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5 unexpected solutions to the plastic crisis

The plastic crisis is one of the greatest challenges facing planet earth.

Currently, 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, and the consequences for sealife are tragic, from choking turtles to poisoning whales. Clearly, the main solution is reducing the amount of plastic we use at the source, but people are also turning to technology, lateral thinking and even other species to find the answer to the monstrous behemoth of plastic on planet earth.


Here are five of the strangest solutions:




Aspergillus tubingensis is a darkly pigmented species of fungus that thrives in warm habitats. It is nothing special to look at, but it has one property that has made it of key interest to scientists. The big problem with plastic is that it doesn’t break down or degrade – and which is why we’ve probably got plastic inside our bodies right now. Finding agents that can break down polymers would help vastly. A group of microbiologists at Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan found that Aspergillus tubingensis could degrade polyurethane (PU). “The fungus secretes enzymes that degrade the plastics, and in return, the fungus gets food from it by dissolving the plastics,” said lead author Sehroon Khan. The fungus could be used to break down plastic in landfill.

塔宾曲霉菌(Aspergillus tubingensis)是一种暗色的真菌,在温暖环境下生长很快。看起来无足称奇,但塔宾曲霉菌的一个特性引起科学界的强烈兴趣。难以降解是塑料污染的最大问题——这也是为什么现在我们人体内可能就含有塑料。找到可以使塑料聚合物降解的利器对解决白色污染将有很大帮助。巴基斯坦真纳大学(Quaid-i-Azam University)的一个微生物学家团队发现,塔宾曲霉菌能够使聚氨酯(PU)分解。该研究报告的主要作者卡恩(Sehroon Khan)称,“这种真菌分泌的酶可以降解塑料,作为回报,在分解的过程中真菌会‘吃’塑料当养分。”因此人类可以在垃圾填埋场中使用这种真菌分解塑料。

The Ocean Cleanup


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of plastic in the oceans, and it sits between California and Hawaii. It is three times the size of France and its total amount is 80,000 tonnes. Engineers from the Netherlands, led by a 24-year-old Dutch inventor called Boyan Slat, have launched an ocean cleanup system called ‘System 001’. It is an enormous, 600m long, floating, rubbish-collector, which collects plastic in a 3m deep skirt. A garbage truck ship will collect the plastic every few months. Using computer simulations and scale models, the group have tested and trialled the system and it is now travelling towards the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Slat has been both praised and criticised for his invention but, currently, it is a case of wait and see. No one really knows what’s going to happen. “The moment I am looking forward most to is when we are taking the first plastic back and it’s proven technology,” Slat has said.

“太平洋大垃圾带”(Great Pacific Garbage Patch)是海洋上最大面积的漂浮垃圾集中区。这个漂浮在海洋上的巨大垃圾岛位于美国加州和夏威夷之间,面积相当于3个法国,其中8万吨是塑胶垃圾。24岁的荷兰青年设计者斯莱特(Boyan Slat)带领的荷兰工程师工作团队,向大海放置一个叫“001号系统”的海洋净化系统(有媒体称为海洋吸尘器)。这个海洋净化系统是海洋垃圾打捞系统,由一条长600米漂在海面上巨型管状物和管子下3米高的屏障组成,塑料垃圾会被这道屏障拦截和聚拢。每隔几个月,他们就会把围拢到的垃圾捞到一条船上。研究团队通过电脑模拟和缩尺模型,对这一系统在海域上进行了测试和试运行,现系统已放置到“太平洋大垃圾带”,着手清洁太平洋垃圾。斯莱特的发明既受到肯定,也招来怀疑,不过目前大家都是等着瞧,其实都不知道结果如何。斯莱特表示,“我最期待的时刻是第一批垃圾打捞上岸,说明我们的海洋清洁技术是可行的。”

Roads made from plastic?


Another idea to come from the Netherlands is a project called PlasticRoad. It is a stretch of bike path in the Dutch city of Zwolle made of recycled plastic - and it is the first of its kind. It is a way of re-using plastic bottles, cups and packaging instead of burning it or putting it in landfill. Currently the road uses 70 per cent recycled plastic, but future plans will use 100 per cent recycled plastic. The company says that it is even more durable than asphalt, takes less time to install and requires less heavy equipment, making the carbon footprint smaller, too. The first road in Zwolle is 30m long and contains the recycled plastic equivalent of over 218,000 plastic cups or 500,000 plastic bottle caps. In November a second plastic road will be built in Overijssel.


Seaweed instead of plastic


The fight against plastic has led engineers and designers to search for other materials that could be used for packaging foodstuffs. Bioplastics are made from renewable biomass, usually vegetable fats and oils, cassava starch, woodchips or food waste. Seaweed, however, is the solution used by Indonesian start-up called Evoware. The company works with local seaweed farmers to create sandwich and burger wraps, sachets for flavouring and coffee, and soap packaging, all made out of seaweed. It can be dissolved in hot water or, to reduce waste to zero, the packaging is also edible. Sustainable and nutritious.


Social plastic


The biggest problem plastic causes is its effect on ocean life. By 2050, by some estimates, there could be more pieces of plastic than fish in the sea. One idea to stop plastic getting there in the first place is a little more abstract. The Plastic Bank is a social enterprise which pays an above-market rate for plastic waste. People who collect plastic can trade it in for money, items (fuel, cook stoves) or services, such as school fees. The project incentivises people to collect ocean-bound plastic before it enters the waterways while fighting poverty, giving people an income, cleaning up the streets, and reducing the amount of waste that goes into the oceans. The aim of Plastic Bank is to make plastic too valuable to throw away and turn it into a currency. The company then sells the plastic on to corporate clients, who pay around three times more than plastic normally costs. It currently operates in Haiti, Brazil and Philippines and is set to open in South Africa, India, Panama and the Vatican.

白色污染的最大问题便是对海洋生物的影响。据估计,到2050年,海洋中塑料垃圾比鱼类还要多。为了避免此情况发生而提出的概念颇具抽象意义。“塑料银行”(Plastic Bank)作为一家社会企业,以高于市场的价格回收塑料,人们可以兑换现金、商品(燃油、锅具)或服务,比如学费充值。这项刺激方案鼓励人们把本来会最后扔进大海的塑料垃圾收集起来,这同时也是为人们增加收入的减贫措施,可以美化街道,减少海洋垃圾数量。“塑料银行”旨在将塑料变废为宝,用作货币。该公司将回收塑料转售给企业客户,售价较塑料的成本高出约3倍。目前,海地、巴西和菲律宾的政府已开设“塑料银行”,南非、印度、巴拿马和梵蒂冈也将对此推广使用。
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