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5 unexpected solutions to the plastic crisis

The plastic crisis is one of the greatest challenges facing planet earth.

Currently, 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, and the consequences for sealife are tragic, from choking turtles to poisoning whales. Clearly, the main solution is reducing the amount of plastic we use at the source, but people are also turning to technology, lateral thinking and even other species to find the answer to the monstrous behemoth of plastic on planet earth.

Here are five of the strangest solutions:

Mushrooms

Aspergillus tubingensis is a darkly pigmented species of fungus that thrives in warm habitats. It is nothing special to look at, but it has one property that has made it of key interest to scientists. The big problem with plastic is that it doesn’t break down or degrade – and which is why we’ve probably got plastic inside our bodies right now. Finding agents that can break down polymers would help vastly. A group of microbiologists at Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan found that Aspergillus tubingensis could degrade polyurethane (PU). “The fungus secretes enzymes that degrade the plastics, and in return, the fungus gets food from it by dissolving the plastics,” said lead author Sehroon Khan. The fungus could be used to break down plastic in landfill.

Microbiologists are testing the possibility of using fungus to degrade polyurethane © Enrique Díaz/7cero/Getty
Microbiologists are testing the possibility of using fungus to degrade polyurethane © Enrique Díaz/7cero/Getty

The Ocean Cleanup

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of plastic in the oceans, and it sits between California and Hawaii. It is three times the size of France and its total amount is 80,000 tonnes. Engineers from the Netherlands, led by a 24-year-old Dutch inventor called Boyan Slat, have launched an ocean cleanup system called ‘System 001’. It is an enormous, 600m long, floating, rubbish-collector, which collects plastic in a 3m deep skirt. A garbage truck ship will collect the plastic every few months. Using computer simulations and scale models, the group have tested and trialled the system and it is now travelling towards the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Slat has been both praised and criticised for his invention but, currently, it is a case of wait and see. No one really knows what’s going to happen. “The moment I am looking forward most to is when we are taking the first plastic back and it’s proven technology,” Slat has said.

Roads made from plastic?

Another idea to come from the Netherlands is a project called PlasticRoad. It is a stretch of bike path in the Dutch city of Zwolle made of recycled plastic - and it is the first of its kind. It is a way of re-using plastic bottles, cups and packaging instead of burning it or putting it in landfill. Currently the road uses 70 per cent recycled plastic, but future plans will use 100 per cent recycled plastic. The company says that it is even more durable than asphalt, takes less time to install and requires less heavy equipment, making the carbon footprint smaller, too. The first road in Zwolle is 30m long and contains the recycled plastic equivalent of over 218,000 plastic cups or 500,000 plastic bottle caps. In November a second plastic road will be built in Overijssel.

Seaweed instead of plastic

The fight against plastic has led engineers and designers to search for other materials that could be used for packaging foodstuffs. Bioplastics are made from renewable biomass, usually vegetable fats and oils, cassava starch, woodchips or food waste. Seaweed, however, is the solution used by Indonesian start-up called Evoware. The company works with local seaweed farmers to create sandwich and burger wraps, sachets for flavouring and coffee, and soap packaging, all made out of seaweed. It can be dissolved in hot water or, to reduce waste to zero, the packaging is also edible. Sustainable and nutritious.

Seaweed is thought to be a new solution to the excessive use of plastic for packaging foodstuffs © David Fenton/EyeEm/Getty
Seaweed is thought to be a new solution to the excessive use of plastic for packaging foodstuffs © David Fenton/EyeEm/Getty

Social plastic

The biggest problem plastic causes is its effect on ocean life. By 2050, by some estimates, there could be more pieces of plastic than fish in the sea. One idea to stop plastic getting there in the first place is a little more abstract. The Plastic Bank is a social enterprise which pays an above-market rate for plastic waste. People who collect plastic can trade it in for money, items (fuel, cook stoves) or services, such as school fees. The project incentivises people to collect ocean-bound plastic before it enters the waterways while fighting poverty, giving people an income, cleaning up the streets, and reducing the amount of waste that goes into the oceans. The aim of Plastic Bank is to make plastic too valuable to throw away and turn it into a currency. The company then sells the plastic on to corporate clients, who pay around three times more than plastic normally costs. It currently operates in Haiti, Brazil and Philippines and is set to open in South Africa, India, Panama and the Vatican.

By Lucy Jones
Featured image by Steve De Neef/Getty

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