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Krill may be at the bottom of the food chain, but they are proving to be a secret weapon in the war against ocean plastics, one poo at a time.
The tiny crustaceans are ingesting micro-plastics unknowingly, and breaking them down into much smaller nano-plastics through their digestive system, research has found.
The study, published in Nature Communications, has formed part of the PhD research of Dr Amanda Dawson from Griffith University.
Dr Dawson said she was "extremely surprised" by the results.
"It took me a long time to believe my results actually, I went back and re-tested over again," she said.
"It was pretty mind-blowing when we found out krill could break up plastics into tiny pieces.
"The most significant thing for me is that we fed the krill plastics that are brand new, but the reality is micro-plastics in the environment are already degraded, so if krill can grind up brand new plastics what can they be doing with old plastics?"
However, Dr Dawson said it may be too early to thank the krill for their environmental work, as more studies were needed.
The experiment was conducted at the Australian Antarctic Division's (AAD) krill aquarium in Hobart.
Krill biologist Rob King said krill were able to eat creatures their own size, so it was understandable that they were ingesting micro-plastics — which are bits of plastics under 5 millimetres.
There's up to 500 million tonnes of krill in the Southern Ocean, with each creature filtering 86 litres of sea water a day.
"There's just so much krill in the Southern Ocean, every day billions of tonnes of Antarctic sea water is filtered effectively by the krill population," he said.
"That's an enormous filter breaking these plastics down."
Mr King said all plastics break down in the ocean eventually, but the krill were accelerating the process.
Leave it to the little guy to clean up the big guys' mess.
In the Atlantic is an area known as the Sargasso Sea. It is another concentration of floating junk.
I've long thought it might be a useful idea to convert surplus Navy LSTs or perhaps whaling ships so they can move through such floating disasters and scoop up the plastics. Perhaps the plastics could be melted on board the ship, cast into blocks, and stowed for return to land for further processing.
No, I haven't even tried to figure out the cost of such a project or whether specialty ships would be needed for the task, at the moment it's just a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. But perhaps it really needs to be seriously evaluated for practicality.
Is the Sargasso one of those areas of dead calm?
I agree that a fleet of trawlers could do this. I mean commercial fishing trawlers should just do it. It is in their best interest to have plenty of fish in the sea.
Even just one joint venture every six months is better than nothing.
Perhaps the EPA could subsidise them?
It's a gyre, and things from bottles to derelict ships have been found there. But I doubt the American EPA would be interested - - until the last election they were more into creating problems than actually fixing them, and now they're too much in flux to do much of anything so far-sighted. It's something that actually needs to be addressed by an international coalition - - I'd hope one where it's agreed that the nations participating would be required to keep whatever debris they collected, and properly recycle it. Everything from Styrofoam blocks to soft-drink cans to floating bottles to sea containers to abandoned ships. Pie-in-the-sky? Probably, but the job needs to be done on an ongoing basis.
Actually, it would not surprise me if the commercial industry took over the problem.
They seem to be acting on the big issues instead of waiting for politicians to pull their finger out.
If a commercial enterprise could figure out a way to make money on the operation, I suspect we'd already see such activities. But at present I don't think anyone sees a profit from the effort. One would have to amortize the vessels, pay the crews, do the maintenance, pay the various kinds of insurance - - - then process the retrieved material that nobody thought worth the effort to put in the trash to begin with.
Please pardon me if I doubt this could be a profit-making venture!
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do the job.
The profit comes in saving the industry.
Think of it as an investment in the future.
Spending this money on a big cleanup once a year ensures more fish will be there next year, and the next, and the next.
Also, the fish will be of higher quality, and not full of plastic.
There is profit, just not immediate.
That's why I think it might be necessary to get international governmental cooperation and sponsorship for any such clean-up proposal.
Please note that I favor a genuine clean-up effort. I'm just not confident there are enough people willing and able to fund such an operation, which will be very large, for a considerable time will be continuous, and the benefits of which might not be immediately apparent. How to get through to the ordinary person that such an effort would be in everyone's best interest - especially if done in conjunction with efforts to curtail further plastic trash dumping into rivers and oceans - is something I can't figure out at this time.
But I do hope someone with the resources to do such an ongoing clean-up will step forward and take on the job!
It was the search for flight MH370 that bought this floating mass of garbage to the world's attention - or Australia's at least.
I had no idea it existed. I guess we think of the ocean as being so massive that it can take anything we throw at it - literally.
It will have to be an international effort sponsored by billionaires like Branson or Musk. But it is possible.
As for getting through to the ordinary person... Single use plastic bags are being completely phased out here, however all the food inside my cloth shopping bags is wrapped in single use plastic, which I definitely throw away.
Our recycling industry here is in a mess. People have been carefully sorting their rubbish believing they are helping the planet, only to recently discover that all the recyclable goods are stuck in storage or just going into landfill.
Then China stopped accepting the waste and the entire industry is now considered commercially unviable.
I think people, in general, care about the planet. I cannot possibly see any opposition to the big cleanup of the ocean. But when a government steps in, there will be people who say wait a minute, it's not all OUR mess! Why am I paying for this?
I think a good, strong image would be some close up pictures of big brand names. Like Coca Cola bottles or McDonald's wrappers. That could get some funding in.
But some companies are already doing things: https://common-good.co/6-brands-tackling-ocean-plastic-waste
And, as much as Dot will hate this, some governments will just have to enforce the recycling industry upon the commercial by taxing the hell out of the cheaper alternatives shipped in from overseas.
Kinda like Trump.
Well, there are some things that are, simply, commercially unviable. If in fact even China gave up on it, that's a strong indication that they weren't going about the job in the right way.
Unless I miss my guess, sorting the recyclables is the single most labor-intensive part of the process. Metals are mostly separable by machine, but organics including plastics are less amenable to those means at the present time. Eventually machinery will be developed that will be able to do the job better than humans, but for now it's a human-labor-intensive operation. Doesn't mean is shouldn't be done, just means it'll be expensive for the foreseeable future. Job still has to be done.
Maybe taxation of the contributors will be necessary.
As to your throwing away the one-time-use, non-recyclable plastic wrappers for foods, I think that contributes more to the waste stream than the single-use plastic grocery bags. I wonder if most of that is biodegradable - - if so, it won't do much damage to landfills, much as I dislike those necessary evils.
I wonder if sewage and organic waste could be processed to produce fuels - - - pie-in-the-sky idea just now, but maybe worth the attention of some truly bright boys and girls in University - - - - -