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Eating Shellfish Likely Means Eating Plastic, Scientists Say

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The amount of plastic in our oceans—and thus in our seafood—is rising. The authors of a forthcoming study say Europeans alone ingest about 11,000 microscopic pieces of plastic apiece every year. And unless we make some very big changes, that number could reach 780,000 pieces per person within a few decades.

Microplastics, also known as microbeads, are popular additives to a wide range of personal care products, from face wash to toothpaste. We rinse them off and send them down the drain, where they head out into the water supply. And there they’ll stay, absorbing chemicals, until something or somebody comes along and eats them.

Studies have found that fish that consume microbeads are smaller than others. They reject real food in favor of more plastic. Their eggs are less likely to hatch, and hatchlings are less likely to escape predators.

Researchers at the University of Ghent in Belgium have been studying the effects of microplastics on shellfish like mussels, oysters, and clams, all of which are filter feeders. The average mussel sucks in and spits out about 20 liters of water per day. Most of the plastic particles in that water will be filtered and sent back out into the ocean. Most, but not all; lead researcher Colin Janssen says the mussels they examined had an average of one tiny plastic fragment apiece.

Janssen and his colleagues say the same process occurs in humans who consume shellfish. About 99 percent of the microplastic will pass through your system. That still leaves 1 percent to stay in the body, and we don’t yet know what that means for our health.

“We do need to know the fate of the plastics,” Janssen told Sky News. “Where do they go? Are they encapsulated by tissue and forgotten about by the body, or are they causing inflammation or doing other things? Are chemicals leaching out of these plastics and then causing toxicity? We don't know."

Experts estimate we’re currently dumping one garbage truck’s worth of microplastic into the ocean every minute. By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the sea [PDF]. We’ve started to take some steps—in 2016, Congress voted to ban microbeads altogether—but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

"We have to do something about it,” Janssen said. “We have to act now."

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Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images
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environment
Germany Wants to Fight Air Pollution With Free Public Transit
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images

Getting people out of their cars is an essential part of combating climate change. By one estimate, getting people to ditch their two-car household for just one car and a public transit commute could save up to 30 percent in carbon dioxide emissions [PDF]. But how do you convince commuters to take the train or the bus? In Germany, the answer may be making all public transit free, according to The Local.

According to a letter from three of Germany's government ministers to the European Union Environment Commissioner, in 2018, Germany will test free public transit in five western German cities, including Bonn. Germany has failed to meet EU air pollution limits for several years, and has been warned that it could face heavy fines if the country doesn't clean up its air. In a report from 2017, the European Environment Agency estimated that 80,767 premature deaths in Germany in 2014 were due to air pollution.

City officials in the regions where free transport will be tested say there may be some difficulty getting ahold of enough electric buses to support the increase in ridership, though, and their systems will likely need more trains and bus lines to make the plan work.

Germany isn't the first to test out free public transportation, though it may be the first to do it on a nation-wide level. The Estonian capital of Tallinn tried in 2013, with less-than-stellar results. Ridership didn't surge as high as expected—one study found that the elimination of fares only resulted in a 1.2 percent increase in demand for service. And that doesn't necessarily mean that those new riders were jumping out of their cars, since those who would otherwise bike or walk might take the opportunity to hop on the bus more often if they don't have to load a transit card.

Transportation isn't prohibitively expensive in Germany, and Germans already ride public transit at much higher rates than people do in the U.S. In Berlin, it costs about $4 a ride—more expensive than a ride in Paris or Madrid but about what you'd pay in Geneva, and cheaper than the lowest fare in London. And there are already discounts for kids, students, and the elderly. While that doesn't necessarily mean making public transit free isn't worth it, it does mean that eliminating fares might not make the huge dent in car emissions that the government hopes it will.

What could bring in more riders? Improving existing service. According to research on transportation ridership, doing things like improving waits and transfer times bring in far more new riders than reducing fares. As one study puts it, "This seldom happens, however, since transport managers often cannot resist the idea of reducing passenger fares even though the practice is known to have less impact on ridership."

The same study notes that increasing the prices of other modes of transit (say, making road tolls and parking fees higher to make driving the more expensive choice) is a more effective way of forcing people out of their cars and onto trains and buses. But that tends to be more unpopular than just giving people free bus passes.

[h/t The Local]

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Animals
Watch an Antarctic Minke Whale Feed in a First-of-Its-Kind Video
WWF
WWF

New research from the World Wildlife Fund is giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the mysterious minke whale. The WWF worked with Australian Antarctic researchers to tag minke whales with cameras for the first time, watching where and how the animals feed.

The camera attaches to the whale's body with suction cups. In the case of the video below, the camera accidentally slid down the side of the minke whale's body, providing an unexpected look at the way its throat moves as it feeds.

Minke whales are one of the smallest baleen whales, but they're still pretty substantial animals, growing 30 to 35 feet long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. Unlike other baleen whales, though, they're small enough to maneuver in tight spaces like within sea ice, a helpful adaptation for living in Antarctic waters. They feed by lunging through the sea, gulping huge amounts of water along with krill and small fish, and then filtering the mix through their baleen.

The WWF video shows just how quickly the minke can process this treat-laden water. The whale could lunge, process, and lunge again every 10 seconds. "He was like a Pac-Man continuously feeding," Ari Friedlaender, the lead scientist on the project, described in a press statement.

The video research, conducted under the International Whaling Commission's Southern Ocean Research Partnership, is part of WWF's efforts to protect critical feeding areas for whales in the region.

If that's not enough whale for you, you can also watch the full 13-minute research video below:

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