From Nairobi to Northam, scientists are finding plastic particles falling from the sky, far from where they started life as consumer goods. It’s a warning for the world that will shape how we tackle the widespread waste we’ve created.
Professor Davey Jones from Murdoch University is leading a global study to understand how and where plastics are affecting even our most remote environments.
“Most of the plastic in the ocean comes from the land,” Professor Jones says.
“While the issues of the plastic pollution in our oceans is clear, the impact of plastic on land is largely unknown but the scale of the problem is plain to see.”
“It’s not only the pollution we can see around us, but we’ve also discovered that microplastics are being absorbed by weather systems and distributed deep into continents across the globe.”
Professor Jones is looking at how widespread this distribution is, what path plastics subsequently take through the soil and the speed and amount of plastic that is transferring to our freshwater systems.
“We’re also looking at the contaminants – think pesticides, metals, viruses – that are travelling with these plastics and the potential for them to enter the food chain.”
It’s well known that plastics and the chemicals that leak from them are present in our food, however, scientists are just scratching the surface of how pervasive microplastics are.
“If they’re everywhere, they could be in everything,” Professor Jones said.
“The big worry is that plastic in the environment is increasing year-on-year and we have no idea what the critical threshold is at which point ecosystems or human health are affected.”
Next generation solutions
While Professor Jones’ team scopes the scale of our plastics problem, Murdoch University students are already working on the solutions.
From finding ways to completely break down waste to developing compostable bio-plastic alternatives that come from and return to the earth, the young bioplastics team is breaking new ground.
Bio-plastic production from micro-organisms is a cool process where tiny living beings like bacteria help make plastic,”
PhD student Crystal Young
These microorganisms eat renewable resources, like food waste, and turn them into plastic materials. It's important because it provides a way to make plastic without using fossil fuels.
“My research is using microbes from extreme environments to create biopolymers, which are strong, lightweight, flexible chains of atoms that can do the same job as synthetic plastics – the difference is that they biodegrade, ” she said.
While Crystal is working with microbes as they are found in nature, PhD student Harrison O’Sullivan is exploring how to change the genetic makeup of microorganisms to produce other biodegradable products.
“Microbes can be efficient little factories, producing many important substances that we use in day-to-day life, from alcohols, to insulin and cancer treatments,” Harrison said.
“My research focuses on genetically engineering these organisms to produce a biodegradable plastic from renewable resources.”
This involves taking different genetic pieces from a range of organisms and putting them back together within a dedicated host bacteria so that it can produce the right bioplastic for industry to use.
PhD student Joseph Boctor, who has recently moved from Egypt to study with the Murdoch team, is tackling the problem from another perspective: how to break down the pollution that we’ve already created.
“We’re looking at safe and useful ways to degrade synthetic plastics made from fossil fuels that would usually take up to 1000 years to degrade, while finding a good use for the products that result from the degradation,” Joseph said.
Finding plastic degrading enzymes would allow us to get rid of conventional plastic waste without impacting our seas and soils.”
PhD student Joseph Boctor
It’s a critical avenue to address the problem, especially for Australia, which produces more single-use plastic waste per capita than any other country in the world – about 60 kilograms per person a year.
These research projects are being overseen by Professor Daniel Murphy, who leads the Bioplastic Innovation Hub established at Murdoch in partnership with CSIRO and industry.
A microbiologist and biochemist, he’s well positioned to help solve the world’s plastics problem.
“Plastic has long been a part of our everyday lives and now it’s everywhere – in the land, oceans, atmosphere, even in our food and drinks,” Professor Murphy said.
It’s got to a point where we unintentionally eat hundreds of pieces of microplastic a day, about the weight of a credit card each week.”
Professor Daniel Murphy
Changing that requires a radical change in the way we make, use, recycle and think about plastics.
“Compostable bioplastics are a game changer for overcoming this waste,” Professor Murphy said.
“I see a future where large-scale industries are growing microbes to make bioplastics. This will occur within my lifetime and gives me hope that one day we will beat plastic pollution.”
This research supports UN Sustainable Development Goals 7, 9, 11 and 14.