We use A LOT of plastic in our lives. From water bottles and plastic bags to clothes and toys, there is an abundance of plastic in the United States. That creates an unfortunate problem: we also dispose of A LOT of plastic, most of which are not recycled or reused. Globally, we create over 300 million tons of plastic-based stuff every year . In the United states, we throw away around 33 million tons of plastics every year and only 6.5% are recycled while 7.7% are burnt (for waste to energy) and the rest are sitting in landfills or enters our water systems . It is estimated that there are over 100 million tons of plastic, in different forms, in the ocean . Most soft drink companies (like Pepsi or Coca Cola) only use an average of 6.6% of recycled plastics in their bottles because they prefer to use new plastics .
So what happens to all the plastics that are not recycled or reused? As mentioned, most of them end up in landfills that just sits there. Many are then dumped (intentionally or not) into the waters of the Earth. About 3% of the plastics in the ocean are in the Arctic as a result of ocean currents and this number is expected to rise annually . In the middle of the Pacific Ocean are a lot of plastic materials (commonly referred to as an island of garbage) that swirls around and spreads plastic from all around the world to the different islands of the Pacific. The plastics do not form an island but exists as a sort of “soup” of plastics that floats in the Pacific due to ocean currents . The plastics there range from bottles, clothes to much smaller plastics like microbeads used in face washes and soaps.
On the island of Hawai’i, known for its beautiful land and beach life, there exits a plastic problem that will continue to get worse unless we deal with our plastic trash issues. Kamilo Point, a beach on the big island, is a perfect example of this problem. The beach was once used to collect driftwood for Native Hawaiians to make canoes, but now it is covered in plastic trash from places like Russia and Japan . The Hawaiian Wildlife Fund cleaned up 15,000 pounds of trash from the beach in a weekend, but it is only a matter of time before it becomes covered in trash once more as over 8 million tons of plastics enter the ocean every year .
The plastics in the ocean create a big problem, outside of aesthetic issues, for the ecosystems they enter. I am sure that you have seen plenty of images of animals being trapped in the plastic holders of soda cans. Microplastics, like microbeads found in face washes, have been found in sand, sediment, and most alarmingly in the bodies of animals, especially sea creatures, which can tear apart their insides . More research needs to be done into how our plastic wastes affect the environment and hopefully, their inconvenience on humans will prompt us to do so as their inconvenience on animals is less of a concern for many politicians and those in charge of our wellbeing.
So what solutions are there to dealing with plastics besides recycling them or using them for energy? After 5 years of research, scientists at Kyoto University discovered a bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, that can live on poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET), the plastic used commonly in plastic bottles and clothes . Unlike other plastic eating organisms previously found, this one can be easily grown in labs (a major point towards understanding and replicating its abilities) . They were able to isolate the enzyme responsible for the PET breakdown as PETase and, most importantly, were able to show that using the enzyme alone was enough to break down PET . This is significant because, if we are able to mass produce it, we can introduce the enzyme into environments rich in plastics that we need broken down and turn them into something that is more usable and biodegradable without worrying about introducing a bacteria that can go awry and have to compete with native organisms. Moreso, the byproducts that result from breaking down PET can be used in the production of fresh plastics, which is what soda companies and garment companies prefer over using just melted plastics . This would hopefully allow us to not only increase the amount of plastics that are being recycled but also address the current mass of plastics in the ocean and landfills.
Using PETase along with recycling, burning (for energy), and improving regulations on plastic use and disposal would offer hope concerning this big issue of plastic wastes and improve the quality of life for humans, sea life, and many other organisms affected by this. This sort of research also gives us hope for dealing with things like radioactive waste and greenhouse gas production, so while things may look bleak there is always hope.
Image acquired from NOAA