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Congress Approves Ban on Microbeads

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Unless you live in the woods and make your own soap, there’s a good chance you’ve been using products that contain microbeads. The beads are great for adding a scrubby texture and exfoliating feel to liquids and gels. Unfortunately, they’re also really good at messing up the environment. For this reason, Congress has just approved a total ban on microbeads.

Personal product manufacturers have been adding microbeads to toiletries like toothpaste, face wash, shower gel, and hand soap for years. They were designed to be washed down the drain, and they last a very long time. Their small size means that they can slip right through wastewater treatment filters and into our waterways. And there are a lot of them: Researchers estimate that we’re releasing 11 billion microbeads into our waters every single day. 

The arrival of plastic in the water is bad enough, but what it does next is even worse. Plastic attracts chemicals from the surrounding waters. The chemicals stick to the microbeads, which are then swallowed by animals, which are swallowed by other animals.

"By the time the plastic gets downstream towards the ocean, they become these toxic pills," science educator Marcus Eriksen told CBS. "Big fish eat little fish, eventually the fish is on your dinner plate, and you're eating that fish, along with all the toxins it consumed along the way."

Unlike many Congressional decisions, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was approved pretty quickly. “There was a lot of support, and there wasn’t much opposition,” New Jersey congressman Frank Pallone told The New York Times. Under the new ban, manufacturers have until July 2017 to completely rid their products of microbeads.

In the meantime, you can get a head start by choosing microbead-free products. As the evidence against microbeads began to pile up, many companies voluntarily pledged to stop using them. For a list of those companies, click here.

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An Eco-Friendly Startup Is Converting Banana Peels Into Fabric for Clothes
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A new startup has found a unique way to tackle pollution while simultaneously supporting sustainable fashion. Circular Systems, a “clean-tech new materials company,” is transforming banana byproducts, pineapple leaves, sugarcane bark, and flax and hemp stalk into natural fabrics, according to Fast Company.

These five crops alone meet more than twice the global demand for fibers, and the conversion process provides farmers with an additional revenue stream, according to the company’s website. Fashion brands like H&M and Levi’s are already in talks with Circular Systems to incorporate some of these sustainable fibers into their clothes.

Additionally, Circular Systems recycles used clothing to make new fibers, and another technology called Orbital spins those textile scraps and crop byproducts together to create a durable type of yarn.

People eat about 100 billion bananas per year globally, resulting in 270 million tons of discarded peels. (Americans alone consume 3.2 billion pounds of bananas annually.) Although peels are biodegradable, they emit methane—a greenhouse gas—during decomposition. Crop burning, on the other hand, is even worse because it causes significant air pollution.

As Fast Company points out, using leaves and bark to create clothing may seem pretty groundbreaking, but 97 percent of the fibers used in clothes in 1960 were natural. Today, that figure is only 35 percent.

However, Circular Systems has joined a growing number of fashion brands and textile companies that are seeking out sustainable alternatives. Gucci has started incorporating a biodegradable material into some of its sunglasses, Bolt Threads invented a material made from mushroom filaments, and pineapple “leather” has been around for a couple of years now.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Undersea Internet Cables Could Be Key to the Future of Earthquake Detection
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Considering that 70 percent of the planet is covered by oceans, we don't have all that many underwater earthquake sensors. Though there's plenty of seismic activity that happens out in the middle of the ocean, most detection equipment is located on land, with the exception of a few offshore sensor projects in Japan, the U.S., and Canada.

To get better earthquake data for tremors and quakes that happen far from existing sensors, a group of scientists in the UK, Italy, and Malta suggest turning to the internet. As Science News reports, the fiber-optic cables already laid down to carry communication between continents could be repurposed as seismic sensors with the help of lasers.

The new study, detailed in a recent issue of Science, proposes beaming a laser into one end of the optical fiber, then measuring how that light changes. When the cable is disturbed by seismic shaking, the light will change.

This method, which the researchers tested during earthquakes in Italy, New Zealand, Japan, and Mexico, would allow scientists to use data from multiple undersea cables to both detect and measure earthquake activity, including pinpointing the epicenter and estimating the magnitude. They were able to sense quakes in New Zealand and Japan from a land-based fiber-optic cable in England, and measure an earthquake in the Malta Sea from an undersea cable running between Malta and Sicily that was located more than 50 miles away from the epicenter.

A map of the world's undersea cable connections with a diagram of how lasers can measure their movement
Marra et al., Science (2018)

Seismic sensors installed on the sea floor are expensive, but they can save lives: During the deadly Japanese earthquake in 2011, the country's extensive early-warning system, including underwater sensors, was able to alert people in Tokyo of the quake 90 seconds before the shaking started.

Using existing cable links that run across the ocean floor would allow scientists to collect data on earthquakes that start in the middle of the ocean that are too weak to register on land-based seismic sensors. The fact that hundreds of thousands of miles of these cables already crisscross the globe makes this method far, far cheaper to implement than installing brand-new seismic sensors at the bottom of the ocean, giving scientists potential access to data on earthquake activity throughout the world, rather than only from the select places that already have offshore sensors installed.

The researchers haven't yet studied how the laser method works on the long fiber-optic cables that run between continents, so it's not ready for the big leagues yet. But eventually, it could help bolster tsunami detection, monitor earthquakes in remote areas like the Arctic, and more.

[h/t Science News]

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