LOS ANGELES – Monterey Bay is one of the most beautiful and pristine-looking places on earth, but look below the surface and researchers have found evidence it’s teeming with microplastic.
The tiny pieces are smaller than a grain of rice and have been discovered floating through water columns as deep as 3,800 feet and in the guts and discharge of different sea creatures.
The findings are part of a new study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports. A team of researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Research Institute used remote operated vehicles (ROVs) and animal samples to figure out the prevalence of microplastic beneath the bay’s surface, and how it moves through the ecosystem.
“What we found was that microplastic is actually pretty pervasive,” said Anela Choy, lead author and assistant professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who was a postdoc with MBRI at the time.
“We found microplastics in 100 percent of our water samples and 100 percent of our animal samples that we looked at,” she said.
The team sampled water from 16 feet below the surface to more than 3,800 feet down, with the greatest concentrations between 650 and 2,000 feet.
They also went searching in the guts of sea creatures, looking for plastic in the digestive tracts of pelagic red crabs, tiny lobster looking omnivores that hang out in shallow waters and feed on particles that float down from above.
And they collected the discarded mucus feeding structures from giant larvaceans. These jellyfish-like filter feeders amble along, collecting whatever passes by, and then eject the structures when they’re full.
Microplastics can come from various sources, including the manufacturing of plastic, as well as from plastic trash floating through our oceans. The plastic gets smaller and smaller the longer it’s exposed to the elements.
Finding the evidence of microplastic is the first step in figuring out what effect it’s having on our ecosystems.
“We’re still not 100 percent there in terms of what does this mean,” said Choy. “What does it mean for a giant larvacean or a pelagic red crab to have this many pieces of microplastic in its gut? Is it harmful? Is it going to affect its ability to reproduce or to be completely alert to its function and find food, and live a happy life in the water? We just don’t know yet.”
PHOENIX – U.S. recycling has nearly collapsed, prices have soared and the environmental waste problem has hit a crisis point, since China, the largest buyer of U.S. recycled products, stopped buying nearly 18 months ago. Now, recycling centers are looking to rebuild processing plants across the U.S. and that requires a policy change and millions in new funding.
A $2 trillion infrastructure bill did not make it through Congress this year. It died in April and along with it, a plan to fund big projects across the country like upgrades to highways and bridges, building out broadband service in rural areas, and modernizing U.S. recycling plants so that domestic centers can become the processor that China once was.
“We’re asking for $500 million over five years that would be appropriated to EPA that the EPA would then distribute to the states and the states would then provide it to eligible entities,” said David Biderman, Executive Director of SWANA, the Solid Waste Association of North America. Part of his job is to advocate for federal funding. Now that the infrastructure bill is dead, this funding ask is through something called the RECOVER Act.
“You know, local governments are primarily going to want money for educating their citizens on how to recycle right, on how not to put plastic bags in the bin. I don’t think local governments are going to go out and get millions and millions of dollars. The funding simply isn’t going to be available,” he said.
RECOVER stands for Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Value of Expanding Recycling, part of a long-term plan to end U.S. recycling’s dependence on China.
“I think that we’re going to see continued reduction in the amount of recycling that is exported from the United States,” Biderman said.
We already are. China dried up. Malaysia and the Philippines tapped out and are refusing to take more from the United States. Even Canada has sent material back.
“Recycling is just hard. There’s not, there’s no federal policy, there’s nothing on the books at the federal level to say how recycling should happen or where it should happen,” said Cole Rosengren, senior editor for the industry magazine Waste Dive. He says long term U.S. facilities face a fundamental shift in recycling operations, one that takes new funding and new policies.
Because waste companies have exported recycling for so long, the U.S. has no recycling infrastructure to do the job here — no set standard from one city to another on what a recycling process is, no regulations and nowhere near enough mills up and running to process the paper and plastic material collected every day.
“It’s worth remembering that recycling, up until seven or eight years ago, was a very expensive proposition. It came into strength in the early ’90s as a result of what was believed at the time to be a crisis in landfill space,” said James Thompson, president of Waste Business Journal.
A lot of communities relied on the local private waste company to add on recycling services for trash pick-up. And recycling was subsidized, essentially, by the waste contracts, which became very profitable.
“So, you know, municipalities relied on the companies to create those markets and to bear those costs. And they did that by using the lucrative landfill contracts to help that,” said Thompson.
The U.S. recycling industry has been built on a series of individual contracts. Increasingly, those contracts are owned and operated by the largest waste companies, Waste Management and Republic Services.
“They’re doing just fine right now, for the most part, all of these large recycling companies, you know, waste and recycling companies. You know, they’re still taking a hit financially, but a lot of them are doing stellar at the moment. You know, landfills are quite profitable. Waste collection, you know, running trucks, is very profitable,” said Rosengren.
According to Waste Business Journal, U.S. waste and recycling was a $74 billion industry in 2018. Publicly traded companies, including Republic Services, make up 60 percent of that industry — a percentage that is expected to grow over the next decade. Rosengren says it is up to each city right now to find its own solution.
“City of Phoenix did utilize, for example, a no-interest loan from one of the big investment arms that’s out there for recycling money to upgrade their recycling facility. And so when cities do own or have a stake in their own sorting infrastructure. That’s probably where you’re going to see a lot of the money,” Rosengren said.
Twenty-one domestic mills across the U.S. are on pace to be up and running by 2021. So far, none are in process in Arizona.
“Unfortunately, I have to say, this is not a super uncommon sight,” Figgener said.
As her video racked up views, Jeff Bassett, senior vice president of marketing at Footprint, said companies asked them to come up with an alternative. So, they started making paper straws last fall and just announced a deal with Wegmans, an upscale grocery chain on the east coast. Bassett said they’ll be used in store delis and sold on shelves at 99 locations.
“Our ultimate goal is to be able to produce 27 million paper straws a day,” Bassett said.
He said Footprint has four production facilities, more than 800 employees and one ocean ambassador — Christine Figgener from the YouTube video. She said Footprint convinced her they had a good product.
“It started to become this thing that a lot of companies claimed to be biodegradable or all this kind of greenwashing vocabulary and it’s not true,” she said. “Here [at Footprint], it is the case, it’s not even a plastic, it’s fiber-based. It’s truly degradable. So, you know, you could throw it on your own compost, you could actually leave it in the marine environment. And, it’s third-party certified, so that’s kind of what I was looking for.”
Last year, Nature, the International Journal of Science, published a study of ocean debris between California and Hawaii that found 90 percent made up of large pieces of plastics. Figgener said people should remember every river leads to the ocean.
“So that means you might have disposed of your plastic, you know, responsibly, it went onto the landfill,” she said. “But then, the next storm, the next hurricane, the next flood might have just transported it into the river and from there it went into the ocean.”
Next year, Starbucks says it will eliminate plastic straws at its stores worldwide. The change has been challenging for McDonalds. Some customers in the UK and Ireland have called on the fast food giant to stop its roll out of paper straws claiming they “dissolve” in drinks.
Footprint says its straws are engineered to last over days of use and still break down completely within 90 days.
“We actually delivered all the paper straws for the Scottsdale Culinary Festival that was about a month or a month and a half ago,” Bassett said. ”And the straws were very well received at that event. We actually had people there taking surveys on them.”
GUADALAJARA, Mexico – On a recent morning, Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a chemical engineering professor, sat down at a restaurant and ordered one of her favorite drinks: a blend of grapefruit, pineapple, celery, parsley, spinach and prickly pear cactus.
Pascoe Ortiz for years has been drinking this blend known in Mexico as jugo verde (“green juice”), but she said she also enjoys consuming the prickly pear – a national symbol and staple in the country’s diet – in the many forms in which its pads are popular: grilled, boiled or even raw with salads.
“Ay, que rico,” Pascoe Ortiz said, sipping her green juice. “It’s good.”
Pascoe Ortiz and her students at the University of the Valley of Atemajac just outside Guadalajara have come up with a new use for the prickly pear cactus – known in Mexico as nopal – using its juice as a base for biodegradable plastic.
In 2013, she recalled, some of her students came to her with a class project to use the prickly pear cactus as the base for a biodegradable plastic. They abandoned it after a semester, but Pascoe Ortiz said she told herself, “This can be done.” She continued the project on her own and with other students.
In her lab on campus, Pascoe Ortiz lays out round and square plastic samples she and her students have made since that first classroom experiment. The first samples are rusty brown and roughly the size and shape of U.S. quarters. The most recent samples are light green, paper thin and tough enough to be used as bags, Pascoe Ortiz said.
She initially used Opuntia ficus indica, the variety of prickly pear most commonly used as food. Now she uses Opuntia megacantha, a variety not commonly eaten but instead cultivated for its fruit. She and her students extract the juice, which is bright green, thick and slimey, and mix it with glycerine, animal fat and wax.
A former student, Michelle Mendoza, who recently completed coursework in industrial engineering, is still working with Pascoe Ortiz. Mendoza said she used the formula to make toys for her 3-year-old daughter.
“My daughter loves to buy toys in the markets, and then once she played with it one day, she didn’t want it anymore,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza made the cactus mix and put it into strawberry-shaped molds, she said. Her daughter watched her make them and was excited to play with them at first, but then discarded them just as she’s done with her other toys.
“The same way,” Mendoza said with a laugh. “I need to fabricate more toys.”
At least the prickly pear-based toys will dissolve if she leaves them in water for three weeks, Mendoza said.
Using biodegradable products is good, but using fewer products would be better, said Stephanie Buechler, a University of Arizona professor who studies gender, environment and agriculture. We should focus on reusing the materials we have, she said.
“Using fewer materials will save land. It will save water. It will save the environment by not contaminating as much,” Buechler said. “And then, for the materials we really do need, we should think of ways like this to use less harmful inputs.”
Back at the University of the Valley of Atemajac, Pascoe Ortiz says she would like to see her biodegradable plastic used commercially, though said she plans to continue her work as a researcher and doesn’t expect to see a profit herself.
Pascoe Ortiz hopes the cactus-based plastic will help reduce the impact of solid waste in Mexico and around the world, she said.
“Maybe,” she said, “I’m too much of an idealist.”
This story was first published as a part of the Fronteras Desk, a unique KJZZ project that covers a wide expanse of an under-covered news desert that stretches from northern Arizona deep into northwestern Mexico.
LOS ANGELES – There wasn’t much fuss when California’s plastic straw ban kicked in on New Year’s Day, probably because the state law only impacts full-service restaurants. Now, the city of Los Angeles is considering a broader disposable straw ban, one that would impact cafes, fast food franchises and other casual joints. Although the proposed regulation, which would go into effect in 2021, means upheaval for the hospitality industry, local boba shops aren’t breaking a sweat.
In the San Gabriel Valley, SoCal’s boba epicenter, they’re not only prepared for the Strawpocalypse, they’re ahead of local officials.
At Bopomofo Cafe, recently opened in San Gabriel, co-owner Eric Wang says they are currently using paper straws but will move to Sabert’s compostable straws in the future.
Elton Keung, owner of experimental San Gabriel boba shop Labobatory, which serves trend-bucking drinks like Chinese cough syrup boba green tea and Speculoos cookie butter boba milk tea, is ahead of the straw ban — although he doesn’t have to follow it.
In November, Keung commissioned Simply Straws, an Orange County-based boracylicate (Pyrex) glass straw company to manufacture glass boba straws, branded with Labobatory’s name. Simply Straws says it has seen glass boba straw sales quadruple in the past year.
Keung says the first run of 200 Labobatory-branded 8-inch glass straws, which were priced at $6 dollars and included a free drink, sold out within a week of their November arrival. The challenge, aside from keeping them in stock, is that the straws lack an angled tip. A barista must pierce a hole in the cup prior to serving it. Nonetheless, Keung has commissioned the production of a longer, 10-inch batch.
“We use boba tops that don’t require straws too,” Keung says. “Whatever the straw ban, we can adapt.”
Some employees are still unaware that the statewide ban began January 1.
“We’re not sure what we’re going to do yet,” an employee at Bubble Republic in San Gabriel said at the shop on January 10. “When does it go into effect?”
Within Los Angeles city limits, several shops are selling metal boba straws.
Boba Guys, which helped craft San Francisco’s strict no-PLA straw ban, debuted its new stainless steel, BPA-free metal straw at its two locations — Culver City and Echo Park — on February 1, although it is already available online. Customers can now purchase the metal straw, with accompanying brush, for $5 and reuse it at the shop, where it will be cleaned by the store. Engraved with “Boba Guys,” the item boasts a rare feature for a reusable boba straw: it has a pointy tip to pierce drinks. Co-owner Andrew Chau says the company requested this feature from their straw producer.
Some shops are finding that the biodegradable straws they want are hard to come by. Small-batch, slow-cooked tapioca shop Percolate, with locations in Hollywood, Los Feliz and West L.A., is waiting for backordered paper boba straws from Aardvark, which jumped in popularity after California’s straw ban went into effect.
In the meantime, Percolate is selling reusable metal boba straws that earn customers free add-ons each time they’re used. Percolate is also looking at the larger environmental picture by using recycled plastic cups and loose leaf teas that require less packaging.
Although Boba Guys is debuting single-use, fully-biodegradable bamboo straws in its shops, Chau doesn’t think it’ll be a problem to get boba fans to carry reusable metal straws.
“In Asia, people have a pack that looks like a holster that carries their straws, and a few people who come to our shops already bring their own straws,” Chau says. “If you can bring your own cups, you can bring your own straws.”
When it comes to straws, Chau is a radical. While PLA straws, which are generally made from corn starch, cassava or sugarcane, are a step up from plastic straws, he thinks they’re not good enough. They require long composting times of three to six months and these microplastics still enter the ecosystems of vulnerable animals. Chau wants L.A.’s City Council to follow San Francisco’s lead and pass a ban that would include PLA straws, requiring restaurants to upgrade to disposable bamboo or reusable glass and metal straws.
“The only negative in the short term of reusable straws is getting used to the feel and taste,” Chau says. “So people need to think about the big picture. Think of the plastic bag ban.”
Taiwanese immigrants were among the first boba shop owners in Southern California, and their children continue to own and manage many of these businesses. Lyn Chen, who owns Boba Shop in Santa Monica, worried last year that, at a usage rate of 2,000 straws per month, the 100% cost increase of compostable straws would hurt her bottom line. But shops across the city seem to have adapted and thanks to the popularity of boba, companies like Simply Straws, Aardvark and Lollicup innovated quickly.
“Boba will always be popular,” Keung says. “We are ready to weather any storm that California brings.”