Article Series

Plastic Pollution: Reduce, Reuse, or Recycle?

by Jessica Forsyth

It is estimated that approximately five million tonnes of plastic are used in the UK each year. Unfortunately, this extraordinary reliance on plastic has resulted in it becoming a common contaminant of the soil, the ocean, and the atmosphere. There can be no doubt that plastic pollution is one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, but the question remains of how best to resolve it.

It is important to remember that the presence of plastic in the environment is not an inevitable by-product of its use, but a direct result of our irresponsible and unsustainable disposal of it. As a matter of fact, plastic itself has several environmental benefits. These include the impact it has on reducing food wastage by extending the shelf-life of fresh produce, as well as reducing CO2 emissions from the transportation of goods as a result of its lightweight properties.

Scientist Mark Miodownik argues that plastic is too valuable a material to replace. Rather than swapping in other materials, that if improperly disposed of will also cause problems, ‘the more valuable thing to do is to focus efforts on how to make the process of using plastic more sustainable’.

So how can we achieve this? Well, if you were to ask the average person how they thought they could help in the plastic pollution crisis, their answer would likely include the idea of improving their recycling habits.  But should this be the focus of our attention? Many of us will be familiar with the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ slogan. It is referred to as the ‘waste hierarchy’ because it lists the solutions to waste management in order of their effectiveness.

Interestingly, you will notice that recycling comes last on the list. The UK is considered to be a successful recycling nation with 45.7% of household waste classed as recycled. However, the majority of this recycling does not take place in the UK and where exactly our waste ends up and whether it is ‘truly recycled’ is unclear. Shamefully, in 2017/18 a report found that Westminster Council sent 82% of all household waste, including that put into recycling bins, for incineration. So perhaps we should focus more on reducing our consumption and improving our reuse of plastic. 

people near building

A strategy that the scientists at the University of Portsmouth are focussing on is finding ways to reduce the demand to manufacture new plastic. They have engineered a super enzyme capable of breaking down plastic into its chemical building blocks from which new plastic can be made. In 2018, they discovered that an engineered version of an enzyme known as PETase was capable of breaking down plastic in a matter of days.

Since then, the scientists have discovered a similar enzyme known as MHETase that, when combined, creates a super-enzyme capable of degrading plastic six times faster than PETase alone. Both enzymes were found in a soil bacterium known as Ideonella sakaiensis. Fascinatingly, with so much plastic polluting the environment, it seems that these microbes have evolved ways of turning plastic into a source of energy. By exploiting this ‘naturally occurring plastic-degrading system’ scientists have found a new way of improving our ‘Reuse’ of plastic.

Finally, it is important to remember that manufacturing new plastic from fossil fuels is a relatively cheap process and if any means of recycling or reusing plastic is to compete with this, it needs to rival it in cost. The discovery of this super enzyme is an important step towards this as the increased speed of plastic breakdown translates to a significant reduction in the cost of the process and thus a big step towards its consideration for commercial use.  

green plant in clear glass vase

With the Covid-19 pandemic leading to a rise in single use plastic, the plastic pollution crisis is more evident than ever before. With the discovery of new ways to reuse or recycle plastic comes hope that we can begin to move towards a more circular economy ‘where everything has value and nothing is wasted’. Only then can we hope that we can continue to benefit from the use of plastic as a valuable material without it posing a threat to all life on earth.

Article Series

Ocean 3D – Improving the accessibility of Cornish communities with VR

by Jessica Forsyth

For some people, getting out and about to explore new places poses a challenge. This might be the result of a physical disability that makes it difficult to move around or of an anxiety disorder which can make visiting new places an unnerving experience. These are just a couple of examples of the barriers that can leave individuals feeling as if they are shut off from their community. To ensure this is not the case, we must find ways to increase the accessibility of our communities to those with additional needs.

Virtual reality (VR) is a technology that has enormous potential to do just this and is something that the Cornwall based company Ocean 3D has been quick to recognise. Based in Penzance, they conduct 3D and interactive tours with the aim of ‘enabling people to visit, explore and enjoy locations that are difficult or impossible to access due to distance, income, physical or mental disabilities’.

Some of the locations mapped already include The Museum of Cornish Life, Penzance railway station and St Buryan Church, with plans for the near future including a scan of the Old Penlee lifeboat house and a project with the Tate St Ives. These tours are freely accessible via their website and are of an extremely high quality.

Speaking with the director of the company, Chris Wood, I was able to gain an insight into some of his goals for the future, one of which is to be able to create scans of entire villages with links to 3D tours of artist studios and village shops that can be viewed worldwide. We also spoke about the positive impact that the company had achieved through the creation and provision of these tours to members of the community.

One example that Chris provided was some feedback he had received from families that had utilised the tours for elderly relatives. For some who were bedbound this had allowed them to explore locations that they had fond memories of but could no longer manage to visit and for others, who suffered from dementia, it had had the power of triggering positive memories that were thought to have been lost.

More and more research is being conducted into the variety of benefits that VR can provide with studies ranging from exploring its use in combatting loneliness in the elderly to its use in exposure therapy for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Ultimately, the benefits of VR are unique to the individual but whatever capacity it is that these tours help in is an important step in improving the inclusivity of society and therefore a step in the right direction.

The emphasis that Ocean 3D has on using this technology to benefit those at a disadvantage is commendable and if you wish to find out more about their work please visit their website at https://www.ocean3d.co.uk/.