The future of plastics

By recycling plastics, big companies in Kuwait will be able to manufacture plastic products more affordably.


Ghaleb Sarmini

2016 was an amazing year for the sciences, especially after a Japanese team discovered a new bacterium that is about to turn the world into a more eco-friendly place. Although plastic is not very eco-friendly, the world manufactures around 300 million tons each year, which is used almost in everything. If we look around, we have plastic everywhere around us. But a lot of organizations and big companies are trying to change plastic usage with paper use.

In Kuwait, stores like Sultan Center, Carrefour and Geant provide light biodegradable plastic bags that can decompose, or paper bags at a cheap price. Smart campaigns like Geant’s “no plastic bag” drive reduced the consumption of plastic bags by 24 percent.

This high plastic usage in Kuwait is due to a lot of reasons – Kuwait is an oil-producing country, the high population in Kuwait compared to its area, and a lack of water resources. Plastic waste affects water sources and aquatic life, considering Kuwait’s demand for aquatic life as a source of food is pretty high.

The bacterium that was discovered in Japan in March 2016 can resolve many problems in Kuwait, and as we are a part of a governmental organization to make Kuwait a green place, we need to consider providing this bacterium in Kuwait. As the quote goes: “Treat the earth in a good way, and it will serve you forever.”

Plastics are polymers – usually, polymers are carbon-based monomers. Monomers polymerize to form a protein source or glucose, which makes it a good food for bacteria. The world started using plastic only around 80 years ago, and since it’s a chemical product, natural microorganisms did not have enough time to adjust to it or get the ability to eat the plastic particles, because they’re different than regular polymers.

Poly Ethylene Terephthalate C10H8O4 (PET) is a condensation polymer used in plastic that is highly resistant to biodegradation. It is produced by either terephthalic acid or dimethyl terephthalate with ethylene glycol. It’s used in plastics products as it only costs $5 a kilogram. The world uses around 9 million tons of PET bottles, of which merely 31.3 percent are recycled.

Landfills, wastewater treatment plants and aquatic life are affected strongly by the big amount of un-recycled PET bottles. The Japanese team at Kyoto University led by Dr Kohei Oda from the Kyoto Institute of Technology and Dr Kenji Miyamoto from Keio University had been working for almost five years, until they found the new bacterium that will finally be able to eat plastic waste. They named it ideonella Sakaiensis.

Around 250 different samples were collected and put with PET, so they only have PET as a source of life. What is different than previous tests is that they had other nutrients with the new bacterium, after isolating it totally, with PET. Ideonella Sakaiensis used its enzymes to speed up chemical reactions. The researchers identified the gene that is responsible for the process in the bacterium’s DNA, and now they can manufacture it. PET can be broken down with this enzyme alone.
Economically, this new bacterium will play a big role in the plastics business. With the new ability to recycle plastics, big companies in Kuwait will be able to manufacture plastic products without costing them as much as before. That will also leave consumers on the safe side. Other than that, environmentally, this new bacterium is more than a massive achievement for planet earth. Since the past 80 years, some countries had serious issues getting rid of plastic waste, and they dumped such materials in the oceans.

According to a report ‘Plastic Solid Waste Assessment in the State of Kuwait and Proposed Methods of Recycling’ by S Al-Salem and M Al-Sami, research in 2000 in the GCC region showed plastic waste is increasing by 13.8 percent annually. Readers can imagine how important this bacterium will be to recycle these increasing amounts. The new enzymes discovered will be manufactured and used in recycling different types of plastic waste that humans had problems getting rid of in the past.

Needless to say, this is the first real recycling of plastics. Plastic products are usually melted and reshaped to make other plastic products, but now we have a good recycling option. This will lead to easy-to-handle chemicals that we can use in new plastic products or in other everyday products after this recycling system becomes a reality.

By Ghaleb Sarmini

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