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It is quite evident that plastic has invaded every aspect of our life. Be it the kitchen, bathroom, or even our clothes, plastic is present everywhere, even when we think it isn’t. The plastic epidemic has gone beyond our control to the point that at any given point, we are constantly ingesting tiny microplastics, no matter how careful we try to be.
People are choosing convenience over their own wellbeing, and this is mostly because of a lack of awareness and education. While recycling is not the sure-shot solution of controlling plastic pollution, it sure is 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 quite big news for them because this could potentially be the much sought after solution to plastic pollution.
Dr. Hermann J. Heipieper is the lead scientist at the Helmholtz Centre For Environmental Research and he explains the working of this bacterium in very simple terms. Just imagine a being that can break the chemical bonds in PU and use those building blocks to feed themselves. These bacteria were first found near a site where a lot of PU waste was dumped. There have been a few other instances 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 engineered an enzyme that was able to break down PET. PET is a type of plastic that is used for the manufacturing of plastic bottles. All these microbes and enzymes work on the same concept – breaking down the bonds and using those bonds to get energy.
One of the most commonly used types of plastic is polyurethane often referred to as PU. PU is excessively used to make mechanical parts for machines, cars, kitchen appliances, in sports shoes, and also in synthetic fibers such as nylon and spandex. PU is a thermosetting plastic, which means that once it has been set, it cannot be reheated and remolded. This property of PU makes it a bad candidate for recycling. Because of this, this plastic usually ends up in landfills where it over time ends up releasing a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including cancer-causing chemicals as well. These chemicals are called carcinogens.
These landfills over time can contaminate groundwater and cause a lot of harm to the living settlements around the area as well. Landfills are just not the solution, which is why there is so much emphasis on recycling and reusing plastic items. Refusing the use of plastic is the best option but we understand that it is not always possible to refuse every single plastic item that you come across.
While all this does sound very positive, it is important to note that these bacteria and microbes cannot be deemed as a solution to the massive plastic problem we as a society are facing.
Firstly, these enzymes and bacteria are not capable of breaking down all types of plastics. To date, 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, Europe alone produces about 60 million tonnes of plastic (yes, you read that right) each year and only 30% of this huge number is recycled. So there is still a whopping 70% that is ending up in the landfill.
If these bacteria are seen as a solution to the plastic problem can also backfire, because this will lead people to believe that they don’t need to curb their plastic consumption, which can elevate this problem even more.
To conclude, while the discovery of such microbes and enzymes can really help us with the plastic pollution issue all of us are facing, in no way can these be termed as a solution. The only solution to plastic pollution is by nipping it in the bud – controlling the production of plastic and reusing plastic as much as possible. Governance and policy change is what is needed on a large scale to make a dent in this huge human-created problem, which is further being exploited by large multinational companies.
Plastic Collectors tries to do its bit by educating and encouraging people all around the world to recycle plastic. They also get a monetary benefit when they collect plastic and deliver it to their closest recycling center. This is a smooth cycle that places power into the hands of the citizens and lets them take responsibility for their actions. Click here to find out how you can join the cause.