Jonny Rogers explores how recent scientific discoveries might aid our fight against one of the world’s biggest problems.
Photo by Jaron Nix
You might not expect that a story which starts with scientists accidentally creating a mutant organism would have a happy ending. Nevertheless, over the past few years, scientists around the world have discovered numerous bacteria that have evolved to degrade plastic compounds, and subsequent research has further improved this process.
In 2016, a Japanese research team came across a colony of bacteria that were able to break down PET, or polyester – a plastic used in bottles. Within two years, research into the evolution of the organism accidentally improved the molecule-breaking enzymes – where it had previously taken a matter of weeks to degrade plastic, it now took only a matter of days. The resultant microplastics would make plastic recycling processes significantly more effective, and perhaps even 100% sustainable.
A different enzyme was also discovered in a compost heap, and has since be reproduced and advanced by French chemical company Carbios. In a mere ten hours, this enzyme is now able to break down 90% of a tonne of plastic bottles. Alain Marty, the chief science officer of Carbios, is hopeful that they will be able to start mass-producing the enzyme by September 2021.
The Plastic Problem
In the 1860s, a number of inventions changed the world: Alexander Parkes developed Parkesine, a material derived from cellulose which could be moulded into any conceivable shape; shortly after, John Wesley Hyatt developed celluloid to use as a substitute for ivory billiard balls, as the industry was struggling due to the over-hunting of elephants.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the invention of formaldehyde-based plastics paved the way for Leo Baekeland’s creation of the first fully synthetic resin, which entered the market under the name ‘Bakelite’. Throughout the following decades, the production of synthetic plastics (such as cellophane, polystyrene and nylon) grew exponentially as they were cheap, shatter-proof, malleable, and allowed for the creation of identical items in large quantities. Nevertheless, while it promised convenience and economic security, synthetic plastics have also left a legacy of unprecedented environmental issues.
In 2017, Dr. Chris Wilcox of CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship estimated that the total amount of plastic doubles every 11 years: “To put that in other words, between  and 2028 we will produce as much plastic as we produced [from the 1950s] until now.”
Plastic pollution has spread into every corner of the earth, with disposable waste having been discovered on both uninhabited islands and in Arctic snow, near the peak of the world’s tallest mountain and at the bottom of its deepest ocean trench. An unsettling study revealed that the average person might ingest thousands of particles of plastic each week, equivalent to the mass of a credit card. The impact on marine life is already more visible – over 90% of seabirds are consuming plastic, killing many and causing significant health issues in those which survive.
Will Plastic-Breaking Enzymes Save the World?
Although recent years and months have seen a number of countries pledging to ban single-use plastics, this alone does not account for the management of plastic waste already in circulation – in our clothes, water, and food, as well as our landfill sites. The rapidly- growing scale of the damage caused by global dependence on plastic means a high possibility that we might see the start of the mass production of plastic-degrading enzymes by the end of the year, despite it being almost unthinkable even a decade ago.
However, some scientists such as Emily Flashman of the University of Oxford are cautious to avoid over-embracing the new enzymes as the ultimate solution to our problem. As she points out, the plastic industry will need to find ways of preventing products from becoming contaminated with plastic-hungry micro-organisms. In addition, Professor Adisa Azapagic of the University on Manchester argues that we would also need to take into account the sustainability of mass production processes:
“A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem – waste – at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions.”
Nevertheless, what these new enzymes will provide is an opportunity to reform our failing recycling system. It doesn’t mean that all types of plastic have become fully degradable. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to reduce our individual plastic usage, nor that we should forget the damage already caused by our collective ignorance. However, these discoveries do show that nature is often more complex and resilient than we can imagine, and that understanding even the smallest organisms might be the key to saving all life on this planet.
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