What do we do about ocean pollution?
Some are lakes, some are oceans, and all are natural. Crystal clear, pristine, almost transparent water you find on a beach or stunning blue waters near some insanely unbelievable scenery such as an idyllic waterfall. Wait, hold on. Let us get back to reality here for a minute. Globally, humans buy a million plastic bottles per minute, 91% of which are not recycled (Nace 2017). Therefore, not being recycled nor ending up in landfills, a large number of plastic water bottles end up in the ocean or infiltrate our streets as litter. If nothing changes, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. That is just a fact. And although this may not be one of the most pressing matters in the world right now, it will be in the long run. Here’s the thing: “The bottled water industry says correctly, but misleadingly, that the plastic the water comes in is recyclable. It’s misleading because recyclable is not the same thing as recycled” says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute (Gleick 2018). Despite multiple attempts to encourage recycling worldwide, 38 billion water bottles, or 80% of bottles purchased, end up in landfills each year (Matschek 2014). There are countless sources of plastic that we as humans use: plastic bags, containers, packaging. So the question remains: What can we do as citizens to reduce the amount of plastic out in water bodies around the globe? Let’s find out.
First and foremost, we have to minimize the use of single-use plastics. These include plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic packaging, plastic containers, food wrappers, foam containers, straws and stirrers, and microbeads, which are tiny solid plastic particles. All of these are to be disposed of right after use. Look at this from a different viewpoint. Now, every time we use that straw or drink coffee from that cup, we throw it out and so does every other human being on the planet. Something as simple as investing in a few reusable grocery bags and reusable water bottles can reduce the amount of plastic that goes into our oceans. Plastic is putting a strain on waste management systems, our oceans, and vulnerable communities around the world. So next time you hit the restaurant only ask for what you need or ask if they offer reusable plates and utensils. If not the entire human population, ban plastic in your life, or your neighborhood or community. Moving on to a more scientific approach to this problem, we can educate ourselves on converting plastic into fuel and then implement it in our daily lives. When viewed from a different standpoint, it will always be logical to use as much plastic as we can rather than letting it sit in landfills or at the bottom of the ocean. As more people become conscious of their plastic use, we can take advantage of this and start to think about how to tackle the astronomical amount of plastic already in existence. An Australian company, Licella, has a plan to convert end-of-life plastics into oil using their Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor that would melt plastics into liquid fuel. Although it helps reduce the plastic in the ocean, it does have its downsides which is why it is not the only way to go. In addition to this, we can incorporate a plastic-eating enzyme in our plastic. Since plastic decays differently to organic materials, instead of being digested by bacteria, it would break down when exposed to sunlight, through a process called photodegradation. This allows the plastic to almost decompose after a few weeks, reducing the amount of plastic, and solving the problem.
As mentioned earlier, the characteristic of the enzyme that would allow for the solution to progress is the ability to break down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is also known as the world’s most-used plastic. This new enzyme could potentially be a way to recycle the plastic back into usable plastic, reducing the need to produce more plastic. This is very exciting as it is a huge step forward, however, due to it being a newly-discovered solution it can not be relied upon as of right now because of the amount of uncertainty revolving around it. For example, the enzyme is necessarily able to recycle other majorly used plastics, such as polystyrene, whose bonds are harder to break. Additionally, given that this is a relatively new enzyme, there may be hazardous side effects that we could be unaware of.
Furthermore, as always, new technology has its implications on our society. The economic aspect of plastic-eating enzymes may not be perceived in the same way by everyone. Companies may have to modify their use of plastic, which could prove challenging for some in various ways. The other solution, converting plastics into oil, also seems to have its downsides, most of which pertain to the environment. Although it aids in the issue, it is often described as more of a pollution displacement than a sustainable solution. Dr. Tom Beer of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) says “Of the oil that gets extracted out of the ground, about a third is used to produce plastics, which effectively locks the carbon up into plastic. If you then turn it into bio-crude and burn it, that is no longer the case. It depends what you value most, do you want to get plastic out of the landfill, and out of the oceans, then fantastic, but it does mean carbon emissions” (Opray, 2016).
Lastly, as individual citizens of this world, we can pledge to use biodegradable water bottles made from algae which provides a feasible alternative to plastic water bottles. The environmental cost is significantly low and perfect for those who are not quite ready to switch over just yet. The process is quite simple actually and only requires red algae to be combined with water to create a new bottle. In terms of storage, water can be stored for much longer than a regular plastic water bottle, however, the water may absorb the flavor of the algae material, which may dissuade some. Nonetheless, the benefits of having a biodegradable bottle still outweigh the negatives of a traditional plastic water bottle and bring us one step closer to plastic-free oceans.
To conclude, scientists and researchers are working hard to investigate further into the world of enzymes and finding innovative ways to reuse the plastic in our oceans. On the other hand, some cities have already worked towards banning plastic water bottles, but for there to be real change, the entire human population needs to get on board with reducing dependency on plastic to protect the future. The water crisis is just one of the many global challenges we may face in the coming decades. To ensure humanity’s survival on this planet, protecting the Earth is more important than ever, and reducing our negative environmental footprint is the first step.