No matter where we are or where we go, we can always rely on one companion that will follow us and be there: plastic. It’s the first thing we hold in the morning when taking our phones to turn off the alarm. We find it in our bathrooms but often forget that, when brushing our teeth or using shampoo bottles, we’re holding plastic in our hands. We might even sit across it when having breakfast at the dining table covered with a transparent plastic cloth. We touch it when pushing the power button of the remote control to turn on the TV. We fill it with water and carry it in our bags, in case we get thirsty, before we step outside, only to find more of it.
Let’s face it. We are literally surrounded by plastic.
It seems impossible to imagine our lives without this synthetic material. This chemical compound, which is often obtained from fossil fuels, has revolutionized human lives both at the individual and societal level. According to PlasticsEurope, over 1.5 million people are employed in the European plastic industry (European Union including Switzerland and Norway), involving almost 60,000 companies. Apart from its impact on the labor market and economic growth, plastic has made packaging, transportation, and construction more efficient than ever. Due to its versatility, plastic has also become an essential material in various sectors, including the electronics industry and the medical field.
However, despite its advantages, plastic has tremendous effects on the environment and our health. And the reason for that is its durability. It can take up to hundreds of years for certain plastic materials to degenerate. What is left is a huge pile of plastic waste which is recycled, used for energy recovery, or found in the landfill. Or worse, it ends up in the ocean where its particles are absorbed by marine life, and eventually, by us human beings. In fact, out of 300 million tons of plastic that are produced yearly, 8 million tons are dumped into the oceans, resulting in massive plastic islands, according to Plastic Oceans.
And it’s not going to get any better. A recent study by Lebreton et al. (2018) shows “that ocean plastic pollution within the GPGP [Great Pacific Garbage Patch] is increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters”. The Garbage Patch, amounting to 1.6 million square kilometers, which is three times the size of France, should now get even bigger?
Maybe not. A group of scientists has discovered a new enzyme that can eat plastic. While analyzing an already existent enzyme that was first found in Japan, the researchers found a way to improve it and create a better version. Now, this new enzyme is capable of eating polyethylene terephtalate, also known as PET, as well as PEF, a bio-based plastic. However, before this enzyme will be used at large scale, it will take further research to ensure no unforeseen consequences. In the meantime, it is up to us to decrease our plastic use for a better, sustainable environment and for a healthier life.
Lebreton, Laurent CM; Slat, Boyan; Ferrari, Francesco; Sainte-Rose, Bruno; Aitken, Jen; Marthouse, Bob; Hajbane, Sara; Cunsolo, Serena; Schwarz, Anna; Levivier, Aurore; Noble, Kim; Debeljak, Pavla; Maral, Hanna; Schoeneich-Argent, Rosanna; Brambini, Roberto; Reisser, Julia. 2018. “Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic”. Scientific Reports 8, 1-15.