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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