Apr 26, 2018

Axios Science

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1 big thing: Scientists grapple with the world's plastic problem

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A new plastic was created that can be recycled repeatedly — the latest advance as scientists try to address the world's growing plastics problem.

The problem: Roughly 4.9 billion tons of plastic waste produced since the 1950s hasn't been recycled or burned. And, plastic production is expected to double over the next two decades.

The challenge: Plastic needs to be durable to be useful. The flip side is they need to be broken down. For example, plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are largely mechanically recycled — it's separated, shredded, washed and melted. The process is labor intensive and the product is degraded plastics that are often made into lower-value secondary products that are not recycled again.

What's new: Researchers from Colorado State University today report designing a plastic that can be recycled repeatedly without degrading the polymer and retaining its most useful properties — strength and stability.

The big picture: The reach and impact of plastic pollution is still being determined. In a study published earlier this week, researchers report finding 2–3 times more microplastics (pieces less than 5mm long) in ice cores from the Arctic Ocean than they had previously measured.

Go deeper: Read the rest of the story.

2. Birds-eye view of deforestation in Brazil
A time-lapse satellite view of deforestation in Brazil from 1984 to 2016. Images via EarthTime.

From Eileen Drage O'Reilly and Lazaro Gamio: As seen in the graphic above, based on EarthTime's deforestation data and story, Brazil's Rondônia state changed drastically over a 30-year period.

It started as pristine forest in 1984, then came a single road the following year that exploded into a town of 20,000 people with tens of thousands of square kilometers of forest cut for crops and cattle.

Why this matters: Deforestation can create areas of extreme heat, make forests vulnerable to mega-fires, and lead to the loss of habitat for millions of species. Forests lock in carbon — about 12% of man-made climate emissions today are linked to deforestation.

Go deeper: Read the rest of the story.

3. Axios stories worthy of your time
4. What we're reading elsewhere
5. Something wondrous
Stars, dust and cosmic rays around comet 67P. Image source: OSIRIS/Rosetta Mission/European Space Agency; Image processing: landru79

That's an actual view of a comet. In space.

It was created by @landru79 from still images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft on June 1, 2016.

What you're seeing, per Joel Parker at the Southwest Research Institute:

  • This is in the "Hapi" neck region of the comet between its two lobes. It is a few hundred meters wide and the boulders are tens of meters in size.
  • The bright dots in the background that look like they're falling from the top left side are stars. (They appear to be moving because the spacecraft is orbiting the comet as the comet itself rotates.)
  • You can also see dust and pebbles that reflect sunlight and cosmic rays, which are "energetic particles that hit the CCD detectors and create odd-looking 'bright pixels' in the image".

One more thing: The spacecraft used star trackers to navigate. "It had to determine what stars were in a given single image, then identify which stars they are," Parker says. "All that while trying to filter out the confusion of dust and cosmic rays."