WHERE OUR PLAS­TICS GO

Focus-Science and Technology - - Blue Planet II - Josh Gabbatiss is a science writer based in Lon­don. He tweets from @Josh_Gab­batiss

whizz around plas­tic-sat­u­rated ar­eas of the ocean, swal­low­ing rub­bish with their cir­cu­lar ‘jaws’ while keep­ing fish CYC[ WUKPI C UQPKE VTCPUOKVVGT

6JGUG CTG KPIGPKQWU UQNWVKQPU CPF maybe a bona fide suc­cess story will help to ease the ten­sion be­tween those de­vel­op­ing the projects, and the peo­ple who want to pre­vent the plas­tic get­ting VJGTG KP VJG HKTUV RNCEG # HVGT CNN CU Sav­oca points out: why not do both?

GOB­BLE IT UP WITH MI­CROBES

Bac­te­ria are po­ten­tially the most ver­sa­tile crea­tures in ex­is­tence, ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a home in pretty much any GPXKTQPOGPV QP 'CTVJ +V KU RGTJCRU un­sur­pris­ing, then, that in re­cent years sci­en­tists have found ev­i­dence that some have evolved the ca­pac­ity to break FQYP RNCUVKEU .CUV [GCT HQT GZCORNG C Ja­panese team iden­ti­fied a bac­terium ECRCDNG QH DKQFGITCFKPI 2'6 s C RNCUVKE found in ev­ery­thing from polyester cloth­ing to wa­ter bot­tles – prompt­ing spec­u­la­tion that bac­te­ria could be em­ployed to stem the tide of plas­tic RQNNWVKQP D[ OWPEJKPI VJTQWIJ KV

&T .KPFC # OCTCN <GVVNGT C OKETQDKCN ecol­o­gist work­ing on the ‘plas­ti­sphere’ – the com­mu­nity of crea­tures liv­ing on ocean plas­tics – says it’s wrong to think QH RNCUVKE CU C UVGTKNG GPXKTQPOGPV p9JGP [QW FQ VJG GZRGTKOGPVU [QW HKPF there are some mi­crobes that are in­cred­i­bly well suited to colonis­ing RNCUVKEU q UJG GZRNCKPU *GT YQTM JCU shown dis­tinct ge­netic dif­fer­ences be­tween bac­te­ria in­hab­it­ing plas­tic and those in the sur­round­ing wa­ter, so the con­cept of bac­te­ria adapt­ing to NKHG KP VJG 2NCUVKE #IG KU PQV VJCV HCT HGVEJGF p$WV KVoU QPG VJKPI VQ colonise, it’s an­other to ac­tu­ally break down and di­gest plas­tic,” UJG CFFU

While plas­tics do de­grade nat­u­rally through UV ra­di­a­tion and phys­i­cal pro­cesses, and bac­te­ria may be play­ing some role in this, it doesn’t mean all the plas­tic is sim­ply van­ish­ing into their tiny DQFKGU PGXGT VQ DG UGGP CICKP + P fact, some mi­crobes might even be break­ing down the plas­tic into ever smaller par­ti­cles, which are not only harder to de­tect and clean up, but could be dam­ag­ing ma­rine GEQU[UVGOU 2NCUVKE OWPEJKPI mi­crobes are an in­trigu­ing area of re­search, and cer­tainly worth GZRNQTKPI HWTVJGT $WV YKVJ VJG plas­tic pil­ing up fast, we might not be able to rely on bac­te­ria to do our FKTV[ YQTM HQT WU

TURN IT INTO SOME­THING ELSE

Ul­ti­mately, plas­tics are not our GPGO[ 6JG[ CTG FWTCDNG

light­weight, in­ex­pen­sive, and KPETGFKDN[ WUGHWN 6JG OCLQT KUUWG KU that around 40 per cent of the plas­tic we pro­duce is go­ing into sin­gle-use items, such as cot­ton buds, drink­ing straws, car­rier bags and plas­tic forks, which have a long life fol­low­ing FKURQUCN

(QTVWPCVGN[ YGoTG DGIKPPKPI VQ see more projects that re­pur­pose FKUECTFGF RNCUVKEU 0QV QPN[ ECP plas­tics be re­cy­cled to make the usual sus­pects, such as pack­ag­ing, but they can be trans­formed into more URGEKCNKUV RTQFWEVU UWEJ CU ENQVJGU Some com­pa­nies, for ex­am­ple, melt down plas­tic bot­tles and turn them into fi­bres that can be wo­ven into fab­rics, a process that uses 50 per cent less en­ergy than pro­duc­ing polyester, the plas­tic most widely used in cloth­ing, from UETCVEJ

Plas­tics can also be used as fuel, with new tech­nolo­gies al­low­ing us to ef­fi­ciently con­vert them into diesel and ICUQNKPG $[ JGCVKPI RNCUVKE KP C con­trolled way, cou­pled with a cat­a­lyst, it is pos­si­ble to pro­duce fuel that doesn’t GXGP PGGF TGHKPKPI CPF KU TGCF[ VQ WUG #NN QH VJKU OGCPU NGUU RNCUVKE NGCMKPI QWV of the sys­tem and end­ing up in the QEGCPU 'XGPVWCNN[ YG EQWNF UGG C HWNN[ cir­cu­lar ‘plas­tic econ­omy’, though this would re­quire ma­jor changes at an in­dus­try level in or­der to make plas­tic GCUKGT VQ TGE[ENG CPF TGWUG

ABOVE LEFT AND RIGHT: A to­tal of 5,000 tonnes of lit­ter was cleared from a 2.5km-long stretch of Mum­bai’s Versova beach over the course of 85 weeks. Be­fore the vol­un­teers set to work, waste was piled over 1.5m high

BE­LOW: Se­abins are de­signed to col­lect rub­bish from har­bours and ports, and can suck in 1.5kg of float­ing waste per day

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