The rate at which the media fire new stories at us is staggering. One shocking statistic rapidly replaced by the next, rendering us overwhelmed and often hopeless. There’s no denying the crises that envelope our land and seas, but we are also more equipped than at any time before to create effective solutions. It is this knowledge that gets me out of bed in the morning.
When it comes to to the frequency at which we are faced with articles describing extreme environmental disasters, chronic pollution and depressing statistics about all the things that we are losing, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that scientific innovation and compassionate determination are at the forefront of so many bright minds the world over. So, I thought I’d touch upon some today! Consider this the small pick-me-up you might be needing right about now.
You might recall our story from last year about The Ocean Cleanup project launched by Dutch inventor, Boyan Slat. Aimed at tackling (or, at least making a tiny dent in) the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the device was launched off the California coastline in fall 2018. We all hoped it would be an instant success, but a few months into the trial, System 101 was found to be dumping debris as quickly as it was capturing it.
After heading back to the drawing board and making a few tweaks here and there, we finally received the news we had been waiting for: the system was functioning and the garbage patch was being cleared! After seven years of trial and error, the mechanics were finally synched up and able to start tackling the trash. Slat told The Guardian that in a few years’ time, he hopes to see a whole fleet of these things out there cleaning up our mess. Solar powered and fish-friendly, I’d say I’d have to agree.
It’s not all about water bottles and discarded fishing nets though, is it? Microplastics are wreaking havoc in completely different ways, as I’m sure you’re well aware. A recent study found that we consume, on average, 2,000 particles each week. This is equivalent to a credit card’s worth! In the air we breathe, water we drink, and food we eat are plastic particles far smaller than the eye can see. These form as a result of mechanical or chemical action on larger plastic pieces. Whether it’s a styrofoam take-out box, tampon applicator or plastic bag afloat in the open ocean, wave action, wind and sunlight combine to break microscopic fragments off of these items over time, increasing their rate of dispersal and subsequent passive ingestion by an array of critters.
We have known for some time that a major source of microplastic pollution is the synthetic clothing that we wear and wash. One laundry cycle can release around 700,000 microplastic fragments. Consider the amount of acrylic, nylon and polyester that we consume (lookin’ at you athleisurewear) and it’s an invisible crisis.
Up until now, we’ve assumed that the spin cycle is the culprit and it seems logical, right? The higher the spin, the greater the agitation of the fabrics inside and therefore the greater the shedding of microfragments. Only, a new study has shown that it’s actually the water:clothing ratio that’s the issue. It was shown that, actually, the “delicate” settings are often the worst!
The team looked at the effects of water volume, agitation, temperature, detergent and cycle duration on the number of fragments released from synthetic fibers. While there were a few differences noted in other aspects of the study (such as washing >60°C increasing polyester fragments compared to lower temperature washes), the significant finding was the high water volume: low load that resulted in the greatest number of microplastic particles. This was particularly true of European-style front-loading machines where delicate washes always correlate with an increased water volume. In North American-style top-loading machines, this isn’t always the case. The authors point out that these machines are often a lot more efficient.
When it comes to laundry, follow these rules:
1. Only run full loads. This increases energy efficiency, causes less agitation amongst the fabrics and reduces the number of microplastic fragments released.
2. If you have the option, always choose a low water:load ratio.
3. If you’re in the market for a new machine, consider one that is highly efficient (likely top-loading).
4. Consider a guppybag.
5. Where possible, wash on a low temperature.
We’ve really got to figure out what to do with our love of synthetic fibres. With many utilized by manufacturers of “technical” garments, there’s a solid push for optimizing natural fibers like lyocell, tencel and modal so that we can get the same “moisture-wicking” without the pollution. The more these become mainstream, the lower the price point will become too.
While we await further development from the fashion industry, the last super cool research comes at us from Aalto University in Finland. Some savvy engineers have combined plant cellulose from birch tree pulp with spider silk to create a super strong yet flexible material that might just be able to be utilized in the medical, manufacturing, and packing industries.
There’s a reason for our current plastic addiction: it’s tough, durable and lasts, well, forever. But with the known strength of spider silk, this is the first alternative that might actually work as a robust substitute. By the way—no spiders are harmed during the manufacturing; the scientists use some clever wizardry from synthetic DNA and bacteria to do the magic.
So you see, amazing science is happening around the world. You just have to dig a little harder to remind yourself of it.
What’s the best news you’ve heard lately?
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