But the inundation of plastic debris doesn’t come in the form of plastic bags, bottles and straws alone—according to a new study published in Science of The Total Environment, plastic is now taking the form and shape of pebbles that look exactly like the real thing.
The small chunks of plastic are gray, round, and look just like small stones. Yet these new, tiny, rock-like objects are actually a new form of plastic pollution known as pyroplastics.
And because they look so much like real rocks, they’ve probably been all around us for quite some time.
Andrew Turner, an author of the study and environmental scientist at the University of Plymouth, told National Geographic:
“Because they look geological, you could walk by hundreds of them and not notice.”
Pyroplastics are the result of either plastic that’s been heated during production, or by yet-to-be-known processes in our environment. These plastics are subject to the same forces of nature as rocks are, but as they are tossed about with sand in the ocean, they shed microplastic in their wake—and could even be leaching lead into the ocean.
The researchers explain:
“Pyroplastics are evidently formed from melting or burning of plastic and are distinctly different from manufactured (primary and secondary) marine plastics in terms of origin, appearance and thickness.
Since pyroplastics have been retrieved by colleagues from Atlantic beaches in Spain and Pacific beaches of Vancouver, they are not a regional phenomenon, and it is suspected that their distribution may be widespread but that documentation is lacking because of a distinctly geogenic appearance.”
Turner and his colleagues researched 165 chunks of plastic from Whitsand Bay, home to some of the most pristine and protected beaches in England’s southern coast of Cornwall. They also examined similar litter from Ireland, Scotland, and Spain.
After measuring the size and density of the “stones,” they subjected the samples to a range of tests to determine their precise chemical makeup.
The precise origin of these ‘pyroplastics’ and related plastigolmerates remains unclear, but they likely form when plastic debris is melted or burned—either industrially or informally in beach bonfires—and subsequently amalgamates. pic.twitter.com/1h2OSEYD7y
— Ferris Jabr (@ferrisjabr) August 16, 2019
Using infrared spectroscopy and attenuated total reflection, Turner’s team learned that the samples were, indeed, comprised of the two most common forms of plastic—polyethylene and polypropylene.
Alarmingly, when they subjected the pyroplastic stones to X-ray fluorescence, they detected a range of chemical additives—and a high presence of lead, along with chromium.
What this meant to Turner was that the stones contained lead chromate, a common compound that manufacturers add to plastic to color them bright yellow or red. Over the course of years, these colors were dulled down by burning until they became dark gray. Sure enough, when Turner and his team melted down some bright, colored plastics in their lab, those too turned dark gray.
The study notes that the pyroplastics may have undergone informal burning, such as in a campfire, or were burned en masse in an incinerator or similar industrial, organized fashion.
The study noted:
“Evading ready detection due to their striking visual similarity to geogenic material, pyroplastics may contribute to an underestimation of the stock of beached plastics in many cases.”
And what’s most shocking is that many of these plastic pebbles contained wormholes, meaning that the smallest marine animals are eating them and passing lead up the food chain.
These plastic pebbles are also being ground into particulate matter as fine as dust.
https://t.co/7TN0rCyrJ4 via @ScienceAlert
"These small chunks of plastic – called pyroplastics – are created when plastic is heated as part of the manufacturing process, or when pieces of plastic are melted by unknown processes in the environment."
— AmyingHigh (@trashyamye) August 20, 2019
Rob Arnold, a volunteer who worked with Turner and helps conduct beach cleanups, explained to Weather.com:
“It’s these nanoplastics that are our biggest problem, through polluting our marine environment.
The smallest of sea creatures will be ingesting this plastic, which puts it straight into the food chain. As we all know, we are at the top of that chain. This is particularly scary when you consider that these plastics can contain harmful chemicals and heavy metals.”
The study notes that further research is needed to determine precisely how much of this pyroplastic is polluting our shores and releasing dangerous compounds into the environment.
As the team notes in their paper:
“Pyroplastics require their own classification within the umbrella of marine litter, and are a source of finer plastic particulates through mechanical breakdown and a potential source of contaminants for organisms that inhabit or ingest them.”
Scientists Thrilled by Discovery of Rare, Mammoth 400-Year-Old Coral
A massive 400-year-old hard coral discovered on the Great Barrier Reef has scientists expressing their sense of surprise and excitement.
Named Muga dambhi by the Manbarra people, the Indigenous group who have traditionally taken care of the land, the “exceptionally large” brown and cream-colored coral is located off the coast of Goolboodi or Orpheus Island in the Great Barrier Reef.
It is believed that the coral was spawned some 421 to 438 years ago, meaning that its age predates the arrival of Captain James Cook and the advent of colonization in Australia, notes the Guardian.
The spectacular coral is about 35 feet wide and over 17 feet high, and is double the size of the nearest coral.
Scientists and members of the community participating in a marine science course discovered the specimen earlier this year.
While not the largest coral in the world, the huge find is of major significance to the local ecosystem, according to Adam Smith, an adjunct professor at James Cook University who wrote the field note on the find.
“It’s like a block of apartments,” Smith said. “It attracts other species. There’s other corals, there’s fish, there’s other animals around that use it for shelter or for feeding, so it’s pretty important for them.”
“It’s a bit like finding a giant redwood tree in the middle of a botanic gardens,” he added.
It is likely that the coral hasn’t been discovered for such a long time due to its location in a relatively remote and unvisited portion of a Marine National Park zone that enjoys a high degree of protection.
“Over the last 20 or 30 years, no one has noticed, or observed, or thought it newsworthy enough to share photos, or document, or do research on this giant coral,” Smith said.
The coral is in remarkable condition, with over 70 percent of its surface covered in live coral, coral rock and microalgae. No disease, bleaching or recently deceased coral has been recorded on the specimen.
“The cumulative impact of almost 100 bleaching events and up to 80 major cyclones over a period of four centuries, plus declining nearshore water quality contextualise the high resilience of this Porites coral,” the field note added.
The specific coral has been given the name Muga dhambi, meaning big coral, out of respect for the Indigenous knowledge, language, and culture of the Manbarra Traditional Owners.
Greenland Ice Washed Away as Summit Sees Rain for First Time in Recorded History
For the first time in recorded history, torrential downpours of rain have struck Greenland’s icy summit nearly two miles above sea level.
Greenland, an environmentally sensitive island, is typically known for its majestic ice sheet and snowy climate, but this is fast changing due to a massive melt taking place this summer.
However, the typical snowfall has been replaced in recent years not simply by a few showers, but by heavy rainfall. The torrential downpour last week was so huge, in fact, that it washed away a terrifying amount of ice across some 337,000 square miles of the ice shelf’s surface, reports Earther.
Temperatures at the ice shelf had simultaneously warmed to a significant degree, with the summit reaching 33 degrees Fahrenheit – within a degree above freezing and the third time that the shelf has surpassed freezing temperatures this decade.
The fact that rain is falling on ice rather than snow is also significant because it is melting ice across much of southern Greenland, which already saw huge melting events last month, while hastening rising sea levels that threaten to submerge whole coastal cities and communities.
To make matters worse, any new ice formed by the freezing rainwater will not last long. The ice shelf currently existing on Greenland was formed by the compression of snow over innumerable years, which shines bright white and reflects sunlight away rather than absorbing it, as ice from frozen rain does.
The huge scale of the melt and accompanying rainfall illustrate the growing peril of rapidly warming climate conditions across the globe.
“This event by itself does not have a huge impact, but it’s indicative of the increasing extent, duration, and intensity of melting on Greenland,” wrote Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado. “Like the heat wave in the [U.S. Pacific] northwest, it’s something that’s hard to imagine without the influence of global climate change.”
“Greenland, like the rest of the world, is changing,” Scambos told the Washington Post. “We now see three melting events in a decade in Greenland — and before 1990, that happened about once every 150 years. And now rainfall: in an area where rain never fell.”
South Korean Toilet Turns Poo Into Green Energy and Pays Its Users Digital Cash
What if your morning #2 not only powered your stove to cook your eggs, but also allowed you to pay for your coffee and pastry on the way to class?
It seems like an absurd question, but one university in South Korea has invented a toilet that allows human excrement to not only be used for clean power, but also dumps a bit of digital currency into your wallet that can be exchanged for some fruit or cup noodles at the campus canteen, reports Reuters.
The BeeVi toilet – short for Bee-Vision – was designed by urban and environmental engineering professor Cho Jae-weon of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), and is meant to not only save resources but also reward students for their feces.
The toilet is designed to first deliver your excrement into a special underground tank, reducing water use, before microorganisms break the waste down into methane, a clean source of energy that can power the numerous appliances that dorm life requires.
“If we think out of the box, feces has precious value to make energy and manure,” Cho explained. “I have put this value into ecological circulation.”
The toilet can transform approximately a pound of solid human waste – roughly the average amount people poop per day – into some 50 liters of methane gas, said Cho. That’s about enough to generate half a kilowatt hour of electricity, enough to transport a student throughout campus for some of their school day.
Cho has even devised a special virtual currency for the BeeVi toilet called Ggool, or honey in Korean. Users of the toilet can expect to earn 10 Ggool per day, covering some of the many expenses students rack up on campus every day.
Students have given the new system glowing reviews, and don’t even mind discussing their bodily functions at lunchtime – even expressing their hopes to use their fecal credits to purchase books.