Humanity’s dependence on plastic grows stronger with the passing of every year. It is lightweight, flexible, relatively inexpensive, and durable – and it is used in everything from grocery bags to 3D printed rocket nozzles.
Plastic retains some of the most attractive qualities in any material, and humans have acquired an insatiable appetite for its boundless creations. Though the issue of plastic arises from the very fact it is too durable – it simply never goes away.
Besides its widespread versatility, the waste plastic creates is wreaking havoc on the environment at an alarming rate. The situation is already dire, but there are remedies available to not only solve, but also entirely reverse the devastation plastic propagates on the world.
Right now, there are viable alternatives to entirely replace plastics while there are other recycling solutions to reduce the plastic which already exists. The science and technology is already prepared to eliminate plastic, although, it will require extensive consideration and meticulous planning to change the way plastic is used and disposed of.
In use, plastic does not pose a significant threat; rather, the issue arises from the byproducts created from the fabrication and disposal of plastic.
Humans are responsible for producing 300 million tons of plastic each year, half of which is used only once, then discarded away. Of the millions of tons of plastic produced each year, only a fraction of it ever finds its way to a recycling plant.
The Problem with Plastic – Why is Plastic Bad?
Plastic may be one of the most versatile materials on the planet, but it is also one of the worst pollutants causing unprecedented damage to the world’s delicate ecosystems. The oceans and all the lifeforms within are perhaps suffering the worst.
Even conservative studies estimate over 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. And, once it enters an environment, it never truly goes away. Plastic is reputed as being nearly indestructible – it can take hundreds, or even thousands of years to fully decompose.
After some time, plastic will decay into smaller fragments of itself. Although, its profound stability largely prevents it from chemically breaking down. Worse yet, it is virtually impossible for lifeforms to break down as well. For the most part, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of itself before becoming what is known as a microplastic – small pieces of plastics no larger than five millimeters in length.
“In addition [to other microplastics], microbeads, a type of microplastic, are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. These tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life.” Claims the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
If all the plastic created in the last few decades was clingwrap, it would be enough to wrap the entire planet.
Animals are ingesting plastic at increasing rates, causing unnecessary fatalities such as the pilot whale who died in Thailand after swallowing 8 kilograms of plastic earlier this year. Unfortunately, Pilot whales are just one of the hundreds of marine animals who are consistently falling victim to plastic pollution. The problem is so widespread, over 70% of deep-sea fish have ingested plastic. Plastics are showing up in the food we eat, and being such a recent plague, little is known about the adverse effects of the consumption of microplastics.
Other alarming studies have also found high levels of plastics in bottled water. Evidently, plastic’s outreach is so vast and has accumulated so much waste, that if all the plastic created in the last few decades was clingwrap, it would be enough to wrap the entire planet.
It is evident, we have entered the ‘Age of Plastic’. There is reason for grave concern, however, there is still hope for salvation – and it is through science and engineering that the world’s plastic problem will be resolved, and perhaps reverted.
How to Eliminate Plastic
The easiest and most obvious way to eliminate plastic in the future is to stop buying products featuring any plastic at all – however, ‘cold turkey-ing’ plastic products is not necessarily convenient or practical and people are still heavily reluctant to the idea. Nevertheless, countries like France and Kenya are phasing out single-use plastics by banning the use of plastic ware, plates, and cups. Infractions with plastic products are being heavily fined and could lead to jail time. Discussions are also being made to ban single-use plastic products across all of Europe as well.
The European Commission is calling to ban all single-use plastics in a bid to rid the ocean of plastics. In a report recently released by the Commision, they claim “The legislation is not just about banning plastic products. It also wants to make plastic producers bear the cost of waste management and cleanup efforts, and it proposes that EU states must collect 90% of single-use plastic bottles by 2025 through new recycling programs.
The European Commission estimates that these rules, once fully implemented in 2030, could cost businesses over €3 billion ($3.5 billion) per year. But they could also save consumers about €6.5 billion ($7.6 billion) per year, create 30,000 jobs, and avoid €22 billion ($25.6 billion) in environmental damage and cleanup costs.”
Even a Somalian terrorist group is allegedly banning plastic bags – it would appear some parts of the world are attempting to at least partly reduce plastic waste and cleanse the plastic world Earth has become. But it will take much more than eliminating and reducing the use of plastic to rid the world of its plastic woes.
There are still 8.3 billion tons of plastic around the world, much of which can be expected to be or has already been disposed of in an overfilled dump or carelessly thrown into the environment. But there is hope for salvation; new technologies are being developed to cleanse the oceans of plastic, and new lifeforms and organisms are being discovered and engineered to decompose the plastic which already exists.
The Technologies Eliminating Plastic
Despite maintaining nearly indestructible properties, new technologies are being developed to repurpose and reuse plastics while other technologies are becoming able to decompose plastics entirely.
Companies are finding ways to transform plastic waste into new products once more, significantly increasing the usable lifespan of plastic while simultaneously reducing the need for new plastics and removing some that already exists within the world.
It is not secret plastic is notoriously durable, but even though plastic may last decades or longer in the environment, typically, most plastic is used for minutes before being discarded. Specifically, plastic bottles are used and thrown out long before their usable life is up. The bottles are carelessly tossed away and are seldom recycled. Humans are producing and consuming a million bottles a minute, and the annual consumption is only expected to increase by 20% to half a trillion bottles a year by 2021.
Fewer than half of the bottles produced are recycled, and a mere 7% is recycled into a new bottle. For the most part, once plastic bottles are used, they join the overwhelming population of plastic pollution in the world.
Transforming Plastic Bottles into Houses: The Plastic Bottle Village of the Future
The issue of plastic is of epic proportion, but the solution need not be complex. In a small town on a tiny island off Panama, residents are taking on the plastic problem themselves by transforming plastic bottles into eco-friendly and stylish buildings. The plastic bottle village is transforming one man’s trash into another’s condo.
The man leading the project, Canadian born Rober Bezue, developed the project after becoming fed up with cleaning bottles, sometimes years old, off of the island’s beaches. Determined to find a resolution, Bezue developed a way to transform plastic bottles into a building. Construction promptly began, and the small village was aptly dubbed the Plastic Bottle Village.
“Unless developed countries organize, unite, and educate the developing countries, and give them an incentive to pick-up and reuse the plastic bottles already discarded, we all lose! I want the world to realize that we can reuse plastic bottles in many other applications such as; Home insulation, rapid temporary shelters after disasters, buildings for the animal on farms, swimming pools, water catchment tanks, land drainages, barns, roads, septic tanks and moreover. In fact, we can reuse the plastic bottles in so many applications, that they could become endangered species,” claims Bezue.
The buildings are remarkably efficient, keeping the house nearly 35 degrees cooler than the surrounding Panamanian Jungle. Moreover, one house can consume and lock away more than 20,000 bottles. The bottles are stuffed in between wire mesh and act as both insulation and a structural component. The final step involves covering the walls with concrete.
Unfortunately, plastic bottles are not the only type of plastic plaguing the world’s waterways and beaches – plastic bags. Like bottles, they too are used and thrown out long before the product is no longer usable. And, just like bottles, once in the environment plastic bags also never truly go away – that is, unless they are transformed into fuel.
Recycling Plastic into Oil: A Novel Approach Approach to Eliminating Plastic
Perhaps the most innovative ways to eliminate plastic bags is to transform it back into the crude oil it once was and then use it again once more. The man leading the project, Japanese inventor Akinori Ito, has developed a proclaimed household appliance which converts plastic bags into fuel.
Through a realization, plastic bags are nothing than processed crude oil, Ito wondered what it would take to convert plastic bags into their original form.
The process is remarkably efficient – just one kilogram of plastic can produce approximately one liter of oil. The conversion process requires approximately 1 kWh of electricity, which is worth approximately 20 cents (depending on location). In a world with exponentially rising petrol rates, recycling plastic into oil may be a viable and profitable approach to creating an alternative fuel
Although the solution is not without its downfalls – the trade-off is transforming one pollutant into another. However, it can be argued oil will continue to be used for many years to come, and that oil may as well come from a product which would otherwise remain in the environment for many decades yet.
There are other companies also leading innovative initiatives to repurpose and reuse the plastic which already exists around the world, like Redetec, a company who has developed a 3D-printer which uses recycled plastic to create its prints.
3D-Printing Recycled Plastic
ReDeTec has developed the world’s first and the only system which can recycle plastic waste into a new filament, then use it to print entirely new objects. The printer, called the ProtoCycler, can be loaded with a variety of plastics such as empty bottles and rejected 3D-printed models where it grinds down recycled plastic into digestible pieces before melting and extruding out spools of plastic filament to be used on the next project.
“ProtoCycler is the only extruder on the market to feature an included grinder. Recycle your 3D printer waste, and make it back into filament.”
While it is important to reuse the plastic already available, new technologies are creating new alternative markets to replace plastics entirely. Many companies are leading research initiatives to find viable alternatives to plastic products – and massive headway is being made.
Engineering Biodegradable Plastic
It certainly is not always practical to replace plastic with a biodegradable plastic – inevitably, biodegradables have short useable lifespans and typically fair poorly against liquid. However, for plastic products which are used for only minutes anyhow, biodegradable plastics offer a uniquely viable and environmentally friendly alternative.
To those who fret at the sight of a plastic bottle, biodegradable water bottles made from algae may provide a feasible alternative.
The world’s first biodegradable water bottle, designed and created by Ari Jónsson, makes use of red algae combined with water to create a new bottle with a minimal cost to the environment.
The bottle safely houses water for short durations of up to a few days, which, if delivered to the consumer in time, would typically far exceed the needed lifespan a disposable water bottle requires to begin with.
Long-term storage is still safe, however, the water may absorb some of the flavors from the algae material, which may be displeasing to many. Nevertheless, having a biodegradable bottle with some added flavor still far outweighs the negatives a traditional plastic bottle imposes on the environment.
New Flexible Packaging Uses Crab Shells and Trees Instead of Plastic
There are many companies reducing the amount of plastic in packaging and products, as well as others who are employing more sustainable packages, although, a majority of consumer packing still includes plastic.
Changing the notion of how plastics are used and implemented is a team from Georgia Institute of Technology who want to add to the expanding list of sustainable alternatives with a new type of flexible plastic packaging made from crab shells and trees. The material offers a more sustainable and significantly easier to recycle alternative to traditional plastic packaging. And, according to the team, the new packaging may be more effective and safe at containing liquid and food.
“The main benchmark that we compare it to is PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, one of the most common petroleum-based materials in the transparent packaging you see in vending machines and soft drink bottles,” said J. Carson Meredith, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “Our material showed up to a 67 percent reduction in oxygen permeability over some forms of PET, which means it could, in theory, keep foods fresher longer.”
As with most plastic alternatives, this material also suffers drawbacks from the production of cost, as well as the difficulty in harvesting chitin (a fibrous substance which forms part of an anthropoid’s exoskeleton) from crabs.
More research is still needed to investigate more economical and ethical production methods to create a more efficient plastic packaging alternative – and that solution may be found in fungus.
The future of packaging may be rotten regardless of a viable plastic alternative is created or not – through the rot of the latter is not necessarily a negative. Fungi packaging may bridge a revolution in biodegradable packaging.
The visible portion of a fungus, or a mushroom, represents only a small fraction of the entire organism. Beneath each squishy entity is an extensive network of thread-like roots better known as mycelium – and evidently, these fibrous members may offer the final solution to alternative plastic packaging.
Scientists have nearly perfected fungus packaging and are already using it to create structures, like a 40-foot tower constructed from living mushroom bricks. The bricks are easily manufactured by simply filling molds with organic matter infused with spores. In a matter of five days, the mushrooms transform the organic matter into a brick like substance – a cheap and highly effective process.
A team of scientists, nearly half a decade ago, once used the fungus bricks to construct a massive 40-foot living mushroom tower. However, its applications (quite literally) stem far deeper than just a building material.
Companies are already investigating mycelium as a potential alternative to conventional packing material. The mushroom packaging is naturally fire resistant and it can be easily molded to any shape. With a curing time of only five days, the mushroom manufacturing process is proving to be a viable option for companies to incorporate into their packaging.
Once it meets its intended purpose, the mushroom packaging can be tossed away where it too naturally decomposes. Unfortunately, since it is still living, scientists are wary of disposing of the material in foreign environments where it may spread as an invasive species. Although, counteracting the possibility is the addition of specific bio-engineering which creates a very specific environment in which the packaging can grow. Outside of that environment, the fungus can no longer spread. Though, cross-species contamination is still a threat in which must be investigated further.
Evidently, there are many alternatives available right now to reuse and repurpose the plastic which already exists, and other technologies to entirely replace plastic leading on into the future. However, there are heaps of plastic waste already in the environment which still needs to be disposed of.
Recycling is nearly out of the question – facilities are already struggling to keep up, and plastic can only be recycled so many times before it becomes too contaminated to the point of uselessness.
The solution? Bio-engineering against plastic.
An inconceivable amount of plastic has been discarded into the environment, and once there, it can take upwards of a millennium for plastic to completely degrade, even then as previously mentioned, remnants of microplastics may continue to linger for far exist far longer.
Earlier this year, Sehroon Khan of the World Agroforestry Center lead a team of scientists to discover a plastic eating fungus which dwells in the soil. The fungus, called Aspergillus Tubingensis, secretes enzymes onto the surface of plastics which helps breaks down the long polymer chains so notorious for holding plastic together.
The fungus also uses mycelium, the same stuff used in the formation of mushroom bricks, to completely tear plastic apart, molecule by molecule. Rather than using it as a building block, the fungus uses its network of root-like threads to tear apart the polymer chains.
Currently, researchers are investigating the optimal conditions for the fungus to thrive in, then, the fungus can be introduced into waste treatment plants to begin the plastic eating process on a large scale.
However, also like the fungus bricks, the plastic eating fungus may become an invasive species as well, especially if it decides to grow beyond the plastic where it is easier to extract nutrients rather than ripping the molecules of plastic appear.
Circumnavigating the problem of decomposing plastic requires ditching the idea of using a living organism altogether.
Engineering Plastic Eating Enzymes to Fight Pollution
In a freak accident, researchers accidentally improved a naturally occurring enzyme and enhanced its ability to consume plastic. The newly modified enzyme is more effective at digesting plastic bottles and other plastic waste and could be used to fight back against plastic pollution.
“We’ve made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already,” said John McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work. “That’s really exciting because that means that there’s potential to optimize the enzyme even further.”
Following their discovery, the team is now investigating whether the enzyme can be improved further to engineer a new catalyst which could be used to break down plastic on an industrial scale.
“It’s well within the realms of possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET (polyethylene terephthalate — a form of plastic used in plastic bottles), and potentially other [plastics], back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled,” McGeehan said.
The enzyme was discovered only a few years ago while researchers in Japan were investigating a bacterium which produces the enzyme. Although scientists believe the enzyme is not native to the natural earth, rather, it was created out of a bizarre mutation which allowed to exclusively feed on PET plastic, a common substance used to fabricate bottles. It is believed the bacterium which produces the enzyme evolved in a waste recycling center.
If scientists can perfect the production of the enzyme, it may unlock the ability to easily break the polymer chains holding plastic together at a molecular level, finally turning the fight against in favor of the environment.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
In a world quickly suffocating beneath a blanket of plastic products, the time to act was today, but it needed to be acted on yesterday. The fight against plastic still rages on, and the scale is tipped far in the direction of plastic.
However, the fight is not lost. There are many technologies being developed to help eliminate plastic, and many are already ready to begin extracting and replacing the plastic which already exists. The alternatives are ambition, and will undoubtedly take a global effort to eradicate the plague of plastic.
It is the consumer’s responsibility to ensure companies are held accountable for the plastic waste included in nearly every product. There are many new technologies to help, but the first step begins with preventing the production of senseless single-use plastic products.
The first step is to reduce plastic, and that begins at the corporate level. Moving forward, companies should be accountable for including the packaging waste in nearly every product, and that begins with demanding returns on single-use plastics.
While it is important to reduce the amount of packaging you use, it is far more important to demand corporate returns on single-use plastic.
You can join the fight against plastic by signing this petition to demand returns on plastic waste.
Demanding returns on plastic is something we all can benefit from – companies can include small deposits on packaging to encourage plastic returns.
It would also force companies to reconsider how products are packaged, perhaps by encouraging reusable packaging which can be returned and reused on another product.
Technologies can help assist remove the plastic which already exists, and replace plastics leading into the future. Right now, the ones producing the waste have no incentive to lead the change – but that can change.
Consumers can help by consuming less, but companies can do more by eliminating senseless plastic at the source. Do not stand idle while the world suffocates, stand up against plastic, and demand change.