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Plastics pollution: Biologist surveys ocean woes, students find a solution

picking up beach litter
I am in awe of fellow men and women who have devoted themselves to this planet-tidying endeavor that is often described as Sisyphean, as in rolling the boulder uphill, but strikes me as more Herculean, as in mucking out the stables.

Sometimes I think I may have been born to be a beachcomber, searching the strand for bits of wave-worn bits of glass, driftwood, stone.

I can't walk a beach without looking for the glass, nor can I see a specimen larger than a ball of buckshot without taking it home. Ditto for a gull or goose feather that looks large enough to carve into a quill pen.

Ditto also, and alas, for city sidewalks. I can step over a penny without picking it up, but not a quarter, nor a useful-looking bit of hardware, nor one of those fabric-coated hair-keeper things that make indestructible binders for earbud cables, notepads, etc.

But I've yet to join the ranks of regular litter pickers. This is a personal failing I hope someday to overcome. In the meantime I am in awe of fellow men and women who have devoted themselves to this planet-tidying endeavor that is often described as Sisyphean, as in rolling the boulder uphill, but strikes me as more Herculean, as in mucking out the stables.

A world awash in trash

We are quite literally awash in trash in this world, and for an interestingly rich account of the situation on Alaska's southwestern coastline I refer you to a piece that Carl Safina published Monday in Yale Environment 360, about an expedition undertaken recently with scientists, artists and beach-cleaning volunteers.

Beach cleanups in Alaska are complicated by the absence of roads, which requires the use of boats and aircraft to reach the target zones. Also by rough, steep shorelines which thankfully repel trash on most of the coast but then concentrate it in the flatter, sandy and protected places  —  a ton per mile on the beaches of Katmai National Park, Safina's party found.

Almost all problematic beach-trash is plastic. Plastic’s signature rot-less inertness makes it last many years. And so, it’s used for many things, including fishing nets. On beaches we visited, fishing gear made up a lot of the trash. When I walk the beaches of the U.S. East Coast, I find a lot of toy soldiers, action figures, and balloons. Noticeably, by comparison, Alaska trash is adult, working trash. Yes, we found soft-drink and plastic bottles (how could we not?). But a lot of it was fishing net floats, fishing nets  —  old driftnets and new trawl nets  —  buoys, ship bumpers, and dock lines. There were also cargo nets and products that had spilled from shipping containers washed from freighters in storms.

Safina's group went to places in a 300-mile arc west of Anchorage, along the curve of Alaskan coast that opens to the northern Pacific Ocean and therefore to its great spinning gyre of plastic trash. Their aim, in part, was to raise public awareness of the problem by gathering exhibits for a traveling museum exhibit on the long-lived litter that burdens oceans, coastlines and wildlife.

Safina is a marine biologist at Stony Brook University on Long Island and founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, as well as host of PBS' "Saving the Ocean" series. He asks and then answers the question, "If trash washes up on a beach so remote that no one is there to see it, does it make a mess?"

... Plastic causes harm and suffering. Before it gets ashore, it causes harm and suffering to seals, turtles, fishes, and seabirds who die from tangling in it and from the consequences of eating it and who feed it to their young. I’ve seen all of these creatures in trouble with trash.

Clearly, plastic is a problem. One of its main features is that it greatly resists getting metabolized by bacteria or chemically degraded. It doesn’t go away. It just gets smaller. Animals eat it, and even at the scale of molecules, it’s still plastic. Plastic polymers have been found circulating in the blood of mussels. Some plastics are non-toxic; some have toxic additives like lead and metals. We found both of those additives in some (though not all) of the samples we tested.

Even the tons of plastic we took were destined to be piled ashore in a landfill, though much of it could have been reused or recycled. We just moved it. That’s what the market bears. It’s too cheap to recycle because the makers and sellers don’t pay the costs of disposal. As with many “cheap” things, the price reflects only the fact that the sellers privatize their profits and socialize the costs. Many things priced cheap are really rather costly.

Plastic collects. It collects near where many people live. It collects far from where people live, close to where other beings live. It goes where we don’t think it goes because we don’t think about where it goes.

Deposits and buybacks

Safina has some solutions in mind for this problem, like placing deposits on plastic bottles and maybe on fishing nets as well  —  or buying back old nets from the fleets now dumping them over the side.

But the real solution, of course, likes in developing plastics  —  or, more likely, substitutes for plastic —  that will break down rapidly after being discarded, whether responsibly or as litter.

And this is where I get discouraged as I walk a mile of two of, say, Michigan dunes or Apostle Islands shoreline with Sallie, picking up bird-killing plastic bags and twine and bottles and balloons and those little white tampon applicator tubes she has taught me to call "beach whistles."

What difference are we making, really? By temporarily tidying these places, are we just making it easier for others to overlook the level of plastic litter in places they love? Are we perhaps reducing, ever so slightly, the demand for substitute materials, assuming such products are possible?

In fact they are possible, and I can think of no more fascinating example at the moment than the offerings of a New York company called Ecovative Design, which literally grows a styrofoam substitute by mixing ground-up biomass with a fungal extract called mycelium.

The mushroom's natural polymer

Mycelium is kind of like hair, or thread, that grows rapidly in a branching network to give mushrooms their structure, capture nutrients for their growth and spread their fruiting bodies  — the visible parts we gather and eat — across vast landscapes with an underground network too tiny to see. Structurally, it does for fungi what polymer strands do for petroleum-derived plastics.

mushroom shipper
Courtesy of Ecovative Design
Ecovative Design grows a styrofoam substitute by mixing ground-up biomass with a fungal extract called mycelium.

Ecovative Design was founded six years ago by two students and their professor at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute. Since then its ideas have attracted major awards (including the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge's $700,000 first prize) and corporate contracts (Dell computers, for packing materials; Ford Motor Co., for crash-absorbing foam; Sealed Air Inc., maker of Bubble Wrap, to build new packing-products plants in the U.S. and Europe).

The company has been covered extensively in the trade and techie press for several years now, but mainstream coverage has ramped up a bit after Ian Frazier's profile in the New Yorker's issue of May 20.

After listing the environmental burdens of styrofoam and other plastics invented to replace natural materials, Frazier writes that Ecovative's discovery

... in postmodern fashion, creates natural substances that imitate plastics. The packing material made my their factory takes a substrate of agricultural waste, like chopped-up cornstalks and husks; steam-pasteurizes it; adds trace nutrients and a small amount of water; injects the mixture with pellets of mycelium; puts it in a mold shaped like a piece of packing that protects a product during shipping; and sets the mold on a rack in the dark.

Four days later, the mycelium has grown through the substrate into the shape of the mold, producing a material almost indistinguishable from styrofoam in form, function and cost. An application of heat kills the mycelium and stops the growth. When broken up and thrown into a compost pile, the packing material biodegrades in about a month.

Now the company is demonstrating the material's use in residential construction and insulation, and founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre are busy giving interviews to publications like New Scientist and The Naked Scientists.

Whether Bayer and McIntyre can achieve their goal of entirely replacing plastic packaging, worldwide, with a cheap and environmentally benign alternative remains to be seen — but it seems more than possible.

What I like best about their story, though, is its illustration of what can happen when a simple bright idea acquires a small amount of backing, proves its importance and then flourishes. Reversing modernity's damage on a planetary scale will require many more of these.

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