Revolutionizing Disposable Utensils

Finding new ways to reduce waste is something that always excites me, and when I found this online, I was the most excited I had been all week. Imagine that the next time you have lunch, you add a new side dish: spoon (or spork or chopsticks). Yes, that’s right, you can eat your utensils once you’re done with them.

Plastic utensils are one of those things that I seriously do not believe in and refuse to contribute to. Conventional plastics made from oil are not biodegradable, taking hundreds of years to decompose, meaning that once they get to the landfill or to the ocean, they stay there for a very very long time. There is an enormous problem with massive amounts of plastic in landfills and ending up in the oceans. Plastic in the ocean is extremely harmful to marine life as well as birds, as they can ingest it and get tangled up in it. This can hinder their growth and even lead to death. There are currently 5 trillion pieces of plastic in ocean and studies predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Hopefully now you can understand my reasons for boycotting plastic utensils.

Luckily, these edible utensils, Bakeys, are not only not made of plastic, they will also never end up in a landfill. Bakeys are made of a mix of millet, rice and wheat flours then baked until they are hard and dry. They’re hard enough so that they will not dissolve in hot soup or tea, but soft enough to bite into. There are even different flavors available including sugar, ginger-garlic and carrot-beetroot. And if you don’t feel like eating your spoon, it will just decompose within days after use. The utensils have a shelf life of about three years, so they will most likely not rot before you get a chance to use them.

Edible Bakeys Spoons!

Right now, Bakeys are still more expensive than conventional plastic utensils, but the creator, Groundwater researcher Narayana Peesapaty, believes that he can bring the price down to match that of plastic utensils as volume of production increases.

Plastics are very integrated in the economy and society and are in basically everything we use. It would be very hard, maybe even impossible to ban all plastic without undergoing massive lifestyle and infrastructural changes. This is why any alternative available to reduce the amount of plastic in landfills and in the ocean should be considered.

There currently are not many viable plastic alternatives. Biodegradable plant-based plastics do not use oil/fossil fuels and are biodegradable (non-toxic). They have a shorter breakdown time and can even be cheaper than conventional plastic depending on oil prices. However, these plastics break own in landfills and release greenhouse gases. In addition to this, we are using food (basically corn oil and starch) for plastic when there are people starving in the world.

The creation of Bakeys is actually a huge stride in creating a world that is less dependent on plastics and fossil fuels. As technology advances, more and more alternatives to plastic will be discovered and become more and more economically viable. Starting small and thinking big is key.

Yes it is Possible for Store Bought Eggs to Hatch

It is something many people have tried or thought about trying at least once in their life: getting store bought eggs to hatch. They have probably done this without thinking about what they would do with the chicken if it did hatch, but that’s another story. It is hard and a little odd to imagine that breakfast food could actually have been alive and growing before cooking it, but it is surely not an impossible occurrence. Once hens reach reproductive maturity, they begin producing eggs whether or not they have been fertilized by a rooster. Only fertilized eggs have the capacity to grow and hatch and it’s not impossible that a fertilized egg could wind up in your refrigerator.

Eggs that come from large factories, where the chickens are caged, will most likely never hatch, simply due to the fact that the hen has probably never left her cage and has therefore never encountered a rooster to fertilize her eggs.

Free-range eggs are another story. Eggs that have been marked as “free-range” mean that the hens that produced them were not caged and were allowed to roam “free” on the farm. It is possible that these hens have had interactions with roosters, as it is a quite common practice for farmers to introduce a rooster into the flock of hens to regulate their behaviour. These types of eggs are the ones that have potential to hatch.

Without a hen, hatching an egg requires quite a bit of effort. The eggs should be kept at or just above body temperature and about 50% humidity to mimic the conditions of the mother hen sitting on them. Incubators are ideal for this, which is mainly why very few people have successfully hatched a store bought egg. I don’t know many people who keep incubators in their storage closets…

Even before incubating, it’s baffling that the chicken embryo could have possibly survived the transport, refrigeration, washing, being tossed around by machines and conveyor belts, sorting, packaging, storage, more transport, and more refrigeration in the store and at home. Surprisingly, it’s survivable because of the simple mechanisms behind how eggs work. The embryo is only a small collection of cells on the egg yolk’s wall during all this and it is protected by the liquid albumen of the egg white.

The refrigeration will stop the growth of the embryo, but it will not necessarily kill it. Once in the ideal conditions of the incubator (or the mother hen’s underbody) the embryo will resume growth. And this is precisely what happened to little Albert the quail.

Although Albert is a rare occurrence, it’s not abnormal. Just keep in mind that if you ever want to hatch a store bought egg, you must remember the implications of actually having a living, breathing chick in your home afterward, (that could have been your breakfast).

Bringing Back the Woolly Mammoth

The de-extinction of the woolly mammoth is an interesting topic came up in class last week, and it was difficult for me to understand why anyone would want to spend so much time and so many resources on this. It seems like a lost cause right? It’s been gone for 10,000 years, is it even possible? Why bother bringing them back when the world is so different now and their habitat (the mammoth steppe) is completely gone?

The reason that the tundra is the desolate and relatively un-vegetated land that it is, is because the grazers that used to inhabit the land are gone. Grazers are key to maintaining grassland because they stimulate the growth of the plants and turn and fertilize the soil. The woolly mammoths were a major contribution to the grazing of the mammoth steppe and the general balance of the ecosystem at the time. Without them, the ecosystem underwent great changes, eventually reaching a new equilibrium. This is just a small example of the dynamic equilibrium of the Earth, everything is interconnected and things are always changing.

Research shows that even after being extinct for 10,000 years, re-introducing the woolly mammoth to the Tundra will convert it to the grassland/steppe that it was during the Pleistocene (the time of the woolly mammoth). Why would we want to change this landscape? If the Earth is always changing and reaching new equilibriums, why would we disrupt this? To answer this, is not simple, and involves some background explanation.

It is commonly accepted that we have entered the geologic period known as the Anthropocene, defined as “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” The main issue facing the tundra is permafrost thawing and is most likely human-driven. It is a simple feedback (when isolated): increased CO2 in the atmosphere increases surface temperatures which increases permafrost thawing. This permafrost contains CO2 that has been frozen in the soils for many years from the decaying of plant material. Therefore, thawing permafrost will release more CO2 into the atmosphere, increasing surface temperatures, thawing more permafrost and so on.

The third (current) phase of the Anthropocene is defined as humans realizing the damage they have done to Earth System, and are in a panic trying to find the quickest ways to repair the damage. At the onset of global fossil fuel use, the true effects of the intensive exploitation of these resources were not known. However, science has advanced greatly since then, and we have begun to notice trends in certain things such as the massive rate of increase of atmospheric CO2 and surface temperatures. Once these damages were realized, a sudden urgency has overcome the population to try and reverse these damages however possible. The possibilities of what we do next are as follows:

  • Business as usual, continuing on, developing at the same rate and not making any changes to our way of life to reduce environmental impact;
  • Mitigation, which consists of taking drastic measures to prevent any further damage to the Earth by developing alternative (greener) sources of energy and changing our consumption patterns, acting in a more sustainable manner;
  • Geo-engineering, that is, developing intensive methods of reversing the damage we have caused. This is basically further manipulation of the Earth System to undo the damages we have caused by manipulating the system.

The re-introduction of woolly mammoths to the tundra is an example of geo-engineering. It involves modifying the balance of an entire ecosystem to reverse the damage that we have caused to it. As crazy as it may seem, it could actually work. It involves producing new, genetically diverse and fertile mammoths from tissues that are tens of thousands of years old. Bioengineers have been focusing on modifying the genome of Asian elephants to match that of the woolly mammoth. The adaptations that it will acquire include extra fat and fur to enable it to survive in the cold tundra climate, essentially turning it into a modern-day woolly mammoth.

Changes to the Asian elephant to become a wolly mammoth

What exactly could bringing back the mammoth steppe of the Pleistocene do? Quite a bit actually. Mammoths are said to be the keystone species of the ecosystem trying to be revived, meaning that it is an organism that plays a crucial role in how an ecosystem functions. When using an ecosystem approach, we can recall that aspects of an ecosystem are interconnected and everything affects everything. Putting mammoths in the tundra is not JUST putting mammoths in the tundra. As mentioned previously, the re-introduction of grazers to the tundra will convert it to grassland (the mammoth steppe). The grass will insulate the permafrost, decreasing the rate of thawing, and thus the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. In addition, all the new vegetation will remove CO2 from the atmosphere. More vegetation also means more life and higher biodiversity. Increasing biodiversity increases resilience in ecosystems, decreasing the likelihood of future extinctions and drastic changes from catastrophic events.

Not considering any of the ethics behind the de-extinction of the woolly mammoth, it is sounding like a pretty good idea right now. From a more realistic perspective, it is perhaps not the greatest and most practical idea.  It requires a tremendous amount of research, money and resources, going toward something that may not even work. There has been no actual success in de-extinction so far, the closest example to a success being the Pyrenean Ibex in 2009 that died after 7 minutes from lung defects. All this effort could be going to saving many other species from extinction or ecosystem restoration, which has a much higher success rate and could be more useful.

This leaves us with the main question, is it really worth it? In theory, bringing back the woolly mammoth is not a terrible idea at all, and if it is possible, it has potential to do great things. There is also a large chance of complete failure and tremendous uncertainty to the chain of effects. Whether it is really worth it or not, at this point, just seems to be a matter of opinion.