The Plastic Age

Modern technology is great. We have the ability to do almost anything we can imagine. We have almost infinite information at our fingertips, can get almost anywhere in the world in 24 hours or less, truly it is a marvel to be alive at such a wonderful time. If you think about all the modern conveniences we have these days it is hard to imagine how any of this would be possible without plastic.

Plastic is a wonderful substance and has certainly made our lives so much easier when it comes to any number of technological advances. I dare say that without it medical science could be years even decades behind. Next time you are at the doctor’s office take a look around and look at how much plastic is used in your simple checkup, or if you need a shot, the syringe is made of plastic. Almost every instrument that the doctor uses is made from this wonderful substance. I have not even got into the machines that they use from ventilators, x-ray machines, even MRI machines have a ton of plastic in them.

I do not know the history of the substance other than the word is Greek meaning “capable of being shaped or molded.” Which fits the substance perfectly as it can be made into almost any shape. It is also cheap, incredibly cheap to produce. I would say that near 95% of the time creating the same object one out of plastic and the other out of a more traditional material, either wood or metal, will result in the latter being more expensive. Rarely do you see the contrary.

There are also all different types of plastic, some are safe for humans others are not and if they get into our body can cause problems, such as BPA. This substance that is an additive to plastic has been shown to be a hormone disrupter, which is why you often see water bottles and other containers with the label “BPA Free.”

Another great quality of this substance is that it is tough and durable. Some plastics are comparable to steel in their strength and they do not break down or corrode. At first glance that may seem pretty awesome, but, and I will clarify, they do break down it just takes hundreds and hundreds of years. So while that may seem all fine and good, but that water bottle you just threw in the garbage will sit in a land fill for the next two hundred years. Which as you can imagine is not necessarily a good thing.

Plastics are certainly one of the conundrums or modern civilization, among so many other things. They certainly help advance our society, no doubt and without them I cannot imagine where we would be, but at the same time they are also one of the major pollutants we have that are wreaking havoc on the planet. There is certainly a fine line and I am not going to sit here and bad mouth plastics as I type away on my plastic keyboard, click my plastic mouse, and stare at both of my plastic monitors. The substance is certainly everywhere, not only in our lives, but also all across the world. I remember watching Survivorman with Les Stroud one time and he was on a deserted island in the South Pacific and even on this lonely island there was no shortage of garbage, in particular plastic bottles and the like.

I am sure you have heard of the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. This is basically a giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean where bits of plastic have accumulated due to the currents of the ocean. Some of the pieces are small and others are quite large. Everything flows downstream and eventually ends up in the ocean. The problem, besides the obvious, is that small fish eat the bits of plastic thinking if it is food, then sea birds eat the fish and the plastic gets lodged in their stomachs and the birds die. Then I would imagine large predators eat the birds and the plastic continues to show up in the food chain. Because of its resilience it does not get broken down but just sits there causing all sorts of health problems for wildlife. So the substance of the future is also quite hazardous to the environment. So what do we do, how do we curb our appetite for such a unique, wonderful, and deadly substance?

Well leave it to nature to hopefully bail us out. I have heard of this before and now there seems to be more proof of a bacteria that actually eats plastic. This is pretty amazing for a variety of reasons. First I mean wow, something in nature has evolved to eat plastic, such a foreign and complex substance not found in nature in any form. Nature certainly knows no bounds. The article states that the bacteria uses two enzymes to break down the plastic and then consume it. I think this is fascinating on two levels, first is the obvious that this creature evolved to create this enzyme, again for something that is not found in nature naturally. Also, the fact that it is able to break down something that takes hundreds of years to break down normally. What is also fascinating is that this bacteria supposedly evolved this trait over a period of 70 years. That in and of itself is pretty amazing and again shows yet another amazing feat of nature.

This opens a few doors for the future. Recycling certainly helps deal with the plastic problem, but if this bacteria can be studied a little more, I would imagine we could use this critter to help clean up the environment. I would think this could be done one of two ways. Scientist could isolate the enzymes then I would think that we could use this to speed up the breakdown of plastic in a landfill scenario. Another option would be to grow and farm this bacteria and have “plastic farms” where tons upon tons of plastic would be dumped much like a landfill then some sort of delivery system would be employed and sprayed upon the plastic. This spray would have the plastic eating bacteria in it ready to do its job. I would assume that scientist could determine how much these critters could eat per day, so they could determine how much could be broken down. This certainly opens up a strange future if this could be utilized to help the environment. There are obviously issues with this as I do not know what kind of waste this bacteria will excrete.

This may sound silly but millions of years ago bacteria, cyanobacteria, changed the planet paving the way for oxygen breathing mammals. They were able to consume sunlight through photosynthesis and leave behind oxygen. This drastically changed the planet, it took a few million years, but still it changed the planet. I can only wonder if we were to farm this bacteria and have them eat and devour plastic what other unforeseen impact it could have on the planet. Messing with the ecosystem is certainly a tall task.

Manik

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