Bacteria for the win: How biotechnology seeks to clean our water supply.
By Trévon Gordon
Plastics are one of the most abundant materials in the world. Wherever you’re reading this, odds are that you are using something that involves plastic. It might be your phone case, your computer screen, the stretchy part of your clothes, your contact lenses, your beverage or food container, etc.
Plastics were invented in the 1900s and have slowly found their way into almost every part of our lives over the past 100 years. This wonder material has a distinct advantage over other alternatives in that it can be easily stretched and molded for a particular form or function, it’s also water resistant, air tight, resistant to natural degradation and, best of all, it’s incredibly inexpensive. Thus, we have used this cheap material in every way that we could to cut costs and create better products. Unfortunately, one of its worst uses was the manufacturing of single-use plastic products.
The two main problems with single-use plastic products are how inexpensive plastic is to manufacture and the innate ability of the material to avoid natural degradation. The costs of producing virgin (new) plastics puts the economics of recycling these plastics at a disadvantage. For example, virgin PET plastic now costs $500-600 per ton in comparison to recycled PET plastic which cost $1000 per ton (Eco-Business).
So what happens to the millions of tons of plastic waste that isn’t recycled? It is either incinerated to recapture energy, sent to a landfill, or, if that waste is mismanaged on a coastal area, finds its way into our oceans. This is where the resistance of plastics to natural degradation becomes a huge issue. When the plastic waste enters our water source, it can't be broken down into its chemical building blocks and turned into organic material. However, it can be broken up by physical forces such as waves or river currents into tiny fragments known as microplastics. Once this occurs, organisms unknowingly consume these tiny fragments of plastic and they accumulate in their bodies and up the food chain until ultimately we eat these plastic filled foods.
It’s estimated that humans eat roughly a credit card’s worth (5 grams) of plastic every week (Reuters). These tiny fragments of plastic are literally everywhere and people are starting to catch on. There are organizations who are actively removing plastics from our oceans, lakes, and rivers, cleaning up coastal waste, and groups promoting different industries to reduce or eliminate their ties to single-use plastics.
But the problem is massive. As mentioned above, we use plastics in almost all aspects of our lives. So much so, that it is not feasible for us to completely stop the use of plastics altogether. It would take a industry-wide change to dismantle our over-reliance on plastic.
The reason why plastics are hard to break down is because the majority of plastics we use are synthetic polymers; meaning these polymers were made by people and not by nature. Otherwise, these materials are made of carbon and can be used as a food source by bacteria, fungus, and other members of the food ecosystem. Given enough time, the organisms that can effectively do this will certainly evolve. Unfortunately, at the rate we are producing plastic waste, we don’t have the luxury to allow this process to happen naturally.
At Vader Nanotech we screen for organisms with the ability to eat plastic, PFAS chemicals and other environmental contaminants in order to accelerate the pace of evolution and make these organisms a reality today. We use automation, computer vision, and biochemistry to do this efficiently. Once we have organisms with the ability to efficiently break down plastics, the opportunities will be enormous. We will be able to accelerate the natural degradation of plastics from decades to months or weeks. We will also be able to leverage the power of biotechnology to turn plastic waste into valuable biological products.
This is a very exciting approach to an enormous problem that affects us all. I’m hopeful that our technology will ultimately open new doors for the integration of chemistry and biology with computer science and automation.
Trevon Gordon, CEO, Vader Nanotechnologies Inc.