Tag Archives: #plastic

Enduring Collection

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The image below, of bottles and some kind of a collection, immediately made me think of marine life. Maybe it’s the small, irregular pieces carefully arrayed beneath each bottle. Maybe it’s the size of the bottles and their tidy alignment, paired against the sandy randomness of their spilled contents.

 

I thought it might be a collection of sand types, something from the Sand Atlas.

Samples from various beaches, perhaps.

 

These are forams (Sorites), Cyprus.
Source: Sand Atlas

 

The round bottles also made me think of sewing and buttons.

Maybe these were shards of buttons that had been found in an archeological dig.

 

Buttons
Source: Tyrs/Wikimedia

 

Or perhaps the image is a tiny environmental art installation of natural materials.

 

The Darkness, an installation taken from part of a collapsed Sussex cliff.
Artist: Cornelia Parker

But no. The collection turned out to be none of those things, although each jagged piece will outlast almost anything else I had imagined. Each small piece here, even if it hadn’t been retrieved and catalogued, will endure for decades if not centuries.

I was correct about the marine life connection. The pieces had been battered and reduced from their original forms by water. But before they found their way into these lab bottles, each piece found its way into the mouth of a turtle hatchling, and each bottle represents the stomach contents of a hatchling either starved to death on a belly full of plastic, or that died as a result of damage caused by the plastic.

Stomach contents of deceased hatchling and post-hatchling sea turtle patients.
Source: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Larger turtles can survive some level of plastic ingestion, which includes everything from small debris to entire plastic fishing nets. The hatchings can’t pass the plastic through their systems.

According to Jack Lighton, head of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Florida where these samples were collected, “It’s no longer a question of ‘if a sea turtle has ingested marine pollution,” it’s now a question of “how much the turtle has ingested.”

And because it’s not just turtles swallowing our garbage, but all manner of other animals on land and water, it’s something to consider in our ongoing world of packaging, non-reusable items like straws and plastic forks, plastic bags and plastic furniture.

 

Fewer Footprints

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When we were out on the Pacific Coast in California a couple of weeks ago, two things in particular caught my attention:

One was the lack of shorebirds, the skittering types that chase waves and scurry in tight huddles. Maybe it was just the wrong season. There were signs posted indicating that snowy plovers were nesting in the dunes, although we didn’t see any from the waterline where we walked. The estuary between Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach holds a diverse population of wild birds, so maybe we were just unlucky or unobservant.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

While there were seagulls, great egrets and turkey vultures–we even saw a red-tailed hawk diving for fish and carrying off a squirming catch–we saw a sum total of five sandpipers.

Researchers only really started noticing a general decline in shorebirds around twenty years ago, when counting got underway in earnest. It’s hard to know just how much the populations have declined – but I can say that compared to when I visited my favorite beaches thirty years ago, the number of birds has dropped dramatically. There were far fewer footprints in the sand from birds than I remember from my youth.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

There are a number of reasons for the decline in shorebird and migratory bird populations. Loss of migratory habitat has to be the most relevant. There’s just so much more land development and reclamation along coastlines and wetland areas, the very places the great internationalist shorebirds stop to rest, to eat, to breed.

Another aspect, though, is the amount of plastic in our seas.

Birds eat plastic, presumably because it looks like food, and can end up starving to death with a belly full of plastic. Between 60-90% of birds in shoreline regions have been found to have plastic in their bellies. At this point, it’s probably more surprising to find a bird without plastic in its stomach.

Which brings me to the other thing that caught our attention on our numerous beach walks:

An estuary tree blooms with great herons. Photo: PKR

An estuary tree blooms with great herons.
Photo: PKR

Back in the 1980s, when there were more birds, I also used to notice large pieces of junk on the beach. Wrecked picnic coolers, plastic containers, styrofoam appliance packing, plastic bottles galore. This time, there were very few pieces of large plastic. This might be a positive side of the recycling movement.

Microplastics. Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

Microplastics.
Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

What I did notice, however, were countless pieces of plastic flakes that looked almost like shell flotsam, the kind that’s always there in a receding tide. Except the flakes were all the wrong colors. Blue, bright green, pink. And such an edible size for smaller animals.

Today is World Oceans Day. The focus of this year’s awareness is plastic in oceans.

The next time you take another plastic bag for produce, or buy a plastic box of cut vegetables instead of cutting them yourself, or throw away plastic in general, think of where it might end up. Even if you live far from the sea, chances are, at least some of that plastic will end up in a waterway, and at some point, in an ocean.

 

 

Making Choices

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I was doing some early morning grocery shopping this morning, and I was buying avocados. Above the avocado bin were two types of produce bags: a roll of the thin plastic bags, and a stack of bags made of recycled paper.

This might seem like a tangential story to begin a post about World Pangolin Day with, but bear with me for just a moment.WorldPangolinDay2016-640x729

 

If you read this blog, you know which one I took. And I only took a paper sack because I’d forgotten to bring along the ones we save for re-use.

A man next to me reached past me and grabbed the end of the plastic roll. He pulled, and fought to separate the bag from the roll.

While I was being very picky about choosing avocados with just the right level of ripeness (we Californians are avocado snobs), he went about trying to get the bag open.

As he struggled, he glanced at me, watching me squeeze all the good avocados before he could even open his produce bag.

In a fit of unsolicited do-gooderism, I used that moment to say not only were paper bags easier, but they didn’t take months or decades or centuries to decompose (depending on the kind of plastic). It’s such a small choice to make in the produce aisle, with such a long-term impact.

Of course he went with the plastic bag. But maybe next time he won’t.

Which brings me to the pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater.

Pangolin in defensive position. Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin in defensive position.
Source: Project Pangolin

Every year, I mark World Pangolin Day, the third Saturday of February. I’ve written on their natural history, why they are unusual, that they are the most trafficked endangered mammal in the world, and that the medicinal uses for their scales are of little more value than eating one’s own fingernails or hair.

I even invented a cocktail called the Happy Pangolin.

In the end, it comes down to making choices.

Pangolin scales for sale Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin scales for sale
Photo: TRAFFIC

Legislative choices that are the underpinning for the protection of any endangered species; personal choices that cut the demand that drives the market for poached animals.

A new smartphone application, Wildlife Witness, allows tourists and locals alike to safely report wildlife crime that involves pangolins and other endangered animals, from trafficking to restaurant sales.

The good news is, choices are being made that could help the pangolin survive, provided those choices are implemented quickly enough.

The choices we make every day add up. Let’s keep making them.

Invisible Flow Dynamics

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The flame is lit.  The images here are all from a short video, The Hidden Complexities of the Simple Match.  Images: V. Miller, M. Tilghman, R. Hanson/Stanford Univ./

The flame is lit.
The images here are all from a short video, The Hidden Complexities of the Simple Match.
Images: V. Miller, M. Tilghman, R. Hanson/Stanford Univ./

By now, most people have heard about the vast amount of plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans, and how, once there, plastic bags, wrapping, toys, really all the stuff we make and use in this Age of Plastic, gets ground and beaten into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic until it is no longer recognizable as a human-made item, just a ever-tinier piece of material that is nonetheless non-biodegradable.

Which is one of the characteristics that makes petroleum-based plastic so very different from most other human-made utility products on the planet. It takes hundreds and thousands of years to break down the wrapping or plastic sack which we produce to be used for perhaps a few weeks or months, or even just once.

The images here show the turbulence of hot gases around a match as it is lit and then blown out – the unseen flow that takes place before our eyes, when all we see is a flame lit, and a flame extinguished.

Below is a map of the flow of ocean plastic around the world – researchers estimate the plastic refuse that was quantified and charted accounts for perhaps 1% of all ocean plastic. The rest is out there, getting up to all kinds of incendiary environmental nonsense – and while it’s right there in front of us, we are unable to see it.

Concentrations of plastic debris in surface waters of the global ocean. Colored circles indicate mass concentrations (legend on top right). The map shows average concentrations in 442 sites (1,127 surface net tows). Gray areas indicate the accumulation zones predicted by a global surface circulation model (6). Image/caption: Andrés Cózar et al./PNAS

Concentrations of plastic debris in surface waters of the global ocean. Colored circles indicate mass concentrations. The map shows average concentrations in 442 sites. Gray areas indicate the accumulation zones predicted by a global surface circulation model.
Click here for a larger image.
Image/caption: Andrés Cózar et al./PNAS

 

 

 

 

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/plastic-trash-piling-oceans-map-181700451.html

Accidental Questions

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Some of the best experiments are the ones that are accidental. Viewed from the right perspective, they can offer unanticipated insight into questions we didn’t even know needed to be asked. Discovering what happens when we release large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in a (geologically-speaking) relatively short amount of time is one example of an experiment in which most of us are participating, willingly or not.

The long-term adaptive abilities of humans and other animals to long-term radiation exposure is a question that’s been asked before, but the area around Chernobyl has been a particularly fine laboratory for study in the wild. Researchers from the British Ecological Society found that a variety of birds can, in fact, adapt to radiation exposure, but that long-term health depends on many species-specific traits and genetic factors.

The Wing (1512) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

The Wing (1512)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

The result: A few species can adapt surprisingly well. Most don’t do well at all. Okay, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. It’s not that life isn’t thriving within Chernobyl’s 30-km (18-mile) exclusion zone, it’s that the life that’s thriving has undergone what one researcher called ‘unnatural selection’.

Another interesting question is the rate at which radiation disperses and decays across the northern Pacific Ocean. The aftermath of the Fukushima disaster has provided a long-term opportunity to observe how specific radioactive isotopes are carried by water currents.

Pond in the Woods (1496) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Pond in the Woods (1496)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

And while the United States government has determined that this is not a study worthy of official investigation, a number of local coastal communities have taken matters into their own hands and established several citizen-scientist groups to gather and test samples.

And now, another experiment, if we choose to see it that way: The disappearance of most of the plastic garbage swirling around in the world’s oceans. Researchers say that 99% of the stuff has gone missing. Sunk to the bottom of the sea, maybe, but much of the plastic is in minuscule fragments.

The operating assumption at this point is that all that plastic is being consumed by marine animals, large and small. And this, in turn, enters the human food chain in a variety of ways – as livestock feed, fertilizer, and of course, the fish on our plates.

So now we’ll have a chance to find out the effect of injecting large quantities of plastic into the world food chain.

As with the other accidental experiments listed here, studies will be long-term, ongoing, and not necessarily subject to voluntary participant approval, human or otherwise.

Arion riding a dolphin (1514) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Arion riding a dolphin (1514)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Plant Plastics

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An Australian company named Zeoform has been in the news recently for its patented technology of producing a new kind of plastic that uses neither fossil fuels nor toxic chemicals in its production or materials.

The input materials are water, and anything from landfill fiber-based material such as old newspapers or used clothing. The end material is both fire resistant, and compostable.

According to an article in HuffingtonPost, “Zeoform’s manufacturing process exploits the natural process of hydrogen bonding, taking a patented matrix of cellulose fibers and activating it with water (no glues required) to create a fire-resistant material that can be sprayed, shaped or molded into any form.

Zeoform guitar Source: Zeoform

Zeoform guitar
Source: Zeoform

“Zeoform can also be made to different densities — from cork-like to as hard as ebony — resulting in a wide range of possibilities: home construction, plastics in the aviation and automotive industries, (and) musical instruments.”

I couldn’t find any information on the energy input necessary to make this product, so it’s hard to say what its final carbon footprint would be. It’s hardly the first plant-based plastic, but the lack of toxic ingredients is a major step forward.

Even if it would take longer than most of us can imagine, massive success of any manufacturing technology based on waste would, at some point, ideally run out of ‘raw’ materials when the waste runs out (yes, an unlikely scenario, but it’s nice to dream).

That wouldn’t be a problem for Zeoform plastic, which can use plant fiber when needed.

An interesting product, and one to watch.

Zeoform chair Image: Zeoform

Zeoform chair
Image: Zeoform

Renewable Spring

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Polyethylene strand

Polyethylene strand

In the spirit of eternal renewal, on this first day of spring I thought I’d talk about plastics. Infinitely adaptable, modern plastics are integral to modern life more than almost any other material. Plastics are the very stuff of modernity. Take away the excessive packaging, the unnecessary plastic bags, the plastic drink bottles and even the plastic baby diapers (none of which will ever really leave us, long after we have stopped producing and using them), we would still have a life based on some kind of plastic.

What is one of the best ways to know we are watching a film about old-timey times, or to make light of a backward culture? Everything is made or being done with wood, metal, horn, stone. No plastics.

A 17th-century definition of plastic describes something that is “capable of shaping or molding,” from Latin plastics, and from Greek plastikos “able to be molded, pertaining to molding, fit for molding.” Our human inventiveness has demanded nothing less than materials which can be shaped to our demands. It has only been during the last fifty years that the term ‘plastic’ has come to mean ‘false’ or ‘artificial’ in a perjorative sense.

We used to produce plastics that were based on natural materials we could mold. Horn, and later hard rubber. But, like all natural things, these have the tendency to break, to deteriorate, to lose their form.

So we adapted, and made better plastics. And now here we are, with a vast array of plastics based mainly on polyethylene, a material that is made from one of our other favorite elements of modernity, petroleum. Not only do we have plastics that do whatever we want them to, we also have them forever because even when are finished with them, they are not finished with us. We have mountains of plastic trash on land, vast , island gyres of plastics in the oceans, plastic molecules in our water and in our food.

It is impossible to think away plastics, no matter their immense downstream costs. At an annual production rate of 80 million metric tons (2008), plastics are big business, and they make big business possible wherever they are used.

Still: We can cut down our production and consumption, even if that process tends to come up against our stony stubbornness as humans rather than our plastic adaptability. We can find new materials to mold to our needs, ones that are lasting but also fall into their respective components after a reasonable amount of time has passed.

So, on this vernal equinox of 2013, I salute our ongoing ability to renew, to mold and adapt our expectations, to grow and find our way ahead even after a long, dark winter.

Oceans of GarbageVia: stokereport.com

Oceans of Garbage
Via: stokereport.com

 

More:

Plastics Are Forever website

TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered – Plastic Eating Bacteria

Mother Jones Magazine article – Biodegradable Plastics

Addicted to Plastic (documentary preview)