Plastic-Eating Enzyme Can Help Save A Plastic Planet

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(H/t to Tom Hochbaum for the tip, and for the ideas on what to write about)

I was looking online for a picture of the garbage vortex in the south Pacific, and having a surprising amount of trouble. It’s this Texas-sized patch of garbage that, coming from the land and borne by currents, has been swirling and collecting for decades. It’s pretty famous, so I was kind of frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a good image of it, until I remembered: it’s the size of Texas. 

How do you capture such an image? Have you ever seen a non-satellite photograph of all of Texas? Of course not. It’s impossible, just as it is impossible to imagine a garbage pile the size of that vast emptiness.

But it isn’t a fantasy. It is real. Even though the garbage patch is dwarfed by the enormity of the ocean, the idea that the waste of our civilization is gathering, and gathering size, is sobering and terrifying. Here are some horrible details.

The Patch is estimated to cover as much as 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean and it’s made mostly of tiny pieces of plastic that are the result of the process of photodegredation. Since plastic is non-biodegradable, it remains a polymer while the sun can only break it into smaller and smaller pieces. Once these pieces are small enough, fish and other aquatic animals mistake the plastic for plankton and ingest it. Even the plastic that isn’t eaten leeches harmful chemicals into the water, including pesticides, chemical byproducts, and toxic solvents. As a result, the plastics and chemicals that are consumed by the fish end up in our food supply. Delicious.

 

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This is Henderson Island. It is uninhabited.

 

It’s unsurprising that much of the waste is plastic. Plastic is a genuine miracle substance which has inarguably made life easier, but which lingers for centuries, choking our rivers and seas, filling our landfills, manifesting itself with hideous ocean-carried wreckage in the world’s most remote islands or as microplastics in the Great Lakes. Plastic bags flutter like ragged broken-spine scarecrows throughout the sky, catching themselves on trees and bushes, or drowning themselves in the sewers, soggy with a wordless permanence.

It takes thousands of years for plastic to break down. Which is why we’re so excited that there is genuinely great news about our addiction.

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.

The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.

That’s absolutely astonishing. The natural evolution of an enzyme that can eat plastic is amazing enough, and shows the incredible flexibility of nature, which will eventually restore itself even if we kill ourselves off. It’s amazing that scientists could study its DNA, and tinker with it, and make it better, even if accidentally.

And it is just tear-inducing that they also think they can make it better. That they recognize a huge problem, have scoured the world to find a solution, and then, piece by piece, issue by issue, calculation by calcuation, they make it better. That they can use enzymes to offer hope in what seemed like an intractable problem.

That isn’t to say we should all start stocking up on plastic bottles and throwing them immediately away, because we’ve been saved. We should still strive to use as little plastic as possible, and recycle it as much as we can.

It doesn’t let us off the hook for the damage we have done, and continue to do. (Nor, I should state, is this a sure thing: there could be greenhouse ramifications, but that’s the best part of science. They’ll find out!) It doesn’t bring back the jetsam of our endless inventiveness.

It should still make you teeth-gnashingly angry, or at least frustrated and sickened, that we can wreak such havoc on such remote and unpopulated places, just by sheer dint of our material existence. And we’re all complicit. Lord knows I’m as guilty as anyone, through laziness and love of convenience.

But thankfully, there are a lot of people who don’t take “meh” for an answer. Thankfully, there are people who are working on mitigating and maybe even expiating our sins, and who can both invent new solutions and have the wisdom and flexibility to take advantage of happy accidents, of nature working in its own way to adapt to our impositions.

We aren’t saved. Nature doesn’t work quickly, which makes our outsized impact all the more stark. But it’s also true that our solutions are part of nature, since we are still, for all our inventions, part of nature. This odd and serendipitous partnership with a hungry enzyme might just be part of regaining that balance.

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Thursday Water News: Drugs in the Water, Messing up the Mississippi Basin, and Pruitt Takes Control

In last week’s water news, we ended on a sort of kind of happy note, raising a moderately-filled glass that Capetown’s Day Zero was pushed back until next year. It was nice to have a sort of kind of happy note! Water is good, and we should be happy when there is happy news!

This week will not have it. This week will end with Scott Pruitt, if that’s any indication.

Let’s get at it!

Drugs in the Water: Not The Good Kind

 

 

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Remember: drugs lead to jazz

 

Last year, I wrote a long piece about antidepressants in the Niagara River. It is one of my favorite posts on this blog, and won praise from a cousin who said “Brian, I love you, but you are pretty depressing.” It’s like a Pulitzer!

Anyway, the point was that antidepressants leeching into our waters were causing fish to not eat, not reproduce and to stop caring about avoiding predators. Really, it made them stop doing the only thing they were good at, which was: continue being fish. I thought the symbolism of it was a little on-the-nose.

 There is is something deeply wrong here. Our society drives people to medications, which can do good or ill, and the waste of our addictions and needs ultimately ends up pissing itself into the water, where it infects other species and drives them toward involuntary suicide.

Well, obviously, an enormous supply of antidepressants isn’t centered entirely around Buffalo, though you’d be forgiven for imagining that to be the case. As The Guardian reported this week, it is a global epidemic.

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Friday Good Reads and Quick Hits

It’s been a busy sort of week at the homefront, but we’ve got some exciting articles in the hopper for next week. In the meantime, to slake the omniscient society-hurdling thirst percolating in your word-hungry oppressed and power-lusting eyes (ed note: I’ve been taking writing lessons from Mr. Sean Penn!), here are some quick hits and good reads.

  • The White Sox, now projected to be among the teams with a 162-0 record, are also on pace to hit over 900 home runs this year, a new MLB high mark! In a year that’s between rebuilding and contending, that was a fun start. Matt Davidson has been the forgotten man, going from a top prospect to bust to a steady player. I don’t really expect him to hit three dingers every game (which I think is generous and understanding of me), but he has undeniable raw power, and could become a genuine steadying surprise. As it is, this is the weirdest and worst off day in baseball history.
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Giancarlo Davidson

  • Sticking with baseball for one more second, read David Roth’s little piece on Rickey Henderson the Involved Landlord. He’s exactly how you’d expect Rickey to be, sweeping the floors with his own nutball perfectionism, even explaining, in the traditional third person, that ‘Rickey needs Rickey’s houses to be clean!” It’s a bit of fluff, but a fun brief look at one of the 10 greatest, and probably 10 weirdest, baseballers of all time. And while you’re at it, take a look at Rickey’s stats. Did you know he led the league in stolen bases in 1998, 18 years after the first time he did? That’s nuts. Granted, 66 wasn’t super high for him, but it still would have led the league last year. Actually, it’s only been surpassed 5 times in the last two decades. That’s partly because we’ve gotten smarter about the risk/reward of a stolen base, but to reiterate my earlier point: that’s nuts.
  • All right, slightly more serious: read Peter Salisbury’s latest in-depth report on Yemen for Chatham House, this time on the Southern Question. I don’t think there is any question that the south is key to all of Yemen, and it is being largely ignored in the Saudi/Houthi/US/GCC/Qaeda-ISIS mix. But the Southern Question is really asking “what is Yemen“, and the answer doesn’t seem to be reflected in anyone’s policy. This piece is comprehensive and important, and you should read it all.
  • As a side note, Salisbury’s piece and a maybe-poorly-worded tweet by me spurred a bunch of private conversations, some angry but mostly civil, with southern Yemenis. I’m working on a long piece about the Southern Question that was born of those conversations, and obviously influenced by Salisbury’s great paper.
  • Alana Semuels has a harrowing piece on poverty and segregation in Chicago, making the what-should-be-obvious-point, often completely ignored in our politics and punditry, that “people at the bottom are struggling as much as they always have, if not more—illustrating that it’s not just the white rural poor who are being left behind in today’s economy.” Chicago is vibrant and wealthy and beautiful, filled with fit and educated people biking along luxurious lakefront trails and eating at incredible restaurants, and it is a scuffling dangerous and violent city, where life can be snuffed out in a flash of an instant, the police are another gang, and opportunity is denied by dint of education, by the misery of geography, and by the willful neglect of history. Something as simple as a rail line means the difference between getting a job and staying poor. These two cities rarely intersect.
  • This was illustrated to me at the March for Our Lives on Chicago’s near west side last week. The rally was held in Union Square, now at the far end of one of the hottest restuarant-and-condo districts in the city, which until recently was a meat-packing district. Beyond it a few blocks, the city becomes the “other city”. The rally was filled with the Good Sign Crowd, as boisterous as we were at the women’s marches. But the students, who live in the forgotten Chicago, weren’t interested in the NRA or in Trump or even, really, in Parkland. They reminded us, without pulling any punches, that they were afraid for their lives every day, and that a vast system, in which the petty bloodmanship of the NRA only played a part, kept them oppressed and poor. Those were the two cities colliding; then half of us walked back east, back toward downtown, back toward the gleaming skyscrapers and cool brunch places and open suburbs. The other went back to their lives.
  • London could face water scarcity in 2040! As Circle of Blue points out,  “demand for water could outstrip London’s supply by 2040″, by as much as 20%. Maybe when the rich areas of the world start to run out of water, as opposed to just the poor hot places, we might take it seriously. Ah, but 2040 is a long time away, right? There’s no need for…for…
  • Unrelatedly, 2040 from 2018 is equidistant as 2018 is from 1996.
  • But of course, things don’t just get bad the year of projections. It’s steadily worse. Like, when they say the seas will rise X meters by 2100, it’s not like we’ll go to bed dry and wake up deluged. Climate change is already happening, and happening quickly. That’s the point of this Inverse article about the record rate of arctic ice disappearance. The ice disappears because the planet is getting warmer, and disappearing ice means less solar reflection, which means more heat trapped on the planet. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, which is why long-term projections might actually be optimistic.
  • Another stark reminder of that is Noah Sneider’s Letter from Siberia, in this month’s Harper’s. Titled “Cursed Fields”, it is about an anthrax outbreak that slaughtered reindeer in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, where reindeer are the primary economic driver for the Nenet people. While there are some who think the anthrax (or some other poison) was spread by Gazprom to drive away the locals in order to access the sweet sweet oil and gas of the peninsula, the probable truth is even more terrifying. Global warming is melting the permafrost (as seen in vast sinkholes and methane explosions, another self-reinforcing cycles), and unleashing microbes dormant from earlier outbreaks. And maybe even earlier diseases to which we aren’t immune. It’s a gripping piece, and a great look at a life in a vast and difficult land, an old way of life uprooted, for ill and for good, by oil and gas in the last century. Sneider also points out that Russia stands to benefit enormously from the treasures unlocked by a melting permafrost, which go hand-in-hand with the diseases pouring forth.
  • Happy Easter and Passover to everyone celebrating. Easter isn’t my favorite holiday, per se, but it might be my favorite one to celebrate. We go to my Aunt Marilyn’s house, as we have every year since I was born. She, and my Uncle Leo while he was alive, lived in the same house for that entire time, raised a family, had us over every year. It is in Wheeling, which is now a booming suburb, but when they moved there was past the outskirts of Chicagoland. Even when we were going there when I was growing up, there was farmland all around their little pocket of houses. It struck me as odd and exotic then, and I felt a powerful nostalgia for it that I couldn’t place, even while it was still there. Maybe it was just being there once a year, every spring, in dewy and never-quite-warm days, but I always felt an intense and unspeakable loss for the day even while I was there, even while I was a kid. And every year the farmlands got smaller, subdivisions were built, and now those subdivisions are old, showing their age, part of the landscape. The slow flattening of America caught up to it, homogenized. But I still see parts of the openness I remember, in carved out fields filled with power lines, in old drainage ponds that used to be for irrigation, in cul-de-sacs that seemed designed for Spielbergian heroes in that 80s borderland of sameness and weirdness, of suburbia and the still-wild rural areas in which monsters lurked. That’s gone now. It was fleeting even while it existed. But you know what they say: you can’t stop progress.

bloom

  • But, on the plus side, I can always say “I remember when this was all farmland”, and feel good and properly old.

Michigan Water Bill Sums Up War Against the Common Good in Great Lakes

Remember last week, when we had all those lovely pictures of the Great Lakes? And were happy? Well, that’s done with. There’s no more time for lazy beer-drinking bocce along a sun-kissed Lake Michigan shoreline*. The war against the lakes and against the common good as a whole continues apace.

 

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A sort-of-adorable reminder that enormous lakes can disappear.

 

(*There’s always time for that. Holy moly, I can’t wait for the summer.)

A bill has been working its way through the Michigan legislature the last couple of weeks, and is pending a vote. This is the sort of bill that pundits call “business friendly”, but the rest of us might call “an abdication of our natural rights to corporate overlords.” Let’s let the Petoeksy News explain:

House Bill 5638, introduced by state Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, would eliminate current Department of Environmental Quality requirements for some large water withdrawals proposed by businesses and farms to be screened through an online assessment tool at the agency’s website. This tool is intended to be used prior to large-quantity withdrawals — those of 100,000 gallons or more per day — to determine the impact on local water resources.

Rather than using the current review process, the legislation would allow some applicants instead to seek approval based on hydrological analyses they submit, completed by a hydrologist of their choosing.

 Now, reader, I confess I don’t know exactly how onerous the Michigan DEQ is when approving withdrawals. It might be very costly and time-consuming, and may have an overall negative economic impact that (somehow) outweighs the good it does.
It’s a pretty simple public interface in which the farmer plugs in their needs, and an algorithm determines if it is approved or there needs to be more investigation.  Apparently, some farmers can wait months for an approval.  It was meant to be unbiased, but can obviusly be slow and unwieldly. Maybe it needs reform and streamlining.
This isn’t it.

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Clean Water is a Common Good. That’s Why Its Access is Being Limited.

Pictured: Not Tang.

“Brackish” is a wonderfully descriptive word; it is nearly onomatopoetic in its immediate salinity. It has a scaly tangibility to it, and contains within it an instant shudder. “Brack” is the sound you make when you taste something undrinkable, something wrong, something poisonous.

But for too many Americans, that is the reality of their water. It is choking, dirty, and dangerous. It is the opposite of what water should be. It has been degraded by capitalism and left to fester by the people elected to remember the forgotten.

This is laid out in stark detail by Sarah Jones and Emily Atkin at the resurgent The New Republic, in an article titled, with no pulled punches, Rural America’s Drinking Water Crisis.

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Programming Notes and Quick Hits!

 

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Quick hits, see.

 

Sorry for the slow week. We’ll be doing a lot of blogging next week, as the Presidents of the United States and North Korea flip through their dictionaries to find the most obscure insults they can understand (Un will call Trump a “dew-beating wandrought” and Trump will respond with “very bad and very sick ‘Rocket Man'”). It’ll be fun.

I had a whole Quick Hits and Weekend Reads planned out, but as I went through the stuff I collected during the week, it was all really depressing. I understand that isn’t unusual here, but after another stupid and hateful week, just didn’t want to do to any of you.

If you’re interested, you can read about how 1.3 billion people live on environmentally and agriculturally degraded land, or how dangerous Pipeline 5 under the Great Lakes is (something we’ve talked about), or how lead in Flint’s water led to a far higher rate of fetal deaths and infertility, which the party of pro-life is content to ignore because privatizing water is a goal unto itself.

Or don’t read any of that! Have fun instead. Go play outside.

If you want one cheerful-ish read, the good people at Circle of Blue have an extensive report on how California’s Clean Water for All law is working. California was the first state to declare access to clean water a human right, and the impact that has had on distribution and sanitation has really borne fruit. Even during a drought, and even when water usage and distribution is a political football (see the surprising new block to the  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnel plan, which would have reengineered the state’s water supply), people in California are getting clean water.

That shows what happens when a government understands that water is for the people. It is a human right, a basic right, and our politics should be geared around ensuring that it works for everyone. It shouldn’t be based on figuring out who can profit from it.

But that’s not the GOP line. Everything should be sold. If it can be carved up, chopped up, and taken from people without political clout, it should be. Everything for profit. I swear to Moses, we’re about a year or two away from hearing Doocey say “Water isn’t a right, it’s a privilege!”

But the California experiment in basic decency serves as an elegant rebuttal to all that. So drink up, in whatever liquid you find fits a celebration. Even if things are dark, raise one up. Why not? Dark times call for good times. It’s the one light we have.

 

 

Weekend Good Reads and Quick Thoughts: Chelsea Manning, Gitmo, The Sinking East Coast, and More

This is the last weekend of the year you are legally allowed to listen to this song. 

I always want to do “Quick Hits” and such because I think they’ll be shorter, but they never are. Anyway, here are a few scatterings on some stories as well as things you should read, if you don’t have anything else going on during summer weekend, as summer blazes up once again to send us into the fall.

Let’s do this gossip column style.

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