How big is the issue of plastic pollution? 

Plastic pollution has become one of the 21st century’s greatest challenges. It poses an existential threat to marine ecosystems, to avian and land species that live around landfills, and last of all, to us. 

Plastic pollution pervades most aspects of our daily lives. Depending on where you live you may have different levels of exposure, but for most of us, we cannot avoid plastic waste. 

Scientists around the world have been hard at work trying to find solutions to this gargantuan issue. Thankfully, we are making breakthroughs. We will go over five promising scientific solutions, how feasible they are for real-life application, what the pros and cons are of these solutions, and how these show promise in mitigating the effects of plastic pollution. 

How big is the issue of plastic pollution? 

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest challenges for our generation and generations to come. There is an incredible amount of plastic floating in our oceans and experts estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. 

Plastics do not degrade or decompose, they remain in the waters and soil for decades, some for centuries. This means that generations who are not even born yet are burdened with this curse!

Tackling plastic pollution is a mammoth task and no one solution will be enough to take care of all this waste. This is why we need to innovate and implement as many solutions as possible. 

Despite how dire the situation may appear, there is hope. In recent years, big strides have been taken in developing scientifically sound methods to eliminate plastic waste. Here we look at 5 such methods which show promise in helping us fight this war against plastic. 

The Ocean Clean-up Project: 

​This is an ambitious project undertaken by Dutch CEO Boyan Slat. This Netherlands-based company developed an incredible plastic-catching system that is being used to catch plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

When it comes to plastic pollution we’ve all heard of the garbage patches floating about in our oceans. Due to improper disposal and inefficient waste management, thousands of tons of plastic get washed into the oceans every year. 

The most well-known among these is the great Pacific garbage patch. This giant patch of plastics floats in the North Pacific Ocean and is roughly the size of Texas. 

Cleaning this giant collection of plastics is a mammoth task that the Ocean Cleanup project has undertaken. This is an incredible feat of engineering and it has already successfully removed its first batch of plastics. 

They have designed a giant structure that fishes out the garbage from the ocean and collects it onto the boat. The process is akin to a fishing expedition, only the area over which the hypothetical net is cast is enormous.

They aim to remove all the plastic of this giant patch in the next few years and make sustainable products out of them. They have made sunglasses out of the ocean plastics they have captured. These Ocean Cleanup Sunglasses are for sale and the proceeds from these sales go into funding this project. 

Even though this project is commendable it is not without its critics. One concern is that it is simply not possible to recycle ocean plastics due to the damage they sustain over the prolonged exposure to sunlight and high salt levels. 

Even then, this project should be welcome because millions of marine lives suffer because of plastic pollution. These plastic products release microplastics and nanoplastics that are eaten by marine species and are carried up the food chain. 

Large pieces of plastic are ingested by some animals and can lodge into the guts of fish and can damage internal organs. 

Removing ocean plastics is an urgent matter for our environment, and The Ocean Cleanup project is the first step in the right direction. 

Plastivores: 

Plastivores are simply animals or other living things that can eat and digest plastic. 

The word plastivore may sound like something out of science fiction, but it is a reality. Plastic may not have been discovered until quite recently, but there are already species emerging which can eat and digest plastics. 

Currently, several worms have been discovered that can eat and metabolize PET and Polystyrene foam.

Take wax worms, for example, these animals have been shown to eat PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Scientists are currently trying to identify whether the worms themselves digest the plastic or do the microbes in their digestive system do the job. 

It has been shown that worms that digest plastic have a diverse group of microbes in their guts compared to worms that cannot eat PET. No conclusion has been made thus far.

Currently, the process of using wax worms to digest PET is time-consuming as these worms work slowly, scientists are working on ways to fasten this process. 

Waxworms aren’t the only ones that can eat plastics. Polystyrene (PS) foams are very commonly used in making single-use food containers. Recently, researchers at Stanford University found that mealworms eat polystyrene foam. 

Later, researchers at Washington University showed that these worms can eat PS foam without absorbing the toxic additives in the foam. They also found that mealworms cannot be sustained on foam alone, and need other food such as chicken feed. 

Worms are not the only living things that can eat plastic, as of now many mushrooms including the edible Oyster mushrooms have been shown to digest plastics. Scientists are working on isolating the enzymes that digest plastics in these mushrooms to fasten up the process of plastic decomposition. 

These creatures that can decompose plastic need to be looked into further so we can use them to successfully eliminate plastic waste. Currently, 300 million tons of plastic are created every year, most of these are single-use plastics and are not recycled. They either end up in landfills or are disposed of improperly. 

Finding ways to use these creatures to fasten plastic decomposition can potentially take tons of plastic out of the environment. 

Moreover, creatures like mealworm and oyster mushrooms are edible. This means these can be sold as food while being fed plastic to grow. Moreover, people can create their systems with mealworms and oyster mushrooms in their homes where they can get rid of their plastic waste right at home. 

PET digesting enzymes from bacteria: 

A while back, two Japanese scientists discovered that a certain bacterium can digest PET. This led to many scientists around the world racing to study this bacterium further. 

The idea of a bacterial strain digesting plastic is great news. Because once the enzymes responsible for digesting PET are isolated, they can be made in bulk via biotechnology and used to break down plastics at much faster rates than the bacterium is capable of. 

These bacteria can metabolize the plastic and generate non-toxic waste which means they do not pose a threat to the environment. 

Identifying the enzymes would allow us to remove tons of PET from landfills. It is unclear how efficiently these bacteria would digest ocean plastic. As I’ve mentioned before, ocean plastics are severely damaged by Sun exposure and high salt levels. If these enzymes can degrade ocean plastics regardless of the damage, then a piling source of waste can be eliminated. 

Chemical recycling: 

Chemical recycling is a process by which plastics are turned back into their raw materials. This process is comparatively expensive and isn’t implemented on a large scale yet. 

However, end-of-life plastic can be chemically recycled into its base molecules to be remade into plastic. 

A process makes use of enzymes to depolymerize PET to its monomers. A French company, Carbios has already streamlined the use of these enzymes to digest PET. They have contracts with companies like L’oreal and Deloitte to provide recycled plastics that are of virgin quality. 

The company claims once they are fully functional they will be able to recycle 100,000 to  200,000 tons of plastic annually from their factory. 

 Plastic to fuel: 

One popular solution to the plastic problem is to convert plastic into fuels. This is attained by several specific chemical recycling methods, namely pyrolysis and hydrothermal processing. These are depolymerization methods that break down the polymers into oils. 

These oils are then used to generate energy. In many parts of the world, there is excess plastic waste that’s usually burned in the open air. This releases soot and other toxic chemicals. To curb the plastic burning trend, plastic to oil technology can be implemented to safely process the plastic and make energy in the process.

This process does concern some environmentalists. They are worried that this is another way to add excess carbon into the atmosphere. Company specialists claim this oil is cleaner than fossil fuels and so it’ll do less damage to the environment. 

Overall, these solutions show promise to minimize plastic waste. We need to still keep in mind that these methods should focus on getting rid of end of using plastics which have run their course, and not for recyclable recycle

Conclusion: 

Scientists around the world have been hard at work trying to find solutions to this gargantuan issue of plastic pollution. Thankfully, we are making breakthroughs. We went over five promising scientific solutions, how feasible they are for real-life application, what the pros and cons are of these solutions, and how these show promise in mitigating the effects of plastic pollution. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Five Promising Solutions to Plastic Pollution. 

What are some solutions to plastic pollution? 

Recent advancements have made it possible to devise creative and effective solutions to plastic pollution. These Include The Ocean cleanup project, plastic to fuel technology, plastivores, enzymes to digest plastic, magnetic coils, etc. 

How are scientists reducing plastic pollution? 

The best way to reduce plastic pollution is to either ban or minimize single-use plastic use. However, there are cutting edge technologies that help reduce plastic, like plastic to oil. These technologies are implemented to remove end-of-life plastic.

What do scientists say about plastic pollution? 

It is a dire situation. Interventions need to be made quickly to reduce plastic waste. Plastics are the number 1 pollutant in most places. It accumulates in the landfills and leaches into the oceans. It poses a serious threat to all life forms in land and oceans, including us. 

Can we use science to solve the plastic issue? 

Yes, however we need to invest in multiple methods to ensure that plastic is eliminated efficiently. No one technique is 100% efficient, so we need to continue research and find methods that work in different scenarios. 

Why can’t we just burn the plastic waste? 

Burning would result in enormous amounts of carbon to be released into the atmosphere. This is not a sustainable solution as it’ll exacerbate the problem of global warming. 

Does plastic pollution affect human health? 

Yes, plastics do not degrade, but they do break down into microplastics and nanoplastics which enter the food chain via marine life. They eventually work their way up the food chain into humans. These accumulate in the human body over time. Moreover, toxic chemicals leach out of plastics and mix into our drinking water source. These chemicals are known to cause cancer. 

References:

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  3. Science-Based Solutions to Plastic Pollution. (2020). One Earth, 2(1), 5-7. DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2020.01.004
  4. Schmaltz, E., Melvin, E., Diana, Z., Gunady, E., Rittschof, D., & Somarelli, J. et al. (2020). Plastic pollution solutions: emerging technologies to prevent and collect marine plastic pollution. Environment International, 144, 106067. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.106067
  5. Schmaltz, E., Melvin, E., Diana, Z., Gunady, E., Rittschof, D., & Somarelli, J. et al. (2020). Plastic pollution solutions: emerging technologies to prevent and collect marine plastic pollution. Environment International, 144, 106067. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.106067
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  9. Why do scientists say ‘planktivores’ could be the solution to plastic pollution. (2022). Retrieved 16 January 2022, from https://whyy.org/segments/why-scientists-say-plastivores-could-be-the-solution-to-plastic-pollution/
  10. plastic pollution | Definition, Sources, Effects, Solutions, & Facts. (2022). Retrieved 16 January 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/science/plastic-pollution


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