Sometimes, when you try to solve one problem, you create another. A famous example is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia from Hawaii in 1935. The toads were introduced as a means of eliminating a beetle species that ravaged sugar cane crops; but now, almost a century later, Western Australia is inundated with these venomous, eco-system-meddling creatures.
In a similar spirit, disposable face masks could help tackle one urgent problem while creating another. According to researchers at Swansea University, nanoplastics and other potentially harmful pollutants have been found in many disposable face masks, including the ones some use to ward off Covid-19.
After submerging various types of common disposable face masks in water, the scientists observed the release of high levels of pollutants including lead, antimony, copper, and plastic fibres. Worryingly, they found significant levels of pollutants from all the masks tested.
Microscope image of microfibres released from children's mask: the colourful fibres are from the cartoon patterns | Credit: Swansea University
Obviously, millions have been wearing single-use masks around the world to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the release of potentially harmful substances into the natural environment and water supply could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.
‘The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ says project lead Dr Sarper Sarp, whose team’s work has been published on Science Direct. ‘However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify.
The presence of potentially toxic pollutants in some face masks could pose health and environmental risks.
‘There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.’
The Swansea scientists say stricter regulations must be enforced during manufacturing and disposal of single-use masks, and more work must be done to understand the effect of particle leaching on public health and on the environment. Another area they believe warrants investigation is the amount of particles inhaled by those wearing these masks.
‘This is a significant concern,’ adds Sarp, ‘especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.’
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the Blue Economy as ‘all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.’ Other organisations have their own definitions, but they all stress the economic and environmental importance of seas and oceans.
Header image: Our oceans are of economic and environmental importance
To this end there are a growing number of initiatives focused on not only protecting the world’s seas but promoting economic growth. At the start of 2021 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) joined forces to support clean and sustainable ocean initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
Both institutions will finance activities aimed at promoting cleaner oceans ‘through the reduction of land-based plastics and other pollutants discharged into the ocean,’ as well as projects which improve the sustainability of all socioeconomic activities that take place in oceans, or that use ocean-based resources.
ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, Bambang Susantono, said ‘Healthy oceans are critical to life across Asia and the Pacific, providing food security and climate resilience for hundreds of millions of people. This Memorandum of Understanding between the ADB and EIB will launch a framework for cooperation on clean and sustainable oceans, helping us expand our pipeline of ocean projects in the region and widen their impacts’.
The blue economy is linked to green recovery
In the European Union the blue economy is strongly linked to the bloc’s green recovery initiatives. The EU Blue Economy Report, released during June 2020, indicated that the ‘EU blue economy is in good health.’ With five million people working in the blue economy sector during 2018, an increase of 11.6% on the previous year, ‘the blue economy as a whole presents a huge potential in terms of its contribution to a green recovery,’ the EU noted. As the report was launched, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Committee said; ‘We will make sure that research, innovation and education contribute to the transition towards a European Blue Economy.’
The impact of plastics in oceans is well known and many global initiatives are actively tackling the problem. At the end of 2020 the World Economic Forum and Vietnam announced a partnership to tackle plastic pollution and marine plastic debris. The initiative aims to help Vietnam ‘dramatically reduce its flow of plastic waste into the ocean and eliminate single-use plastics from coastal tourist destinations and protected areas.’ Meanwhile young people from across Africa were congratulated for taking leadership roles in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. Participants in the challenge have raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in general.
But it isn’t just the health of our oceans that governments and scientists are looking at. There is growing interest in the minerals and ore that could potentially be extracted via sea-bed mining. The European Commission says that the quantity of minerals occupying the ocean floor is potentially large, and while the sector is small, the activity has been identified as having the potential to generate sustainable growth and jobs for future generations. But adding a note of caution, the Commission says, ‘Our lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment necessitates a careful approach.’ Work aimed at shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks and knowledge gaps associated with this type of mining is being undertaken.
With the push for cleaner energy and the use of batteries, demand for cobalt will rise, and the sea-bed looks to have a ready supply of the element. But, the World Economic Forum points out that the ethical dimensions of deep-sea cobalt have the potential to become contentious and pose legal and reputational risks for mining companies and those using cobalt sourced from the sea-bed.
Energy will continue to be harnessed from the sea.
But apart from its minerals, the ocean’s ability to supply energy will continue to be harnessed through avenues such as tidal and wind energy. During the final quarter of 2020, the UK Hydrographic Office launched an Admiralty Marine Innovation Programme. Led by the UK Hydrographic Office, the programme gives innovators and start-ups a chance to develop new solutions that solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges as related to our oceans.
The UK’s Blue Economy is estimated to be worth £3.2 trillion by the year 2030. Marine geospatial data will be important in supporting this growth by enabling the identification of new areas for tidal and wind energy generation, supporting safe navigation for larger autonomous ships, which will play a vital role in mitigating climate change, and more.
In May 2018, the EU proposed a single-use plastics ban intended to protect the environment, save consumers money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the new laws, the EU aims for all plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025, and non-recyclable single-use items such as straws, cutlery, and cotton buds to be banned.
An ambitious step – and arguably necessary – but there is no denying that plastics are extremely useful, versatile and important materials, playing a role in countless applications.
The World’s Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan Two Miles Deep: How To Reduce Our Impact. Video: TIME
The challenge to science, industry and society is to keep developing, producing and using materials with the essential properties offered by the ubiquitous oil-based plastics of today – but improving the feedstocks and end-of-life solutions, and ensuring that consumers use and dispose of products responsibly.
A number of innovative solutions have been proposed to help plastics move towards a more sustainable future.
A sweet solution
Deothymidine is one of four nucleosides that make up the structure of DNA. Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr
‘Chemists have 100 years’ experience with using petrochemicals as a raw material, so we need to start again using renewable feedstocks like sugars as a base for synthetic but sustainable materials,’ said Dr Antoine Buchard, a Whorrod Research Fellow at the University of Bath, UK.
Dr Buchard leads a group at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies at the University of Bath that are searching for a sustainable solution for single-use plastics. Using nature as their inspiration, the team have developed a plastic derived from thymidine – the sugar found in DNA – and CO2.
Scientists have developed a new process to manufacture ‘green’ plastic that could significantly reduce costs and provide a cleaner alternative to current materials.
Using fructose and gamma-Valerolactone (GVL) – a plant-derived solvent – researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,US, have found a way to produce furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) that is both cost-effective and high-yielding, meaning a large amount of the product can be made. FDCA is a precursor to the renewable plastic polyethylene furanoate (PEF).
A crystal of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) a plastic precursor created with biomass instead of petroleum. Image: Ali Hussain Motagamwala and James Runde for UW-Madison
‘Until now, FDCA has had a very low solubility in practically any solvent you make it in,’ says co-author Ali Hussain Motagamwala. ‘You have to use a lot of solvent to get a small amount of FDCA, and you end up with high separation costs and undesirable waste products.’
Currently, the plastics market relies heavily on the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from petroleum, to meet increasing demand for plastic products.
How is FDCA made in industry? Video: Avantium
The team, alongside Motagamwala, have been able to convert fructose to FDCA in a two-step process using a solvent system of one-part GVL and one-part water.
According to Motagamwala, using GVL as a solvent is the key to reducing the high expenses that FDCA production incurs. ‘Sugars and FDCA are both highly soluble in [GVL], you get high yields, and you can easily separate and recycle the solvent,’ he says.
Fructose is a plant-based sugar found in most fruits. Image: Pexels
The team’s study also includes an extensive techno-economic analysis of the ‘green’ process, suggesting that FDCA could be produced for around £1,000 a tonne – reduced further if the reaction time and cost of feedstock could be lowered through further research.
A more cost-effective alternative to PET could have a significant impact on the plastics market, which produces an estimated 1.5m tonnes a year.
Major companies – from Coca-Cola to Procter & Gamble – are committing to 100% use of PEF in their plastic products, providing a huge market need for its precursor FDCA.
‘We think this is the streamlined and inexpensive approach to making FDCA that many people in the plastics industry has been waiting for,’ says James Dumesic, team-leader and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the university.
Introducing cost-competitive renewable plastics to the market could significantly reduce plastic waste. Image: Pixabay
‘Our hope is that this research opens the door even further to cost-competitive renewable plastics.’
Process development is an essential area of research that underpins advances in a huge range of industries.
In May 2018, the first full-scale mobile marine plastics collection system, developed by The Ocean Cleanup, will leave San Francisco, California, bound for the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ also known as the Pacific trash vortex. The plan, ultimately, is to use 60 of these $5m systems to clean up half of the debris in the Pacific Garbage Patch within five years, according to Boyan Slat, CEO of Netherlands foundation The Ocean Cleanup, speaking at the Cefic Chemical Congress held in Vienna, Austria, at the end of October 2017.
Each collection system comprises a 1km U-shaped barrier, which floats on the surface of the ocean and supports a 4m deep screen to channel floating plastic debris to a central collection point, for future recycling. A 100m prototype system has already been tested in the North Sea.
The system will leave from the San Francisco bay area. Image: Giuseppe Milo
The environmental cost of the Pacific’s plastic waste currently stands at roughly $13bn/year, while an estimated 600 wildlife species are threatened with extinction partly as a result of ingesting it. Plastic microbeads and particles only represent 5% of the plastics in the oceans, ‘but the remaining 95% will break down into small particles and chemicals that are already in the tuna we eat,’ Slat said. The larger plastics debris are all found in the top 4m of the oceans, the same depth as the system’s screens.
Plastic debris can end up in the food we eat. Image: Pixabay
Also speaking in Vienna, Emily Woglom, executive VP, Ocean Conservancy, said that 8m t/year of plastics goes into the oceans – ‘one city dump truck every minute’; between 2010 and 2025 the amount in the oceans will double. As much as ‘30% of fish on sale have plastics in them,’ she said. Most of the plastics now come from the developing economies, mainly in Asia, she added, noting that the Trash Free Seas Alliance, founded by the Ocean Conservancy and supported by the American Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical, P&G and the World Plastics Council as well as several big-name food and beverage companies have recently adopted the goal of launching a $150m fund for waste management in South East Asia.
How we roll. Video: The Ocean Cleanup
Meanwhile, Slat says that the mobile collection systems can also be used to trap plastic pollution closer to the source, for example in rivers and estuaries. Researchers at The Ocean Cleanup estimate that rivers transport between 115 and 241 m t/years of plastic waste into the oceans, with two-thirds coming from just 20 rivers, mostly in Asia.
The Pacific trash vortex forms as a result of circular ocean currents created by wind patterns and the forces created by the Earth’s rotation. Similar gyres are found in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and North and South Atlantic.
A huge challenge faced in the pursuit of a mission to Mars is space radiation, which is known to cause several damaging diseases – from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer.
And soon, these problems will not just be exclusive to astronauts. Speculation over whether space tourism is viable is becoming a reality, with Virgin Galactic and SpaceX flights already planned for the near future. The former reportedly sold tickets for US$250,000.
But could questions over the health risks posed hinder these plans?
What is space radiation?
In space, particle radiation includes all the elements on the periodic table, each travelling at the speed of light, leading to a high impact and violent collisions with the nuclei of human tissues.
The type of radiation you would endure in space is also is different to that you would experience terrestrially. On Earth, radiation from the sun and space is absorbed by the atmosphere, but there is no similar protection for astronauts in orbit. In fact, the most common form of radiation here is electrochemical – think of the X-rays used in hospitals.
The sun is just one source of radiation astronauts face in space. Image: Pixabay
On the space station – situated within the Earth’s magnetic field – astronauts experience ten times the radiation that naturally occurs on Earth. The station’s position in the protective atmosphere means that astronauts are in far less danger compared with those travelling to the Moon, or even Mars.
Currently, NASA’s Human Research Program is looking at the consequences of an astronaut’s exposure to space radiation, as data on the effects is limited by the few subjects over a short timeline of travel.
Radiation poses one of the biggest problems for space exploration. Video: NASA
However, lining the spacecraft with heavy materials to reduce the amount of radiation reaching the body isn’t as easy as a solution as it is seems.
‘NASA doesn’t want to use heavy materials like lead for shielding spacecraft because the incoming space radiation will suffer many nuclear collisions with the shielding, leading to the production of additional secondary radiation,’ says Tony Slaba, a research physicist at NASA. ‘The combination of the incoming space radiation and secondary radiation can make the exposure worse for astronauts.’
As heavy materials cannot hamper the effects of radiation, researchers have turned to a more light-weight solution: plastics. One element – hydrogen – is well recognised for its ability to block radiation, and is present in polyethylene, the most common type of plastic.
A thick dust cloud called the Dark Rift blocks the view of the Milky Way. Image: NASA
Engineers have developed plastic-filled tiles, that can be made using astronauts rubbish, to create an extra layer of radiation protection. Water, which is already an essential for space flight, can be stored alongside these tiles to create a ‘radiation storm shelter’ in the spacecraft.
But research is still required. Plastic is not a strong material and cannot be used as a building component of spacecrafts.
In the developed world, we have seen huge steps in prioritising our environment. The UK are just one of the many nations setting an example for a greener lifestyle, after they announced a diesel and petrol car ban on all UK roads by 2040. Worldwide, countries are introducing hefty fines to companies for irresponsible and harmful acts against the environment, which include deforestation and pollution.
It is hard to forget the BP Deepwater Horizon spill that devastated the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which killed 11 people and harmed or killed 82,000 birds, 6,165 sea turtles, and 25,900 marine animals. At the time BP’s CEO Tony Hayward said the spill was ‘relatively tiny’ compared to the ‘very big ocean’; 205.8m gallons of oil was spilled.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster was the worst marine oil spill in history. Image: US Department of Defense
In 2015, BP were told to pay a record $18.7bn fine to the US justice department and the five effected US states – Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas – that sued the company for damages after the spill. The settlement is being used to fund clean-up projects. However, fines cannot be the only way to enforce environmental measures on companies, as the system does not always succeed.
One of the biggest hurdles in promoting sustainability and environmentalism is teaching industry how they can remain working productively, but in an environmentally-conscious and responsible way, as too often compromises to become greener are easily ignored. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect companies to completely reinvent their daily operations, so experts need to provide realistic steps that industry can take to become greener.
Encouraging corporate sustainably is no purely a question of morality but a sensible business move. Evidence shows that 66% of consumers are willing to pay more for goods made sustainably and companies who show a commitment to the environment have also seen a global growth of 4% in sales compared to 1% of organisations who do not identify as environmentally-friendly.
Setting the standard
Unilever, whose brands include Dove and Magnum, are at the forefront of this movement. An industry giant in food and beverages, cleaning products, and toiletries, Unilever have made sustainability a part of its corporate identity.
Unilever are leading industry into a greener future. Video: Unilever
The company’s Sustainable Living Plan has surpassed industry standards. They have developed a sustainable agriculture programme that helps farmers and suppliers worldwide increase their productivity while respecting the environment they work in, as well as aiming towards a ‘circular economy’ within Unilever that will reduce waste by recycling materials to be used in other parts of the supply chain.
The company’s efforts were recognised in 2015 by the United Nations, who presented Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, with its Champion of the Earth Award for ‘his ambitious vision and personal commitment to sustainability.’
Plastic collects at the mouth of the Los Angeles River, California, US. Image: Plastic Pollution Coalition@Flickr
One of the core aims of Unilever’s circular economy is to use 100% recyclable plastic packaging by 2025, a step that has pleased researchers. ‘At the current rate, we are really heading towards a plastic planet,’ says Rolan Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California, US, whose paper on the fate of all plastics over time hit headlines this year.
Of the 9.1bn tons made so much by industry, nearly 7bn is no longer used and only 9% has been recycled, the study reports. ‘The growth is astonishing and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down soon,’ says Geyer.