The huge problem the world has with plastic waste is well-documented. It’s clogging up the world’s waterways and oceans on a huge scale. There is a floating island of plastic waste three times the size of France in the Pacific Ocean and many smaller but still huge concentrations of plastic sprawling over the surface of other oceans. Dead whales are being washed up with their stomachs full of tons of plastic waste.
As terrible as that is, more worrying still is that micro particles of plastic smaller than can be seen by the naked eye are now reportedly finding their way into the world’s ecosystems. The adaptability of plastic has brought many advantages but also means its use has become so prevalent that there are legitimate fears it is now slowly poisoning the world from the bottom up as these micro particles enter at the base of the food chain.
The crux of the plastic problem is that while efforts to recycle as much of it as possible have stepped up in recent years, and the latest technology in the world of recycling techniques and methods is improving, it still ends in plastic waste. Each time plastic is recycled the resulting material is a degraded version of its previous incarnation. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is one of the most commonly used plastics largely because it is one of the most recyclable.
Bottles and packaging are recycled and used in synthetic materials items such as clothing and carpets can be made from. These can again be recycled. However, after a few levels of degradation the recycled material becomes useless waste that must be disposed of. It’s this waste that is a significant part of the micro particles of plastic entering the world’s ecosystems.
The good news is a recent biotechnology breakthrough by scientists means we may soon be able to break plastic right down to its original chemical chains, ready to be used again in days. Two years ago bacteria that had evolved to eat plastic was discovered at a recycling plant in Japan. Intrigued, scientists began researching the bacteria and its likely path of evolution.
During this process the bacteria’s structure was rearranged and, like many discoveries of this kind, by chance it turned out that the rearranged bacteria was more efficient than the original. Further cycles of evolution will be required before the bacteria reaches the kind of industrial strength that would let it quickly chomp through tonnes of plastic waste, leaving the virgin, reusable chemical structures. However, early lab results are positive. The findings of the experiments being conducted at Portsmouth University have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.