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Filipino scientist takes first ever journey to third deepest ocean trench on Earth, finds plastic

Filipino scientist takes first ever journey to third deepest ocean trench on Earth, finds plastic

BANGKOK: When Dr Deo Florence Onda found himself more than 10,000m below the surface, in the third deepest trench on the planet, he was on the lookout for mysteries hidden in the darkness.

The Emden Deep, part of the Philippine Trench, is one of Earth’s final frontiers, an unexplored section of one of the oldest seabeds in the world. Until just a couple of months ago, no human had ever been there.

The 33-year-old microbial oceanologist from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute considers himself “very adventurous” – despite being from the tropics, he completed his doctoral studies on the North Pole. But this was something entirely different.

Deep-sea adventures are rare and complex, making them akin to venturing into outer space.

“The feeling itself, no one can prepare for it. You don’t know what to expect. It was really the mental preparation, being in a small submersible without freaking out while you’re diving and saying goodbye to the world,” he recounted.

Over a 12-hour period in March, Onda and American explorer Victor Vescovo from Caladan Oceanic, a private organisation dedicated to advancing undersea technology, descended and explored the trench, hoping for just a glimpse of life below. 

“If you look at the Philippine Trench, the first description was in the 1950s and then the more detailed one was in the 1970s. The technology then was not that good yet, or accurate. It was an opportunity for us to see what’s happening down there, which has never been seen before,” Onda said.

“When we were about to reach the bottom I was expecting to see scary, crawling things sneaking in or peeking into the windows.”

Instead, what greeted them in the depths was something far more familiar – something that had also travelled from above the surface. 

“There was one funny scene when we were exploring the area. There was one white material floating around. I was saying ‘Victor, that’s a jellyfish’. We went there and approached and it was just plastic.

“The only unusual thing there was the garbage. There was a lot of garbage in the trench. There were a lot of plastics, a pair of pants, a shirt, a teddy bear, packaging and a lot of plastic bags. Even me, I did not expect that, and I do research on plastics,” he said.

Full story by Jack Board at Channel News Asia

Canada Lists Plastic As Toxic In Step Towards Ban On Single-Use Plastic

Canada Lists Plastic As Toxic In Step Towards Ban On Single-Use Plastic

Canada now lists plastic as a toxic substance under their chief environmental law. Along with sending a clear message about plastic pollution, it’s also a necessary step to fulfill the ban of single-use plastics promised by the federal government in fall 2020.

The Government of Canada announced last month it now lists plastic as a Schedule 1 toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), the primary environmental law in the country. 

Under the CEPA, a substance can be declared toxic if it has an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity, or if it may constitute a danger to human life or health. The latest science suggests that plastics certainly do fit into this definition. In October 2020, Canada released a scientific assessment of plastic pollution and concluded that plastic pollution poses a significant risk to the environment and its biodiversity (although the risk to human health was found to be low).

Somewhere between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste floods into the ocean every year, according to figures published in the journal Science in 2015. Since plastics can take decades or even centuries to biodegrade, they persist and build up in the environment, causing all kinds of trouble for marine life.

The decision to list plastic as a toxic substance was widely praised by environmental groups like Greenpeace and Oceana who saw the move as necessary, if not long overdue. They now want to push the government to quickly finalize a meaningful ban on non-essential single-use plastics by the end of 2021.

Needless to say, the plastics industry — which spent months lobbying the government to prevent the decision — isn’t happy. They argue that listing plastic as toxic isn’t going to stop pollution from entering the natural environment and the government should instead be focused on improving recycling. 

n light of the recent decision, the National Observer reports that a coalition of 27 petrochemical and plastic packaging manufacturers plan to sue the government. Canada’s Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson responded to the threat saying their approach is “based on evidence, facts, and rigorous science”.

“When only 9 percent of plastics are recycled, we have a serious problem that requires serious leaders. Enough is enough. Canada expects action and this is exactly what we will continue to require from the plastics industry,” Wilkinson said in a statement tweeted on May 19. 

Full story by Tom Hale at IFL Science!

This Biodegradable Plastic Will Actually Break Down in Your Compost

This Biodegradable Plastic Will Actually Break Down in Your Compost

Water and heat activate plastic-munching enzymes that reduce the material to harmless chemical building blocks

Some single-use plastics have been replaced with biodegradable options in recent years, but even those aren’t fully compostable. Polymer scientist Ting Xu knows that because when she picks up composted soil from her parents’ garden, it is often littered with plastic bits that haven’t fully degraded, she tells Carmen Drahl at Science News.

For more than a decade, Xu has researched how plastic could be created with enzymes that break down the stubborn material. Now, a paper published on April 21 in the journal Nature describes a new plastic material that degrades by up to 98 percent after less than a week in damp composting soil. The plastic itself has a sprinkling of polymer-munching enzymes mixed in that are activated by heat and moisture to degrade the plastic from the inside.

The goal is to create truly compostable plastics that can replace the single-use plastics that have become especially common amid the Covid-19 pandemic. “We want this to be in every grocery store,” says Xu to Science News.

Only a few kinds of plastic, labeled as types one and two, are reliably recyclable. A 2015 study showed just nine percent of plastics in the world are recycled—most plastics wind up in landfills or scattered across the globe as pollution. The recent introduction of biodegradable plastics offered promise to rid the world of some debris, but these materials require specific processing to fully break down. If standard biodegradable plastics don’t reach an industrial composting facility, they won’t fully degrade.

“Under other conditions such as soil or marine environments, these materials often display a similar durability as their conventional fossil-fuel-based counterparts, causing significant environmental damage and pollution,” says Queensland University of Technology materials scientist Hendrik Frisch, who was not involved in the new study, to Gemma Conroy at ABC Science.

The new plastic has enzymes embedded in it that have been individually wrapped with four-part nanoparticles. The nanoparticles prevent the enzymes from falling apart while they wait to go to work. The wrapped enzymes are mixed with polymer beads early in the plastic-forming process. The end material includes thin film pieces and thick plastic filaments.

The enzymes don’t alter the plastic’s usual properties—the film is as strong and flexible as standard plastic bags. But when the material is immersed in warm water, or damp soil, the enzymes’ polymer coating falls away and the enzymes become activated. Because the enzymes are embedded throughout the material itself, and not added later, they can thoroughly degrade it.

Full story by Theresa Machemer at Smithsonian Magazine

Airborne Microplastics ‘Now Spiral Around the Globe’

Airborne Microplastics ‘Now Spiral Around the Globe’

Researchers find the tiny synthetic particles can stay aloft for nearly a week and travel large distances in the wind

Biology students may remember learning the water cycle, the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle. Now, new research suggests we may need to add “the plastic cycle” to the list of Earth’s list of biogeochemical processes, reports Damian Carrington for the Guardian.

The authors of the new paper, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, write “microplastic particles and fibers generated from the breakdown of mismanaged waste are now so prevalent that they cycle through the Earth in a manner akin to global biogeochemical cycles.” The authors focused on airborne microplastics, which they say “now spiral around the globe with distinct atmospheric, oceanic, cryospheric, and terrestrial residence times.”

The study’s models suggest some 1,100 tons of microplastic, defined as particles smaller than 0.2 inches, currently swirl over the western United States and many stay airborne for almost a week, reports Matt Simon for Wired. Some 84 percent of that plastic in the air comes from roads where cars and trucks kick microplastics up in their wakes, and, surprisingly, the offending stretches of asphalt tend to be located outside of major cities. Another 11 percent of the petrochemical miasma may waft in from the oceans, with dust from agricultural soils contributing the remaining five percent.

One of the major implications of these results is much of the plastic suspended in the atmosphere isn’t coming from fresh sources.

“We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world,” says Janice Brahney, an environmental scientist at Utah State University and the study’s lead author, in a statement. “This plastic is not new from this year. It’s from what we’ve already dumped into the environment over several decades.”

In the ocean, as the tens of millions of tons of plastic already floating at sea break down into microscopic pieces, some of those minute particles take flight into the atmosphere via sea spray and get carried around the world by wind.

Full story by Alex Fox at Smithsonian Magazine


Feeding Fish Instead of Strangling Them: Corona Adopts Edible 6-Pack Rings

Feeding Fish Instead of Strangling Them: Corona Adopts Edible 6-Pack Rings

This amazing trend didn’t start with Corona, but the beer-brewing giant may pave the way for other large beverage companies to start using a revolutionary new type of 6-pack ring that could save millions of sea creatures.

A Florida craft microbrewery called Saltwater Brewery first developed the edible and biodegradable 6-pack rings using barley and wheat remnants left over from the brewing process. This cuts down on the cost for the brewery, makes use of a waste product, and also keeps wildlife from getting caught in the discarded rings. Plus, it functions as food for fish, turtles, birds, and other marine life!

In a promo video for Saltwater Brewery, marine biologist Mark Tokulka said that “an estimated one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles become entrapped in plastic or ingest it and die.” People think that cutting the rings to keep wildlife from getting trapped in them is enough, but the plastic is inedible and filled with chemicals, causing major harm to sea creatures that don’t know any better than to eat it.

Full story by Elizabeth Morey at The Rainforest Site

New catalyst converts common plastic waste into fuels and wax

New catalyst converts common plastic waste into fuels and wax

As useful as plastics are in our everyday life, they’re difficult to recycle, meaning most ends up in landfill or polluting the environment. Now, researchers in Japan have used a novel catalyst to recycle a common plastic into useful products like fuel and wax.

By design, plastics are extremely resistant to chemical reactions. That makes them great for bottles and containers for chemicals, but on the flipside it makes them hard to break down when they need to be disposed of. For example, thermal recycling processes, require temperatures of between 300 °C and 900 °C (572 °F and 1,650 °F), which obviously consumes a whole lot of energy.

So for the new study, researchers at Tohoku and Osaka City Universities set out to find a new catalyst that could break plastics down at lower temperatures. The team found that combining ruthenium and cerium dioxide worked most effectively, creating a catalyst able to recycle polyolefinic plastics at just 200 °C (392 °F).

“Our approach acted as an effective and reusable heterogeneous catalyst, showing much higher activity than other metal-supported catalysts, working even under mild reaction conditions,” say Masazumi Tamura and Keiichi Tomishige, co-authors of the study. “Furthermore, a plastic bag and waste plastics could be transformed to valuable chemicals in high yields.”

The researchers say they were able to convert about 92 percent of the waste plastic into useful materials. As much as 77 percent of it became a liquid fuel, while 15 percent yielded wax, which should help make plastic recycling a more viable prospect.

This is far from the only plastic recycling method on the horizon. Just a few weeks ago a team from UC Berkeley reported a new process to turn polyethylene into a clingy new adhesive, while others are designing new plastics from the ground up to be easily recyclable.

The new study was published in the journal Applied Catalyst B: Environmental.

Source: Osaka City University

On the Web This Week, 24 October

On the Web This Week, 24 October

On the web this week, Sri Lanka attempts to deal with its human-elephant relationship, scuba diving grandmothers discover an unexpected sea snake population, and a mysterious oil spill off the coast of Brazil.

Picture credit: Rachel Nuwer

“Sri Lanka has the highest level of human-elephant conflict in the world,” says Prithiviraj Fernando, chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research in Tissamaharama. “Wherever there are people and elephants, there’s conflict.”

For more than 70 years, Sri Lanka has attempted to solve the problem by moving elephants to national parks. According to the government’s approach, the world’s second-largest land animal belongs in protected areas surrounded by electric fencing, while people belong everywhere else.

Picture credit: Claire Goiran/UNC

A group of snorkelling grandmothers who swim up to 3km five days a week have uncovered a large population of venomous sea snakes in a bay in Noumea where scientists once believed they were rare. Claire Goiran from the University of New Caledonia and Professor Rick Shine from Australia’s Macquarie University were studying a small harmless species known as the turtle‐headed sea snake located in the Baie des Citrons, but would occasionally encounter the 1.5 metre-long venomous greater sea snake, also known as the olive-headed sea snake.

Goiran and Shine believed the greater sea snake was an anomaly in the popular swimming bay as it had only been spotted about six times over 15 years. From 2013, they decided to take a closer look at the greater sea snake to better understand its importance to the bay’s ecosystem.

Picture credit: Antonello Veneri / AFP

It washed ashore in early September, thick globs of oil that appeared from out of nowhere and defied explanation. In the weeks since, the mysterious sludge — 600 tons, the largest spill in Brazil’s history — has tarred more than 1,600 kilometres of shoreline, polluted some of the country’s most beautiful beaches and killed all sorts of marine life.

But despite the time that has passed — and the damage done – the most important questions remain unanswered. Where is the oil coming from? And how can it be stopped?

Picture credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Coca-Cola was found for the second year in a row to be the most polluting brand in a global audit of plastic trash conducted by the Break Free From Plastic global movement. The giant soda company was responsible for more plastic litter than the next top three polluters combined.

Reaffirming the importance of sustainable environmental practices, Stellenbosch Wine Routes this week signed the Porto Protocol, committing the leading wine route in South Africa to an accelerated contribution towards climate change mitigation.

Launched by former US President Barack Obama in 2018, the Porto Protocol is a global sustainable initiative signed by companies across numerous industries. These have pledged to play their part in employing and sharing sustainable environmental practices to combat climate change.

Picture credit: Farmer’s Weekly

Urban agriculture has a major role to play in providing healthy, affordable and accessible food to poor urban households in South Africa, according to Prof Juaneé Cilliers, chair of the Urban and Regional Planning Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management at North-West University.

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Continuing from last week, is part two in a six-part documentary series on global cities and the development of urban networks as the emerging geography of connectivity in an age of globalization. In this part we look at the historical development of urban centers from ancient times through to the industrial revolution. Produced by: https://systemsinnovation.io

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