Earth Day 2018 Brings a Possible Solution to a Perplexing Plastics Problem

Earth Day 2018 Brings a Possible Solution to a Perplexing Plastics Problem

By | April 20, 2018

Talk about an exciting “PET” project.

In 1949 U.S. Patent 2,465,319 was awarded, which brought “polymeric linear terephthalic esters” into the world. Today, the compound polyester is found in everything from stuffed giraffes to track pants.

Three decades after, a DuPont engineer named N.C. Wyeth patented a container. It was a “biaxially oriented poly(ethylene terephthalate) bottle” that could hold carbonated drinks, and 30 years later the world has exponentially expanded its thirst for consuming soft drinks and noncarbonated beverages from a bottle.

While the discovery of PET and its bottle-based form has changed pop culture dramatically, PET has also caused environmental problems. Those sturdy bottles that hold those beverages so well also take decades if not centuries to decompose, and only a small percentage of used containers are recycled each year. Because of that, by one estimate, some 14 billion pounds of plastic wind up in the oceans annually. This is roughly 10 times the weight of the Romanian Palace of Parliament building in Bucharest, which is considered the heaviest building in the world. This is a serious refuse problem that is undoubtedly only going to get worse.

But there is some good news this Earth Day, the theme of which is “End Plastic Pollution.”

Earth Day 2018

It’s no accident that the world has a huge pollution problem on its hands, but a cure for this troubling trash situation might have actually been discovered by accident.

In recently released research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, British and U.S. scientists detailed how they stumbled upon an enzyme—Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6—in a Japanese waste recycling center a few years ago that can actually break down PET.

As the researchers wrote, “In response to the accumulation of plastics in the biosphere, it is becoming increasingly recognized that microbes are adapting and evolving enzymes and catabolic pathways to partially degrade man-made plastics as carbon and energy sources. These evolutionary footholds offer promising starting points for industrial biotechnology and synthetic biology to help address the looming environmental threat posed by man-made synthetic plastics.”

Now the challenge for researchers is to learn how to improve the enzyme so that it can get to work gobbling up plastic waste on an industrial level.

John McGeehan, a director at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Portsmouth in England and one of the researchers, told CNN: “Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics.”

A few years ago, the World Economic Forum predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic weight in the ocean than fish weight, so any advancement in eco-technology is welcome news for the sustainability of our seas.

At Sphera, we take sustainability very seriously, and we applaud any efforts that make the world a safer and more sustainable place. That’s why every Spherion is given a reusable water bottle, which limits the need for using recyclable water bottles. It’s just a little reminder that we all need to do our part to help protect the environment.

While Earth Day comes around once a year, part of Sphera’s everyday mission is to improve companies’ Environmental Performance because, after all, sustainability should be more than just a pet project.

Want more Earth Day info? Read our posts from last year on Earth Day and Sphera Sustainability Day, which returns later this year.

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