from the world's big
Chemists develop fast-degrading plastic for cleaner oceans
The researchers hope to develop a no-trace plastic to curtail marine pollution and ghost fishing.
- Cornell University chemists have developed a polymer with the strength of industrial-grade plastics but degrades quickly in sunlight.
- They hope the plastic will one day be used to make fishing nets that leave no environmental trace.
- Their research joins other programs and initiatives aimed at restoring our oceans.
In popular imagination, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a concentration of trash adrift lazily on the ocean. It's an entire continent of tightly packed tires, Styrofoam, syringes, water bottles, trash bags, fishing nets, Tupperware, lost toys, missing sandals, and other detritus that looks like Waterworld as envisioned by Mad Max director George Miller.
But there's a more insidious reality to the Pacific Garbage Patch. It doesn't concentrate our garbage in a central, easy-to-find location. Rather, the oceanic gyres disperse it across millions of square kilometers, whirling it wherever the winds and waves take it.
This reality makes the challenge of cleaning the Pacific Ocean daunting, to say the least. As Dianna Parker, from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, said on the NOAA Ocean Podcast: "We did some quick calculations that if you tried to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean it would take 67 ships one year to clean up that portion."
One major source of this pollution is lost or abandoned fishing gear. Because these nets, traps, and trawls are made of industrial-grade plastics, they will take hundreds of years to degrade. During the interim, they will continue to scour the oceans in large tangled masses, chocking the waters and killing marine life as they go.
To reduce this source of marine pollution, Cornell University chemists have gone in a counter-intuitive direction: They've created a new plastic.
A lot of hard work for (hopefully) nothing
Commercial fishing nets are made of polymers that are strong but take hundreds of years to degrade.
The polymer is called isotactic polypropylene oxide, or iPPO for short. It was originally discovered in 1949, but for the past fifteen years, Bryce Lipinski, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University, and his team have been iterating on the plastic and discovered a new polymer chain with some unique properties.
Their iPPO has a comparable ultimate tensile strength to nylon-6,6, a sturdy and strong polymer that can maintain stability under adverse conditions. For this reason, nylon-6,6 is used in zip ties, engine parts, industrial applications, and, yes, fishing nets and ropes.
Unlike nylon-6,6 and other industrial-strength polymers, however, iPPO can readily degrade under the right conditions—those conditions being any wit sunlight.
"We have created a new plastic that has the mechanical properties required by commercial fishing gear. If it eventually gets lost in the aquatic environment, this material can degrade on a realistic time scale," Lipinski said in a release. "This material could reduce persistent plastic accumulation in the environment."
To test their hypothesis, the researchers placed a 93 kilodalton (kDa) sample of their iPPO beneath an LED floodlight. The light exposed the sample to a stream of ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 365 nanometers—a wavelength range within the band of solar ultraviolet light that passes through the atmosphere to reach Earth's surface.
After 30 days of constant exposure, the sample reduced to 21 kDa, or roughly a quarter of its original size. Control samples not exposed to ultraviolet light remained unchanged.
The team published their findings last month in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
The deadliest catch
A sea turtle caught in ghost gear.
Fishing nets and ropes produced with such a biodegradable polymer could moderate a major hazard of today's marine environments: ghost fishing.
Ghost fishing begins with lost or abandoned fishing gear. No longer under the control of fishermen, this gear, now known as "ghost gear" or "derelict fishing gear," drifts as flotsam or settles on coastal floors where it continues to serve its function of ensnaring fish and other marine animals.
A meta-analysis published in Fish and Fisheries estimates 5.7 percent of all fishing nets, 8.6 percent of all traps, and 29 percent of all lines become ghost gear each year. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative estimates the annual poundage to be 640,000 metric tons.
While fishing gear is designed to target certain species, without a fisherman to control it, ghost gear captures animals indiscriminately. Non-target species can often be caught, including protected species of turtles, seabirds, and whales.
Once caught, they often succumb to starvation, predation, or even cannibalism. Their bodies then attract other animals hoping for an easy meal, who in turn become enmeshed, creating a deadly and self-perpetuating cycle so long as the gear remains unrecovered.
Ghost fishing wrests an economic toll, too. Beyond the costs of replacing lost gear, ghost gear also culls the populations of species fishermen depend on for their livelihood.
As Lipinski notes in the release, the goal of his research is to develop a polymer that leaves no trace in the environment. Such a breakthrough may not end the dangers of ghost fishing. Nets and traps would still seize animals before they biodegrade into nothing. But such a polymer would drastically lessen the time such gear could hunt on its wayward path.
If iPPO could one day reach that goal, it could vastly improve environmental conditions in our oceans.
Not too late
Volunteers collect rubbish from the Aegean sea to protect biodiversity.
iPPO may one day improve the situation, but it is hardly a silver bullet. The gyre that creates Great Pacific Garbage Patch also sweeps up vast amounts of tiny microplastics—most too small to be seen with the naked eye yet will still last hundreds of years. These join fishing nets and everyday plastic items that wash out into the sea.
"[T]he bottom line is that until we prevent debris from entering the ocean at the source, it's just going to keep congregating in these areas. We could go out and clean it all up and then still have the same problem on our hands as long as there's debris entering the ocean," Dianna Parker said.
Again, the challenge is daunting. Yet many countries, institutions, and individuals are taking it head-on.
Last year, the Ocean Cleanup Project announced that its latest boom design was successfully capturing and collecting plastics from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The system uses the ocean's natural currents to sweep debris into the boom. Once fully operational, the system will be able to return plastics to land for recycling.
The United Nations has set its Sustainable Development Goal #14 to target marine conservation. One of its goals is to significantly reduce all marine pollution by 2025, with an emphasis on preventing land-based sources.
And a recent study in Nature found that the situation isn't hopeless. The researchers projected the recovery of damaged marine habitats by looking at past conservation interventions. They found that we could restore our oceans, resurrect dead zones, and reinvigorate marine species within 30 years. It would take a concentrated effort costing billions of dollars, but the potential rewards would be worth 10 times as much.
"Overfishing and climate change are tightening their grip, but there is hope in the science of restoration," Callum Roberts, study author and marine conservation biologist at the University of York, told the Guardian. "One of the overarching messages of the review is, if you stop killing sea life and protect it, then it does come back. We can turn the oceans around and we know it makes sense economically, for human well being and, of course, for the environment."
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Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.
- The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
- Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
- The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Seriously sustainable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDIzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjM4NTMzMX0.BCEfYnn6C3z1zUHIS38xOWjXktgamNBi5iyqklSMYK8/img.png?width=980" id="ea524" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="50533380eeb18eb5833b6b6aa3abec38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>Solar Foods makes Solein by extracting CO₂ from air using <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90356326/we-have-the-tech-to-suck-co2-from-the-air-but-can-it-suck-enough-to-make-a-difference" target="_blank">carbon-capture technology</a>, and then combines it with water, nutrients and vitamins, using 100 percent renewable solar energy from partner <a href="https://www.fortum.com" target="_blank">Fortum</a> to promote a natural fermentation process similar to the one that produces yeast and lactic acid bacteria.</p><p>When the company claims its single-celled protein is "free from agricultural limitations," they're not kidding. Being produced indoors means Solar Foods is not dependent on arable land, water (i.e., rain), or favorable weather.</p><p>The company is already working with the European Space Agency to develop foods for off-planet production and consumption. (The idea for Solein actually began at NASA.) They also see potential in bringing protein production to areas whose climate or ground conditions make conventional agriculture impossible.</p><p>And let's not forget all those <a href="https://www.bk.com/menu-item/impossible-whopper" target="_blank">beef-free burgers</a> based on pea and soy proteins currently gaining popularity. The environmental challenge of scaling up the supply of those plants to meet their high demand may provide an opening for the completely renewable Solein — the company could provide companies that produce animal-free "meats," such as <a href="https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/" target="_blank">Beyond Meat</a> and <a href="https://impossiblefoods.com" target="_blank">Impossible Foods</a>, a way to further reduce their environmental impact.</p>
The larger promise<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDI0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjU4MTg2OX0.7dZZYT5WEV_EupBuLVFwHynarTiz8RYR9aJtC6Ts2C4/img.jpg?width=980" id="3415d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e6eebe06d795f844752f9e9d30040d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>The impact of the beef — and for that matter, poultry, pork, and fish — industries on our planet is widely recognized as one of the main drivers behind climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and antibiotic-resistant illness. From the cutting down of rainforests for cattle-grazing land, to runoff from factory farming of livestock and plants, to the disruption of the marine food chain, to the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, it's been disastrous.</p><p>The advent of a promising source of protein derived from two of the most renewable things we have, CO₂ and sunlight, <a href="https://solarfoods.fi/environmental-impact/" target="_blank">gets us out of the planet-destruction business</a> at the same time as it offers the promise of a stable, long-term solution to one of the world's most fundamental nutritional needs.</p>
Solar Foods' timetable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MTEzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5OTU1OTMwMn0.wnXh56iO_77x2XKV2uIPf78BKw4AJLUpmiyq_JBVGvo/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=172%2C146%2C62%2C135&height=700" id="0297c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="125c9a98ec818f5c241fa28ef1423e67" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Lubsan / Shutterstock / Big Think<p>While company plans are always moderated by unforeseen events — including the availability of sufficient funding — Solar Foods plans a global commercial rollout for Solein in 2021 and to be producing two million meals annually, with a revenue of $800 million to $1.2 billion by 2023. By 2050, they hope to be providing sustenance to 9 billion people as part of a $500 billion protein market.</p><p>The project began in 2018, and this year, they anticipate achieving three things: Launching Solein (check), beginning the approval process certifying its safety as a Novel Food in the EU, and publishing plans for a 1,000-metric ton-per-year factory capable of producing 500 million meals annually.</p>
The protein powder Solein. Image source: SOLAR FOODS
SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.
- The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
- Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
- Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."
Pandemic-inspired housing innovation will collide with techno-acceleration.