Writer: Dhruvi Patel
The Destructive Effects of Fast Fashion and Plastic Pollution
Although the fashion industry only accounts for 2% of the global GDP, it is one of the world’s leading polluters as a result of fast fashion. Fast fashion refers to cheaply produced and retailed trendy apparel made by multinational corporations. These articles of clothing may seem mesmerizing at first sight, but they have a destructive toll on the environment in many ways. The production of these clothes results in 10% of our carbon emissions, which is more than 1.2 billion tons of CO2. These adverse impacts are not only limited to air pollution as the production has many damaging effects on bodies of water around the world. The fast fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater and uses more than 80 billion cubic metres of freshwater.
These effects are further amplified, considering that the fast fashion industry has nearly doubled since 2000. Once a new fashion trend emerges, many are quick to discard their old clothes. Even though 60% more garments were bought in 2014 than in 2000, they were only kept for half as long. Clothing equivalent to one garbage truck is burned or deposited in landfills every second.
What are Polyester-Eating Microbes?
Fast fashion pollution is primarily caused due to the lack of recycling of the fabrics as it can be exorbitant and time-consuming. Polyester is the most common material used in apparel, as 60% of the garments found in landfills contain the plastic. Polyester consists of complex polymers with long, repeating chains of molecules that do not dissolve in water. These chains' strength makes the plastic very durable, causing it to decompose naturally after approximately 20-200 years. However, recent studies suggest the possibility for polyester to be recycled rapidly. To make the process faster, a new form of microbe was discovered that has the ability to break the polymer down into its raw materials. Once broken down into their smaller, soluble chemical units, they can be used as the building blocks to form new polymers. This revelation makes it possible for polyester to be reused for the future manufacturing of new clothes. This method is not only cheaper than producing new polyester but also cheaper than the traditional industrial recycling processes.
Viable Research Done
In 2016, Japanese scientists tested different bacteria to efficiently break down a polyester named polyethylene terephthalate (PET). They found a bacteria called Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 that secretes an enzyme, a type of protein that catalyzes the chemical processes, called PETase. The bacteria splits certain chemical bonds called esters in the molecule to absorb it as a food source. Although there are many other known bacterial enzymes for breaking down polyester, the newly found bacteria are claimed to have evolved specifically for this purpose.
When further research was conducted, it was found that manipulating some aspects of the bacteria can increase its ability to break down the plastic. The enhanced enzyme increases interaction because the part of the molecule responsible for the reaction is more accessible. It is unusual for bacterial enzymes to have better results due to manipulation than their natural state. This finding suggests that the bacteria has evolved recently to adapt to the world of plastic created by men. Scientists can now break certain plastics in a few days due to the enhanced enzyme. This breakthrough has opened up a realm in the field of bio-recycling.
Limitations to the Polyester-Eating Microbes
Bacterial enzyme and the enhanced enzyme are relatively new ideas for bio-recycling, and scientists have not entirely determined the bacteria's compatibility with different polyesters. The type of polyester used for testing, PET, is primarily found in plastic bottles and containers. Research would have to be done to find an enzyme that would effectively break down polyester from clothes. Scientists have also stated that they aim to reduce the time, even more, to make this feasible for large-scale processes. Furthermore, different physical properties of the same polyester can impact the effectiveness of the bacterial enzyme. A more crystalline plastic structure where the molecules are tightly packed is more challenging to access and break down.
Scientists are also having difficulty with preserving the quality of the polyester. When PET is broken down and recycled, it was found that the plastic can only be used to make opaque fibres for clothes and carpets. Although this is extremely beneficial for reducing fast fashion, the threat regarding plastic water bottles still lingers. Approximately 1 million water bottles are sold every minute, and only 14% are recycled. These plastics predominantly end up in the ocean harming millions of marine lives. More than 275 million tonnes of plastic remain in our oceans to this day.
Ongoing Areas of Research
Other areas to explore within this topic include:
Evolution of the polyester eating bacteria
Enhancing the mutant bacterial enzymes
Experimenting on different plastics with the enzyme
Other alternatives for improving fast fashion/plastic pollution
Recycling food waste into plastic
Finding other ways to produce clothes (algae-based fabric)
Finding a more efficient method to recycle cotton and other fabrics
Producing a database system to track the types of materials in clothing
As pollution continues to worsen, action needs to be taken to find a solution that can rapidly work towards reducing it. This new discovery with the polyester eating microbes suggests promising improvements towards the problem in a perspective never explored before. With hundreds of research teams worldwide, trying to research this phenomenon further, more information is gathered daily. However, many are still digging further in hopes of enhancing the bacterial enzyme to the greatest extent.
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