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Visualizing the Prolific Plastic Problem in Our Oceans

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In February of 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up on along the picturesque shoreline of Cabo de Palos in Spain.

Officials noted that the whale was unusually thin, and a necropsy confirmed that the whale died from an acute abdominal infection. Put simply, the whale ingested so much plastic debris – 67 lbs worth – that its digestive system ruptured.

The Plastic Problem, Visualized

Today’s infographic comes to us from Custom Made, and it helps put the growing marine debris problem in perspective.

The Pacific's Prolific Plastic Problem

A Spiraling Problem

The equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic enters the sea every minute and the volume of ocean plastic is expected to triple within a decade.

Every stray bit of trash that enters the ocean, from a frayed fishing net off the coast of the Philippines to a plastic bottle cap from an Oakland storm drain, all end up circulating in rotating ocean currents called gyres.

For this reason, the Pacific Gyre is now better known by another name: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Sum of Many Plastic Parts

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is often misrepresented online as a literal raft of floating trash stretching as far as the eye can see. The real situation is less visually dramatic, but it’s what we can’t see – microplastic – that’s the biggest problem. Tiny fragments of plastic pose the biggest risks to humans because it’s easy for them to enter the food chain after being ingested by marine life.

While derelict fishing gear such as nets and floats are a contributor to the problem, land-based activity accounts for the majority of the garbage circulating in the ocean. Most of the world’s countries have ocean coastlines, and with so many jurisdictions and varying degrees of environmental scrutiny, truly curbing the flow of plastic isn’t realistic in the near term.

No Solution on the Horizon

Garbage patches have formed deep in the middle of international waters, so there is no clear cut way to decide who is responsible for cleaning up the mess. Organizations like The Ocean Cleanup are researching ocean gyres and providing better insight into the extent of the plastic problem. The Ocean Cleanup is best positioned to make a real impact, though executing on their vision will require vast resources and substantial funding.

Nobody likes seeing whales wash up on shore, but for now, a fully-scaled solution may still far out on the horizon.

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Environment

The Most Polluted Cities in the U.S.

What are the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to data from the American Lung Association’s 2024 State of the Air Report?

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Teaser image for an infographic showing the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to the American Lung Association's 2024 State of the Air report.

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The following content is sponsored by National Public Utilities Council

The Most Polluted U.S. Cities in 2024

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually, and could cost the global economy between $18–25 trillion by 2060 in annual welfare costs, or roughly 4–6% of world GDP.

And with predictions that 7 in 10 people will make their homes in urban centers by mid-century, cities are fast becoming one of the frontlines in the global effort to clear the air.

In this visualization, we use 2024 data from the State of the Air report from the American Lung Association to show the most polluted cities in the United States.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a complex mixture of gases, particles, and liquid droplets and can have a variety of sources, including wildfires and cookstoves in rural areas, and road dust and diesel exhaust in cities. 

There are a few kinds of air pollution that are especially bad for human health, including ozone and carbon monoxide, but here we’re concerned with fine particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5 for short. 

The reason for the focus is because at that small size, particulate matter can penetrate the bloodstream and cause all manner of havoc, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic pulmonary disease. 

The American Lung Association has set an annual average guideline of 9 µg/m³ for PM2.5, however, the World Health Organization has set a much more stringent limit of 5 µg/m³.

The 21 Worst Polluted Cities in the U.S.

Here are the top 21 most polluted cities in the U.S., according to their annual average PM2.5 concentrations:

RankCity, StateAnnual average concentration, 2020-2022 (µg/m3)
1Bakersfield, CA18.8
2Visalia, CA18.4
3Fresno, CA17.5
4Eugene, OR14.7
5Bay Area, CA14.3
6Los Angeles, CA14.0
7Sacramento, CA13.8
8Medford, OR13.5
9Phoenix, AZ12.4
10Fairbanks, AK12.2
11Indianapolis, IN11.9
12Yakima, WA11.8
13Detroit, MI11.7
T14Chico, CA11.6
T14Spokane, WA11.6
15Houston, TX11.4
16El Centro, CA11.1
17Reno, NV11.0
18Pittsburgh, PA10.9
T19Kansas City, KS10.8
T19Las Vegas, NV10.8

Note: The American Lung Association uses Core Based Statistical Areas in its city and county rankings, which have been shortened here to the area’s principal city, or metro area in the case of the Bay Area, CA.

Six of the top seven cities are in California, and four in the state’s Central Valley, a 450-mile flat valley that runs parallel to the Pacific coast, and bordered by the Coast and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. As a result, when pollution from the big population centers on the coast is carried inland by the wind—cities #5 and #6 on the list—it tends to get trapped in the valley. 

Bakersfield (#1), Visalia (#2), and Fresno (#3) are located at the drier and hotter southern end of the valley, which is worse for air quality. The top three local sources of PM2.5 emissions in 2023 were farms (20%), forest management / agricultural waste burning (20%), and road dust (14%). 

Benefit to Economy

While the health impacts are generally well understood, less well known are the economic impacts.

Low air quality negatively affects worker productivity, increases absenteeism, and adds both direct and indirect health care costs. But the flip side of that equation is that improving air quality has measurable impacts to the wider economy. The EPA published a study that calculated the economic benefits of each metric ton of particulate matter that didn’t end up in the atmosphere, broken down by sector. 

SectorBenefits per metric ton
Residential Woodstoves$429,220
Refineries$333,938
Industrial Boilers$174,229
Oil and Natural Gas Transmission$125,227
Electricity Generating Units$124,319
Oil and Natural Gas$88,838

At the same time, the EPA recently updated a cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Air Act, the main piece of federal legislation governing air quality, and found that between 1990 and 2020 it cost the economy roughly $65 billion, but also provided $2 trillion in benefits

Benefit to Business

But that’s at the macroeconomic level, so what about for individual businesses?

For one, employees like to breathe clean air and will choose to work somewhere else, given a choice. A 2022 Deloitte case study revealed that nearly 70% of highly-skilled workers said air quality was a significant factor in choosing which city to live and work in.

At the same time, air quality can impact employer-sponsored health care premiums, by reducing the overall health of the risk pool. And since insurance premiums averaged $7,590 per year in 2022 for a single employee, and rose to $21,931 for a family, that can add up fast. 

Consumers are also putting their purchase decisions through a green lens, while ESG, triple-bottom-line, and impact investing are putting the environment front and center for many investors.

And if the carrot isn’t enough for some businesses, there is the stick. The EPA recently gave vehicle engine manufacturer Cummins nearly two billion reasons to help improve air quality, in a settlement the agency is calling “the largest civil penalty in the history of the Clean Air Act and the second largest environmental penalty ever.”

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