Not Just CO2 – plants can clean up other pollution too!

When it comes to the question of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, I’ve long been of the opinion that our best option is also the one that requires the least amount of new research and development – plants. Harvest fast-growing crops, subject them to a little processing, and store them. It won’t solve the problem alone, and it won’t solve anything overnight, but neither will any other options. Plants are also a good way to both lower city temperatures, and reduce industrial and commercial air pollution. They’re useful all around, really.

In fact, for all re-wilding is often framed as being either a way to soak up CO2 or a way to strengthen ecosystems, there’s also some evidence that it can be a way for use to work on cleaning up the various types of toxic waste we’ve left all over the planet. For all some folks get excited about impressive engineering solutions and pollution-eating nanobots or whatever, as with the carbon capture question, there’s a vast amount we could do to clean up the planet by applying our understanding of evolution, and doing a little ecosystem engineering.

Some more general things have been pretty well-known for a while, like the way beaver-made wetlands and mangrove swamps can help filter pollution out of water, as well as providing other benefits associated with a healthy ecosystem. There is also evidence to support the use of specific plants for specific pollutants. White lupin, for example, can be used to pull arsenic out of contaminated soil, and it seems that there’s growing evidence that bacterial life is evolving to take advantage of a newly abundant food source – our oil and plastic pollution:

Although reducing the manufacture of unnecessary single-use plastics and improving waste management systems will help ease the pollution crisis, our reliance on the convenience of plastic products is unlikely to be abated any time soon. Researchers are therefore looking at alternative approaches to “clean up” the more persistent plastics from our environment and it appears that microbes may offer some promising solutions.

“Certain bacteria harbor the necessary enzymes to degrade PET, the most problematic plastic environmentally,” explains senior author Shosuke Yoshida. “Our research has shown that the bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis converts PET into poly(3-hydroxybutyrate) (PHB), a type of poly(hydroxyalkanoate) (PHA) plastic that is biodegradable,” he continues.

This finding is particularly promising because it addresses two current problems for the sustainability of plastics: degrading the most persistent form of petroleum-based plastic while sustainably producing biodegradable plastics.

“We believe that this discovery could be significant in tackling plastic pollution,” Yoshida states, “as we show that the PET-degradation and PHB-synthesis pathways are functionally linked in I. sakaiensis . This might provide a novel pathway where a single bacterial species breaks down difficult-to-recycle PET plastics and uses the products to make biodegradable PHA plastics.”

Given the overwhelming challenge of dealing with worldwide plastic pollution, this novel bacterial approach may be a significant part of the solution.

Things like this won’t matter if we don’t stop creating pollution. Even if we could find an organism to consume every poison we’ve unleashed on the world,  their ability to do so will never come close to the rate at which we’re generating pollution. Just as our production of greenhouse gases has outpaced the planet’s ability to absorb them, so is our production of chemical pollution outpacing the biosphere’s ability to adapt. If we’re going to survive, the first step is always to stop actively doing harm, to the greatest degree possible.

The hope that things like this gives me is not one that lessens the amount of work we have to do; it’s the hope that once we do that work, even if it takes multiple generations, it will be possible to heal, and to move forward into something better.

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  1. klatu says

    Yeah, the only thing you really need to do for nature to “recover” (for any given definition of that word) is to leave it the fuck alone for an extended amount of time (a hundred thousands years, for example). But that is basically the one thing we, as a species, have sworn to never ever do.

    You don’t need to actually plant anything. Plants plant plants, all on their own. You just need to give nature the space and time to flourish. I’ve yet to see any large-scale human stewardship programme that wasn’t entirely inedaquate or ultimately profit-driven and thus doomed to failure.

    Anyway, what you describe is basically how I see it. The world is in a state of constant regeneration. All we have to do is keep the damage we inflict below that rate of regeneration in order to lead modern lives at a sustainable level. But that runs counter to the dogma of infinte economic growth.

    The answer to all our global problems, painful as it is, is abdication. To collectively have less of everything, but especially for those who have way too much to begin with. Specifically, the answer is to elect to have less now, so that people in the future can have anything at all.

    Whatever. Sermon over. I hope you all have nice weekend.

  2. another stewart says

    Harvest fast-growing crops, subject them to a little processing, and store them. It won’t solve the problem alone, and it won’t solve anything overnight, but neither will any other options.

    The version that appeals to me is to use anaerobic pyrolysis to convert the harvested crop into biogas and biochar, and use the biochar as a soil conditioner. But I suspect that the economics favours carbon-neutral biomass generation over carbon-negative biogas and biochar.
    On a smaller scale, I wonder about the practicality of “biochar braziers” for disposing of garden waste as a consumer product.

  3. says

    @Klatu –

    How many large-scale stewardship programs have you seen? What counts as “large scale” to you?

    Returning wolves to Yellowstone was an act of stewardship, as have been the efforts to protect and grow beaver populations around the world.

    I used to work as a property manager controlling invasive species in a couple forests in Indiana, and I could see the success of the efforts of people who’d started the work before me.

    And as I’ve pointed to in the past, there’s plenty of evidence that Native American societies generally practiced forms of active ecosystem management that worked quite well, across a number of different biomes.

    Things like the cane toad debacle in Australia were not real attempts to manage an ecosystem, so much as capitalists looking for cheap solutions to their problems, and ignoring scientists.

    I will also say, as I’ve said in other conversations, that just because our current society isn’t doing something, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

    @another stewart – I agree with the biochar thing, and it’s something that can be easily done with a concentrated solar setup. I also think, as always, that we can affect what “economics” favors with policy, as has always been done. Carbon-negative arrangements are an investment in the wellbeing of future generations.

    As to garden waste and the like, my thinking was anaerobic biogas digesters. Honestly it could even be the same system as the one dealing with sewage. You get combustible fuel that’s proportional to the population size, and the liquid product can either be refined for chemical components, or (my preference) leeched into wetlands constructed for the purpose, to let them filter out pollution and pharmaceuticals. That said, if we do get a “good” system some day in the future, it’ll probably be something none of us has thought of.

  4. klatu says

    I will also say, as I’ve said in other conversations, that just because our current society isn’t doing something, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

    Look, I agree. I definitely 100% agree that we CAN do things. I don’t think we should stop trying. Never that! Everyone supporting any conservation project right now should definitely keep doing that. Even if that means just growing your own garden. It’s all good.

    But I will also try to answer honestly. (These are my feelings. It’s not very fact-based at all.)

    At this (extremely dangerous) point, “large-scale” to me means something that is impactful enough to actually make an incisive difference in how everything is done, either symbolically or physically. I wasn’t clear about that. My post was basically not very good. There have been some major reforesting programmes throughout the world, but they’re all too little, too late.

    Maybe my expectation are setting me up for disappointment, because “large scale” should mean something on the scale of… reforesting an entire continent. Or getting rid of the “growth” model for a major economy. Or sectioning off 100.000 square miles of rain forest, and defending it tooth and nail against ALL economic intererests.

    That’s the scale at which I want to see this problem tackled. Not that my wants count for anything…

    My point is that the real solutions, by nature of the scale of the problem, are left in the hands of the same people who are responsible for the problem in the first place. Those with power. Nations. Corporations. Lobbies.

    Individuals can ultimately do very little in either direction. Unless they come together by the millions or even billions. And I just don’t see that happening. Not before it’s way too fucking late, which it low-key already is.

    But whatever the case may be, I’m certainly not criticizing you, Abe. You’re doing infinitely more than I am. I’m just cranky a lot, and worried about how badly this is all going.

    Maybe I was being a dick. I apologize.

  5. says

    This is why my recommendations about what everyday people can do are almost always aimed at direct action and building collective power that’s separate from any political parties or electoral campaigns.
    If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. We need to go far, fast. The only way I can see to do that is to build networks of networks, and build not just parallel power structures, but also a culture of democracy as an activity that’s part of daily life, in much the same way that commuting is for most people today.

    If I have a single “project” here that I could see succeed, that would probably be it.

    I don’t think real democracy would be perfect, or would solve all of the problems we have today, but I think it would get us a LOT closer, and make possible many more things that are currently blocked by the very people you mentioned.

    I’m on board with your point – mine is that the path out of that bog of reasonable despair is through finding ways to overcome those hurdles, while also talking about what we can do with that power as we build it.

    Part of the problem the Democrats seem to have, is that for those who believe in anything, they believe in “the process” – that process is their end goal, in itself. It’s not a tool to be used to make the world better, it’s a ritual to be practiced with the belief that doing so will make the world better. It’s their “one weird trick” for a better world.

    That’s why, while we’re working on building a new system of managing power, we also need to keep talking about what we’ll do with that power, and reminding ourselves that changing how things are run is a means, as well as a goal in itself.

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