Last week, Daniel Burd, a 16-year old Canadian student, won the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa for his discovery of microbes that will break down polyethylene bags. This article in The Star explains his procedure and how he was able to isolate the specific microbes that will break down the plastic. So far, his microbes have achieved a 43% degradation of the plastic after 6 weeks. Burd theorizes that in 6 more weeks, the plastic would be completely gone, although he has yet to prove that.
First, I want to congratulate Daniel for his hard work on behalf of the environment and for possibly achieving what so far adult scientists have not been able to. Amazing. Being able to biodegrade plastics without the use of toxic heavy metal additives (as are used in oxo-degradable plastics) could be a useful tool in cleaning up the plastic mess we have already created.
But does this mean that plastic bags are now off the hook and that plastic packaging has been redeemed? Can we continue to use as much of it as we want guilt-free? Plastic is still made from non-renewable fossil resources. It’s manufacture uses energy and creates pollution in the form of pre-production plastic pellets, aka nurdles, that can escape and cause harm to the marine environment. And unlike paper bags which biodegrade easily and naturally when exposed to the elements, plastic bags will need to be processed in a controlled way at a temperature of 37°C (99°F) because the microbes that break them down don’t exist in abundance in the natural world, certainly not in the cold ocean.
Daniel’s discovery could be good news for the environment, but only if it’s used as a way to break down the plastic waste that already exists and isn’t simply used as an excuse to create more. When asked the question, “Paper or plastic?” we’re learning to answer, “Neither. I have my own reusable bag.” Paper is biodegradable, but we don’t use biodegradability as a reason to cut down more trees for bags. Biodegradable plastic, whether made from corn or sugar or now possibly oil, shouldn’t be squandered either.