Courtesy IonEThis is a couple weeks old, but I just noticed that the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (one of the Science Museum's partners on the Future Earth exhibit) has posted another "Big Question" video. These are short, fun videos that cover some of the challenges humans will be facing in the coming decades. This one is about plastics, and whether we can make them sustainable.
Anyway, here you are:
Courtesy elpresidente408Or whatever. Apparently Yale sends an expedition to a tropical rainforest each year, with the mission of finding, you know, neat stuff. And being tropical rainforests, there’s plenty of neat stuff to find. (That is to say, the rainforests have tremendously biodiversity, and each of the thousands of species that live in them has interesting features to study, etc.)
After analyzing all the samples the team gathered from last year’s expedition to the Amazon Rainforest, they’re announcing some interesting findings. Among them is the discovery of a species of fungus that can digest polyurethane.
Polyurethane, of course, is a very versatile plasticky material used in all sorts of products. Unfortunately, it also sort of lasts forever, and it isn’t biodegradable—nothing we know of eats it or helps it decompose.
Nothing we knew of until now, that is! The Yale team discovered several organisms that could digest polyurethane, and one—the fungus in question—that can do it in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment. In fact, it can survive on polyurethane alone in either aerobic or anaerobic environments. The fungus itself, or the enzyme it produces that allows it to break down the plastic, could potentially become part of a solution for truly disposing of polyurethane materials, as opposed to putting them in landfills (where they’ll stay forever), burning them (which is toxic), or throwing them on the neighbor’s roof (which is fun, but limited in capacity).
The discovery also sort of goes to show you—or goes to show me, at least, because I don’t spend much time thinking about things that aren’t cats or guns—that searching for exciting and useful new species isn’t as straightforward as one might think. The polyurethane-eating fungus, for example, isn’t just some old mushroom sitting around in the jungle. It’s actually a microorganism that lives (harmlessly) inside the tissue of plants. So, like a mint hidden in the cushions of a crappy old chair, it could so easily have been overlooked and lost forever when we burned the chair down to make more room for soybeans and cattle.
Oh, I’m all mixed up. Pretty neat though, huh?
My friend Rebecca has been rumored to throw a fine “But Does it Taste Good?” party, wherein she and others seek out cookbooks from days of yore (Velveeta Nutburgers anyone?)
Courtesy PeRshGo and test out seemingly horrific recipes that have no other possibility than somehow tasting good because they’re 1) tested and considered good enough to be printed in a book; and 2) the product of combined ingredients so repugnant that only a kitchen savant would ever consider putting such nasty, curdle-prone things together to get something so freakishly magnificent.
So when I read this article, Building a 'Nano-Brick' Wall Around Fresh Food, and envisioned several-weeks-old produce in the desert, I wondered: 1) But does it taste good? (the food; not the packaging), and 2) But does it biodegrade? (the packaging; not the food).
Now, let it be known to the universe: I hate plastic. I know, I know it’s been so helpful to our lives on so many levels – and yes, I do use it – but honestly, one viewing of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (you know, that that great trash mass twice the size of Texas floating out in the Pacific Ocean?), and it’s likely you, too, will clamor for any kind of plastic alternative whenever possible. So when I read about potential awesomeness like this new nano-clay-based packaging, I can’t help but get a little excited.
Courtesy Duncan Wright
And then my little shoulder-side Nano Skeptic poofs into existence and starts asking more questions. Questions that are beyond my ability to scientifically answer. You see, the creators tout this stuff as being a veritable fortress against the evils of oxygen - chastity belt inside a Safe Room inside a maximum-security prison, if you will. So if it’s that strong, that secure against oxygen, does that mean it’s less likely to biodegrade? Are we potentially replacing plastic with something even worse? Are we providing a much-needed, valuable service to those who are hungry (YAY!) to the long-term detriment of the planet (BOO!)? Does the benefit outweigh the risk?
And honestly, it’s questions like these that make me want to chuck it all and go live in a treehouse for the rest of my days.
This started as a reply to Bryan's comment on the Freaky Frogs post, but it quickly turned into its own blog entry...
Here's Bryan's comment:
I thought the whole BPA freakout was an interesting look at how we think about environmental and personal contaminants like this. People seemed to get all up in arms about BPA in water bottles and bought tons of new plastic or aluminium vessels to replace them. But that switch over raised some questions for me.
Where did all those old bottles go? In the trash?
How much energy does it take to make those aluminium bottles? Is it lots more than the plastic ones?
How many bottles can you own before it'd just be better to use disposable paper?
Courtesy US Government
And my response...
It took some searching, but I did find one article discussing a life cycle analysis from Australia which showed that, in a comparison between aluminum, stainless steel, and plastic, plastic has the smallest carbon emissions footprint, uses the least water, and produces the least manufacturing waste. However, it was unclear whether this comparison included recycled metals in its evaluation. Steel and aluminum are 100% recyclable (vs. plastic, which loses quality every time it's recycled), so over time and on a large scale, their use would lead to less material waste.
Courtesy Matthew Baugh
It's also interesting to note that recycling metals uses significantly less energy vs. what it would take to smelt "new" metal. To paraphrase this reference, recycling steel and aluminum saves 74% and 95%, respectively, of the energy used to make these metals from scratch. As it turns out, we recycle about half the steel we use in a year in the US, and so almost all the steel we use contains recycled content. In contrast, we recycle just 7 percent of the plastic we use.
And then there's glass--we have lots of options, really.
Courtesy Ivy Main
I can't speak to how much material was wasted when people discarded all those bottles (I think I recycled mine?). Personally, I do think that making reusable bottles in general uses less energy than is needed to make all those disposable plastics and recycle them--at least in terms of lifetime footprints. Of course, when it comes to a strict comparison between reusable bottles, switching to a new bottle will always consume more energy than just sticking with your old one.
Unfortunately, it turns out that most plastics, even the ones labeled BPA-free, leach estrogen-mimicking chemicals. So if you're looking for a long term solution, it may be best to just avoid plastics altogether. This does seem to be one of those cases where we have to consider our own health vs. the environment and pick our battles wisely. If people want to switch once to avoid health problems, at least they're still sticking with reusable bottles. Readers, do you agree?
Of course, it would be great if choosing a water bottle were the only drinking water issue we faced. The other day I read about a study by Environmental Working Group, which found that the carcinogen chromium-6 contaminates tap water throughout the US. Are we exposing ourselves to this toxic metal by drinking tap water instead of pre-bottled water? Or is chromium in the bottled water, too? What about other unregulated pollutants in our water?
I guess my point of going into all this is that it's complicated to make these decisions, and we'll probably never be able to avoid every single toxic substance. But does that mean we shouldn't try to make drinking water safer?
For now, I'm gonna stick with the steel and aluminum bottles that I already have and try to get the most out of them. Luckily, I live in the Twin Cities, which don't rate high on EWG's chromium map. Every day, I learn more about my health and the health of our environment, and hopefully by searching, I'll find a direction that hits on a fair compromise.
Courtesy C-MOREWho hasn’t heard that plastic in the ocean is trouble?
Yep, plastic in the ocean is bad news; so let’s put scientific energy into studying and solving the problem.
Courtesy C-MOREIn 2008 C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education headquartered at the University of Hawai`i, with assistance from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, embarked on an oceanographic expedition aboard the RV Kilo Moana, which means "oceanographer" in Hawaiian. The goal of the expedition, dubbed SUPER (Survey of Underwater Plastic and Ecosystem Response Cruise), was to measure the amount of micro-plastic in the ocean. In addition, oceanographers took samples to study microbes and seawater chemistry associated with the ocean plastic. The Kilo Moana sailed right through the area known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” between Hawai`i and California.
Early results: there was no garbage patch/island. Once in a while something like a barnacle-covered plastic buoy would float past the ship, but mostly the ocean looked really clean and empty of any kind of marine debris.
Courtesy C-MOREBut wait! Scientists looked closer and were amazed. Every single one of the more than a dozen manta trawls, filtering the surface seawater for an hour and a half each, brought up pieces of micro-plastic! Some were as small as 0.2 millimeter, mixed among zooplankton!
Other expeditions have reported similar results (for example, Scripps Institution of Oceanography's 2009 SEAPLEX expedition and Sea Education Association's North Atlantic Expedition 2010): no Texas-size garbage patches, but plenty of plastic marine debris to worry about. The data seem to show that most of the plastic is in the form of small pieces spread throughout upper levels of water at some locations around the world's ocean. In these areas, the ocean is like a dilute soup of plastic.
Courtesy C-MOREC-MORE researcher Dr. Angelicque (Angel) White, assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University (OSU) was a scientist on board the SUPER expedition. In recent interviews, (for example: the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Seadiscovery.com) Dr. White cautions us to view the complex plastic marine debris problem accurately. Furthermore, new results will soon be published by C-MORE about microbial diversity and activity on plastic pieces.
In the meantime, as Dr. White says, “…let’s keep working on eliminating plastics from the ocean so one day we can say the worst it ever became was a dilute soup, not islands. “
Plastic in the ocean is trouble. How can you be part of the solution?
Courtesy teapicPack your bags, Buzzketeers, because you don’t want to be the last person to make it to the world’s newest, creepiest continent. (Don’t worry, Australia, I’m not talking about you.)
Trashlantis! The new frontier! The Texas-sized plastic layer floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Why would you not want to go there? The answer, of course, is that you wouldn’t not want to go there… ever!
Yet another scientific expedition is on its way to the fabled plastic continent. But while the last group of researchers mentioned on Buzz was at least partially motivated by the potential to turn Trashlantis back into some more useful hydrocarbons, it looks like these folks are more interested in seeing how the plastic is affecting sea life.
The Yahoo article linked to above sums up the expedition with:
”The expedition will study how much debris -- mostly tiny plastic fragments -- is collecting in an expanse of sea known as the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, how that material is distributed and how it affects marine life.”
I’m guessing what they’re getting at has to do with how plastic affects very very small organisms as it photodegrades. We understand how chunks of plastic in the ocean are no good for larger animals—marine life can choke on them, or fill their stomachs with trash—but the problem goes further than that. See, eventually those larger pieces of plastic start to photodegrade. (That means they get broken down by the energy in sunlight.) But photodegredation doesn’t seem to actually get rid of the plastic, it just breaks it into increasingly smaller pieces. When a plastic bag turns into a million little tiny chunks, it no longer poses a risk for, say, a sea gull choking on it. But smaller organisms are still likely to gobble some up, and if they can eat anything bigger than they can poop (it happens), they’re in a lot of trouble. And when small organisms die off, so do the slightly larger creatures that eat them, and the larger creatures that eat them, and so on. (You remember this from grade school.) So how will Trashlantis fit into this plasticky food-path?
And then there’s the huge real estate potential for Trashlantis. So get there now.
In case you do remember, but still feel like reading a summary anyway, here: Trashlantis was only named “Trashlantis” in early 2008 by one marginally-informed science blogger, but—considering how the fabled floating garbage continent is made of your trash, and your parents’ trash, and your grandparents’ trash—it has been around for a good while longer than that. Trashlantis, also referred to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch” and the “Plastic Vortex,” is a floating mass of plasticy waste from Asia and North America, which has sort of congealed in the center of the Pacific Ocean. Ocean currents have brought our plastic there and kept if there since we realized how much fun it was to throw plastic into the ocean, about 60 years ago. Today the floating mass is continent-sized in surface area. (It’s the size of the Lower 48, or twice the size of Texas, or just really, really, really big, depending on who you believe.)
There hasn’t been a whole lot of research done on the Eastern Garbage Patch—oh, shucks, let’s just call it Trashlantis—partly because it’s way out in the ocean (about 500 miles off the coast of California), but mostly, according to scientists, because it’s “super yucky.”
However, a group of scientists and entrepreneurs is now planning to sail to (through) Trashlantis aboard the 145-foot-tall sailboat, the Kaisei, accompanied by a fishing trawler. The scientists intend to study the plastic mass to determine the extent of its toxic effect on the sea and sediment beneath it, while international business man and pectoral enthusiast Doug Woodring hopes to see if the waste might be able to be collected to be recycled or used as fuel.
Part of the problem with Trashlantis is that because the plastic has been floating out in the sun for decades, it’s starting to break down. It’s not necessarily breaking down in a good way—think soda bottles turning into poisonous goop, not banana peels turning into fertile compost—and scooping it up in nets is going to be difficult, if we don’t want to snag too many fish and too much plankton along with it (we don’t want to). Trashlantis, sadly, is very much what many people refer to as “a hot, sticky mess.”
The expedition looks like a good step towards understanding the problem, and maybe developing a solution. And don’t anybody even think about taking the voyagetotrashlantismovie.kz url, because as soon as I can scrounge up ten dollars, that sucker is mine, and I’m going to be taking Paramount to the cleaners next summer.
Using a technique similar to the natural processes involved in the formation of seashells, scientists at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor have created a plastic based material as thin as a sheet of paper, but as strong as steel.
What’s the secret? It has to do with that magic word that we love so much around the science museum: nano.
Nano-sized sheets of plastic are stacked by a robotic arm, and stuck together with a mortar made of “clay and a non-toxic glue similar to that used in school classrooms.” The plastic layers are so thin that even after 300 of them are stacked, the resulting sheet is still paper-thin and transparent. The reason why the material is so strong is because the layers are stacked in alternating patterns, and because the glue/mortar immediately creates new bonds as soon as others are broken. Again, this is all very similar to the way that abalone shells (known for their strength) form – in the case of the shells, crystals are stacked in alternating patterns, and cemented together with an organic mortar.
Currently the material is only being produced in pieces a few centimeters large, but the Ann Arbor researchers are already building a machine in their lab that could make pieces as large as one meter by one meter.
Although it’s still several years away from commercial applications, the material has potential uses ranging from microtechnology to creating stronger, lighter body armor.
It’s proven to be quite a resilient substance. This year marks 100th anniversary of the creation of the plastic. Can you think of a day in your life that plastic hasn’t played some important part of?
Inventor of the process of making plastic – Leo Baekeland – created the process of developing phenol-formaldehyde polymer resin in 1907. The new material found new uses over the quickly as rayon, cellophane, PVC and polyethylene, to name just a few.
And it’s probably going to be around for a while longer. New coming uses for plastic, things that are still in the development stages, include plastic hemoglobin-like material that can be used in human blood and airplane parts that can change shape depending on the weather and air conditions that a plane is flying through.
With all that development, however, there are still some big challenges. Only about 10 percent of all plastic is recycled, which means a growing supply of plastic wastes that have to be dealt with in a reasonable fashion.
So if you’re looking for a reason to have a party, why not celebrate plastic’s 100th birthday!