Article Series

Plastic Pollution: Reduce, Reuse, or Recycle?

by Jessica Forsyth

It is estimated that approximately five million tonnes of plastic are used in the UK each year. Unfortunately, this extraordinary reliance on plastic has resulted in it becoming a common contaminant of the soil, the ocean, and the atmosphere. There can be no doubt that plastic pollution is one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, but the question remains of how best to resolve it.

It is important to remember that the presence of plastic in the environment is not an inevitable by-product of its use, but a direct result of our irresponsible and unsustainable disposal of it. As a matter of fact, plastic itself has several environmental benefits. These include the impact it has on reducing food wastage by extending the shelf-life of fresh produce, as well as reducing CO2 emissions from the transportation of goods as a result of its lightweight properties.

Scientist Mark Miodownik argues that plastic is too valuable a material to replace. Rather than swapping in other materials, that if improperly disposed of will also cause problems, ‘the more valuable thing to do is to focus efforts on how to make the process of using plastic more sustainable’.

So how can we achieve this? Well, if you were to ask the average person how they thought they could help in the plastic pollution crisis, their answer would likely include the idea of improving their recycling habits.  But should this be the focus of our attention? Many of us will be familiar with the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ slogan. It is referred to as the ‘waste hierarchy’ because it lists the solutions to waste management in order of their effectiveness.

Interestingly, you will notice that recycling comes last on the list. The UK is considered to be a successful recycling nation with 45.7% of household waste classed as recycled. However, the majority of this recycling does not take place in the UK and where exactly our waste ends up and whether it is ‘truly recycled’ is unclear. Shamefully, in 2017/18 a report found that Westminster Council sent 82% of all household waste, including that put into recycling bins, for incineration. So perhaps we should focus more on reducing our consumption and improving our reuse of plastic. 

people near building

A strategy that the scientists at the University of Portsmouth are focussing on is finding ways to reduce the demand to manufacture new plastic. They have engineered a super enzyme capable of breaking down plastic into its chemical building blocks from which new plastic can be made. In 2018, they discovered that an engineered version of an enzyme known as PETase was capable of breaking down plastic in a matter of days.

Since then, the scientists have discovered a similar enzyme known as MHETase that, when combined, creates a super-enzyme capable of degrading plastic six times faster than PETase alone. Both enzymes were found in a soil bacterium known as Ideonella sakaiensis. Fascinatingly, with so much plastic polluting the environment, it seems that these microbes have evolved ways of turning plastic into a source of energy. By exploiting this ‘naturally occurring plastic-degrading system’ scientists have found a new way of improving our ‘Reuse’ of plastic.

Finally, it is important to remember that manufacturing new plastic from fossil fuels is a relatively cheap process and if any means of recycling or reusing plastic is to compete with this, it needs to rival it in cost. The discovery of this super enzyme is an important step towards this as the increased speed of plastic breakdown translates to a significant reduction in the cost of the process and thus a big step towards its consideration for commercial use.  

green plant in clear glass vase

With the Covid-19 pandemic leading to a rise in single use plastic, the plastic pollution crisis is more evident than ever before. With the discovery of new ways to reuse or recycle plastic comes hope that we can begin to move towards a more circular economy ‘where everything has value and nothing is wasted’. Only then can we hope that we can continue to benefit from the use of plastic as a valuable material without it posing a threat to all life on earth.

Cafe Sci

Virtual Café Sci | PK Porthcurno | Paul Tyreman

Wednesday, 14th October 2020 at 5:30pm. Register your interest HERE.

Discussing the science and history associated with PK Porthcurno, formerly known as the Telegraph Museum.

About the talk

2020 was to be a year of great celebration at PK, being the 150th anniversary of the opening of the cable station, with many events planned at PK and the Minack and in Penzance. With Paul located in the Clore Learning Space at PK, we will begin with a brief look at significant events in these 150 years and a look at some of the basic science behind the Telegraph technology – perhaps with a demonstration without explanation to get everyone thinking.

Next we will find out how on Earth you go about finding a break in a cable that is hundreds of miles long and located on the sea bed. We will finish with a look at how the Internet is the same as the Telegraph the Victorians built – and the differences that allow the virtually instantaneous communication on which much of modern life relies.

There’s a lot more to Porthcurno beach than meets the eye.

About our speaker

Paul was a Science teacher in London and Cornwall for 26 years up to 2012. After a few years volunteering at PK Porthcurno (at the time simply called the Telegraph Museum), he became the Learning Facilitator in 2016, hosting school and other groups and running the monthly STEM Explorers sessions for 7 – 12 year olds – until Covid. He is currently working with his colleagues to see how these activities can be resumed.

Cafe Sci

Virtual Café Sci | Seaweed Aquaculture in South West of England

Wednesday, 30th September 2020 at 5:30 pm. Register your interest HERE.

Dr. Carly Daniels and Dr. Katie Orchel will discuss the challenges facing seaweed aquaculture in the South West of England.

About the talk

Seaweed is a healthy, sustainable source of food with a large global market. The global seaweed industry is worth over $6 billion per annum (equivalent to approx. 12 million tonnes in volume), 85% of which is produced as food products for human consumption.

The algae cultivation industry is set for expansion in the UK, as the health and nutritional benefits of seaweed consumption become clear. Providing a sustainable source of protein, omega-3, iron, a range of vitamins and minerals and other key nutrients, seaweed is expected to play an important role in new diets, including the increased prominence of plant-based diets in reaction to new data on food-related carbon emissions.

Additionally, seaweed has many uses across different industries: the use of its bioactive compounds in cosmetics, nutraceuticals, bio-medicals and pharmaceuticals; as food additives and fertiliser in agriculture; and in the production of bioplastics, textiles and biofuels. These added uses and benefits make seaweed a prime candidate for sustainable product development.

Dr Carly Daniels (Department of Biosciences) and Dr Katie Orchel (Department of Geography) from the University of Exeter will discuss some of the technical and societal challenges that face development of the seaweed culture in the South West of England.

Cafe Sci

Virtual Café Sci | The Evolution of Sailing Dinghies | Reuben Thompson

Wednesday, 23rd September 2020, 5:30pm. Register your interest HERE.

Reuben Thompson will be talking to us about how sailing dinghies have changed and evolved over the past few decades.

About the talk

What is a King George Jubilee Truss, and why was it banned for 15 years? How did a WW2 Bomber open sailing up to the masses? These are just part of the journey over the last 100 years as the sport of dinghy sailing has gone from a sedate pastime for wealthy gentlemen, to an exciting and accessible sport. How did we get here and where are we going next?

Whether you have a prior interest in sailing or not this talk aims to give an overview of the technological, material, and social developments that have influenced the evolution of sailing dinghies.

About our speaker: Reuben Thompson

I have had a lifelong interest in sailing and can usually be found somewhere near the water. After training at the Lyme Regis Boatbuilding Academy I worked for a number of years at Cockwells boatyard in Mylor, before completing an advanced apprenticeship in historic vessel restoration at the National Maritime Cornwall where I continue to work as their in house boatbuilder. In this capacity I care for the collection, keep the floating exhibits on the water and carry out restorations in the museums workshop gallery. Meanwhile I am studying towards a degree in naval architecture through Plymouth University.

Article Series

Ocean 3D – Improving the accessibility of Cornish communities with VR

by Jessica Forsyth

For some people, getting out and about to explore new places poses a challenge. This might be the result of a physical disability that makes it difficult to move around or of an anxiety disorder which can make visiting new places an unnerving experience. These are just a couple of examples of the barriers that can leave individuals feeling as if they are shut off from their community. To ensure this is not the case, we must find ways to increase the accessibility of our communities to those with additional needs.

Virtual reality (VR) is a technology that has enormous potential to do just this and is something that the Cornwall based company Ocean 3D has been quick to recognise. Based in Penzance, they conduct 3D and interactive tours with the aim of ‘enabling people to visit, explore and enjoy locations that are difficult or impossible to access due to distance, income, physical or mental disabilities’.

Some of the locations mapped already include The Museum of Cornish Life, Penzance railway station and St Buryan Church, with plans for the near future including a scan of the Old Penlee lifeboat house and a project with the Tate St Ives. These tours are freely accessible via their website and are of an extremely high quality.

Speaking with the director of the company, Chris Wood, I was able to gain an insight into some of his goals for the future, one of which is to be able to create scans of entire villages with links to 3D tours of artist studios and village shops that can be viewed worldwide. We also spoke about the positive impact that the company had achieved through the creation and provision of these tours to members of the community.

One example that Chris provided was some feedback he had received from families that had utilised the tours for elderly relatives. For some who were bedbound this had allowed them to explore locations that they had fond memories of but could no longer manage to visit and for others, who suffered from dementia, it had had the power of triggering positive memories that were thought to have been lost.

More and more research is being conducted into the variety of benefits that VR can provide with studies ranging from exploring its use in combatting loneliness in the elderly to its use in exposure therapy for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Ultimately, the benefits of VR are unique to the individual but whatever capacity it is that these tours help in is an important step in improving the inclusivity of society and therefore a step in the right direction.

The emphasis that Ocean 3D has on using this technology to benefit those at a disadvantage is commendable and if you wish to find out more about their work please visit their website at https://www.ocean3d.co.uk/.

Cafe Sci

Saving ESTER – the native Cornish oyster

A recording of this talk is now available on YouTube.

Chris Ranger will be talking to us about preserving native oyster populations in Cornwall.

About the talk

85-95% of the world’s native oyster population has been lost due to overfishing, pollution & disease. The Fal Fishery has possibly the last remaining naturally reproducing wild stocks.

But poor management and exploitation means it is heading in the same direction as all other U.K. fisheries. They all collapsed. 17 worldwide restoration projects are planned.

But sourcing native oysters is a major limiting factor.

In this talk, Chris Ranger (pictured below), explains how he has a back up plan with a micro hatchery, spatting pond nurseries and aquaculture research site, just in case.

Useful links

Fal Oyster Ltd. website | www.faloyster.co.uk

Fal Oyster Newsletter | http://eepurl.com/gR7V_T

Fal Fishery Cooperative CIC | www.falfisherycoopcic.co.uk

Fal Fishery Cooperative CIC Newsletter | http://eepurl.com/gEUdj5

Saving the Oyster crowdfunder | https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/savingestertheoyster

Above: Oysters in a petri dish.

What is Café Sci?

A Café Sci typically consists of a short talk (around 20 minutes), followed by a Q&A /discussion which can last up to an hour. You are not obliged to stay for the full duration so if you’re pushed for time or just want to see the talk do please come along for the first half hour.

Cafe Sci

The Science Soap Box: Third Instalment

Wednesday, 26th August at 5:30pm. Register your interest HERE.

To end August, our break from regular talks, we are holding another Science Soapbox.

Join us for another discussion about the science that is important to you. This time, please let us know your topic of interest when registering through Eventbrite and we will circulate a list of topics before the event.

Introducing The Science Soap Box

What science-related story has caught your eye over the past year?

What seems to you really important?

This week, instead of Virtual Cafe Sci, we are opening up this space to all you, our audience, to have your say on any science-related item that you’ve found especially interesting, whether in the news, in the journals, or on the web.

You can tell us briefly, in the chat box, what you found; and why you think it matters; and we will then give you time on screen to make the case for why we should all be interested too.

After that, as with all our evenings, we will open the discussion to everyone else, to comment or ask questions – and so you may get the chance to expand and say more.

Cafe Sci

The Science Soap Box

Wednesday, 12th August at 5:30pm. Register your interest HERE.

Join us for another Science Soapbox where you can join the discussion about the science that is important to you.

Introducing The Science Soap Box

What science-related story has caught your eye over the past year?

What seems to you really important?

This week, instead of Virtual Cafe Sci, we are opening up this space to all you, our audience, to have your say on any science-related item that you’ve found especially interesting, whether in the news, in the journals, or on the web.

You can tell us briefly, in the chat box, what you found; and why you think it matters; and we will then give you time on screen to make the case for why we should all be interested too.

After that, as with all our evenings, we will open the discussion to everyone else, to comment or ask questions – and so you may get the chance to expand and say more.

Cafe Sci

When seabirds come to town

A recording of this talk will be available soon.

When seabirds come to town: How herring gulls make use of human behaviour.

About the talk

Herring gulls are becoming more common in urban areas, masking a national population decline but increasing the number of interactions this species has with humans. During encounters with humans, gulls must make risky decisions about when, where and on what to forage. Madeleine will discuss the behavioural cues gulls use from humans to inform their own behaviour, and how negative interactions between gulls and humans could be reduced.

About our speaker

Madeleine Goumas is a PhD student at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on the use of human cues by herring gulls living in urban areas.

Cafe Sci

Astrobiology: Investigating the habitability of martian salt crystals

A recording of this talk is available on YouTube HERE.

Astrobiology: Investigating the habitability of martian salt crystals. This will be a short talk followed by an in-depth Q&A and discussion.

About the talk

After repeated failed attempts in the 70s to find alien life at Mission Landing Sites, modern astrobiology attempts to narrow the search area by determining what exactly constitutes a habitable environment. In this talk, Dr Peter Morwool talks about the work carried out in his PhD investigating whether, and which, martian salt crystals might be capable of preserving life from an ancient, more habitable past.

About our speaker

Dr. Peter Morwool previously carried out a PhD in astrobiology at the Open University. He now works in the social evolution of biopesticides at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus.