A Mutant Bacteria That Breaks #Plastic Down?

Of course, that would be a good thing:

A mutant bacterial enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles for recycling in hours has been created by scientists.

The enzyme, originally discovered in a compost heap of leaves, reduced the bottles to chemical building blocks that were then used to make high-quality new bottles. Existing recycling technologies usually produce plastic only good enough for clothing and carpets.

The company behind the breakthrough, Carbios, said it was aiming for industrial-scale recycling within five years. It has partnered with major companies including Pepsi and L’Oréal to accelerate development. Independent experts called the new enzyme a major advance…[snip]

…“It makes the possibility of true industrial-scale biological recycling of PET a possibility. This is a very large advance in terms of speed, efficiency and heat tolerance,” McGeehan said. “It represents a significant step forward for true circular recycling of PET and has the potential to reduce our reliance on oil, cut carbon emissions and energy use, and incentivise the collection and recycling of waste plastic.”

Scientists are also making progress in finding biological ways to break down other major types of plastic. In March, German researchers revealed a bug that feasts on toxic polyurethane, while earlier work has shown that wax moth larvae – usually bred as fish bait – can eat up polythene bags.

But there is always a hitch:

Waste bottles also have to be ground up and heated before the enzyme is added, so the recycled PET will be more expensive than virgin plastic. But Martin Stephan, the deputy chief executive at Carbios, said existing lower-quality recycled plastic sells at a premium due to a shortage of supply.

And you can be sure as long as recycled plastic is more expensive to make (and buy) than virgin plastic, recycled plastic will struggle.

In fact, this is the sort of scientific discovery that reveals that there really are no technological silver bullets (and why breathless reporting on them is actually harmful). What really needs to happen is that governments need to take the initiative to re-price plastic, so that its cost better reflects the environmental impact it inflicts on our health and on the oceans, which will also make recycled plastic more competitive. If that happened, both manufacturers and consumers would get a lot more careful about making, marketing and using plastic.

Pricing social, health and environmental impacts into all sorts of products is the one silver bullet that really could change what is made, how it is made, and what is purchased, and start to slow the relentless pollution and destruction that results from rampant consumption and worshipping the  God Of Convenience. That is the real breakthrough we should all demand.

Weekend Reads/Listens/Watches

First, old growth forests are not just beautiful and mystical. They are also a key, writes Brooke Jarvis, to fighting climate change. (Related Bonus Read: the importance of animal poop in tropical rainforest).

Next, a podcast all about the wolves of Yellowstone because the wolves of Yellowstone have so much to say to us.

Last, a PBS documentary called Plastic Wars, because plastic is killing the planet and we really have no idea what to do about it.

Why Do Marine Animals Eat So Much Plastic?

It doesn’t just look like food. It smells like it too. Via NatGeo:

Algae are consumed by krill, a small crustacean that is the primary food source for many sea birds. As algae breaks down naturally in the ocean, they emit a stinky sulfur odor known as dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Sea birds in the hunt for krill have learned that the sulfur odor will lead them to their feeding grounds.

It turns out that floating plastic debris provides the perfect platform on which algae thrives. As the algae breaks down, emitting the DMS odor, sea birds, following their noses in search of krill, are led into an “olfactory trap,” according to a new study published November 9 in Science Advances. Instead of feeding on krill, they feed on plastic.

So humanity’s plastic debris is the perfect poison once it is in the ocean. Recycle, recycle, recycle. or don’t buy it in the first place (the ideal solution but I have tried avoiding plastic and it is NOT easy).

This is from Chris Jordan’s powerful campaign (which also produced the picture above) to help protect albatrosses from plastic debris:

Oceans Of Plastic

This stuff is ashore so it doesn’t even count.


Dr. Evil, who deals only in millions, would be shocked by this:

A major new study of the world’s oceans has reached a shocking conclusion: Thanks to humans, there are now over 5 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than 250,000 tons, floating in water around the world.

With a global population of about 7.2 billion, that’s nearly 700 pieces per person.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One by Marcus Eriksen of the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles and a large group of colleagues, is based on data from 24 separate ocean expeditions, conducted between 2007 and 2013, to sample plastic pollution. Plastic was either observed from boats, or hauled up from the ocean by nets, in 1,571 locations. The data were then used to run an ocean model to simulate the amount and distribution of plastic debris.

That’s a nearly incomprehensible amount of plastic. What’s worse, though, is that there is probably a lot more than that:

The authors stress that they suspect their estimate is “highly conservative” — there could be a lot more plastic out there than that. For as they note, there is also a “potentially massive amount of plastic present on shorelines, on the seabed, suspended in the water column, and within organisms.”

In particular, the authors cite a figure from the trade group Plastics Europe, which suggests that 288 million tons of plastic are produced annually. Compared to a figure like this, the 250,ooo tons described in this study represent “only 0.1 % of the world annual production” — again underscoring that the numbers reported in the study, large though they are, are probably a low end estimate.

The American Chemistry Council responded to the study by stressing the importance of recycling. Okay, hard to argue. But with these sorts of stories about humanity laying waste (literally) to the planet, I keep coming back to the same thing. Consumables need to be priced differently, to reflect their environmental impact and cost. Adopting that approach–which is the only thing that radically changes industry and consumer behavior–is really the only hope of limiting human impact on the planet.

In the meantime, I will put plastic alongside the internal combustion engine as a two-edged human invention that created wealth and progress while simultaneously destroying natural capital.

Breaking: Ocean Trash Cleanup Solved?

Who says humans can’t come up with a workable device for cleaning plastic and garbage from the ocean? I’d say this dude, who has affixed a net to his SUP paddle, has nailed it, no?


The EnviroNet is about 10 inches long and six inches wide and temporarily attaches to any paddle using a bungee cord. It’s easy to use and doesn’t interfere with paddling. All paddleboarders have to do is fasten the net to the paddle, put a basket on their board to put the trash in and they are all set to clean up the coast.

Since inventing the EnviroNet, Captain Macias has made it his mission to pick up more trash and recruit others to help him. He even made a pledge not to cut his beard until he collected 2,200 pounds of ocean trash! Nine-inches of facial hair later (about a year in real time), he made his goal.

Just need a few million SUP-ers to adopt this thing and we might see a dent in the problem. And a lot of long beards.

Forget Godzilla. What About Japanese Tsunami Debris?

Already on Hawaiian beaches, and in Hawaiian ocean life. And coming soon to a west coast beach near you. It’s like a malign Butterfly effect.

Here’s CNN:

In her lab, Jantz sliced open the stomach of a lancetfish for CNN. You may never have heard of the lancetfish, a sometimes 4- to 6-foot long fish with enormous teeth. But bigeye and yellow fin tuna eat lancetfish. Tuna ends up on our plates.

Jantz pulled out a 12 by 12 piece of indigestible black plastic. “It would be difficult to pass through the system,” said Jantz. “I’ve found several fish with the same black plastic bag, just like this, even larger. If it gets to a certain size, the fish is going to feel like it’s full.”

Jantz conducted a study that included 64 fish of varying species. Twelve percent of them, she said, contained plastic. When she looked just at lancetfish, 45% had plastic. “One concern that we have and don’t know is if any chemicals from the plastic are absorbed into the tissue of the fish, which is a problem if consumed by a fish that we consume. That’s definitely the next step, what is the impact?”

Across the island in David Hyrenbach’s lab, the impact of plastic debris is apparent among the animal species he studies: birds. Hyrenbach cut open the bellies of some albatross for CNN. Plastic pieces spilled out of the belly of a 2-month-old albatross. Eighty percent of the stomach was packed with plastic.

Hyrenbach, an assistant professor of oceanography at Hawaii Pacific University, pulled out a small bottle top. “Toothpaste top?” he said. “No, cap of a medicine tube.” He reached into the stomach again. “Oh, it’s a brush, you see?” There were the unmistakable bristles of a hairbrush.

“Morally, this is terrible. How is this possible? Majestic, far ranging, beautiful birds, in a pristine place of the pacific, the northwest Hawaiian islands, you open them up and this is what you find,” said Hyrenbach.

He grabbed a box, packed with toy soldiers, lighters and brushes. He explained that he pulled all the items out of albatross from Hawaii. “Every bird I looked at had plastic. Some had a little bit. Some had a lot. Everybody we looked at had plastic.”

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Garbage On The Garbage Patch

Here’s a classic example of a completely failed, even fraudulent, attempt at counterintuitive journalism, courtesy of Gawker: “Lies You’ve Been Told About The Pacific Garbage Patch.”

Hmm, how do the editors deliver on that eyeball-grabbing, page-view-seeking, “lies” headline? Well, the easiest way, it seems, is to create a series of straw men, then knock them down and call them “lies.”

Like: this picture was not actually taken in the middle of the Pacific. Wow, really?

And: there is not actually a solid island of garbage in the Pacific, just an area with lots and lots of pieces of plastic. Phew, glad we got that straight.

And: all that plastic is not killing every marine species out there, just some. Thanks, that’s a relief.

Despite such distractions–denial-mongering in search of chump change–the real news rolls on:

(CNN) — A marine expedition of environmentalists has confirmed the bad news it feared — the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” extends even further than previously known.

Organized by two non-profit groups — the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the 5 Gyres Institute — the expedition is sailing from the Marshall Islands to Japan through a “synthetic soup” of plastic in the North Pacific Ocean on a 72-feet yacht called the Sea Dragon, provided by Pangaea Exploration

[snip]…Leading the expedition is Marcus Eriksen, a former U.S. marine and Ph.D student from University of Southern California. “We’ve been finding lots of micro plastics, all the size of a grain of rice or a small marble,” Eriksen said via satellite phone. “We drag our nets and come up with a small handful, like confetti — 10, 20, 30 fragments at a time. That’s how it’s been, every trawl we’ve done for the last thousand miles.”

Eriksen, who has sailed through all five gyres, said this confirmed for him “that the world’s oceans are ‘plasticized.’ Everywhere you go in the ocean, you’re going to find this plastic waste.”

“Will someone please be sure to mail my carcass to Gawker?”
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