For those who live on Easter Island, a remote Chilean territory in the South Pacific Ocean, eliminating plastic bags and other plastic waste has reached critical levels. Although the island is more than 1,200 miles from its nearest neighbor, plastic litters its shores. The pollution comes in from a swirling mass of garbage that floats far offshore and is one-and-half times the size of Texas, reports PBS.
It’s not just in the ocean, either. Broken-down bits of plastic, called microplastics, are in the soil, in drinking water and in the air we breathe. Chemicals added to plastics to make them colorful, flexible, rigid, heat-resistant and more could be harmful to the health of animals and people. Plastics also attract heavy metals and other contaminants like pesticides that are poisonous, reports Discover.
Although the potential health effects of ingesting microplastics are still largely unknown, many local, state and national governments are eliminating plastic bags and searching for alternatives to plastic packaging. But even if society can turn completely turn away from plastic, what will it do with the products already manufactured and the plastic bits infiltrating the environment? The solution may lie in a tiny organism hungry for this ubiquitous pollutant.
The Plastic Picture
Plastic waste and the proliferation of microplastics in the environment is just one facet of the plastic problem. Producing plastic and transporting it requires fossil fuels and emits greenhouse gases. According to a 2019 report from the Center for International Environmental Law, producing and incinerating plastic in 2019 generated an amount of greenhouse gases equivalent to that of 189 coal-fired power plants. Researchers at the center say that if production continues on the same path, plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will reach a level on par with 295 coal plants. By 2050, emissions will be about the same as 615 coal plants.
In an effort to reduce plastic waste and lower emissions, some agencies and governments see eliminating plastic bags as a first step in the right direction. These bags, which are distributed widely by retail stores, are very thin, typically used just once, are rarely recycled and kill at least 100,000 marine animals annually, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Each year, 12 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture the 100 billion bags Americans use and toss out, the center says. Although the United States has not committed to a national ban, states such as California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont have outlawed them, reports the National Conference on State Legislatures. As of early 2019, at least 127 countries had implemented some form of restriction, regulation or fee to reduce the use of plastic bags, says the World Resources Institute.
Alternatives to Plastic Packaging
Even as local, state and national legislators write up policies to reduce or restrict the use of plastic, other groups are developing alternatives. In 2018, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched their New Plastics Economy initiative in collaboration with the United Nations’ Environment Program. The initiative aims to “eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items, innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable or compostable and circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment,” the website says.
A $2 million innovation prize awarded to 12 teams has laid the foundation for some plastic packaging substitutes. For instance, researchers at the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland demonstrated a way to make a compostable, multi-layer material derived from wood, rice, sugar cane tops, recycled fibers, textile waste and agricultural residues. Recyclable and biodegradable, the plastic-like film could be used to package a range of foods, from cereals to nuts to meats and cheeses. An Indonesian startup company called Evoware created food wrappings from a seaweed-based material that can be dissolved and eaten.
Elsewhere around the world, entrepreneurs are innovating solutions to the plastic packaging problem. The Israel-based startup TIPA, for example, makes plant-based packaging that fully composts in 180 days. New York-based Ecovative Design combines agricultural waste with mushroom roots, called mycelium, to make a compostable Styrofoam-like product. The company has even created kits that let customers grow their own packaging. And Saltwater Brewery in Delray Beach, Florida, turned notorious six-pack rings into something beneficial. Using barley and wheat remnants that are a by-product of the brewing process, the team developed biodegradable, compostable and edible six-pack rings. If these products end up in the ocean, they become food for sea life.
Making a Meal Out of Plastic
Even if every person in the world stopped using plastic tomorrow, we would still need to contend with the billions of pounds of plastic that has already covered the planet. Morgan Vague, a biology student at Reed College in Oregon, thinks she may have found a way to eliminate a large portion of it, reports the The Science Times. Vague discovered a naturally occurring bacteria that consumes one of the most common plastics in the world, called polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and breaks it down into harmless by-products.
Vague found the bacteria after sampling water and soil from around her hometown of Houston, Texas. The student reasoned that because Houston had so many petroleum-polluting industries, she might get lucky and find bacteria that had adapted to living off the same molecules that make up plastic. After testing 300 strains of bacteria for a fat-digesting enzyme called lipase, which breaks down plastic to make it edible, Vague found 20 species. She then narrowed that group down to three bacterial candidates and fed them a diet of PET that she’d gotten from water bottles. The bacteria consumed the plastic.
In a TED talk, Vague explained that although the process is natural, it’s slow. To speed things up, she has the idea of dousing plastic in ultraviolet light to “tenderize” it and make it easier for the bacteria to consume. Eventually, she wants to create a contained, industrial-scale, carbon-free system that essentially composts plastic waste. “Imagine one day being able to dispose of all of your plastic waste at the curb in a bin that you knew was bound for a dedicated, bacteria-powered plastic waste facility,” Vague told the audience.
Vague acknowledges that her bacteria are just one part of a larger solution to the plastic problem. The challenge is so huge that it will take a variety of policy measures and innovative tactics to affect change. But by eliminating plastic bags and searching for viable alternatives to plastic packaging, humans could turn the tide on this environmental disaster.