Scientists Turn Plastic Waste Into Valuable Commodities, to Create a Bigger Market for Waste Materials

(Marc Schaus) As much as plastic has been maligned in recent years, it was actually a remarkable invention for humanity, allowing us to craft unique materials for essential items and everyday necessities. The problem is that so much of it ends up in landfills and oceans.

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Scientists Create ‘Super Enzyme’ That Eats Plastic Bottles Six Times Faster than Previous Enzymes

(Andy Corbley) Enzymes produced in the stomachs of certain bacteria found during several high-profile discoveries have been combined by English scientists to create a super enzyme, reducing the time it takes for these chemicals to depolymerize, or breakdown plastic from weeks into mere hours.

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Newly-Developed Enzyme That Breaks Down Plastic Bottles in Hours is On Track to Change the Recycling Game

(Andy Corbley) Utilizing an enzyme found within composted leaves, scientists are now breaking down plastic all the way into a recyclable form in a matter of hours. Carbios, the French company responsible for the breakthrough, is already collaborating with Pepsi and L’Oréal to unleash industrial market-scale production of the new substance within five years.

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Chemistry Technique Developed By Researchers That Turns Plastic Into Clean Fuel

(Mayukh Saha) This is one waste problem that could instead be turned into a boon for our energy-starved planet. We are drowning in plastic and have already produced 8.3 billion tons of plastics in just 65 years, equivalent in weight to 25,000 Empire State Buildings. This will take ages to decompose and will cause incalculable harm to wildlife and the environment. But researchers have come up with a new technique that can convert the pollutants into eco-friendly fuel.

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Microplastics are in Your Poop and Ruining Your Gut, Study Shows

Microplastics are in bottled water, tap water, fish and seafood, and even table salt. There are more microplastics littering the planet than stars in the sky; it’s impossible to avoid them. Most recently, researchers have discovered microplastics in human poop, and you probably have some in yours, too.

In what is being called a first-of-its-kind study, researchers discovered microscopic bits of plastic in stool samples taken from people around the world. According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Philipp Schwabl, a physician scientist at the Medical University of Vienna’s Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, the study “confirms what we have long suspected, that plastics ultimately reach the human gut.

It’s unclear what kinds of health effects might be caused by ingesting microplastics, but there is concern among scientists that they can affect gastrointestinal health and even affect other organs.

Schwabl said:

“Now that we have first evidence for microplastics inside humans, we need further research to understand what this means for human health.”

In the study, Schwabl and his colleagues analyzed stool samples from 8 healthy volunteers, each hailing from 1 of 8 countries: Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom, or Austria.

Read: Plastic Bottles Could Lead to a Real Environmental Crisis, Scientists Warn

The team used a new type of analytical procedure to look for microplastics in the volunteers’ stool. The most common types of microplastics the researchers found were polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate, both used in plastic bottles and a host of other common products. On average, 20 microplastic particles per 10 grams of stool were observed.

The volunteers were not assigned any particular diet, but food diaries revealed that 6 of the participants ate fish in the week before providing a stool sample. All 8 of the individuals ate plastic-wrapped food or drank from plastic bottles in the week before the samples were collected.

More than 95% of the microplastics the researchers detected came from plastic used to wrap or store food. [2]

The findings suggest that “more than 50% of the world population might have microplastics in their stools.” [3]

The study was small, but considering the range of countries the participants came from, it’s safe to say that there’s “a high likelihood that also many other people involuntarily ingest microplastics,” according to Schwabl. [1]

A larger study to confirm the findings is in the works. Schwabl said that he and his team hope to be able to identify factors that could help explain why a person would have microplastics in their stool, such as diet, lifestyle, and geographic location.

The scientists are also planning further research into the effects of microplastics on human health. Studies in animals indicate that microplastics can enter the bloodstream and lymphatic system, and may reach the liver. Moreover, researchers suspect that microplastics can damage the intestines and alter the way the body absorbs nutrients.

Read: Microplastics in the Ocean are Killing Baby Fish, Study Finds

Schwabl said: [3]

“Of particular concern is what this means to us, and especially patients with gastrointestinal diseases.”

He added: [2]

“I believe that trying to reduce plastic usage and plastic-packed food might be beneficial for nature and for us. Certainly, plastic is a very useful material and has a lot of clever applications. But maybe we should try to rethink about the necessity of abundant plastic use, and search for and support ecological and sustainable alternatives.”

Schwabl presented the results of the study on October 22 at UEG Week in Vienna, a European gastroenterology meeting. The findings have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Sources:

[1] Live Science

CBS News

People Ingest About 2,000 Microplastics in Table Salt Each Year

The average adult ingests about 2,000 microplastics each year through table salt, a study estimates. That’s because the same study found that microplastics were present in 90% of table salt brands sampled worldwide. It’s next to impossible to avoid adding plastic to your baked potato when you sprinkle it with salt. [1]

Researchers in South Korea and Greenpeace East Asia tested 39 salt brands and found microplastics in 36 of them. The team also used previous studies to help track the spread of microplastics in table salt around the globe and their correlation to the heaviest concentrations of plastic pollution in the environment.

Seung-Kyu Kim, a marine science professor at Incheon National University in South Korea, said:

“The findings suggest that human ingestion of microplastics via marine products is strongly related to emissions in a given region.”

Kim and colleagues gathered salt samples from 21 countries across Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Asia. The 3 brands that didn’t contain microplastics were sampled from Taiwan (refined sea salt), China (refined rock salt), and France (unrefined sea salt produced by solar evaporation).

Different brands of salt contained different densities of microplastics, the study shows. Asian brands were found to contain particularly high densities. Salt sold in Indonesia contained the highest quantities of minuscule plastic bits, and the finding makes sense as there are (literally and figuratively) tons of microplastics littering the waters around Asia. As of 2015, Indonesia’s 34,000 miles of coastline ranked 2nd-worst in the world for plastic pollution.

Sea salt was found to contain the most microplastics, followed by lake salt and rock salt, respectively.

An Unsavory Seasoning

So, the average person ingests about 2,000 pieces of microplastics from salt every year, but that’s just from salt. Humans likely wolf down far more plastic than that. [2]

Microplastics have been found in tap water, mollusks, and both indoor and outdoor air. Researchers believe those 4 pathways alone add up to about 32,000 pieces of microplastic per person, per year. About 80% of the microplastics people ingest come from inhaling them through the air.

That means that table salt only accounts for approximately 6% of the microplastics ingested by people every year.

A separate British study that sought to assess the risks of microplastics to the environment concluded that, well, more research is needed to determine if microplastics are harmful.

In August, a study published in the journal PLOS One showed that plastics emit methane and ethylene, both greenhouse gases, as they degrade. [3]

Then, a study published in September showed that birds and winged insects can carry microplastics through the air and contaminate a broader range of the environment. This also allows animals that would normally be untouched by plastic pollution to eat the tiny particles and pass them up the food chain.

But microplastics have been working their way up the food chain for decades, as aquatic life consumes the minuscule bits. If fish are ingesting microplastics, that certainly means that humans that eat the fish are ingesting them, too.

Sources:

[1] National Geographic

[2] Quartz

[3] The Scientist

Flying Insects can Carry Microplastics Through the Air, Study Shows

Plastic pollution is so prevalent that there’s nary a place on earth that is untouched by it, and the problem goes far beyond unsightly beaches and parks. A new study has found that flying insects contribute to plastic contamination by eating microplastics in polluted waters and carrying them through the air.

Microplastics – pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size – remain in the bodies of mosquitoes and other waterborne insects, even after they become adults and take wing, according to researchers in the U.K.

The findings raise concerns that birds and other animals that eat insects are also becoming contaminated with microplastics and that the microscopic particles are working their way up the food chain.

And according to Amanda Callaghan at England’s University of Reading, the finding means that insects and animals that wouldn’t normally have access to microplastics may be consuming the contaminants, including spiders and bats. [2]

For the study, researchers from the University of Reading in England and Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, inserted 2 microscopic particles of polystyrene into young mosquitoes and observed the winged creatures throughout their life cycles. Each piece of polystyrene weighed a mere 1 gram per cubic centimeter. [1]

The team discovered that the microplastics were still in the mosquitoes’ systems as they passed through each life cycle and eventually became flying adults.

The authors wrote:

“The transfer of microplastics to the adults represents a potential aerial pathway to contamination of new environments. Thus, any organism that feeds on terrestrial life phases of freshwater insects could be impacted by MPs found in aquatic ecosystems.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains that mosquitoes and other freshwater insects are consumed by birds, amphibians, fish, and other insects.

It is unfortunately quite common to read reports of sea animals being entangled by plastics, or washing ashore dead with a belly full of plastic bags and bottles.

However, most of the plastics in the ocean – 90% – are microplastics so small that they are invisible to the naked eye, measuring less than 10 millimeters in length. Even if a marine animal tried to avoid consuming plastic waste, it would be nearly impossible for them to do so. [3]

The Mariana Trench, the deepest point known in the world’s oceans, was once believed to still be in pristine condition. But in 2017, scientists made the grim discovery that the trench had not escaped plastic pollution, and was in fact in no better shape than some of the most polluted waterways in the world.

Just like you can’t see most of the stars in the night sky, you can’t see most of the plastic pollution threatening the planet. In fact, there are more microplastics in the ocean alone than stars in the sky. Let that sink in for a minute. [1]

Emma Priestland, from the charity Friends of the Earth, commented:

“This disturbing study raises real concerns about the prevalence of plastic pollution: it really is prevalent everywhere, not just the marine environment.”

She added:

“Knowing that plastic can be transferred from the larval stage to the adult mosquito, which then serves as food to a multitude of larger animals, highlights the urgency with which we need to drastically reduce our plastic consumption.”

Sources:

[1] CNN

[2] CNBC

[3] Smithsonian Magazine

Featured image creditCurrent Biology, Wright et al. (altered)