To Combat The Great Garbage Patch, A Great Pool Noodle?

7:30 minutes

Earlier this week, scientists towed a tubular floating system into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to try to capture and remove some of the floating plastic debris in the area. The experimental system will remain in place for two weeks. However, not everyone is convinced the approach will be helpful. The boom doesn’t do anything to control the microplastics already in the water—and some are even concerned the boom itself may degrade, adding to the debris.

[On New Year’s Eve 1853, 11 guests dined inside an Iguanodon shell. One of them was the man who coined the term ‘dinosaur.’]

Amy Nordrum, news editor at IEEE Spectrum, joins Ira to discuss the project and other stories from the week in science, including federal regulatory changes relating to methane emissions, an FDA attempt to crack down on teen e-cigarette use, a study of how the bilingual brain manages languages, and the discovery of an ancient cave drawing.

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, broadcasting from the studios of KUER NPR Utah in Salt Lake City today. Later in the hour, a look at how algorithms are creeping into our everyday lives.

Have you had a personal run-in with an algorithm in your day-to-day life? Share it with us. Give us a call. Our number is 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us @scifri.

But first, the EPA is considering changing its rules for how certain emissions of the greenhouse gas methane are regulated. It’s a change favored by oil and gas producers but not favored by climate change scientists. Here to talk about that and other selected short subjects in science is Amy Nordrum, news editor at the IEEE Spectrum in New York. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Hi, Ira. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. So what’s going on with these new methane emission rules?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, the EPA requires oil and gas companies to regularly inspect all of their equipment for methane leaks. And they also require these companies to report leaks that they do find. Now with, these new rules, the EPA is giving companies more time to report a leak and repair it once they find it and also more time between mandatory inspections that they have to conduct on their equipment.

So basically, they’re doubling the amount of time. So if they had to inspect their wells twice a year for methane leaks, now they’ll have to just do it once a year. And if they were previously required to repair a methane leak within 30 days, now they have about 60 days to do that.

IRA FLATOW: So a lot of environmentalists are not quite happy with this.

AMY NORDRUM: Right, yeah. They’re saying that this change in regulations could lead to more leaks that are found less frequently, so more methane leaking out into the atmosphere. And methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. It’s 25 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2.

But of course, the industry is very happy about this regulation. They said it was a lot of red tape that the EPA is getting rid of. And the EPA is estimating that this change would save the industry about $75 million a year.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That comes on the heels of other regulatory shifts involving greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. The EPA is doing a bit of a trifecta this year. So there were two previous changes that it’s also proposing to make. So one has to do with freezing the vehicle emission standards that the Obama administration had put into place for tailpipe emissions. And the other one has to do with allowing states to monitor the emissions from coal-fired power plants that Obama had under the Clean Power Plan.

IRA FLATOW: In other types of emissions news, there’s news about e-cigarettes. What’s going on there?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, so at their best, e-cigarettes are a product that could help smokers transition to a less harmful way to consume nicotine and maybe ultimately quit. But at their worst, authorities fear that they can also hook people that have never touched a cigarette onto a new habit and onto nicotine for life. So in this change, the FDA is worried about the latter, especially as it applies to minors, so those who are under 18 years of age.

So this week, the FDA sent out more than 1,000 warning letters to retailers that they had caught selling e-cigarettes to minors. And the FDA also told five manufacturers that they needed to submit plans within 60 days for how to keep their products out of the hands of minors. So the FDA is really taking this possibility that teens and minors would get their hands on these products very seriously and starting to crack down on it.

IRA FLATOW: There are lots of teens using these devices, right?

AMY NORDRUM: I was really surprised. The FDA said that last year, 2 million high schoolers and middle schoolers were regular users of e-cigarette products. And they called the numbers an epidemic proportion.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Let’s move on. You have a story out this week about ancient cave art.

AMY NORDRUM: Right. This week, reported in Nature, archaeologists said they had found the world’s oldest line drawing. So this was discovered in a cave in South Africa that has been excavated continuously for a couple of decades. It’s a series of nine red lines that were drawn with clay crayon on a piece of stone that they believe was used to grind different materials back in the middle Stone Age. This dates back to about 73,000 years ago.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So does it look like a hashtag? People have been calling it the world’s oldest hashtag.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. It’s like that crosshatch design. And curiously, this design, this kind of symbol has been found repeatedly over the course of human history. So it’s not just Twitter these days. There may have been some early significance of a very similar-looking symbol. And it really does kind of look like a red hashtag on the stone.

IRA FLATOW: Or they were playing tic-tac-toe or something like that.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, maybe. That may be kind of a game.

IRA FLATOW: Another story about language and thought, bilingualism.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. NYU researchers have been studying what happens in a bilingual person’s brain when they’re forced to switch from one language to the next. And they’re looking in particular at how much cognitive effort it takes to stop speaking one language and start speaking in a new one.

So in a study of people who speak both English also American Sign Language, they found that there is actually more activity and work involved in the brain at stopping a language. So you can think of it as like putting down that vocabulary and stopping access to those words then to start access in a new one. So it’s actually easier to pick up a new language in these bilingual brains than to put down the one that you’re currently using.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And did they look into sign language and things like that?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. And they also looked at whether it was easier for– especially in the case of people who can both sign and speak English at the same time. They studied whether it was more difficult to do both of those things than just one of them. And they found for native English speakers, it was easier for them to both sign and speak English at once than to just sign.

So there’s also a mechanism involved in actually suppressing your native language and turning that part of your brain off in a sense. And that’s more difficult than just speaking and signing in two different languages at one time.

IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. And finally, there’s the giant pool noodle.


IRA FLATOW: It’s been called.

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely, and it looks just like one.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us what that is.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s floating out there in the Pacific right now. So this is basically kind of a giant pool noodle built for the ocean, and specifically for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You may have heard of this. It is a gyrating mass of mostly plastic material that’s out there in the Pacific. 1.8 trillion pieces floating around out there.

And last week, a nonprofit launched a novel effort to try to clean up part of this patch. So they built a giant pool noodle at 600 meters long. It’s floating in a U-shape out there in the Pacific. They’re starting a two-week trial. And then they’ll move it out to the Great Garbage Patch and try to clean some of that up if all goes well in the two-week trial that they’ve just launched.

IRA FLATOW: But not everybody is convinced this is a good thing. How could you be against a giant pool noodle?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s a pretty clever idea. But there are critics of this method. So first of all, the technology itself is not proven. And the nonprofit readily admits that. That’s what part of this trial is all about– figuring out if it’ll work as intended. And it may not.

But there are others who say that this is sort of a distraction from the real problem, which is preventing the pollution and the plastic from getting out there in the first place. And it would be much easier to just work on that rather than going out to clean it all up.

IRA FLATOW: Always great stuff, Amy. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, news editor at the IEEE Spectrum in New York.

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