We’ve heard a lot about swarms of jellyfish plaguing some of the world’s favorite beach resorts, but could this overabundance actually help us create biodegradable sanitary items like diapers and tampons?
There are a number of very different problems the world faces right now. One is that jellyfish blooms are vastly increasing in size and are getting out of control, closing down beaches and even nuclear power plants (not necessarily a bad thing depending on your perspective, but humor me).
The other is the mounting waste caused by sanitary towels and diapers. Most materials that are used in the production of, in particular, hygiene products are created from what were once groundbreaking synthetic materials that, while relatively good at their job, have one unfortunate drawback: they usually take hundreds if not possibly thousands of years to degrade.
But what if we could solve both problems at once?
Researchers at Cine’al Ltd., an Israel-based nanotechnology start-up, believe they can exploit the very particular biology of jellyfish to create a super-absorbent biodegradable material that can be used to make diapers and possibly sanitary towels and tampons for relatively low cost, therein allowing us to also tackle the worsening jellyfish epidemic.
Jellyfish can be as much as 90 percent water. They can also retain large amounts of liquid. Still, they manage to live as a sort of gelatinous solid without breaking down, which most saturated structures of this kind would. By engineering with this in mind, Cine’al Ltd dismantled jellyfish bodies (stripping them to their base tissues and removing things like stingers — thank goodness) and then adding nanotechnology for antibacterial purposes, they created what they’ve dubbed a “Hydromash,” a product they say is superabsorbent. But how super is super?
Well, they report that their own tests show the Hydromash could double the absorbency of the average diaper. That’s an improvement that’s not to be sniffed at (though you could if you wanted to). What’s more, the polymer they’ve created would only take about one month to break down. Given that even conservative estimates say that single use diapers make up about 1-3 percent of solid waste in U.S. landfills, that could stand to dramatically cut the problem.
To cap it all off, if the viability of the product holds up on a wider scale, the technologies used in the making of Hydromash are already well known in the medical and engineering fields. This means that the usual lengthy test period for products like this could be dramatically reduced.
Before we think our problems are now entirely solved, however, there are some important caveats. This is early day research and there’s no guarantee that the new polymer creation will still be low cost when it comes to mass production, though the researchers seem confident that it will.
The other issue might be a danger, much further down the line, of overfishing for jellyfish. Some may not care about jellyfish as a species themselves, but overfishing harms more than just the one species being targeted. Environmentalists may therefore argue that what we might gain in benefit from a quicker biodegrading material may not be worth the trade-off if it carries the associated problems that come with turning a living creature, which does serve an important function within its environment, into part of a commercial product. They might instead encourage finding ways to use the over-abundance of jellyfish blooms to instead feed the jellyfish’s main predators (other than other jellyfish), like tuna, shark, swordfish, sea turtles and Pacific salmon, some of whom are under serious threat – not least of which, from toxic oil spills.
It also might be necessary to point out that while this would treat the symptoms of the problem, by reducing jellyfish numbers, it wouldn’t get rid of the reason why their numbers are increasing.
The exact causes for the overabundant jellyfish blooms isn’t easy to say, but scientists believe there is strong evidence that the rise in sea temperatures due to global warming is one of the main factors, and until we deal with that, we’re going to continue to see the problems of our ecosystems being thrown radically out of balance. Let’s hope we have just as innovative solutions for that, then.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.