We tend to think of plastic as a cheap, inferior and ugly material used to make children’s toys, garden furniture and throwaway bottles. But as an experiment, imagine for a moment a world in which plastic was extremely rare, like gold or platinum, and plastic objects were devastatingly expensive to produce. One would encounter plastic objects only at special occasions; one would see and touch very few plastic objects throughout one’s lifetime. I know it’s a challenge, but try to imagine, for the sake of our experiment, that plastic was scarce, available only to the happy few, and the masses lived in a world of wood, pottery and metals. Ready?

Now look around you and grab the first plastic object in your surroundings.

Look at the object. Study the object. It doesn’t matter whether it is a coffee cup, a cigarette lighter, a pen or a plastic bag. This is a special moment. You are now holding one of the few, delicate pieces of plastic you will ever get to touch. Feel how durable it is. Feel how light it is considering its volume. Feel how strong and rigid it is, or how very flexible. Get a sense of how easy it must have been to mold. Understand that it could be molded into something else again.

If plastic weren’t such an omnipresent material, we would realize that it is beautiful. We would realize what a disgrace it is that we throw away so much of it.

Synthetic plastics started being produced just over a century ago.

The word plastic stems from the Greek world plastikos, meaning being capable of being shaped or molded. It refers to the malleability, or plasticity during manufacture, that allows it to be cast, pressed or extruded into almost any shape. It’s the chameleon of materials.

It may be a surprise to many that before the first synthetic plastics were produced, substances occurring in old nature – gutta-percha, shellac and the horns of animals – were used as plastic material. Bakelite, the first plastic based on a synthetic polymer, was invented in 1907. It was molded into thousands of forms, such as cases for radios, telephones and clocks, and billiard balls.

After the Second World War, improvements in chemical technology led to an explosion in new forms of plastics – among them polypropylene and polyethylene – which rapidly found commercial application in a wide spectrum of products, from coffee cups, to shampoo bottles, to bags, eyeglass frames, medical instruments and, well, almost everything and anything that surrounds us.

Oceans of plastic

Synthetic plastics started being produced just over a century ago – fairly recently, considering the enormous impact they have already had on our environment. In 1997, a Californian sailor named Charles Moore was heading home from a sailing race in Hawaii and decided to take a shortcut across the edge of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (a region often avoided by seafarers).

It was here that he came upon an enormous stretch of floating debris.

Throughout the week it took him to traverse the area, there was always some piece of plastic bobbing by: a bottle cap, a toothbrush, a cup, a bag, and a torrent of unidentifiable pieces of plastic bits. Moore sensed there was something terribly wrong here.

Two years later, he returned with a fine-mesh net, and discovered, floating beneath the surface, a multicoloured multitude of small plastic flecks and particles, like snowflakes or fish food. Moore had identified what is now called “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” an area in the central North Pacific Ocean that is larger than the territory of France or Texas, which contains exceptionally high concentrations of marine trash.

These days, there is no such thing as a pristine sandy beach anymore. The ones that look pristine are usually groomed.

The fact that plastic hardly breaks down is well-known, but rarely talked about. Plastic does not biodegrade, as microbes haven’t evolved to feed on it. It can photo-degrade, however, meaning that sunlight causes its polymer chains to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, a process catalyzed by friction, as when pieces are blown across a beach or rolled by waves.

The same process is in play when pieces of rock are rounded by ocean waves. It is this type of frictional erosion that accounts for the majority of unidentifiable flecks and fragments making up the massive plastic soup at the heart of the Pacific.

Captain Moore’s research revealed six times more plastic in the area than plankton. It was also discovered that 80 percent of the debris had initially been discarded on land – a finding later confirmed by the United Nations Environmental Program. Wind blows the plastic through streets and from landfills. It makes its way into rivers, streams and storm drains, then rides the tides and currents out to sea, finally ending up in an ocean gyre. And the trash-vortex Moore discovered isn’t the only one – the planet has six additional major tropical oceanic gyres, all of them swirling with debris.

Mermaids' tears 

Nearly all the plastic items in our lives begin as little manufactured pellets of raw plastic resin, known in the industry as “nurdles.” They are made from the natural gas portion of our petroleum resources. The pelletized form – typically under 5 millimeters in diameter – represents the most economical way of shipping large quantities of solid material.

Over 100 billion kilograms of nurdles are shipped each year as raw material to processing plants, to be heated up, stretched and molded into the plastic products and packaging so familiar to us. Nurdles are small enough and light enough to become airborne in strong winds, and they float wonderfully, too. The most common source for ocean-bound nurdles is industrial spillage from trucks and container ships. Because nurdles are so small, they are hard to contain, slipping away effortlessly from containers into waterways or directly into the ocean. You can find nurdles on virtually every beach, hence their nickname: mermaids’ tears.

These days, there is no such thing as a pristine sandy beach anymore. The ones that look pristine are usually groomed, and if you look closely, you will always find plastic particles that have been washed up by the tides. All of this plastic has appeared in less than a century. It is as if plastic just fell into the world, a tiny drop at first, and its ripples expanding ever since.

It is difficult to predict what long-term impact the mermaids’ tears will have on the oceans and the planet’s ecosystem. We know that plastic is extremely durable, but will it last long enough to enter the fossil record? Will geologists millions of years from now find the fossilized imprints of your garden furniture embedded in seabed deposits? Chances are they will… provided geologists are still around.

Plastics are a new material in the earth's ecosystem 

Plastic now forms part of our planet’s food chain. The problem is that nothing in the food chain can digest it. Plastic ends up in the bellies of all kinds of sea creatures – from fish, to turtles, to albatrosses.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, plastic is killing a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles every year. And this is in addition to the deaths by entanglement caused by six-pack rings and discarded synthetic fishing lines and nets. They also clog animals’ throats and digestive tracts, leading to fatal constipation.

One wonders what Darwin would have thought of the albatross babies fed bellyfuls of plastic by their albatross parents, who soar out over the vast, polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food for their young. We know by now that every second nature stresses a first nature, which, in effect, deteriorates; the victorious second nature then becomes the first. But are we ready for a plastic planet?

Who knows, perhaps in due time some other organism will come to see plastic as a valuable material and will mine it or feed on it, as we have done with oil.

Cleaning up the huge accumulation of plastic in the ocean is basically impossible, though the larger bits of plastic debris can be collected and removed. Most biologists are focused on beach cleanup, and on reducing the amount of garbage that might end up in the ocean.

Obviously, we need to change our act: put a halt to our throwaway society, increase our awareness of environmental impacts and produce biodegradable forms of plastic. We can do that. And we should.

At the same time, that bit of mindful recycling you are urging yourself to do more consistently might work as a mantra, but won’t undo the damage already done. The proliferation of mermaids’ tears may continue to hurt marine organisms for thousands of years even if we terminated all plastic production immediately. Plastic is a new material in the earth’s ecosystem and we, the people, have introduced it.

Some geologists have already suggested that the current period in Earth's history will be remembered as the anthropocene; a geological timeframe characterized by the global impact of human activities on the Earth's ecosystem. Since our planet came into existence, it took a billion years to form a life-sustaining biosphere around its geosphere. Some three and a half billion years later, humankind emerged. Plastic is our acrid gift to the planet.

We extracted the oil from the ground, transformed it into plastic and delivered it to the oceans. Ironically, oil, like plastic today, was also once waste, created by long-term geological pressure on the remains of vegetation that died millions of years ago and sunk into the sediment. And there it remained, until people discovered it was of use to them and started pumping it up.

Who knows, perhaps in due time some other organism or intelligence will come to see plastic as a valuable material and will mine it or feed on it, as we have done with oil. But how many sea creatures will have to perish before this happens?

Designing bugs that eat plastic

The only sensible way to conceive of plastic nowadays is therefore as a raw material that forms part of Earth’s ecosystem. As mentioned, the problem is that no species, process or actor feeds on or acts upon it: it is a next nature material, with its balancing counterpart yet to evolve. Perhaps some future-evolving microbe with the capacity to digest plastic could thrive on the vast amount of plastic “food” available in the ecosystem. It would certainly have enough food to proliferate. However, it might take a million years for this kind of plastic eating microbe to evolve.

So why wait for evolution? In 2008, sixteen-year-old high school prodigy Daniel Burd developed a microorganism that could rapidly biodegrade plastic. In between classes, Daniel realized something even the most esteemed scientists had not considered: though plastic ranks among the most indestructible of manufactured materials, it does eventually decompose. This means there must be microorganisms out there to do the decomposing. Daniel wondered whether those microbes could be bred to do the job faster, and tested this by immersing ground plastic in a yeast solution that encourages microbial growth – a simple, but ingenious process.

Next, he isolated the most productive organisms – enacting a sort of evolutionary speedup. His initial results were encouraging, so he continued, selecting out the most effective strains and interbreeding them. After six weeks of tweaking and optimizing temperatures, he was able to degrade 43% of the plastic. Daniel presented his results at the Canadian Science Fair in Waterloo, Ontario, where he won first prize. Meanwhile, another sixteen-year-old, a girl from Taiwan, had discovered a microbe able to break down Styrofoam.

Attack of the plastic eating microbes

The risk of having microorganisms devour your garden furniture is perhaps acceptable; having them enter a hospital setting would be more problematic.

While there is great excitement around the creation of plastic eating microbes by these young geniuses, we should be extremely careful before applying them in particular situations, let alone releasing these bugs out into the open. On first glance, the idea of having a colony of plastic–eating microbes clean up the oceans sounds brilliant. But we must not be naïve about the potential side effects.

One of the main advantages of plastic – the reason we use it everywhere – is its resistance to biodegradation. Plastic is used everywhere in hospitals, vehicles, homes and industrial settings. One can easily imagine the potential dangers of having a plastic eating bug out in the wild.

The risk of having microorganisms devour your garden furniture is perhaps acceptable; having them enter a hospital setting would be more problematic. Imagine the mayhem an attack of plastic eating microbes would cause in that precariously sterile environment, causing dangerous drugs, viruses and fluids to run loose. Imagine a plastic eating bug colony gobbling up the coatings of electric cables, causing our communication networks to break down.

The dilemma we face is that we have introduced a new material into the Earth’s ecosystem that – like a giant meteor from outer space – has radically altered its equilibrium. If we do nothing, sea life will continue to suffer for ages.

At the same time, letting plastic eating microbes clean up our mess is not like pushing the “undo” button and reverting to the ecological balance previously enjoyed. Things will be different. There will be side effects. Nature changes along with us, and nature brought about by people is just as wild and unpredictable as the old nature preceding us. Nonetheless, in line with our position as catalysts of evolution, it seems sensible to endeavor to steer towards a balance that is considerate of our own interests and those of our fellow species. Designing plastic eating microbes, if we must.

Image: Hendrik-Jan Grievink, Proofread: Christine Mitchell

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