Plastic does not need any detailed introduction. Plastic Pollution is as serious a problem as the rising global temperatures. It is observed that every minute, approximately one garbage truck of plastic is thrown in our oceans. About 7 billion to 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic manufactured during the years 1950-2017 has become plastic waste, dumped under landfills or thrown in the oceans. Plastic pollution is known to affect natural habitats and processes thus hampering and decreasing ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change. Hence, directly interfering with billions of people’s livelihoods, food production abilities, and social conditions.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is an initiative that has worked on Plastic pollution and demonstrated that “the problem of plastic pollution doesn’t exist in a vacuum” It is a real problem. The health hazards/risks of plastic on environmental, social, and economic grounds need to be analyzed and addressed along with other environmental stressors, like climate change, ecosystem degradation, and resource use. About 2,500 on-site and virtual delegates from 147 countries, engaged in the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1) to build an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. This meeting choked out the shape of the global instrument to end plastic pollution, with several countries confirming their desire to have an instrument that addresses the full life cycle of plastics, thus conserving human health and the planet.
Today, we produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.
The rate of plastic manufacturing has grown exponentially since the 1970s as compared to any other material. If this trend of growth continues, the worldwide production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050. It is assumed that about 1,000 rivers are responsible for approximately 80% of global annual riverine plastic emissions in oceans. This accounts for around 0.8 to 2.7 million tonnes per year, where small urban rivers account for the most polluting. A strategic and well-planned change is required to end the flow of plastic waste getting dumped in the environment. Out of seven billion tonnes of plastic waste produced worldwide so far, not more than 10% has been recycled. Surprisingly cigarette butts have filters containing tiny plastic fibers are observed to be the most common type of plastic waste found in the environment. Common plastic components like food wrappers, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic grocery bags, plastic straws, and stirrers are the next most common plastic items. We all use these items every day, without giving a single thought about where they will end up.
Businesses have a great deal of producing plastic for example packaging of their products. If these businesses change their DNA and find alternatives to such single use plastics, it might contribute in preventing flooding of the planet by Plastic. There are many consultancy organizations and venture capital firms that are promoting transformation of businesses towards sustainable practices; solutions to plastic replacement is one of them. Racing for the Oceans is one such organization which is exclusively working to help transform businesses replace their plastic with other sustainable materials.
Let us look at the recent developments in solving the plastic pollution crisis.
1. Biological organisms treating plastics:
Since the development of research strategies in biotechnology, scientists are applying different techniques to solve environmental challenges for example Plastic pollution. To explain it in simple words, living organisms present in nature are studied and used to solve such complex problems. To start with, let use understand what enzymes are:
Enzymes are proteins that help to bring about a chemical reaction. They are known as catalysts and are extremely specific to their respective chemical reaction. Different types of enzymes are present in all the living organisms in the environment. Since plastic is basically a chemical, scientists thought of using enzymes to break the plastic molecules thus completely degrading the plastic that can be used again for rebuilding new plastic products.
A company in France has developed the technology for degrading plastics with the help of enzymes to turn plastic trash into raw material for new bottles. Scientists began hunting for such enzymes in earnest in 2016 after Japanese researchers analyzing mud near a plastic recycling factory found a bacterium with an unusual appetite for plastic. Scientific literature shows that these enzymes can be extracted from bacteria, fungi, algae and even insects like wax worms. Screening and identifying of these specific plastic-degrading enzymes is a crucial step. Going one step ahead, there are genetically engineered enzymes that are now being designed to degrade plastics of all kinds. Carbios is an international organization that has combined the science of enzymes for degrading plastics in industrial processes, thus coining the term enzymatic recycling. Micro-organisms like bacteria and fungi are also widely being studied to identify and apply them to degrade different kinds of plastics. For example Pseudomonas and Acidovorax growing in industrial wastewater can degrade plastic. From the scientific literature, it is clear that researchers are in a race to find different kinds of micro-organisms or enzymes from varied resources like marine, wastewater etc.
There are different terms given to materials that are alternative to conventional plastics but one of the most common is Bio-based plastics or bioplastics. Bioplastics are made of polymers derived from biological systems. The major characteristics of bioplastics are that they are produced from a renewable source like plants or biomass and they are biodegradable which is crucial for environmental health.
In scientific literature, there are different biological resources that have been studied to produce a variety of bioplastics. As is rightly said, necessity is the mother of invention, researchers around the globe started exploring alternate materials that could replace conventional non-degradable plastic. Thus, successfully producing biopolymers from easily available natural resources like Biomass like Algae, recycled food waste, corn starch, straw, woodchips, sawdust, and also from vegetable fats and oils etc. To talk about Algae, collectively they include more than one million species, thus giving a plethora of starting material for producing huge variety of bioplastics.
Furthermore, bioplastics being biodegradable, they are combined with the circular economy where at the end of the life stage, the used bioplastic can be a resource for producing a brand new bioplastic article. Bioplastics are made of biopolymers that are attached together by chemical bonds. With the rise of biopolymers and their various applications in different fields, sustainable and economic ways to produce these biopolymers have become an extremely emerging topic. Some of the relevant methods are microbial/bacterial production of biopolymers extraction of biopolymers from wastewater, organic waste, biomass, production of biopolymers by using carbon di oxide, or biopolymer production using circular economy and bioeconomy. Metabolic engineering of micro-organisms to produce biopolymers that combine biological as well as chemical processes is also one of the sustainable ways to innovate biopolymers. All these examples reflect that research in the field of biopolymer/bioplastics is increasing exponentially which gives us the potential to innovate and explore these technologies for a sustainable business.
Characteristics of Biopolymer we are interested in: Thermostable at 120 degrees C, structurally and chemically stable, transparent, gas barrier etc. In the current prior art, there are biopolymers such as polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), polybutylene succinate (PBS), polybutylene succinate adipate (PBSA), polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT) Bio-based polyolefins such as polyethylene (Bio-PE), etc. Each of them has different characteristics and hence are used for various applications in different industries. There are studies where a combination of the above-mentioned polymers can give a synergistic advantage over individual polymers. Through reading and referencing, it is possible to identify which is the most relevant biopolymer of our interest.
These were the highlights of two interesting developments in the scientific literature that has the potential to solve the issue of plastic pollution. Readers interested in understanding more about these developments can read more articles and websites respectively.
- An, R.; Liu, C.; Wang, J.; Jia, P. Recent Advances in Degradation of Polymer Plastics by Insects Inhabiting Microorganisms. Polymers 2023, 15, 1307. https://doi.org/10.3390/polym15051307
- Nasser Delangiz, Sajad Aliyar, Neda Pashapoor, Khatereh Nobaharan, Behnam Asgari Lajayer, Susana Rodríguez-Couto Can polymer-degrading microorganisms solve the bottleneck of plastics’ environmental challenges?, Chemosphere, Volume 294, 2022, 133709, ISSN 0045-6535, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2022.133709.
- Dominik Danso, Jennifer Chow Wolfgang R. Streit, Plastics: Environmental and Biotechnological Perspectives on Microbial Degradation Journal Article, 2019, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, e01095-19, AID – 10.1128/AEM.01095-19
- Coppola, G., Gaudio, M.T., Lopresto, C.G. et al. Bioplastic from Renewable Biomass: A Facile Solution for a Greener Environment. Earth Syst Environ 5, 231–251 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41748-021-00208-7
- Wen Yi Chia, Doris Ying Ying Tang, Kuan Shiong Khoo, Andrew Ng Kay Lup, Kit Wayne Chew, Nature’s fight against plastic pollution: Algae for plastic biodegradation and bioplastics production, Environmental Science and Ecotechnology, Volume 4, 2020,100065,ISSN 2666-4984, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ese.2020.100065.
- Onen Cinar S, Chong ZK, Kucuker MA, Wieczorek N, Cengiz U, Kuchta K. Bioplastic Production from Microalgae: A Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 May 28;17(11):3842. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17113842. PMID: 32481700; PMCID: PMC7312682.
- Hunting down plastic-degrading microorganisms https://www.nature.com/articles/d42473-021-00095-6