Is Nature Helping Solve Our Plastic Problem?
Between inhabiting massive patches of garbage to plastic degrading enzymes, it looks like we're getting some help from Nature Herself
Happy first Monday of 2022! Let's hope this year brings us endless curiosity and inspiration. Speaking of which, even if we didn’t talk about plastic on Friday, I know I don’t need to tell you how terrible plastic is for our planet. The topic comes up nearly every time global warming is mentioned, and depressing photos circling online of wildlife caught in plastic waste stabs us directly in the heart. Still, like our dependence on fossil fuels, we can’t ignore the problem.
We need solutions, alternatives, and maybe even some luck to abandon the path we’re on in favor of one that will ensure current and future generations can live in harmony with Nature for, well, ever. That’s the goal, at least. We talked about a couple of human innovations that could revolutionize how we create and use plastic. But now, I want to share the super cool discoveries that might become the absolute lifesavers—not just of humanity, but possibly all living things.
In Curious Adventure, I told you about two of the leading human-made solutions for our destructive dependence on plastic. (Aside from Hemp, of course.) Today, our relationship with plastic is drenched in irony. Countless plastic items are meant to be single-use but are designed and created to last hundreds of years.
Part of the problem is the chemical additives mixed into the plastic to give it desired properties, such as flexibility or transparency. These chemicals bind to the plastic, making it impossible to remove during the recycling process. This means any future items created from recycled materials are unpredictable. For example, something intended to be sturdy might instead bend or warp. This makes it difficult to recycle most plastics. It also means they don’t break down quickly, which is why they last for hundreds of years.
The good news is, scientists are finding ways to make plastic biodegradable and to manufacture it using renewable energy. This solution will go a long way to decrease the amount of plastic waste in our landfills and oceans in the future. However, it’s not perfect. It’ll take time before this option becomes readily available.
In the meantime, another potentially more useful discovery was made by Berkley Lab. Researchers developed a new material called poly(diketoenamine) or (PDK), which looks, feels, and works exactly like plastic we use today. The difference is that when PDK plastic is dunked in a highly acidic solution, the added chemicals detach, allowing the plastic to be genuinely recycled indefinitely.
Creating biodegradable and PDK plastic are great starting points. But we still need to figure out what to do with the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic already littering our planet. Well, it turns out Mother Nature isn’t waiting for us to figure it out on our own.
Animals are Inhabiting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s an area in the Pacific Ocean where human garbage (especially plastics) conglomerate due to changing winds and tides. The exact size is debatable because of currents and changes in the content and borders of the patches, but it’s been estimated to be big as 610,000 square miles.