Stories tagged plastics

Sep
28
2013

A lake carrier heads out on Lake Superior from Duluth: As with the world's oceans, researchers have now detected plastic pollution in all the Great Lakes.
A lake carrier heads out on Lake Superior from Duluth: As with the world's oceans, researchers have now detected plastic pollution in all the Great Lakes.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Over the past couple years, Science Buzz has posted several stories (here and here) about the humongous patches of garbage and plastic debris found floating in the world's oceans. It's a serious problem and one that should raise red flags for anyone concerned with the Earth's environment. But even more troubling is the recent news that plastic particles have now been found in all five of the Great Lakes lining the border of the USA and Canada. Unlike the large globs of plastic clogging areas of the ocean, the plastics polluting the Great Lakes are microscopic particles detectable only in a microscope. But they're no less disturbing.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Sherri “Sam” Mason, professor of chemistry at SUNY-Fredonia has been gathering water samples and reported finding high concentrations of plastic particles in the chain of freshwater lakes. One of the researchers involved is environmental chemist Lorena Rios-Mendoza from University of Wisconsin-Superior. Both she and Mason have studied the Great Trash Island (aka Trashlantis) in the Pacific Ocean but has now turned their attention to the Great Lakes.

Most of the plastic found in the water is visible only under a microscope, but has been found in all five of the Great Lakes, both in the water column, and in lake sediment. The amount of micro-plastic varies between lakes with Lake Erie - the shallowest and smallest by water volume - containing the largest ratio and Lake Superior - the largest and most voluminous - a much smaller ratio. But it doesn't matter; the point is that we're polluting some of our important sources of fresh water with plastic.

It's thought that cosmetics with could one of the sources, since the industry relies heavily on using micro-beads in its products. These tiny plastic particles used on our faces, skin, and teeth, eventually get washed off into the water supply where they're too small to get filtered out. But cosmetics certainly aren't the only source. Plastic refuse obliterates the shoreline in Haiti
Plastic refuse obliterates the shoreline in HaitiCourtesy tedxgp2
Think of the ungodly amount of plastic material we use and discard every year. Surprisingly, only about five percent of the bags, bottles, cups, electronics, etc. get recycled; most plastic trash ends up in landfills where it slowly degrades and eventually finds its way into the world's favorite garbage dump: the oceans.

“We have no idea how long some of these plastics stay in the ocean, could be more than 40 years,” Rios-Mendoza said. She also worries if organic toxins in the water can attach themselves to the tiny plastic particles, and end up in the food chain. In this regard, Rios-Mendoza has been sampling Great Lake fish to see if such toxic particles are present in their guts.

It's important to remember that only 3 percent of the world's water is freshwater and the five Great Lakes - Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Erie - together contain 20 percent of that freshwater. That's a large portion of a relatively scarce and essential life ingredient. Last fall, I posted an interesting graphic that illustrates nicely Earth's total water supply versus fresh water and puts things in perspective.

Lake Superior: Plastic pollutants have now invaded the upper Great Lake.
Lake Superior: Plastic pollutants have now invaded the upper Great Lake.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Rios-Mendoza and Mason have been collaborating with a research and education group called 5Gyres Institute that monitors and studies garbage patches found in five subtropical gyres in the world's oceans. Rio-Mendoza presented a preliminary study of their work on the Great Lakes at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. The team's future studies involve pinpointing the sources of plastic pollution and acquiring a better understanding of how plastics degrade in the environment.

"We all need to become aware of how much plastic we use in our lives and avoid using single-use products. Don’t buy water in plastic bottles or cosmetic products with micro beads. Bring re-usable bags to the store with you. Simple things like this make a big difference, but it’s also important to keep talking about this issue and raising awareness about how it affects the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans.” --- Dr. Sherri Mason“

By the way, here in Minnesota, and situated at the western tip of Lake Superior, the city of Duluth was recently proclaimed to have the best tasting drinking water in the state. By best-tasting, I'm assuming they mean it has no taste whatsoever since water is described as a colorless, tasteless liquid. Whatever the case, I always thought Duluth's drinking water was the best while growing up there (my grandparents lived in a Twin Cities' suburb and I never liked the taste of their softener-treated water).
In another water-related story, it's estimated that life on Earth can survive for at least another 1.75 billion years until we move out of the habitable zone and our oceans (and other water sources) will evaporate in the increased heat. So it's probably best that we take care of what water we have - it needs to sustain us for a long time.

SOURCE and LINKS
National Geographic story
Red Orbit story
The World's Largest Dump
The Great Pacific garbage patch
Star Tribune story on Duluth's water

May
29
2012

Plastics!
Plastics!Courtesy IonE
This 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:

(And for more on the subject, check out Science Buzz posts on plastics, plastic, and sustainability.)

Oh, hello, Pepsi. I see you've developed a soda bottle composed of 100% plant materials that is identical to their current bottle. That's nice. Too bad what's inside still tastes like fairy tears.

No, that's not fair. I don't even drink much soda. I only said that to sound cool. I'm sure Pepsi is just as delicious as Coca Cola, if not more so. In fact, "fairy tears" sound wonderful. It's just a shame you have to hurt little fairies (or their feelings) to get them.

Anyway, a 100% plant based bottle, instead of a PET plastic bottle. That might be good for the world. But I'm wary of 100% natural claims. The world is a complicated place. I guess we'll just have to wait until 2012 when they test market the bottle.

Wait ... 2012? Uh oh.

Researchers have developed several ways to potentially mass-produce silk without moths or spiders. The silk can be a hard solid, gel, liquid, sponge, or fiber, is stronger than kevlar, non-toxic, and biodegradable. It's perfectly clear and can be used to create plastics, optical sensors, medicine delivery capsules implanted inside the body--the applications are pretty huge and pretty green.

There's already a silk tissue scaffold on the market that can be used to regenerate ligaments or other damaged tissue--the scaffold is implanted into the body in place of damaged tissue, and as new tissue grows around it, the silk slowly breaks down into amino acids and is reused by the body. How cool is that?!

Nov
16
2009

He looks happy, but it's a facade: He's very worried about phthalates, BPAs, and his manliness. (Good thing that's a glass bottle.)
He looks happy, but it's a facade: He's very worried about phthalates, BPAs, and his manliness. (Good thing that's a glass bottle.)Courtesy sirgabe
There’s something I want to get out of the way straight off the bat: the original title for this post was “Monday Nutrition Extravaganza: Chemicals in your food, playing with your manhood!” And while that has a certain whimsical charm, a re-read revealed hidden, disturbing meaning in those words. And I didn’t want to subject you Buzzketeers to that. I just thought you should know.

So, moving on, what’s this stuff playing with our manhood, now?

Chemicalz in our foodz! And stuff.

Earlier today, I came across this study about how there seems to be a correlation between high levels of chemicals call phthalates in pregnant mothers’ urine, and a lowered incidence of “masculine play” in their male children. (“Girls’ play behavior” didn’t seem to be affected.)

Interesting, interesting.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals added to plastics to make them softer and more pliable. We all like soft plastic—no one is arguing that!—but phthalates are all over the place, and increased exposure to them (all sorts of products and packaging use phthalates) is raising concerns about how those chemicals affect us, particularly during childhood development. See, phthalates are antiandrogens, meaning that they mess with the way your body works with hormones like testosterone. Testosterone plays an important role in how we physically develop, and perhaps in how we act. The boys whose mothers had higher levels of a couple kinds of phthalates demonstrated less “male-typical” behavior. The study looked a preferred toy types (trucks versus dolls), activities (“rough-and-tumble play”), and “child characteristics.”

Now, these are slightly sticky things to go judging kids on. Some folks might argue that these characteristics aren’t linked to biology so much as social conditioning. And it feels a little weird quantifying characteristics in children (and, let’s be honest here, characteristics which may not have a solidly identified “norm,” but nonetheless have all sorts of social and sexual baggage that we are uncomfortable with and often deal with in the worst ways). However, there does seem to be some statistical association here, whatever the causal relationship is. One hypothesis is that phthalates alter fetal production of testosterone at an important period of development, affecting “brain sexual differentiation.” It’s not so hard to imagine—a year ago I did a post on how certain common chemicals in pregnant mothers seemed to be causing penis deformities in their male children. The culprit there? Phthalates. The women in that story, however, had had exceptionally high exposure to phthalates (their jobs had them in constant contact with phthalate-containing hairspray), so it’s probably not something to lose sleep over, but it’s worth knowing.

And while phthalates aren’t supposed to be in food packaging, the next article I came across (this is an extravaganza, after all) deals with another plastic additive, BPA, that is found in food packaging, and which may also cause some hormone-related havoc.

BPA has come up on Science Buzz before. It’s in all sorts of packaging and bottles (it’s the reason your over protective mother doesn’t want you to use nalgene bottles) and it may affect tissue development, potentially increasing cancer risks.

We don’t care about that, though, right? Sure, cancer is out there, but in the future, not right now, you know? I know. But BPA’s latest appearance in the news may bring some immediacy to the concern over its use. Concern for some people. For men, I mean.

Chemical BPA in workers related to sex problems, says the Washington Post. “Sex problems”? We don’t want those! Chinese men working in a factory that uses BPA were found to have high rates of sexual problems. (I won’t be defining what “sexual problems” are because whatever you just imagined was probably correct.) Now, these guys have BPA levels about 50 times higher than the average American. But, still, something like 90% of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their urine. Again, probably nothing to lose a lot of sleep over, but something worth knowing about. This professor is of the opinion that BPAs should be banned, even though most of us will probably never be exposed to dangerous levels of it, because a) it’s not a natural part of our diet; b) it’s not actually necessary in plastics processing; c) it accumulates in the body, and we still don’t know what level at which it begins to become harmful (ask those Chinese guys); and d) it’d be relatively easy to get it out of the food and water supply, unlike some other potentially harmful chemicals.

Accepting that scientific studies are necessarily very focused to eliminate variables, both of these stories still left me wondering what affect phthalates and BPAs have on women and girls. On one hand, one tries to avoid the mindset that average human physiology=male physiology, but on the other hand it’s usually just males that have penises, making their medical problems a little more hilarious.

There are so many… things out there, and they’re all doing… stuff! Interesting to know.

Jan
08
2009

Recycling plastic: A patent on sorting, grinding, and reusing plastic for manufacturing or energy
Recycling plastic: A patent on sorting, grinding, and reusing plastic for manufacturing or energyCourtesy Meaduva

Don't throw it away. Recycle.

Each day millions of tons of plastic and organic products are "thrown away". Where is "away"? Probably a land fill. A better idea would be to somehow recycle these materials into a useful product, or use it as a source of energy.

Plastic and cellulose waste recycling idea "owned"

A new patent application claims that a blend of waste plastic and cellulose from plant material can make a good building material or the plastic/cellulose mix could be burned for fuel. (click to view patent application, 38pg PDF)

It would be beneficial to develop a process that can efficiently and cost effectively convert multiple types of waste byproducts into useful materials usable for: (i) heat and/or energy generation; and/or (ii) structural, sound attenuation, and/or insulation materials.

Do you think "Recycling" should be patented?

Would someone explain what this patent does? To me it claims to own the concept of turning garbage into stuff or burning it. If someone works out detailed methods of doing what is described in the blockquote above, would they have to pay money to the person who patented the concept?

Sources:
" Invention: Recycled trash construction materials" New Scientist
Abstract: "Blending Plastic and Cellulose Waste Products for Alternative Uses"