In case you missed it, this past Tuesday, December 5th, was World Soil Day! (I realize I commemorated it belatedly last year, too.) Maybe soil is a little like the heroine of “Sixteen Candles,” ignored on her birthday while chaos rages all around her. It’s easy to take soil for granted, even as it stands as this firmament beneath our feet. But don’t worry, soil, whether you’re caught in our fingernails or nitrogenating below a blanket of snow, plenty of folks are thinking about how awesome you are.
The amazing folks at the Land Institute in Salina, KS are doing some pretty nifty research on creating prairie agricultural ecosystems, including the development of perennial crops. These perennials plants help stash more soil organic matter conventional agriculture with annual plants. One of these perennial grains they’ve developed, Kernza, is now available fermented into beer!
We love you, soil. We might call you “dirt” sometimes, but we mean it fondly.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Or my love affair with synthetic fabric and shed microplastic fibers.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
In Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, knowing a person or animal or object’s “true name” gives a wizard power over him or her or it. Therefore, humans (and other sentient beings, like Dragons) take particular care to avoid sharing their true names with others, lest they be compelled by a power-hungry wizard.
I first learned about Linnean taxonomy, and the practice of classifying organisms by binomial nomenclature (e.g. Homo sapiens) in my middle school science classes. This was also about the same time I was reading the Earthsea books. Not surprisingly, these two concepts, The Rule of Names and the taxonomy of biological naming, remained linked in my mind for a long time.
My field notebooks looked sort of like this. DG_1_023 Myristicaceae by Aber TREC, (2014) CC By-NC 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/py7Eae
In my field science courses in college, I was an omnivorous species identifier. Samples of Sonoran desert plants (well, the ones that would smush flat) made their way into my field notebooks, with carefully labeled common and scientific names. With each new named species, it felt like I was slowly mastering control over my unfamiliar environment. If only I could learn all the names, I would know everything about the ecosystem.
When I got to TEVA, teaching environmental education, I was surprised that we were discouraged from telling kids an organism’s names (common or scientific) outright in response to the question, “What is that?”
Instead, of answering with “Oh, that’s an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis,)” our training was to turn the question around to the kids.
“What do you notice about it? What about its color, smell, or texture can you describe?”
The best part was that kids would come up with their own names for plants based on their observations and continue to identify them for the rest of the time we were on the trail. For example, Eastern Hemlock became “Dragon Tree” (because of its large floppy wing-like branches and white-striped scales). It was only later that we told them the “real” names of the organisms, or let them look them up in a field guide by characteristics.
Some of my favorite names students came up with were Bubble Gum Slime (aka Lycogala epidedrum – a pink slime mold); Smurf Caps (aka Lactarius indigo – a mushroom that oozed blue goo); Ghost Roses (aka Monotropa uniflora – a flower-like bleached white plant); and Velcro balls (aka Arctium minus – burdock seedpods covered with tiny hooks that snared hair and clothing.)
Had we told them the “real” name outright, the kids would have heard a name and promptly forgotten it. Maybe even thought that the label encapsulated everything you could know about the organism. We would have missed a tremendous opportunity for kids’ exploration and engagement with the natural world.
Most recently, I get my nature fix by going on walks outdoors here in Michigan. Sometimes, if I see something that I haven’t seen before, (or that just looks really cool), I take out my cell phone and snap a picture with the camera. I could (and often do) look up the species in a field guide. I also started uploading my photos to the site iNaturalist, to source community identifications for my observations. By adding my photos, with dates and geographic data to the online database, it provides a record that other members can refer to. It’s a resource for researchers and a form of participatory citizen science.
I also have been learning to identify new species from the system, as well as tagging “Unknown” photos with high level identifications (i.e. “Plant” or “Fungi”) in order to make the photos more widely searchable to community members who can provide more detailed identifications. It’s a form of social media in some ways as addictive as Facebook or online dating sites (but instead of rating pictures of potential dates, I attach a label if I think it’s a vertebrate.) There is also definitely a serotonin hit when other members agree with your identification, or provide additional comments on an observation that is as potent as the “FB like” button.
I wonder (dubious seratonin hits aside), if I am I reverting to an earlier understanding of “Name *ALL* the things” vs. a more nuanced engagement and exploration of the natural world. Sure, the site has leaderboards to track which members have made the most identifications or posted the most observations. Is it a competition ala a birder’s Big Year or just creating a sense of order in a chaotic and messy world? And are either of these appropriate forms of interacting with nature? What about if they are tempered by the sense of wonder and Radical amazement that I feel on my walks, or looking at pictures of really, really cool organisms?
While I was watching the surface-bound shenanigans of other humans via Facebook, soil microbes have been steadily plugging away, keeping the bio-geochemical cycles of the planet going. A team led by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs & UC Berkeley has reconstructed the genomes of 2500+ microbes that live in soil and groundwater of a Colorado aquifer. In addition to identifying (and naming) new phyla of bacteria, the researchers found new insights into how bacteria work together to power the carbon, nitrogen and other chemical cycles of the entire planet!
The paper appears online in Nature Communications. The soil microbiome census, using genomic techniques (“terabase-scale shotgun DNA sequencing”) to identify new taxa of bacteria in the samples, is especially important because while 1/5th of the Earth’s biomass exists underground, we still don’t know very much about about these organisms.
Once the genomes of the different bacteria were sequenced, scientists combed the data looking for genes related to microbial energy metabolism (gaining/losing electrons, carbon and nitrogen fixation, etc). By looking at which microbes with specific abilities were present in the samples, the researchers could infer what reactions (and combination of reactions) are taking place community-wide.
These combination of reactions are called “the metabolic handoffs.” Organisms may only have one or two metabolic tricks up their own sleeves (okay, I know microbes have neither hands nor sleeves, but bear with me here.) However, in the community of subterranean microbes, there are *a lot* of metabolic abilities across the different species. The waste products of one organism are food for another one that has the ability to extract energy from it. Or, as we liked to say as Teva Educators, “Waste equals food! Waste equals food! Waste equals food!”
TL;DR From the Press Release:
The scientists found the carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur cycles are all driven by metabolic handoffs that require an unexpectedly high degree of interdependence among microbes. The vast majority of microorganisms can’t fully reduce a compound on their own. It takes a team. There are also backup microbes ready to perform a handoff if first-string microbes are unavailable.
Previously unnoticed by humans, soil microbes are hard at work shuffling electrons as a team to keep the carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and hydrogen cycling around our biosphere. They deserve a shoutout from this grateful macro-organism.