What is the solution for plastic degradation
Plastic-Eating Bacteria: Is It the Solution to Plastic Pollution?
It's pretty obvious that plastic has invaded every aspect of our lives. Be it in the kitchen, bathroom, or even in our clothes, plastic is everywhere, even if we think it isn't. The plastic epidemic has gone so far beyond our control that we are constantly ingesting tiny microplastics at all times, no matter how careful we want to be.
People choose comfort over their own wellbeing, and this is mainly due to a lack of awareness and education. While recycling is not a surefire way to control plastic pollution, it is sure to be a start.
Few researchers in Germany were very excited when they found a strain of bacteria that could break down some forms of plastic. This was pretty big news for them as it could potentially be the coveted solution to plastic pollution.
How do these plastic-eating bacteria work?
Dr. Hermann J. Heipieper is the leading scientist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research and he explains how this bacterium works in very simple terms. Imagine a being who can break the chemical bonds in PU and use these building blocks to feed itself. These bacteria were first found near a place where a lot of PU waste was dumped. There have been a few other cases in the past where scientists have found certain microbes or enzymes that can break down other types of plastics.
In 2018 another team of talented scientists developed an enzyme that was able to break down PET. PET is a type of plastic used to make plastic bottles. All of these microbes and enzymes work on the same concept - they break the bonds and use those bonds to generate energy.
What is polyurethane
One of the most common types of plastic used is polyurethane, which is often referred to as PU. PU is excessively used in the manufacture of mechanical parts for machines, automobiles, kitchen appliances, athletic shoes, and synthetic fibers such as nylon and spandex. PU is a thermosetting plastic, ie it can no longer be heated and reshaped after it has set. This property of PU makes it a poor candidate for recycling. Because of this, this plastic usually ends up in landfills, where over time it releases a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including cancer-causing chemicals. These chemicals are known as carcinogens.
These landfills can contaminate groundwater over time and also cause great damage to the living settlements in the area. Landfills are just not the solution, which is why so much emphasis is placed on recycling and reusing plastic items. Rejecting the use of plastic is the best option, but we understand that it is not always possible to reject every single plastic item you come across.
Can plastic-eating bacteria solve the plastic pollution problem?
While this all sounds very positive, it is important to note that these bacteria and microbes cannot be seen as a solution to the massive plastic problem we are facing as a society.
First, these enzymes and bacteria are incapable of breaking down all types of plastics. So far, researchers have only found plastic-eating bacteria that can break down PU and PET plastics. But what about the other non-recyclable plastics?
To put things in perspective, around 60 million tons of plastic are produced each year in Europe alone (yes, you read that right), and only 30% of that huge number is recycled. So there is still a whopping 70% that ends up in the landfill.
If these bacteria are seen as the solution to the plastic problem, this can also lead to failure, as people believe they don't need to cut their plastic consumption, which can exacerbate this problem.
In summary, while the discovery of such microbes and enzymes can really help us with the plastic pollution we all face, it can by no means be called a solution. The only solution to plastic pollution is to nip it in the bud - control the production of plastic and reuse plastic as much as possible. Large-scale governance and policy changes are required to curb this man-made problem that is still being exploited by large multinational corporations.
Plastic Collectors are trying to do their part by educating and encouraging people around the world to recycle plastic. They also get a financial advantage by collecting plastic and delivering it to the nearest recycling center. This is a smooth cycle that puts power in the hands of the citizens and lets them take responsibility for their actions. more to find out how you can join in.
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