How do you solve a problem like plastic?

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Jess Losaria

Remember that floating plastic bag scene from the movie American Beauty? Ricky Fitts, the character who shot the footage in the film, was re-watching it with a companion and narrates to her that the imagery evoked feelings in him that there was so much beauty in the world that his poor heart couldn’t take it.

I’m sorry, but how can you really equate beauty with a piece of trash that has been infamous for polluting our oceans for decades? No one can deny the important role of plastic in our lives – we use it to pack our kids’ food in lunchboxes, to carry groceries and even to build homes – but it makes you wonder if this is worth making our own planet potentially uninhabitable.

Just last year, only weeks apart, the carcass of a pilot whale and the limp dying body of a sea turtle were found somewhere along a beach in Thailand. The culprit? You guessed it. Plastics and their byproducts. Eighty plastic bags were found in the unfortunate whale’s tummy. The turtle inadvertently consumed a whole lot as well and died as a result.

Recycling has been the go-to solution for a long time now as it has been proven to be the most efficient method in waste management. The only problem is that a very small percentage of plastic waste worldwide is actually recycled. More on that later.

Recently, other alternatives to recycling have been developed that look to be promising.

Scientists are now looking at biological agents to solve the plastic problem. Some breakthroughs include the use of waxworms (I kid you not) and bioengineered bacteria that have demonstrated the ability to consume or break down polyethylene, one of the main types of plastics.

Waxworms have piqued my interest the most. They are the larvae of wax moths and the fascinating thing about them is that they can eat their way out of plastic bags (metabolizing the above-mentioned polyethylene into ethylene glycol, which itself is biodegradable).

But do these caterpillars really hold the proverbial key to our salvation? Philip Ball of The Guardian wrote an article on this and he believes that waxworms are a double-edged sword. As he noted, turning to nature to solve humanity’s problems often ends in catastrophe, citing the example of the cane toad which was introduced in Australia for pest control. Cane beetles were sugarcane parasites, and while the toads did feast on them initially, they eventually consumed other animals as well as poisoned other wildlife that tried to prey on them.

As their name implies, waxworms and their adult forms are gluttons for wax, specifically beeswax. They thrive on honeycombs. Thus introducing them to solve our plastic problems could very well wreak havoc on bee colonies, and you wouldn’t want that happening.

Plastic-eating bacteria (e.g. Ideonella sakaiensis) have also been recently featured on several websites. According to Fortune.com, researchers discovered that Ideonella have the ability to use polyethylene as a source of energy and carbon. However, similar to the case of the waxworms, to prevent any unforeseen disasters, more research and studies have to be done on the efficacy and feasibility of bioengineered bacteria.

A more practical approach obviously is to use materials that can emulate plastics but have the added benefit of being biodegradable. A man from Vietnam named Tran Minh Tien has invented drinking straws made from wild grass.

India is at the forefront of manufacturing cutleries that are not only biodegradable, but edible as well. Such amazing innovations show that even if there is no immediate solution to the burgeoning plastic problem, at least we can find suitable substitutes that can do the same job with none of the harmful drawbacks.

All of the above approaches are encouraging but ultimately will take some time before they are cosmopolitan. Which leads me back to recycling. Ecobricks, a relatively recent trend, are all the rage at the moment. As defined by Wikipedia, an ecobrick is a plastic bottle with used plastic to a set density to create a reusable building block. Think of them as Lego bricks that can be put on top of each other interspersed with cement to build anything from walls to housing structures.

There is a city in Basilan, Philippines named Lamitan that had the brilliant idea of making a breathtaking “tulip garden” made entirely from plastic waste. The spot is adorned with about 30,000 variously colored “blooms” that look like they have been plucked directly from Holland.

If recycling is such a major hassle for some of us, then obviously the next best thing to do is to reduce our dependence on plastics, namely disposables. Say goodbye to plastic cups, straws, grocery bags, diapers, and cutlery and bring out the mugs, water tumblers, reusable shopping bags, cloth diapers, and metal spoons and forks. At the end of the day, convenience should never come at the cost of harming the environment.

So in conclusion, if we don’t act now, soon the world will be overrun by plastic and we will be drowning in it. I don’t know about you, but on my next trip to the beach, I’d rather snorkel and swim unhindered with a school of blue tangs than choking and gagging on some random plastic debris floating around.


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