One of the key culprits for the mounting plastic pollution problem is the staggering amount of single-use plastic we still consume and throw out daily. From bottles to straws to plastic bags, the world produces and consumes roughly one trillion tons of plastic each year, only half of which is disposable.
That’s nearly two million pieces of plastic thrown away every minute. This plastic usually finds its way into a landfill, where it will be buried for years or get thrown or blown into the sea where it has a deadly effect on marine life.
Things are looking more positive, however, as people everywhere wise up to the urgent need to reduce plastic use. Moreover, scientists recently accidentally discovered bacteria that have naturally evolved to eat plastic. This could lead to teams of scientists creating a mutant enzyme which will break down plastic bottles. A breakthrough like this could help solve the global problem of plastic.
A team of researchers at the University of Malta has also jumped onto this eco bandwagon and a university-led research programme is looking at possible ways to accelerate the deterioration of plastic sold commercially in Malta, with a special emphasis on plastic bottles, containers and shopping bags.
University lecturer and research scientist Gabrielle Zammit is leading the team of both undergraduate and postgraduate students in concentrating their efforts on single-use plastic packaging that is in use for a very short time, and which subsequently lingers indefinitely in the environment.
This research, which is being funded by the Gasan Foundation, aims to find a way of reducing the lifetime of plastic in the environment after it is discarded, by breaking it down completely to leave only harmless molecules as a by-product. The team is currently working with microbes that are naturally occurring and have not been genetically modified.
Apart from the experiments conducted using these aforementioned promising micro-organisms the team is also investigating how single-use plastics break down in soil and sea water, which will give a clearer understanding of the deterioration processes that occur due to naturally occurring microbial communities.
While the research has already yielded some positive results for simple plastic polymers, the challenge remains in breaking down the plastic that is sold commercially due to the additives added during the manufacturing process that make superior quality materials useful as packaging products.
The Gasan Foundation is supporting this initiative, which will ensure the completion of the initial phase of the research.