Yet Another Problem with Recycling: It Spews Microplastics

“An alarming new study has found that even when plastic makes it to a recycling center, it can still end up splintering into smaller bits that contaminate the air and water,” reports Wired:

This pilot study focused on a single new facility where plastics are sorted, shredded, and melted down into pellets. Along the way, the plastic is washed several times, sloughing off microplastic particles — fragments smaller than 5 millimeters — into the plant’s wastewater. Because there were multiple washes, the researchers could sample the water at four separate points along the production line. (They are not disclosing the identity of the facility’s operator, who cooperated with their project.) This plant was actually in the process of installing filters that could snag particles larger than 50 microns (a micron is a millionth of a meter), so the team was able to calculate the microplastic concentrations in raw versus filtered discharge water — basically a before-and-after snapshot of how effective filtration is.

Their microplastics tally was astronomical. Even with filtering, they calculate that the total discharge from the different washes could produce up to 75 billion particles per cubic meter of wastewater. Depending on the recycling facility, that liquid would ultimately get flushed into city water systems or the environment. In other words, recyclers trying to solve the plastics crisis may in fact be accidentally exacerbating the microplastics crisis, which is coating every corner of the environment with synthetic particles.

“It seems a bit backward, almost, that we do plastic recycling in order to protect the environment, and then end up increasing a different and potentially more harmful problem,” says plastics scientist Erina Brown, who led the research while at the University of Strathclyde.
“It raises some very serious concerns,” agrees Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former US Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, who wasn’t involved in the paper. “And I also think this points to the fact that plastics are fundamentally not sustainable.”

Wired ponts out that more than half the microplastics can be captured with a filtration system. “Without it, the researchers calculated that this single recycling facility could emit up to 6.5 million pounds of microplastic per year. Filtration got it down to an estimated 3 million pounds.”

But one of the paper’s co-authors shared their discouraging conclusion. “The recycling centers are potentially making things worse by actually creating microplastics faster and discharging them into both water and air. I’m not sure we can technologically engineer our way out of that problem.”

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Another Ocean Climate Solution Attempted by California Researchers

The Associated Press visited a 100-foot barge moored in Los Angeles where engineers built “a kind of floating laboratory to answer a simple question: Is there a way to cleanse seawater of carbon dioxide and then return it to the ocean so it can suck more of the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere to slow global warming?”

The technology, dubbed SeaChange, developed by the University of California Los Angeles engineering faculty, is meant to seize on the ocean’s natural abilities, said Gaurav Sant, director of UCLA’s Institute for Carbon Management. The process sends an electrical charge through seawater flowing through tanks on the barge. That then sets off a series of chemical reactions that trap the greenhouse gas into a solid mineral that includes calcium carbonate — the same thing seashells are made of. The seawater is then returned to the ocean and can pull more carbon dioxide out of the air. The calcium carbonate settles to the sea floor.

Plans are now underway to scale up the idea with another demonstration site starting this month in Singapore. Data collected there and at the Port of Los Angeles will help in the design of larger test plants. Those facilities are expected to be running by 2025 and be able to remove thousands of tons of CO2 per year. If they are successful, the plan is to build commercial facilities to remove millions of tons of carbon annually, Sant said…

Scientists estimate at least 10 billion metric tons of carbon will need to be removed from the air annually beginning in 2050, and the pace will need to continue over the next century… According to the UCLA team, at least 1,800 industrial-scale facilities would be needed to capture 10 billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year, but fewer could still make a dent.
The article notes alternate ideas from other researchers — including minerals on beaches that increase the ocean’s alkalinity so it can absorb more carbon dioxide.

But this SeaChange process also produces hydrogen. So the director of UCLA’s Carbon Management institute also founded a startup that generates revenue from that hydrogen (and from “carbon credits” sold to other companies) — hoping to lower the cost of removing atmospheric carbon to below $100 per metric ton.

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How Did Earth Get Its Water?

Earth’s water could have originated from interactions between the hydrogen-rich atmospheres and magma oceans of the planetary embryos that comprised Earth’s formative years, according to new work from Carnegie Science’s Anat Shahar and UCLA’s Edward Young and Hilke Schlichting. Their findings, which could explain the origins of Earth’s signature features, are published in Nature. Phys.Org reports: “Exoplanet discoveries have given us a much greater appreciation of how common it is for just-formed planets to be surrounded by atmospheres that are rich in molecular hydrogen, H2, during their first several million years of growth,” Shahar explained. “Eventually these hydrogen envelopes dissipate, but they leave their fingerprints on the young planet’s composition.” Using this information, the researchers developed new models for Earth’s formation and evolution to see if our home planet’s distinct chemical traits could be replicated.

Using a newly developed model, the Carnegie and UCLA researchers were able to demonstrate that early in Earth’s existence, interactions between the magma ocean and a molecular hydrogen proto-atmosphere could have given rise to some of Earth’s signature features, such as its abundance of water and its overall oxidized state. The researchers used mathematical modeling to explore the exchange of materials between molecular hydrogen atmospheres and magma oceans by looking at 25 different compounds and 18 different types of reactions — complex enough to yield valuable data about Earth’s possible formative history, but simple enough to interpret fully.

Interactions between the magma ocean and the atmosphere in their simulated baby Earth resulted in the movement of large masses of hydrogen into the metallic core, the oxidation of the mantle, and the production of large quantities of water. Even if all of the rocky material that collided to form the growing planet was completely dry, these interactions between the molecular hydrogen atmosphere and the magma ocean would generate copious amounts of water, the researchers revealed. Other water sources are possible, they say, but not necessary to explain Earth’s current state. “This is just one possible explanation for our planet’s evolution, but one that would establish an important link between Earth’s formation history and the most common exoplanets that have been discovered orbiting distant stars, which are called Super-Earths and sub-Neptunes,” Shahar concluded.

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Shutting Down Nuclear Power Could Increase Air Pollution, Finds MIT Study

If reactors are retired, polluting energy sources that fill the gap could cause more than 5,000 premature deaths, researchers estimate. The findings appear in the journal Nature Energy. MIT News reports: They lay out a scenario in which every nuclear power plant in the country has shut down, and consider how other sources such as coal, natural gas, and renewable energy would fill the resulting energy needs throughout an entire year. Their analysis reveals that indeed, air pollution would increase, as coal, gas, and oil sources ramp up to compensate for nuclear power’s absence. This in itself may not be surprising, but the team has put numbers to the prediction, estimating that the increase in air pollution would have serious health effects, resulting in an additional 5,200 pollution-related deaths over a single year.

If, however, more renewable energy sources become available to supply the energy grid, as they are expected to by the year 2030, air pollution would be curtailed, though not entirely. The team found that even under this heartier renewable scenario, there is still a slight increase in air pollution in some parts of the country, resulting in a total of 260 pollution-related deaths over one year. When they looked at the populations directly affected by the increased pollution, they found that Black or African American communities — a disproportionate number of whom live near fossil-fuel plants — experienced the greatest exposure. “They also calculated that more people are also likely to die prematurely due to climate impacts from the increase in carbon dioxide emissions, as the grid compensates for nuclear power’s absence,” adds the report. “The climate-related effects from this additional influx of carbon dioxide could lead to 160,000 additional deaths over the next century.”

Lead author Lyssa Freese, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), said: “We need to be thoughtful about how we’re retiring nuclear power plants if we are trying to think about them as part of an energy system. Shutting down something that doesn’t have direct emissions itself can still lead to increases in emissions, because the grid system will respond.”

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Fully Recyclable Printed Electronics Produced Using Water Instead of Toxic Chemicals

Duke University announces their engineers “have produced the world’s first fully recyclable printed electronics that replace the use of chemicals with water in the fabrication process” — bypassing the need for hazardous chemicals.
Electrical/computer engineering professor Aaron Franklin led the study, according to Duke’s announcement:

In previous work, Franklin and his group demonstrated the first fully recyclable printed electronics. The devices used three carbon-based inks: semiconducting carbon nanotubes, conductive graphene and insulating nanocellulose. In trying to adapt the original process to only use water, the carbon nanotubes presented the largest challenge…. In the paper, Franklin and his group develop a cyclical process in which the device is rinsed with water, dried in relatively low heat and printed on again. When the amount of surfactant used in the ink is also tuned down, the researchers show that their inks and processes can create fully functional, fully recyclable, fully water-based transistors….

Franklin explains that, by demonstrating a transistor first, he hopes to signal to the rest of the field that there is a viable path toward making some electronics manufacturing processes much more environmentally friendly. Franklin has already proven that nearly 100% of the carbon nanotubes and graphene used in printing can be recovered and reused in the same process, losing very little of the substances or their performance viability. Because nanocellulose is made from wood, it can simply be recycled or biodegraded like paper. And while the process does use a lot of water, it’s not nearly as much as what is required to deal with the toxic chemicals used in traditional fabrication methods.

According to a United Nations estimate, less than a quarter of the millions of pounds of electronics thrown away each year is recycled. And the problem is only going to get worse as the world eventually upgrades to 6G devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to expand. So any dent that could be made in this growing mountain of electronic trash is important to pursue. While more work needs to be done, Franklin says the approach could be used in the manufacturing of other electronic components like the screens and displays that are now ubiquitous to society. Every electronic display has a backplane of thin-film transistors similar to what is demonstrated in the paper. The current fabrication technology is high-energy and relies on hazardous chemicals as well as toxic gasses. The entire industry has been flagged for immediate attention by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

“The performance of our thin-film transistors doesn’t match the best currently being manufactured, but they’re competitive enough to show the research community that we should all be doing more work to make these processes more environmentally friendly,” Franklin said.

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As Cold Fronts Hit America, Half a Million Lose Power

More than 126,000 Californians are without electricity, reports ABC News. But Reuters notes that meanwhile “more than 400,000 customers of Detroit based DTE Energy remained without power on Saturday, the Detroit News reported,” suffering through “a separate storm that clobbered the U.S. Plains, Midwest and Great Lakes regions earlier this week” that finally moved over the Atlantic.

And ABC News notes that as of Saturday morning, “more than 30 million Americans are under weather alerts in the West” — roughly 1 in 11 Americans — “ranging from blizzard warnings in the mountains near Los Angeles to wind chill alerts in the Northern Plains” near Wyoming. But California’s problems came from its own major storm that delivered heavy snow, record rainfall, and damaging winds — a storm that “will be moving from southern California across the entire country over the next few days, eventually moving northeast by Tuesday.”

The Los Angeles area saw record rainfall on Friday, and it came along with 50- to 70-mile-per-hour winds. Burbank, California, saw 4.6 inches of rain Friday — stranding cars in floods and causing dozens of flight delays and cancellations. Records for daily rainfall were also set at the Los Angeles International Airport and the cities of Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto and Oxnard…. Multiple stretches of I-5 in Los Angeles County were shuttered on Saturday due to rain and snow.

Snowflakes even fell around the “Hollywood” sign, reports Reuters. But bad weather wasn’t just hitting southern California:

In Northern California, San Francisco was expected to experience record cold temperatures on Saturday, and the National Weather Service warned residents of the state capital of Sacramento to avoid travel from Sunday through Wednesday as rain and snow started up again after a reprieve on Saturday. “Extreme impacts from heavy snow & winds will cause extremely dangerous to impossible driving conditions & likely widespread road closures & infrastructure impacts!” the agency said on Twitter. The next set of storms, expected to hit on Sunday, will bring wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kph) in the Sacramento Valley, and up to 70 miles per hour in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains….
A massive low-pressure system driven from the Arctic was responsible for the unusual conditions, said Bryan Jackson, a forecaster at the NWS Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

This week one political cartoonist suggested a connection between “crazy weather” and climate change.

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MIT Team Makes a Case For Direct Carbon Capture From Seawater, Not Air

The oceans soak up enormous quantities of carbon dioxide, and MIT researchers say they’ve developed a way of releasing and capturing it that uses far less energy than direct air capture — with some other environmental benefits to boot. New Atlas reports: According to IEA figures from 2022, even the more efficient air capture technologies require about 6.6 gigajoules of energy, or 1.83 megawatt-hours per ton of carbon dioxide captured. Most of that energy isn’t used to directly separate the CO2 from the air, it’s in heat energy to keep the absorbers at operating temperatures, or electrical energy used to compress large amounts of air to the point where the capture operation can be done efficiently. But either way, the costs are out of control, with 2030 price estimates per ton ranging between US$300-$1,000. According to Statista, there’s not a nation on Earth currently willing to tax carbon emitters even half of the lower estimate; first-placed Uruguay taxes it at US$137/ton. Direct air capture is not going to work as a business unless its costs come way down.

It turns out there’s another option: seawater. As atmospheric carbon concentrations rise, carbon dioxide begins to dissolve into seawater. The ocean currently soaks up some 30-40% of all humanity’s annual carbon emissions, and maintains a constant free exchange with the air. Suck the carbon out of the seawater, and it’ll suck more out of the air to re-balance the concentrations. Best of all, the concentration of carbon dioxide in seawater is more than 100 times greater than in air. Previous research teams have managed to release CO2 from seawater and capture it, but their methods have required expensive membranes and a constant supply of chemicals to keep the reactions going. MIT’s team, on the other hand, has announced the successful testing of a system that uses neither, and requires vastly less energy than air capture methods.

In the new system, seawater is passed through two chambers. The first uses reactive electrodes to release protons into the seawater, which acidifies the water, turning dissolved inorganic bicarbonates into carbon dioxide gas, which bubbles out and is collected using a vacuum. Then the water’s pushed through to a second set of cells with a reversed voltage, calling those protons back in and turning the acidic water back to alkaline before releasing it back into the sea. Periodically, when the active electrode is depleted of protons, the polarity of the voltage is reversed, and the same reaction continues with water flowing in the opposite direction. In a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Energy & Environmental Science, the team says its technique requires an energy input of 122 kJ/mol, equating by our math to 0.77 mWh per ton. And the team is confident it can do even better: “Though our base energy consumption of 122 kJ/mol-CO2 is a record-low,” reads the study, “it may still be substantially decreased towards the thermodynamic limit of 32 kJ/mol-CO2.”

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Single-Use Plastic Production Rose Between 2019 and 2021 Despite Pledges

Polluting single-use plastic production rose globally by 6 million tons per year from 2019 to 2021 despite tougher worldwide regulations, with producers making “little progress” to tackle the problem and boost recycling, new research showed on Monday. Reuters reports: Single-use plastics have emerged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental threats, with vast amounts of waste buried in landfills or dumped untreated in rivers and oceans. The manufacturing process is also a major source of climate-warming greenhouse gas. But while growth has slowed recently, the production of single-use plastic from “virgin” fossil fuel sources is still nowhere near its peak, and the use of recycled feedstocks remains “at best a marginal activity,” Australia’s Minderoo Foundation said in its Plastic Waste Makers Index. “Make no mistake, the plastic waste crisis is going to get significantly worse before we see an absolute year-on-year decline in virgin single-use plastic consumption,” it said.

Exxon Mobil was at the top of the list of global petrochemical companies producing virgin polymers used in single-use plastics, followed by China’s Sinopec. Sinopec also leads the way when it comes to building new production facilities over the 2019-2027 period, the report said, with more than 5 million tons of annual capacity planned. Exxon Mobil was second with around 4 million tons. […] Around 137 million tons of single-use plastics were produced from fossil fuels in 2021, and it is expected to rise by another 17 million tons by 2027, the researchers said.

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