Your PET better watch out, ’cause we’re coming to get it! Wow, we know that sounds a bit frightening (and no, it’s not the start of a Halloween-related story, although wouldn’t that be ghoulishly fun?), but PET is actually an acronym for polyethylene terephthalate, one of the most common ingredients used to make single-use plastic bottles and jars that you see at the grocery store and even carpets and clothing. Products that use PET are some of the greatest causes of pollution on the planet. That’s why scientists have been working hard to figure out ways of getting rid of PET. Well, there’s some good news to share about this battle: scientists have developed a plastic-eating enzyme that, when combined with another plastic-eating enzyme, consumes plastic six times as fast. Can you just imagine the cartoon version of the plastic-eating enzyme—Hungry, Hungry, Hippo, anyone? A funny vision, we know, but that’s what these enzymes technically do—they happily eat PET! When the enzyme PETase combines with the enzyme MHETase, they become a super enzyme that breaks down PET three times as fast as PETase alone. Although researchers believe that this super enzyme has a lot of potential, it’s still not ready for commercial use yet. As they continue to make this super enzyme a workable solution for plastic waste, people are coming up with other ways to fight PET. How?
If you’ve ever collected plastic bottles or soda cans, taken them to a recycling drop-off location, and received money in return, you have the state of Oregon to thank. In 1971, Oregon became the first state to pass a bottle bill in which manufacturers of beverage containers were required to refund people for the bottles that they returned (or recycled). The bill was introduced as a response to the litter problem that Oregonians were seeing along their beaches and highways. Later, in 1980, Woodbury, New Jersey, became the first US city to offer a curbside recycling program. Now, curbside recycling (we all know those big blue bins!) are as common as garbage bins.
While worms may be icky to some, they’re fascinating creatures to others. Worms play a huge role in both the composting and fertilization process, as well as—you guessed it—getting rid of PET. It turns out that tiny wax worms can chomp through plastic, and mealworms (thanks to a bacteria that lives in their stomach) can eat and break down Styrofoam. Small, but mighty? We think so.
Alternative Packing Materials
It turns out that there are other more Earth-friendly ways to make packaging materials, such as takeout containers and single-use cups. That ingredient? Cornstarch! Yes, it’s a common thickener for Chinese food, but it turns out that cornstarch is also a great raw material for making compostable plastic. So, the next time you pick up a cup filled with a refreshing drink, you might just be drinking out of a compostable cornstarch-based cup!
Turning Old Into New
Recycling programs have become much more sophisticated than when they first began in the 1970s and 1980s. Several apparel and accessories companies, for example, use recycled plastic to produce products such as shoes and clothing. And let’s not forget about all the recycled paper products that are out there now. From the paper we write on to the paper products that we use to ship things in and drink out of, companies have taken the recycling game to a whole new level.
And of course people are changing their habits too. Instead of using single-use plastic bottles, more and more people are using refillable bottles.
What are you doing to reduce plastic pollution on our planet?