An earth in plastic is not fantastic

A breakthrough solution to the world's plastic crisis isn't the silver bullet it might seem.

The drink bottle, straw, takeaway cup and cling film that you used today will remain in the environment for up to 600 years. Used only once, these plastics choke our oceans, threaten our wildlife and harm our health.  There is currently enough plastic to wrap the Earth four times over, and with only nine per cent of plastic being recycled, the problem will only worsen.

In a rare piece of good news, scientists may have engineered a solution to the plastic crisis, using the PETase enzyme produced by the bacterium ideonella sakaiensis. PETase naturally breaks down plastics and now scientists have improved its efficiency to the point where it can break down plastics into its components in just a few days. In doing so they may have created a ‘magic bullet’ that could save humanity from itself.

However, implementing this ‘quick fix’ is not as easy a remedy as it first seems. The CSIRO, Australia’s federal science agency, found that plastic debris on both land and sea is highly concentrated around urban areas, suggesting that littering and illegal dumping is the main cause of plastic pollution. Plastics that are illegally dumped cannot be processed and so PETase would not be able to break them down before they entered the environment.

Nor can PETase fix a consumerist culture, which trains us to prioritise pleasure and convenience over the long-term survival of our planet. This zeitgeist encourages us to ‘throw away’ plastic without thinking about who will inhale the plastic tag on the bread bag after the loaf has been finished. We consume and consume.

Thus, one million drink bottles are sold every minute. One trillion plastic bags are produced every year; each being used for an average of just 12 minutes.

Even if PETase could solve the plastic crisis, it ultimately addresses only one link in a long chain of environmentally-destructive supply and demand. Fossil fuel power, water waste and rampant development are driven by the same culture of conspicuous consumption as plastic waste. It is not sustainable in the long-term to keep trying to find last minute solutions without changing our culture. To do so is to gamble with our planet’s future.

Developing countries are particularly hard hit by the plastics crisis. Consumption of plastic is rising in developing countries, but they often lack the infrastructure to process or store plastics safely.  In Tuvalu, residents have begun to burn plastic as a source of cooking fuel, exposing themselves to toxic, potentially carcinogenic, gases.

But will countries like Tuvalu, who sorely need PETase be able to access it? A patent has been filed on PETase which opens the door for the exclusive rights of PETase to be sold to the highest bidder. If there are no alternatives to PETase, a monopoly will develop and prices will rise. We’ve seen this with Daraprim, a lifesaving HIV/AIDs Medication, that was increased by the infamous pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli from $13.50 to $750 per pill. It is not a stretch to propose that PETase will be monopolised by the West at the expense of developing countries.

In Tuvalu, residents have begun to burn plastic as a source of cooking fuel, exposing themselves
to toxic, potentially
carcinogenic, gases.

Therefore, worldwide cultural change is needed alongside technological solutions to truly fix the plastic crisis. Co-ordinated government action can encourage and incentivise this cultural change. For example, plastic bag bans in the ACT reduced plastic landfill by 36 per cent just six months after coming into effect.

Recycling is also an important way to manage waste, but when recycling is more expensive than making new plastic, there is no incentive to recycle. In Australia, oversupply of recyclables has decreased their value to the point that the cost of providing a recycling service is more than the finished product. Previously this problem was mitigated by exporting waste to China, but following China’s ban on foreign recyclables, NSW and Victorian Councils are now accumulating plastics that cannot be processed domestically. To solve this problem, Australia could follow Germany by implementing recycled material quotas, in turn increasing demand for recyclables.

A better long-term solution is reducing the amount of waste that needs to be recycled in the first place. The single-use model could be disrupted through bottle deposit schemes, where plastic bottles are sterilised and re-used, which is often cheaper and less energy intensive than recycling.

We as consumers can also make a difference. Keep cups, reusable bags, and bamboo straws are all relatively cheap and can be used for years rather than for 12 minutes. By using these alternatives, we begin to re-conceptualise plastic as a product that is highly valuable, rather than seeing it as ‘disposable,’ gradually leading to cultural change.

We cannot rely on PETase as a ‘magic bullet.’ Change isn’t easy, especially when it involves modifying our perceptions of resources that we are constantly told are both essential and mundane. We need other solutions to push cultural change; and with co-ordinated government action, consumer choices and technology we may just be able to ‘unwrap’ our plastic earth.

But it won’t necessarily be a PET-easy fix.