Lurking in the Laundry: Part 2

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Microplastics under a microscope by GTM NERR (2016) CC BY-NC 2.0 on Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/LFuSy9

Last time, I posted about the issue of microplastic fiber pollution discharged in washing machine wastewater.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention my interest in the topic (as a clothes-wearer, water-drinker and eater-of-food) started with a series on articles on plastic pollution by science writer Lola Gayle at STEAM Register and Science Crush (Read some of them here, here and here. ) Thanks, Lola!

In addition, outdoor retailers like Patagonia and environmental advocacy organizations such as The Story of Stuff have been generating awareness about how wearing and washing synthetic fabrics can contribute to this pollution stream.

Check out some citizen scientists sampling microfibers from Puget Sound aboard the schooner Adventuress:

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Adventuress Microplastics – 090 by Schooner Adventuress (2012) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/dgunat

But as a science-educator and a concerned citizen, being informed about the problem isn’t enough. I also want to know how to take action. What can we  (both as individuals and society) do to both reduce microplastic pollution and mitigate its effects?

One reader suggested that nudity (ignoring for a moment the issues of frostbite and indecency laws) could solve the problem of washing clothing made from synthetic fabric (It seriously reduces the volume of dirty laundry!) This suggestion would also possibly improve one’s Vitamin D levels by increasing overall skin exposure to sunlight.

Other suggestions have included only purchasing clothing containing natural fibers (i.e. cotton, wool, silk, hemp),  whose fibers will biodegrade more readily when discharged with waste water.

But what if you already own a lot of synthetic-fiber based clothing and want to keep wearing it?  These fibers seem to be in everything, from yoga pants to t-shirts to wool-blend socks.

1. Reducing washing frequency and intensity.

This cat won’t let you wash his fleece!

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Anniversary picture by Eirik Newth (2007) CC BY 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/368UCw

Suggestions from Patagonia and researchers at UC-Santa Barbara include washing your fleece outerwear less frequently, and using a front loading washing machine.

Any machine washing will wear down the fiber and cause micro-bits to break off. If you wear your stuff a little schmutzy (as any TEVA educator will attest), you don’t have to wash it as often (ergo, reducing breakage potential in washing machine).

If you use a front loading machine (vs. a top loading machine) it lowers the intensity of the laundry agitation, reducing impact on the fabric and breakage of fibers.
The folks at Plastics Pollution Coalition also add: Washing in cold water (is less tough on the fibers), using liquid detergent instead of powder (ditto) and drying on slower speeds (less impact during tumbling.)

2. Improved filtration of wash water.

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mesh by Eric (2005) CC BY-ND 2.0 on Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/6eJbi

Another strategy is improving filtration of the washing machine water to remove as much of the microfibers as possible before the effluent is released down the drain.
Some filters, like this one, are installed on the washing machine itself to catch microfibers from the water. The filters must be periodically cleaned out and have the microfiber clogs disposed of in the trash. These were originally designed with septic systems in mind, because plastic microfibers don’t break down in a septic system’s biological digestion process and clog up equipment.

If you can’t modify your washing machine, the folks at GuppyFriend have developed a wash bag (like a lingerie bag) that will catch synthetic fibers coming off your clothes. Users put laundry in the bag before putting it in the machine. Then after you remove your laundry, you clean out the bag after each wash and dispose of fibers in the trash. GuppyFriend bags started with a crowdfunding campaign, and do not yet appear to be available to the general public for purchase. Will keep you posted.

3. Bioremediation

Since we’ve been washing synthetic fabrics for awhile, a lot of plastic microfibers have ended up in our bodies of water, as well as in our farm fields (fertilizers made from treated municipal sewage sludge may contain laundry-borne plastic microfibers).   The plastic microfibers are out there in the world.

Some organisms may be adapting to consuming and breaking down plastic fibers in our soil and water. For example, researchers have discovered that mealworms (darkling beetle larvae) appear to be able to eat styrofoam (polystyrene) due the special Exiguobacterium sp. of bacteria that live in their digestive tract.

Other researchers have found a fungus (Pestalotiopsis microspora) that can break down polyurethane plastics.

A team in Japan discovered a species of bacteria, Ideonella sakainesis, in wastewater and sediment samples at a recycling plant. These bacteria can eat a thin film of polyethelene (PET)- the same plastic used in water bottles and polyester fleece- given enough time and the proper temperature.

It is still too early to tell if any of these organisms (or others like them) will be able to tackle the massive amount of plastics humans have dumped into the environment. The fact that these critters exist gives me hope that microfibers may not be floating around forever. However, it is still better to try to keep microplastics out of water in the first place.

Lurking in the Laundry: Part 1

Or my love affair with synthetic fabric and shed microplastic fibers.

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Clothesline by Protopian Pickle Jar (2013) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/xh4Qz3

It’s a laundry day again (an occasion usually determined by running out of clean socks and/or underwear). I dutifully sort out my pile of dirty garments into hot, warm and cold washes. Bras and fine fabrics on delicate cycle. Add some bleach to my gunk-stained kitchen towels.

Here is a cute picture of a toddler captivated by a washing machine:

Little boy looking at laundry spinning in front loading machine
Jasper And The Washing Machine by Henry Burrows, (2011) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9HEw5k

Normally, my focus is on whether or not the washing machine in my apartment building is being used by another resident. (It’s not – Check!) But today, I’m thinking about washing machine waste water, specifically the laundry fuzz in the water that shakes loose during the washing cycle, and where it ultimately ends up.

This is not the first time I have been concerned about the issue of wastewater treatment.

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Where Does it Go? by PPJ (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0

This is the cover of my 7th grade research paper on wastewater treatment, circa 1994. Found while cleaning out  my childhood bedroom.  The colored things are supposed to be pipes.

Back to laundry. So from my particular washing machine usage, the waste water (which often contains little fuzzy bits of lint that come off of synthetic fabric in the wash) goes to the Downriver Wastewater Treatment Plant, which discharges treated effluent into the Detroit River. The Detroit River continues flowing into Lake Erie, and then Lake Erie water continues to flow throughout the Great Lakes.

That water flowing from my washing machine to River to Great Lakes still contains tiny, tiny particles of plastic fibers shed from the fuzz of my polyester fleece sweaters and other synthetic fabrics. Hoffman & Hittinger model this flow of microplastics into the Great Lakes in the December 2016 Marine Pollution Bulletin. (Note: Not all the microplastics come from washing machine discharge.)

These microscopic plastic fibers might look something like this:

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Microplastic fibers identified in the marine environment By M.Danny25 (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASnap-40.jpg

The problem with these synthetic microscopic fibers is that they’re … plastic. They’re really, really small, so they are impossible to remove from the water after the fact. They don’t biodegrade in the water (though they might break down into even smaller particles.) These fibers can absorb (and concentrate) other pollutants that are present in the water. And then these plastic fibers get eaten by plankton, and then work their way up the food chain into the bodies of fish and other wildlife, including humans.

The folks at Patagonia determined that fleece microplastic fiber shedding happened in the washing machine no matter how lovingly crafted from recycled-PET soda bottles the fleece was.  However higher quality fabric shed fibers at a lower rate.

As an environmental educator, most of my “outdoor” clothing (i.e. Teva Pants, long underwear, and outer layers, including socks) contain synthetic fibers. Every time I come out of the garden or woods to wash my mud-caked clothes, I’m contributing to this pollution problem.

To be continued…

 

Bad-Ass Librarians

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Timbuktu manuscript by Leslie Lewis, (2011) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9hv7Lq

I just started reading the book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. It chronicles the adventures of a group of determined librarians who rescued centuries-old handwritten Islamic manuscripts in North Africa. First, going house to house in small villages to collect and preserve ancient works from the depredations of dust, moisture and termites. Then later, pulling off a massive rescue to keep the assembled libraries of texts from deliberate destruction at the hands of Al Qaeda extremists.

I am lucky to have encountered many Bad-Ass librarians (including archivists, information scientists and Wiki-enthusiasts) in my adventures. I hope that some number among my readership. Their efforts at preserving and disseminating information have enriched my education and work life, as well as to satisfy my personal curiosity. I also continue to benefit from the easy accessibility of reliable information ensured by these data warriors.

Some vintage Bad-Ass Librarians:

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Library confusion, 23/12/1952, by Sam Hood, State Library of New South Wales on Flickr Commons https://flic.kr/p/9KZPGt

 
I remember in 6th grade, I had an assignment to create a graph for a social studies project. My mom and I went to the main branch of the Johnson County Public Library. A reference librarian helped us locate and photocopy a table of data from a US Government publication that I could use to create my line graph. Later, in my undergraduate climate lab, we downloaded NASA satellite temperature data to analyze differences over land and oceans. I use Wikipedia daily, to explore unfamiliar topics or confirm knowledge only dimly remembered.

However, information is only as good as the paper it’s printed on, or as solid as the computer servers where it is stored. A careless (or deliberate) hand with a shredder or unplugged computer can reduce public access to data sets, effectively eradicating years of accumulated work. A few weeks ago, I heard that a group of volunteers in Toronto & Philadelphia were rushing to preserve scientific data now freely available on the internet, lest policy changes by the incoming US administration decide to remove those data sets from public view.

Data Rescue events organized by scientists and librarians were popping all over the place, including one in Ann Arbor, MI. When they put out a call for volunteers (all you needed was a laptop and charger, no tech experience needed), I signed up.

We had a list of federal government scientific data websites which were parceled out to teams of volunteers. A lot of the process was figuring out whether data was stored on “crawlable” or “uncrawlable” websites. Crawlable sites could be tagged with a special tool that would automatically upload a copy to the Internet Archive. Uncrawlable sites required figuring out other ways of downloading data (accomplished by more technically adept teams). One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to check off “completed” sites from the list (many of the websites were circular and labyrinthine), and how to communicate that information to the other groups so that we didn’t duplicate efforts.

That morning, I sat down with a group of students, librarians and community members I had never met before, got some bagels and coffee, and got to work. When I stood up 5 hours later, it felt like only a few minutes had passed, but we had logged hundreds of web pages.

Michigan Radio reported on the event, which logged 19,000 links to the Internet Archive’s End-of-Term project, and preserved more than 1.5TB of data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It was satisfying to be part of a grassroots event that protected public data for continuing use by researchers, students and citizens, even if the Federal agencies make the decision not to host the information anymore on their servers. In a political landscape filled with rancor and uncertainty, it felt good to be able to actively contribute to a small act of resistance.

However, there is much more work to be done. For example, the USDA removed a database of information regarding animal welfare complaints from its website last Friday, drawing attention from animal welfare advocates. The work of the “guerrilla archivists” and Data Rescue volunteers has brought greater scrutiny to how government agencies under new political leadership limit access to previously public information.

For more news coverage of Data Rescue events, check out this list of publications.

Snow Hike

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Steps closed for winter by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

Shakes head at news. Closes computer in disgust. Puts on many layers, then snowpants, snowboots and parka. Goes for a hike in the snow. It is 25 deg F in Ann Arbor, MI.

A short time later, hiking around trails at Matthaei Botanical Garden:

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Winter Stream Running by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Me: “This feels much better!”

Hears strange chittering in the woods. Is it a bird?  No. Is it a frozen tree trunk squeaking in the wind? No.

There!  Three squirrels (maybe Fox Squirrels?) chasing each other around the branches of a very large tree.  Attempts to focus with cell phone camera prove futile.  Oh wait, there are now just two squirrels chasing each other.   Now they’ve stopped. … Oh, that is what is happening. I’ve turned into a squirrel voyeur!

Continues galumphing through snow for another hour. Am happy and cold and sort of tired.

Spots alien-like skunk cabbage sprouting at edge of stream.

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Skunk Cabbage crop (2017) by PPJ CC BY-SA 2.0

Enters Conservatory lobby. Removes parka & several layers, which are temporarily stowed on coat rack. Opens door to Conservatory, the smell of tropical plants and damp soil predominates.

Admires orchids.

Goes home. Opens computer. Starts to upload photos from walk and conservatory to social media. Starts to look at news again

Me: “Wait…”

Edit 2.9.17: Edited for formatting (replacing asterisks with italics) and correction of typographical errors.

Vit D: The sunshine vitamin

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Vitamin D Pills by essgee51, (2010) CC By-NC 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8XGA8R

There are few things more miserable, albeit non-deadly, than a cold. I was sitting on my couch, nostrils taped open with a “Breathe right” strip, my achy body wrapped in an afghan. By then, I was feeling quite sorry for myself, blowing my nose, and tossing a heap of crumpled tissues into the waste basket.

As I cradled a steaming cup of tea in my hands, my phone rang. I glanced at the caller id.It was my Dad. I picked it up.

“Hello?” I hoarsely croaked into the receiver.

“Are you sick again?” My dad asked. “Haven’t you been taking Vitamin D?”

“I’ve been taking 2000 IU a day!” I protested.

“Hmmm,” he said. “Maybe you should take more.”

Vitamin D is probably one of the most underratedly awesome contributors to human health and well-being. It helps build bones, and regulate the immune system. (Aranow, 2011.) Vitamin D may also help prevent heart disease and play a role in preventing certain cancers. (Harvard School of Public Health). As a human living in a northern latitude (approx 42 deg N) during the wintertime, I am the first to admit that I am not up to synthesizing all my own Vitamin D from sunlight and/or food consumption.

Humans synthesize Vitamin D from sunlight when UVB rays hitting skin convert precursor 7-dehydrocholesterol into Vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 travels to the liver and kidneys, to be come an active form of Vitamin D (Source: Harvard Medical School, 2009)

One of the ways in which Vitamin D may boost the immune system is by activating t cells, the guardians of the immune system that spring into action when they detect “non-self” invaders (i.e. pathogens) in the body. Per 2010 research paper at the University of Copehagen, after t cells detect traces of foreign material, they must become “activated” in order to become sensitized and effective fight that specific germ. T cells send out a chemical signal that triggers production of the VDR protein. VDR brings Vitamin D into the t cell, “activating it to hunt down and bind to pathogens. TL;DR: Not enough Vitamin D? T cells will not be marshalled as quickly to fight nasty germs.

So what’s a winter-bound, higher-latitude-located human to do? I could ingest more food sources of Vitamin D, like the injured Viking chugging fish oil in the extremely entertaining historic skiing movie, The Last King. Getting naked outdoors in subfreezing temperatures for maximal epidermal sun exposure is a no-go. (Frostbite, possible arrest due to violation of public decency statues.) Also, my relatively high latitude geographic location (Michigan!) in winter would reduce the incident angle (and Vit D synthesizing effectiveness) of sun exposure.

(It probably doesn’t help that my melanin-deficient skin’s causes me to cover up even in summer. This is what I usually look like when I plan to spend any time outside even in warmer months. )

It looks like the Vitamin D tablets are my new best friends. P.S. Cold symptoms subsided after a weekend with tea, soup and self-pity. Also, probably Vitamin D.

Visit to the Conservatory

When I imagined what Michigan looked like in the winter, it was something like this:

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Icy Marsh at Crosswinds by Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/PKfTvB

Turns out, as long as you put on long underwear, snow pants, sweaters, parka, hat, mittens and boots, it’s pretty fun to romp around outdoors in the snow on a sunny day. Even when temperatures are well below freezing.

But sometimes, the interminable stretches of cloudy days, intense (and not-so-intense) cold, snow and ice just start to *get* to me. Even though I put snow tires on my car, put a happy light in my living room and increased my dietary intake of Vitamin D, I begin to wonder if winter is my punishment.

To deal with the bleakness, I have been longingly poring over photos of gardens in high summer or ogling observations of tropical flora and fauna posted on iNaturalist.

After a rough few weeks, I think I have found another method of coping with Michigan winter: The Conservatory at the Matthei Botanical Gardens.

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Pink flower pop by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

I had a meeting early on Friday morning in Ann Arbor, but decided to check out the Conservatory directly afterwards. The temperature on the thermometer on my car dashboard read 13 deg F (-11 deg C). I entered into the main lobby of the Conservatory and gradually unbundled from my coat and other insulating layers. (They provide a handy coat room to stash winter accoutrements.)

As I opened to the door to the conservatory itself, I was greeted with a blast of warm humid air and the smell of green growing things. Towering green palms and bright color pops came into focus. It felt like entry into another world.

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cacao pod closeup by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My body (and my soul, too) soaked in the surrounding warmth, humidity and lushness of the tropical biome section. However, I couldn’t resist long before taking out my cell phone to record images to tell the story.

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Fluffy pink flowers by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My amateur smartphone photography expedition made it through the temperate and desert biomes before I finally ran out of battery.

For more images of my brief escape from winter (and the strange organisms that live there!), you can check out Protopian Pickle Jar’s Flickr Album Conservatory at Matthei Botanical Gardens.
 

World Soil Day – Dec. 5th

harvesting sweet potatoes in field
Harvesting Sweet Potatoes in Mechanicsville, VA. Lance Cheung, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2013) CC BY 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/h4Wf1L

In case you missed it, this past Monday, December 5th, was World Soil Day! Yay!

In this Onion piece, Scientists Make Discovery About World’s Silt Deposits But Understand If You Aren’t Interested In That. Similarly, you might gaze glassy-eyed at my exclamatory proclamation about soils, and move on to celebrity gossip or waffle recipes.

However, here at the Protopian Pickle Jar, I’m offering some reasons for blog-reading, clothes-wearing, oxygen-breathing, food-eating humans to get excited about soils!

Everything We Eat and Everything We Wear!
In TEVA, we taught the kids a chant: “Sun, Soil, Water, Air! Everything we eat and everything we wear!” Then, we challenged them to come up with an item that did not derive its existence from any of those things. (It’s rhyming version of the adage I learned in my undergrad earth science classes, “If it’s not grown, it’s mined.”) No matter what they came up with (plastic dinosaurs, fuzzy socks, water bottles) we were able to trace back its origin to a natural resource.

Every piece of clothing I’m wearing (including dyes, zippers, elastics and snaps)from my cotton underwear to my wool socks to my poly-blend shirt ultimately began with the soil. (Synthetics made from petroleum-based chemicals are mined from oil, which develops from long-dead marine algae, a kind of deposit of ancient solar energy.) Every item of food I eat – fruit, veggies, grains, meat, dairy, mineral supplements- began with the soil.* (Even food that comes from marine ecosystems is still linked to and dependent upon terrestrial soils.)

Ecosystem Services
While I was busy playing with the internet, earth’s soil bacteria are running the planet’s biogeochemical cycles. These soil-dwelling microbes are quietly moving the Earth’s carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur (and other elements!) through the biosphere using a series of metabolic handoffs. The bacteria may just be trying to get some energy (we might say, “Eat!”) by moving a few electrons around. Collectively, these reactions produce the atmosphere we breathe, the greenhouse gases and feedbacks that drive our habitable global climate, and fix the soil nutrients required for plants to photosynthesize.

One example of how microbes affect our environment : During the Biosphere 2 experiment, scientists sealed inside the closed environment faced incredibly low oxygen levels (dropping from ambient 21% to 14%). Barely able to breathe, the scientists could not sustain the daily activity required to continue the project. Biosphere 2 designers did not account for high levels of microbial respiration of the organic material in the Bio2 soils that were pulling oxygen out of the enclosed environment.

The Final Frontier
Not only do we rely on these soil microorganisms for the air we breathe and the food we eat, we don’t know very much about them. From the UN FAO Soil Portal: “Soil biology plays a vital role in determining many soil characteristics, yet, being a relatively new science, much remains unknown about soil biology and about how the nature of soil is affected.” We’re still learning how human activities affect soil microbes, often in unintended ways.

For more information, check out the Soil Science Society of America’s blog Soil Matters, Get the Scoop!