Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles

The breakthrough, spurred by the discovery of plastic-eating bugs at a Japanese dump, could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinkings bottles- by collision. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a trash dump in Japan. Scientists have now uncovered the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.

The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests presented they had unknowingly attained the molecule even better at breaking down the PET( polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles.” What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock ,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research.” It’s great and a real seeing .”

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic- far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speed up the pace even further and become a viable large-scale process.

” What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic ,” told McGeehan.” It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment .”

About 1m plastic bottles are sold each minute around the globe and, with just 14% recycled, many end up in the oceans where they have polluted even the remotest proportions, harming marine life and potentially people who eat seafood.” It is unbelievably resistant to degradation. Some of those images are horrific ,” said McGeehan.” It is one of these wonder materials that has been made a little bit too well .”

However, currently even those bottles that are recycled can only be was transformed into opaque fibers for garb or carpets. The new enzyme indicates a route to recycle clear plastic bottles back into clear plastic bottles, which could slash the need to produce new plastic.

” You are always up against the fact that petroleum is inexpensive, so virgin PET is cheap ,” told McGeehan.” It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even to continue efforts to recycle. But I believe there is a public driver here: perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these .”

The new research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, began by determining the exact structure of the enzyme produced by the Japanese bug. The team used the Diamond Light Source, near Oxford, UK, an intense beam of X-rays that is 10 bn hours brighter than the sun and can reveal individual atoms.

The structure of the enzyme looked very similar to one evolved by many bacteria to break down cutin, a natural polymer used as a protective coating by plants. But when the team manipulated the enzyme to investigate this connection, they accidentally improved its ability to eat PET.

” It is a modest improvement- 20% better- but that is not the point ,” said McGeehan.” It’s incredible because it am saying that the enzyme is not yet optimised. It devotes us scope to use all the technology being implemented in other enzyme development for years and years and make a super-fast enzyme .”

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Industrial enzymes are widely used in, for example, washing powders and biofuel production, They have been made to work up to 1,000 hours faster in a few years, the same timescale McGeehan envisages for the plastic-eating enzyme. A patent has been filed on the specific mutant enzyme by the Portsmouth researchers and those from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

One possible improvement being explored is to transplanting the mutant enzyme into an” extremophile bacteria” that they are able survive temperatures above 70 C, at which point PET changes from a glassy to a viscous state, stimulating it likely to degraded 10 -1 00 periods faster.

Earlier work had shown that some fungis can break down PET plastic, which attains up about 20% of global plastic production. But bacteria are far easier to harness for industrial uses.

Other types of plastic could be broken down by bacteria currently evolving in the environment, McGeehan said:” People are now searching vigorously for those working .” PET sinks in seawater but some scientists have conjectured that plastic-eating glitches might one day be sprayed on the huge plastic garbage patches in the oceans to clean them up.

” I suppose[ the new research] is very exciting work, indicating there is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society’s growing trash problem ,” told Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and not part of the research team.

” Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in big quantities by microorganisms ,” he said.” There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable.[ But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction .”

Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester in the UK, concurred the enzyme could be helpful but added:” A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem- trash- at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions .”

* This article was revised on 17 April 2018 to make clear that PET becomes viscous above 70 C. Its melting point is above 250 C.

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‘Plastic is literally everywhere’: the epidemic attacking Australia’s oceans

It never breaks down and goes away, say scientists struggling to understand the impact of widespread pollution

While heading down the Brisbane river, Jim Hinds once pulled aboard a drunken half-naked man only seconds from” going down for the last period “.

But on this day, like most other days for Hinds, it’s back to the horribly predictable as he launches his barge into the Nerang river on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Instantly you see it.

Decaying plastic bags hanging from the branches of mangroves like dripping flesh; slicks of plastic water bottles and food containers waiting ashore for the liberation of the next rising tide; the misnamed “disposable” plastic and styrofoam drinking beakers; and other plastic paraphernalia in the different stages of disintegration.

” Everyone knows littering’s wrong- that’s not a secret. But it’s just nonsensical ,” tells Jim. His son Patrick, 21, has jumped ashore to pick up a vinyl football ball and about a dozen soft drinks bottles.

Hinds works for Queensland environmental conservation group Healthy Land and Water. His chore is to travel the coastal waterways and pick up rubbish- he’ll often have one of his two sons with him. His father also used to do the job.

In recent years, he has been grabbing about 10,000 items a month.” Consistently we’re getting plastic bottles- there are so many of them ,” Jim says.

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Rubbish strewn on Chilli beach in Queensland. Photo: Tangaroa Blue Foundation

Hinds is working at the coalface of an epidemic of plastic pollution which, Guardian Australia has procured, is attacking Australia’s beaches, waterways and oceans, and the animals that live there.

From the most remote wilderness idylls to city coastlines, scientists and citizens have collected and documented millions of pieces of plastic debris.

Out at sea, expeditions skimming ocean waters, circumnavigating the continent, help find concentrations of plastics as high as 9,000 pieces for every square kilometre.

Sediment taken from the bottom of estuaries operating through busy Australian township contains tiny microplastic pieces and scientists find the same thing when they analyse samples of the ocean floor hundreds of kilometres offshore.

” Plastic is everywhere, all of the time ,” tells Dr Denise Hardesty, a principal research scientist at CSIRO.” It is in the air, the wind, the water and the clay and we find it in as many places as we seem .”

In late 2012 and 2013, Hardesty experienced a series of “gut-wrenching” research trips by floatplane to some of the most remote parts of Australia- the west coast of Tasmania and the Kimberley region in Western Australia.

” These places are pristine … quote, unquote ,” she says.” You stroll on to these beaches and no matter where you are there’s junk and it’s so confronting. Everywhere you go, you see it .”

Hardesty is helping to lead a global CSIRO project to understand how and why plastics are escaping the legitimate waste and recycling streams and where and how they travel. Her team’s tackling trips to so-called pristine beaches were part of a study published in late 2016 that had eventually counted litter at 175 coastal sites around the continent.

About three of every four items documented were plastic and the study concluded a key cause was, simply, littering.” In general, most of the junk is coming from us ,” Hardesty tells.

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Tangaroa Blue volunteers retrieving ghost nets at a beach in Mapoon, Queensland. Photograph: Tangaroa Blue Foundation

The scientific literature is awash with research documenting plastics of all sizes in every environment that’s been studied- from the deep ocean to both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Microplastic is the term used to describe any piece of plastic less than 5mm broad – it’s mostly the broken-apart remnants of straw, fishing nets and all manner of other plastic items, creating trillions of tiny pieces.

Dr Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, has expended the past 15 years analyse the impacts of plastics.

In 2015 Lavers travelled to one of the most remote places on countries around the world– the uninhabited Henderson Island in the middle of the Pacific- to find this world heritage-listed coral atoll’s beaches strewn with an estimated 37 m pieces of plastic weighing about 17 tonnes– the equivalent of less than two seconds of global plastic production.

Just one washed-up angling net, barely a decade old, was disintegrating into trillions of plastic fibres that gave the surround sand a lucid green splash.

” You can’t prepare yourself for moments like that ,” she says.

Northern Australia is a known hotspot for these so-called ” ghost nets” that are left to haunt the lives of marine animals. One project, GhostNets Australia, has collected more than 13,000 nets since 2004. A study analysed 9,000 nets found in the north of Australia and estimated that they alone had probably caught between 4,866 and 14,600 turtles.

” Nowhere is safe, and plastic is literally everywhere ,” tells Lavers.” No locating and no species is likely to remain immune for any period of time. It is ubiquitous. We are literally drowning in this stuff .”

Plastic tsunami

Chilli beach is a two-hour drive north from the Aboriginal community of Lockhart River , north of Cairns in Kutini-Payamu national park.

Heidi Taylor, the founder of charity Tangaroa Blue, takes a squad of volunteers, school children and traditional proprietors up to the area each year to clear the beach. In 2013 the first year different groups did a full “clean sweep” of the 7km-long beach, they collected 5.5 tonnes of material.

” But for every one full item, there was probably 100 fragments that were scattered- like colourful confetti through the sand ,” Taylor tells.” Every hour you went to pick something up, it would disintegrate in your hands because it had been there for decades .”

In five years, different groups went from grabbing 5.5 tonnes a visit to only 2.3 tonnes. But in 2017, they assembled seven tonnes, probably thanks to hurricanes in the Pacific pushing older material on to Australia’s shores.

There is an Aboriginal community at Mapoon , north of Weipa on the west of Cape York. Their 14 km beach is another regular location for Tangaroa Blue’s work.

In recent years, an Indonesian government crackdown on illegal angling in the Arafura Sea has watched a drop in the number of ghost nets making the beach.

But in 2017, the group was shocked when they arrived to find 10,601 plastic beverage bottles from a 7km stretch- and most of them were the popular Indonesian brand Danone Aqua.

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” Plastic is one of the most useful materials we have ever made. Our problem is not with plastic as training materials but what we utilize it for. We construct so many things that don’t involve the longevity that plastic has- we don’t need a straw that we will use to sip one drinking that will stay in the environment eternally ,” Taylor says.

As well as running beach cleanup, Tangaroa Blue has coordinated data from cleanups run by other groups around Australia since 2004.

The data encompass 2,460 different sites with more than 878 tonnes of material removed over 14 years , and it presents about three-quarters of what is collected is plastic. For comparison, that’s about the same weight as 535 Holden utes. The database has just recorded its 10 millionth piece of debris.

So, while the evidence for the ubiquity of plastics is clear, Lavers tells much less is known about the impact of this tsunami of plastics on the habitats and species that are taking it in.” When it comes to wildlife our knowledge is constrained to individual level impacts ,” she says.

Even though reports of single whales with stomachs filled with plastic bags and ropes are unbelievably graphic and distressing, Lavers says” the scientific question becomes … so what ?”

Understanding the impact of the ingestion of plastics on whole animal populations and habitats is now a major scientific challenge.” Is plastic either now, or likely to be, a driver of population decline for any devoted species ,” she asks.

” The answer to that question is almost invariably’ we don’t know .’ It isn’t that the plastic doesn’t have the capacity to do that, but it is very difficult to document .”

She says while it’s easier to observe the impact of plastic on a species in a laboratory environment, it is much more difficult to tease apart its impact in the real world when species are already being hit by other impacts such as climate change, coastal developments, disease or overfishing.” We are in a big data gap ,” she says.

In 2013 Lavers published a journal paper looking at Australian flesh-footed shearwater birds. She found they were likely more contaminated by plastic than any other known marine vertebrate studied anywhere else in the world.

But Lavers also hypothesised the plastic ingestion could be cutting the survival rates of chicks by about 11% annually.

” The smaller the piece of plastic, the more species devour it. Everything that’s tiny is at the base of the food web, so it’s not just albatross and sperm whales, you literally have microplastics and nanoplastics being feed by sea cucumbers, corals, clams and muscles, zooplankton and krill- right at the very base of the food web. You have all levels of the food web infiltrated. And where the plastics run, the chemicals follow .”

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A dissected flesh-footed shearwater bird taken from Lord Howe Island in 2017, with plastic pieces from its belly arranged beside it. Photograph: Jennifer Lavers

According to Lavers, research has found that plastics act as a vehicle to transport toxins and metals such as leading, cadmium and arsenic into the tissues of animals.

Her own studies, and those of other scientists, have shown that such metals can be transferred from the plastics feed by animals into their tissues. Toxic chemicals have also been found to leaching into the tissues of animals via the plastics they have eaten.

” We should not simply wait for or demand more data before we can make a decision ,” she tells.” We should default to the likely outcome. If danger is possible, we should heed the warning and do something to prevent it .”

Policy answer

Campaigners have had some success in persuading governments to introduce receptacle deposit schemes where plastics can be recycled for money. South Australians have been returning plastics and other items since 1977.

In early 2013, the liquor giants Coca-Cola Amatil, Lion Nathan and Schweppes successfully opposed the Northern Territory’s then-new container deposit strategy in the courts. The government changed the rules but reintroduced the strategy, which has been running since August 2013.

The New South Wales scheme has been running since December 2017, while the Australian Capital Territory’s scheme is due to start at the end of June 2018. Queensland tells its scheme will be published in November 2018 and in Western Australia, a program will start in 2019. Tasmania and Victoria have no concrete plans.

These schemes do work. A CSIRO analyze in Australia and the US looked at the numbers of drinks receptacles found in coastal areas where receptacle deposit laws were in place. The analyze found that by financially incentivising members of the public to recycle, there were about 40% fewer plastic drinkings receptacles recorded in litter surveys.

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Plastic draping plants in the Torres Strait. Photo: Tangaroa Blue Foundation

Bans on single-use plastic bags will roll out this year in Victoria, WA and Queensland, joining existing prohibits in NT, SA, the ACT and Tasmania.

There is a lot of evidence that these schemes have a significant impact on litter ,” Hardesty says.” Cash for receptacles works ,” she tells.” But what I keep coming back to is the thought that all the stuff we find out there was once in a person’s hand. That means you can make a change .”

Lavers agrees that the bans are welcome but tells governments have been far too slow to introduce schemes that have been shown to work.

” If we want change and we want the quantity of plastics going into the ocean to go down, then the rate of change in our society needs to outstrip the rate of plastics going into the ocean ,” she tells.” And right now we are not even close .”

While the new legislation is likely to slow down the wave of plastic pollution hitting Australia’s coastal waters, there’s little that could be done about the mountains of plastic that’s already out there.” I don’t think going out there and cleaning it all up is a super viable proposition ,” she says.

Both Lavers and Hardesty think what’s needed is a societal switching in how communities and industries use and recycle plastics.

” Plastic never actually go forth … where is this magical mystic place we call’ away ‘,” asks Lavers.” We know plastics take anywhere between 100 and 10,000 years to break up … and I don’t use the term’ break down ‘. It never breaks down and goes away .”

Back on the Nerang river and the collect bin on Jim Hinds’s boat is full with plastic strips, balls, suitcases, bottles and food wrappers. He is feeling philosophical but not hopeless.

” I think people are careless ,” he tells.” I don’t think there are a lot of scoundrels.

” I always hope that it’s generational- that the next generation will be better than ours. I guess that’s the great hope .”

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Saving the albatross: ‘The war is against plastic and they are casualties on the frontline’

Following his shocking photographs of dead albatross chicks and the diet of plastic that killed them, Chris Jordans new movie is a call to action to repair our broken relationship with planet Earth

We are living in a plastic age and the solutions may seem glaringly obvious, so why aren’t all 7.6 billion of us already doing things differently? Shocking statistics don’t insure effective change. So what’s the alternative? American photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan believes the focus should be on forcing people to have a stronger emotional engagement with the problems plastic causes. His famous photographs of dead albatross chicks and the colourful plastic they have ingested serve as a blunt reminder that the planet is in a state of emergency.

While constructing his feature-length cinema Albatross, Jordan considered Picasso’s approach:” The role of the artist is to respect you, help you connect more profoundly, and then leave it up to you to decide how to behave .”

Most nature documentaries dedicate their final few minutes to hopeful solutions, but Jordan avoids this. He simply glistens a light on the crisis facing the huge colonies of Laysan albatrosses on the remote Pacific island of Midway.” There’s something so archetypal about these legendary birds and assuring bright colours of ocean plastic against dead sterility is a powerful symbol for our human culture right now. We’re in a state of emotional bankruptcy ,” says Jordan.

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Jordan inspects the plastic ingested by a chick in Albatross. Photo: Chris Jordan

” This material lasts eternally, yet we throw it away after a single employ. But it’s not as simple as inspiring individuals to make small changes. We have to acknowledge that individuals cannot make a difference ,” Jordan says.” When 100 million people decide to do something differently, THAT is when real change happens .”

Jordan first visited Midway in September 2009, when the albatrosses were soaring above the waves, far out to sea- all he saw for two weeks were tens of thousands of dead chicks.” It was devastating and depressing and I questioned how to get to a place of hope from there .” When he acknowledged that this eerily silent scene was part of a much bigger narrative, he resolved to return to Midway and was greeted by” a deafening cacophony of a million animals singing and dancing all day and all night “.

Jordan is fascinated with these majestic birds. With no natural predators on Midway, Laysan albatrosses demonstrate no fear of humans, so his footage offer an authentic bird’s-eye opinion:” Albatrosses are so mysterious because they haven’t been on our radar. They live in places humen simply don’t go- yet when we appear closely, they are unbelievably magnificent ,” he says.

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‘ It’s unbelievable what these birds can fit in their esophagus’ … Photograph: Chris Jordan

Albatross is slow-paced, poignant and poetic. Lying somewhere between arthouse cinema and narrative documentary, it was eight years in the making; Jordan expended 94 days on Midway over the course of eight visits. His lens lingers on moments of natural beauty, tuning into their behaviour and losing way of day. Midway is a tiny outpost in the middle of the world’s largest ocean, 2,000 miles from the nearest continent and halfway between North America and Asia.” Midway’s name also describes the place that humanity sees itself, midway to its own extermination. But at the halfway phase, everything can change- at half-time, a football coach-and-four tells his team that the game is not over yet .”

Jordan muses that albatrosses- with a brain the size of a walnut- experience the passageway of time more slowly than we do. He films their bonding ritual in slow motion, focusing on the dedication between males and females. These bonds last a lifetime, sometimes more than 60 years. Wisdom, the world’s oldest tagged bird, is 67 and still successfully breeding: an amazing accomplishment, considering that so many chicks succumb of dehydration and malnourishment, overheating or storm exposure.

” They are loving, sensitive and graceful- when you look at any creature this closely, it becomes amazing ,” tells Jordan, who believes we would fall in love with any animal if we only stopped to look at them with a similar childlike sense of awe. After five months, the fluffball chicks develop into comic, goofy-footed fledglings ready to take flight and begin their first 10,000 mile-long feeding craze over the open ocean. But some fail to take to the skies and the resulting demises are often slow and painful.

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Jordan focuses on the bonds that last a lifetime … a scene from Albatross.
Photograph: Chris Jordan

The odds are clearly stacked against the birds but it’s difficult to assess the exact impacts of such widespread plastic pollution. According to Beth Flint, a biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the biggest threats to Midway’s albatrosses are rising sea levels, increased cyclones and temperature changes. Yet plastic is found in every single albatross bolus or regurgitated mass of squid noses that chicks render. Scientists working across the north-western Hawaiian islands also found that more than 97% of dead Laysan albatross chicks- and more than 89% dead adult birds- contained plastic in their stomachs, so high incidence is undeniable.

Although his cinema highlightings the ubiquity of plastic, Jordan insists Albatross isn’t strictly about plastic pollution; it’s about our broken relationship with planet Ground.” This is a grief ritual. My intent is to help viewers reconnect on a universal level with living beings ,” tells Jordan, whose mother succumbed of pancreatic cancer while he was making the cinema.” Grief happens when we are losing love and it liberates us to feel it fully and therefore we can arrive home back to our core state of wisdom. Here , nothing stands in our style .”

Twelve years ago, ex-BBC wildlife camerawoman Rebecca Hosking filmed the pioneering Message in the Waves, a conservation documentary about surfers and scientists trying to protect Hawaii’s wildlife. In 2007, she campaigned to build Modbury in Devon the UK’s first ever plastic bag-free town after she returned from filming these same albatrosses. The anti-plastics movement has made progress since then but Hosking says there is still a long way to go:” Some might argue that traditional natural history movies constructed since the 1970 s haven’t worked- they haven’t triggered a revolution or dramatic change. Perhaps we need something more emotive to shock us into action .”

Hosking recollects strolling through the albatross colonies, assuring dead chicks on the ground:” Midway was a US naval air station and now it feels like a postwar battlefield, with dead albatrosses juxtaposed against old military houses. Now, the war is against plastic and albatrosses are the casualties on the frontline .”

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‘Plastic, plastic, plastic’: British diver films sea of rubbish off Bali

Video posted on YouTube shows water densely strewn with food wrappers, cups and sachets as tropical fish dart in and out

A British diver has captured shocking images of himself swimming through a sea of plastic rubbish off the coast of the Indonesian tourist resort of Bali.

A short video posted by diver Rich Horner on his social media account and on YouTube shows the water densely strewn with plastic garbage and yellowing food wrappers, the occasional tropical fish darting through the deluge.

The footage was shot at a dive site called Manta Point, a clean station for the large rays on the island of Nusa Penida, about 20 km from the popular Indonesian holiday island of Bali.

In a Facebook post on 3 March Horner writes how the ocean currents had carried in a” lovely gift” of jellyfish and plankton, and also knolls and knolls of plastic.

” Plastic purses, plastic bottles, plastic cups, plastic sheets, plastic buckets, plastic sachets, plastic straws, plastic baskets, plastic bags, more plastic bags, plastic, plastic ,” he says,” So much plastic !”

The video proves Horner swimming through the mess for several minutes and also how the waste coagulated on the surface, mixing in with some organic matter to kind a slick of floating rubbish.

Manta Point is regularly frequented by numerous manta rays that visit the site to get cleaned of parasites by smaller fish, but the video proves just one lone manta in the background.

” Surprise, amaze, there weren’t many mantas there at the clean station today …” notes Horner,” They mostly decided not to bother .”

Rubbish has been inundating Bali for several months now, washing over principally from the neighbouring island of Java during the annual rainy, or “trash” season.

The plastic deluge also ends up in unsightly mounds on Bali’s beaches, frightening tourists and environmentalists alike.

Indonesia renders about 130,000 tons of plastic and solid garbage every day, with about half of that reaching landfill sites, according to the Bali-based, Rivers, Oceans, Lakes and Ecology( ROLE) Foundation.

The rest is either illegally burned or dumped in Indonesia’s rivers and oceans.

With poor government planning and low levels of awareness about garbage and recycling, Indonesia is now the second-largest plastic polluter in the world after China.

Several weeks ago thousands across Bali took part in a mass clean up, in attempt to rid the island’s beaches, rivers and jungles of trash, and raise awareness about the harmful impacts of junk.

Rich Horner said that while divers regularly assure” a few clouds of plastic” in the rainy season, the slick he identified is the worst yet.

Divers returned to the site the next day, he reports, by which time the slick had already moved on,” continuing on its journey, off into the Indian Ocean “.

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Blue-sky thinking: how China’s crackdown on pollution is paying off

Clear skies above Beijing again but some anxiety the problem is just being pushed elsewhere

The photographs on display at Wu Di’s Beijing studio imagine China and Beijing at their dystopian worst.

Naked, expectant moms stare out from the walls, their bellies uncovered but their faces hidden behind green gas masks.

Worshippers prostrate themselves around the Ming dynasty Temple of Heaven, desperately petitioning the smog-choked skies for a breath of fresh air.

But while the interior of Wu’s atelier offers a desolate panorama of China’s pollution crisis, outside, a different, brighter side to the country is, for once, on indicate.

Beijing’s skies, so often noxious and smoggy, are a perfect and mystifying cerulean blue.

” It’s 26 today ,” said Wu, a visual artist and documentary photographer, checking his smartphone’s pollution app to confirm the uncommonly low levels of PM2. 5, an airborne particulate links between lung cancer, asthma and heart disease.

” In the past, we made fund first and could only talk about the environment subsequently. But it’s clear the government has changed its mind ,” he said.” We can see everything is starting to move in the right direction .”

During the creation of the nightmarish airpocalypses portrayed in Wu’s artwork, pollution levels might have been 20 or even 30 times higher.” Beijing was like a giant airport smoking room that day. It was an epic haze ,” he recalled, pointing to an image staged in October 2013 in which a girl appears to inhale oxygen through a tube connected to two heart-shaped balloons.

Times, though, appear to be changing.

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Wu says he became an artist after he saw foreign athletes wearing facemasks at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Photo: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

Traditionally, wintertime is Beijing’s smoggiest season, as coal burning ramps up to keep millions of residents warm. But the skies over China’s capital have been almost inconceivably clear of late, thanks partly to a government crackdown on the use of the fossil fuel.

Beijing enjoyed a record 226 days of “good” air quality last year and suffered 23 heavily polluted days, compared with 58 in 2013, state media announced last month. The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, greeted the recovery with the incredulous headline:” How did Beijing become one of China’s top cities for air quality ?”

Hu Xijin, the editor of the party-controlled Global Times, tweeted alongside a photograph of Beijing’s azure-framed CCTV headquarters:” Isn’t it good to have a ruling party that can honour its promise ?”

Lauri Myllyvirta, a Greenpeace campaigner, said China’s leaders could rightly claim credit for attaining Beijing blue again, temporarily at least, even if favourable weather conditions had played a major role in the exceptionally good spell.

Since last year, thousands of environmental inspectors have fanned out across the industrial belt around the capital as part of an aggressive clampdown on coal employ. Heavily polluting vehicles, mills and construction sites have also been targeted.” There is clear evidence the measures ran ,” said Myllyvirta, who said overall PM2. 5 levels in Beijing had fallen by 40% from their peak in 2012 -2 013.

But he voiced a note of caution. Median PM2. 5 levels in Beijing remained 65% above the national standard and more than five times World Health Organization guidelines last year. A recent bout of severe smog highlighted the fight ahead.

There are also fears that the crackdown around Beijing is forcing polluting industries to migrate south to regions such as the Yangtze river delta around Shanghai, where smog levels are rising.” The’ war on pollution’ is far from over … few people harbour illusions ,” Myllyvirta said.” But there is also no reason for cynicism as there’s clear evidence the measures ran .”

Wu, 41, abandoned his job as an executive to become an environmentally engaged artist a decade ago, shocked into a career change by images of foreign athletes wearing facemasks at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Ten years on, and with the skies over his adoptive home starting to clear, he said he is glad his artwork and photographs, some of which have featured in Greenpeace anti-pollution campaigns, have played a role in increasing public awareness.

” I want to produce work that they are able pushing society and the administration has stimulate the positive developments ….[ and] the most effective way to push the administration has make changes is through public opinion ,” he said.” It demonstrates my work isn’t a waste of time … It shows the power of art .”

Wu worries, however, that change may have come too fast. He was among those left shivering when environmental inspectors began destroying coal-fired heaters late last year as part of a push to switch to natural gas or electric heating systems.” It’s only four degrees in here … I is also difficult to ran ,” he complained, touring his studio in a thick brown coat.

” I agree with the government that we need lucid waters and lush mountains but … the measures should be more gentle and more human. I can cope with the low temperature, but what about the elderly? What about children ?”

In one nearby region, primary school students reportedly suffered frostbite and were forced to study outdoors in the sunshine after their radiators stopped running.

Wu is also concerned about the environmental damage still being inflicted on less visible regions, where pollution crises have not received the same level of media attention as Beijing’s toxic skies. For one installation, he asked 12 volunteer “disciples” to recreate one of Leonardo da Vinci’s frescos, The Last Supper , in a derelict mill.” The message is that because of pollution, mankind’s last supper could come at any time because of pollution .”

Overall, however, Wu believes China is on the right way.” We should admit the government is trying to do the right thing and we need to recognise that it takes time … to deal with environmental issues ,” he said.

If China’s war on smog robbed him of his principal inspiration, he is unperturbed.” There’s no lack of problems to inspire artists in China ,” he joked.” Some western artists are jealous of that .”

Additional reporting by Wang Xueying

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Vietnam jails activist for 14 years for livestreaming pollution march

Hoang Duc Binh had posted footage on Facebook of fishermen protesting following a huge chemical spill from a steel plant

Ozone layer not recovering over populated areas, scientists warn

While the hole over Antarctica has been closing, the protective ozone is thinning at the lower latitudes, where the sunlight is stronger and billions of people live

Vehicles are now America’s biggest CO2 source but EPA is tearing up regulations

Transport overtook power generation for climate-warming emissions in 2017 but the Trump administration is reversing curbs on auto industry pollution

Some of the most common avatars of climate change- hulk power station and billowing smokestacks- may need a slight update. For the first time in more than 40 years, the most important source of greenhouse gas pollution in the US isn’t electricity production but transport- vehicles, trucks, airliners, trains and shipping.

Emissions data has placed transport as the new king of climate-warming pollution at a time when the Trump administration is reviewing or tearing up regulations that would set tougher emissions standards for car and truck companies. Republican in Congress are also pushing new ga economy rules they say will lower costs for American drivers but could also weaken emissions criteria.

Opponents of the administration fret the agenda items will threaten public health and impede the effort to address climate change.

” This Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t seem to have met an air regulation that it likes ,” said Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board and a former EPA assistant administrator.” I’ve not watched any evidence that this administration knows anything about the auto industry, they just seem to be against anything the Obama administration did.

” Vehicle emissions are going up, so clearly not enough is being done on that front. The Trump administration is halting further progress at a critical point when we really need to get a grip on this problem .”

The 1970 Clean Air Act, signed by Richard Nixon, set standards for a cocktail of different pollutants emitted from new vehicles. New automobiles and trucks, which account for more than 80% of transport emissions , now have to meet fuel efficiency standards and display this information to consumers. This approach has helped cleanse previously smog-laden American cities and tamp down greenhouse gas emissions.

But in 2016, about 1.9 bn tons of carbon dioxide emissions were emitted per transportation, up virtually 2% on the previous year, in agreement with the Energy Information Administration. This increase means that transport has overtaken power generation as the most polluting sector in the country, and it’s likely to stay that route.

Cheap gasoline prices have led to a recent uptick in vehicle emissions, despite the ga standards, at the same time that coal is being rapidly displaced by an abundance of inexpensive natural gas and the steady rise of renewable energy, driving a sharp deterioration in CO 2 emissions from the power grid.

While coalminers have lost their jobs to technological advancement and environmental protesters have thrown their bodies in the path of oil pipelines, there has been much less to disrupt the basic emissions-emitting models of cars, trucks and planes.

Americans are buying larger cars and taking more flights- domestic aviation emissions grew 10% between 2012 and 2016– and face little opponent in doing so.

” The change in power generation has been very impressive over the past 10 to 15 years ,” said Brett Smith, assistant director of the Center for Automotive Research.

” In the automotive sector, there isn’t the same pushing. There are certainly Americans concerned about global warming but people are driving bigger and bigger vehicles each year. It’s not a priority for them. The cost of fuel is pretty cheap and at the moment there isn’t a better option out there than the internal combustion engine .”

Transport accounts for about a quarter of all US planet-warming emissions but also poses a direct health menace to about 45 million Americans who live, work or attend school within 300 ft of roads the hell is shrouded in high air pollution levels.

This pollution can stunt lung growth, trigger asthma attacks, worsen heart disease and cause developmental problems. The EPA estimates 17,000 schools across the US are located next to roads with heavy traffic, with children from low-income and minority groups disproportionately put at risk. California is the only nation in the US to ban the construction of a school on the cheap land find beside major highways.

US cities haven’t emulated the likes of London and Stockholm by charging drivers a congestion fee to coax them on to modes of public transport, cycling or walk-to; nor does the US feature the comparatively high rates of fuel taxation seen in Europe. France’s move to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 would be politically unthinkable in the States.
But the air is much cleaner in American cities than it was in the 1970 s, and a world away from the fug that now envelops Beijing and Delhi, in part due to vehicle emissions standards that have progressively been ratcheted up by the EPA.

That trajectory has been cast in doubt by the Trump presidency. In March, the EPA scrapped a bargain struck between Barack Obama’s administration and automakers that would require new autoes to operate 54.4 miles per gallon of ga, up from 27.5 miles per gallon, by 2025.

The White House said the new regulations had been” jostle down the throats” of automobile makers, with the main industry lobby group pointing out that consumers overwhelmingly prioritize security, driving performance and value for fund over ga efficiency. There are more than 70 auto models on sale that attain 40 miles per gallon and they account for simply 1% of total new vehicle sales.

Then, last month, the EPA quoth” regulatory overreach” by the previous administration for its decision to waive clean truck standards that would have phased out “glider” vehicles that produce 55 times more diesel soot than new trucks. Scott Pruitt, administrator of the EPA, said his predecessors had” attempted to bend the rule of law and expand the reach of the federal government in such a way that threatened to put an entire industry of specialized truck manufacturers out of business “.

These rollbacks from the executive branch have dovetailed with an effort by Republican in the Senate and the House to revamp fuel efficiency regulations by replacing state and federal requirements with a single criterion. Environmental groups and previous administration officials dread this will lead to a further weakening of emissions standards.

” America’s clean automobile standards have dramatically improved the gasoline efficiency of vehicles, saving consumers billions of dollars and cutting pollution in the process ,” said Carol Browner, a former administrator of the EPA.

” Instead of rolling back commonsense, successful and popular clean cars criteria, we should focus on invention and technology that will continue the auto industry’s growth and the pollution reductions we’ve achieved since these standards were first established .”

In the short term, this new approach risks a flashpoint between the federal government and California, which has a long-held waiver to enact vehicle pollution standards in excess of “the member states national” requirements. Twelve other countries, including New York and Pennsylvania, follow California’s standards, an alliance that encompasses more than 130 million residents and about a third of the US vehicle market.

Nichols said she had been disturbed by signals coming from Pruitt and other EPA officers that she said show the federal government is looking to end California’s waiver.

” We are very concerned because these standards are the bedrock of our whole climate change platform ,” she said.” Scott Pruitt has constructed threatening noises about the Californian waiver, saying that we are trying to run the country. It feels like this is going to be the next shoe to fell. If it does, we will litigate and fight for our rights in the political arena with other states and customer proponents .”

With federal regulation set to be pared back, technological advances in electric and gas-powered automobiles, as well as customer predilections, are likely to play an increasingly important role of determining whether vehicle emissions are forced back up.

A flurry of recent optimistic analyzes have forecast that, by 2040, as much as 90% of all automobiles in the US will be electric. But the current conundrum is that petroleum-fueled vehicles are cheaper and seen as more reliable than their electric counterparts by most new purchasers. Affordable gasoline is competing with electric recharging stations that are considered too sparse by many drivers to risk running out of whiff , no matter the benefit to the environment.

” It’s a challenging position for automotive companies because they are touting electric vehicles but ultimately they have to sell more vehicles ,” said Smith.” Consumer in the US aren’t pushing for electric vehicles to the extent they are in Europe and unless we take a very different approach as a country, that doesn’t look like it will change soon.

” You will need to see a major change in battery technology to make it viable. People had become increasingly aware and concerned about global warming, but we aren’t there yet. And when you look at the vehicles being put out by the major vehicle companies, you could argue it’s not an issue for them, either .”

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‘It’s shocking, it’s horrendous’: Ellen MacArthur’s fight against plastic

She broke the solo record for sailing round the world, but now she is dedicating their own lives to an even greater challenge saving it from the destructive tide of plastic pollution

Trophies from her past glories as a competitive yachtswoman are placed discreetly around the 16 th-century building on the Isle of Wight, the base of Dame Ellen MacArthur’soperations today.

On a blackboard in one of the meeting rooms, the targets of a different passion are spelled out. From uncovering the scale of plastic pollution in the oceans to targeting the textile trash of the fashion industry, MacArthur, who in 2005 broke the solo record for sailing round the world, is dedicating her life to saving it.

Now 41, MacArthur dreamed of being a sailor aged four when living in landlocked Derbyshire, and saved up her school lunch fund to buy her first rowboat.

The same single-minded drive to attain her aims is clear in the way she tackles the dream that has consumed her since her early 30 s: to assistance stop humanity using up the world’s finite resources. Indeed, it is unlikely her new passion would have emerged without the experience of her first.

” There were lots of subconscious things that happened that I was quite unaware of when I was racing; there were things I would write in the log ,” says MacArthur.” I was racing round the world to try and beat the record, I was completely and utterly fully immersed in the record, I was thinking of nothing outside that … but every now and then I would write something down.

” I remember quite poignantly writing in the log in the barge;’ What I have got on the boat is everything .’ It genuinely struck me that you save everything, everything you have, because you know it’s finite, you know there isn’t any more. What you have on that barge is it, your whole world .”

Back on dry land, away from the intensity of racing, MacArthur began to process the supposes she had on the water. Her newfound fame suddenly became an opportunity.

In the winter after the round-the-world race, MacArthur spent two weeks on an island in the Southern Ocean to movie a programme about the albatross.

” It gave me time to reflect and it induced me think even more deeply about resources ,” she said.” You watch the empty whaling stations down there and you realise that was just a resource- they pulled out 175,000 of them … and then there weren’t any to pull out .”

” The basis of my reasoning was entirely around resources. It was around the pure fact- stemming from what I had learned on the barge- that resources are finite. The more I learned, I just saw this as the greatest challenge I had ever come across. If we are using these resources in a very linear manner we are going to use them up at some stage, and no one knows exactly when .”

Round-the-world
Round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, in 2006. Photo: Chris Ison/ PA

MacArthur realised that if she was to capitalise on her moment of notoriety, her days as a competitive sailor would have to end.

MacArthur researched how best to move away from the disposable economic model to one in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible, then recovered and regenerated into other products and materials. She decided to dedicate herself to acting as a catalyst for change- a undertaking that required her single-minded attention.

” It wasn’t like I was looking to stop sailing, I never guessed I would stop sailing ever, ever, ever , no way ,” she said.” I would have argued 10 years ago I would be racing in 20 years’ day. It was the hardest decision I have ever made to walk away, but I realised I was at a position in my life where doorways had opened that I wasn’t expecting to open and I could use that … that now was the time .”

Within two years of launching her foundation, MacArthur was presenting an analysis on the circular economy to the World Economic Forum. Seven years later, the team has grown from the yachtswoman and a couple of friends to a 100 -strong staff on the Isle of Wight, where she lives with her partner and young newborn. Today she still sails, but just as a hobby.

The foundation’s groundbreaking investigation into plastics made shocking findings: 95% of plastic packaging material- worth $80 -1 20 bn each year- is lost to the economy after a single employ, and after 40 years of recycling merely 5% of plastic is recycled into a similar quality item.

Perhaps the most devastating statistic was the finding that if plastic leakage is not quenched, by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by weight.

MacArthur believes it is through global partnerships and” unbelievably frank conversations” with industry that change will naturally come by proving that more fund can be made from circular rather than linear economics.

” We are trying to change a system , not one business. We need to change the style people suppose, the way things are designed, the materials that are put into them ,” she said.

Her optimism is such that she believes change will happen through collaboration, and she has numerous resulting companies, from Nike to Unilever, Google and Renault, as partners.

MacArthur is reticent about a more interventionist, polluter-pays approach, in which companies are forced to move to a less wasteful model through taxation, fines and charges.

” There are mechanisms to speed these things up, regulation or policy change ,” is as far as she will go. Even with plastic packaging, the material which, according to her research, is part of a system that is the hardest to change, she shies away from punitive incentives.

MacArthur says some companies are getting on top of the questions- for example, Unilever, which has pledged to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

” It’s shocking, its horrendous, it’s getting worse not better … but this is a systemic failing and we are trying to go back to the beginning of the pipe and stop that systemic failing through redesigning the system ,” she said.

” It is by working with these companies, with policy makers, with cities, with innovation to design bio-benign products- that we will tackle this. There isn’t a company out there which wants to see its logo in the ocean or in a river .”

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How did half of the great Florida coral reef system disappear?

Overfishing, developing and pollution have all contributed to the reefs deterioration, but climate change is its biggest threat. UN targets must be met to stop ocean acidification

The great Florida coral reef system stretches hundreds of miles down the eastern seaboard of the US. It is the world’s third largest, and nearly 1,400 species of plants and animals and 500 species of fish have been recorded there.

But last year marine scientists procured almost half the reef was missing. They took the most recent satellite images, compared them with precisely described 250 -year-old British admiralty charts and found them nearly identical.

But where the historic charts presented there had been extensive coral reef close to the coast in the 1760 s, the satellite maps disclosed simply sea grasses and mud. Merely those reefs far from the coast were still intact and alive with fish and plants.

So when and why did so much of the world’s third largest reef system only disappear?

Natural forces like spells of extreme rainfall and heatwaves may have played some portion, but it is more likely that human was responsible.

In those 250 years, fishing off the Florida Keys intensified, causeways and cities were built, pollution increased and the flow of freshwater, sediments and nutrients from the land all changed. Any of these factors could have led to the stress and decline of the reef, but it probably took a combination to kill off half the corals.

Something similar to what took place over 250 years off the Florida coast is now accelerating across reefs around the world as natural and new anthropogenic threats emerge and blend with deadly effect.

Corals are intolerant both of temperature and salinity change and it just takes a rise of 1C for a few weeks or extreme rainfall for them to begin to die. In the past 20 years, extreme climate links between El Nino events and climate change has hit the world’s shallow reefs hard.

Abnormally warm water caused the world’s first recorded widespread coral bleaching in 1998. Stretchings of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and other reefs off Madagascar, Belize and the Maldives, were left white and seemingly dead.

Most recovered because corals survive if conditions return to normal. But since then, widespread bleaching and other events have occurred nearly every year, leaving many of the world’s reefs stressed and vulnerable to cancer.

Over 20 years the trend of deterioration and loss has been inexorable. In 2001, and again in 2005, even warmer oceans damaged many more reefs. From 2008 -1 1, extreme summer temperatures led to major flooding and pollution in Australia which badly damaged the Great Barrier Reef.

Carysfort
Carysfort reef off Key Largo, Florida. Widespread bleaching and petroleum pollution has left the reefs emphasized and vulnerable to cancer. Photograph: Amy Massey/ AP

2013 saw sea temperatures rise again and the longest global coral bleaching event on record began in 2014 with another exceptionally strong El Nino. The 2016 and 2017 mass-bleaching events may now have affected virtually two-thirds of the world’s shallow reefs.

The fear now is that natural resilience is being lost and injury reefs will not have time to recover before the next extreme event further weakens and then kills them.

But reefs are now beset with more problems than bleaching. Just as off Florida in the 19 th century, local pollution, overfishing, loss of oxygen and excess nutrient runoff have increased, and now growing acidification of the oceans is a real danger. Most organisms can withstand some stress but few can cope with this tsunami of trouble.

Much of the early damage to near pristine Pacific and Indian ocean reefs may have been done in the 1980 s when overfishing peaked in tropical and subtropical seas. Shark fishing and the use of cyanide and explosives to supply fish to Hong Kong, Singapore, and mainland China has wiped out whole fish populations. Fishing gear dragged along the ocean floor has crushed corals, dynamite has shattered colonies and cyanide has killed hosts of living creatures.

A vast natural gem is rapidly being lost. The world’s reefs may merely cover 2% of the ocean floor but they are thought to be home to up to a one-quarter of the world’s 500,000 known species living in the oceans.

Aside from providing food for many millions of people, reefs are now recognised as essential to the whole marine ecosystem. Fish spawn and grow around coral, which in turn helps to regulate carbon dioxide levels in the oceans and protects coastal areas from corrosion. Take out any one part of the reef system and the whole is threatened.

Economically, too, reefs are increasingly important. Tourism and angling on the Great Barrier Reef is estimated to be worth at the least $6.4 bn Australian dollars( PS3. 7bn) a year. The Maldives’ tourist economy would collapse without its reefs. Together, the world’s coral reefs have been valued at$ 1tn a year.

The full ecological and economic damage done by 20 years of intense exploitation and warming seas is not yet known, but some scientists believe the world may already have lost half its shadow reefs, with the rest likely to be threatened within 30 years.

The solutions are political and technical and must address the entire marine ecosystem. Protected reserves are urgently needed and fishing must be controlled and policed.

But the answers will come primarily on land. For reefs to have any chance of surviving, farmers, cities and mining corporations must reduce their pollution and avoid the runoff of sediment and nutrients into the seas.

But above all, climate change must be addressed. If the oceans continue to absorb CO2, the increased acidity is likely to be fatal and coral bleaching will worsen. All that may be left are the deeper reefs.

The UN target to drastically cut emissions and hold temperature rises to 1.5 C must be met. If not, then the the world’s rich, diverse and astonishingly beautiful coral reefs may all but disappear within a lifetime. Recklessness on this scale would have unimaginable consequences.

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