Science·What on Earth?

Satellite trackers help map journey of plastic waste to the ocean

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at work being done to track plastic waste that ends up in rivers and oceans and a video game that explores the troubled history of water in cities.

Also: What is 'blue' hydrogen?

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Satellite trackers help map journey of plastic waste to the ocean
  • 'Blue' hydrogen has some environmentalists concerned 
  • Canadian video game explores our complicated relationship with water

Satellite trackers help map journey of plastic waste to the ocean

(Nicolas Tucat/Getty Images)

Ocean plastic, as we know, is ubiquitous — but where do these items come from and how do they get there?

A research team from the University of Exeter in the U.K. is trying to answer these questions by launching electronically tagged reclaimed litter into rivers. By using plastic bottles equipped with satellite tags, the team hopes to see how plastics move through rivers and eventually accumulate in the open ocean.

This new study, which is published in the science journal PLOS ONE and is part of a National Geographic expedition aimed at unearthing solutions to plastic pollution, describes how researchers mapped the journey of 25 plastic bottles along India's Ganges River into the Bay of Bengal. The bottles were fitted with a cheap, light-weight tracker that kept the bottles buoyant to mimic actual conditions. 

This retrofitted litter can be deployed in waterways to track the movement of plastics into the open ocean. To give a sense of how far some of these items travel, one of the bottles launched into the Bay of Bengal made its way to a whirlpool in the Indian Ocean, covering 2,845 kilometres over 94 days.

"Everyone can relate to a plastic bottle in their life," said lead study author and postdoctoral researcher Emily Duncan. "Being able to track where that's going would be really important to build people's awareness of how far their litter can move [...] and will inform science-based policy."

The tagged bottles pinpoint where plastic litter is likely to accumulate, and the role that rivers play in pushing these items out into the ocean. Duncan said the dream is to design a near-weightless tracker they can attach to even the lightest ocean litter, like a chip bag, without weighing it down. For now, the priority is launching more trackers and working on a solar-powered version that will keep the trackers going for longer. 

Plastic pollution is a problem in Canada's rivers and lakes as well. We throw out over 3 million tonnes of plastic each year, and while it's hard to quantify how much plastic ends up in Canada's waterways, nearly 10,000 tonnes alone makes its way into the Great Lakes, which connect to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. 

Plastic pollution "doesn't really decompose," said Banu Örmeci, director of Carleton University's Global Water Institute. "It's there for hundreds of years and breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that present a higher risk to aquatic ecosystems and potentially human health."

To combat Canada's plastic problem, the government recently announced $500,000 in funding for the prevention, capture and removal of plastic pollution. 

Science knows relatively little about the impacts of plastic pollution on freshwater systems like rivers compared to oceans. Örmeci is one of three recipients of the federal grant, and her team is working with Canadian companies to develop technologies that monitor and remove microplastics from wastewater. 

"It's a question of how we're going to control plastic pollution, and really, the only way to do that is to control the source," Örmeci said. She said that ultimately, we need to find ways to "eliminate the unnecessary use of plastics."

Jade Prévost-Manuel


Reader feedback

In response to Emily Chung's piece last week on the Fairphone, reader Carolyn Aubry had this to say.

"I read your article about sustainable smartphones on my Fairphone, in my home in Ottawa. I wanted to mention that I have been using a Fairphone in Canada since 2016 with no issues (other than the regular dropped calls due to the network and not the phone). Sure, Fairphone says it is only available in Europe, but for Canadians who want to make the switch, there are certainly ways to own and use a Fairphone in Canada, too."

Meanwhile, Peter Forint wrote in to report on a similar product being developed. "Here's another sustainable smartphone: https://myteracube.com/... I've ordered one via their crowdfunding campaign."

Write us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show! Seaweed is having its climate moment. As warming oceans threaten its survival, join What on Earth host Laura Lynch as she hears about the promise it holds as a climate solution. Listen on CBC Radio One on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, or any time on podcast or CBC Listen.


The Big Picture: Blue hydrogen

There's been a lot of media hype recently about the promise of hydrogen in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Available as a liquid or gas, hydrogen fuel can be used in cars, trucks and aircraft, and it's light, easy to store and doesn't directly emit greenhouse gases. Many countries, including Germany, Japan and France, have announced hydrogen strategies, and it could play a crucial role in getting Canada to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The government is expected to announce a national hydrogen strategy soon, yet there is concern about what kind of hydrogen we produce. One variety — so-called green hydrogen — can be produced by using renewable energy to split water molecules, a process that's been deemed carbon-free. Blue hydrogen, on the other hand, is created by mining hydrogen from natural gas, a non-renewable resource, and sequestering the emissions. While Canada's plan is likely to include commitments to both blue and green hydrogen, advocacy groups like Environmental Defence Canada say the rationale for blue hydrogen relies on expensive and unproven carbon capture and sequestration technology and that it won't, in fact, ensure a zero-emissions economy for Canada.

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • A surreal photo of a barren stretch of oil rigs and pump jacks has won a 2020 BarTur Photo Award. The organization is dedicated to highlighting photos that challenge the way we see the world, and photographer David Gardner won Judge's Choice in the climate change category for his haunting image of the Kern River Oil Field in California, which belongs to his photo collection Into The Anthropocene.

  • Turns out that parts of the Amazon rainforest could be more resistant to climate change than we thought. A research team from Columbia University found that in some of the Amazon's wettest regions, the forests actually photosynthesize more when exposed to drier air. Photosynthesis is essential to the survival of plants and produces the oxygen we humans need to survive, while capturing the carbon that lingers in the atmosphere. The rainforest has been threatened by wildfires for years, and scientists say that if the forests can continue to suck up carbon in drier temperatures, the effects of global warming there could be less detrimental.

  • The next generation of solar technology could power your smartphone with indoor light bulbs. A study in the journal Advanced Energy Materials showed that the eco-friendly, easy-to-make materials that are being developed for future solar technologies provide enough power in lit indoor areas to power a device. The discovery could reduce the need for toxic, fast-depleting batteries.

Canadian video game explores our complicated relationship with water

Early art design for the Canadian-developed video game TO Play. (Pernia Jamshed)

Two university students are developing a video game set in a future Toronto that examines some of the longstanding environmental and social issues in Canada's biggest city.

Ria Kapoor and Ryan Spooner, both in their fourth year at Ryerson University in Toronto, are the brains behind the adventure game TO Play, which explores the city's hidden river system and deals with wide-reaching issues of urbanization and Indigenous water rights. 

The game has been selected as Canada's representative in Red Bull Basement — a global innovation workshop for students sponsored by the energy drink maker — this month. It's one of 38 finalists, selected from more than 3,800 applications of tech-related social innovation from around the globe. Other finalists include a book-sharing app for students from Russia and technology out of Japan to develop electricity from sound waves.

The two media studies students originally developed TO Play as a third-year thesis project. It's an interactive point-and-click adventure where the player follows an in-game guide to explore Toronto on the verge of a water crisis, confront ideas about how cities are built and who has access to water and also explore Toronto's underground rivers. Players eventually work their way up to raising those hidden rivers and see them once again flowing on the land. (The image above reflects some early art for the project created by Pernia Jamshed.)

By gamifying such big ideas, Spooner said he and Kapoor hope to turn them into issues that people can more easily engage with. 

"Water issues [are] global," he said. "So it's important to be able to home in and say [that] it affects where you are." Focusing on a specific city, he said, may help players relate.

Toronto, like many cities around the world, has been built over natural waterways. 

"There's a [history] hiding there," said Heather Dorries, an assistant professor of geography and Indigenous studies at the University of Toronto. "Hiding a river reflects an approach to the environment where we view [it] as something that can be dominated."

The game's narrative of raising those rivers, Dorries said, forces people to think about how we've chosen to cover up that natural environment. "It sounds like it would be challenging those assumptions," she said. "I think that's really fascinating."

Kapoor said part of the idea was "trying to give the player a sense of what the environment would look like if we did value our resources. And [if] we actually built around the resources instead of over them."

She and Spooner are in the process of collaborating with Indigenous artists and knowledge keepers in order to integrate traditional teachings into the game. 

Winning Canada's nomination to attend the virtual global workshop earned them $1,500 in funding, as well as mentorship sessions to help further develop the game. Since then, Kapoor and Spooner have been preparing for the final pitch session, where they'll compete for the grand prize: a custom package of resources to develop their game, as well as the 2020 social innovation championship title. 

TO Play will be available for play in the first half of 2021. No matter the results of the competition, Spooner said the important thing is that their game spurs people to engage with these bigger environmental ideas. 

"At the end of the day, no matter how it goes, it's making sure that we made something we're proud of," he said. 

— Menaka Raman-Wilms


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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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