Posted on May 31, 2018 by Charles F. Becker
“Ben, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes, I am.”
[Pause] “Exactly how do you mean?”
“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
“Yes, I will.”
“Enough said. That’s a deal.”
The Graduate – 1967
Mr. McGuire’s sage advice to young Ben Braddock advanced an era of plastics that continues to this day. Once considered to be a miracle product, it is not possible to avoid it in everyday life—it is everywhere, in one form or another. Yet, as we now know, plastic presents certain environmental problems – it won’t go away and there is a lot of it:
- It takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose;
- Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide each year;
- Globally, one million plastic bottles are bought per minute;
- 8 million metric tons of plastic goes into the ocean each year;
- There are 150 million tons of plastic floating in the ocean;
- Over 1 million sea birds, whales, seals, and other sea animals die from plastics found in oceans;
- 8% of world oil production goes to manufacturing plastics.
The focus of Earth Day 2018 (April 22nd) was on plastic — educating everyone on the environmental impact of plastic disposal. Education is always worthwhile, but it isn’t as though we don’t know the dangers. Moreover, this is a world-wide problem, with China being the major contributor and the U.S. a distant 12th. So what is the solution?
One possibility is to use less plastic. That could be by governmental mandate, business choice or societal shaming. But if history is a teacher, “just say no” will not work. Plastic production has increased steadily at a compound average growth rate of 8.4% per yearsince 1950. As of 2017, we have created 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste; by 2050, that figure is expected to be 26 billion.
Perhaps we could use a biodegradable form of plastic—something that will break down in the environment. Regrettably, business hasn’t shown much interest. Capacity for such production is less than 0.2 percent of petrochemical-based plastic.
Recycling is perhaps the most commonly suggested solution. But with decades promoting the recycling of plastics, it is still the case that at least 85% of all plastics are not recycled. Further, a recent study on recycling plastic into clothing indicates we may actually be making the situation worse by causing the shedding of micro-fibers of plastic that get to waterways.
So is all lost? Scientific ingenuity—and some luck—tells us no.
Like the discovery of penicillin, x-rays, and plastic itself, it may be that the solution has been stumbled upon by accident. In 2016, a Japanese team identified a plastic-eating bacteria as a possible natural solution to plastic pollution. In 2018, while trying to reproduce the results, a team from the University of Portsmouth accidentally created a more potent form of the released enzyme. The enzyme breaks down the plastic to its original building blocks. It may even be possible to spray it on huge floating plastic ocean islands to break up the material.
Is this the silver bullet we need? It appears promising, but research is ongoing. We can only hope it turns out to be the solution because the alternatives seem to be the equivalent of stopping a freight train with a pillow.
As a postscript, I should give time to another view – let nature take its course. George Carlin figured it out when he said:
The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ’cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?”
I’m rooting for the enzyme.