A Worm Enzyme Might Help Rid World of Some Thrown-Away Plastic

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Henderson Island beach. Photo: Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania

It is widely believed that is possible to rid ourselves of plastic items we no longer want by throwing them away. A study of Henderson Island, a 14.4 sq mile (37.3 sq km) spit of land in the Pitcairn Islands, which are far from anywhere else in the far reaches of the South Pacific, has demonstrated with frightening certainty that, as an old saying has it, “there’s no such place as away.”

Virtually every available surface, and too many buried ones to count on Henderson Island, are covered with bits of plastic, much of it from China, significant amounts also from Japan and Chile, according to scientists from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and the Centre for Conservation Science, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in the UK. Some 37 million pieces in all have made Henderson Island one of if not the largest homes globally for parted-with plastic.

The scientists’ report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States, said the plastics debris density on Henderson Island is higher than anywhere else on earth. While its accumulated 37 million pieces of discarded plastic is but a drop in the proverbial bucket of the 5 trillion plastic pieces – some 250,000 tons worth – littering the world. And its presence in this once pristine piece of property makes a mockery of the island’s status as a UNESCO-designated “World Heritage” site, as “one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human presence.”

That declaration was made as recently as 1988 – a mere 29 years ago.

Not only is the accumulated plastic an eyesore to those rare souls who approach close enough to uninhabitable Henderson to see it, it’s a real risk to wildlife on and near the island. As the plastic drifts closer to Henderson, which sits amidst what’s called the South Pacific’s ocean gyre, an enormous area comprising one of half a dozen major circulating areas for ocean currents, water from vast areas on either side of the Pacific contribute trash as well as water from diverse sources. (That’s why Henderson’s plastic comes from so far afield.) Sea creatures ingest or get tangled in plastic materials, which either kill them quickly or slowly choke the life out of them. Land animals, too, often become victims of plastic materials eaten because they smelled or appeared edible.

These problems are destined to become more widespread unless mankind, collectively, takes steps to reduce the creation and use of plastic materials.

That and finding, in the guts of a certain species of wax worms, the enzyme that enables it to “eat” plastic:That such an enzyme exists stems from findings of a part-time Spanish beekeeper, a day-job researcher who found that the worms, whose caterpillar parents like to munch on beeswax inside his hives, were able to eat their way out a plastic bag he’d put some in.

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A hole eaten through a plastic bag by a wax worm. (Photo: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli, and Chris Howe

Great scientific answers, and solutions, have been launched from less auspicious starts than that! Who knows? In time a wax worm enzyme could, if replicated on a large enough scale, take a bite out of the world’s plastic waste problem. But don’t hold your breath: That kind of advance isn’t likely to happen with this, or even the next, decade or three.


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Paint Odors? Yes They Vary By Type, Color. Who Knew?

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Sometimes we learn things in the oddest ways: I was reading an article a few minutes ago on Donald Trump’s latest ‘great build’ – a supposed-to-be-luxurious hotel (and the city’s most expensive) in Washington D.C. – and I was stopped by this statement: “…As press was ushered into the renovated building—passing the unironically titled “PRESIDENTIAL BALLROOM”—the smell of white paint was still thick…”

Wait, I thought: Is the smell of white paint unlike the smell of other paints? Google (bless its probing little algorithm) quickly put my wondering mind to rest: Yes, there are differences in how different paints smell; And some are so different, and unhealthy for the environment, that federal restrictions have been placed on their creation and use.

I was floored by this information in part because I can’t recall having painted a room (or much of anything) for well over 20 years. And not being a particularly ‘handy’ type, where home improvements are concerned, while I don’t go out of my way to avoid information on that topic, I don’t often stumble upon occasions – such as the article on Trump’s soon-to-grandly-opened Washington hotel – when brush- or hammer-related articles cross my path. (I don’t even own a saw, though I would, I dare say, know one if I saw it!)

Still, I was glad to learn that the U.S. federal government has identified and set out to control paints that, while doing a brightening job, are dulling the potential of our environment to continue functioning as we need it to.

Rubbish-Sourced Running Tracks Are Poisoning 1000’s of Chinese Kids

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China’s Ministry of Education has said it will tear up running tracks at schools that have been blamed for making students ill.

In China, where a recent survey revealed that around 20 percent of the country’s arable land is contaminated, and air pollution in some cities is so bad that merely venturing outdoors poses a danger to your health, another form of pollution is threatening the short- and long-term health of school children who use running tracks. “Poison runways,” as the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China said in a recent CCTV report.

Synthetic (rubberized or rubber-like) tracks at many schools are made from industrial waste—including recycled tires, cables and wire. A frightening large number of children using such tracks have developed health issues that could, conceivably, be long-lasting and/or precursors of cancer of one type or another. (Leukemia has already been reported in at least one province with the ‘poison runways.’”

A CCTV report earlier this week noted that numerous students at the Beijing Second Experimental Primary School have suffered nosebleeds, dizziness and “similar problems” that seem to be attributable to the “plastic [running] track [that] exudes [a] pungent smell.”

The report says that school’s situation is far from an isolated case: “Not just in Beijing, odorous ‘runways’ have been observed across the country  for at least two years.” (The preceding sentence is an ‘approximate’ English translation of the report on CCTV’s web site. That report, in the show ‘The Economic Half Hour,’ was entitled “Who created the poison runway?”

CCTV said an investigation has been launched to discover the source of the problem, but a report in today’s New York Times suggests the fault isn’t hard to find: Subcontractors who built the tracks are said to have used sub-standard materials – below, it would seem, the ‘standard’ quality of “recycled tires, cables and wire” – and also, The Times said, “violated safety rules.”

A rambling report from the Ministry of Education – rambling, at least, in the Google translation to English – notes at one point that “there is no standards and industry standards” regulating the production or installation of sports-related equipment (including tracks).”

As well as demanding the establishment of “effective measures” to address the existing problem, the Ministry decreed that schools or school districts should “establish standards and implementation to further promote the improvement and implementation of standards.”

The Chinese, not being a God-fearing people, probably don’t understand the phrase “from your lips to God’s ear.” Also being more respecting of people in theory than in practice, Chinese authorities may, or may not, ensure appropriate changes are made to protect, in at least this way, the children who are their future.

A Whale of a Problem: Ship Noise Interferes With Echo-locating of Prey

 

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Many of mankind’s activities contribute, directly or indirectly, to the extermination of animal species. Some of those activities could, conceivably, be curbed to a degree that some species, such as those whose habitat is being destroyed or depleted by clear-cutting land or over-farming it, might be able to hang on for a while longer. But a newly-discovered threat seems to be on a collision course with the likes of whales and perhaps dolphins and porpoises. And there doesn’t seem to be any way this threat can be reduced to a significant enough degree.

The threat is, simply, the sounds ships of various types make as they go about the business of hauling stuff we eat, wear and decorate our homes and offices with – as well as nearly everything else humans use – from one side of the globe to another.

If you are fortunate enough to live near an ocean and a place where you can swim, if you put your head underwater and listened, you’d hear . . . nothing, even when you can see ships ‘out there’, within a couple of miles of you. The reason that’s so is because you don’t hear at the same sound range, the decibel level, as sea creatures who rely on echo-locating do.

Echo-locating is how whales, dolphins and the like navigate and, as important, find their food. It’s like radar, in that it bounces a signal off things – objects, potential prey, other members of the same or a similar species – in a way that the bounced-back signal says ‘stay away’, ‘that’s food’, or ‘that’s a friend (or competitor)’. Echo-locating also enables such creatures to communicate with each other – possibly to warn of dangers, or advise of food sources. No one’s yet devised an Enigma Machine to break either whales’, dolphins’ or porpoises’ communications code. More’s the pity: We might learn something valuable from them.

Ship engines, be they conventional or nuclear powered ones, make noise – a lot of it. Some, unfortunately, is at frequencies of 20,000 Hz (a measure of electromagnetic waves). (Wikipedia notes that a human infant’s ear “is able to perceive frequencies ranging from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz; the average adult human can hear sounds between 20 Hz and 16,000 Hz.” The reference goes on to note that, “the range of ultrasound, infrasound and other physical vibrations such as molecular and atomic vibrations extends from a few femtoHz into the terahertz range and beyond.” (Yeah, I know, TMI!)

In other words, sea mammals make sense of sounds at far higher frequencies than humans can perceive, but in synch with some ships, in the ordinary nature of their job, produce.

The Guardian published an article yesterday (Feb. 2, 2016) reporting on a report of unfortunate complexity – as scientific reports are wont to be – on this issue. At the very least, check out The Guardian link.

While this is a complex issue, it’s actually easy to understand. I’ve hit the high points – somewhat short of The Guardian’s coverage (but I hit it from a different angle). If you want to dig deeper into the issue, please use this post’s various links. I learned a lot through them. You could, too.