Running rings around the facts
Misinformation about a presumed environmental threat was the subject of the winning submission to our “Scientific or Not?” essay contest. Linglu Zhou, 16, a junior at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, will receive a $500 scholarship from MichiganScience for her essay “The Science Behind Happy Feet.”
The contest requires students in grades 6 through 12 to analyze in 500 words a scientific fact or fallacy from a book, movie, song or other pop-culture medium. The contest is sponsored by MichiganScience and Edmund Scientifics, a premier supplier of science kits and other educational materials.
The movie “Happy Feet” focuses upon several “green” topics, including marine debris that poses hazards to wildlife. Zhou described how a Rockhopper penguin by the name of Lovelace is trapped in a six-pack ring carrier that threatens to choke him as he grows.
In fact, according to Zhou’s research, it has been illegal under federal law to distribute non-degradable ring carriers since the Environmental Protection Agency crafted regulations in 1994 at the direction of Congress.
“Studies have shown that ring carriers in marine environments will lose 75 percent of their strength within days, and disintegrate entirely in 3-4 weeks,” Zhou wrote. “Therefore, Lovelace the penguin would be able to rip through his plastic necklace easily as the rings became increasingly prone to breakage.”
Aside from becoming an expert on ring carriers and photodegradation, Zhou learned another important lesson: “I need to do more research on what actually is dangerous to the environment,” she said. “I need to be more knowledgeable.”
Zhou learned about the essay contest from Walt Erhardt, her AP chemistry teacher at the Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center, which provides accelerated enrichment instruction to students in grades 9 through 12. The bulk of her research was conducted online.
Science aptitude certainly runs in Zhou’s family; both parents are chemists. “I get a lot of it around the house,” she said. For example, Zhou and her father currently are researching how Vitamin E affects the oxidation of food. Last year, they analyzed the various factors affecting the degradation of Vitamin C. She also participates in her school’s Science Olympiad.
Although science figures prominently at school and at home, Zhou actually favors history and she is considering a career in international relations. She founded the Save Darfur Club at her school to raise awareness about the Sudanese genocide, and she participates in Model UN and Peace. “I want to help people and help to prevent genocide,” she said.
The new essay contest will be announced in the next issue of MichiganScience.
The Science Behind Happy FeetBy Linglu Zhou
Aside from charming audiences with its sweet singing penguins, the blockbuster movie "Happy Feet" addresses several "green" topics. One point the movie makes is that marine debris poses hazards — the 6-pack ring carrier, in particular.
Throughout the movie, a Rockhopper penguin by the name of Lovelace wears a ring carrier around his neck as a "souvenir" bestowed upon him by the "mystic beings" (i.e., humans). As Lovelace grows, the plastic rings become tighter and nearly choke him to death.
A major manufacturer of the ring carrier, Illinois-based ITW Hi-Cone, has complained that the movie sends the wrong message about its product. According to the company, the ring carrier is both non-toxic and photodegradable, thereby posing little risk to wildlife.
So what’s the scoop on these rings? Are Hi-Cone executives merely trying to conceal unflattering characteristics of their product? Or, did the "Happy Feet" producers fail to do their homework on the environmental impacts of ring carriers?
The ring carrier has been in the environmental spotlight since the late 1970s. People often associate it with animal entanglement. But it has been illegal under federal law to distribute non-degradable ring carriers since the Environmental Protection Agency crafted regulations in 1994 at the direction of Congress. All three major manufacturers of ring carriers currently produce them with 100-percent photodegradable plastic.
Photodegradation means that exposure to the sun will break the bonds of the polymers that comprise plastic. Scientists have incorporated weak links in the polymer chains — carbon monoxide molecules, in the case of ring carriers — to make the plastic more sensitive to sunlight and, consequently, more vulnerable to breakage. When the polymer is exposed to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight, the carbon monoxide molecules absorb the energy and transfer it throughout the chain, which then fractures. Over time, the plastic becomes weak and brittle, and disintegrates.
Studies have shown that ring carriers in marine environments will lose 75 percent of their strength within days, and disintegrate entirely in 3-4 weeks. Therefore, Lovelace the penguin would be able to rip through his plastic necklace easily as the rings became increasingly prone to breakage. In addition, this story is set in Antarctica, where thinning of the ozone layer increases exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Therefore, the ring carrier would be even more susceptible to photodegradation.
What’s more, Lovelace is later seen hanging on for dear life as a killer whale who has clamped onto the necklace thrashes him in and out of the Antarctic waters. Surely the necklace would shatter under such circumstances!
It’s hard to say how producer George Miller could justify "Happy Feet’s" portrayals of the ring carrier in light of these facts. But audiences should be happy to hear that the plastic ring carriers aren’t actually hurting those happy dancing penguins after all.
 TW Hi-Cone, “Details and FAQ about our Environmentally-Safe Products and Recycling Program,” 2002. For more information go to www.hi-cone.com/Environment/environment-carriers.htm.