A Worm Enzyme Might Help Rid World of Some Thrown-Away Plastic

henderson_island--plastic

Henderson Island beach. Photo: Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania

It is widely believed that is possible to rid ourselves of plastic items we no longer want by throwing them away. A study of Henderson Island, a 14.4 sq mile (37.3 sq km) spit of land in the Pitcairn Islands, which are far from anywhere else in the far reaches of the South Pacific, has demonstrated with frightening certainty that, as an old saying has it, “there’s no such place as away.”

Virtually every available surface, and too many buried ones to count on Henderson Island, are covered with bits of plastic, much of it from China, significant amounts also from Japan and Chile, according to scientists from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and the Centre for Conservation Science, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in the UK. Some 37 million pieces in all have made Henderson Island one of if not the largest homes globally for parted-with plastic.

The scientists’ report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States, said the plastics debris density on Henderson Island is higher than anywhere else on earth. While its accumulated 37 million pieces of discarded plastic is but a drop in the proverbial bucket of the 5 trillion plastic pieces – some 250,000 tons worth – littering the world. And its presence in this once pristine piece of property makes a mockery of the island’s status as a UNESCO-designated “World Heritage” site, as “one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human presence.”

That declaration was made as recently as 1988 – a mere 29 years ago.

Not only is the accumulated plastic an eyesore to those rare souls who approach close enough to uninhabitable Henderson to see it, it’s a real risk to wildlife on and near the island. As the plastic drifts closer to Henderson, which sits amidst what’s called the South Pacific’s ocean gyre, an enormous area comprising one of half a dozen major circulating areas for ocean currents, water from vast areas on either side of the Pacific contribute trash as well as water from diverse sources. (That’s why Henderson’s plastic comes from so far afield.) Sea creatures ingest or get tangled in plastic materials, which either kill them quickly or slowly choke the life out of them. Land animals, too, often become victims of plastic materials eaten because they smelled or appeared edible.

These problems are destined to become more widespread unless mankind, collectively, takes steps to reduce the creation and use of plastic materials.

That and finding, in the guts of a certain species of wax worms, the enzyme that enables it to “eat” plastic:That such an enzyme exists stems from findings of a part-time Spanish beekeeper, a day-job researcher who found that the worms, whose caterpillar parents like to munch on beeswax inside his hives, were able to eat their way out a plastic bag he’d put some in.

plastic-eating worm

A hole eaten through a plastic bag by a wax worm. (Photo: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli, and Chris Howe

Great scientific answers, and solutions, have been launched from less auspicious starts than that! Who knows? In time a wax worm enzyme could, if replicated on a large enough scale, take a bite out of the world’s plastic waste problem. But don’t hold your breath: That kind of advance isn’t likely to happen with this, or even the next, decade or three.


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