For the last few years, plastic has been hitting the headlines repeatedly – and not for many good reasons. As a world, we are starting to wake up to the fact that plastic is clogging up our oceans and destroying natural habitat. We’re simply creating too much of it, and not learning to reuse the plastic we create. Companies and countries alike have been searching for a way to better control our human desire for plastic – but what if a minuscule enzyme has the answer after all?
Scientists from Portsmouth University have worked to alter an enzyme that has the power to literally eat our plastic, changing the dynamic of waste in our planet. The catchy Ideonella sakaiensis uses PET, the most common ingredient in plastic, as a food source. It was discovered in the port city of Sakai, Japan, in a bottle recycling site, and some of the best minds in the world have been developing it ever since, hoping that it can unlock the key to destroying much of the plastic build up that our planet is struggling with.
So what do we think of Ideonella sakaiensis in the OmniDynamics office? Well, there are advantages and disadvantages.
Why we love it
Any solution that has a basis in nature harks back to the negative feedback loop in eco-biology: the idea that nature has a purposeful rhythm, and does not allow any one group or organism to overcome all others. Most of us learn about it at school with the story of rabbits and foxes. If rabbits overbreed, then the foxes will eat them and grow in number themselves. This reduces the rabbit population, which in turn reduces the food source for foxes, and both population numbers return to normal.
It also should force individuals and companies to think more seriously about the lengths that we are having to go to, protecting our oceans and our planet. When researchers at Portsmouth University have an entire lab dedicated to just one enzyme because it may hold the key to better regulation of plastic, it’s hard to ignore.
Why we are hesitant
Ideonella sakaiensis is a fantastic way to harness nature’s power, and in a way that does not harm our environment – so far. We do not know just how far this enzyme can evolve, and in the style of all great science fiction films, who knows how long we will be able to control it. If it continues to evolve, could it eventually become a pest, destroying plastic that we depend on in our daily lives?
It is also currently unclear just what the waste materials of this enzyme are. What if the biological process actually creates a substance that is even more harmful to our environment? As a species, we have had to learn from our mistakes over time, such as when CFCs raged in home appliances and slowly burnt a hole through our ozone layer. Instead of jumping in with both feet, isn’t it time that we learned from these mistakes, and did not grab hold of these opportunities without exploring the potential consequences?
One solution is already here
It may take a few years, or even decades to fully harness the power of Ideonella sakaiensis – and even then, the commercial applications may be a longer process. In the meantime, if you’re passionate about solving the problem of plastic, then why not utilise recycling plastic in your 3D printer? Our Strooder enables you to repurpose plastic plastics, recycling them into whatever you are going to create next. It’s a creative and almost waste-zero approach to recycling plastic, and you don’t have to wait a few decades for the scientists to catch up. We already have.