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From Macro to Micro to Nanoplastics

an excerpt from “Plastics: a double-edged sword,� a Regeneration in ACTION Magazine article.

A Fingertip Press Publication Presented by Holly Elmore Enterprises Photos provided by Holly Elmore Images


The From Macro to Micro to Nanoplastics Fingertip Press publication is an excerpt from the October 2019 Regeneration in ACTION (RiA) Magazine article, Plastics: a double-edged sword, and is an Elemental Impact (Ei) Digital Book available for purchase in hard copy. Photos are courtesy of Holly Elmore Images. The Ei online magazines include the RiA and The IMPACT. Ei is a 501(c)3 national non-profit founded in 2010 as home to the Zero Waste Zones, the forerunner in the nation for the commercial collection of food waste for compost. In June 2017, Ei announced the Era of Recycling Refinement was Mission Accomplished and embarked on the Era of Regeneration. Current Ei platforms include Soil Health | Regenerative Agriculture and Water Use | Toxicity. Ei Mission: To work with industry leaders to create best regenerative operating practices where the entire value-chain benefits, including corporate bottom lines, communities, and the environment.

Front cover: The deteriorated plastic bottle rested on the beach after obvious time within the Gulf of Mexico. Image taken on Longboat Key, Florida, August 2019. Back cover: Fishing net debris deposited on the beach.. Image taken in Cozumel, Mexico, October 2019. Left: Plastic litter is common on popular urban walkways. Image taken in Atlanta, Georgia, July 2020. Above: While spending time in the Gulf of Mexico, crustaceans grew on the polystyrene cup and began the breakdown of plastic pollution into microplastics. Image taken on Longboat Key, Florida, August 2019.

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Introduction

Depending on the definition used, plastics were discovered in 1284 with the first recorded use of horn and tortoiseshell as the predominant early natural plastic or as late as 1907 when Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic. World War II (WW II) served as a catalyst for the burst of modern-day plastic-product development and manufacturing. Per the Science History Institute (SHI) article, The History and Future of Plastics, during WW II plastic production in the United States increased by 300%. The August 1955 Life magazine article Throwaway Living essentially announced the inauguration of single-use plastic for common household use. Thus, in less than seventy years, humans managed to infiltrate the Earth with microplastics and nanoplastics from discarded single-use and durable products in literally every nook and cranny. Recent research documented microplastics and nanoplastics in sites ranging from the arctic-snow caps to the depths of the oceans and everywhere in between.

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Above: Much of the general trash created within urban and rural areas eventually disintegrates into microplastic pollution. Image taken in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 2019. Left: Debris from the nearby I-75 continually blows over to Hickory Grove Farm creating trash on the pristine, regenerative farm. Image taken at Kennesaw State University’s Hickory Grove Farm, June 2019.

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Plastics: from macro to micro to nanoplastics

At the 2016 National Zero Waste Conference, Ei hosted a popular panel, The Macro Cost of Micro Contamination, where Lia Colabella of 5 Gyres and Ei Partner Rick Lombardo with NaturTec co-presented to a standing-room-only crowd. In her MORE OCEAN, Less Plastic presentation, Colabella included the following chilling facts: 8 MILLION METRIC TONS The amount of plastic that enters the ocean each year. 15-51 TRILLION The estimated number of pieces of plastic floating on the ocean surface. HYDROPHOBIC Once in our waterways, plastics act as sponges, soaking up all the chemicals – like PCB, DDT – that don’t mix with salt water. FISH FOOD Toxic-laden plastics look super tasty to fish. And we all know fish look tasty to us.

Right: Shores without Butts: 1> use the ashtray, 2> dump the butts in the trash, and 3> return the can. Image taken in San Juan, Puerto Rico at a public beach, May 2019. Left: Scenes from a Cozumel beach where the foreign plastic pollution was deposited via the ocean currents. Image taken in Cozumel, Mexico, October 2019. 4


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Lombardo's powerful Compostable Plastics vs. Traditional Plastics session educated on a similar dilemma building within our soils. To help understand the origins of microplastic contamination, Rick educated on fragmentation, biodegradability, and compostability as follows: Fragmentation – first step in the biodegradation process, in which organic matter is broken down into microscopic fragments. Biodegradability – complete microbial assimilation of the fragmented product as a food source by the soil microorganisms. Compostability – complete assimilation within 180 days in an industrial compost environment. Note the difference between biodegradability and compostibility is TIME. By definition, compostable material decomposes within 180 days in a commercial-composting facility while bio-degradation may take as long as millions of years.

Above: Plastic packaging from single-use plastic water bottles littered the front yard of a Buckhead mansion. Image taken in Atlanta, Georgia, July 2020. Right: Careless practices leave behind litter that segues into plastic pollution and later into microplastic pollution. Image taken in Atlanta, Georga, July 2020. 6


Due to the fragmentation process, ocean-plastic pollution is now referred to as plastic smog. Clean-up is challenging to impossible due to the microscopic size of the plastic. Aquatic life consumes the fragmented plastic; larger pieces remain within the digestive tract and smaller ones may integrate within the flesh. Thus, plastic enters the human-food system! Microplastics are defined as plastic fragments or particles smaller than 5.0 mm in size. According to ScienceDirect's abstract, Current opinion: What is a nanoplastic?, recently discovered nanoplastics are defined as particles unintentionally produced (i.e. from the degradation and the manufacturing of the plastic objects) and presenting a colloidal behavior, within the size range from 1 to 1000 nm. Microplastic and nanoplastic research is a new frontier as scientists grapple to understand their implications and impact on ecosystems, animal organs and flesh and plant roots, cell walls, and fiber. For animals, current hypotheses are microplastics generally remain trapped in the gastrointestinal tract while nanoplastics may enter flesh, the bloodstream, and even cell walls. Dr Anne Marie Mahon at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, expresses her concerns, “I would be more concerned about nanoplastics (less than 0.001 mm) when it comes to human health. Microplastics will not enter a cell, but nanoplastics are small enough to cross into cells and permeate the body.� 7


Plastics: in the ocean

The BBC NEWS article, Early ocean-plastic litter traced to the 1960's, confirms single-use plastic made its way to the oceans soon after its introduction as a commonly used item. Additional findings from a continuous plankton recorders (CPRs) study found a plastic-fishing line from 1957; the study confirmed ocean-plastic pollution increased steadily and significantly since the 1990's. In the study, a plastic bag found off the coast of Ireland was dated to a 1965 origin, only three years after the T-shirt bag was patented in Sweden. Since Captain Charles Moore's discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA,) scientists identified five major gyres: the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres, the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyres, and the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre. Though its traditional meaning refers simply to large, rotating ocean currents, gyre evolved to commonly mean collections of plastic waste and other debris found in higher concentrations in certain parts of the ocean. Due to plastic fragmentation into microplastics and further into nanoplastics, the depths of the ocean are now infiltrated with plastics ingested by marine organisms. The February 2019 Microplastics and synthetic particles ingested by deep-sea amphipods in six of the deepest marine ecosystems on Earth research article published by The Royal Society Publishing documents research in six deep-ocean trenches from around the Pacific Rim (Japan, Izu-Bonin, Mariana, Kermadec, New Hebrides and the Peru-Chile trenches), at depths ranging from 7,000 meters to 10,890 meters. In conclusion, the article provides the following summary: The results of this study demonstrate that man-made fibres including microplastics are ingested by lysianassoid amphipods at the deepest location of all the Earth's oceans. Microplastic ingestion occurred in all trenches, indicating they are bioavailable within hadal environments. We hypothesize that the physical impacts known in shallower ecosystems as a result of microplastic ingestion are likely to occur within hadal populations. Plastics are being ingested, culminating in bioavailability in an ecosystem inhabited by species we poorly understand, cannot observe experimentally and have failed to obtain baseline data for prior to contamination. This study reports the deepest record of microplastic ingestion, indicating it is highly likely there are no marine ecosystems left that are not impacted by plastic pollution.

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Right: Plastic in its many forms is a staple for human-beach enjoyment. Images taken on Lido Key and Longboat Key beaches in Sarasota, Florida, July and August 2019


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Plastics at the beach

With the advent of inexpensive plastic products, beach enjoyment seems merely a collage of the variety of plastic goods readily available to the consumer. Though some plastic items are durable, in general, their lifespan is short lived due to wear and tear from salt water or premature disposal. Plastic chairs, rafts, inner tubes, wagons, and an array of toys including shovels, buckets, guns, and many more items are common place at public and private beaches. Additionally, single-use plastic food and beverage containers are generally on the packing list for a day at the beach. For those who scour the beach for plastic-pollution collection there are abundant beverage-container lids, empty water and other beverage containers, cigarette butts, and other small miscellaneous bits of plastic debris. The disposable society culture inaugurated in the 1950’s is the catalyst for the plastic-pollution catastrophe and is epitomized in modern-day beach enjoyment. Above: Plastic beach chairs complete with single-use water bottles await the return of their occupants. Image taken on Lido Key in Sarasota, Florida, July 2019. Right, top: The beach debris collected during one week of walking the secluded beach. Right, bottom right & left: Some “walk the talk� while at the beach and bring durable beverage containers while others continue to use single-use plastic bottles. Images taken on Longboat Key, Sarasota, Florida, August 2019. 10


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Plastic pollution is also prevalent in the Earth's waterways. The December 2015 Science Daily article, Microplastics: Rhine one of the most polluted rivers worldwide, documents the prolific plastic pollution in the German river from Basel to Rotterdam. As reported in the February 2019 Knox News article, Microplastics hit home: Tennessee River among the most plastic polluted in the world, the Tennessee River joins the Rhine River as a top-ranked most polluted river: Dr. Andreas Fath, who spent 34 days last summer swimming the 652 miles of the Tennessee River from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky, and his team analyzed three samples of the 12 they collected and found close to 18,000 microplastic particles per cubic meter of water in the Tennessee River. Research on the quantity, type, and impact of microplastics and nanoplastics in the oceans and waterways is well underway with chilling results.

Above: Even environmentally conscious Austin is plagued with plastic and other pollution in their waterways. Right: The Shoal Creek Trash Boom prevents kayaks from traveling up the creek from Lady Bird Lake. A trash boom is a floating barrier designed to collect trash, including plastic pollution, from entering a waterway. Images taken in the Shoal Creek Greenbelt in downtown Austin, Texas, November 2019. 12


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Plastics: in the atmosphere

In an August 2019 Science Advances research article, White and wonderful? Microplastics prevail in snow from the Alps to the Arctic, Dr. Melanie Bergmann and her team of German and Swiss research scientists discovered that microplastics prevail in the snow sampled from one of the last pristine environments in the world. The researchers collected snow samples from the Svalbard islands, located in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Shocked, the scientists found more than 10,000 plastic particles per liter in the "pristine" snow. In addition to plastics, rubber, varnish, paint and possibly synthetic fibres particles were found in the snow. As quoted in the BBC News article, Plastic particles falling out of sky with snow in Arctic, Dr. Bergmann explains, "We expected to find some contamination but to find this many microplastics was a real shock. It's readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air." In a May 2019 research project published in Nature GeoScience, Atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastics in a remote mountain catchment, a British-French research team found microplastics in the remote French Pyrenees. Microplastics and other micro debris from populated areas are carried by atmospheric currents and deposited in the thought-to-be pristine environment via snow fall. It is likely particle pollution is in the air humans and wildlife breath on a minute-by-minute basis. Additional research on the ramifications of microplastics in the atmosphere is most certainly forthcoming.

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Beyond litter, cigarette butts are plastic pollution

Around 18 billion cigarettes are purchased daily around the globe with over 12 billion butts carelessly discarded daily into the environment. Though many believe they are biodegradable, cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic. In addition to contributing to micro and nanoplastic pollution, the butts are filled with toxic materials including nicotine, heavy metals, and other chemicals absorbed from the environment. As they resemble tasty morsels, discarded cigarette butts are often consumed by marine and land life. When left in the environment, the butts leach toxic substances into the oceans, waterways, and soils. A recent study found that cigarette butts inhibit plant growth. Additionally, cigarette ashes flicked into the environment are toxic for marine and land wildlife, especially when mistaken for food. Facts sourced from the August 2019 National Geographic Cigarette butts are toxic plastic pollution. Should they be banned? article. Above: Cigarette butts collected on a five-mile urban walk in Atlanta, Georgia, August 2017. Left: Once their use is complete, the colorful plastic film ties often segue into plastic pollution. Image taken in Atlanta, Georgia, July 2020. 15


Remnants of presumably holiday decor disintegrates into microplastics within the Selby Gardens’ pollinator garden. Easily mistaken for food, the microplastics are potentially lethal to birds and insects who feed on the lantana involucrata. Image taken at Selby Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, January 2020.

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Plastics: in the soils

With research validating microplastics in our waterways, oceans, and atmosphere, it is reasonable to assume microplastics, and most likely nanoplastics, are prevalent in the Earth's soils. Yet to date there is minimal discussion let alone research on the impact of plastics to soil ecosystems along with plant health. Author Jon Daly substantiates how plastics find their way into agricultural soils through recycled wastewater and rubbish in the January 2019 ABC News article, Scientists say microplastics are all over farmlands, but we're ignoring the problem. Within the rubbish is a significant amount of single-use food and beverage packaging; the vast majority of the packaging is either plastic-coated or 100% plastic. Plastic straws are a prevalent contributor to microplastics in the waterways, oceans, and soils. Over the summer of 2019 Ei Founder Holly Elmore met with soil-research scientists at several prominent university departments of agriculture. At the meetings Elmore garnered interest in exploring research projects on the impact of microplastics and nanoplastics to soil ecosystems. Elmore suggested two potential areas of research: 1.Nanoplastic impact on soil ecosystems including the various microbial communities, the plethora of soil life, and the potential segue into plant fiber. 2. Potential use of fungus that feeds on plastic to "clean-up" the plastic pollution in the soils. Concern: plastics often contain additives; when plastic is consumed (broken down into its elements) by the fungus, additives are in a "freed" state and may prove poisonous to soil life. Remember a fully synthetic polymer contains no molecules found in nature. Thus, there is concern plastics broken-down to their elemental state may actually be more harmful due to additives. Ei maintains a close relationship with renowned fungi scientist Tradd Cotter, Mushroom Mountain owner, and intends to bring Cotter into the research loop at the appropriate time. In October 2018, Ei hosted the empowering Ei Exploration of Fungi, Soil Health, and World Hunger, where Cotter welcomed the impressive group to Mushroom Mountain for a fascinating education session and facility tour. Seeds for research related to plastics in the soils were planted during the Ei Exploration.

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Above: Plastic-pollution images captured on a five-mile neighborhood route popular with walkers and joggers. Images taken in the Buckhead neighborhod within Atlanta, Georgia, July 2020.

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Ei Exploration of Fungi, Soil Health & World Hunger

On October 16, 2018, Ei hosted the first Ei Exploration: an exploration of fungi, soil health, and world hunger in the South Carolina Upstate. The empowering day was in partnership with Ei Strategic Ally Feed & Seed. A group of diverse, passionate industry leaders traveled from California, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina to share, learn, and explore synergies for future projects and pilots. The day began at Mushroom Mountain where Cotter amazed the group with fungi's magical potential for solving challenges within medicinal, pest-control, and protein arenas. Additionally, Cotter educated on fungi strains that break-down plastic into its elemental format. A lovely lunch with local-organic produce and protein was enjoyed at the historic 1826 Bistro in Pendleton. Dr. Stephen Kresovich of Clemson University hosted the group at the Clemson University Student Organic Farm where the farm managers educated on their impressive operations. Kresovich followed with an overview of his prestigious background along with current work within Clemson's College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences. The day ended with a "soft closure" as new and old friends basked in the power of the day. The RiA Magazine article, An Exploration of Fungi, Soil Health, & World Hunger, chronicles the empowering event; the Ei FB album, An Exploration of Fungi, Soil Health & World Hunger, gives a pictorial recap.

Above left: Each exploration participant brought their own reusable cup because it is "what they do!" Pictured from left to right: Tim Trefzer (Georgia World Congress Center,) Mike McGirr (Feed & Seed,) Laura Turner Seydel (Ei / Captain Planet Foundation,) Jim Lanier (Earth Farms,) and Kathy Kellogg Johnson (Kellogg Garden Products.) Above right: A pink oyster mushroom nears harvest time. Images taken at Mushroom Mountain in Easley, South Carolina, October 2018.


COVID-19 Plastic Pollution

Since the COVID-19 world pandemic was declared in March 2020, a new surge in plastic pollution exploded into the environment. Single-use masks, disposable gloves, protective medical suits, hand-sanitizer bottles, and test kits are some of the items found in the pandemic plastic-pollution surge. With restaurants shifting from dine-in to take-out models, single-use disposable food and beverage packaging usage significantly increased. Many grocery stores discouraged the use of personal reusable bags. It seems the significant strides made in replacing single-use with reusable containers reversed due to health-safety and sanitary concerns. According to a recent ABC News Live story, "So that one mask probably represents hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of microplastic particles when it all gets broken down," says Mark Benfield, a Louisiana State University oceanography professor. Hopefully, once the “new normal� is established, a focus on eliminating plastic pollution at its source will emerge with renewed invigoration. Above: A single-use, disposable mask was carelessly discarded on an urban sidewalk. Image taken in Atlanta, Georgia, June 2020.

A Fingertip Press Publication Presented by Holly Elmore Enterprises Photos provided by Holly Elmore Images An Elemental Impact Digital Book


A Fingertip Press Publication Presented by Holly Elmore Enterprises Photos provided by Holly Elmore Images

An Elemental Impact Digital Book in partnership with Holly Elmore Enterprises

Profile for Holly Elmore | The Fingertip Press

From Macro to Micro to Nanoplastics  

The From Macro to Micro to Nanoplastics Fingertip Press publication is an excerpt from the October 2019 Regeneration in ACTION (RiA) Magazin...

From Macro to Micro to Nanoplastics  

The From Macro to Micro to Nanoplastics Fingertip Press publication is an excerpt from the October 2019 Regeneration in ACTION (RiA) Magazin...

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