Is plastic-eating bacteria the answer to waste reduction?

Plastic. You can find it in the bottles we drink from, in the clothes we wear, in the chairs we sit on, and in many other products we use daily. Plastics can serve us for long or short periods of time depending on our demands, and by now, the majority of the world’s population is aware of the detrimental effects of plastics in our environment. Even with recycling programs, we still find almost 90% of plastics entering landfills or polluting our ecosystems. In 2016, scientists discovered plastic-eating bacteria to help reduce plastic pollution and reverse negative effects on the environment. 

An article published in 2018 by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) challenges the benefits of plastic-eating bacteria. EDF’s Chief Oceans Scientist Douglas Rader stated that although man-made bacteria could potentially help reduce the amount of existing plastic waste, releasing bacteria into the environment still poses a hazardous risk. We are unaware of how these bacteria will spread and should not be hasty to solve the plastic problem without further research. Relying on bacteria to decompose our waste is a great idea, however, it is not sustainable as we produce waste faster than the bacteria can break it down. Still, we should avoid planting man-made bacteria into natural habitats. 

Rader also noted in his article that: 

  1. Plastics can absorb toxic chemicals that can re-enter the environment if the plastic decomposes via microbes. 
  2. There are already natural microbes that exist and are feeding on plastic! 

On a positive note, an article published by the NYT this past October explained that in a recent study, scientists discovered that plastics can decompose in a few decades or centuries when exposed to sunlight. According to the article, plastic eventually breaks down into trace amounts of organic carbon when previously, it was known to decompose over thousands of years. Scientists are now concerned about available surface area exposure and buried plastics which are shielded from sunlight. You can read more here.

With all of this in mind, let’s work together to reduce our plastic consumption as a preventative measure. This important first step in the reduce, reuse, recycle hierarchy is often overlooked but can significantly help diminish plastic waste. So, try to avoid purchasing plastics all together!

Sensible Sustainability: 5 Easy ways to cut back on Single-Use Plastic!

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Americans tossed 3.01 million tons of plastic bags, sacks, and shrink wraps in landfills in 2017 while only about 9.4% of those plastics were actually recycled. That leaves about 91% of the plastics produced in America polluting oceans, beaches, rivers, forests, and other natural habitats, as well as our own neighborhoods! During the 2019 fiscal year, Georgia College alone recycled 62.65 tons of material which primarily consisted of plastics and cardboard. 

Even when we do recycle, many items are burned or shipped away to other places because repurposing the products can be expensive. China even stopped purchasing our recycled materials in 2017 because most of the materials they received were not actually recyclable. Check out this article published by WBUR that gives an in-depth look at the truth behind the plastics recycling industry. 

Plastic is found in the stomachs of innocent sea turtles and formed together into giant floating trash islands. In addition, approximately 1 million birds per year are killed after mistaking plastic for food. An article published by the Washington Post stated that by 2050, scientists expect there to be more trash than fish in the ocean. As you can see, plastic use is a big problem, so we have a few solutions to help you cut back on your day-to-day plastic use! Cities like Seattle and New York have already banned single-use plastics to cut down on municipal waste. Commit to these 5 simple switches to help reduce your single-use plastic waste so that we can have a greener GC campus and a greener world! 

  1. Substitute plastic straws with pasta straws 

Metal and silicone straws are fairly common alternatives for plastic straws, but they are not compostable. If you really want to switch to an eco-friendly product, try a pasta straw. These guys work just as well as a regular straw and can be composted after you’re done using them. They are a great option if you hate soggy paper straws as well! 

  1. Use reusable shopping bags when buying groceries

Caving into plastic bag use happens to many people. To avoid using these baggies, create a zero-waste tote kit to keep in your car or purse so it is nearby when you go out shopping. If you are forgetful, try shopping at a store you know will offer paper bags as a replacement so you can recycle after. Purchasing items like bagitos, made of recycled water bottles, are helpful when you do not have much space, but want to stay eco-friendly! 

  1. Switch your plastic ware to metal/glass containers

You can find plastic ware in kitchens across America. Replace these non-biodegradable products with metal or glass containers instead. For more inspiration to make the switch, eating from plastic products sends about 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles into your body each year according to an article published by National Geographic. We are uncertain how these plastics affect human health. For the sake of animals and your own well-being, ditch the plastic containers. 

  1. Exchange cling wrap for beeswax wrap or soy wax paper 

Cling wrap preserves food without the hassle of finding another container but unfortunately cannot be recycled. Instead, opt for environmentally friendly beeswax or soy wax paper to keep your food fresh. These products are reusable and work just as well as cling wrap and keep plastics out of landfills! Give them a try if you haven’t already. It’s worth the investment!

  1. Reusable Water Bottles 

Avoid purchasing those large containers of water at the store! Try a reusable metal canteen or other reusable drink container of your choice. If you absolutely have to purchase a drink stored in a plastic bottle, be sure that you properly recycle it afterwards! 

Living a green life starts with a choice. A choice of awareness, a choice of activism, and a choice to purchase products that will not harm ourselves and the environment. If you are just beginning to go green, take the switch one step at a time. Try moving through our 5-point list instead of taking on all of them at once. Going green should be a lifestyle, not a compulsive decision!

Sensible Sustainability: Clothing Edition

Purchase clothing that will last for years to come.

A little over a year ago, an elementary school teacher in New Jersey was praised for her sustainability efforts. Her contribution? One dress. In order to help influence younger generations into sustainable lifestyles, eighth-grade teacher Julia Mooney decided to wear the same dress for 100 days. She wanted to promote the idea of quality over quantity in a world where quantity often overrules. You don’t have to wear the same outfit for 100 straight days to support the idea of sustainability, however, you should try thinking about the quality of the clothes you are purchasing. 

Fast fashion, or mass-produced clothing by large retail corporations, has exploded in our demanding culture. We want things, and we want them now. This also applies to the clothing industry. Large corporations like Romwe and H&M create incredibly affordable clothing, sometimes selling products for as low as $3, but these clothes are not well made and often last for only one season and are then donated, returned to the store they were purchased from, or thrown away. 

Once clothing ends up in a landfill, it can take some clothing material up to 40 or 50 years to decompose, so it is important that we save clothing from the landfill and find ways for it to be recycled, or better yet, reused. Some clothing can be turned into insulation for homes, car seat stuffing, or even new fabric that can be resold. If you are not ready to shred up your tattered clothes, try up-cycling them into a new design or creating a DIY project with them. There are many different ways to keep your clothes out of the landfill. Check out this website for more inspiration.

If you’re a Georgia College student, check out the new Campus Closet located in the Student Activities Center near the SGA office. Students can donate gently used items, including clothes, shoes, and school supplies, and can take what they need and give what they don’t! 

Who says that sustainable clothing options can’t be cute as well? Check out Sustainability Chic for affordable, sustainable, and ethical clothing. Next time you’re out shopping, try purchasing more quality clothes that will last for years, just like Mooney. All it takes is altering your mindset. Yes, they may be a bit more expensive, but in the end, if you re-wear them enough times, the clothes will pay for themselves and our planet will be a little bit cleaner!

Australian Bush Fires: How Can Georgia College Help?

Kangaroos in aftermath of bush fires.

For the past few months, Australia has struggled to keep bush fires under control due to dry spells and increased temperatures. These relentless, unforgiving fires continue to burn urban areas, wildlife, and natural habitats, destroying not only the physical beauty of the country but also the spirits of animals and humans alike. The inferno requires constant attention from firefighters and rescuers, and although mandatory evacuations have been implemented in the country, many citizens desperately try to salvage what they have left and refuse to flee the area because they are afraid that yet another fire will engulf their new place of refuge. The fires also create thick smog that chokes out humans and animals. While some of the fires can be contained, the contaminated air spreads farther and more rapidly than the fires, affecting many more people beyond the burn areas. This air is at the mercy of the wind.

Australian hillside burning from bush fire.

The situation is tragic, but how can GC students help if we are so far away? Start by educating your peers. The more people that are aware of this heat epidemic, the more they can contribute to causes that can prevent it. Many people might think the fires in Australia have nothing to do with Georgians. That might be the case at first glance. Our cities are not burning. Our wildlife is not suffocating, but Georgia is not immune to the effects of increasing global temperatures. According to the States At Risk site, Georgia experiences about “20 dangerous heat days a year.” In about 30 years, the amount of dangerous heat days Georgia experiences is expected to more than triple. For now, Georgia can skate by, but in the future, we could experience similar disastrous effects in our region which means we should act now and support those who are struggling by educating, donating, and actively choosing to engage with green initiatives (recycling, reducing waste, using sustainable products). 

Koala in habitat before fires take over habitat.

The NYT compiled a list of articles perfect for staying educated on the topic, how to donate to those struggling in Australia, and rescue stories (The Australia Fires: Everything You Need to Read). CNBC also created a list of organizations that are willing to help wildlife and rescue organizations. While events like the Australian bush fires are not pleasant, it is important that we address such issues. Ignoring them will only worsen the situation. In honor of the new decade and the new year, make a resolution to go green and reduce your own waste, or donate to a credible organization in Australia dedicated to reducing brush fires. 

Earth Day

The annual celebration of Earth Day occurred on Monday, April 22nd. Earth Day is an annual celebration that is important nationally as well as in our local community of Milledgeville. At Georgia College, Earth Day is celebrated through an event put on by the Environmental Science Club called Earthfest. During Earthfest, various organizations at Georgia College, with a mission to help the environment, gathered on front campus to engage in different activities, including tie dying, painting pots, making environmentally friendly bracelets, and even receiving a free plant of your own to take home. Earth Day at Georgia College was a perfect opportunity to participate in activities that, at the end of the day, helped students learn more about the beautiful planet we call home.

Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. Mainstream America was oblivious to rising environmental issues at the time, however, the publishing of a book by Rachel Carson started the conversation of environmental awareness. Silent Spring raised understanding and concern for living organisms and the environment and also linked pollution with public health. This book took a stand against industry pollution and eventually led to the beginning of Earth Day a few years later.

The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970. Americans found themselves outside on the streets, in parks, and in auditoriums with a purpose of demonstrating a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. Protests were organized by citizens and local universities to fight back against the decline of the environment. All of the people participating in the day’s activities realized they all had something in common. This cause was important to even more people than they thought; about 20 million Americans participated.

New York City on the first Earth Day in 1970.

Earth Day of 1970 received a large amount of support from people from all lifestyles, backgrounds, and communities. Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Act by the end of that year.

Earth Day today is currently recognized as the largest secular observance in the world. Each year, more than a billion people join in on the celebration and take action that result in an increasing amount of policy changes each year. This special day is an example of how showing support for an important cause can be the beginning of change. Georgia College and the Office of Sustainability are proud to participate in a celebration that is so paramount.

April’s Arbor

April showers bring may flowers- so it’s time to get planting.

The month of April holds a holiday in which many individuals and groups are encouraged to plant trees to raise awareness about the important role they play in the environment. This holiday is known worldwide as Arbor Day. Arbor Day is celebrated in many countries, however, depending on the climate and planting season, the date of the holiday varies. This year in the United States, the official date of Arbor Day is April 26th.

The first celebration of Arbor Day took place in Nebraska in 1872; it quickly took off and became an international day where people come together to observe the incredible significance of trees in the environmental process. Although Arbor Day has been recognized for over 100 years, the importance of it is still extremely valid today. The long term damage that deforestation has on the environment is an issue that we face daily. The greediness of the human population has become so severe that the state of environmental problems, now more than ever before, need to be addressed. Continuing to celebrate Arbor Day is a great way to inform the public about rising concerns. It is easy for people to take trees for granted, but, to have a whole day commemorated in their glory is the perfect way to focus the attention on them for a period of time.

The sustainability team planting a Ginkgo tree.

Of course Arbor Day is meant to educate people, however, it is also a time to honor the environment as a whole and acknowledge all that it does for us. Humans are provided with an amazing world that should be treated with respect and that is exactly what this holiday is meant to recognize.

At Georgia College, Arbor Day was celebrated on April 2nd. Students and faculty at the university teamed up and planted Dogwood and Ginkgo trees across campus. The president of Georgia College, Dr. Steve Dorman, participated as well. Georgia College is a certified Tree Campus, meaning there are a certain number of trees planted throughout campus in order to enhance its beauty and improve the environment. Planting these additional trees was a remarkable way to add to the aesthetic of Georgia College’s campus in addition to educating the community about the significance of Arbor Day and all that it entails.

Dr. Dorman participating in Arbor Day at Georgia College.

Rubbish Turned to Riches

Landfills, disposal sites that are detrimental to the environment as well as human health, are everywhere. Landfills result in the production of leachate and gases; these gases consist mainly of methane and carbon dioxide. What if there was something that we could do to transform these harmful waste piles into renewable energy?

Group Machiels, a waste-management company in Belgium, is fighting to launch an experiment that will accomplish the idea that we can change the current state of the environment. This experiment would take place in Europe, a country where the amount of landfills that have been created is extreme. The company’s plan is to excavate the old waste buried in one of Europe’s largest landfills: the Remo landfill site. Like Group Machiels, businesses have been arguing that the contents in landfills like Remo could hold a remarkable amount of natural resources as well as financial profit.

The logo for Group Machiels, the Belgian waste-management company.

The process of excavating the Remo landfill site would consist of using plasma technology. Plasma is already used in different places around the globe to convert waste into energy. In this case, the landfill contents would be filtered for metals and recyclable materials, then the plasma would be used to increasingly heat the waste and convert it into a renewable gas. Essentially, instead of viewing these landfills as solely garbage, its contents could be used as secondary resources for various industries.

The extent of how full of waste landfills can get.

Of course, like any excellent idea, there are challenges. It is hard to get permission from the court and local residents. Machiels is currently undergoing a legal battle at the Belgian high court, however, they hope to have an answer this year as to whether or not they can begin this experiment that could change the opinions of many as well as alter the tragic state of the environment.

A Better Farm Experience

Most farm animals live a dejected life with the inevitable fate of being sent to the slaughter house to become food and protein for humans. Some of the conditions these animals live in are brutal, such as small enclosures or overpopulated farms. However, improving living conditions, health and happiness of farms animals has become increasingly important to animal-rights activists as well as everyday consumers. With more attention being brought to the caring of farm animals, farmers must change their ways to avoid losing profits. Government regulations have already been set in place to ensure more humane practices. For example, a California law enacted in 2015 requires that “all chickens, veal crates, and sow gestation crates give animals enough space to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.” Farmers would have to spend more money to improve the welfare of their animals, however, the effects of changing their ways could have more benefits than once believed.

Some experts believe that improving the lives of farm animals could be an important step toward feeding and protecting the planet. Around 65 billion cows, pigs, and chickens are slaughtered each year to be used as food for humans. This demand for meat is estimated to jump 70 percent by 2050 according to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The amount of farm animals that are slaughtered each year already puts a considerable environmental strain on the planet; if this number continues to increase it could become unsustainable. Stress and disease slow the growth of animals, so, simply giving them the chance to live happy and healthy lives could cause them to put on more weight with the same amount of feed. According to Daniel Berckmans, a bioscience engineer at the University of Lueven in Belgium, livestock producers could take a big step toward meeting global demand by avoiding the act of cramming extensive amounts of animals into already crowded facilities and instead, simply treating their animals better.

So how can this be done? Advances in technology could help farmers improve their farms and the lives of the animals it contains. Berckmans and his colleagues have been working on precision livestock farming systems that ‘monitor large numbers of farm animals and provide real-time warnings about infections, injuries, and other breakdowns, giving the farmers a chance to act quickly to prevent a crisis.’ To save farmers time and money, camera systems can be used to track the movement of thousands of chickens in a single barn. Berckmans is also working on utilizing wearable stress montiors, typically used by athletes, to be used for cows. These monitors will help make the system of farming more efficient because farmers will be able to tell when a cow is in distress. Many other techniques have been thought up by different scientists and researchers that are worth giving a try to help not only the farm animals, but the state of the environment as well.

A cow on Billings Farm in Vermont, a farm that prides themselves in the care of their animals.

As more interest in the welfare of farm animals and the issues they face increases, now is the perfect time to make the necessary changes. No farmer, or any business owner for that matter, wants their customers to think that the way they run their facility is against their values. Yes, the cost will be higher, but if we as consumers make it a point that we want better lives for these animals then farms will have no choice but to change their ways to avoid the breakdown of their company. Humans have certain duties to animals and it is time welfare is improved to a level they deserve.

Cleaner Air, Happier Life

Waking up in the morning and getting a glimpse of the warm sunlight beaming through your bedroom window is almost always a perfect way to start your day. Similarly, if it’s a rainy, dreary atmosphere, you may be hesitant to get out of bed, much less find the motivation to finish your to-do list. Well, according to researchers, who reported their findings in Nature Human Behaviour, there may be scientific evidence that proves air pollution, as well as the weather, can take a psychological toll on humans.

China is ranked number one in the world’s top three most polluted countries, with the United States following in second place and India ranked as third. Researchers wanted to see if there was a link between pollution and the mental state of citizens in China by analyzing social media posts. According to an analysis of 210 million posts on the Chinese social media site, Sina Weibo, comparable to Twitter in the United States, people tend to be less happy when the air is polluted. The researchers gathered data on daily pollution levels in each city and decided to plug this information into equations in order to show how pollution affects the day-to-day lives as well as the level of happiness of inhabitants of China. The researchers analyzed Weibo posts daily along with the city’s overall air quality index (AQI) and a variety of other individual pollutants; focusing specifically on PM2.5, a fine particulate matter that can harm lung health, because it was the primary pollutant during the nine-month study period. The results found that when overall pollution related to AQI declined by one standard deviation, the happiness index increased by 0.046. When there was a one standard deviation decrease in PM2.5 concentrations, there was a 0.043 standard deviation increase of happiness according to the avid users of Weibo. The results of the study showed that the correlation is small but significant.

Logo for Sina Weibo, a micro-blogging social media platform popular in China

Weather seemed to be a big factor as well. Air pollution affected the happiness of these individuals more on cloudy days than on clear days, and more on too hot or too cold days as opposed to a more comfortable temperature. Although elderly people were not considered as much in the study, due to their lack of social media usage, the Chinese government considers the social media users to be important because they tend to be a younger and higher educated group. If there is a possibility that air pollution correlates with their mental health, the government may be inclined to enforce more environmental regulations; a win for the environment!

Therefore, thanks to these innovative researchers, the next time you are unhappy, anxious, content, cheerful, or feeling any other emotion, take a look outside and see what the weather is like or try to go online and check air pollution levels in your area. Because there may be a previously unforeseen reason for your current emotional state.

Common Houseplant with Special Duties

Everyone loves to display a plant at home or in their office to add a touch of decor. What if that decorative plant could do more for you than just increase the aesthetics of a room? Well, thanks to researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, that is now possible.

These researchers have been able to successfully genetically modify a common houseplant referred to as pothos ivy. Pothos ivy is a strong, healthy houseplant that does well in low-maintenance conditions, so it is a common selection among indoor plant buyers. The task of this genetically modified plant is to remove chloroform and benzene from the air; two molecules that are too small to be trapped by air filters. Exposure to chloroform and benzene can occur when we shower or boil water as well as when we have garages attached to our homes that contain cars or lawn mowers. The primary exposure pathway is breathing in air that contains these compounds; this can happen at work, in the general environment, or even via burning candles. It may not seem to be a huge issue, however, both chloroform and benzene have been linked to cancer.

Chemical structures of chloroform (left) and benzene (right)

So, how exactly does this houseplant remove these harmful chemicals? Well, pothos ivy has been modified to exhibit a protein called cytochrome p450 2e1 (or simply 2e1 for short). When this protein is introduced to the modified plant, it then transforms these potentially carcinogenic compounds into molecules that pothos ivy can use to assist in its own growth and development.

In order to test the effectiveness of the genetically modified houseplant, the researchers made comparisons to the unmodified pothos ivy. After placing both modified and unmodified subjects in separate glass containers, and adding pollutants (chloroform and benzene) over a span of 11 days, the results were astounding. The unmodified pothos ivy did not change the concentration of either pollutant. However, the genetically modified pothos ivy decreased the concentration of chloroform by 82 percent in just three days. By day six, it was almost undetectable. Similarly, by day 8, the concentration of benzene had dropped by 75 percent.

In the human body, the protein 2e1 transforms benzene into a chemical called phenol, and chloroform into carbon dioxide and chloride ions. However, because 2e1 is located in the human liver, and is only activated when we consume alcoholic products, it cannot be used to process pollutants in the air around us. Therefore, the researchers attempted to solve this problem by using pothos ivy as a gateway so that humans can actually benefit from 2e1.

“We want to offer this to the public as a way to reduce a proven, real health threat”

Stuart Strand of the University of Washington in Seattle

The power of a plant is incredible, and it is amazing to see what researchers and scientists can do to further the use of different plants without causing them harm, but instead, creating benefits for the health of the environment and humans alike. Generating this genetically modified plant took more than two years, but the researchers at the university are dedicated to expanding their research to help break down other harmful molecules in the air. Thanks to studies such as this one conducted at the University of Washington, the decorative plants in your home or office may have a greater purpose than just being a centerpiece in the near future.