re-usable in times of Covid-19

Filtering

When you prepare a filter coffee with a paper filter, you typically rinse the filter before starting the brewing process. As you do so the paper swells and can absorb several ml of water.

The other morning while preparing a V60, I noticed that the filter paper absorbed between 3-6g of water (3-6ml) each time I rinsed the filter before making a new coffee. My mind wandered to re-hydrating space food and the importance of water in the texture of the food we eat (and coffee we drink). And then I was reminded of a question I had been asked during these Covid-19 times: would a face mask that is damp work better, or worse, than a dry one for reducing the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19?

The answer did not seem obvious. On the one hand, when we wet the paper filter while brewing coffee, the fibres within the paper swell and reduce the pore size of the filter. It seems likely that cotton fibres in a mask would behave similarly. This would have the effect of slowing and reducing the transmission of particulates through the mask. But on the other hand, we’re not thinking about particulates but about small amounts of viral material hosted in water droplets that are somehow exhaled. I decided on the “no idea” response at the time and put the question aside. Until the other morning while preparing coffee.

Unsurprisingly this question, and many like it are now the subject of intense research. I say unsurprisingly because a few years ago a new family of superconductors was discovered with (relatively) very high transition temperatures*. I was on holiday at the time but when I returned, it was to a large number of emails and ideas for experiments on these new materials that became known as the iron based superconductors. We had our first paper on these materials within a couple of months which, like all papers on this at the time, was uploaded, without peer review, to a pre-print server. Eventually most of the papers on the pre-print server got published in peer-reviewed journals, but this process was slow because it relied (and still does) on other scientists reading and taking the time to carefully respond to the points in your manuscript, then for you to address these points, for them to read it again and then, hopefully, ok the paper for publication. If you wanted to get the paper out and for a discussion to start, it had to be uploaded to the pre-print server.

canali Curators Coffee
Iron is a magnetic element. It was puzzling how a magnetic element could exist in a superconducting material and, moreover, seemed to make these materials even better superconductors than their non-magnetic counterparts.

Clearly, in order to keep up with scientists worldwide, we were looking at the pre-print server every morning looking for new ideas and new observations (and if anyone had done the same as we were trying to do at that precise moment but ‘beaten’ us to it). We had to be careful while assessing the claims in the pre-print papers. Some of the pre-prints were eventually withdrawn as they had made overblown claims (admittedly very few). Many were revised and had their claims either subtly altered or brought down a bit from hyperbole before being published in the journals. But none of this mattered to the world outside the lab because while exciting to us, and while the temperature of the transition was, from a physics perspective, very high, for the general public it would have been hard to get excited about materials that went superconducting below about 50 K or, in more common units, -223 C.

This side-story matters because, like our superconductors, the pandemic is the subject of intense research with much of it being uploaded to pre-print servers first so that scientists world wide can get into a conversation about the latest results. However, unlike our superconductors, the general public cares a great deal about a pandemic that is affecting us all and about the scientific rationale for measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing etc. While it is tempting to read the pre-prints, as I am not working in the field, it is not possible for me to read the papers on pre-print servers and be able to have a good guess as to whether the claims are reasonable, over blown or under-evidenced. So, I try to rely only on papers that are past the point of peer review and published in scientific journals. There is something very disheartening about reading an interesting newspaper report that near the end says “the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed…”. Will the interesting study hold up? It is difficult, from outside the research area, to tell.

However, we need to get back to the masks and the filters. Was there a study, in the peer-reviewed and published literature, that looked at whether moistened masks performed better than non-moistened masks?

Masks: can we set up an experiment to see how effective ours are relative to the fitted N95s that are not available to most of us?
Masks: can we set up an experiment to see how effective ours are relative to the fitted N95s that are not available to most of us?

In fact, there is a lot of research on the effectiveness of masks. The research includes computer modelling, imaging of real people breathing/talking/coughing with and without masks and more reproducible tests where the mask material is tested using the conditions of a simulated sneeze. This last study also tested whether that simulated sneeze is contained better by a cloth mask (with filtration down to PM 2.5) or a damp cloth mask (with the same nominal filtration).

The different types of research are needed because they answer different types of question. How effective each type of mask is will depend on the type of material (tested with the simulated sneeze) and the way that people wear them (tested by the imaging of people wearing masks). While the computer modelling suggests what may happen in more ‘real life’ environments such as being outdoors with a gentle wind blowing.

In terms of the initial question about the damp masks, it turns out that the fact that the fibres in the mask swell with the water does indeed help reduce the droplet transmission through the mask material. But the authors caution that if the mask is worn for a longer period of time, the damp mask may get saturated with virus loaded droplets and so the mask would need to be changed (and refreshed with fresh water) frequently in order for it to be effective against transmission of the virus loaded droplets. (It’s also noteworthy that the effect of the damp mask was only tested for one mask type that may not be typical of what the general public wears). However, for most of us it would not be practical anyway to wear a damp mask. Moreover, if we were having to change the mask frequently, it may not be helpful for us at all. But the good news is that the imaging studies show that we don’t have to do either.

A fantastic report in Scientific Advances showed two things. First, that most masks that we wear properly give a significant benefit for the people around us. And secondly, they provided an experimental set up that can easily and relatively cheaply be replicated by people with a little technical knowledge and a mobile phone. However, given that ‘relatively cheaply’ still means about $200, I’ll take their results instead, if you don’t mind spending the money on a laser and some lenses (or happen to have some lying around), please do let me know how you get on.

Press Room coffee Twickenham
Another paper filter, this time at the Press Room, Twickenham. When we add water to a (dry) paper filter, the fibres within it swell and expand making it a better filter. Would the same happen with masks?

The authors took several of the types of face mask being worn by the public and imaged the droplets coming from a person speaking through each of them. The masks tested included surgical masks, N95 masks, and hand-made masks with 2-layers of cotton or 2-layers of cotton with an extra polypropylene layer in the middle. All of these masks reduced the droplets transmitted through the mask significantly. Indeed, relative to no-mask, some home-made multiple cotton layer masks cut the droplets by nearly a factor of 10. The exceptions were bandanas and neck gaiters. The bandanas that were tested only cut the droplets getting through by a factor of 2, but the gaiters were worse. Speaking through the neck gaiter that they tested, the authors observed that the number of droplets getting through the gaiter actually increased relative to speaking wearing no mask. While this seems counter-intuitive, they suggested that this was likely because the gaiter was breaking up the larger droplets into multiple smaller droplets and so their equipment, which just measured the number of droplets, measured an increase relative to someone wearing no mask.

The problem here of course is, as the computer simulations showed, smaller droplets stay in the air for longer, larger droplets tend to fall with gravity. Something else that we know by thinking about our coffee.

So the final conclusion? Yes, it is possible that a damp mask may be better than a dry one though there are caveats on that result. But in actual fact, most masks that we wear in an indoor environment will help to protect other people (though maybe be careful with the gaiter materials). And a second conclusion? Perhaps preparing a coffee should be a time of escape from the concerns of coronavirus and really, next time, I should just enjoy the moment and think about re-hydrating space food.

*Actually, the iron-based superconductors had been discovered a couple of years previous to the excitement. But at that point, the reported transition temperatures were low enough that even the superconducting field was curious but not excited.

Micromanaging plastic waste

Thames, South bank, London Eye, plastic pollution, Thames21, PLA
Each year Thames21 and the Port of London Authority remove 200 tonnes of waste from the Thames. How much more gets washed into the sea?

Five items make up 2/3 of all lightweight identifiable waste collected from the Thames each year. These items make their way either through being dropped, sometimes deliberately littered, or through another path, into the river where, without litter picks, they are eventually washed out to sea. Part of the estimated annual ~10m tonnes of plastic waste entering into the oceans, they end in one of the gyres of the oceans, vast expanses of sea covered by floating rubbish.

Only much of this waste doesn’t. Or at least not as much as we think should do and we don’t know why. Despite the fact that there is an estimated 250 000 tonnes of waste floating in places such as the North Pacific Gyre, this is not as much as is expected. In fact, the visible waste makes up only a few percent of the waste that is expected to be there. Where is the rest of the waste, and what does it have to do with physics, or indeed coffee?

One of the ‘top 5’ items found in the Thames (coming in at number 4) is take away cups. This is followed closely by take-away containers. This means that our behaviour on leaving cafes, restaurants (and pubs) is affecting the litter that ends up in the river. And this is without counting the fact that food wrappers and drinks bottles (including water bottles) are two of the other worst offenders. It is not necessarily that people are deliberately throwing the items onto the pavement as they walk (though there is that too of course). The charity Thames21 that organises river-side clear ups and litter picks also thinks that some of the waste is coming as a result of people trying to put items into over-filled bins or so-called “tidy litterers“. But the truth is, they don’t really understand the route that many of these items take before entering the river system.

Discarded litter, can holder, litter
Some litter that finds its way into the oceans is merely discarded like this 6 pack can holder. Reducing this getting into the oceans is helped by fewer people littering, more people picking up what they see discarded and changes to the product itself.

It is a significant problem for us now as many of us are trying to support local restaurants or cafes by ordering take away and even when a place has drink-in space, often it is single-use disposable cups that are used. Part of this is understandable. There is a hygiene concern, even if there are counter-arguments that re-usables are safe to use in these times of Covid-19. But I don’t want to trivialise this concern, partly because people are making very hard decisions about how to keep their businesses going or earn enough to pay the next set of bills. If there is any doubt about the safety, it needs to be considered holistically by those running and working in the businesses and not those like me able to work from home and able to get delivery or pop-in and pop-out (and, in fairness, it is easy to see from a barista’s point of view that handling an untouched single-use cup and giving it in a contactless way to a customer is safer than receiving their re-usable container in whatever state of cleanliness it is presented in).

This part seems a question of balance. Balancing the need for economic support with the concerns of the single-use plastic problem. Do the places that you frequent use recycled (and recyclable) plastics or compostable ones? If the latter, is there a compost bin within the cafe to help with the disposal of these? Ultimately, is your take-away coffee going to help the business or are there other items that you can purchase that don’t require the same amount of packaging.

These are considerations with no easy answers which leads to the second approach that you could take. In non-Covid times, charities such as Thames21 are always looking for volunteers to help with clean ups and to get involved in counting the types of litter that find their way to the rivers. Becoming a ‘citizen scientist’ in this way helps to quantify the amount of waste entering our rivers but it also helps Thames21 and the river authorities to understand how the waste gets there in the first place. Why are our river banks so filthy?

Coot nest, plastic waste, Grand Union Canal, litter, plastic pollution, effect on wildlife
A coot building its nest with twigs and litter, including plastic litter, on the Grand Union Canal in London in 2019.

But then the last question. If we know that so much waste is getting into our river, and we know that this is being replicated around the world, why is so little of it making its way to the gyres? What is happening to it?

This affects, to some extent, what we do about our plastic behaviour – the decisions we ultimately make about whether to have a take-away coffee or whether to buy a disposable or re-usable face mask (or even make one). One of the explanations is that the majority of the plastic is becoming micro plastic (<5mm size pieces) or even nano plastic and so sinking into the seas rather than floating on the surface. These micro plastics are the result of the break-up of larger items by UV and micro organisms at sea and also the direct pollution of micro plastics into the sea by clothes being washed or from cleaning products etc. Indeed, the Thames21 citizen scientists discovered micro plastic pollution at 20 out of 21 sites along the river bank in a recent litter survey. A different explanation is that the plastics that are entering our seas today take years, even decades to reach the gyres which are made up of plastics from the 1970s and similar aged pieces. Both explanations mean that we need to stop the pollution at source, but if it is the former, there is not so much point in cleaning up the gyres by pulling the large litter out – the majority of the plastic that is in the oceans is actually underneath what is visible.

Refill station
Water stations and refill bottle. Many of these have been designed to avoid any contact between your reusable bottle and the tap allowing a safe way of travelling with reusables.

How can we determine what plastic waste goes where? Well, we can increase the modelling of ocean currents to improve our ideas about how waste is transported from source to gyre, but we can also try to have a look from space, from the satellites that are monitoring other aspects of our behaviour on Earth. Now it turns out that it is not easy to see plastic from space because with many of the techniques we would use, such as radar, plastic and water ‘look’ very similar. But one thing that that the satellite data has shown is the fact that there are peculiarly calm regions of sea near the gyres. Calm sea looks different from choppy seas in the same way that the light reflected off your coffee looks different if you are sitting with it calmly or if you are running with it and it is sloshing around the cup. But the connections go a bit further than this. The reason for the calm is because of surfactants on the surface of the seas. These surfactants (like soap) ‘calm’ the waves in much the same way as oil calms the waves. It doesn’t take much surfactant to cover the surface of a large area of water as a consideration of how much oil covers the surface of your coffee can tell you.

The surfactants are produced by microbial activity, the result of small bits of plastic (micro plastics) having been colonised by microbes before it sinks. The calm regions of the sea may therefore be indicating areas of hidden micro plastics and demonstrating the depth of the problem of single use plastic waste.

What does this mean for your take-away coffee, your Deliveroo order or your disposable mask? A recent study suggests that it is imperative that we take a combined approach, both as consumers, and as producers, reducing, reusing, recycling and changing the system. But on a personal level of course, some answers are clearer than others. Having an idea of the size of the problem, and the things that we can do to mitigate or understand it, may help us to navigate this plastic minefield.