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2050 – A world without plastics


An experimental bit of writing – be nice ūüėČ

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The 20th centuries wonder material had turned into a blight of biblical proportions. The world was awash with plastic. From obvious fragments of polystyrene packaging, to polyethene shopping bags, and discarded PVC furniture to the microscopic micro-fibres shed from our polyester clothing during every wash. It accumulated in great, becalmed garbage patches in the middle of our oceans or washed up as vast invasions of flotsam, where it was consumed by wildlife, mistaking our discarded packaging for food.

Meanwhile the currents and geological forces abraded the jet-sum into tiny fragments that found their way into, well everything. Our cheap, durable and omni-present material had reached every corner of the globe, it had became part of the very fabric of the planet. Geologists coined a new type of sedimentary rock; plastiglomerate Рpart plastic pollution part stone.

For decades the litter had been building. The obvious detritus featured on every street corner, beach and country park. It became part of the scenery, we got used to it, ignored it, or mildly complained, whilst making sure we kept hydrated by sipping from our water bottles, that we clutched like life-support systems.

Then almost two decades into the 21st century the zeitgeist shifted. Seemingly triggered by the haunting image of pilot whale grieving her dead cub. The narrator blamed plastics. Our blinkers fell away, and we noticed the plastic as if it had just been dumped on our doorsteps. Unlike the invisible carbon dioxide, ravishing the climate and the oceans, we could point at this culprit.

Almost overnight plastic packaging became universally distasteful. Shoppers curled their lips when offered a plastic punnet of mushrooms and then stripped of the useless artificial skins from their purchases before dumping them in front of the supermarkets. Companies raced to see who could strip the plastic from their products the quickest. Listicle blogs sprang up providing tips on how to throw the ultimate plastic free dinner party. And, much to children’s dismay, drinking straws disappeared from cafes across the land.

Politicians were as quick to jump on the bandwagon, keen to cash in on the voters’ new plastic outrage, they vilified cotton buds, toothpicks and wet wipes.

But all this outrage, bans and boycotts was just tinkering around the edges. One small island’s war on drinking straws did little more than remove a mole hill from the mountain of the world’s plastic waste. Something much more radical was needed.

Gaia had the beginnings of an answer. She was used to cleaning up detritus. Over millions of years the myriad of micro-fauna have found biochemical ways to harness the resources from organic dead matter. But plastics had only been around for a few decades. So microorganisms simply hadn’t had enough time to evolve the necessary biochemical tool kit to latch onto the plastic fibres, break them up and then utilise the resulting chemicals as a source of energy and carbon that they need to grow.

Or so we thought.

But deep within a Japanese rubbish tip, devoid of organic matter on which to feed, evolutionary pressure had selected an organism with a new feeding strategy. Nature it seemed, had quietly made a start on tackling our plastic plague. Somewhen, in the recent past, a bacteria had undergone a random mutation and a protein that normally allowed the bug to feed on fats had been converted into one that empowered it to digest plastics.

Not that the plastic waste was noticeably decomposing. The bacteria wasn’t up to the scale of the job. After all, it was a mere evolutionary infants, taking the first tentative bites of a new food, still unequipped to make full use of it. It might have been decades or longer before anyone noticed the rubbish was rotting. Or maybe some other natural pressure may have been to much for the new species. It could so easily have gone extinct before anyone ever became aware of its existence.

But for Prof Yoshiharu Kimura’s eureka moment. Struck by an inspiration particle, it occurred to him that the obvious place to look for a plastic eating organism was in the heaps of rubbish. For five years he hunted through 100s of samples of soil, sludge and stagnant water seeping out of tips and recycling plants. Then, back in the lab, he painstakingly tried to grow something, anything, by feeding his soup of organisms little more than ground up polythene bottles. Miraculously, in just one dish a single bacteria flourished, multiplied and thrived. Soon he had a viable culture. Professor Kimura had found the needle in the plastic stack. He called it Ideonella sakaiensis.

For a while people were mildly interested, there was a flurry of pressproclaiming the solution to the plastic problem may have been found. But soon the excitement died down, for this was still two years before the dead whale cub was beamed into homes around the world. And so the newly discovered I. sakeienis slipped from the folk mind. That was until, a second breakthrough came. Perfectly timed, on this occasion, coinciding with the new anti-plastic movement. Professor Kimura had been happily sharing his cultures with scientist far and wide, and and one group had accidentally genetically engineering the protein that empower I. sakeienis to be a much more efficient plastic digester. In those 24 months they had done what nature might have taken centuries to achieve. The bacteria hit the headlines. They showed the world that by taking what Gaia started and combining it with 21st century biotechnology we could at last tackle the plastic problem of our own making.

Genetically modification of organism, vilified for decades as the technology that would destroy our ecosystems, suddenly became the answer to all our worries. Folks who had ripped up experimental GM crops, fell over each other in their efforts to support genetically enhanced plastic munching microbes. After all, the plastics were unnatural and evil. And so, they reasoned, it was perfectly acceptable (at least in this case) to utilise GM bugs to clear up our mess. It might even be that we were just giving nature a helping hand, it was possible that some organisms might even have made a start on the plastics in the oceans.

The great cleanup began. Governments and eco-charities around the world throw money at the problem. What started with the odd publication here and there became a torrent of papers describing newly discovered and genetically enhanced bacteria, fungi and even worms. All equipped with an arsenal of plastic eating enzymes. Soon concerned citizens got in on the act. School science fairs featured projects dreamt up by keen children attempting to breed plastic-eating creatures, the maker movement got involved, as they discovered home bio-hack kits could be used to tinker with microbes molecular machinery.

By 2022 we had identified thousands of organisms, both naturally evolved and artificially enhanced, equipped with the molecular and mechanical machinery required to set to work on our poly-materials. In just a few more years the impact was tangible. Recycling plants quickly harnessed the new biotech boom to turn rubbish into fuel and chemical feedstocks used to create, amongst other things, fresh virgin plastics. Plastics production and recycling had at last become a truly circular economy. It even became economically viable, with the help of solar powered drone barges, to sweep up the great ocean garbage patches.

The oceanic rubbish rafts shrank, plastics slowly rotted on our beaches, reports of plastiglomerate dwindled. There was a collective sigh of relief.

Except it wasn’t just the rubbish the new breed of bugs were eating. Once out in the wild they were unable to distinguish between refuse and infrastructure. Whether the plastic-munching organisms escaped from the recycling plants, the amatuer bio-hackers’ sheds, or just naturally evolved, we can’t be sure.

The world was once crisscrossed with polythene pipes delivering gas and water to homes and industry. PVC insulated electrical cables and sheathed the world’s fibre optic communication networks. The many uses of plastics were incalculable. At its peak 350 million metric tonnes of plastic materials produced annually had formed the fabric of not just our single use packages, that we so quickly discarded, but also the very structure of our civilisation. And now that fabric rots like so much soft-wood.

By May 8, 2018 4 comments opinion, science news