Caterpillar Spit

“Plastics typically are made through human industrial systems. Most modern plastics are derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum; however, recent industrial methods use variants made from renewable materials, such as corn or cotton derivatives.”

                                                ~ Wikipedia

“Indeed, a recent study in the journal Science, authored by the researchers associated with the Pew report, estimated that some 11 million metric tons of plastic now find their way into the oceans each year — 3 million more than previous estimates. The study said that if the world continues on its current course of skyrocketing plastic consumption, the amount of plastic waste being produced will triple by 2040.”

                                                ~ Jim Robbins

It seems that, at the same time we are trying to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, we are increasing their use in creating plastics. The global warming implications are confounding. 

The prospect of more and more plastic wastes is daunting and difficult to resolve. Many solutions have been tried, and some have relatively positive outcomes. Most alternatives fall into “downcycling,” using plastics as a substitute for other materials, such as replacing aggregate with plastic in road pavements, or replacing plastic products with paper or other materials more easily recycled or destroyed.

Writer Jim Robbins notes, “Single-use plastic packaging made from oil — technically polyethylene terephthalate, or PET — is the kind most drinks and food are sold in. It is, in many ways, the perfect packaging — strong, light, versatile, clear, and inexpensive. It protects products extremely well, keeps them fresh, and can even stand up to the acid and pressurization of soft drinks without breaking down or becoming permeable over months or years.”

One option touted by the beverage industry is ‘bioplastics’, a plant-based plastic product. Robbins quotes Rebecca Burgess, CEO of City to Sea, “Bioplastics are a ‘false solution’ as they are single use and there are limited options to compost them … Reducing the amount of single-use packaging we use is the only solution … The sugars used to make bioplastic often come from transgenic crops sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, and these crops take land out of production that is needed to feed a growing global population.”

“Among the remedies proposed in the (Pew) report are the elimination of plastic packaging wherever possible, substituted with paper or compostable material; designing products for effective recycling; increasing mechanical recycling; scaling up collection and recycling efforts in moderate- and low-income countries, where the vast majority of ocean plastic originates; and an end to exports of waste plastic, which would force countries where the waste is generated to come up with solutions to the plastics problem.”

The strengths of plastics are also the features that make them difficult to biodegrade or reuse. Writer Matt Alderton sees an unusual option, “… scientists found wax worms can naturally degrade plastic with the help of their saliva, which contains special enzymes that quickly oxidize and depolymerize the polyethylene that’s used in plastic packaging, bags, bottles, and more. That’s important because polyethylene, which constitutes approximately one-third of plastic waste, is typically very difficult to break down, usually requiring the addition of heat or radiation. Wax worms require neither.”

He notes that it’s not just caterpillar spit,“… scientists have previously made similar discoveries in microbes … A super-enzyme that quickly breaks down plastic drink bottles, usually made from PET plastic, was revealed in 2020, inspired by a bug found in a waste dump in Japan and accidentally tweaked to increase its potency”.

He quotes Spanish researcher Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper, “We can imagine a scenario where these enzymes are used in an aqueous solution, and liters of this solution is poured over piles of collected plastic in a waste management facility.”

Its seems that we humans have created a massive problem that Nature may just solve for us. “Because they eventually become moths or butterflies, all caterpillars are destined for greatness.”

Nature bats last.

Additional information:

Matt Alderton, Scientists Discover Surprising Remedy to Plastic Pollution: Caterpillar Spit, October 7, 2022, TreeHugger

Jim Robbins, Why Bioplastics Will Not Solve the World’s Plastics Problem, August 31, 2020, YaleEnvironment 360

Steve Tarlton, What A Waste, 9/22/22, Writes of Nature

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