The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It has a sort of ring to it. This mass is a collection of mostly plastic waste and garbage that has accumulated in the Pacific Ocean. It has grown to over a half a million square miles and will only grow larger if nothing is done. One of the main reasons that this island will only grow bigger lies in the inherent properties of its largest contributor, plastic. Plastic is a material that can take up to 1000 years to degrade. A major reason for this is that plastic is made up of stuff that microorganisms have not seen before. To create plastic requires a lot of energy, which is one thing that nature does not like. Nature enjoys takes the path of least resistant, so plastic is just something that does not arise often. As a result, there are no microorganisms that have evolved to be able to breakdown plastic. To solve the issue of Plastic Island from becoming the eighth continent of the world, we would need to either stop the supply or to create a demand for plastic. Let us start off with creating a new demand for plastic. Now there are millions if not billions of different types of organisms called decomposers. Each has the ability to break down certain types of bonds. The problem with plastics is that there are no decomposers on earth that can break down the bonds that make up plastics. This is because the bonds in plastic just do not arise naturally in nature. However, if we could bioengineer a protein that can break apart those bonds, we can implant microorganisms with them which would give them the ability to break down plastics. This may sound perfect except that as Jurassic Park has shown us, “Life finds a way.” Maybe these new organisms will be too good with their new abilities and now plastic can not be used since it will be decomposed to readily. Or maybe there will be unseen downstream consequences from decomposers being able to break apart carbon-carbon chains. Either way, there has to be a safer alternative. From here, we could look at changing the supply. By this, I imply changing the material packaging is made up of. Plastic is so widely used because of how cheap and relatively durable it is. This is a multi-billion dollar a year industry so any alternatives will be met with a lot of pushback. However, if a biodegradable packaging was created, it would essentially stop Plastic Island in its tracks. Over the years, biodegradable alternatives have gotten some traction such as plates made from cardboard and straws made from paper. Unlike plastic, wood is easily biodegradable, but it is a little too easy in order to be used in place of plastic. It is good for one-use items but something more durable would need to be found in order to compete with plastic. One idea I have as an alternative has been used by plants for millions of years. To prevent water loss, they have adapted a natural wax that creates a film. Let us look at the reasons why plastic is so widely used. It is durable, cheap and relatively environmentally resistant. These attributes allow it to be extremely useful as packaging since it protects what it holds. The wax of plants also has some useful attributes. They are environmentally resistance since even water vapor cannot pass through it. They would also be cheap to produce because plants naturally make them. However, by itself in nature, it is not as durable as plastic. You can easily scrap of wax with your fingernail unlike plastic. This downside would have to be improved on in order to be on par with plastic. An idea that comes to mind is hardening the outside layer with heat. I’m not sure if the scientific principles behind it would allow this as a good solution but it is a starting point. Since wax is seen in nature, there will already be decomposers that have evolved to break it down. As a result, there would be no fear of Plastic Island turning into Wax Island. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch will continue to grow in size each day unless a viable alternative to plastic or a process to breakdown plastic in an environmentally friendly manner is found.

Essay by: Victor Wiski
Saint Louis University

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