The Malta Independent 27 May 2019, Monday

University of Malta researchers tackling the plastic problem

Sunday, 17 February 2019, 08:30 Last update: about 4 months ago

One of the main culprits that play a big part in the mounting plastic pollution problem is the staggering amount of single-use plastic we still use and throw out daily. From bottles to straws to plastic bags, the world produces and consumes roughly one trillion tons of plastic each year, only half of which is disposable. That is nearly two million pieces of plastic thrown away every minute. This plastic usually finds its way into a landfill where it will be buried for years or gets thrown or blown into the sea where it has a deadly effect on marine life.

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Things are looking more positive however, as people everywhere wise up to the urgent need to reduce plastic use. Moreover, recently, scientists accidentally discovered bacteria which have naturally evolved to eat plastic. This could lead to teams of scientists creating a mutant enzyme which will break down plastic bottles. A breakthrough like this could help solve the global problem of plastic. A team of researchers at the University of Malta has also jumped on this eco bandwagon and a university-led research programme is looking at possible ways to accelerate the deterioration of plastic sold commercially in Malta, with a special emphasis on plastic bottles, containers and shopping bags. 

University lecturer and research scientist, Dr Gabrielle Zammit is leading the team of both undergraduate and postgraduate students who are concentrating on single-use plastic packaging that is in use for a very short time, and which subsequently lingers indefinitely in the environment.

This research, which is being funded by the Gasan Foundation, aims to find a way of reducing the lifetime of plastic in the environment after it is discarded, by breaking it down completely to leave only harmless molecules as a by-product. At present, the team is working with microbes which are developing naturally and have not been genetically modified.

Apart from the experiments conducted using these promising microorganisms, the team is investigating how single-use plastics break down in soil and seawater, which will give a clearer understanding of the deterioration processes that occur due to naturally occurring microbial communities.

While the research has already yielded some positive results for simple plastic polymers, the challenge remains in breaking down the plastic that is sold commercially due to the additives added during the manufacturing process that make superior quality materials useful as packaging products.

The Gasan Foundation is currently supporting this initiative, which will ensure the completion of the initial phase of the research.


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