Masks are great, but what happens when we try to throw out a billion masks at once?
- A new study suggests that the huge numbers of disposable masks we're using may end up polluting the environment.
- The materials used to make some of these masks may be especially disposed to break down into microplastic bits.
- Once those plastic bits get into the environment they end up everywhere, including inside people.
The face mask might be the quintessential image of this pandemic. Required attire for almost every activity taking place outside your home, masks are now made by high-end fashion companies in a variety of colors and will likely continue to be worn by many people even after COVID-19 is brought under control.
For those of us who aren't willing to shell out for a Louis Vuitton face mask, cheaper and often disposable options have become the norm. Many of these surgical masks are made of a combination of absorbent fabrics, polyester, and common plastics such as polypropylene or polystyrene.
Despite their life-saving qualities, the incredible consumption of these masks is likely to create a new problem: what to do with the plastics in them as we toss them aside after use. A new study suggests that this might be a bigger problem than we expect.
Remember all that “Nature is healing” stuff from last year? It didn't last long.
Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, poses with discarded face masks he found on a beach in the residential area of Discovery Bay on the outlying Lantau island in Hong Kong.
Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images
According to recent studies, humanity is going through 129 billion face masks a month, which works out to three million a minute. While we go through a lot of plastics in a month, the number of plastic bottles we use has been estimated at 43 billion a month, a large fraction of those have well-known guidelines around them promoting recycling.
Such information doesn't exist for masks, making it likely that most of them are ending up in the trash.
Like any other object with plastic in it, improper disposal can cause the plastic to enter the environment. Where the tiny bits of plastics spread into water and soil before eventually working their way into animals. The authors of this study, doctors Elvis Genbo Xu of the University of Southern Denmark and Zhiyong Jason Ren of Princeton, argue that the specifications of these masks make them particularly likely to contribute to plastic pollution:
"A newer and bigger concern is that the masks are directly made from microsized plastic fibers (thickness of ~1 to 10 micrometers). When breaking down in the environment, the mask may release more micro-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk plastics like plastic bags. Such impacts can be worsened by a new-generation mask, nanomasks, which directly use nano-sized plastic fibers (with a diameter smaller than 1 micrometer) and add a new source of nanoplastic pollution."
At the moment, no data on how much masks have contributed to the amount of plastic in the environment exists.
The authors suggest that there are steps to be taken to prevent this problem from getting out of control. They include helping people switch from disposable plastic masks to reusable cloth ones, inventing biodegradable masks, designating special disposal areas for masks, and standardizing waste processing procedures concerning these plastics.
Why should we care?
Plastic pollution is pretty terrible for the environment. Animals can confuse small bits of plastic for food, consuming it instead of something nourishing and starving to death as their stomachs fill. The chemicals in plastics can also cause various ailments if consumed, even if the amount eaten isn't enough to kill the animal.
Before you say that you don't care about fish, birds, or any other kind of wildlife, remember that studies are finding ever-increasing amounts of plastic in people, too. Many of the chemicals in these plastics are associated with health risks, including cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
The benefits of face masks are beyond debate, but the side effects of throwing out so many disposable masks may prove to be quite terrible if we're not careful.
More evidence that we're drowning in microplastic particles.
- Italian researchers have discovered microplastic particles in human placenta.
- Out of six collected placentas, four contained colored plastic microparticles.
- That petrochemical pollutants are present in such a critically important organ is alarming.
For the last few years, researchers have become increasingly alarmed at the degree to which microplastics—bits of plastic that are smaller than 5 millimeters in length—have invaded, well, basically everywhere and everything. In 2018, a small sampling of eight people from around the world found that all eight of them had microplastics in their stools; another study that same year found microplastics up and down the marine food chain. Researchers in 2019 found them in 100 percent of the whales, dolphins, and seals tested. Now a new study has found microplastics in human placentas, meaning that humans are now being exposed to bits of petrochemical waste as early as the womb.
The new research is published in the journal Science Direct.
The authors of the Italian study collected placentas from six mothers. They did this in a plastic-free environment so as to avoid contamination. Doctors and midwives wearing cotton gloves performed the collection from mothers covered only in cotton towels. Metal clippers and scalpels were used.
The six placentas were evaluated using microspectroscopy. Samples from four of the placentas contained colored microplastics. A total of 12 pieces, between 5 and 10 micrometers, were collected — at this size, the contaminants were small enough to be carried in the mother's or child's bloodstream.
Considering that the samples constituted just about 4 percent of the organs, it's reasonable to suspect that the researchers' findings represent just the tip of the iceberg.
Four of the pieces were found in tissues on the maternal side, the outside of the placenta, and five were found in the space in which the fetus had been. The remaining three were located in the fine membrane wall surrounding the amniotic fluid in the placenta.
All of the microplastics were colored, dyed red, blue, orange, and pink, but beyond that the researchers were only partially able to identify the materials with greater specificity, writing, "All of them were pigmented; three were identified as stained polypropylene a thermoplastic polymer, while for the other nine it was possible to identify only the pigments, which were all used for man-made coatings, paints, adhesives, plasters, finger paints, polymers and cosmetics and personal care products."
Understanding how the microplastics found their way in the mothers' placentas is beyond the scope of the research, but there's plenty of evidence that plastics are everywhere, from the products we use to the air we breathe, and so on. One study found that after babies are born, the infusion of microplastics begins right away— millions of particles a day are swallowed by infants drinking form plastic bottles.
Credit: Jonathan/Adobe Stock
A critical environment
The placenta plays a critical role in the development of a fetus, delivering nutrition and oxygen, handling waste disposal, and generally doing the job of keeping the fetus alive until its own organs develop enough to take over. The placenta also keeps the infant free of contaminants, or is supposed to, filtering out pathogens. It is also believed to be instrumental in facilitating the myriad chemical process involved in fetal development.
"Due to the crucial role of placenta in supporting the foetus's development and in acting as an interface with the external environment, the presence of potentially harmful plastic particles is a matter of great concern. Further studies need to be performed to assess if the presence of microplastics may trigger immune responses or may lead to the release of toxic contaminants, resulting in harm." — Ragusa, et al.
Study leader Antonio Ragusa, of the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome says, "It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities." He adds, "The mothers were shocked."
Chemists Elizabeth Salter Green tells The Guardian, "Babies are being born pre-polluted. The study was very small but nevertheless flags a very worrying concern."
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."
These compostable espresso pods are the eco-friendly way to get your caffeine fix.
- The coffee pod revolution saved us time and effort but has been horrible for the environment.
- The single-use plastics used in most pods sit in landfills for years.
- Fortunately, a new wave of eco-friendly compostable pods is coming to the market.
Between 2005 and 2018, the coffee pod market grew from less than 1 percent of Americans to over 41 percent. The trade-off for a quickly brewed and easy-to-clean espresso is the single-use, non-recyclable plastic each serving comes packaged in. While some companies have tried self-monitoring by offering their own recycling programs, most just languish in landfills.
Enter Woken compostable espresso pods. Coming in three delicious flavors—sweet and spicy Arabica; thick and woody Lungo; and strong, creamy Deciso—the pods completely break down in 90 days after use. Even better, the pods are responsibly sourced and chemical-free, adding an extra layer of guilt-free goodness to your daily java fix.
These pods work with most Nespresso® OriginalLine machines (though they are not affiliated with Nespresso®).
Getting your caffeine fix doesn't have to spell bad news for the environment. Right now you can purchase a 60-capsule mix of Woken compostable pods for only $29.99, a 25% discount off the manufacturer's price. Your taste buds, and the planet, will thank you.
Price subject to change.
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A new study says that it could be centuries before millions of the classic toys submerged in the Earth's seas disintegrate.
- A new study by researchers from the University of Plymouth estimates that it could be up to 1,300 years before LEGO pieces lost to the sea disintegrate.
- Researchers collected fifty LEGO pieces washed up on beaches in southwest England and compared them to archived blocks in their original condition.
- The classic children's toy is made of an incredibly durable material called acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a rock-solid polymer.
Shiploads of tiny LEGO blocks are floating about the Earth's seas, and a new study estimates that it could be up to 1,300 years before the seemingly imperishable plastic toys disintegrate.
In a study published in Environmental Pollution, researchers from the University of Plymouth collected fifty LEGO pieces from beaches in southwest England. The chemicals in the weathered samples were then compared to archived LEGO pieces in their original forms.
"Using measured mass loss of paired (weathered versus unweathered) equivalents and the age of blocks obtained from storage we estimate residence times of between about 100 and 1300 years for this type and thickness of plastic, with variations reflecting differences in precise additive composition and modes of weathering," the authors write.
How did so many LEGO’s get in the ocean?
So, why are there so many LEGOs at sea anyways? Well, kids, being kids, tend to flush them down the toilet. It's estimated that 2 million bits of LEGO have been lost to the sewage system. There was also the unfortunate LEGO-spill incident of 1997, when nearly 5 million pieces of the toy fell overboard on a container ship.
Organizations in the United Kingdom like Rame Peninsula Beach Care and the LEGO Lost at Sea Project have done their part to save thousands of the tiny plastic toys from beaches. But if you've ever had the experience of stepping on a LEGO brick, you know how sturdy they feel. This new research suggests that their mass and chemical make-up is truly close to indestructible. More likely than not, these blocks will be washing up on shores centuries from now. It's not entirely clear how these recently discovered LEGOs entered the ocean, but they do match up with toys sold in the 1970s and 80s. And although they have spent decades being weathered, weakened, and yellowed by the sea, researchers were shocked to find them still relatively intact.
"Lego is one of the most popular children's toys in history and part of its appeal has always been its durability," said the study's leader Andrew Turner from the University of Plymouth who studies the chemical properties of marine litter.
"It is specifically designed to be played with and handled, so it may not be especially surprising that despite potentially being in the sea for decades it isn't significantly worn down. However, the full extent of its durability was even a surprise to us."
The indestructible LEGO material
The classic children's toy is made of an incredibly unsustainable material called acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a rock solid polymer. LEGO, which has had to do some greenwashing PR over the years, has pledged to move to more sustainable materials by 2030. But in this case it's far too little and years too late. ABS is a somewhat new plastic material, and so we can't be sure what will really happen to them in the far future. But this recent study, and others like it, gives us an unsettling clue. And it is not awesome for sea ecosystems.
"Based on mass difference among paired samples that are about 40 years old we estimate residence times in the marine environment on the order of hundreds of years," the authors write. They also noted that their findings align with the dissolution expectancy of clear plastic bottles, which have devastated marine life.
"The pieces we tested had smoothed and discolored, with some of the structures having fractured and fragmented, suggesting that as well as pieces remaining intact they might also break down into microplastics," said Turner.
"It once again emphasizes the importance of people disposing of used items properly to ensure they do not pose potential problems for the environment."