World Environment Day 2018


Plastic Pollution: Dead Whales, Blocked Rivers

Plastic is used in many products we use daily, from plastic bottles to plastic bags to carpets, containers, electronics, and so much more However, a problem that comes with plastic is pollution. Many plastic products can be used only once before ending up in the trash can as waste. Even worse, these plastic products end up in our rivers and oceans. Since plastic does not disintegrate, they float around for many years causing problems to the surrounding natural environments. 

Plastic Problems 
Last month, a dead sperm whale washed up on the shore of Spain. Necropsy results that were released last week show that the whale did not have an ordinary diet. Instead of the squid it normally eats, plastic bags, netting, and containers were found in its belly. Sadly, its belly was filled with 64 pounds of plastic waste! Because plastic cannot be digested, the whale’s digestive system had burst. Unfortunately, marine animals and birds are the biggest victims of our plastic use. Over in Indonesia, rivers have been clogged with plastic waste. Plastic bags, bottles, and styrofoam packaging have clumped up together in a pile so large that it looks like an iceberg of plastic. In fact, the problem is so huge that the President of Indonesia called in the army to clean up the waste. Soldiers are now working to remove the plastic, using nets to pull waste out of the river. However, this only works partially because as they remove some plastic, more waste keeps floating upstream. 

Taking Action 
Companies have started to cut down their amount of plastic use. In fact, on April 26, over 40 companies have pledged to eliminate all single-use packaging in the United Kingdom. By signing the UK Plastics Pact, they aim to make all their plastic products recyclable, reusable, or compostable. Many countries have been placing bans or limits on the use of plastic bags. Starting with Denmark in 1993 and then spreading to all corners of the globe, taxes are placed on plastic bags to encourage buyers to not use them. Unfortunately, many consumers are not satisfied with these restrictions, as plastic bags are very convenient to use. Meanwhile, many restaurants across the globe are banning the use of plastic straws, stirrers, etc. especially in beach cities where the straws usually end up in the ocean nearby. Taiwan plans to place a ban on single-use plastic cups and straws by 2030. The United Kingdom plans to ban straws, stirrers, and Q-tips as early as next year. It won’t be long before many other countries follow suit. 

Can This Enzyme Help? 
Unfortunately, plastics take a long time to break down, so finding a way to decompose them naturally is not easy. In a waste recycling center in Japan, scientists had been studying microbes known as Ideonella sakaiensis. This bacteria can naturally eat away at plastic and decompose it by breaking apart the plastic bonds. The microbe can digest PET plastics or polyethylene terephthalate, mainly found in plastic water bottles. 

Recently, scientists luckily came across a mutant enzyme that helps speed up the process, making it 20 percent more efficient. Unlike the original microbe, this mutant also can now break down another plastic known as PEF, or polyethylene terephthalate. Scientists are now working to improve this enzyme even further in order to solve the global problem with plastic. 

However, we can help solve the problem as consumers. Avoid using single-use plastic products, but if you do, do not just throw them away as litter. Join efforts to clean up the beaches, rivers, and even streets. Find a way to reuse, reduce, and recycle to produce less waste. Do your part, and the world will be one step closer to solving the plastic pollution.