Plastic-munching bacteria isolated by high school student

May 25, 2008

Isn’t it nice when reality follows a TOG discussion on plastic bioremediation? A high school student in Canada may have isolated microbes that degrade plastic bags. As far as I can tell from the not-so-coherent news article, Daniel Burd created a bacteria-friendly environment (warm, wet, and nutritious) and seeded it with ground-up plastic bags. He then isolated plastic-eating strains and cultured them together with plastic. The most successful strain reduced the plastic’s mass by 32%.

Of course (assuming Burd’s results are reproducible), there is a ways to go before we can have giant vats of plastic-munching bacteria. Bacteria that can easily be grown in small, liter-sized cultures are often difficult to grow on industrial scales, and some bacteria can produce nasty byproducts (like methyl iodide, a greenhouse gas). It’s impossible to assess Burd’s results based on a news article – maybe he’ll continue his hot streak and publish in peer-reviewed journal. Still, plastic eating bacteria! From a high school student! Very promising, indeed.

Thanks to Sam for the link.

So we’ve got this trash-filled gyre, right? Can we fix it?

May 14, 2008

Before Miriam posted her most excellent explanation of what the North Pacific Trash Gyre really looks like, I had a vision for how to clean it up: A multinational fleet of mighty ships, their prows split wide open to admit the polluted sea water, slurping it up into giant filters to pick up the plastic, and spitting out clean ocean out the back. I can see them trawling back and forth over the ocean until, eventually, some bearded guy in a yellow rain slicker and a sou’wester wipes his brow, turns to his first mate and says, “Ayuh, we finished cleanin’ the watah.” And then Miriam posted, and I learned just how difficult cleaning up a Texas-sized ocean of trash with plastic at multiple depths really would be. Alas.

So how do we fix it? Over at Blogfish, Mark Powell lined up three proposed solutions: more recycling of plastic, ban the worst products, or a massive reorganization of our economy. In the comments, someone proposes plankton trawls, which is pretty close to my vision big ocean filtering boats. Unfortunately, there are serious problems with all of these ideas: banning the worst plastics might reduce the growth of the trash heap, but it won’t exactly clean up the mess itself. Same problem with recycling. I’m still keen on the trawl/ocean sucking barge idea, but there is that pesky problem of bycatch, in that you’d filter out any fish or plankton living in a marine area larger than Texas.

But then I recalled something about microbes that eat oil, when we have massive oil spills. Well, heck, plastic is made of hydrocarbons, right? Maybe there’s something that can eat plastic.

And thus I enter the fabulous world of bioremediation, the notion that we can fix biological problems with other bits of biology, most commonly by using bacteria to turn something toxic or polluting into something non-toxic or non-polluting. Back in 2005, Spanish scientists studied microbes that ate oil after a major spill off the Spanish coast. And recently some University College Dublin scientists evolved a bacteria to eat polystyrene, the main ingredient in styrofoam.

Now there’s companies that specialize in this stuff. A clean-up company called Ecochem claims you can use micorbes to clean up everything from the MTBE added to gasoline to fuel and oil spills that have seeped into the earth. I also found a fungus that eats certain hard-to-recylce plastic resins that get used in particle board and cars. So that seems promising, but I’m not sure fungus will do all that well in the water.

So, I’m afraid my search came up short, which isn’t too surprising, because if there was a plastic-eating microbe out there, we probably would have already set it to work on our landfills, let alone the gyre. Still, I have to think that if bacteria eat oil and styrofoam, then we can’t be too far off from finding one that will help us along with our plastics clean up. In the meantime, maybe those giant trawlers aren’t such a terrible idea?

The North Pacific Gyre is a video star!

April 8, 2008

David Meyerson from VBS.TV emailed me this video series on trash in the North Pacific Gyre. VBS sent a reporter, a producer, and a cameraman out on the ORV Alguita with Charles Moore of the Algalita Foundation (previously 1, 2, 3). The resulting film series is called “Garbage Island,” and is part of a larger VBS series on toxic pollution.

I have only watched the first episode of their 12-part series, but I strongly suspect they get to the gyre and find a soupy mass of plastic. Be warned if you’re at work – the density of F-bombs from the narrator rivals the density of plastic in the gyre. (Also be warned that this series may aggravate the latent hipster-loathing a hypothetical person might have developed while living in Brooklyn. But I digress.)

If you want to learn even more about the Algalita Foundation’s exploration of the trash problem, Dr. Marcus Eriksen will be talking at Scripps Institution of Oceanography next Wednesday, April 16th, at 12:15 PM. (set up by yours truly – *pats self on back*) His talk is open to the public, so any interested locals should come on by. Email me if you’d like more details or directions.

But can ocean trash be made into drysuits?

March 28, 2008

What to do with plastic trash? Clearly, make it into formalwear.

This ballgown was made by sewing together 12″ squares of the clear blue plastic backing from Plexiglass. The corset was made with mustard packets.

Personally, I fear that mustard packets won’t give enough support. I want my recycled corset to be made out of nuclear warheads. Or at least recycled guns with full  functionality.

More photos of the plastic gown here.

Ireland’s plastic bag tax successful

February 2, 2008

The New York Times reports that a mere 33-cent tax on plastic shopping bags in Ireland has reduced use by 94%.  Apparently it’s more of a social sanction than an actual financial hardship – using plastic bags has become tacky. I wonder if this holds for all segments of Irish society.

The only faint stirring of this kind of social pressure in the US has been the designer “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” obsession last year. People waited in line for hours to buy this $15 canvas bag by some extremely important bag designer.  The bag in question spawned a bunch of responses, including bag emblazoned with “I’m Not a Plastic Bag, Either” and “I’m Not a Smug Twat.”

Clearly, the New York model is ridiculous, especially since I bet the above bag is SO last season by now. But reusable bags don’t have to be snooty – Trader Joe’s sells perfectly excellent bags for 99 cents. Do you think that the US would ever pass a plastic bag tax? Would lobbying for one cause Americans  to perceive environmentalism as yet more out-of-touch silliness from rich white people?

Greenpeace needs remedial oceanography

January 31, 2008

Eric found this Greenpeace animation, which tries to demonstrate trash accumulation in the North Pacific Gyre. It’s really pretty – too bad the oceanography is entirely wrong. Why is the California Current sweeping through the Central Valley? (Does this mean LA has finally been swept out to sea?) The Alaska Current is not actually over the land of Alaska. And there’s an entirely novel gyre over by Japan – the Kuroshio Current has run away to Kamchatka. Compare:

Still of very very wrong Greenpeace animation:

Actual correct currents (courtesy Ocean Motion):


Oh, Greenpeace – I kind of love your costumes and your earnestness and your enthusiasm. I’m glad you’re out there lobbying and protesting. But Greenpeace, when you’re writing about the North Pacific Gyre you can’t just put the ocean currents every which way. Having the Kuroshio (the Gulf Stream of the Pacific) going the wrong way is particularly harmful to your goal, since it is the Kuroshio that brings plastics from Asia into the gyre. And when your incorrect figure is the second google hit for “North Pacific Gyre Map” – well, that’s way more embarrassing than being the guy in the whale suit.

Journey to the center of the gyre

January 21, 2008

The ORV Alguita (previously) has set off on a new journey to the North Pacific Gyre to examine marine debris. You can follow along with their adventures at their blog. If you’re a teacher or a student, they have a special school-related blog where the crew will answer questions.

The Alguita is run by Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who are the go-to people on trash in the North Pacific Gyre. They brought the gyre to national attention, and pretty much every single paper on the trash gyre in the scientific literature is associated with them, since nobody else is doing any research yet. (though NOAA has made motions.) The lack of multiple data sources is somewhat disturbing for such a big, high-profile issue.

I would really like to see a big oceanographic vessel make a trip out to the gyre. The Algalita folks do fantastic work, but their vessel is much, much smaller than the usual research size. This means that they can’t use large, heavy sampling equipment or operate in marginal conditions. For a size comparison, here’s the Alguita’s A-frame (those slanty white bars in the background), which is used to deploy & retrieve equipment. Here’s a photo of yours truly (in the baseball hat) operating the A-frame on the Sproul, SIO’s smallest ship.

Furthermore, none of the Alguita’s crew are trained oceanographers. There’s a lot of specialized knowledge out there about how to sample the big-ass ocean. (I don’t have it, being a coastal ecology type, but there’s a ludicrous amount to know.) A trained crew can sample around the clock, continuously, for the entire voyage. A small ship just doesn’t have that ability. The tradeoff, of course, is that even the smallest SIO ship costs $12,000 per DAY at sea.

Despite my nitpicking, I’m glad the Alguita is out there, and I am quite curious to see what they bring back. For any San Diego or SoCal readers, one of the Alguita’s crew, Marcus Eriksen, will be reporting on their findings at SIO on April 16th. I’m sure there will be PLENTY of plastic to go around.


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