Plastic Love; Humanity’s Toxic Relationship with Earth

This past Sunday witnessed scientists, politicians and ambassadors from across the globe commune for the annual United Nations World Environment Day. Hosted in Sweden on June 5th 2022, this year’s World Environment Day followed the theme “Only One Earth” and quickly saw the rise of a major talking point of the event; plastic.

Only 9% of plastic waste is ever successfully recycled. This may not have appeared as such a pressing issue nearly two decades ago, when the world was making half as much plastic as it does today. But when we produce 380 million tonnes of plastic every year worldwide to be dumped or burned as further pollution, ignorance ceases to be an option.

Source: OECD Global Plastics Outlook Database
  • OECD EU countries include Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden

Notable work has been done in recent years to research new ways to reuse and recycle plastic in more environmentally sustainable manners. Researchers at the University of Leipzig in Germany recently stumbled upon a particular enzyme capable of degrading plastic. Christian Sonnendecker and his laboratory discovered that a polyester hydrolase enzyme called PHL7 can ‘eat’ an entire piece of plastic in less than a day. Testing showed that PHL7 was faster than enzyme LCC (“leaf-branch compost cutinase”), a conventional enzyme used in current PET plastic-eating experiments.

PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) plastic can be recycled, but does not biodegrade. Like a grudge with your middle school bully, once PET plastic is made, it never really goes away. It can be repurposed as new products such as tote bags, however the plastic becomes weaker with each cycle. As such, it eventually gets refashioned into objects like carpets.

Solving this issue involves two aspects. The first is to halt production of PET plastic products. This, however, still leaves millions of empty soft drink bottles and subsequent tote bags awaiting oblivion for the next few thousand years.

The second component is to force the plastic to degrade. Work concerning enzymes such as that done by Sonnendecker’s team is crucial to engineering the optimal enzyme to degrade PET. While Sonnendecker’s newly found enzyme can chew apart the containers you might buy your grapes in, it isn’t capable of breaking down drink bottles, which are made of PET that has been chemically altered and stretched. Sonnendecker’s team is in the process of developing a pre-treatment to make PET bottles easier for enzymes to degrade, the research yet to be published.

Events such as the UN World Environment Day recognize a notable few of the numerous contributions that scientists, activists and consumers make everyday towards building environmental sustainability on our planet. Even with the current level of awareness surrounding single-use plastics and rising popularity of paper straws in an effort to save sea turtles, considerable work remains to be done concerning our problem. What can you do to help dissolve this amour plastique on our one Earth?



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