Biodegradable Bags Buried for 3 Years Still Work
The advantage of biodegradable shopping bags is supposed to be that they will not linger as long in the natural environment as conventional plastic bags. However, a new study from the University of Plymouth suggests that might not be the case.
The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Sunday, found that bags billed as biodegradable could still carry around five pounds of groceries after being buried in soil or submerged in sea water for three years, The Weather Channel reported.
"After three years, I was really amazed that any of the bags could still hold a load of shopping. For biodegradable bags to be able to do that was the most surprising," study leader Imogen Napper said.
“After three years, I was really amazed that any of the bags could still hold a load of shopping. For a biodegradab… https://t.co/H2R8G5Q9lu— University of Plymouth (@University of Plymouth)1556526764.0
Researchers compared five types of bags widely available in the UK, according to The Guardian: two oxo-biodegradable bags, a biodegradable bag, a compostable bag and a high-density polyethylene, i.e. conventional plastic bag. Each bag was then exposed to soil, seawater or open air for up to three years.
Here is a break-down of the results:
- The compostable bag had disappeared within three months in the sea water.
- The compostable bag was still in-tact after 27 months in the soil, but could not carry anything without breaking.
- All of the bags tore into fragments after nine months in the open air.
- Both the biodegradable and plastic bags could still carry weight after three years in soil or seawater; they were able to haul a box of cereal, pasta, crackers, cans of Coke, bananas and oranges.
My 3-year experiment is out today! This is a biodegradable plastic bag after 3-years in the marine environment, and… https://t.co/ubyIb1KUIN— Dr Imogen Napper (@Dr Imogen Napper)1556528630.0
"This research raises a number of questions about what the public might expect when they see something labelled as biodegradable," study co-author and International Marine Litter Research Unit head Professor Richard Thompson said in a university press release. "We demonstrate here that the materials tested did not present any consistent, reliable and relevant advantage in the context of marine litter."
Thompson told National Geographic that the biodegradable labeling can confuse customers about the most responsible ways to carry shopping and disposing of bags. They might think they are doing the right thing by adding biodegradable bags to recycling bins, when really these bags can interfere with the recycling process.
"If you've got bags with a self-destruct function, the recycler doesn't want that mixed in with other bags," Thompson told National Geographic. "They need known and consistent material. So the issue becomes how do you separate biodegradables from conventional plastics? How is the consumer supposed to know how to dispose of it?"
The study pointed out that successful composting required a particular process and a disposal system organized around it, which the UK currently does not have, according to The Guardian. Vegware, the company that makes the compostable bags used in the study, told The Guardian that their bags were only designed to break down in specific conditions.
"Discarding a product in the environment is still littering, compostable or otherwise. Burying isn't composting. Compostable materials can compost with five key conditions — microbes, oxygen, moisture, warmth and time," a company spokesperson said.
Both the United Nations and the European Union have rejected biodegradable bags as an effective solution to the eight million tons of plastic that end up in the world's oceans each year, National Geographic reported. Thompson is not against biodegradable bags, but thinks it is important that the right bag is matched to the situation in which it is most likely to be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way. For example, biodegradable materials would be advantageous at sports stadiums, where they could be gathered in one place with the rest of the food waste at the end of the game and disposed of in a way that ensures they break down. For grocery shopping by individual consumers, reusing the same bag as many times as possible is a more effective way to reduce waste.
"A bag that can and is reused many times presents a better alternative to degradability," the study concluded, according to National Geographic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.