Plastic-Eating Enzyme Can Help Save A Plastic Planet

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(H/t to Tom Hochbaum for the tip, and for the ideas on what to write about)

I was looking online for a picture of the garbage vortex in the south Pacific, and having a surprising amount of trouble. It’s this Texas-sized patch of garbage that, coming from the land and borne by currents, has been swirling and collecting for decades. It’s pretty famous, so I was kind of frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a good image of it, until I remembered: it’s the size of Texas. 

How do you capture such an image? Have you ever seen a non-satellite photograph of all of Texas? Of course not. It’s impossible, just as it is impossible to imagine a garbage pile the size of that vast emptiness.

But it isn’t a fantasy. It is real. Even though the garbage patch is dwarfed by the enormity of the ocean, the idea that the waste of our civilization is gathering, and gathering size, is sobering and terrifying. Here are some horrible details.

The Patch is estimated to cover as much as 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean and it’s made mostly of tiny pieces of plastic that are the result of the process of photodegredation. Since plastic is non-biodegradable, it remains a polymer while the sun can only break it into smaller and smaller pieces. Once these pieces are small enough, fish and other aquatic animals mistake the plastic for plankton and ingest it. Even the plastic that isn’t eaten leeches harmful chemicals into the water, including pesticides, chemical byproducts, and toxic solvents. As a result, the plastics and chemicals that are consumed by the fish end up in our food supply. Delicious.

 

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This is Henderson Island. It is uninhabited.

 

It’s unsurprising that much of the waste is plastic. Plastic is a genuine miracle substance which has inarguably made life easier, but which lingers for centuries, choking our rivers and seas, filling our landfills, manifesting itself with hideous ocean-carried wreckage in the world’s most remote islands or as microplastics in the Great Lakes. Plastic bags flutter like ragged broken-spine scarecrows throughout the sky, catching themselves on trees and bushes, or drowning themselves in the sewers, soggy with a wordless permanence.

It takes thousands of years for plastic to break down. Which is why we’re so excited that there is genuinely great news about our addiction.

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.

The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.

That’s absolutely astonishing. The natural evolution of an enzyme that can eat plastic is amazing enough, and shows the incredible flexibility of nature, which will eventually restore itself even if we kill ourselves off. It’s amazing that scientists could study its DNA, and tinker with it, and make it better, even if accidentally.

And it is just tear-inducing that they also think they can make it better. That they recognize a huge problem, have scoured the world to find a solution, and then, piece by piece, issue by issue, calculation by calcuation, they make it better. That they can use enzymes to offer hope in what seemed like an intractable problem.

That isn’t to say we should all start stocking up on plastic bottles and throwing them immediately away, because we’ve been saved. We should still strive to use as little plastic as possible, and recycle it as much as we can.

It doesn’t let us off the hook for the damage we have done, and continue to do. (Nor, I should state, is this a sure thing: there could be greenhouse ramifications, but that’s the best part of science. They’ll find out!) It doesn’t bring back the jetsam of our endless inventiveness.

It should still make you teeth-gnashingly angry, or at least frustrated and sickened, that we can wreak such havoc on such remote and unpopulated places, just by sheer dint of our material existence. And we’re all complicit. Lord knows I’m as guilty as anyone, through laziness and love of convenience.

But thankfully, there are a lot of people who don’t take “meh” for an answer. Thankfully, there are people who are working on mitigating and maybe even expiating our sins, and who can both invent new solutions and have the wisdom and flexibility to take advantage of happy accidents, of nature working in its own way to adapt to our impositions.

We aren’t saved. Nature doesn’t work quickly, which makes our outsized impact all the more stark. But it’s also true that our solutions are part of nature, since we are still, for all our inventions, part of nature. This odd and serendipitous partnership with a hungry enzyme might just be part of regaining that balance.

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Thursday Water News: Drugs in the Water, Messing up the Mississippi Basin, and Pruitt Takes Control

In last week’s water news, we ended on a sort of kind of happy note, raising a moderately-filled glass that Capetown’s Day Zero was pushed back until next year. It was nice to have a sort of kind of happy note! Water is good, and we should be happy when there is happy news!

This week will not have it. This week will end with Scott Pruitt, if that’s any indication.

Let’s get at it!

Drugs in the Water: Not The Good Kind

 

 

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Remember: drugs lead to jazz

 

Last year, I wrote a long piece about antidepressants in the Niagara River. It is one of my favorite posts on this blog, and won praise from a cousin who said “Brian, I love you, but you are pretty depressing.” It’s like a Pulitzer!

Anyway, the point was that antidepressants leeching into our waters were causing fish to not eat, not reproduce and to stop caring about avoiding predators. Really, it made them stop doing the only thing they were good at, which was: continue being fish. I thought the symbolism of it was a little on-the-nose.

 There is is something deeply wrong here. Our society drives people to medications, which can do good or ill, and the waste of our addictions and needs ultimately ends up pissing itself into the water, where it infects other species and drives them toward involuntary suicide.

Well, obviously, an enormous supply of antidepressants isn’t centered entirely around Buffalo, though you’d be forgiven for imagining that to be the case. As The Guardian reported this week, it is a global epidemic.

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Clean Water is a Common Good. That’s Why Its Access is Being Limited.

Pictured: Not Tang.

“Brackish” is a wonderfully descriptive word; it is nearly onomatopoetic in its immediate salinity. It has a scaly tangibility to it, and contains within it an instant shudder. “Brack” is the sound you make when you taste something undrinkable, something wrong, something poisonous.

But for too many Americans, that is the reality of their water. It is choking, dirty, and dangerous. It is the opposite of what water should be. It has been degraded by capitalism and left to fester by the people elected to remember the forgotten.

This is laid out in stark detail by Sarah Jones and Emily Atkin at the resurgent The New Republic, in an article titled, with no pulled punches, Rural America’s Drinking Water Crisis.

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Surprise! Scott Pruitt’s EPA Uses Bad Economics on the Clean Water Rule

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In the Aftertime, when our descendants are fighting over the last scraps of arable land, this fucking Okie hump is going to be one of history’s primary villains.

Scott Pruitt is not an honest man. He has one core belief–that extraction industries (and really any industry) should be able to do whatever they want to maximize profits. His ancillary beliefs–that there should be no regulations, that labor or environmental protections are evil, that climate change is a hoax, that we the poor and undeserving should choke on the ashes of capitalism–all flow from that.

All of his dishonesty and petty idiocy come from this. He’s an industry shill who literally copy-and-pasted comments extraction flacks wrote for him about EPA regulations he was fighting (before he was put in charge of the damn thing). He forces his department to self-censor the truth or lose their jobs (many choose the later). He replaces scientists with industry goons. He’s says it is “insensitive” to talk about climate change being a cause of more powerful and destructive because he knows it is inarguable, and so hides behind a veneer of compassion for environmental victims his whole career proves a lie.

He’s one of the primary disasters of the Trump regime, coming in close behind or ahead of Sessions, depending on where you stand on things. I’ll consider them tied. It flows from the top, of course. Just like in Pruitt’s EPA, dishonesty has begun to affect the noble institution with every one of his idiotic appointments.

We can see that inherent dishonesty in a recent review of the Clean Water Rule of 2015 (this is also known as Waters of the United States Act, or just WOTUS). The administration has been trying to overturn these regulations, which changed what water could be regulated by the federal government. The definition was expanded to include many irrigation channels and small streams.

To many, this was big government intrusion at its worst. And to be fair, I find that argument sympathetic. Irrigation channels often run on private land. The problem, of course, is that they don’t end there. Water seeps into aquifers or it runs rivulets of phosphate into lakes, creating murderous algae blooms, or it is just wasted. But, more regulations could be onerous to farmers, who already eke out a meager existence.

Who was on their side? Well, nearly everyone.

President Donald Trump made repeated campaign promises to repeal WOTUS, which is opposed by a variety of industrial sectors, including agriculture, iron and steel manufacturing, home builders, and mining groups. Industry associations representing those sectors argue it would trigger requirements to obtain costly federal permits to dredge wetlands and streams that they say fall under state and local laws already.

Now, some argue, maybe we should protect wetlands more. It’s a compelling argument these days. So who knows what to do? But no fear! That’s why the EPA commissioned a study. And they found that the economic burden would be super expensive. There’s just, well, one problem. From the Commies at Bloomberg.

The Trump administration was sloppy in how it estimated the economic impact of a proposal to repeal an Obama-era water pollution regulation, relying on data and assumptions that industry previously criticized, according to economists and regulatory analysts interviewed by Bloomberg BNA.

Chief among their complaints was that the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used recession-era economic data and failed to account for some of the benefits of leaving the 2015 Clean Water Rule in place. Their economic analysis even drew criticism from David Sunding, a University of California-Berkeley agricultural economist who was hired by industry groups to counter theanalysis the Obama administration used to back its regulation.

“I am not normally this dismissive, but this is the worst regulatory analysis I have ever seen,” Sunding told Bloomberg BNA in telephone interview.

It’s worth repeating that Sunding had been hired by industry groups, in large part because he criticized the conclusions of the Obama administration, saying they had used faulty data to overstate the benefits. But then the Trump admin under Pruitt used the same numbers to come up with even worse results.

When the program was first proposed, it was under one set of economic conditions (coming out of the recession). That skewed the benefits, because it started from an artificially low baseline. But Pruitt’s EPA used that same baseline, and ignored any benefits. Bloomberg can explain.

The Trump administration used the 2013 estimates as a starting point, assuming that the costs of that regulation would be avoided by a repeal and the benefits of the regulation would be foregone. The proposed repeal was estimated to result in $162 million to $476 million in avoided costs, while the estimated foregone benefits range from $34 million to $73 million per year.

In the 2013 analysis, the EPA estimated the annual costs of implementing the water jurisdiction rule to range from $133.7 million to $277 million, but those costs were outweighed by annual projected benefits of between $300.7 million and $397.6 million.

The EPA’s 2017 approach drew the ire of economists because no recent permitting data was used to estimate the economic impact of the proposed repeal. Instead, the analysis used data from fiscal years 2009 and 2010, a time when U.S. economic activity was at its lowest since World War II, particularly in the manufacturing, residential, and commercial development sectors.

Basically, the Obama estimates might have been wrong, but the Trump ones were almost deliberately misleading. Or, knowing them, not almost.

I err on the side of WOTUS, clearly. But it is worth looking into. We do need to know the impact of everything we do. Scott Pruitt sort of agrees. He thinks we should know the negative impact of any regulation. He doesn’t really care to know any of the benefits, or care about the long-and-short term destruction of our environment. That sort of impact doesn’t matter.

The only impact that matters is if business is happy. For some reason they don’t, or won’t, see the ground crumbling beneath their feet. They don’t see the flames licking up the sides of the house. They feel the lash of the storm, but assume it is passing, or pretend their boat can get out of the way. Theya re depserate and greedy murderers, and Scott Pruitt is their chief enabler.

If we’re lucky enough to have history in 100 years, his name will be cursed.