Plastic is a much needed substance for today’s society. Have you ever wondered where plastic items end up after you throw them away? While looking for places in Arkansas that recycle Christmas trees, I got distracted by an article about a 16 -year- old boy who has found a microbe that eats plastic. The article mentioned something called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch so I set to work to find out what this meant. After viewing several more articles and some YouTube videos about the subject, I was horrified. The videos I saw showed dead birds with plastic inside their ribs from when they were alive and consumed plastic thinking it was plankton. What effect does this have on our food chain when birds and fish inject plastic thinking it is food? The Synthetic Sea-Plastic in the Open Ocean video made clear the plastic may not directly be killing the birds and fish but because they ingest it and it does not leave their bodies they are left without the sensation of hunger. They lose nutrients and that may lead to their eventual deaths.
The amount of plastic in this area of the Pacific Gyre is six times as high as the amount of plankton. It is easy to see why birds and fish ingest the plastic but the very plankton that exists often has plastic embedded into it. The currents in this area of the ocean pool the plastic that we throw away. It stays there until it is either ingested by sea life or deposited on land. The Pacific Gyre likely contains plastic that has been there since the 1950’s as it takes many centuries to decompose. In this area of the ocean, there are nearly one million plastic particles per square kilometer. This number is up three times from the amount present just nineteen years ago -Day et al (1990). In the past five years, sample sizes taken from this area have shown to more than double in the amount of plastic. Unfortunately this is not just a small area of the ocean either. The area of the garbage patch extends from California to China. This is more area than the continental United States.
Something needs to be done to reduce the amount of plastic being deposited there but what? The most obvious answer is to reduce the amount of plastic we throw away. Less than five percent of all plastic is recycled globally. We can change the type of plastic used in our plastic products as well. Plastic based on corn or soy disintegrates much more quickly than the type commonly used today. What can we do about the plastic that already exists there now? A 16 year old boy from Canada may have found a helpful answer.
Daniel Burd, a 16 year old student from Canada entered the Canadian Science Fair with some interesting research. Burd had the idea that plastic has to be consumed by some type of microorganism because it eventually decomposes. Burd wondered if he could breed these microorganisms to consume plastic more quickly. First he ground the plastic bags in his experiment into a powder. Secondly he immersed the plastic into a yeast solution to encourage the microbes’ growth. He then isolated the microbes that contributed the most to the disintegration of the plastic. He bred the Sphingomonas bacteria and Pseudoomonas that were the most productive microbes and in several weeks he achieved a 43 percent degradation of the plastic.
More research needs to be done as it is not known if the bi-products from these microbes cause cancer but this is certainly a step in the right direction. If Burd’s idea works then it would be a relatively inexpensive, natural, earth friendly way to help take down the plastic monster.
For more information see Synthetic Sea–Plastic in the Open Ocean @2001. Algalitha Marine Research Foundation/Bill McDonald producer. A video of this exists on YouTube and is highly worth the time.
See also The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Good Morning America. (2008)
For more information on the teen who found a microbe that consumes plastic see http://news.therecord.com/article/354044 and http://www.mnn.com/technology/research-innovations/blogs/boy-discovers-microbe-thateatsplastic