Enter the Mushroom: Sustainable Packaging

Tonight, I watched an enlightening TED talk that is related to previous posts. I wrote eben bayer ted talkabout the Great Pacific Garbage Patch two posts ago, and this sparked the conversation my friend and I and our children were having around the campfire in my last post about Huntsville State Park. I had gotten them all fired up about the prevention of plastic and packaging ending up in our oceans. My son had this brilliant idea that we needed to find a celebrity to promote the cause of clean oceans.
Well, he might not be a celebrity, but Eben Bayer and his company, Ecovative, are doing just that – helping to keep trash out of the ocean by solving the problem of plastic and styrofoam packaging materials. What his company does is take local agricultural byproducts, such as cotton hulls or pea pods, the part of the plant left over when we harvest it, and then uses it to form a base for mycelium, the root-like part of the mushroom materialsmushroom. They process the raw materials, and then place this and the mycelium into a pre-formed mold.  In about five days, the mycelium has used the raw materials to grow fibrous strands that take the shape of what it is they are trying to make – such as the corner protection for furniture or TVs, the part that protects the ends in a box.

This kind of packaging is usually made of styrofoam, which then is thrown away and ends up breaking down into our environment. Styrofoam uses a large amount of petrol and energy to make, and is practically indestructible. It will sit in the environment for tens of thousands of years, it is projected. This alternative, the mushroom packaging, can just immediately be tossed out in the yard, will biodegrade rapidly and improve the quality of the soil, is very efficient to make, and makes use of raw materials already at our disposal.
It is solutions like this that we need in this time of increasing earth destruction. I was just reading this wikipedia article the other day that made this suggestion, albeit far-fetched, that perhaps the Last Prophet we are all waiting for is the earth itself – that how well we take care of it may be part of the great lesson mankind has left to learn. I think we have come a long way in our understanding of how we can take better care of the earth, but it is imperative we apply the knowledge we have gained so far in coming up with real-world solutions such as this.

Gryes of the World, and Great Pacific Garbage Patch

gyresmap I have been obsessing about the “garbage patches” in the gyres of the world since reading some information about them I hadn’t previously heard. In the book “The World Without Us”, by Alan Weisman, he tells the story about Captain Charles Moore, who in 1997 inadvertently steered himself into the largest collection of garbage in the ocean, a spot in the North Pacific Gyre that scientists termed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This patch, like others in the ocean, is formed by a combination of factors: rotating patterns of hot wind, resulting in circular currents in the ocean swirling into a vortex, and then the accumulation of trash from our rivers that empty into the ocean, as well as trash that is dumped directly from ocean-going vessels being sucked into the circulating vortex, like a big giant toilet that won’t flush.
The current size of this patch is estimated to be about twice the size of Texas, although it is hard to measure precisely. In 2005, Captain Moore began making references to it encompassing 10 million square miles – nearly the size of Africa. By this time, Moore had formed the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to study this patch and try to find a way to remedy it. Moore’s original estimate of the amount of trash in this pacific gyre was initially 3 million tons of plastic; an estimate corroborated by the Navy. Later, he went back with a trawling device and realized it was much more than that, and that the ocean in this spot carried six times more plastic by weight than plankton. It is suspected that 80% of the trash inside this patch, and the other large patch like it on the other side of the earth, originates from the land: flying away from landfills, dumped into our rivers, plastic bags on a runaway mission to join this collection and entangle marine mammals. The remaining 20% comes from ocean vessels, which contribute a shocking amount: a typical 3,000 passenger cruise ship produces over eight tons of solid waste weekly, a portion of which ends up in the patch. As early as 1975, it was estimated that ocean going vessels were dumping an average of 8 million pounds of plastic annually. More recent research quoted in Weisman’s book suggests the merchant fleet is dumping about 639,000 plastic containers every day.
The sad fact is that the ocean life is being affected in alarming ways from this.  “Ghost” fishing lines and nets can entrap ocean animals.  Animals get the plastic caught up on them and suffer as a result.  Also, the plastic bits in the trash are ending up in all parts of the food chain.  Some of the plastic slowly breaks down by the process of photosynthesis and ends up in small particles at the surface of the ocean, where it is consumed by filter feeders.  Small nurdles of plastic (nurdles are the tiny pieces of pre-production plastic resin) are consumed by krill, which then die prematurely.  These nurdles make up a good portion of the garbage patches, and act like sponges for toxins such as PCB and DDE, which then intensify as they attach to the nurdles, becoming 100 million times higher in levels than surrounding seawater.  Puffins have been found with this alarmingly high amounts of PCBs and DDE as a result of consuming these nurdles.  Seabirds are found dead with stomaches full of plastic.animal impact plasticSince at least 2008, concerned scientific groups have been trying to come up with a solution on how to clean up these areas.  Some of the ideas are really promising, like an idea presented at TEDxDelft2012 by a Dutch Aerospace Engineer named Boyan Slat that proposed using surface currents to let the debris drift to specially designed arms and collection platforms. Running costs would be virtually zero, and  the operation be so efficient that it may even be profitable. According to Boyan Slat’s calculations, a gyre could realistically be cleaned up in five years’ time, collecting at least 7.25 million tons of plastic combining all gyres.

Without a radical change to our plastics practices, though, it might be a futile attempt.  We need ways to package food to keep it fresh and free of bacteria that is truly biodegradable and will not contaminate our oceans and our earth as it decomposes.  We need to figure out ways to keep our trash in our landfills and not in our oceans.

For more information, see:

Environmental Ethos

It’s been a beautiful spring, and I have been cooped up indoors recuperating. One would think this would give me time to write some stories, but I had found so many other  projects to occupy my time that I haven’t had it to spare writing on here.  Mostly, spare moments have been spent brushing up on math skills to re-take the GRE.  Physical therapy and getting back into the world of work, chores, gym and kids was suddenly eating up my time.

I also developed some weird obsessions, like solitaire and cruising sites like Etsy and Pininterest.  Lastly, I felt like there was nothing new to bring up – I was played out. But I haven’t forgotten about this place, where I go to write about the parts of the natural world that fascinate me.  Lately, I have been thinking more about my growing environmental ethos, and where it might lead me.

I wasn’t that interested in environment for most of my life, shamefully.  I was really too absorbed in animals and my life, I guess, to really think about it.  Maybe I started spending more time thinking about it when I became a mother, as I considered what kind of legacy we are leaving to our children. Perhaps this strengthened interest in the environment grew deeper as I became more invested in geocaching and rediscovered the love I had for the forest, only to notice that it was full of human debris.  Or it grew wings from listening at birds of prey demonstrations, when animal ambassadors are used to tell examples of how humans have both destroyed habitat for, and provided protection for, species in danger of extinction. Maybe I have changed as the world has changed – even though culture has been burning through energy in exponential leaps, we have also been considering the impact as an energy-consuming society.

The main thrust of the environmental movement in America may have started in the seventies, but its message is still pressingly relevant today.  We have changed some of our ways, but not all, and it is now, in this generation, that the very real effects of global warming are starting to be noticed. Maybe it all does come back to animals for me; when I read stories about the poor polar bears marooned on suddenly adrift islands, or swimming 9 km in one day just to get from one land mass to another – land masses that used to be connected – I feel very bad to be a human.  We are asking the polar bear to adapt quicker than it is biologically capable – how many other species are we doing this to?

swimming_bearIt’s not enough.  This thinking and learning about environmental issues without taking action, it’s not enough.  Whatever we do to try to reverse the tide of consumerism, it won’t be enough to reduce our impact.  What can we do locally and proactively to help save this world for future generations, protect the forests and the animals, and try to set right the damage we have caused to the atmosphere and ecosystems of this planet?

Here are some local paths to action to consider:

Learn about upcoming legislation related to the environment and let your representative know how you feel on these issues.  Vote on them when they come up:



Making eco- friendly decisions: buying recycled paper, buying a more fuel efficient car, building a greener home, investing responsibly, purchasing organic foods free of pesticides, or starting a compost pile in your home garden, support your local organic food supplier, etc.  Leave me a comment if you want to add to that list.

  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average U.S. household is responsible for the emission of almost 60 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually.
  • Of this CO2 footprint, approximately 32 percent (or about 20 tons of CO2) is controllable:
    • about 9.8 tons through electric choices
    • about 8.9 tons through transportation choices
    • about 2 tons through recycling, reducing and reusing

Educate and involve yourself in the dialogue https://www.facebook.com/cecHouston/info

Columbia River Melt-Down

This is the Columbia River.

DSC_9320It is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, and the fourth largest river in the United States.  It winds south from British Columbia into Washington, then runs westward to the Pacific Ocean, forming the border between Washington and Oregon.

And in 15-20 years, it could be carrying up to one million U.S. gallons (4,000 m3) of highly radioactive waste that has reached it via groundwater contamination from the Hanford Site if cleanup does not progress on schedule.

The Hanford Site is the production site of the plutonium used to create the first nuclear bomb, via the Manhattan Project, and Fat Man, the atomic bomb used over Japan in 1945. During the Cold War era, this site produced plutonium that was used in the over 60,000 weapons in the US arsenal.  Production slowed by 1971, although the plant continued to function until the late 1980s.  The radioactive waste that was created was stored in 177 underground tanks, which are holding about 52 million gallons of radioactive waste.  The tanks were originally supposed to have a life expectancy of 22 years.

In early February of this year,Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee reported that there was small leak in one of the tanks.  About a week later, on February 22, it was announced that actually six tanks are leaking.

Cleanup of the waste at the site has been bolstered in the past through $2 billion in federal stimulus funds, but progress has been slow.  The site actually started clean up efforts in 1989, and a recent report by the Department of Energy estimates that cleanup will require another 40-50 years.  This requires resources from the government, of which budget cuts and competing interests may interfere.

Damage to the environment has probably been occurring since the 1940s.  There was a major leak in 1951 that went unreported to the media.  Between 1945 and 1951, radionuclides were being released into the air, and entered the food chain through cows grazing in nearby pastures on contaminated grass.  There was an estimated 685,000 curies of radioactive iodine-131 released into the water and air between 1944 and 1947, affecting the fish in the Columbia River that were an integral part of the diet of Native American people who lived near the river’s edge.

A mass tort lawsuit has been tied up in the court system since the 1986 release of 19,000 previously unavailable documents detailing the risk of cancers to those who lived downwind of the site.

Initially, it was thought that the land the site was on would be uninhabitable for 150 years due to contamination after cleanup efforts were completed.  The latest estimate actually projects that time period now to be 1,000 years.

And what happens if the tanks continue to leak, and no solution is found before all the radioactive material that is left in them leaks out into the river?  The reports I am reading online talk about the danger to the Columbia River system, but if it flows out into the ocean, how much of our marine life would be affected if we do not do something?  I believe we should keep a watch on this matter, and pressure government representatives to continue to financially support the cleanup effort to get that done as soon as possible.