral samples in the chilly waters of Crescent island on a misty morning is far removed from the urbane world of European haute couture, but the unlikely connection means Tara crew adopt a subtly untypical style in their scientific research.

“We want to interest the public in the state of their marine ecosystems,” says Romac.

She believes the inclusion in the Taranauts team of journalists producing high quality newsletters and online videos, plus an artist interpreting the ocean from a completely different perspective, is an integral part of the project. The Tara makes a determined effort to engage with those outside the rarefied confines of the ocean research community and demonstrate that great science, such as great design, can profoundly inspire people.

“This is not just a scientific adventure, it’s a human adventure too,” she says.

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Southeast Asia closes island beaches to recover from climate change and tourism

Rina Chandran Reuters 27 Mar 18;

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More popular Southeast Asian islands will be off limits to visitors this year as officials seek to protect eco-systems crumbling from warming seas and unchecked sprawl, despite the risk to tourism revenues and tens of thousands of jobs.

Thailand will shut Maya Bay, which famously featured in “The Beach”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, for four months a year, from June. In the Philippines, officials plan to close Boracay island for six months at the end of April.

“Islands have very fragile eco-systems that simply cannot handle so many people, pollution from boats and beachfront hotels,” said Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine expert in Bangkok.

“Coral reefs have been degraded by warmer seas and overcrowding. Sometimes, a complete closure is the only way for nature to heal,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More than three-quarters of Thailand’s coral reefs have been damaged by rising sea temperatures and unchecked tourism, said Thon, who last week recommended limiting visitors to its 22 marine parks to 6 million a year to enable their recovery.

Currently, they number about 5.5 million, he said.

Thailand closed dozens of dive sites to tourists in 2011, after unusually warm seas caused severe damage to coral reefs in the Andaman Sea, one of the world’s top diving regions. It also shut some islands in 2016.

The country’s sandy beaches helped draw record numbers of tourists last year, with revenues contributing about 12 percent of the economy. The government expects 38 million visitors this year.

Southeast Asia is expected to bear the brunt of rising damage to coral reefs, depriving fishermen of incomes and leaving nations exposed to incoming storms and damage from surging seas, recent research showed.

In the Philippines, which is among the most vulnerable to climate change, about 2 million people visited Boracay last year, celebrated for its white-sand beaches.

On a visit last month, President Rodrigo Duterte called the island a “cesspool” because of sewage dumped directly into the sea, and warned of a looming environmental disaster with buildings constructed too close to the shore.

Government agencies have recommended closing the island for six months to fix the problems.

Tour operators say more than 36,000 jobs are at stake.

“We support the government in adopting responsible and sustainable tourism practices ... but not in shutting down the whole island,” the Philippine Travel Agencies Association said.

But Thailand’s Thon warned against short-term fixes.

“Tourism is important, but we need to preserve these spaces for our future generations, for future livelihoods,” he said.

Southeast Asia's idyllic islands buckle under tourism strain
John Geddie, Amy Sawitta Lefevre Reuters 6 Apr 18;

SINGAPORE/BANGKOK (Reuters) - The six-month closure of the Philippine tourism island of Boracay for a revamp after the country’s president branded it a “cesspool” reflects the growing pressures on beach resorts across Southeast Asia as visitor numbers surge.

Tourism experts say the region’s infrastructure is buckling under record visitor numbers, especially as more Chinese holiday abroad, and expect more drastic measures to come.

Airports have become chaotic, hotels are being thrown up hastily with little regard for safety and sanitation, tropical beaches are strewn with garbage and coral reefs are dying.

Thailand already has plans to shut its famous Maya Bay in the Phi Phi islands for four months this summer, while an environmental group is calling for urgent government action to tackle a “crisis” on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali.

“Many out-of-control destinations across Asia will need clean-ups,” said Brian King, associate dean of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “These may come from government, or industry or from NGO-driven community action. The danger is that little happens until the crisis point is reached.”

He added: “Boracay is not the first and won’t be the last closure.”

Airlines have already started to cut back flights to Boracay, which had 2 million visitors last year, with the largest foreign contingents coming from China and South Korea, ahead of its closure on April 26. [nL4N1RI1ZZ]

The Philippines, which had record visitor numbers last year after three years of double-digit growth, estimates the Boracay closure could reduce full-year GDP by 0.1 percent. [nL4N1RI1ZZ]

It is also planning to inspect the beach resort of Puerto Galera, on the island of Mindoro, and is already looking at the resorts of El Nido and Coron, in Palawan province, where an influx of tourism and rapid development has put infrastructure under strain.

But rival tourist hotspots around the region are not all rubbing their hands at the prospect of the extra revenue from the redirected tourist traffic.

Kanokkittika Kritwutikon, the head of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Phuket office, said the island was at “stretching point”, particularly its airport, which has undergone a number of upgrades in recent years to try to cope with overcapacity.

“Our policy is to try to spread tourism around” from Phuket to “secondary destinations that are less well-known,” said Kanokkittika. “Apart from guests arriving by plane to Phuket we also have boats coming in, including cruises, so you can imagine how many tourists come through Phuket.”

The shutdown of Maya Bay in an attempt to salvage the area’s coral reefs - which have been damaged by crowds of tourists and warmer temperatures - follows the closure of 10 popular Thai diving sites in 2016 after a National Parks survey found bleaching on up to 80 percent of some reefs.

Pattaya, south of Bangkok, serves as another cautionary tale.

An influx of western tourists from as far back as the 1960s, when American soldiers came on leave from the Vietnam war, and a construction boom in the 1990s transformed it from a picturesque fishing village to a town known for its seedy nightlife and high crime rate.

Thailand’s tourism ministry expects 37.55 million tourists this year, up from a record 35 million in 2017, of which 9.8 million were from China.

Benjamin Cassim, a tourism lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic School of Business in Singapore, said the closures of Boracay and Maya Beach could become “test cases” and will be closely monitored by other countries with popular beach resorts.

A non-profit group in Indonesia has been calling on the government to tackle what it calls an “environmental crisis” in Bali, the country’s most popular tourist island, which saw more than 5.5 million visitors last year.

Indonesian authorities have long faced criticism for allowing unplanned developments that have swallowed up rice fields with golf courses and villas on Bali. Its beaches are regularly strewn with plastic washed up from the ocean during certain months of the year.

Nonetheless, President Joko Widodo has been trying to promote creation of 10 “new Balis” in other parts of the scenic Indonesian archipelago.

“Environmental conditions in Bali are now increasingly degraded,” said I Made Juli Untung Pratama of WALHI, the Indonesian Forum for Environment.

“The culprit is the construction of massive tourism accommodation, without a proper regard to Bali’s environment. The massive development of tourism accommodation has caused the environmental crisis in Bali.”

Shutdowns such as the one on Boracay are not a new phenomenon. Back in 2004, Malaysian authorities shut all hotels on the island of Sipadan, known for having some of the best scuba diving in the world, to help protect its eco-system and subsequently restricted tourist numbers to the island.

But some say these extreme actions often come too late, and a more sustainable solution is needed across the region.

“Proactive environmental protection is a far more effective approach than reactive environmental protection,” said Matt Gebbie, an analyst from Horwath HTL Indonesia, a tourism consultancy.

“You can’t revive coral reefs and eroded beaches and degraded forests in six months,” Gebbie said. “Proactive protection is essential for the long term sustainability of resort destinations.”

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Indonesia: Lost habitats push Sumatran tiger out of forests

Jon Afrizal The Jakarta Post 28 Mar 18;

The shrinking habitat of the critically endangered Sumatran tiger has pushed the black-striped carnivore out of its living areas, leading to increased human-tiger conflicts, an activist has said.

The habitat centers of the Sumatran tiger on the island shrank to 23 pockets in 2016 from the previous 29 recorded in 2010, tiger conservation project manager at the Indonesian office of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Yoan Dinata said.

“The tiger population now faces bigger threats such as the declining area for them to live in and massive poaching,” he said in Jambi on Wednesday.

There are four Sumatran tiger habitats in Jambi, they are Kerinci Seblat, Bukit Tigapuluh, Berbak-Sembilang and Harapan Forest.

Their habitats have been disrupted and narrowed due to the massive expansion of palm oil plantations in Sumatra, pushing them to roam outside their habitats.

The latest human-tiger conflict made headlines following the brutal killing of a tiger in North Sumatra earlier this month after residents attacked the big cat believing that it was a siluman (shapeshifter). Residents in a village in Riau province also declared they were hunting a tiger after it had killed two residents this month.

An official estimate from the Environment and Forestry Ministry suggests that the Sumatran tiger population currently stands at no more than 600. Yoan urged all stakeholders to work hand-in-hand to protect the critically endangered animal and maintain its existence in the wild. (rin)

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The plastics crisis is more urgent than you know. Recycling bottles won’t fix it

John Vidal The Guardian 28 Mar 18;

West Wales, last weekend. The old foam mattress lying waterlogged on an otherwise clean beach might have been at sea for months before it was washed up on the tide. A large bit of it had broken off, and the rest was crumbling. It was a clear threat to wildlife, so we heaved what was left of it above the wave line and promised to come back to dispose of it properly when it was dry.

But how do you safely dispose of an old mattress made of billions of tiny plastic particles leaking formaldehyde and other potentially dangerous chemicals? Do you burn it? Bury it? Do you expect the company who made it to come to collect it? Answers to environment secretary Michael Gove, who today pledged to stem the tide of plastic debris by announcing a consultation on a plastic-bottle return scheme for England, which aims to get people to recycle more.

Gove’s initiative is welcome, but minimal, and will have zero impact on the vast and growing scale of the plastic problem. The scheme is aimed at people fed up with litter, and to Blue Planet viewers who are shocked by images of birds swallowing plastic straws and turtles being choked by plastic bags. It is no more use than a heavy smoker forgoing a single cigarette.

Since we started engineering polymers to make plastic on a mass scale in the 1950s, this byproduct of the petrochemical industry, which uses about 6% of all the oil we extract a year, has spread to myriad manufacturing processes. Plastic is now ubiquitous, insidious and impossible to avoid. It makes up our clothes, containers, bottles, electronics, food trays, cups and paints. Our cars depend on it, so do our computers, roofs and drain pipes. It’s the global packaging material of choice. We sleep on it, wear it, watch it, and are in direct bodily contact with it in one form or other all day and night.

It may have profound societal benefits, but this most successful of all manmade materials sticks around for centuries. When exposed to sunlight, oxygen or the action of waves, it doesn’t biodegrade but simply fragments into smaller and smaller bits, until microscopic or nano-sized particles enter the food chain, the air, the soil and the water we drink.

The BBC’s hugely popular Blue Planet series and a stream of scientific studies have made us aware of how the oceans are being polluted, but we still have little understanding of how human health is impacted by the many synthetic chemicals and additives that are used to give plastic its qualities. In the past few years, minute microplastics and fibres, measuring the width of a human hair or far less, have been found in an extraordinary range of products, such as honey and sugar, shellfish, bottled and tap water, beer, processed foods, table salt and soft drinks.

In one study, 95% of all adults tested in the US had known carcinogenic chemical bisphenol A in their urine. In another, 83% of samples of tap water tested in seven countries were found to contain plastic microfibres. A study published last week revealed plastics contamination in more than 90% of bottled-water samples, which were from 11 different brands. And earlier this year the River Tame in Manchester was found to have 517,000 particles of plastic per cubic metre of sediment – that’s nearly double the highest concentration ever measured across the world.

The more researchers look, the more they find in the human body. The same scientists who raised the alarm on air pollution from the deadly particles emitted by diesel vehicles are now finding plastic microparticles raining down on cities, and blown into the air from cars and construction sites, washing lines and food packaging. Indoor plastic pollution may be even worse than outdoors, with a single wash of sports kit or manmade textiles found to release thousands of microfibres into the air.

At a recent UK workshop convened by the marine group Common Seas, 30 scientists, doctors and others compared notes, and agreed unanimously that plastic is now in what we eat, drink and breathe, and constitutes a significant and growing threat to human health.

If we can breathe in these micro- and nano-sized particles and fibres, the scientists conjecture, they are likely to get into the human bloodstream, lung tissue and breast milk, or become lodged in the gut and respiratory systems. Some microparticles may pass through the body without causing harm, others may lodge there dangerously. Many are suspected to be carcinogenic or to have hormone-disrupting properties.

The consensus is that there are great gaps in what we know about how microplastics affect human health, and that we need more robust science. We don’t know the risk when we drink contaminated bottled or tap water every day. We don’t know how much we are ingesting or breathing, or what effect exposure to hazardous plastic particles may have over years. We don’t know the concentrations that are safe for adults, let alone infants. There is mounting concern that under-studied microplastic particles threaten health by presenting a potentially major source of toxic chemicals to the human body.

Although we have known for years that some of the additives used to make plastics flexible, transparent or durable are chemically dangerous, few have been tested on humans. Some countries have banned some chemicals – but there is no consistency, and the chemical companies have found it easy to avoid regulation, finding substitutes that are potentially just as dangerous.

It is not enough to single out plastic bottles, coffee cups, or the microbeads found in cosmetics. We urgently need the government to form a comprehensive plastic action plan. Banning all plastic bags and single-use packaging would be a good start, but we need to go way beyond that. Plastic production has to be reduced, just as alternatives should be encouraged. Regulators must think about phasing out whole groups of chemicals of concern, rather than slowly restricting individual chemicals one at a time, and consumers must be helped to understand what they are being exposed to, and to navigate the complexity of what can be recycled, composted or burned.

In the 1950s the world made about 2m tonnes of plastic a year. Now that figure is 330m tonnes a year – and it is set to treble again by 2050. It’s not enough to return a few plastic bottles, or even to pick up an old mattress on a beach.

• John Vidal is a former environment editor of the Guardian

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UK plans plastic bottle charge to tackle pollution

AFP Yahoo News 28 Mar 18;

London (AFP) - Britain on Wednesday announced plans for consumers to pay a deposit on plastic bottles as part of a broader push to tackle pollution.

The government will introduce a charge on plastic, glass and metal single use drinks containers sold in England, the environment ministry said.

The move is aimed at cutting the amount of waste produced in Britain -- including an estimated 13 billion plastic drinks bottles annually.

"It is absolutely vital we act now to tackle this threat and curb the millions of plastic bottles a day that go unrecycled," said environment minister Michael Gove.

"We want to take action on plastic bottles to help clean up our oceans," he added.

The deposit scheme to be introduced in Britain will be opened for consultation to determine how it will work.

The environment ministry pointed to similar schemes in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, where a charge of up to 22 pence (25 euro cents) is refunded once the empty bottle is deposited.

The measure follows the 2015 introduction of a 5 pence charge for carrier bags in most shops, which the government has said cut the number of plastic bags by 9 billion.

Britain is also due to put plastics pollution on the agenda at next month's Commonwealth summit, attended by more than 50 leaders, the prime minister's spokesman said.

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