What do you think of when you think of algae? If you're like most of us, you probably don't think about eating it. But check out the shelves of a health food store, and you're going to find a product called spirulina, a form of algae called cyanobacterium that's found in lakes, ponds and other bodies of freshwater. It's being touted as the greatest superfood ever that cures just about everything you can name. It's even been promoted as the panacea that will end world hunger, a hardy, sustainable food source that flourishes in diverse conditions.
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It's actually been around for centuries. It was consumed by the Aztecs who harvested it from Lake Texcoco in central Mexico. It's a foodstuff in west central Africa too, where spirulina harvested from Lake Chad in made into edible cakes. But its popularity as a dietary supplement actually begin in the 1970s.
When you check out those health food shelves, you'll find it primarily in the form of dark green tablets or powder, the latter usually added to smoothies or juices. And it is rich in nutrients. Dried spirulina is about 60 percent protein—and that's a complete protein, containing all essential amino acids, although lacking certain ones in the same quantity as meat, eggs or milk. It also contains vitamins A, C and E and some B vitamins, various minerals such as potassium, iron, calcium, copper and zinc, and carotenoids like beta-carotene.
Those are all known to have positive impacts on human health. Those who promote it swear it boosts their immune system, wards off colds, blocks allergies, treats anxiety and depression, combats fatigue, improves memory, ameliorates premenstrual syndrome, improves digestion, speeds weight loss, heals wounds—and maybe it can make you fly too!
Some preliminary studies have looked into the potential impact of spirulina on conditions such as HIV, stroke, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's and even Lou Gehrig's disease. So far most have been inconclusive although some have shown promising results.
"Test tube and animal studies suggest spirulina may boost the immune system, help protect against allergic reactions, and have antiviral and anticancer properties," says the University of Maryland Medical Center. "However, there is no proof that spirulina has these, or any, benefits in people. More research is needed."
"A number of animal and test tube studies suggest that spirulina increases production of antibodies, infection-fighting proteins and other cells that improve immunity and help ward off infection and chronic illnesses such as cancer," it says. "However, it has not been tested in people."
It also says that test-tube studies have shown some action against herpes, flu and HIV viruses, as well as oral cancer, and may protect against liver damage in people with chronic hepatitis. However it warns that those studies are preliminary as well. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also notes some limited studies that show encouraging results.
"An early study shows that taking 1.6 grams of a blue-green algae product by mouth daily for 8 weeks lowers anxiety and depression in women with menopause," says the NIH. "Early research findings show that taking 1 gram of spirulina blue-green algae daily by mouth for 12 months reduces oral leukoplakia in people who chew tobacco."
The NIH mentions other limited studies that show it has relieved allergy symptoms in adults, can protect people living in areas with high arsenic content in their water and that it appeared to increase stamina in a study of nine men who took it daily for a month. But it says that studies on its effectiveness against hepatitis and high cholesterol have been inconsistent and concluded in all these cases that there was "insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness."
One other drawback of spirulina supplements is that, to get the same amount of nutrients you would from foods like nuts, legumes, whole grains and meats, you have to consume a very large amount. And while it is safe even in very high doses and there are no known adverse reactions to spirulina itself with the exception of those with autoimmune disorders and one rare metabolic condition, it can cause adverse effects due to contamination.
“Some spirulina supplements have been found to be contaminated with microcystins, very toxic compounds not produced by spirulina but by related algae that can grow with it,” Dr. Randy Baker of the Pacific Center for Integral Health, who has taken spirulina for more than 25 years, told the Santa Cruz Good Times. "Some may be contaminated with lead, mercury and arsenic. Because spirulina can be a magnet for toxins, I am cautious about spirulina harvested from wild sources.”
But with no negative impacts for the ordinary person and the potential to boost health in so many areas—even if unproven so far—what do you have to lose by adding some of this superfood to your smoothie other than a few dollars?
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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