Solving Plastics Pollution

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Water bottle made of P.E.T. plastic. (Photo Credit: kristv.com)

Article courtesy of Lee Sausley | March 27, 2016 | kristv.com | Shared as educational material

CORPUS CHRISTI – A group of Japanese scientists recently announced the discovery of a new bacteria that eats a certain type of plastic that is commonly used around the world. And a researcher at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has just received a grant to conduct a similar type of study here in the Coastal Bend.

Disposable water and soda bottles are made from a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate or P-E-T for short. We manufacture 50-million tons of the stuff every year. And we throw away millions of P-E-T bottles every day, which is why they’re a big chunk of the estimated 9-million tons of plastic debris that ends up in our bays and oceans every year, endangering marine life and trashing our coastlines.

Part of the problem that P-E-T is so durable. If let untouched it can take hundreds of years for it to biodegrade naturally. So discovering a new bacteria actually that eats the stuff is encouraging. And that’s because it tells us that microbes capable of breaking down plastics are starting to emerge naturally in the environment. And we’ll need to identify as many of them as we can, because P-E-T is just one of 7 different types of commonly used plastic.

And that’s where Dr. Jeffery Turner comes into the picture. He’s an assistant professor on marine biology at A&M-Corpus Christi and he was recently awarded a 45-thousand dollar grant to continue his research into microorganisms that break down plastics.

Specifically, he’ll study biofilms, the slimy stuff that grows on some plastics after it has been in the water for a while.  He wants to know what triggers their growth and what they’re made of.  Dr. Turner says, If we can identify the members of the biofilms, and we can identify certain enzymes, we can gain knowledge about how ecosystems respond to plastic debris, and we can also gain some insight, some clues into how plastic biodegrades.”

To do that. he will use little plastic pellets called knurdles that will be placed in collection stations designed by one of his students. The stations will then be placed in about 4 feet of water, at locations in the Laguna Madre and in Corpus Christi Bay. The idea is to grown and collected biofilms for study.

Dr.Turner hopes that studies like this will eventually help solve the plastics pollution problem. He says, “Maybe down the road we can even industrialize some of those processes, to help us deal with the amount of plastic waste we generate.”

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