Yes, we’re drowning in plastic, but let’s look at some scraps of good news

By Kelly Clarke & Nivriti Butalia

In April, a piece of news made an optimist out of anyone even a wee bit environmentally conscious: an enzyme had been born, which could munch on plastic, and was being cautiously hailed as the solution to the world’s plastic pollution mess.

UAE experts said the discovery, which scientists “accidentally” stumbled upon, couldn’t have come at a better time — check out the figures (below, right) that illustrate just how in the deep we are. And think of that the next time you’re at a grocery store and bagging your bread loaves and eggs and soy milk in five plastic bags, that could just as easily slip into a cloth tote.

But back to the enzyme. The report from Reuters claimed that scientists in the UK and the US had engineered this organism that could digest polyethylene terephthalate, or PET — the stuff you might find in water bottles and lunch boxes. It’s also often also used in fibres for clothing. PET is the cause of the billions of tonnes of plastic bottle waste worldwide. It’s bobbing in the seas. It doesn’t go away easily, and lingers for hundreds of years, polluting land and sea.

Speaking to Khaleej Times, Peter Avram, regional director of Avani Middle East, a company that offers sustainable disposable packaging solutions, heralded the discovery of the enzyme. “The fact that there is now a strong potential that this enzyme technology could help reduce the impact of plastic waste — which takes thousands of years to disintegrate — is an exciting breakthrough.” 

Even though it’s in early stages, any scientific progress that reduces single-use plastics can only be a step in the right direction.

Avani Middle East pulls up some scare stats: Annually, 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide; The plastic thrown away each year is enough to circle the Earth four times; Plastic constitutes approximately 90 per cent of trash floating on the ocean’s surface and 40 per cent of our ocean surface is covered in plastic; One million sea birds and hundreds of thousand marine mammals are killed annually by plastic; There are five plastic gyres floating on Earth. The biggest one, almost the size of Europe, is located off the coast of California.

With that sort of information easily in the public domain, do we need that plastic-chomping enzyme? Absolutely. And nobody seems to think otherwise.

Dr Fazal Malik, associate professor, dean of Humanities, Arts and Applied Sciences at Amity University Dubai agreed with Peter Avram. “PET is one of the greatest burdens on the environment,” he said. “The mutant enzyme can potentially solve this gigantic problem of plastic pollution by breaking it down, leading to complete recycling of bottles. The property of this mutant enzyme to break down plastic in a few days, rather than in hundreds of years, has excited the scientific community”.

Nobody could disagree on just how big this news was even if it’s some time away from becoming a reality. Salman Zafar, Founder of EcoMENA and CEO of BioEnergy Consult told Khaleej Times, “This is indeed a milestone in the war on waste. However, more research and commercial trials are required to ascertain its ability to eat mountains of plastics that are accumulating across the world.”

With World Environment Day around the corner, (Tuesday, June 5), it’s heartening to spot emerging silver linings, and to know that some people are doing things right. Tesco, in the UK, has been on a roll, tackling plastic and food waste. BBC reported that, “By 2025, Tesco wants all its packaging to be recyclable or compostable and its total packaging weight to be halved compared to 2007”. To tackle food waste, they’re removing the ‘best before’ dates on some of their fruits and veggies so that people don’t mistakenly chuck perfectly edible food, which is music to some of our ears.

What would be good to see here in Dubai is local supermarkets following suit, getting serious about reducing food waste and plastic waste — any waste, really. Yes, okay, so a handful are doing the right thing. Spinneys has an ugly veggies section, and that’s nice. But the majority aren’t on the right side of what’s good for the environment, and how can they be, when there’s so much money to be made being on the wrong side? F&B outlets adopt a criminal use of plastic — doggie bags, home deliveries, all those plastic containers, the cling film, the silver foil that wraps your breads, the straws, the plastic cutlery — all of which make up the figure of 80 percent of plastic waste headed to landfills in Dubai.

A glimmer appears every now and then and we wish we’d see more of that. This past fortnight, we learnt that Hilton was serious about cutting down waste from their hotels. Khaleej Times carried a report about the hotel chain’s plan to remove plastic straws from its 650 properties by the end of 2018. In Europe, Middle East and Africa, that would mean an annual reduction of more than five million plastic straws and 20 million plastic water bottles. If we can do away with straws, surely it should be only a matter of time before the other single-use plastics are banned. Some of us, frankly, have always thought very highly of steel straws, wash, re-use, repeat, no waste.

Kelly is into hostels and travel, Nivriti is into yelling at people who don’t recycle

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