Is it just a matter of time before our oceans are free from plastic?

IMG_4268.JPGAnswers to our questions often lie within nature, it is often found that we can take aspects of even the deadliest attributes of nature to improve our livelihoods. As anthropogenic activity continues to damage the environment, it is the time that we should use these aspects to help save our planet. Microplastic pollution has received a lot of attention in the media in the past couple of years, leading to the banning of the production of microbeads in the United Kingdom by 2018.  However, even with this promise from the government to reduce their effects within our marine environment, there is still a magnificent presence of small plastic particles entering our waterways from the degrading of larger plastic pieces.

Small fragments of plastic have been discovered in waterways globally (microscope image shows microplastics found in the Charlton Brook Sheffield, UK). The UK Government proposed studies have shown that negative effects on species include: the filling of the stomach with plastic leading to potential starvation, desorption of toxic chemicals from the plastic into the organism, and the transfer of these issues up the trophic levels. As a response, scientists have been searching for ways to remove microplastics within water systems, however most of the ideas will cause significant harm to biodiversity (use of fine nets and dredging).

Micro-organisms have shown to effectively remove small plastic particles from water in a controlled environment, which was reported in 2016 by a team of scientists in Japan. It was discovered that the bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis could effectively break down small plastic particles of polyethylene terephthalate (commonly referred to as PET) at 30⁰c. With what seems to be a huge breakthrough in regard to tackling this global environmental issue, there has been little information emitted from scientists since then. Can this automatically be perceived as bad news?

Although it is clear that this is impossible to replicate within the marine environment – and work with different variations of microplastic – the idea of harnessing a (questionably) natural process, and the possibility of genetic engineering to modify the micro-organism is promising. On the other hand,  these manufactures tiny lifeforms have the potential to be just as lethal as they are to be beneficial. With researcher Dr Mincer stating the experiment as “carefully done” last year, this may suggest some more time is needed for another potential breakthrough.

Overall, although the wait may be long we must cling onto this hope for the eradication of microplastic pollution. The thought of a future with clean oceans and healthy ecosystems is amazing.

 

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What you need to know about Microplastic Pollution.

All I seem to do at the moment is write my dissertation. A task I am sure many people have endured. As well as it crucifying a subject I was once interested in, it is all I can think about.

I dream (well…have nightmares) about microplastic pollution. Seriously.

So, because of this, I am venting (I’m sorry) all the annoying little facts about this topic that eat away at my brain, which the public are not informed about…and I wanted an excuse to make a list. You’re welcome:

  • Microplastics are generally defined as plastic which is smaller than 5 mm in diameter.
  • Microplastics (or microbeads if you prefer) don’t just come from your exfoliators. These products seem to crop up a lot but manufactured (AKA primary) microplastics can also be found in toothpaste, cleaning products like cream cleaner and used for air blasting during manufacturing of everyday items.
  • Secondary microplastics are those which have come from a bigger plastic source (not manufactured that size). These can accumulate wherever plastic litter is collected, such as in a landfill or in the sea. They then degrade and become smaller and smaller until they are not visible to the naked eye. In my study, I divided these into three categories: fibres, thin angular pieces and thick angular pieces.
  • Washing your clothes results in microplastic pollution. Plymouth University conducted a study which showed that 700,000 synthetic fibres can be released into wastewater, from one use of a domestic washing machine. (So your acrylic and polyester clothes, you’ll struggle to have a 100% cotton wardrobe).
  • These microplastics can enter river systems through misconnections. These are when your pipes have been misconnected to lead to the wrong sewer and therefore lead into rivers via outflow pipes. The water which would normally be routed by the foul system to your local waste water treatment works… so think twice about paddling in your local stream on a hot day.
  • Once ingested the plastics can then stay in an organism’s stomach, providing no nutrition and taking up room which can lead to starvation. They can also be passed up the food chain to us.
  • People aren’t too scared of them because they haven’t caused any significant damage to human health…but it is just a matter of time.

I also thought it would be worth mentioning that yes, I did find microplastics in a local river (Charlton Brook Sheffield) along with a shit load of…well…shit. Look at the picture I’ve included (my own) all the plastics in there are 0.3 mm – 5 mm. Got some big-ass fibres in there (and an exoskeleton which wasn’t dissolved by my concoction of death*). Are these from your clothes? Write a comment and let us know.

 

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Goodhead, 2017

 

Toodles xo

*lol not revealing my concoction of death

Is nuclear the way forward?

The United Kingdom’s sources of electricity are said to be20% reliant on atomic energy. Nuclear power has been all over the news during the past year, but is this the best direction to take for “cleaner” energy?

Nuclear energy works by using uranium as a natural heat source, an element which cannot be created, there is only so much of it on the planet. I have read various articles about how long this supply of uranium will last, an article from Scientific American states that at current rates the uranium on this planet will last us for 230 years. However, (that article was published in 2009 by the way) as the consumption rate of uranium and demand for nuclear energy increases, the amount of uranium will decrease quicker. This is not the definition of a sustainable source of energy, in fact, it is the opposite!

The new Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in the UK will be up and running by 2023. The cost has risen from the original plans by £23 billion, it is now said it will cost £37 billion… That’s a hell of a lot of money to buy something when you don’t know how much it will last.

If the decisions were up to me, I would use the money to implement renewable energy using a tidal energy source. This is because the energy source is predictable; unlike solar or wind. Plus the UK is an island so there is plenty of coastal areas to put power stations. I thoroughly believe that all countries should harness their geographical location to their advantage (another example could be China using geothermal heat to conduct electricity instead of coal).

Any other opinions? I would love to hear them.

Bethan Nicole.

(Illustration of Hinkley Point C nuclear station. Photograph: EDF Energy/PA)

Influxes

It’s week 5 into our placement and I’ve learnt a number of things about this place. The most important is that as soon as you forget about bugs, that is when you will put your shorts on and you’ll feel that dreaded tickle of eight fat legs dancing on your body…that literally just happened to me before I started writing this. Oh and my very Buddhist views have gone out of the window, back in the U.K I used to demand all spiders to be removed, but alive. Now I batter them to death with my walking boot (which is now half solid cement due to construction) and grind them into my dirt floor. Moral of the story, always shake out your clothes and tuck in your mozzy net.

Anyway, onto the main topic of this blog…

With the environment being the main topic running through this 10 week placement in El Bram, I’m guessing you’re interested in knowing how much climate change is here. Knowing my fair share about Environmental Science and climate change, you get used to which aspects of the subject have been studied at length and which need more attention and research. It is important that all possible consequences and mitigation of climate change are researched, before they occur. This is a topic which I personally have not heard about and believe needs research.

 

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As soon as you enter the community, there is obviously an abundance of caterpillars, butterflies and moths (below). Swarms of the insects can be found around the streets of the village and the farms which are owned and worked on by the inhabitants. However, none of the volunteers know anything about how the infestations come into being; all people that were interviewed about this topic stated nothing is known about this and that it “definitely needs to be researched”.

 

During the interviews, people gave their opinions as to what they believe causes this. Billy believes that plagues are influenced by the climate and monoculture farming. Whereas Chloe thinks that the lack of humans around the area, and the use of pesticides are contributing factors. Pesticides definitely will influence the population of insects which are attracted to crops that are grown here: beans and corn.

Another factor to consider about this topic is whether plagues occur in certain regions or all over the globe. For the reason that we only get wifi here once a week (if we are lucky and not ill) people’s thoughts on the matter were recorded. All of which were logical explanations which may be true. However there has been a bit of debate about whether they can be found all over the globe or not, Billy stated that plagues occur in “loads of different places around the globe” because different climate influence different biodiversity. On the other hand Tomi alleged that it only occurs “where there are plants” because where there is an abundance of food for whichever creature, the animals will come.

Hassan also believes that plagues occur all over the globe, but for different reasons. In rural parts of Nicaragua he believes “pesticides causes influxes of certain insects, because surely some pesticides have different effects on different bugs”, whereas in U.K “plagues must occur because of the differences in weather” for example, flying ants in the summer.

According to the locals of El Bram, there is a different plague every year. In the past couple of years El Bram has been infested with grasshoppers and white flies. When the Christian was interviewed he did not have any idea as to why these influxes of certain insects occur, however he is aware of research into the plagues because pesticide companies promote research into them. He also believes that plagues are only found in certain regions, he explains that the city gets fumigated often due to the amount of people there, whereas rural parts not so much so they become infested.

Loads of different, but all relevant and intellectual points about this topic. However it is annoying not being able to Google the answer whenever I want, but then I would have nothing to write about.

 

Changes

The first week of cycle 16 has been spent settling in to our new life for the next 10 weeks. Adjusting to a new lifestyle is something most young people rarely experience, if at all. It is easy to go your whole life comfortably without introducing yourself to a new culture, and a new way of life. Before you have experienced this change you expect a difficult adjustment, and to miss how life was before. However in El Bramadero, Nicaragua this has not been the case. Ever since we stepped foot in our host community we felt welcomed from the start. Host families do their best to make sure you feel like you are part of the family, and they love you as if you were one of their own children. On our first full day of living in El Bramadero we were welcomed by the community in the local park, I have never witnessed celebrations with a piñata before but it is defiantly a memory that will stick in my mind, Nicaraguan children go crazy for it!

Something that is different in Nicaragua compared to the U.K (which is hard not to miss) is the sheer amount of animals wandering around the streets. You wake up in the early hours of the morning by cockerels – which have fast become a least favourite of mine – at usually around 3am. My host family has many animals aside from the chickens there are dogs (Rocky and Donkey), a cat (Mitsi) and a pig which has recently given birth to piglets. Also as an animal lover I was of course over-the-moon when I was told that there was a young puppy (Progressio) at the family’s house up the road, which is also another host family.  The difference in how Nicaraguan’s treat their animals is far different compared to the U.K, many of the animals are underweight, riddled with fleas and are not provided the appropriate nutrition for their species. This however does not stop Nicaraguans from loving their animals, and providing their pets with whatever scraps from food they have left; no food is wasted here.

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The topic of wastage is a good one in this instance. Nicaraguans waste nothing, they love to reuse whatever can be, which is why it is always a good idea to provide your host family with something which can also be used for something else (e.g a tin of biscuits as they will reuse the tin for storage). As previously mentioned, Nicas feed their pets and farm animals food leftovers and waste. I have now got into the routine of feeding my mango skin to a pig or horse, and my chicken bones to the dog or the cat.

Food wastage is a huge problem in the U.K, (Documentary gives a good insight into the scale) with people being so picky with food for themselves so that tonnes of food goes to waste before it even hits the shop floor, just because it isn’t up to aesthetic standards; where as in Nicaragua you literally just pull fruit off a tree and eat it, who cares what it looks like? We are told that there is a problem with the growing human population, why not just utilise all this food that is going to waste instead.

Therefore if there is anything that I have learnt from my first week in El Bramadero, it’s that we should all utilise everything for both economic and environmental reasons. Furthermore, even though we may judge countries less economically fortunate than ours for their environmental awareness, but each countries have their own positive and negative environmental management.

So what can you do from home to utilise products? I would recommend buying fruit and vegetables from farmers markets or your local fruit and veg’ shop, this way the products have not gone through the scrutiny which most chain supermarkets go through. If you have any food waste; why not start composting? Or better yet, feed it to your pet; as long as it isn’t poisonous for them of course!

Preventing Plastic Pollution.

We have a tendency to ignore what we can’t see, even if it surrounds us and influences our lives on a daily basis.  It seems that we get carbon dioxide/monoxide/methane pollution awareness flying at us from left, right and centre. The same with those images with penguins with plastic six pack rings around their necks; “aww no little penguin I’ll save you by not throwing my rubbish into the sea“…  Well yes that is a good plan, especially if you live next to an open body of water, however people who this doesn’t apply to (like me) tend to ignore marine pollution and think it doesn’t apply to them.

There is more than one way of plastics entering the marine environment. Plastic bags are a good example, they are light and catch the wind easily; if a breeze catches your plastic bag and it doesn’t end up caught in a tree, it is highly likely for it to end up in a water system. Rubbish gets transported around a lot, moved from place to place providing it with a lot of opportunities to flee from the peril of the rubbish truck.

But what could I possibly do to prevent this?” I hear you all desperately shouting at your screen. I personally use my old plastic bags to put rubbish in, or alternatively to add more weight to the polyethylene death trap you can tie it into a knot. Ta Dah! Your 5 years as a scout/girl guide has finally paid off and you can save the world!

One thing we are yet to learn prevent is what happens when the plastic has entered the marine environment and begins to degrade. You may have heard about microplastics before, you may not have, but they are so so frustrating. Plastics can degrade for many many years, therefore it’s a problem for many many years, microplastics are not visible to the naked human eye, and are therefore not really mentioned much. These can then be ingested by marine wildlife and emit some nasty chemicals, which aren’t beneficial to any species.

To prevent this there isn’t really much you can do, perhaps unless you’re a boffin with stacks of dosh. But there is one thing you can do! As mentioned microplastics are a result of degrading plastic, but they can also enter the water system immediately from the use of exfoliators. Some brands such as Neutrogena, Clean and Clear and Clearasil pride themselves with cosmetic products which contain “microbeads”, this is just another word for microplastic. With others you have to look at the back of the packaging, if you see a “poly….” word don’t use it, plastic shouldn’t be in an exfoliant. Instead use something natural like sugar or salt!

Any thoughts? Please let me know below.

Bethan.