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Can green technology hurt marine biodiversity?

  • Published
    11th Jul, 2022
Context

A new study argues that the growing demand for renewable energy technology, such as lithium batteries for electric cars, also poses a potential threat to marine ecology.

  • A technique called ‘horizon scanning’ was used to arrive at the conclusions.
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Green technology impact:

  • There is an attempt to replace fossil fuel-based plastic with biodegradable polymers, such the ‘biodegradable plastic bags’ made of plant starches.
  • However, these materials also do not biodegrade under natural conditions in the ocean and their widespread adoption can cause marine litter as well.
  • The growing demand for renewable energy technology, such as lithium batteries for electric cars, also poses a potential threat to marine ecology.
  • Deep sea ‘brine pools’ of more saline water, contain higher concentrations of lithium and could become future sites for extraction. 
  • A rising demand for lithium-powered electric vehicles could put these environments at risk.

Brine pools:

  • Brine pools are highly saline underwater lakes known to be toxic to most sea life, and yet they hold the promise of biological secrets that could lead to medical breakthroughs.
  • Formed when ancient salt deposits leach into the ocean, brine pools are so dense that it's difficult to penetrate their surface.
  • Their high salinity, often combined with heavy concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and methane gases, makes them lethal to most creatures that try.

Horizon scanning:

  • Horizon scanning, also known as environmental scanning, is a foresight method used for discovering early signs of potential change.
  • It is a systematic process that enables organisations to spot trends before they emerge into the mainstream and identify key action points to proactively shape desirable futures.
  • It is a technique which seeks to identify novel but poorly known issues that are likely to become important consequences over the next decade.
  • The researchers of the study argue that this methodology is meant to “primarily act as signposts, putting focus on particular issues and providing support for researchers and practitioners to seek investment in these areas” before they have a major impact.
  • It is also an effective way of assembling experts from diverse subject areas to examine common issues and formulate more comprehensive solutions.
  • The horizon scan method has been previously used to identify issues that are now known to have universal environmental impact.
  • A scan from 2009 gave an early warning about the danger that microplastics (tiny plastic debris smaller than 5 mm) pose to marine environments.
  • Since then, countries such as the US and UK have banned cosmetics from containing microbeads.

Biodegradable Plastics

  • Biodegradable plastics are those that can be degraded by microbial action to produce natural end products, like water and carbon dioxide, in a reasonable period of time.
  • The time needed to decompose completely depends on the material, environmental conditions such as temperature and moisture, and location of decomposition.
  • Type of Biodegradable Plastics: There are two main types of biodegradable plastics:
    • Oxo-biodegradable
    • Hydro-biodegradable
  • In both cases, degradation begins with a chemical process (oxidation and hydrolysis respectively), followed by a biological process.
  • Both types emit CO2 as they degrade, but hydro-biodegradable plastics can also emit methane.
  • Both types of biodegradable plastics are compostable, but only the former can be recycled.

Biodegradable Vs. Compostable

  • Biodegradable and compostable are terms used when describing organic materials breaking down in a specific environment.
    • Both terms are often used when defining environmentally friendly products and are often misused!
  • Compostable plastics are biodegradable in composting conditions, while other plastics degrade in the soil (landfills or anaerobic digestors).
  • It is important to note that compostability is a characteristic of a product, packaging or associated component that allows it to biodegrade under specific conditions (e.g. a certain temperature, timeframe, etc.).
  • Hence, the primary difference between compostable and biodegradable is that compostable plastics are biodegradable in composting conditions, while other plastics degrade in the soil (landfills or anaerobic digestors).

Compostable is always biodegradable

Biodegradable is not always compostable

  • Some biodegradable plastics available in the market are:
    • Starch-based plastics
    • Bacteria-based plastics
    • Soy-based plastics
    • Cellulose-based plastics
    • Lignin-based plastics and
    • Natural fibers reinforcement plastic

 

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