Thursday, July 19th, 2012
In the numerous existing articles, books, websites, and research reports that discuss marine litter, rarely is found anything resembling a solution to the problem, that is, a way to remove the litter already in the oceans. Reasons for that include that there is too much, that it is too widely dispersed, that it is a moving target, and that, particularly in the case of plastics, most of it is in pieces ranging from small to microscopic.
The reporters and writers often vaguely propose concentrating on keeping more litter from being added. But removing what’s there will have to come later if it happens at all, they conclude. Fortunately, not everyone agrees.
A team of undergraduate scientists at England’s University College London (UCL) sees the removal problem as a challenge, and is developing a solution that is, to put it mildly, very creative. The 14-person UCL student team wants to use the principles of synthetic biology to create a new strain of bacteria, which will
detect, aggregate, bind, and buoy the otherwise elusive microplastics, eventually bringing them together so the plastics could be collected and reused. Long term, the objective is to collect enough plastic to create a ‘Plastic Republic’, a habitable island formed from aggregated plastic waste.
The student team is aiming the project at iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition that promotes research into new uses of synthetic biology, building on the success of three previous UCL teams. The UCL iGEM team includes computer science, biochemistry, medical sciences, and biochemical engineering specialists, and is working with a UCL architectural student interested in how plastics can be recycled for use as construction material.
It is encouraging to see the work of the UCL iGEM team to find a solution to the problem of existing marine litter, a problem many, if not most, think to be very difficult or insurmountable. On the front end of the issue, the plastics industry’s efforts to abate the creation of marine litter have increased. SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association and 53 other global plastics associations signed a Declaration for Solutions on Marine Litter in March of 2011. At a mid-November, 2011 meeting held in Dubai, SPI and the other global associations created a worldwide action plan that includes 99 projects across 32 countries.
SPI’s original marine debris program, Operation Clean Sweep, has continued to increase the number of participating companies, as well as to expand outside the USA through partnerships with other national plastics associations, for example those of the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand.
The UCL iGEM team already has eight corporate sponsors, including computer design software supplier Autodesk and the chemical company Lonza, and is using online crowdfunding to raise £1500/$2358 in needed capital. Facing a funding deadline of July 31, 2012, the UCL team had raised £947 as of July 19. There is a unique incentive to contribute that goes beyond supporting leading-edge scientific work to help the environment. Bronze-level sponsors and above, which entails an investment of at least £5/$7.86, are entitled to a virtual acre of land on Plastic Republic, which can be seen here, also virtually.