Promising development in breaking down plastics

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

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Many Jamaicans would likely have missed news last week that scientists overseas had, by sheer accident, found a way to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the type of plastic used to make water and drinks bottles.

After all, that is not the kind of news that usually gets massive public attention. However, the report drew our interest, specifically because of the potential of this development to help us here in Jamaica, and indeed the wider Caribbean, deal with a problem that is growing and poses a grave threat to our ecosystems.

What has been reported so far is that scientists, driven by the discovery in 2016 of a bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic at a waste dump in Japan, accidentally created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles.

“What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock. It's great and a real finding,” news are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.”

That report quoted Professor McGeehan further as saying that what he and his team were hoping to do is use the enzyme to turn plastic back into its original components in order to recycle it back to plastic.

“It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment,” Professor McGeehan said.

Earth Day Network, on its website, tells us that one million plastic bottles are sold each minute worldwide, and that number will top half a trillion by the year 2021. Just as startling is the environmental movement's revelation that less than half of those bottles end up getting recycled.

In addition, eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the world's oceans each year, harming marine life and, potentially, people who eat seafood.

Earth Day has also argued that since most plastics don't biodegrade in any meaningful sense, all that plastic waste could exist for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Indeed, the environmental movement has said that if plastic production isn't curbed, the pollution caused by this material will outweigh fish, pound for pound, by the year 2050.

That is not something to be taken lightly, especially here in Jamaica where an estimated 600 million PET bottles are used each year and we are seeing the effects of plastic pollution on our beaches.

Indeed, as we have already pointed out in this space, the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) reported last year that its International Coastal Clean-up Day operations on September 16 resulted in a record 160,628 pounds of garbage collected from beaches and shorelines across the island, including nearly 300,000 plastic beverage bottles.

This accidental scientific breakthrough could, we believe, help solve what is already a worldwide plastic pollution crisis by preventing the need to produce new plastic. Our hope is that it can be developed and that it does not solve one problem at the expense of another, such as greenhouse gas emissions.

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