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Plastic-Eating Bacteria Discovery May End Plastic Pollution

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plastic-eating bacteria discovery. Scientist looking at bacteria

How Were Plastic-Eating Bacteria Discovered?

In 2001, a team of Japanese microbiologists accidentally discovered a plastic-eating bacteria that could one day help to eradicate much of the overwhelming plastic pollution in the world.

The team went out to a garbage dump looking for a substance that would help soften synthetic fabrics like polyester. Many of these fabrics have plastic in them, and the scientists had hoped to find something that would degrade the surface of a plastic compound.

Instead, they found a slimy film that was eating its way right through bottles, toys, and other assorted plastic garbage, and the idea that plastic-eating bacterium could one day be the solution to the overwhelming plastic pollution problem was born.

What is Plastic-Eating Bacteria and How Does it Work?

The plastic-eating bacteria is known as Ideonella sakaiensis, an amazing single-celled organism that can eat plastics as a kind of food.

Plastics are made up of billions of chemical cells sticking together. These are called polymers. Ideonella sakaiensis secret an enzyme called PETase that breaks these polymers down into individual units called monomers. It absorbs the monomers and uses the carbon inside them to grow and reproduce. When the bacteria is sufficiently nourished, it releases what’s left.

Although there are many kinds of plastic, these bacteria are partial to the kind known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This is one of the most common types of plastic in use. It’s found in almost every beverage bottle on the market shelves today. It also represents a very large portion of the plastic pollution problem.

It would be great if there was an effective way to degrade those mountains of plastic, but what if there was a way to take it a step further? Instead of just breaking the plastic down, what if a bacteria could be developed to turn it into something beneficial?

How is the Plastic-Eating Bacteria Being Developed?

New bacteria strains can be developed when DNA from one strain is combined with that of another in an attempt to harvest the most desirable qualities, perhaps even creating new capabilities and applications.                                                           

A team of scientists from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have reported making some exciting progress toward engineering a new strain of E. Coli bacteria that is designed to not just eat the plastic, but process it into a white powder called Adipic acid.

Adipic acid has several appealing qualities. It has a light, tangy flavor, which makes it a great additive to powdered fruit beverages, dried cake mixes, and powdered gelatin desserts. Also, because it doesn’t absorb moisture very easily, it will protect these kinds of dried products, allowing them to last longer.

Adipic acid also has applications in other areas, including cosmetics and perfume. Perhaps most importantly, however, it has found a use in the field of medicine. Although it has no medicinal quality in itself, it’s used to create a time-release formulation for medications that must be released into the system slowly.

The experiments at the University of Glasgow had a high success rate with the engineered E. Coli bacteria converting 79% of the plastic’s main component, terephthalic acid, into the more useful Adipic acid.

So, now scientists know it can be done and, with more research, they may just perfect the process.

The next question is, will this bacteria be an answer to the challenges that plastic pollution is creating? Can these microscopic critters help the Earth by stopping plastic pollution?

The Truth About Plastic

In the first part of the 21st century, it’s estimated that approximately 2.5 billion tonnes of plastic garbage have been released into our environment, and experts are only predicting the number will go up from there.

Scientists have found evidence of microscopic plastic fragments being spread to every part of the world. Several huge, floating garbage dumps, filled with mostly plastic, have been identified in oceans around the world and birds and animals are dying with stomachs full of plastic garbage.

Plant roots pick microscopic plastic fragments out of the soil and deposit them in the fruits and vegetables we eat. They’re being blown up into the air and coming back down in the form of raindrops. Babies ingest plastic through their mother’s breastmilk. Microplastic particles have even been found in most human organs.

Finding a way to deal with the plastic pollution problem has never been so urgent. However, there are many innovations currently at work trying to solve this problem. One such method has been taken up by ZeroCircle, a Mumbai-based startup that is developing seaweed into a low-cost alternative to plastics that bio-degrades as soon as it reaches the ocean.

But what is it about plastic that makes it so hard to recycle?

Why is Recycling Not Enough?

Only 5% of nearly 50 million tons of plastic waste generated by the U.S. alone gets recycled. There are also inherent difficulties in the process of plastic recycling itself. Most of the rest ends up in the environment.

The process of recycling itself involves several relatively simple sounding steps. Once plastic waste is collected, it has to be cleaned and sorted, shredded, then melted down. Then it can be made into pellets for manufacturers to reuse in new products.

However, it’s not hard for this system to be thrown off and disrupted. Plastic must be pure and clean before recycling is even possible. When the wrong plastics and additives combine, the recycled product becomes inferior and degraded.

Even when the recycling process works, however, there is another major hurdle. Not all plastics were designed to be recyclable in the first place. For example, plastic grocery bags and straws can’t be recycled because of the kind of plastic used to manufacture them.

Once plastic is recycled, there is still one more problem. Unlike glass and metal, which can be recycled over and over, plastic degrades every time it’s recycled. It can be recycled two or three times at best before its quality has dropped to a point where it can’t be used, anymore. Then it becomes pollution again.

 Clearly, it would be great if there was some kind of naturally occurring bacteria that could, through cost-free and environmentally friendly methods, rid us of at least some of this plastic waste so that it’s no longer necessary to rely completely on the imperfect recycling system.

Ideonella sakaiensis (PETase), the plastic-eating bacteria, could be the solution.

Could Plastic-Eating Bacteria Save the Planet?

Scientists have only discovered one species of plastic-eating bacteria that can significantly degrade plastic, and even it only eats certain types of plastic. For this approach to have a significant impact on the problem, scientists will need to find or engineer other species of bacteria that can take on all the other plastics polluting the environment. Although it will take time and money, the answer to whether plastic-eating bacteria can save the planet is a resounding maybe.

Another question being investigated is how, exactly, to use this bacteria. Scientists have to develop ways to deliver it safely and effectively to the many environments that are currently suffering from plastic pollution without damaging anything else. This includes landfills, water, soil, and air.

The problem of plastic waste has taken years to develop, and it comes from multiple sources. It only makes sense, then, that the solution will not be a single, miraculous approach. To that end, scientists are working on other plastic-fighting techniques around the world.

Ocean Cleanup has developed a giant trash-eating robot with the potential to clean 50,000,000 kilograms of garbage every day out of the ocean by 2025. In another exciting revolution, Michelin airless tires are coming out in 2024 and could be the next big thing in reducing the 6.1 million tons of microplastics from conventional plastic tires alone. Plastic-eating bacteria would be a valuable addition to the collection of pollution-fighting tools being developed.

While scientists work toward the bacteria as a viable source of plastic reduction, the rest of the world needs to keep working to take steps toward reducing our own contributions to the overwhelming issue by using more sustainable materials and processes.

Although it could be a while, yet, before the bacteria are ready to render our plastic waste into a more useable substance, the first motivational steps have been taken toward a world where plastic waste is a thing of the past, and we can breathe easily again.

Plastic-eating bacteria. Young people cleaning up plastic.

IC Inspiration

More and more manufacturers put their focus into sustainability in their products and environmentally driven legislation continues to evolve, but individuals have also made an enormous impact.

Melati Wijsen is one such person. The fact that she was just twelve years old when she made the decision not to wait any longer for change did nothing to deter her.

Growing up on the Indonesian Island of Bali, Melati was always surrounded by stunning natural landscapes and beaches. However, too often, she and her younger sister, Isabel, found themselves distressed by the growing amounts of plastic all over the island.

She explained to the Imagine5 website “Going to the beach, walking to the rice fields – it was everywhere. All of those moments came together, and my sister and I looked at each other at one point and said: “What are we going to do about it?”

She wanted to start by having single-use plastics banned on her Island home. Not an easy task for anyone, much less a child. However, Melati saw a need too urgent to wait on.

“We know that change is simply happening too slowly.” She explained, “Why does it take six years to ban a single-use plastic bag? We can’t wait until we’re older, or in positions of power ourselves, so we do have to work with those in power now and listen to their stories and convince them of the urgency we feel as the youngest generation.”

So, she and her sister set to work.

They began by writing or calling a variety of business and government departments, both to express their concern and to understand the views and needs of those on the other end of the plastic problem. They also signed and developed surveys strongly encouraging politicians and brand names to introduce change to the way they package their products.

She also helped to develop Youthtopia, a network of other youth who are fighting for change all over the world.

Finally, in 2019, the people of Bali passed a law banishing plastic bags from the Island. Today, stores in Bali post signs stating that no plastic bags are available, and the beaches and rice fields show the difference that policy is making.

Melati is now 18 years old and she’s still working tirelessly at finding solutions for the world’s ever-pressing environmental issues. She is an incredible role model for everybody; a motivational person indeed. If a young girl and her sister can make such a big change, imagine what we could all do, together.

Joy L. Magnusson is an experienced freelance writer with a special passion for nature and the environment—topics she writes about widely in publications. Her work has been featured on Our Canada Magazine, Zooanthology, Written Tales Chapbook and more.

Sustainability

Seaweed Plastic: An Emerging Solution to Plastic Pollution

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Seaweed plastic in the vast ocean.

Seaweed Plastic

Every minute, two garbage truck’s worth of plastic enters our oceans.

And every other minute, thousands of people across the world dedicate themselves to creating low-cost, biodegradable plastic alternatives that dissolve as soon as it enters the ocean.

This spells good news for the future of our human underwater habitats.

What is Seaweed Plastic?

Seaweed plastic are plastic alternatives that are made from seaweed, and that are bio-degradable. This means that when any of these “plastics” reach the ocean, it will dissolve as soon it touches the water. Moreover, seaweed is also edible, making seaweed plastics less likely to end up in oceans because there is an option that it might end up in the stomach of users.

Who Invented Seaweed Plastic?

The Idea of a seaweed plastic alternative was developed by engineering college students Rodrigo García González, Pierre-Yves Paslier and Guillaume Couche. They were the first to invent the “edible water bottle”, a sachet made from seaweed which contains water, and which was sold by the startup Ooho. in 2019, Ooho rebranded to the name Notpa, and has since included food packaging, rigid cutlery and containers among their bioplastic products.

What are the Disadvantages of Seaweed Plastic?

  • High Cost: Production costs are high for seaweed plastics, making their demand low and their production limited.
  • Less durable: Seaweed plastic alternatives are biodegradable, but they have weak mechanical properties compared to traditional plastics. This makes them less durable, and more prone to tearing.
  • Limited Applications: Seaweed plastics currently have a very limited use and are often restricted to gift and food wraps, tea bags, and sachets; whereas, conventional plastics can be used for almost everything.

What are the Advantages of Seaweed Plastic?

Less than 10% of plastics actually end up being recycled. This makes seaweed plastic alternatives much more practical as a solution to plastic pollution than recycling. The advantages of seaweed plastic alternatives include the following:

  • Biodegradable: Traditional plastics can take centuries to decompose; however, plastics made from seaweed dissolve as soon as it reaches the ocean.
  • Edible: Bioplastics made from seaweed don’t need to reach the ocean in the first place because they can be eaten. Imagine receiving a gift-wrapped present in the near future and knowing that if you wanted to, you can have your gift and eat it too.
  • Carbon Capture: Seaweed cultivation absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping mitigate the affects of climate change and create a clean energy future.
  • Healthier Oceans: It is estimated that algae produce up to 70% of Earth’s oxygen. If seaweed plastics end up reaching the ocean, it will contribute to a healthy environment for both terrestrial and marine life—assuming nobody eats their grocery bag first.

Can Seaweed Replace Plastic?

Seaweed is indeed replacing plastic, but not to the extent where it is currently making a large difference in reducing plastic pollution. Startups like Mumbai-based Zerocircle are creating tea bags, burger wrappers, gift wraps, and grocery store bags from seaweed plastic; however, while seaweed plastics are good for some applications, they are not likely to completely replace plastic.

Zerocircle received $200,000 from the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize for bringing to life a bio-degradable alternatives to plastic films. Lonely Whale in association with TOM FORD BEAUTY and The Estée Lauder Companies have also helped the startup receive widespread market adoption.

While still in its early stages, production methods for seaweed-based bioplastics are evolving. We will see more of these plastic alternatives being used in the future as its uses become more versatile.

A tropical ocean filled with seaweed that can be used to make plastic seaweed.

IC INSPIRATION

India has the biggest plastic pollution problem in the world.

In many parts of the world, plastic pollution is so bad, that creating bio-degradable alternatives is the only solution to the problem. For these places, it is more effective to create plastic alternatives that biodegrade than it is to recycle.

Some impoverished areas are not easily accessible to garbage trucks, so the garbage that doesn’t accumulate in these neighborhoods ends up polluting the ocean, and much of this garbage consists of plastics.

Companies like Zerocircle is so ingenious because it seeks to solve a problem by targeting the source.

Efforts to replace traditional plastic with materials like seaweed bioplastics contribute to protecting the ecosystems that support species like long-lived tortoises—which can live up to more than 150 years and have the power to create, change, protect, and even destroy an entire habitat. 

If that’s not worthy of an inspiring click, then I don’t know what is!

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Archangel Ancient Tree Archive: Cloning Ancient Trees to Build Strong Forests

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Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA) is a non-profit organization that locates and then clones the world’s most ancient trees. They do this to propagate the powerful DNA of these ancient trees—which they say can cool down the earth 10 times faster than ordinary trees can.

Where is the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive?

Volunteers at Archangel have successfully cloned over 150 ancient trees and then planted tens of thousands of these trees in over 7 countries including France, the US, and New Zealand. Trees act as powerful carbon stores, and that is part of the reason why such great emphasis is put on regrowing forests to stop the climate crisis.

History of Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

In 2008, co-founder David Milarch embarked on a journey to save the last remaining population of old-growth trees after a life-long battle with alcoholism led him to a near-death experience.

A day came when he was so fed up with the life he was living that he left his bottles of alcohol outside his room door and locked himself in. He made a strong promise to himself that he would not come out until the alcohol was completely out of his system…

3 days later his kidneys began to fail, and he ended up in the emergency room.

When he woke up, he said he was revealed a mission: clone ancient trees and then plant them. Ever since, the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has located the remaining 2% of the largest and oldest living trees on the planet and began cloning them, then preserving their genetics in a “Living Library”.

This living library preserves the genetics of these trees by species, safeguarding the DNA and genetic heritage of the sort of trees that grow 10 times faster than current generations. Trees that grow 10 times faster will help in recovering forests lost to deforestation and forest fires 10 times quicker, creating lusher forests, and contributing to the planet’s health at a rate that is faster than the descendants of these trees.

Champion Trees of the AATA

David Milarch’s family and numerous volunteers of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive have called these trees “Champion Trees”. The idea is that by planting them, these Champion Trees go on to share their genetics with existing trees, which strengthens the forests’ ability to store carbon and preserve habitats.

In their YouTube video “About Archangel Ancient Tree Hive”, Dr. William J. Libby, science advisor at Archangel expresses: “What we are doing is, we are not changing the genetic constitution of any trees. In fact, we are trying to capture that so it can be studied in the future without being changed.”

How do you Clone Ancient Trees?

Volunteers climb to the top of these trees, trim the ends of the branches from a height not yet touched by any chemicals or new hormones, and send the cuttings to their Michigan facility so that cloning can begin.

This entire process of cloning, archiving, and then reforestation, has become a healing system for the entire planet, thanks to the efforts of David Milarch and this motivational organization.

How Does the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive Help Forests?

In 2020 the devastating Castle Fire took away half of the ancient trees in Sequoia Crest in California, which is home to the oldest living trees on the planet. These trees were presumed to be immune to fires. 

However, AATA foresaw the possibility of such an event happening due to rising temperatures and had been working for a decade before the event to collect material and clone these ancient trees from American forests. Ultimately, these seedlings helped the team to quickly rebuild the burnt area of the forest and provide new life to these giant Champion Trees, and the habitats that come with them.

Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, AATA

IC Inspiration

The wisdom embedded in trees preserved by The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive goes beyond our full understanding, but from what we do understand, trees are fascinating beyond what we could have imagined.

In Peter Wohlleben’s book “The Hidden Life of Trees”, he familiarizes us with the ability of trees to feel and communicate with life around them. They share signals, nutrients, and information with one another through their intricate system of roots. They have even shown that they know, in their own way, that they have families. They can feel pain and even protect one another from harm.

For example, in South Africa, acacia trees employ a fascinating communication method by releasing a “warning gas” called ethylene to alert neighboring trees of the looming threat of giraffes who are waiting to feast on their leaves. The trees that receive this warning gas through the air on time, quickly respond by releasing toxins into their leaves, making them bitter for giraffes to consume them.

The giraffe stops eating them, and those trees stay protected.

This is what allows the ancient trees to strengthen the newer species around them; they carry the resilience and wisdom required to survive for thousands of years against all odds.

Archangel has also started a Tree School which is meant to be an inspiration to the younger generation, encouraging them to reforest the planet and save it from the dangers of climate change.

Forest schools descended from Europe and can now be found in places all around the world. These schools provide education in outdoor environments like forests. The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive notes that schools like this will play a very important role in the future.

“My vision for Tree School is to have something so simple, so compelling, a major solution to reversing climate change so that all the world’s grandchildren and the ones to come, have a fair shot at being able to survive on this planet.” Notes David Milarch on the official website.

With more people coming together to preserve the natural ecosystem of this world, such as The Singhs, who restored a significant part of the Ranthambore Forest to provide a home for endangered tigers, the future of our planet Earth looks brighter than ever before!

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Sustainability

Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School: Empowering Girls and Building Futures

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rajkumari ratnavati girls school

Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School

Nestled within the heart of Rajasthan, India, the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School was created in the middle of the desert to give girls the gift of education in a place where the literacy rate of women is only 52%. The school has even employed many of the parents of these girls, not only offering young women a feminine sanctuary to relax and heal in the desert but also helping one of the most economically challenged parts of India.

Who Created the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School?

The Rajkumari Ratnavati school was envisioned by CITTA, a nonprofit whose visionary efforts involve healing and educating communities in some of the most economically distressed places around the world. CITTA then brought in Diana Kellogg, founder of Diana Kellogg Architects for the design— a firm that traditionally specializes in the creation of high-end, sophisticated projects in New York.

How Was Rajkumari Ratnavati Designed?

Aside from being known for its incredible terrain and historical palaces, Rajasthan is predominantly desert. The elliptical structure of the school makes it so that there is no need for AC, or electricity for that matter. The structure of the school channels high-pressure winds and transforms them into cool breezes, giving the school the ability to keep the girls cool even in temperatures that surpass a searing 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Not only is the school a remarkable example of sustainable architecture, but it also highlights the massive impact architecture can have on people and society.

A portion of the school includes the Gyaan Center, an enclave inspired by the CITTA as part of the effort to educate these girls. The Gyaan Center imparts traditional and economically friendly embroidery and weaving skills to the girls, taught by local artisans.

The School Reflects Culture, Community, and Empowerment

The school does so much more than educate girls; it preserves and continues the rich legacy of their Rajasthani culture. The designer Dianna Kellogg used this as the inspirational drive that went on to make the school as incredible as it is.

“I wanted to make a building about space and light and community and not about design — a structure that resonated with the soul and femininity and enforced the natural energies to nurture and heal the women and girls”, said Diana Kellogg in an interview with Hannah Feniak. “As a woman myself, it was imperative in my design process to honor women to the best of my ability, especially from the cultural context in India.”

Diana Kellogg’s remarkable mindfulness stands as an extraordinary source of inspiration. Expressing healing energies and a hopeful outlook for these young girls not only forges a path toward a brighter tomorrow for these students but also resonates as a motivational march toward a more empowered global sisterhood.

rajkumari ratnavati girls school

IC INSPIRATION

Understanding one another in our interconnected global village doesn’t have to be complex.

We all have diverse cultures, traditions, languages, and ideas, but if we can express those things in a positive light, then inspiration becomes creation, and creation goes on to inspire.

After all, Diana Kellogg successfully weaved local customs of Rajasthan and Jaisalmer into the design of this magnificent school without even being from there; but by understanding and then expressing that culture in the light of education and healing.

Her inspiration created the school, and now the school inspires the girls. Who knows the incredible impact that these girls may have in the future to come.

Differences don’t need to be barriers as long as we have people with the willingness to express their creativity in the hope that they will be able to spread good in the world.

There seems to be no limit to human creativity. One women—like Kiki Grammatopoulos—invents rewilding shoes, which helps grow forests while you run. And another—like Mira Kulkarni— creates a successful business that imparts ayurvedic wisdom.

It’s an amazing thought that when you break barriers, you get creative; and when you get creative, you break barriers.

It’s as if differences exist to spark the inspiration needed for us to create things that don’t exist yet.

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