Plastics: A Close Look

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Albatross at Midway Atoll Refuge by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

There’s irony in having small bits of floatable plastic debris and larger chunks of trash in our oceans. Millions of years ago, many of the hydrogen and carbon atoms within these man-made polymers were part of marine life. Death, deposition and pressure simplified the organic molecules of the dead. Then a species that indirectly evolved from these oceanic ancestors accidentally stumbled upon a crude liquid. Eventually they learned to use not only its energy content but its building blocks. Some of these were linked into molecular chains that could be molded into any shape. But these chains proved to be resistant to the usual degradative action of bacteria and fungi. Coupled with one-time use, over-consumption and poor recycling, we have a problem on our hands as the plastic in oceans severely impacts wildlife.oil Natural Gas Formation lines only-L

We all curse plastic when it breaks and worry about its other drawbacks, which are amplified by human behaviour. But they do limit our use of other resources such as wood and metal.  Plastics chemists discovered the catalysts that made plastics more affordable and kept devising recipes in order to suit practical needs like placing side chains with hydroxyl groups on a contact lens polymer that could attract enough water to lubricate the eyes.

Yet perhaps because of the negative connotations of plastic, even chemistry professors writing organic chemistry textbooks for freshmen avoid the topic. The classic and otherwise excellent Organic Chemistry by Morrison and Boyd published between the late 1950’s and 70’s devoted only 8 of its 1183 pages to plastic. One could argue that the basics have to be covered adequately before one can understand how high temperatures can induce petroleum’s larger molecules to become free radicals, which with rapid cooling, convert into small, unsaturated hydrocarbons. One of those products, ethylene, is then polymerized into polyethylene which is used in wraps, squeeze bottles, disposable gloves, garbage bags and to weld cracks in kayaks.

But relative to how much space three recent popular organic chemistry textbooks devote to plastic, Morrison and Boyd wrote a thesis. And yet while sitting on a chair cushioned by polyurethane, I look around me and notice the acrylo-nitrile-butadiene-styrene(ABS)on my keyboard and mouse, two polyester backpacks on the floor and a polypropylene pot under my avocado tree. Students should learn how such ubiquitous substances are synthesized, and that they have different tensile strengths and varying resistance to substances like alcohols. And they should learn about the carbon footprint involved in producing such large quantities and the consequences of not recycling most of them.

On the internet there are still people worrying about bisphenol A (BPA) leaching out of plastic pots and getting into their herbs and marijuana. For starters, the production of plant pots does not use BPAs. The latter is associated with polycarbonate plastic found in DVDs , plastic helmets and other hard plastic products., some of which are labeled as code 7. In 2008, Health Canada banned BPA from plastic baby bottles and luckily the European Union followed suit as a precaution. The former also reassessed dietary exposure to the chemical and found that it was lower than what was previously estimated. They concluded that exposure to BPA through food packaging is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population, including newborns and young children. Other regulatory agencies in the United States, the European Union and Japan agreed with their analysis. The average exposure was 0.055 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day. Not all concerns regarding BPA can be dismissed. Fish seem to be the most BPA-sensitive organisms.Plastic-Resin-Codes-584x1024 Depending on whose guidelines one examines, the predicted no-effect concentrations in freshwater range from 0.175 to 1.7 nanograms per milliliter or parts per billion(ppb). We also need more studies that look at the combined effect of various low level endocrine disruptors and other toxins in the environment.

While China’s economy has mushroomed in the last two decades, its short-lived plastic exports have found their way into the world’s still largest economy, the United States. At the same time, we’ve had computer, electronic game and phone revolutions, all of which have fed an exponential growth in the amount of plastic found in municipal waste. The only plastics that can be recycled economically so far, and in part only because China buys most of the refuse, are high density polyethylene(HDPE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polystyrene. (recently China has refused some of Canada’s used plastic because of contamination.) Milk jugs are made of HDPE and PET is found in ziploc food storage bags, disposable water bottles, soft drink bottles and recently, vegetable packaging. The latter used to be code 6(polystyrene), which shrinks in the microwave when heated and is not as easily recycled.  in 2011, only 31% to 44% of Canadian homes had access to centres that could handle polystyrene, depending on the variety of that specific plastic.Graph-680x453

Although more recycling can be done—the recycling rates for those two materials in the U.S. are only in the 30% zone—people have not warmed up to the 3 R’s“reduce” option. At least in theory, we could buy less plastic stuff when possible and drink tap water. To avoid plastic cups and cutlery at parties, spike the punch and get the guests to do the dishes. *
Such an approach does not have to negatively impact the economy. Money can be spent on non-plastic products and services and on paying down debt, which in the long run increases purchasing power.

plasticMoneyThe idea of biodegradable plastics is appealing. If they are produced on a global scale, however, there could be undesirable effects, especially if the raw materials are grown on land and not extracted from algae. The land needed for additional biomass could lead to deforestation, and then subsequent growth of crops won’t compensate for CO2 released by decomposing trees and biodegradable plastic. One thing about conventional plastic: when not incinerated but kept in the home or in landfills, it does, at least for a century, keep petroleum’s carbon away from the atmosphere. And no one will throw away Canadian plastic $20s.

plastic
People often forget that we pay for packaging. If it’s good enough for stores to keep things visible and organized, why not do likewise?

* In the sixties throughout the 1980’s, a party with any combination of my 14 aunts was guaranteed to be free of plastic utensils.  After cooking a mind-blowing meal for 30 people, they were happy to chat among themselves and wash dishes faster and better than the average machine while the men played Italian card games —another activity with a low environmental impact :)—–the un-division of labour was terribly sexist, mind you!)

Sciences In the Mural Of Life

Created Nov 8 2012 – 1:00 AM Revised Aug 19, 2014 and April 20, 2018

There’s irony in having small bits of floatable plastic debris and larger chunks of trash in our oceans. Millions of years ago, many of the hydrogen and carbon atoms within these man-made polymers were part of marine life. Death, deposition and pressure simplified the organic molecules of the dead. Then a species that indirectly evolved from these oceanic ancestors accidentally stumbled upon a crude liquid. Eventually they learned to use not only its energy content but its building blocks. Some of these were linked into molecular chains that could be molded into any shape. But these chains proved to be resistant to the usual degradative action of bacteria and fungi. Coupled with one-time use, overconsumption and poor recycling, we have a problem on our hands as the plastic in oceans severely impacts wildlife.oil-Natural-Gas-Formation-L

We all curse plastic when…

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The Science of Canada’s Symbol, the Beaver

2018BIGCOINSUB-7The beaver, Castor canadensis, is an official symbol of Canada, somehow representing our sovereignty. Each time we pick up a 5 cent-coin, the so-called nickel, which except for special collectors’ editions is about 95% steel and only 2% nickel, we see an illustration of a beaver. But how much do we know about the natural history and ecology of our icon?

Like many humans, beavers are monogamous and mate for life. They also impact both the physical landscape and biological diversity in their habitat.  Their exact impact varies from one site to another, depending on the location, relief and habitat type—again parallel to the non-uniform ecological footprint of our societies.

During dry periods, as much as 30% of  water in certain watersheds could be held in beaver ponds. This can decrease erosion when water flow increases to higher levels. If a beaver dam however collapses, the opposite effect can occur. Flooding was  caused by such an occurrence in Alberta the 1990s and in British Columbia in the summer of 2000.

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A beaver chewing on a cottonwood. This will lead eventually to the tree’s production of shoots rich in protective compounds.

The presence of beavers is important for shaping the littoral communities in certain lakes of the Canadian Shield increasing the population of fish, crayfish, diving beetles, large bugs, tadpoles, newts and leeches. This happens not just from the changing water levels but because dams concentrate nutrients.

They are also engaged in a fascinating coevolutionary relationship with the type of trees they use to build dams. Regrowth of cottonwood trees felled by beavers results in the synthesis of much higher levels of phenolic glycosides. These plant compounds then serve as a defence against other mammalian herbivores and beaver themselves, ensuring the long term survival of the cottonwoods. Another beaver-target, the quaking aspen, also uses a chemical defence against beavers. Younger trees, although easier to take down, are avoided by beavers because juvenile suckers contain higher concentrations of salicin, salicortin, tremulacin, and tremuloidin. Juvenile suckers are asexual shoots produced by trees that have been cut down but which still have living roots.

glycosides
Notice that each of the above compounds consists a simple sugar linked to a phenolic compound by replacement of a hydroxyl group in the sugar molecule—hence their name: phenolic glycosides, which protect trees against herbivores. The compounds’  concentrations was measured by HPLC-analysis after methanol extraction. (Structures from chemspider.com)

In the ecological web of mammals, it’s not surprising to see beavers play a more direct role than the consequences of their influence on plant biochemistry.  The world’s second largest rodent is an important food source for wolves and black bears. Abandoned beaver lodges can provide breeding shelters for bobcats and winter shelters for badges and red foxes.

Sources

Ecological impact of beavers Castor fiber and Castor canadensis
and their ability to modify ecosystems Mammal Rev. 2005, Volume 35, No. 3&4, 248–276

Optimal central-place foraging by beavers:
Tree-size selection in relation to defensive chemicals
of quaking aspen https://www.researchgate.net/publication/30848534_Optimal_central-place_foraging_by_beavers_Tree-size_selection_in_relation_to_defensive_chemicals_of_quaking_aspen

Beaver Behaviour and Biology
http://www.beaversolutions.com/beaver-facts-biology-behavior/

Catastrophic Failure of Beaver Dam At Chusnulida
The importance of beaver lodges in structuring
littoral communities in boreal headwater lakes http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/pdf/10.1139/z97-121

Justice Laws Website http://lois-laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/N-17/page-1.html

Enduring the 5-cent coin http://www.mint.ca

Deserving Fame: the Trembling Aspen

People who grow plum trees in their backyards or farms realize that these plants not only reproduce sexually by means of their fragrant flowers, but they can also establish a ramet. A ramet is a colony of clones produced by roots that surface from the ground and which then develop into full trees. Barring mutations, the new shoots, called suckers, are genetically identical to the parent plant. This also occurs in the wild. The world’s largest known organism, by mass, is a ramet of trembling aspen trees covering 43 hectares in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. It is named Pando, Latin for “I spread”.

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The arrows reveal three clones, encircling my larger plum tree.
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Pando, the giant ramet in Utah. Source: Fishlake National Forest

The aspen, Populus tremuloides, is one of many species of the genus, Populus. The tremuloides part of its scientific name, which designates its species, and the “quaking” or “trembling” part of two of its many common names originate from the fact that in the wind, its leaves tremble persistently. Mechanically it happens because the petiole (the long part attaching the leaf to the stem) is flatter than usual and also because the petiole’s flat part is at right angles to the plane of the leaf. When a leaf of the trembling aspen is disturbed by the wind, as the leaf turns, the flat surface of the petiole is then exposed to the same force and turns it back to its original position. Then the cycle repeats.

As to why such a feature has evolved, interesting hypotheses from ecologists and botanists have been proposed. The trembling may help the leaves absorb additional CO2, prevent excessive heat buildup and conserve water. It may also deter insects from feeding on the leaves.

Ecologically, the trembling aspen can play a key role as an intermediate tree towards the succession of more mature forests. Forest fires actually stimulate the aspen to clone itself; a ramet of 100 000 to over 200 000 suckers per hectare can prop up after a fire. They help feed a variety of wildlife including deer, sheep, elk, voles, hares and porcupines. When beavers chew aspens down, the cutting action, like fires, stimulates them to produce suckers.

Another intriguing adaptation of the trembling aspen is the way it responds to insects such as the aspen tortrix (a caterpillar) after they start to feed on its leaves. Their cells begin to synthesize salicortin and tremulacin, two glycosides that are toxic to insects.

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These compounds are probably derived from phehylpropanoids, which are in turn made from aromatic amino acids. Since nitrogen is often a limiting factor for plants, it is one of the reasons that the protective compounds are only made when the need arises. You may also notice that, in both toxic compounds, the aromatic part attached to a pair of oxygen atoms is the basic structure of salicylic acid (aspirin’s raw material). The former is also chemically related to a pair of other natural products found in aspen, populin and salicin.

This remarkable set of adaptations of the aspen tree is why it’s the most ubiquitous tree in the world’s second largest country, Canada. It is found in all 10 provinces and two of the three territories, coping in a variety of soils and at a range of average temperatures cooler than those of the rest of the continent. Although it is difficult to predict the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on forest distributions in a pinpoint fashion, unabated climate change will move aspen forests away from lower latitudes.

aspen-current-canada_b_2000
From http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/climate-change/forest-change/17778

Sources:

Terrestrial Ecosystems. Aber and Melillo. Harcourt Academic Press. 2001

US Department of Agriculture —Forest Service

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1034/j.1399-3054.2001.1120413.x/full

https://www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/Volume_2/populus/tremuloides.htm

http://www.yourleaf.org/blog/andrea-bake/2014-01-27/be-or-not-be-trembling-aspen

https://nativeplants.evergreen.ca/search/view-plant.php?ID=00528

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