The issue of packaging waste polluting our oceans is widespread and becoming increasingly problematic across the globe. According to Ocean Conservancy, there are currently 150 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean with roughly 8 million more being added every year. Specifically, National Geographic states that packaging waste was the most common beach trash in 2018 which exemplifies the urgent need to find solutions in regards to reducing the harmful impact of packaging waste. Once in our oceans, these packaging materials have a massive impact on marine life, often resulting in unnecessary fatalities caused by asphyxiation or strangulation. It is often easy to put these creatures out of mind as it is uncommon for us to interact with them directly, however, many humans depend on sea life as a food resource. Consequently, the contamination of our ocean leads to contamination in our food, making this pollution toxic to humans as well. While the issue appears to be growing, there are efforts being made to reverse this process. In this essay, I will elaborate on how my ideas could bring about a positive, large scale change and ultimately reduce the number of harmful packaging products being discarded in our beautiful oceans.
The root of the issue lies with the over-utilization of plastics in packaging and inefficient recycling methods. Plastic is a double-edged sword as it is extraordinarily versatile, cheap, and durable, making it useful in just about every type of manufacturing imaginable. Unfortunately, the lack of biodegradability poses a threat to our Earth as we are producing plastic at a rate much faster than it degrades. Over the last few decades, scientists and environmentalists have shed light on this problem causing the general public to become aware of what is at stake. This increased awareness is starting to make green initiatives more lucrative for businesses due to the fact that it boosts public relations and improves brand image, resulting in a more satisfied consumer. While this is fueling a push towards environmental sustainability, it still is not enough to transform the packaging industry as a whole. In order to accomplish that, there must be significant progress made in finding materials that have similar properties to plastics but have a shorter lifespan. Fortunately, there is a massive renewable packaging product market waiting to be tapped into. This untapped market is the prize waiting for thousands of scientists currently devoting their lives to the study of environmentally friendly materials. Once the ideal material is found, and production is perfected, it will be in the best interest of businesses to switch over to this material, and those that do not will be facing an uphill battle. In order to speed this process along, I believe as a community, we can encourage our government to fund this type of research and devote manpower to this global problem. Voting for environmentally friendly initiatives and vocalizing the fact that environmental issues are important among voters will go a long way in speeding up the transition away from harmful plastics.
With all this being said, plastics will still have their place in our society, and rightfully so as it is an extremely useful material. In order to combat the continued production of plastic, we need to find ways to allow it to break down quicker, lessening its impact on the Earth. While a different issue, the previous premise of allowing innovation to solve this problem remains true. One of the possibilities that I find very intriguing and plausible is plastic-eating bacteria. While it may seem far-fetched at first glance, a Japanese research team actually stumbled upon a bacteria with the ability to digest plastics found in soda bottles. They then isolated the enzyme responsible for this process and are conducting further research into how it could potentially be used in recycling (Popular Science). The main focus of the utilization of this enzyme seems to be on large scale applications in which the enzyme is applied to piles of plastic to break it down. That idea seems beneficial towards reducing the already created plastic, however, this enzyme research led me to another idea that adds even more functionality to their research. Revisiting the topic of enzymes brought me back to the biology class I took my senior year of high school where we learned about the activation and deactivation of enzymes. The catalytic ability of enzymes is largely dependent upon the conditions they are in. This means that with proper temperature, pH, and other factors, enzymes will work extremely well, however, if these conditions are sub-optimal then the enzymes will slow down. This remains true for the enzyme found to be responsible for the breaking down of plastic waste. If we were to create plastic materials with these enzymes included in the production, we could theoretically control the speed at which plastics will degrade. The ability to do this would alleviate much of the pressure placed on finding alternative materials and companies could even design their packaging with a designated life span. That is, depending on the nature of the packaging being created, the companies themselves can analyze the ideal degradation time for these plastic materials and actually implement it by altering the conditions of the plastic in order to speed up or slow down these enzymes. The ability to harness the power of the enzymes and control the speed in which they work would certainly pose a challenge to scientists, but if it were successful it could completely alter how we utilize plastic and more specifically, packaging materials.
It is clear that environmental issues are at the forefront of our society as we face numerous challenges from climate change to packaging waste choking marine life. As a nation and as a world we are trending towards more environmentally friendly alternatives, however, it is a slow process. It is essential that we understand the importance of keeping our Earth clean and continue to strive towards innovations such as enzyme infused plastic, that will one day make these problems an issue of the past.
Essay by: Nolan Liston
San Diego State University