Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Are PlantBottles "better" plastic? #scichat #STEM #eco #plasticpollution

Usually I buy orange juice in cardboard cartons to avoid plastic bottles, but one day my grocery store didn't have any more cartons, so I turned to the plastic bottles in the refrigerator. One brand bottled its juice in a plastic PlantBottle, and it started me wondering. What's a PlantBottle? Does it biodegrade? Is it more sustainable than petroleum-based plastic? The label says its recyclable, but are recycling centers treating the PlantBottles differently?

First off, I have to say that my research for Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has made me skeptical of biodegradable plastics. What are the by-products of the degradation process? How long does it take to degrade? Biodegradable plastic might be good news for our landfills, but it's not a license to toss trash on the streets or on the beach.

According to a three-part audio program out of Florida State University's media station WFSU (Part IPart II,  and Part III), a Georgia-based company is making biodegradable plastic from locally-grown canola seeds. Oil extracted from the seeds is fed to bacteria that turn the oil into plastic polymers. Good news, right? Plastic from something other than petroleum.

The CEO of Meridian Holdings Group (MHG), Paul Pereira envisions a closed-loop system. For example, MHG grows canola and harvests the seeds to crush into oil. The oil is sold to Chick-fil-A to fry french fries. The used cooking oil is returned to MHG to make plastic cutlery, bags, and containers for Chick-fil-A. The used cutlery, bags and containers decompose on the canola fields to nourish the soil. Again, sounds good, right?

The oil industry is, of course, worried about their profits. Recyclers have questions about the plant-based plastic mixing with their petroleum-based items. If bio-plastic is mixed with petro-plastic, will the quality of recyclable plastic be downgraded? Will the recyclers' loads be altogether rejected? If that happens, then our recycling industry suffers.

The question remains: is bio-plastic far enough along to replace petro-plastic? Probably not. And most of the plant-based bottles, bags, etc. are blended with petroleum-based plastic. For example, my orange juice bottle says "up to 30% made from plants," which implies that sometimes less than 30% bio-plastic is used. So picture this:  the one-third PlantBottle bobs along on ocean currents. Thirty percent will degrade quickly, but we're still left with 70% polluting the ocean.

I'm going to stick with cardboard cartons.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Marine Debris Removal 101 #plasticpollution #eco #scichat


Watch the trailer

Readers of Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch often ask why someone doesn’t try to clean up the ocean. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as it sounds, as explained in this previous blog post. The sheer size of the ocean garbage patches, the winds, storm, waves, and currents, and the marine life that either colonizes plastic or becomes entangled in it are just some of the difficulties plastic clean-up inventors face. 

In spite of these difficulties, some are trying to make their inventions work:

Baltimore's Trash Wheel
  1. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is home to a solar-powered device called the Trash Wheel. This new innovation picks up debris before it hits the Chesapeake Bay. Operating since May 2014, the wheel scoops up 25 tons of trash per day.  As of April 2015, the device has picked up 40,000 grocery bags, 84,000 plastic bottles, and 4.2 million cigarette butts.  
  2. Twenty-year-old Dutch inventor and entrepreneur Boyan Slat will attempt to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch this coming August. The expedition, which sails between Hawaii and Los Angeles, will send 50 vessels to collect more plastic in three weeks than has been collected in the past 40 years. Behind each vessel is a compact surface trawl will catch smaller plastic pieces. The Ocean Cleanup will use a 100km-long floating barrier that allows ocean currents to collect the plastic themselves.  Through the three-week expedition, explorers will measure the total mass of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as well as the distribution of plastic across the surface of the patch. 

But the hands-down best way to keep the ocean clean is to make sure trash never makes it out to sea. A simple way to reduce debris is to cut out disposable plastic straws. A straw is used for 20 minutes on average. And although it spends les than half an hour in our mouths, it spends several hundred years in a landfill. For the past 25 years, the straw is one of the top ten items found on beaches around the world. If you must use straws, consider reusable ones made out of glass, stainless steel, bamboo, and BPA-free plastic. Pledge to Take the Last Straw Challenge, and when you eat out, ask your waiter to omit the straw from your drink.

Are you ready for a few other ways to reduce your plastic consumption? Try these equally easy solutions to keep trash out of the ocean:
  • When ordering a pizza to-go, ask the waiter to hold the pizza table. That little piece of plastic that keeps the pizza from sticking to the top of the box.   The plastic doesn’t enhance the pizza in any way.
  • Request a cone for your ice cream. You won’t waste paper cups or plastic utensils.
  • Use solid or powdered products. Bar soap is just as effective as liquid soap, but it doesn’t use bulky plastic packaging.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rethinking our relationship with plastic #eco #worldoceansday #plastic


Ever since the 2009 Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastics Expedition (SEAPLEX) featured in Plastic, Ahoy: Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, more scientists have followed the SEAPLEX lead.

A 2010 study found that 275 million metric tons of trash was dumped in the patch from 192 coastal countries all over the world. From South Africa to the San Francisco Bay area, 15% to 40% of waste ends up in the ocean. China alone dumped almost five billion pounds of plastic in 2010.

Karen Lavender Law, a research professor of oceanography at Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, opened up in an interview on Public Radio International’s Science Friday about plastic waste in the oceans. Due to the alarming amount of plastic floating in the world’s oceans, she raises an important question: Will we soon be swimming in a sea of plastic?

The biggest contributors to the plastic waste crisis are developing countries with growing populations, such as China and Indonesia. The second biggest contributors are high-income countries (such as the U.S.) with large coastal populations that contaminate surrounding waterways. In addition to common plastic waste (such as water bottles and food containers), plastic garbage from natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, contribute to the excess litter. Micro beads found in toothpastes and face washes are too small to be trapped by waste-water treatment facilities and also find their way to our waterways.

The big problem is that plastic does not fully degrade. Instead, it turns into smaller and smaller bits, but the pieces don’t fully break down and disappear. Marine animals feed on plastic pieces that not only cause internal damage, but contaminate their tissues with harmful toxins found in the plastic. The plastic pieces also act as small sponges and absorb other toxins in the ocean. In addition, the plastic gives the animals the false feeling of being full.

Despite, plastic trash in the ocean, many people are taking the first steps towards a cleaner environment. Currently, sixteen restaurants in San Diego, CA have eliminated plastic in exchange for paper goods.

  • Instead of drinking water from plastic bottles, try Boxed Water; the BPA-free packaging will most likely decompose faster. 
  • In addition readers can challenge manufacturers to produce less plastic and to make their packaging more sustainable by writing letters and signing petitions. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Ocean ed resources help us help the ocean


When it comes to using plastic, kids and adults can help the environment. And there are several resources at your disposal--from hands-on activities to educational documentaries.

Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a compelling educational film that makes viewers want to make a difference. Director/writer Angela Sun is also an environmentalist with a particular interest the world’s oceans.  Growing up in California, she realized just how much debris is really in the water. Sun made a journey to the Midway Atoll, an area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is located halfway between the West Coast of the U.S. and the East Coast of Japan. A “garbage patch” exists in this area that some people claim is two times the size of Texas, although it’s never been scientifically measured as such.

Plastic in the Pacific Ocean kills marine birds and mammals. Bottles, cups, crates, shoes, toys, and even computer monitors all made of plastic live in this habitat. Large pieces of plastic that end up in the ocean photo degrade into smaller pieces that animals use for their next meal. While plastic is killing off animals, the problem is also passed on to us. When we eat fish, we run the risk of digesting harmful plastic chemicals.

Plastic contains several hazardous chemicals:  PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon), PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl), and DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) to name a few.  PAH, an oil and coal byproduct, can cause birth defects, childhood asthma, premature birth, behavioral problems, and heart malfunctions. PCB is a coolant/insulator that can cause cancer, miscarriage, low sperm count, premature birth, and cognitive impairment. DDT is a pesticide that causes cancer. Plastic nets found in the sea are another hazard for sea animals since the nets can trap and entangle them, killing the animals. While Plastic Paradise gives a grim, yet realistic and moving, outlook on the current states of many of the world’s oceans, there is still hope.

In addition to watching Plastic Paradise, there are numerous ways you can get involved:
  • Allow second-graders to be hands-on in their efforts to protect the ocean! Show young kids the hazardous effects of plastic in the oceans through two marine debris projects.  Humans are very connected and through two projects, students can connect their lives to animal lives. The first project demonstrates an animal’s entanglement in marine debris.  The second observes the ingestion of marine debris by teaching kids how plastic in the oceans have a deadly effect on sea life.
  • For middle-school students, a great interactive game allows them to virtually clean up Kure Atoll by collecting debris in a set time limit.  This helps kids understand the way debris affects the earth and get them to act off the computer.
  • High school students can see the detrimental effects of plastic ingestion by virtually dissecting Laysan albatross. Students can see how animals mistake plastic for food and the detrimental effects plastic has on sea life.
  • Perform these Trash Traits experiments to examine whether trash floats, blows in the wind, or washes away. Analyze the effects of characteristics on marine debris.  
  • The Litter Matching Game gets kids to match descriptions of marine debris to their images.
  • AllTangled Up examines and simulates wildlife entanglement through rubber bands.
  • A Degrading Experience allows learners to experiment with how different types of marine debris degrade in the sea. 

  • Visit Azula, an environmental website, with news on animals, humor, lifestyle, news, and video.
  • The Ocean Service website finds fish hotspots and maps coral reefs. The website also maps the Caribbean’s sprawling coral reef ecosystem.

 The most important lesson conveyed in the documentary and the activities is that there is still a bright future for the ocean. Despite the trash in the ocean, everyone can make an impact for the future by rethinking plastic and making sure that trash doesn’t hit the water in the first place.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

World Oceans Day is coming! #STEM #scichat #edchat #healthyoceans


June 8 marks the 14th annual World Oceans Day celebration. And everyone can get involved with these simple games, crafts, and clean-up activities from The Ocean Project!

One way to honor our ocean is by keeping the coasts clean. Plastic pollution is a huge threat to ocean animals, as they often mistake plastic goods for food.  As a result, they can choke and die because of the hazardous material. And the problem doesn't end with animals. Chemicals in plastic consumed by fish can travel through the food chain and land in human bodies.

According to Plastic Ahoy: Investigating The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, scientists found plastic in nearly one out of ten fish. Fish in the middle depths of the North Pacific eat approximately 12 to 24 thousand tons of plastic each year. Unfortunately, 80% of the plastic comes from land, especially from litter. And U.S. businesses and government spend a total of $11.5 billion dollars on keeping the coasts clean by picking up litter.

Simple changes to your habits can benefit the oceans:
  • Keep the coasts clean by not littering or cleaning up trash in or around the water. 
  • Limit the amount of plastic that you purchase and used in the first place. 
  • Replace plastic with more permanent products. For example, use metal washable utensils instead of plastic ones. Purchase reusable water bottles and refill them instead of purchasing plastic bottles that can end up where they shouldn't. Plastic, Ahoy! talks about similar strategies to reduce plastic waste. 
  • Carry washable storage containers to restaurants for leftovers. And use other washable utensils such as non-plastic mugs. 
  • Collect empty soda cans, plastic bottles, and glass bottles. Take them to the recycling center for a nice payday. 
Recycled crafts are great ways to reuse trash. Teens and adults can make crafts from used plastic bottles, glass bottles, aluminum foil and paper. Trashed bottles can be turned into crafty vases with paper decorations.

World Oceans Day promotes The Better Bag Challenge, which asks people to stop using plastic bags for a full year. Reuse cloth bags and cut down on plastic ones. Click the link to make your own pledge!

Making small changes to the way you use plastic greatly benefits the ocean.  Refuse and rethink plastic before it hits the water.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Rally Ss to take action against ocean plastic. Read Plastic, Ahoy! #ibpyp #ibmyp #ocean #plastic #edchat #scichat

Did you miss my Nerdy Book Club essay about how Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch morphed from children's book to call to action? 


Sac Bee, T Aug. 4, 2009 A11 (1)I didn’t plan to write a call to action. I planned to write a science book for kids about plastic accumulating in the North Pacific. But the project surprised me partway through, and took me in a new direction.
The idea for Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch began with an article in my local newspaper about graduate students who organized a research trip called the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastics Expedition (SEAPLEX). They wanted to study the growing plastic problem in the North Pacific Central Gyre—a massive area of open ocean surrounded by circling currents. SEAPLEX was one of the first expeditions to gather data from the gyre, and its story showed how science could be fun and relevant. The nonfiction author in me wanted to know more.
It's not too late (click here for more).

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What if it costs more, not less, to purchase a non-recyclable item built from a waste-based process? #scichat #Pledge4ThePlanet #IBMYP @thew2o

Consuming less plastic and recycling what we use are common refrains in the ongoing battle to clean up our ocean. But a recent World Ocean Radio broadcast, "Bad Trash to Good Cash," sheds new light on the subject.

As Peter Neill, Director of the World Ocean Observatory, so elegantly states, "What if we built a new economy on a recycling ethic, a price or tax structure built on the inherent value of re-use, the concept that an item is more valuable if it can be used longer or it can be re-used for a process and production that exploits and affirms its economic basis again and again in a cycle of maximum utility and return? What if it costs more, not less, to purchase a non-recyclable item built from a waste-based process?"

Just, think--perhaps with Neill's model in place we wouldn't have to pay more for recycled printer paper or recycled paper towels.

We can start small by stretching our creativity and thinking before we throw items away. How many different uses can we find for yogurt cups or tennis ball cans? I recycle nearly all of the plastic that comes through my life. Check out the list of recyclable plastics in your area. It's probably longer than you think.
Shopping bag made from recycled newspaper courtesy of an
artist in Czech Republic

I also take inspiration from an independent artist in the Czech Republic who made her own shopping bags from recycled materials instead of purchasing plastic bags. And from Maxime, a French exchange student visiting the U.S., who made a kangaroo-like pouch out of his t-shirt when his host family left the reusable grocery sacks in the car. According to Maxime, everyone in France carries their own shopping bags. Stores don't pack the food in plastic or paper bags. “If you forget your bags, then you just don’t shop or you carry the food in your arms,” he says.

Flip flop sculpture by Ocean Sole
Next, we could applaud (and buy from) cottage industries, such as Ocean Sole, which support recycling and sustainability. Ocean Sole packs a one-two punch because it re-purposes thousands of flip flops that wash up on Kenyan beaches each year into beautiful sculptures. The organization also helps it employees rise above subsistence-level living with secure jobs.

On an even larger scale, we applaud those with the ingenuity to create common objects from waste, such as Mike Biddle who strips plastic waste to its essence and re-purposes it to electronics and appliance manufacturers.

Peter Neill's economy based on a recycling ethic is achievable. How many other examples can you find where plastic waste is re-used and recycled to its maximum utility?

Friday, December 12, 2014

5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in ocean? New study drives home sobering point #eco #OurOcean2014 #scichat

Watch the trailer
In Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch I introduce readers to three pioneering female trash detectives who journeyed to the North Pacific Central Gyre to study plastic. Their 2009 Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastics Expedition (SEAPLEX) expedition was one of the first of many to set sail to study the plastic problem that poisons and entangles marine life.

In a recent study published December 10, 2014, scientists accumulated data from 24 such expeditions--a combination of 680 net tows and 891 visual survey transects. They estimate a startling total of 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in our world ocean that swirl around with the help of prevailing winds and surface currents. The pieces measure from .33 mm to over 200 mm.

A few other facts from the study:

  1. Scientists expected to see higher plastic counts in the northern hemisphere because of years of shipping and the litter associated with people moving across the ocean. Surprisingly, the amounts are about the same for the southern and northern hemispheres. Perhaps plastics are moved from gyre to gyre more easily than previously thought. Or perhaps additional sources of plastic pollution exist in the southern hemisphere that have not been accounted for.
  2. The authors of the study say, "The ultimate fate of buoyant microplastics is not at the ocean surface." A large proportion of plastic is lost from the surface as it becomes more and more fragmented.  Plastic may wash up on beaches, sink because organisms attach themselves to the surface and make the fragments heavier, or organisms may eat it. See "Miriam's Hitchhikers" and "Charting the Answers" in Plastic, Ahoy!
  3. The study focused on plastic on the surface of the ocean. Further research is necessary at a variety of depths to determine how smaller bits of plastic are moving deeper in the water column.
"Plastics are like a cocktail of contaminants floating around in the aquatic habitat," said Chelsea Rochman, marine biologist at the University of California, Davis, and Plastic, Ahoy! trash detective. "These contaminants may be magnifying up the food chain." [Source:  NY Times]
    Plastic counts.  Source:  PlosOne

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Plastic bag mockumentary -- a perfect way to kick off an ocean unit #scichat #STEM #5thchat #6thchat

Are you a Planet Earth fan? Richard Attenborough's clipped English voice? Fantastic video footage? Then you're in for a treat with The Majestic Plastic Bag -- A Mockumentary. I've included a link to this little gem in the back matter of Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but it bears repeating hear.

Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons narrates, and opens with, "The open plains of the asphalt jungle. Home to many creatures great and small, and the puffing ground for one of the most clever and illustrious creatures, the plastic bag."

Wouldn't the video be a great way to kick off a science unit on the ocean, and ocean plastic in particular? Enjoy! (I see cross-overs to Language Arts, too, on introducing satire.)

[Produced by Heal the Bay, a non-profit group dedicated to cleaning up Santa Monica Bay in California.]

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rally students to take action against ocean plastic #4thchat #5thchat #6thchat #scichat @LernerBooks

Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not simply a children's nonfiction book, it's a rallying cry to readers to become part of the solution. During school and Skype visits, I've found that readers want to help, but they are unsure how to go about it, so I've compiled a list of ideas and resources that might help get you started.

But first, some inspiration:  First grade readers at W. E. Striplin Elementary School in Alabama decided to reduce the amount of Styrofoam in their lunchroom. The students received permission to switch to reusable trays for several weeks to understand how much Styrofoam first graders alone could eliminate. The lunchroom produced an average of eight garbage bags of trash a day. The first graders cut the garbage output by two bags per day with reusable trays. Now their focus is to eliminate Styrofoam in the lunchroom for all grades.

Your rallying cry can be something as simple, such as:

  • Carrying reusable bags to the grocery store.
  • Refusing Styrofoam take-out/left-over containers (ask for foil instead, which can be recycled after you use it).
  • Drinking water or coffee out of reusable bottles or mugs.
  • Take a selfie for the sea, in which you show yourself doing something for the ocean.
  • Create recycled plastic sculptures to increase awareness of plastic waste.
  • Celebrate Earth Day and World Oceans Day or participate in an International Coastal Cleanup. 
Are you looking for something to do in a classroom setting? I suggest a waste audit to see just how much plastic trash comes through your life in a day, a week, and a month (see page 18 of my teacher guide for instructions and the necessary chart).

Perhaps you want to contribute in a bigger way, like the first graders at Striplin Elementary:
  • Teens from Granada Hills High School designed a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to take video evidence of plastic pollution for Captain Charles Moore on his July 2014 expedition to the North Pacific Central Gyre. 
  • Form an environmental club at school or in your community, such as the students from Team Marine at Santa Monica (CA) High School who created the video below. 

Other resources:  To learn more about marine debris, contact Katie at Algalita's Ship2Shore program for activity kits on Debris Science and Mapping Plastic Marine Pollution.