Taking a Bite Out of Plastic Pollution

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    Too bad Velociraptors never developed a taste for plastic. They could patrol the streets, eating all the waste accumulating around us. Alas, the dinosaurs died out many millions of years before the first plastic ever came into existence in the mid 1940s. The rest of nature hasn’t come to grips with these new molecules either.

    Fortunately a Canadian teen named Daniel Burd decided a few years ago he was tired of plastic bag clutter and took on the challenge. He began experimenting at home with soil and plastic samples, identified some microbes that “ate” plastic faster than others, isolated those microbes, cultivated colonies and has so far trimmed the decomposition time of polyethylene to a few weeks from the normal six months in landfills (or from between 300 to 1000 years, depending on how you look at plastic decomposition in general).

    Daniel has now finished his senior year in high school (as of May, 2009) and has already developed an impressive resume of awards and grants, gained wide notice for his environmental contributions, and was even included in Discover Magazine’s December, 2008, issue as one of the “50 Best Brains in Science.” He also remains active in sports, music, school clubs, and volunteering as a dog-walker for people with disabilities.

    Daniel Burd’s work may some day go far in helping to make a change with what ultimately happens to the 500 billion plastic bags humans now produce world wide, and might even go further by leading the way for learning what to do with all the other plastic we use and eventually discard.

    You see, the problem with plastic is that it is just too good and useful, and this wonder substance has grown in availability from very little at the end of World
War II to the exponentially expanding demand for plastic products today. The downside of plastic includes the reliance on fossil fuels for raw materials, but the really big problem is that most of the stuff is simply so durable that people and nature have not yet found ways to get rid of it. Even recycled plastic eventually becomes waste, a kind of waste that won’t go away.

    According to Alan Weisman in his book, “The World Without Us,” all the plastic now contributing to our landfills as well as all the rest just blowing in the wind and clogging storm drains will eventually end up in the oceans, choking sea turtles and threatening thousands of other species. Given enough time, this plastic will eventually be ground into smaller and smaller particles by wave action, but unlike sand, most plastic floats in water. Plastic is already forming floating dead-zone islands of trash in the seas.

    Weisman predicts that over geologic periods of time, microbes will certainly evolve capabilities to fill the new niche of eating this increasingly abundant resource of these new, unique hydrocarbon molecules. Maybe Daniel Burd’s work is giving today’s microbes a boost that will speed evolution enough to even help with the survival of our own very young species.


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