Microplastic pollution in oceans is far worse than feared, say scientists

The number of tiny plastic pieces polluting the world’s oceans is vastly greater than thought, new research indicates.

The work reveals the highest microplastic pollution yet discovered anywhere in the world in a river near Manchester in the UK. It also shows that the major floods in the area in 2015-16 flushed more than 40bn pieces of microplastic into the sea.

The surge of such a vast amount of microplastic from one small river catchment in a single event led the scientists to conclude that the current estimate for the number of particles in the ocean – five trillion – is a major underestimate.

Microplastics include broken-down plastic waste, synthetic fibres and beads found in personal hygiene products. They are known to harm marine life, which mistake them for food, and can be consumed by humans too via seafood, tap water or other food. The risk to people is still not known, but there are concerns that microplastics can accumulate toxic chemicals and that the tiniest could enter the bloodstream.

“Given their pervasive and persistent nature, microplastics have become a global environmental concern and a potential risk to human populations,” said Rachel Hurley from the University of Manchester and colleagues in their report, published in Nature Geoscience.

Microplastics map

The team analysed sediments in 10 rivers within about 20km of Manchester and all but one of the 40 sites showed microplastic contamination. After the winter floods of 2015-16, they took new samples and found that 70% of the microplastics had been swept away, a total of 43bn particles or 850kg. Of those, about 17bn would float in sea water.

“This is a small to medium sized catchment in the north of England, it is one flood event, it is just one year – there is no way that [5tn global] estimate is right,” said Hurley. The researchers said total microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans “must be far higher”.

The worst hotspot, on the River Tame, had more than 500,000 microplastic particles per square metre in the top 10cm of river bed. This is the worst concentration ever reported and 50% more than the previous record, in beach sediments from South Korea. But Hurley said there may well be worse places yet to me measured: “We don’t have much data for huge rivers in the global south, which may have so much more plastic in.”

“There is so much effort going into the marine side of the microplastic problem but this research shows it is really originating upstream in river catchments,” she said. “We need to control those sources to even begin to clean up the oceans.”

About a third of microplastics found by the team before the flooding were microbeads, tiny spheres used in personal care products and banned in the UK in January. This high proportion surprised the scientists, who said the beads may well also derive from industrial uses, which are not covered by the ban.

Erik van Sebille, at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and and not part of the research team, said the work does support a much higher estimate of global microplastic pollution in the oceans: “I’m not surprised by that conclusion. In 2015, we found that 99% of all plastic in the ocean is not on the surface anymore. The problem is that we don’t know where that 99% of plastic is. Is it on beaches, the seafloor, in marine organisms? Before we can start thinking about cleaning up the plastic, we’ll first need to know how it’s distributed.”

Anne Marie Mahon, at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland and also not part of the research team, said: “I am actually glad to see the estimate going up a bit, just to show there is this huge contribution coming from the freshwater system.” However, she cautioned that not all the microplastics shown in the study to be flushed out by the floods necessarily entered the sea – some may have been washed over the floodplain instead.

“It is very difficult to tell how this plastic may be affecting us,” Hurley said. “But they definitely do enter our bodies. The missing gap is we need to know if we are getting contaminants inside us as a result of plastic particles.”

The smallest particles that could be analysed in the new research were 63 microns, roughly the width of a human hair. But much smaller plastic particles will exist, and Hurley said: “It is the really small stuff we get worried about, as they can get through the membranes in the gut and in the bloodstream – that is the real fear.”

Out of print: NME’s demise shows pressure on consumer magazines

The closure of NME magazine after almost seven decades is the latest warning sign that the shift to digital media is threatening to kill the British love affair with print magazines.

NME.com continues but stopping the presses on the print edition after 66 years was the first decision made by the magazine’s new owners, the private equity firm Epiris, after its £130m deal to buy NME’s parent company, Time Inc, at the end of last month.

The closure of the weekly title is symbolic of the issues facing the wider consumer magazine market.

NME is just the latest once mighty magazine brand to cease regular publication in print, or to have embarked on a digital-only path in recent years, joining titles including Loaded, Maxim, FHM, The Face, i-D, Sugar, Bliss, Nuts and Arena.

UK and Ireland magazine sales
UK and Ireland magazine sales

While a number of these were shut when their print fans had already largely abandoned them, many were stunned at the news that that the magazine malaise had also spread to Glamour. The title, the 10th most popular paid-for magazine in the UK, halted its monthly print run last year.

The outlook for the UK magazine market is not good with the decline in sales and advertising figures making for grim reading.

Sales of the top 100 actively purchased print titles in the UK – those that readers buy or subscribe to – fell by 42% from 23.8m to 13.9m between 2010 and 2017. Since the start of the internet era in 2000, the decline is 55% from 30.8m, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Similarly, advertising in consumer titles will have more than halved from £512m in 2010 to £250m by the end of this year, according to Group M, a media buying agency.

“Are magazines dead? No,” says James Wildman, the UK chief executive of Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping owner Hearst. “We sell nearly 5m a month, that’s hardly dead, and we have 20 million unique UK users online a month, and more than double that on social media.

“But it is true to say that some of the 1 million millennial women every week that look at Cosmopolitan on Snapchat don’t know we also have a magazine of the same name.”

The reinvention of magazine brands online is all well and good, but the problem is that the £268m fall in print advertising is nowhere near being replaced by the growth of digital ad revenue, a key factor as magazine sales income also falls.

By the end of the year, digital ad spend on consumer magazine brands is projected to be well under half that shortfall, at £111m. “The ad market is a fairly brutal place right now,” says Wildman.

Google and Facebook account for 65% of the $6.5bn (£4.7bn) UK digital display ad market. They are also strangling attempts by magazine and newspaper publishers to build their digital ad revenues by taking about 90% of all new spend.

This is without the added competition for readers traditional publishers face online from digital media startups such as BuzzFeed.

Taylor Swift on the cover of British Vogue, January 2018



Taylor Swift on the cover of British Vogue, January 2018. Luxury titles are proving resilient. Photograph: British Vogue

“Magazines do still play an important part in client schedules – if circulation is holding up,” says Phil Hall, the chief commercial strategy officer at the media buying agency MediaCom.

“But the issue at the moment is there is a glut of titles that are too similar, too generic. Reaching audience at scale is key to many advertisers and if readers are falling away then that’s a major issue.”

Not all sectors of the magazine market are under such pressure. Luxury titles such as Vogue and Tatler, where the advertising is often a big reason readers buy them, are proving resilient.

Specialist magazines, catering for more niche audiences with interests ranging from shooting to model railways and ponies, are likely to always have a print fanbase.

Wildman says for magazines to survive they must build a brand beyond the core print publication.

“It is overly simplistic to say it is just digital versus print,” he says. “Magazine businesses are much more diverse. We ran 100 events related to our magazines last year – [a] Harper’s Bazaar [event] sold out in hours at £600 a head.

“Endorsement, accreditation and licensing are increasingly lucrative. DFS sell House Beautiful and Country Living [named after titles] range sofas. And the bestselling premium home gym at Argos is branded after our Men’s Health magazine.”

Nevertheless, mounting pressure on the traditional print magazine business, which still drives most revenues, is forcing consolidation as publishers seek scale to survive.

Time Inc in the US, which publishes People, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, has just been sold to rival Meredith for $1.8bn; the UK arm was picked up by Epiris.

Last year, Immediate Media, which publishes 60 titles including Radio Times and Top Gear, was sold to the German publisher Hubert Burda, owner of Your Home and HomeStyle, for £270m.

Despite the gloom, magazine publishers, like their newspaper counterparts, sense an opportunity as brand safety and measurement issues have prompted advertisers to closely scrutinise the once unquestionable value of investing in digital media such as YouTube and Facebook.

“With issues such as fake news, we are seeing the pendulum swing back because of two things: trust and context,” says Wildman.

“They are two things that went out of fashion in recent years as media agencies pivoted to buying audiences but weren’t worried about where ads were running. Now we are seeing readers and advertisers leaning back towards trusted brands.”

Tory links to Russia and Saudis run deep. So where’s the outrage? | Owen Jones

Never mind ‘Corbyn the spy’, our governing party pockets millions from regimes that back extremism – and gets away with it

The Conservative party is in the pocket of foreign powers that represent a threat to the national security of Britain. It is a grotesquely under-reported national scandal, lost amid a hysterical Tory campaign to delegitimise the Labour party with false allegations of treason. If Labour had received £820,000 from Russian-linked oligarchs and companies in the past 20 months – and indeed £3m since 2010 – the media outrage would be deafening. But this is the Tory party, so there are no cries of treachery, of being in league with a hostile foreign power, of threatening the nation’s security.

When questioned about the Russian donations to the Tory party, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, pointedly refused to return the money. “There are people in this country who are British citizens, who are of Russian origin,” he protested. “I don’t think we should taint them, or should tar them, with Putin’s brush.” How noble: a Tory challenging the demonisation of migrants.

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Zizzi diners told to wash clothing after nerve agent traces found

Public health warning triggers concerns over speed of official responses to Russian spy attack in Salisbury

A public health warning urging hundreds of people who visited a pub and restaurant where the Russian spy Sergei Skripal may have been poisoned to wash their clothes and possessions has triggered concerns about the speed of official responses to the Salisbury incident.

The advice from Public Health England (PHE) released on Sunday morning was aimed at as many as 500 customers who ate at the Zizzi restaurant or were in the Mill pub in the centre of Salisbury last Sunday and Monday.

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Tories say they are ready to take action to oust John Bercow

Commons Speaker could face no confidence motion over bullying allegations, which may win support of some Labour MPs

The Speaker, John Bercow, is expected to face a motion of no confidence in the Commons on Monday in the wake of allegations that he bullied a member of parliamentary staff.

The Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, a longtime critic of Bercow, said that either he or another MP would put down an early day motion (EDM) expressing no confidence in the speaker. While an EDM is a formal motion for debate, very few are actually discussed. However, MPs can put their names to them as a way of expressing support for a particular cause.

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Racist incidents at universities show they aren’t as tolerant as we think | Malia Bouattia

Rufaro Chisango’s abuse at Nottingham Trent is part of a higher-education system that sidelines ethnic minorities
• Malia Bouattia is a former president of the National Union of Students

Many were outraged by Nottingham Trent University student Rufaro Chisango’s footage of people chanting “we hate the blacks” and a stream of other racist abuse. This young black woman felt forced to lock herself into her room for safety. Many have also wondered how this vile abuse was possible, in modern Britain, among educated young people. And not only that, but this weekend we heard of another Nottingham Trent student, Amrik Singh, being forced to leave a bar in nearby Mansfield purely for wearing a turban.

It’s 2018! We’re supposed to be a much more tolerant and progressive society than those grim days, decades ago, of abuse and overt racism. And in today’s universities there is a growing number of black and minority-ethnic students and staff.

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Falklands: Argentinian soldiers’ relatives to put names on graves

Identification of previously unknown soldiers made possible thanks to DNA testing and humanitarian initiative

The relatives of 89 previously unidentified Argentinian soldiers killed during the 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands will travel there this month to put names on their graves.

Their identification has been made possible due to painstaking DNA testing and the humanitarian initiative of a British captain who in 1982 gathered more than 120 dead soldiers, with their effects, and placed them in graves each marked with the words “Argentine soldier known only to God”.

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