Australia cuts plastic bag use by 80% in 3 months after supermarket ban

Australia's two largest supermarkets led the ban, which has so far prevented some 1.5 billion plastic bags from entering the environment.

  • The ban was led by the private sector, though several Australian states have banned single-use plastic bags.
  • Worldwide, more than 30 countries and two U.S. states have banned single-use plastic bags.
  • Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the U.S., recently announced plans to phase-out plastic bags by 2025.

The decision by Australia's two largest supermarkets to ban plastic bags three months ago wasn't exactly well received. At Woolworths, sales slowed during the first few weeks as customers adjusted. The rivaling Coles supermarket began giving away reusable plastic bags for free, but then started charging for them, which angered shoppers and soon caused the chain to reverse course and resume its free-giveaway program.

It was a rocky start. But three months later Australia reports an 80 percent reduction in plastic bag consumption, a cut that kept as many as 1.5 plastic bags from entering the environment, according to Australia's National Retail Association.

Several Australian states have banned or plan to ban plastic bags, however the recent reductions were brought by the private sector.

"Retailers deserve an enormous amount of cudos for leading the way on one of the most significant changes to consumer behavior in generations and we also applaud shoppers for embracing this environmental initiative," said NRA Manager of Industry Policy David Stout. "Indeed, some retailers are reporting reduction rates as high as 90 per cent."

At least 32 countries have banned single-use plastic bags, according to ReuseThisBag. In the U.S., California and Hawaii have bans in place, and similar laws are on the books in cities such as Austin, Chicago and Boston, while shoppers in Washington, D.C. pay extra for plastic bags.

In the private sector, Whole Foods did away with plastic bags in 2008, and now offers a discount to shoppers who bring their own reusable bags. Kroger, America's largest grocery chain, recently announced its plan to phase-out single-use bags by 2025.

​Plastic bags and the environment

After a plastic bag is used—typically only once and for about 12 minutes—it's far more likely to end up in a landfill, ocean or on the side of the road than it is in a recycling center. Even when bags do make it to recycling centers, the process isn't exactly efficient: Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs about $4,000, but the recycled product can be sold for only $32, according to the Clean Air Council.

Plastic bags are also one of the most common sources of debris found in ocean cleanups, and it's estimated that littered plastic bags kill about 100,000 animals every year.

​Paper or plastic?

Since their introduction in the 1970s, plastic bags have become the default choice for both shoppers and businesses worldwide, mainly because they're cheaper to produce and easier to handle than paper bags. Some people believe paper bags are better for the environment, but that's wrong on most metrics:

  • Paper production emits more air pollution
  • Paper bag production consumes four times more energy, including three times the water, than making a plastic bag
  • Paper bags account for more solid waste
  • Paper bag recycling is inefficient, often taking more energy than it would to make a new bag

Still, considering reusable bags are by far the best option in terms of the environment, the best answer to the "paper or plastic" question is neither.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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