Sunday, 11 February 2018

Plastics Pollution - the scourge of human existence

Are biologically based plastics a realistic replacement for petrochemical plastics?

As the world wakes up to the environmental scourge of plastic waste and the EU launches its first ever Plastics Strategy, we ask whether there is a role for biologically based plastics in packaging?

For more than 50 years, global production and consumption of plastics have continued to rise. An estimated 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 4 percent increase over 2012, and confirming and upward trend over the past years.(See: Worldwatch Institute – January 2015). In 2008, our global plastic consumption worldwide has been estimated at 260 million tons, and, according to a 2012 report by Global Industry Analysts, plastic consumption is to reach 297.5 million tons by the end of 2015.

Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, strong, and relatively inexpensive. Those are the attractive qualities that lead us, around the world, to such a voracious appetite and over-consumption of plastic goods. However, durable and very slow to degrade, plastic materials that are used in the production of so many products all, ultimately, become waste with staying power. Our tremendous attraction to plastic, coupled with an undeniable behavioural propensity of increasingly over-consuming, discarding, littering and thus polluting, has become a combination of lethal nature.

Pollution with plastic waste is not confined to the oceans but poses a growing threat to lakes as well.That is the view of researchers who found significant concentrations of the substance in Italy’s Lake Garda. They say the levels are similar to those found in samples taken from marine beach sediments. They are concerned that these tiny plastic particles are accumulating in freshwater species and are “likely” to get into the food chain. The research is published in the journal, Current Biology.

The problem of large amounts of plastic polluting the world’s oceans has been well documented in recent years. As well as bigger pieces that can choke sea creatures when ingested, there is an equally serious issue with very small fragments called micro-plastics. But research on the problems caused by plastic in lakes has been lacking.

As environmental campaigners highlight the ecological damage caused to fish and birds (and ultimately humans through the food chain) by plastics made from petrochemicals, countries – including Ireland – are rushing to ban microbeads in cosmetics, single-use plastics such as drinking straws, plastic cutlery, plastic-lined coffee cups. There is also a push for deposit refund schemes for recyclable plastic bottles.

I have previously written about microbeads; you can read it here:

But as campaigns to limit single-use plastics grab the headlines, there are high volumes of other plastics in everyday use which remain difficult to recycle or once recycled into something useful like a park bench, remain on this planet forever and a day. So why are we not hearing more about the potential for bioplastics to replace petrochemical plastics? Well, it’s complex. The idea of bioplastics has been around since the 1920s and some have been commercially produced since the 1970s. The difficulty to date is that plastics made from renewable plant-based materials such as starch cost more to produce than oil based plastics in a market driven by a low tech, high volume commodity produced cheaply.

Prof Kevin O’Connor is the director of the Science Foundation Ireland funded Beacon Research Centre at UCD. There, researchers are studying the potential for waste products from marine and food processing industry to be used as feedstocks for bio-based and biodegradable polymers (the chemical structure of plastics). Prof O’Connor believes the potential is huge for bio-based plastics even if they currently represent less than one per cent of the entire global production of plastics. “There are multiple companies producing both bio-based [derived from renewable sources but not necessarily bio-degradable] and bio-based biodegradable plastics [derived from renewable sources and bio-degradable] in the last five years and Ireland has potential to use by-products from the food industry to
make both bio-based and biodegradable plastics.”

He brushes aside any controversy that bio-based plastics could  compete for land used for food production. “If you were to look at the land required to satisfy all the demand for plastic, it would only use 10 per cent of agricultural land and if you consider  the potential to use sidestream or by-products from the food industry, this issue doesn't arise,” says Prof O'Connor.

Niche markets already exist for bio-based and biodegradable  plastics from food and healthcare manufacturers keen to have green credentials. Larger companies such as Ikea and Lego are also  showing interest. For instance, a foam made out of 100 per cent starch is already available for use as an alternative to polystyrene and in 2017, Ikea said it is considering using a fungus based biodegradable packaging instead of polystyrene to package its furniture. The packaging is produced by growing mycelium, the branched roots system of fungi, around clean agricultural waste such as corn stalks or husk an then dried. It has been found to biodegrade in gardens within weeks.

One pan-European project developing a bio-based biodegradable plastic has already caught the attention of Bodyshop. This project, Seabioplas, used sustainably cultivated seaweeds as feedstocks for biodegradable bioplastics from fish farms in Ireland and Portugal. Julie Maguire, a research biologist at the Bantry Marine Research Station in County Cork was part of the two-year study and remains involved in the market development of the bio-based, biodegradable plastic. “We made a few different types of plastic including a poly-lactic-acid (PLA) polymer from kelp. This PLA is a raw material for 3D printing machines. Growing seaweed around fish farms also absorbs carbon which prevents the eutrophication of
waste waters and the left over proteins and lipids were trialled as an additive to animal feed,” explains Maguire. 

The industrial partners of the Seabioplas study are talking to plastic manufacturers about the possible industrial scale development of this bio-based, biodegradable plastic. Companies such as Coca-Cola have already developed bio-based bottles to replace their petrochemical bottles. The latest Coca-Cola “plantbottle” was launched at the World Expo in Milan in 2015. Using patented technologies that converts natural plant sugars into ingredients for making polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, it is derived from 100 renewable sources compared to a 2009 version that used 30 per cent plant-based materials. 

The key point here is that these bio-based plastic bottles can be recycled alongside petrochemical plastics – without the harmful hazing that occurs in recycling facilities when biodegradable bottles are mixed in with recyclable plastics. In Ireland, the UCD spin-out company, Bioplastech, founded in 2009 by Prof Kevin O’Connor with Dr Ramesh Babu from Trinity College Dublin and Italian entrepreneur Enrico Altieri, is currently working with industry on prototypes for biodegradable adhesives for use in packaging.

Meanwhile, the Newtrients project, co-ordinated by the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork
(UCC) is looking at the potential to make a bio-based biodegradable polymer from dairy waste water. “Dairy processors
are under regulatory pressure to carry out costly wastewater treatments to remove high levels of organic and inorganic
constituents from carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous sources,” explains UCC microbiologist Niall O’Leary. “This project can capture and repackage inorganic and organic components in the wastewater to make a biodegradable polymer from bacteria and a high protein plant (duckweed) for use as an animal feed.” Having made the polymer in the laboratory, a pilot project in an industrial setting is imminent.

"The benefit of this process is that it uses a low-cost feedstock to get a low tech, high volume polymer which improves sustainability and competitiveness in the system because it uses up the waste water and provides an animal feed in the process,” says O’Leary. “The difficulty is that any sudden expansion in the production of bio-based biodegradable plastics would require careful consideration of the anticipated waste management route as the new EU Plastics Strategy cautions about their leakage into mechanical recycling plants,” adds O’Leary.

And while the first ever EU strategy on plastic released in January 2018 gives scant mention to bioplastics, an EU meeting with the National Science Foundation of China in 2017 promises Horizons 2020 funding of €5 million for a multi-partner project on the enhanced biodegradation of mixed plastic waste.

More than 300 million tonnes of plastics are produced every year, less than 1 per cent of which are bio-based plastics. One third of plastics produced are used for disposable plastics. Global plastics production consumes 8 per cent of the world oil and gas outputs.
As some consumers turn against petrochemical plastics because of plastic debris, the Berlin-based European Bioplastics Association predicts the use of bio-plastics made from sugar cane, wood and corn will grow by 50 per cent in the next five years.

However, what many consumers don’t realise is that plastics made from renewable plant sources won’t necessarily solve the problem of plastic debris because over 50 per cent of bio-based plastics currently produced aren’t biodegradable and need to be recycled.
For a bioplastic to be less harmful to the environment, it needs to be both bio-based and biodegradable. Even then, it will often only be biodegradable at industrial composting facilities where temperature and humidity levels are high enough to decompose its constituents. If biodegradable plastic (either from petrochemical sources or plant-based sources) is put into recycling, it becomes a contaminant.

Thompson, S "Are biologically based plastics a realistic replacement for petrochemical plastics?" Mon, Jan 29, 2018,  accessed 2 February 2018. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition is a growing global alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses, and policymakers working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, waterways and oceans, and the environment. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Choosing the right type of collagen

Collagen is without a doubt one of the most talk about ingredients in the wellness world right now. It is the most abundant protein in the human body, that gives strength and structure to our bones, muscles, skin, and tendons. So when collagen production slows—as it does with age, stress, and illness—the telltale signs of ageing emerge, including wrinkles and weaker cartilage in joints. Now beauty brands and biohackers alike are creating ingestible collagen supplements to help boost natural levels. These powders and elixirs mimic the age-old practice of consuming collagen-rich bone broths for youthful skin and bones. Here, the pros discuss the merits, the risks, and the efficacy of ingestible collagen, and how it aids the body both inside and out.

Some swear by its beauty benefits: the power to smooth skin, strengthen nails, and make hair shinier. Others are into it for the gut health perks. (The protein smooths the gut similarly to how it smooths the skin, which can improve digestion.) By now, it’s indisputable that collagen is good for you.

Collagen levels decline naturally with age, starting in our 20s and 30s. Cells that produce it start to degrade and produce less but because collagen provides structure to skin, as levels decline, wrinkles begin and joints become less limber. Sun and smoking both accelerate the process.

Collagen supplements are a ubiquitous component of skin-care regimens, with ingestible collagen being typically made from hydrolysed protein from animal sources (generally cows, pigs, and fish). Though anything you ingest can upset your stomach or trigger an allergic reaction. It is typically safe to drink these elixirs provided the collagen comes from a reputable source. When you eat meat, fish, and poultry, you’re also ingesting collagen. These proteins are broken down and absorbed in the gut, then used to build our own protein-rich parts such as skin, bones, muscle and connective tissue.

It’s hard to determine how much of the collagen you eat (or take via supplement) gets absorbed and then re-purposed for various organs. It is clear that more studies need to be done in order to determine how these products may or may not be affecting our bodies. A 2015 study of collagen peptide supplements showed improved skin hydration, there are few placebo-controlled studies to prove ingestible collagen’s real benefits for skin. Sun favours tried-and-true methods to improve skin’s collagen production: 
  1. don't smoke
  2. use sunblock
  3. apply photo-protecting antioxidants hydroxy acids
  4. take supplements of vitamins B and C and most important, 
  5. take Retin-A and 
  6. use deep-focused heat from lasers, radio frequency, and ultrasound to thicken and tighten skin. 

Some experts suggest that hyaluronic acid fillers can also stimulate collagen growth but I would never recommend fillers.

Some people look to collagen supplements to improve bone and joint health. but it is vital that you first check to be sure you’re not allergic to eggs or any other ingredients in the protein mix. I am far from convinced that supplements are needed. Collagen is a major component of bone and joint health but those body parts also require lots of other things. Bone density is determined by muscle strength too. It’s hard to single out the effects of ingesting collagen. Eating balanced foods and exercising is really the only sure way to keep joints healthy.

But getting an extra helping can be confusing. Should you buy marine collagen, or one derived from animals’ bone and skin? What’s the difference between Type 1, 2, and 3—something a lot of supplement brands tout on the label? And WTF is hydrolyzed collagen?

For those uncertain about which collagen supplement to choose, here is is some basic advice for buying collagen that’s truly good for you.

Animal versus marine
Picking a collagen source can feel a little bit like ordering dinner at a wedding: Do you want chicken or fish? In the end, the animal versus marine debate doesn’t matter as much as you might think. Collagen is collagen is collagen. It’s always the same protein regardless of the source. Right now, there’s not one that’s preferable for human consumption.

In other words, sipping on some bone broth and eating cod for dinner are both going to deliver on the benefits because collagen is a quaternary protein which means it consists of three strands wound together to create one strong molecule. It’s a big, complex protein. While the ratio and concentration of amino acids may vary from source to source, structurally, collagen is the same whether it’s coming from a cow, chicken, or fish.

The low-down on hydrolyzed collagen
If you’ve started to shop around for collagen supplements, you might start hearing brands throw around the fancy descriptor 'hydrolyzed'. This means cold enzymes were added to the protein to break it down. Scientists started doing this because it made the supplement easier to absorb than collagen taken in through food. (Again, collagen is a big protein.)

Hydrolyzed collagen really is just a more processed form of collagen. The more broken down the protein is, the easier it is for your body to digest and use. So if you want to start using collagen medicinally, you might want to consider a supplement. 

Marketing gimmicks to watch out for
While hydrolyzed collagen is a legit—and beneficial—term to look for on supplement labels, there are others that are used more to trip up the consumer than anything else. You may see things like ‘Type 1 and 3’ or ‘Type 2’ on the label, but it’s simply a marketing ploy.

While 28 different types of collagen do exist—differentiated by where in the body it’s sourced and its amino acid structure, they’re all still the same protein. When you ingest collagen, you’re rebuilding all of your own collagen in the body, not just Type 1 or 3, but every type.

As far as what to look for instead, try and find out where the collagen is being sourced from. If it’s China, buyers beware! Collagen sourced from China is really cheap and just not up to the standards of higher quality supplements that have been certified in the UK, EU or the US.

Currently, there is no vegan collagen source although scientists are researching to find a plant that’s structurally similar, including tobacco leaves! A sure way is to consume green tea as it's known to help stimulate collagen production and prevent its breakdown. If you're not a vegan, there is matcha collagen powder which is proving a favourite of many. There is already collagen in your body doing amazing work. The key is to keep it stimulated so it can continue doing its job.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

A trendy new milk drink?

Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha tea have all been touted as the next big superfoods because they contain probiotics (another word for good bacteria). But one food seems to have been forgotten: kefir. This fermented drink is alleged to rebalance our gut and boost our overall health but what exactly is it?

Kefir is a fermented dairy milk drink, made by adding a live culture of yeast and bacteria to milk and leaving it to ferment for a few hours. The result? A tartly flavoured drink reminiscent of, and with a consistency between, milk and yoghurt. Originating from the region where Europe meets Asia, kefir has been made for over 2,000 years and is drunk religiously in countries including Russia and former Soviet states for its health benefits. The drink is rich in good bacteria, containing around 47 different strands, whereas yoghurt which contains just one or two.

It used to be known as the 'Grains of the Prophet'. Today it takes the form of a fermented milk product made with kefir 'grains' - gelatinous white or yellow clumps resembling cauliflower florets. Used as a starter culture, these grains contain a mixture of milk proteins, sugars and bacteria, mostly the Lactobacillus type, which is commonly found in yoghurt.

What's it good for?
Our natural fauna or the 'good' bacteria in our gut are vital to our health. They work to destroy 'bad' bacteria and keep our immune system in check, our digestion ticking and our overall health and vitality in good condition. Read my previous post on this: 

Recent studies have suggested that a Western lifestyle and diet, rich in processed foods, sugar and unhealthy fats, is destroying the good bacteria in our guts, which may explain why digestive problems such as IBS are rampant.

Maintaining a healthy weight
A tall glass of kefir drink made with milk contains more than 6g of feel-full protein, so it qualifies as high in protein. It's a nutritionally complete protein too, providing all the key amino acids needed for health. Kefir is also a source of B vitamins, which help with energy release and there is some evidence that eating dairy protein helps with appetite control.

Establishing strong bones
A study of osteoporosis patients found that those who regularly consumed kefir had denser, stronger bones after six months. The rich calcium content, coupled with doses of phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin K, could explain why it's beneficial for bones. Another reason could be that kefir boosts calcium absorption in the body, although this needs further research.

Promoting recovery after exercise
Kefir could help tackle post-exercise muscle inflammation, according to a recent US study that gave endurance runners two servings of kefir a week. The results showed that the fermented drink cut levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) after exercise. CRP levels spike during acute inflammation, and while some  inflammation is necessary in order for you to benefit from exercising, too much of it means that you aren't recovering well and it could lead to injuries.

Improving gut health
Kefir contains friendly probiotic bacteria - upwards of 30 different strains - which are believed to rebalance gut health by driving out the nastier pathogenic types of bacteria. Several recent studies have shown that including kefir in your regular diet (as a drink or with your usual breakfast muesli or fruit and yoghurt) reduces constipation, attacks a type of bacteria that causes stomach ulcers and improves symptoms linked to lactose intolerance, such as wind, bloating and diarrhoea. As the bacteria in kefir break down lactose, people who cannot tolerate dairy will most likely be able to enjoy it, too - and reap the benefits!

Other health benefits

  • Digestion. Kefir is naturally very low in lactose and so easier for some people to digest. The probiotic bacteria also help to break down the ‘bad stuff’ in our bodies and support the digestive tract, which is good for those that suffer with digestive issues such as IBS.
  • Nutrients. Kefir has high levels of calcium, phosphorus, vitamins and minerals.
  • The skin. the skin is the map of our gut; if your gut is in good working order, it should show in your skin. It has been suggested that kefir can help autoimmune diseases such as roseca, acne and eczema.

How do I get it?
Making your own kefir drink is easy; simply grab a starter culture of kefir grains, add them to a glass jar or jug of milk or water, cover with a lid or cloth secured with a rubber band and leave in a warm dark place to grow. Shake the container every few hours. After 24 hours, strain out the kefir grains and you're left with a tart flavoured drink bursting with friendly bacteria, protein, vitamins and minerals. Keep the kefir grains and they can be used again and again to make further batches.

Add kiwi, berries or peaches to offset the sour taste, or nuts to boost the protein content further still and keep you feeling fuller for longer. Having kefir several times a week will add nutritional value to your diet. If you are lactose intolerant, have it daily to replace milk products. Kefir can be kept in the fridge, ready for you to
enjoy, or at room temperature for a day or so. Or it can be frozen for as long as you like!