Thursday, September 18, 2014

One man might free the world from new plastic. Forever. #2014Cleanup #ocean #eco

What if we could manufacture new products out of recycled plastic? Mike Biddle, the CEO of MBA Polymers, is trying to do just that. "We get so concerned with how our products are made, but we don't seem to care how we are unmaking our stuff," he says.

Mike not only recycles plastic, he strips it down to its essence and reprocesses it into the basic building blocks–or nurdles if you’ve read Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch–which he sells back to manufacturers of electronics, coffee machines, and vacuum cleaners, to name a few.

Profiled in the March 2014 of Popular Science, Biddle's vision is to create a worldwide market for high-grade recycled plastic. Most recycled plastic becomes a lower-grade plastic. i.e. a recycled water bottle never becomes a water bottle again, but might show up in a polar fleece blanket or your carpet. 

With Biddle's model, plastic from a laptop is reduced to its purest form and sold back to an electronics company to make another laptop. 

MBA Polymers recycles more than 125,000 tons of trash a day. His plant shreds, cleans, and grinds the waste plastic into confetti-sized bits. These bits then travel through a secret closed-loop recycling process that removes ferrous and non-ferrous metals; sorts the material by weight; sorts plastics by chemistry; and sorts plastics by color.

In 2007, Biddle was named an Earthkeeper Hero, an honor previously awarded to Jacques Cousteau, Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall. He is also the founder of the Plasticity Forum, an influential dialogue on our world of plastic.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Kids care for polar bears to learn to be eco-friendly #5thchat #4thchat #scichat #STEM #plasticpollution

For the last several weeks on this blog, we've discussed plastic debris floating in the five gyres in the world's ocean and the need to reduce our single-use plastic consumption. (Need to catch up? Visit the Ocean Plastic discussion.) But how do we demonstrate for children that our real world actions have consequences for the environment?

A game, of course! In this case, HABITAT -- a touch-based game for Android and iOS phones and tablets that shows kids, ages 8-12, how their everyday actions can protect the environment. 

In the game, kids care for a polar bear in Glacier Park, the fictitious world of HABITAT. Similar to the Tamagotchi persistent-play model of the '90s, kids feed, groom and provide enrichment for their bear to keep it healthy. But HABITAT is unique because it encourages an actual change in behavior that promotes environmental responsibility.

Kids perform real world missions that help reduce their water consumption and carbon emissions, and preserve native habitat. The missions are categorized as "Speedy Missions" or "Five Day Missions." Speedy missions might include turning off unused lights or turning off the tap while brushing your teeth. The environmental benefits of these real-word choices are calculated with algorithms from the Integrated Sustainability Analysis (ISA) team in the School of Physics at Sydney University in Australia. The team at the Centre for Research on Computer Supported Learning and Cognition (CoCo) investigates the ways in which learners use the game.

After you read Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to your kids or students, download the HABITAT app. Using HABITAT children will see the link between their actions and our environment, which may in turn make it easier to convince them (and you!) to reduce plastic consumption.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Devil" creatures riding plastic. Are they killing coral reefs? #scichat #STEM #enviroed

If you've read Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Millbrook Press) you know that plastic from rivers and beaches flows to sea on currents that distribute plastic all over the ocean. In the Pacific, that means the plastic is trapped in the North Pacific Gyre or perhaps deposited on the tropical beaches of Hawaii. Miriam Goldstein, one of the trash detectives profiled in Plastic, Ahoy!, studied the rafting community or the marine organisms that hitchhike on floating debris. This debris could be natural, such as logs and feathers, or man-made, such as plastic.

"Devil" pathogens that infect coral
After her 2009 SEAPLEX journey, Miriam calculated 100 times more plastic in the ocean than there was in 1970. The sheer abundance of plastic in our ocean creates increased opportunity for marine organisms to travel to places they don't belong. 

In a new paper, Miriam and her colleagues studied hundreds or organisms gathered on the 2009 cruise. They counted organisms from 95 different taxa and 11 phyla (some great vocab for science students!). The scariest by far is not a scaly sea monster with pointed teeth, but a single-celled ciliate called Halofolliculina. In a blog post for Deep Sea News Miriam describes the creature as "about the size of a sesame seed with teeny tiny devil horns. (They are actually pericytostomial wings, not devil horns, but I won’t tell if you don’t.) My collaborators Hank Carson and Marcus Eriksen found these little buggers living on plastic debris floating way offshore in the western Pacific, which wouldn’t be terrifying in itself since a lot of strange critters live on plastic debris But Halofolliculina is a pathogen that causes skeletal eroding band disease in corals, and this piece of debris was headed towards Hawaii." Skeletal eroding band (SEB) disease damages the coral's outer tissue and exposes the fragile skeleton. It has been reported in 82 species of corals according to the Global Coral Disease Database.

Goniastrea edwardsi with a small focal lesion caused by
the ciliate 
Halofolliculina corallasia, which is eroding
the tissue and skeleton. The black specks are
embedded loricae or tests of the ciliate.
Photo: Andrew Bruckner
Global Coral Disease Database]
There is no direct evidence to indicate that plastic brought skeletal eroding band disease to Hawaii, but it remains a possibility. Equally unsettling is our lack of information on how the various hitchhiking organisms affect the open ocean. As I say in Plastic, Ahoy!, "Miriam wondered if these hitchhikers could change the food chain--the who eats whom--in the gyre. Zooplankton are a critical link in the food chain. But they are not naturally plentiful in the gyre. What would happen if there were not enough to go around?"

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Science is getting to poke at cool things." An interview w/ocean plastic trash detective #3rdchat #4thchat #5thchat #6thchat

Watch the trailer
To celebrate World Ocean Day, I caught up with Miriam Goldstein, head trash detective in Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Soon after the SEAPLEX expedition chronicled in my book, Miriam graduated with her Ph.D. from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Where is she today?

Patricia Newman:  How did the 2009 SEAPLEX voyage affect your career in science?

Miriam Goldstein:  SEAPLEX pretty much launched my science career. It was an enormous privilege to be able to organize and lead such a huge project while still a graduate student. SEAPLEX data formed the base of my Ph.D. research, and continues to be used in Scripps plastic pollution research. I have also used SEAPLEX communications - the work that Annie and Mario did throughout the voyage - to show how excellent communication could get the public involved in scientific research. And also, it was on SEAPLEX that I fell in love with the open ocean, and with the North Pacific Gyre in particular. 

PN:  In your opinion, what are the next steps to studying ocean plastic?

MG:  We now have a much better idea of just how pervasive plastic pollution is throughout the world ocean, and of the many organisms that are affected by it. I think the next step is understanding how the vast quantities of plastic floating around in the ocean are affecting the ocean's chemical cycling. Does plastic change how the ocean takes up carbon, or how nutrients move around the food web? 

PN:  You left the sea for a stint as a legislative fellow for Knauss/SeaGrant. How did that work relate to ocean plastic? And where do you hope that work will take you?

MG:  After I finished my graduate work on ocean plastic and got my Ph.D., I moved to Washington DC to work as a Sea Grant fellow on ocean, fishery, and wildlife issues for then-Congressman now-Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. I discovered that I really loved working on policy for Congress, so when my fellowship was over at the end of January, I was delighted to have the opportunity to join Congresswoman Jackie Speier's office as a Legislative Assistant. Congresswoman Speier represents the southern part of the San Francisco Peninsula, with the Bay on one side and the ocean on the other, so it's a great place for a marine biologist. I don't do very much work directly related to ocean plastic, but almost everything issue touches on the ocean in one way or another. For example, energy issues touch on climate change, which is having a profound effect on sea life through rising temperatures and through ocean acidification. I don't know where my career path will ultimately lead, but I am certainly enjoying the ride!

PN:  What is the most important finding (in your opinion) to come out of your SEAPLEX voyage since PLASTIC, AHOY!’s publication?

MG:  As of now, six scientific papers have been published using SEAPLEX data, and one more - the one about the hitchhikers featured in PLASTIC, AHOY - is undergoing scientific peer review and will hopefully be published soon. I think the most important finding, which is not unique to SEAPLEX but that SEAPLEX research supports, is that plastic pollution is profoundly changing the ocean in unexpected ways. Just one example is our work on sea skaters, a little insect that lives on top of the ocean's surface. We didn't go to sea expecting to find that plastic was changing the way that sea skaters lay their eggs, but that is what we eventually found once we knew the right questions to ask. What other questions aren't we asking yet?

PN:  What encouragement would you give to elementary, middle, or high school students interested in science?

MG:  Science is getting to poke at cool things for a living, and it's fantastic! It takes a lot of work to discover something new, that no one has ever known before, but it's worth it. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Become a virtual trash detective. Join @Algalita's Ship-2-Shore program to ask scientists your #plastic questions

Watch the video trailer
One of the goals I established for myself when writing Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was to bring the science of trash closer to students. What is it like living and working aboard a research vessel 1,000 miles at sea with no land in sight? What do scientists do on board the ship for weeks at a time? What are they finding? And how does it affect me?

Beginning in July, we can communicate directly with the research vessel Alguita as the Algalita Marine Research Institute sets sail on a 30-day research expedition into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. "Ship 2 Shore is an interactive, web-based education program that links classrooms [and individuals] from around the world via satellite with scientists conducting cutting-edge research on plastic marine debris in the North Pacific Gyre."

That means you and I can follow daily updates from the research team and interact directly with scientists by sending questions and comments! Register today to get a front row seat on the excitement (remember, you don't have to be a teacher to register). 

And teachers, don't worry that your classrooms will miss out over the summer--Algalita is planning a fall extension.

Some important notes:
  1. R/V Alguita is scheduled to depart from Long Beach, California on July 1 (barring weather or mechanical delays).
  2. According to Marieta Frances, Algalita's executive director, "The return date is expected to be sometime around the end of August."
  3. Trash detectives will use drones to locate accumulation zones.
  4. A remote operated vehicle (ROV) built by high school students will be deployed on the voyage.
  5. Data from three previous expeditions will be compared to the 2014 samples to study how plastic moves through the water and new ecosystems that live on the floating plastic.
  6. Data from all four expeditions will be merged to study long term trends.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch? Not as easy as it sounds! #STEM #eco #ocean #plastic

When I first read about the Pacific Garbage Patch, my knee-jerk reaction was, "Why can't we clean it up?" Several other have had the same reaction, such as Dutch engineering student Boyan Slat (featured in a 2012 TED talk) and a retired UC Davis professor who wrote to me. 

The Ocean Cleanup by Boyan Slat
Boyan Slat's idea features a number of T-shaped collectors anchored to the sea floor that use the ocean's natural waves and currents to concentrate plastic. Instead of nets, Slat proposes a barrier-like boom that allows currents to pass under while capturing buoyant plastic. He estimates that each of the five ocean gyres can be cleaned in five years. 

Retired environmental chemist James A. Singmaster suggests, "Floating plastic in the Pacific Gyre could be scooped up and taken to, say Hawaii, where pyrolysis, the process to make charcoal, could be applied to it once dried, perhaps with a little pre-water washing to remove salt.  Pyrolysis will convert about 50% of the carbon present to inert charcoal with the other 50% being expelled much like a light oil well fluid.  That fluid can be burned for energy or refined like oil to get chemicals used to make drugs, detergents, glues, etc."

Any effort to address the plastic problem is worthy of congratulations, but not all ideas are created equal. I asked the three scientists featured in Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch what they thought about these proposals. Miriam Goldstein and Chelsea Rochman referred me to a guide they co-wrote for Marine Affairs Research Education (MARE) for would-be plastic cleanup inventors. In part, their guide advises:
  1. The surface area of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is approximately 20,000,000 square kilometers. Traversing the entire area would be a monumental undertaking. Addititionally, "in even the most densely polluted regions of the subtropical gyres, microplastics (particles smaller than 5 mm in size) are frequently present at concentrations of less than one piece per square meter, requiring extensive areal coverage to recover just one kilogram of plastic. Furthermore, average water depth of the open ocean is 4,000 meters (2.5 miles); therefore, any cleanup system relying upon moored structures must account for this extreme depth."
  2. Winds, storms, waves and currents mix the plastic below the surface of the water--a few meters in calm conditions to 150 meters in extreme conditions. Surface collection systems must account for this subsurface mixing.
  3. One of the goals of capturing plastic should be preserving marine life around it. "Most zooplankton, for example, do not survive being caught in a standard net, never mind spun in a centrifuge where they lose critical appendages like their antennae and feeding apparatus. A system that relies on nets or centrifuges will require engineered solutions to avoid or minimize these effects." Additionally, indirect environmental impacts, such as fuel from clean-up vessels or incinerators at sea, should be considered.
  4. Entangling sea life/sea birds in cleanup systems is not acceptable.
    Velella velella jellies and microplastic
     (Photo by Annie Crawley)
  5. Cleanup systems must withstand extreme weather conditions all too common in the open ocean.
  6. How will ocean cleanup systems be maintained? How will companies promoting ocean cleanup systems address the organisms who "raft" on the mechanisms (much like they hitchhike on floating logs, feathers, or plastic).
  7. The recycling value of the plastic collected may be low, because the chemical components degrade in the ocean over time. Upcyclers are few and far between.
  8. "There are extensive laws and regulations governing the deployment of equipment at sea. For example, structures cannot be a hazard to navigation or a threat to protected species. In the U.S., multiple permits from state and/or federal agencies may be required for cleanup devices. The permitting process is lengthy, onerous, and expensive, and may require specialized legal consultation."

Of course, the best way to clean up the ocean is prevention--keep plastic from reaching the marine habitat. Read 10 Ways to Reduce Ocean Plastic This Earth Day and Everyday

Monday, April 21, 2014

10 ways to reduce ocean plastic this #EarthDay2014 (& everyday) #saveourseas #marineconservation

Several million tons of plastic trash floats in the ocean. Chemical additives on the plastic leach into the water. Marine creatures eat the plastic junk food and starve. The search for Malaysian flight #370 was hampered by ocean garbage. Let's make Earth Day 2014 the day we change our habits! Start with these easy suggestions:

1.  Instead of cracking open another plastic water bottle, purchase a stainless steel bottle that you can refill from the tap (or water cooler at work) each day.

2. Need a doggie bag at a restaurant? Ask for foil or a cardboard box (which can be rinsed and recycled)  rather then Styrofoam (which cannot be recycled).

3. Shopping for clothes? Say NO to the plastic bag. Ask for paper or bring your own bag. Better yet, carry the item(s) to your car without a bag.

4. Plastic bags are the default at grocery and discount department stores. Say NO! Bring your own reusable bags. 

5. Purchase products made from upcycled materials, such as purses, flip flips, and even recycle bins. (Read my blog post about upcycled materials.)
Watch the video trailer

6. The weather is finally warming up. Rather than reaching for plastic plates and utensils for your cookouts, celebrate with compostable picnic supplies (plates, cups, and utensils, napkins).

7. At parties, provide a large pitcher of water and reusable (or compostable) cups rather than plastic water bottles.  

8. Are you taking advantage of your county/city recycling program? If you are, your recycling container should be more full than your trash container!

9. Ditch the plastic cup and lid on your morning Starbucks run. Bring a reusable mug.

10. Read Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for the lowdown on ocean plastic.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"Make science relevant and relatable," says PLASTIC, AHOY! trash detective. #scichat #5thchat #6thchat #GirlsinSTEM #STEMchat

I had the opportunity to catch up with one of the scientists in Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Darcy Taniguchi graduated with her Ph.D. from Scripps Institute of  Oceanography soon after Plastic, Ahoy! went to print. Where is she today? What's new in her scientific world? Read on to find out.
Watch the video trailer

Patricia Newman: How did the 2009 SEAPLEX voyage affect your career in science?

Darcy Taniguchi:  SEAPLEX was a wonderful experience that influenced me in many ways.  It made me more aware of always trying to make my science relevant and relatable to other scientists and to the public at large. It also helped me gain valuable experience performing work on board a ship in a moving laboratory and working with an amazing group of people.

PN:  What are you currently working on?  

DT:  I'm currently a postdoctoral researcher, having been awarded the NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship. In this position, I'm looking more closely at the interactions and dynamics of plankton, particularly the single-celled organisms (called microzooplankton) that eat phytoplankton. My ultimate goal is to implement my knowledge of plankton interactions in a global model that includes both biological and physical factors and examine the distribution and abundances of plankton all over the globe.  This research has implications for how the base of the food web may change under various different climate conditions.

PN:  How did you feel about having to put aside your SEAXPLEX data in favor of a different course of study? Do you know if anyone at Scripps has studied your SEAPLEX data?

DT:  While I am very interested in my current research and the course my work has taken, I am also saddened that I was not able to pursue my SEAPLEX research, given all the effort that was put into setting up this great expedition and collecting the data.  I don't believe any one else is explicitly using the SEAPLEX data that I collected, but I remain hopeful that someone someday may be able to or that I can myself sometime in the future.

PN:  What is the most important finding (in your opinion) to come out of your SEAPLEX voyage? Since Plastic, Ahoy!'s publication (say Feb. 2013 which is when the manuscript was completed)?

DT:  One of the most important things to come out of SEAPLEX is the general attention it has created concerning our oceans. SEAPLEX has not only brought into the public eye that the oceans are being polluted but also that it is due to human actions and that we can make a difference, either for better or for worse. There has been so much outreach associated with SEAPLEX, not the least of which is PLASTIC, AHOY!, that helps send a message to a large audience about the impacts we humans have on our oceans, no matter how remote or vast they may seem. The realization of the influence this expedition has had was recently emphasized during my new research position. I was told that the plastic accumulating in the Pacific was the focus of a demonstration at an outreach event associated with MIT, and that they would like to continue that demonstration this year as well.  (I fully intend to help out as much as I can and help share my experiences.)  Even though this anecdote may seem small, it helped me realize that this voyage has had far-reaching influence.

PN:  What encouragement would you give to elementary, middle, or high school students interested in science?

DT:  I would like to tell aspiring scientists to never forget that science is fun, important, and relevant.  Those interested in science should pursue the field and maintain their enthusiasm. Whenever that excitement begins to lessen, they should remind themselves that science is interesting and has the potential to influence how we think about the world and what impact we have on it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A reading suggestion for Earth-conscious students #3rdchat #4thchat #5thchat #6thchat

Celebrate Earth Day with an author
Skype and save the ocean, too!

Details here.
Children's authors tend to be an Earth-friendly group, and my newest title, Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is in good company with others that demonstrate how human activities encroach upon the natural world with disastrous consequences.

While Plastic, Ahoy! focuses on plastic pollution in our ocean and its affects on marine life, Abayomi the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub by Darcy Pattison and Kitty Harvill illustrates how habitat loss effects Brazil's endangered cat. The human desire for more cars, more roads, more buildings, more food have decimated rain forests. Pumas, who in Pattison's beautiful prose "only walked abroad at night on silent paws," regularly come into conflict with humans raiding chicken coops or other livestock. A farmer traps the offending puma but grows impatient waiting for the proper authorities to safely transport the puma to another locale. This impatience leads to the death of the female puma with nursing cubs.
Darcy Pattison and Kitty Harvill
Mims House, 2014

Abayomi ends on a happy note, but human-wildlife conflicts are growing more popular in the rain forests of Brazil and Indonesia, and on the plains of Africa. Conflicts in which the animals almost always lose.

Pattison closes her story with startling facts about our increasingly urban world and the importance of establishing wildlife corridors to protect animals and plants. Lastly, Pattison provides young readers with links to some of these groups in addition to suggestions for further reading.

Do you have a favorite Earth-friendly title? Please share it with me.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Upcycling re-values & re-purposes trash. Artists who give the ocean a voice #3rdchat #4thchat #5thchat #6thchat

My research for Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch opened my eyes not only to the work in the scientific community, but to the artists who give the ocean a voice using upcycled materials. Here's a short list of just some of the talented people creating environmentally-friendly products and works of art by reusing plastic:
  • Earth It Up -- a nonprofit organization founded to divert waste and upcycle it for the benefit of
    Earth It Up's Capri Sun bags
    charitable organizations. Earth It Up takes items that would otherwise end up in landfills or the oceans and converts them into useful, interesting purses, totes and lunch bags. These include a line of Capri Sun lunch bags for school children and sophisticated Peet's and Starbuck's coffee purses that are carried by stylish, environmentally conscious women throughout the nation. Unlike some other organizations, Earth it Up! does not ship materials offshore (creating a larger carbon footprint), or use any 'sweatshop' manufacturing techniques. All of their products are hand sewn in California.
  • Trash for Peace -- Portland, Oregon native Laura Kutner went to Guatemala on a Peace Corps mission. Mountains of plastic trash littered the streets. Laura decided to build schools with it, motivating the community to band together and clean up it streets. A partner organization has since built 25 additional schools. Back home in Portland, Laura started a nonprofit organization that builds recycling bins from upcycled plastics. Trash for Peace also visits local schools to teach students about the plastic problem.
Trash for Peace recycle bin
  • During a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium I saw the work of two artists who are increasing awareness of plastic waste through their art by revaluing and re-purposing discarded plastic items. Alison McDonald's Message in a Bottle sculptures "create a dialogue about the negative and positive effects of plastic on our natural world." Sayaka Ganz created Laysan Albatross from cast-off remnants plastic. According to a plaque at the aquarium, "Ganz spent her early years in Japan, where Shinto beliefs teach that every object has a spirit, and an object discarded before its time weeps at night inside the trash bin."
One of the 12 Message in a Bottle 
sculptures by Alison McDonald at the 
Monterey Bay Aquarium. "The empty
space created by the cutwork kelp
suggests a negative impact, while 

the emerging kelp evokes hope for 
the oceans."
Laysan Albatross by Sayaka Ganz