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back to article Dissolving the plastic bag problem

By rights the world and its dog should now know the name Daniel Burd. For Daniel Burd has an eco-friendly solution for disposing of the plastic bag menace. About half a trillion plastic bags are produced globally each year, but they take up to 1000 years to decompose. In the meantime they can migrate to the oceans and be …

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Plastic Bags as an enviromental issue.

I've always wondered why it's regarded as a bad thing that oil (which could be burned and emit CO2) is instead being used to create disposable plastic bags which end up buried in landfill where their carbon is conveniently trapped for a thousand years or so. Sure no-one wants landfill near their house, but are plastic bags really that bad?

Jolyon

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Anonymous Coward

Can we make use of the bacteria

If you can find a use for the bacteria after they've been grown on the plastic, then you could make the plastic a raw material. Just as waste cellulose is a raw material of compost.

Also, I don't think plastic bags to capture carbon makes sense. Taking oil out of the ground (where's it's carbon is captured) expending huge energy (producing co2) to make a plastic bag which only captures a fraction of the carbon.... doesn't seems to make sense.

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Title

May I say, brilliant article!

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Good Reading

Agree with Johan, Good reading.

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lvm

What? Haven't read Mutant 59???

Here is the only fitting place for this news :)

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/06/06/horrible_science_abominations/

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@Jolyon

Good point about trapping carbon but I think the other issue are the litterbugs who drop bags outdoors where they end up an eyesore in streets and beaches and trap or choke wildlife. (Hey Jolyon, good to see your name appear on El Reg! How's your stone collection? ;-)

How do we dispose of the bacterial goo that has digested these plastic bags? What damage can the goo do to the environment if it's poured down our drains? Will it start eating plastic pipes? Has anyone considered that?

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One way to degrade them...

...is to hang them im my shed with something important in them. They collapse into a small pile of crumbs within months. I'm guessing this is UV breaking the polymers.

Not sure I've got room to rot down a trillion of them though....

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I agree with Mr Coward

... that the most efficient form of carbon sequestration is to simply leave the oil where it is. But human nature being what it is, that will never happen.

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Interesting, but.....

..hasn't this guy ever read "Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater" by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis? Be afraid... be very afraid!

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Germs Eating Plasic bags. What else do they eat?

Although superficially, its seems like a very good idea indeed for Plastic bags to be digested in this way, what else does this bacteria breakdown?

My basic understanding of Proteobacteria lead me to believe that its possible for these bacteria to mutate and or interact with other organisms.Possibly leading to the breakdown of other nearby Plastics like the PTFE in the nearby Electric pylons and components in Garbage/Rubbish trucks that deliver the refuse. Also there is no mention of what remains after the degradation of these polymers.

Maybe this leads to worse pollution than it solves, although the sight of geese dressed in Tesco , hedgehogs in Waitrose AND Sparrows using Salisbury's Carrier bags for waterproof clothing never ceases to amuse all.

It will be a shame to see it disappear.

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Great article...

needs promoting.

Only one but. Are these poly-bag-munching bugs safe?

Seen some stuff on phages before, not surprised that 'Big Pharma' would try to get in the way there.

Vested interests and big bucks rule yet again.

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re: Can we make use of the bacteria

even if we _can't_ it's still worth it for the reduced landfill required

if we can, then woot :)

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Bronze badge

BBC Bias

The BBC favours stories as follows :-

1. Got pictures (no pictures, not interested).

2. British subjects involved (not "foreigners").

3. BBC reporter on scene.

Tick all 3 of the above and your story has a good chance on TV, items 2 and 3 only may make it to the radio. None of the above :- it didn't happen.

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Anonymous Coward

Question

What happens if the bacteria decide to start eating all polyethylene, not just the plastic bags we want them too? Imagine if everything made out of polyethylene, or all plastics maybe, disappeared in less than a year.

As for why the bags are bad, besides the general problem of any trash added to landfills, thin plastic bags tend to blow away easily and wind up scattered everywhere being ingested by wildlife, causing the death of the wildlife.

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The answer to the wrong question

If you have the plastic bags collected and isolated, you may as well just burn them and use the energy, instead of burning coal/oil, producing the same amount of CO2. OK, you could add those bacteria to the landfill and make things rot a bit faster.

The problem with plastic bags is that you don't get them nicely isolated (I know, some supermarkets try via recycling boxes). If you're lucky, they end up as part of general trash. If you're unlucky, they adorn a tree near your home or are worn around the neck by a dolphin.

Ban them!

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IT Angle

You wonder why the BBC didn't report this...?

The BBC don't report this for several reasons:

1) Bad news (we're all going to die of a surfeit of plastic bags) gets more readers than good news (plastic bags can be easily disposed of)

2) The BBC has a lot of intellectual capital tied up in the Green position. It will therefore not report any controversy over Global Warming, and is very unhappy about any proposed technological fix for environmental issues.

3) The BBC is just plain bad at finding things out. I don't think its journalists do very much work - they prefer to read the news feeds and use a pin...

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Anonymous Coward

@Jolyon Ralph

And after a few thousands of years, your landfill becomes a new oil field. Problem solved.

And yet bloody Asda and bloody Co-op no longer supply plastic bags; and have at least one less customer as a result.

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Doomwatch

OMG - wasn't the very first episode of the Doomwatch series about a microbe that ate .. plastic! Causing aircraft to fall out of the sky and other such fun things.

It's all coming true, I tell you!

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Its the problem of where the plastic bags end up

In the ocean, marine life get caught up in it - not a pretty sight. There is a soup of plastic from hawaii to japan (see http://www.alternet.org/water/76056/)

Disolving it with bacteria is a better idea than sticking it at the bottom of a landfill site, as the composted plastic bags can be used to grow trees, food, etc. by using special types of mushrooms to convert the resultant mess into a habitable breeding/growing ground! (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XI5frPV58tY)

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Anonymous Coward

@jolyon

"Are plastic bags really that bad?"

Easy - Yes they are. Forgetting the environmental and carbon issues, which are thin arguments at best, they're a bloody eyesore. Youre never going to stop the seasoned chavs from chucking them out of their cars, so tax them out of existence or ban them (the bags (and the chavs, thinking about it)). They really are ugly strewn all over the pavements and trees. (The bags again) (and the chavs, I suppose).

Anyway, we dont need them and the same can be applied to almost all fresh food packaging.

On a separate note, that was one of the better written articles on the Reg of late, and theres no "Rate this article" thingymajig that you keep surveying us about.

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Flame

And here's one we made earlier...

It's amazing the BBC failed to spot this eco-story. It doesn't fit the template - so safest to ignore it, eh?

The BBC prefers the role of Auntie To The Nation, dishing out paternalistic advice, rather than reporting "News and Current Affairs" (sic). Lots of scope for Blue Peterish make do and mend advice on how to use "greener" alternatives to plastic bags.

Perhaps by sacking every science correspondent it has (eg Susan Watts, Roger Horrible) the Beeb might have a chance of getting its credibility back eventually. But I wouldn't count on it.

People have discovered the internet, and found they don't need a £3 billion quid a year, useless Auntie.

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Paris Hilton

Plastic eating bacteria - fantastic potential

This reminds me of a Judge Dredd comic from my childhood. A plastic eating bacteria was destroying civilisation (mostly by eating buxom wenches plastic clothing). Fantastic stuff - where can I get some?

Paris for obvious reasons.

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Alien

Plastic eating bugs, sounds familiar...

Could this be what will evolve into the Andromeda strain?

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Andromeda Strain

The "space bug/virus/bacteria" in the book Andromeda Strain evolved in the upper atmosphere to eat plastic - resulting in the crash of at least a few planes.

The idea of using bacteria to eat the bags sounds great, but kind of scary as well. Humans suck at controlling things and sooner or later a huge plastic eating monster will be spilled off a train or dropped of the back of a delivery truck and then we're all screwed.

Look at all the invasive/exotic plants and animals that have been brought in to deal with another plant/animal. It almost always ends up in disaster and totally destabilizes the system.

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Plastic bags can be recycled!

Plastic bags can be turned into a long-lasting material that can be used for many of the things that wood is used for. In this area I frequently see park benches and fence posts made of it.

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Busy Boy

lol, so at the end of his Biog it says "and I enjoy spending free time with my friends"

That wont be very often then :)

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other plastic waste

I wonder if bacteria can be found that will eat fischer price plastic toys and other horrible voluminous plastic waste. (corvettes)

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Pirate

Martin, Don't forget the Andromedia Strain

That eat plastic as well.

We're doomed i tell ya!

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Happy

@Herbert

Spot on. It doesn't take three months in a bacterial soup to burn 'em, and you get useful heat out

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Why rag on the bags?

Why does everyone complain about plastic bags, not the content of the bags. Each bag has a miniscule mass, being quite flexible and thin. But by the time it's filled with groceries, there is probably 100 times as much hard plastic, almost none of which is recyclable by my local council (only plastic with certain numbers (6 or 7 from memory) can be accepted).

So, why is nobody whingeing about the hundreds of times more tons of plastic that is used as packaging?

I actually find carrier bags useful, for filling with soiled cat litter. If I didn't have a ready supply of bags at the supermarket, I'd have to buy them separately. (see the "litter locker" product for an example of how carrier bags are actually saving the environment)

It's just typical of our government to hit out at the easiest target : carrier bags, motorists, people without ID cards, etc... Plastic carrier bags can only be a fraction of the waste problem, but they are the easiest to complain about. Just make everyone use reusable card boxes, hessian or hempen sacks for carrying their shopping home instead. Then let them fill the carrier with a load of hard plastic wrapping a tiny item (e.g. a 1 inch long USB memory stick with plastic wrapper that is about A4 sized)

What alternative is there to individual product packaging? Expensive recyclable plastic instead of cheap last a million year stuff, glass (breakable, heavy), 'tin'/aluminium cans (probably ideal for most products, it's widely recyclable, probably more expensive than plastic though).

Someone please start an "anti plastic packaging on products" campaign.

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Garbage in, ??? out

There is no input without output--What do these pe eating bugs poop/exhale besides an allegedly insignificacnt amount of CO2?

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Linux

Why not...

...just recycle them?

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re: doomwatch

yeah, and don't forget the Andromeda Strain ate all the plastic in that F4 (I'm not going to comment on the travesty that was the sci-fi channel paranoia+corruption fest. (oh, how far things have fallen in 35 years)

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Anonymous Coward

Nice try...

...but most of the plastic carrier bags I get end up being used as bin liners, so I can't make use of this.

Besides, you haven't told us what the end product of the process is.

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Happy

Now if...

If he'd found bacteria that would eat plastic bags and produce petrol I'd be impressed.

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Never mind the plastic bags

Years ago, supermarkets used to recycle their recently-emptied cardboard boxes by making them available for customers to fill with their shopping, and some would be re-used again at home.

Perhaps we should go back to that…

And as for packaging: agreed. Far too much of it, though it's not just the quantity and the size relative to the (useful) content – much of it isn't really reusable.

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Boffin

@david

I find plastic bags disintegrate very rapidly in cardboard box's stored in my house.

Plastic bags full of computer cables....

In an airing cupboard....

That doesn't smell.....

That isn't full of bacteria.....

all that's left in confetti....

I even remember reading that modern plastic bags are supposed to do this and a lot of plastic packaging and supermarket bags degrade so rapidly that they can be put in your "green wast" bin.

The situation is so bad that I have to buy non biodegradable dustbin bags for storing stuff. Still as long as people are working hard to solve a problem that hasn't existed for at least ten years we will all be saved and the world won't end.

won't somebody think of the children!

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Wrapping it up

david: "They collapse into a small pile of crumbs within months. I'm guessing this is UV breaking the polymers."

I've stored the lightweight Tesco bags in clean, dark places and in months they've disintegrated into small pieces reminiscent of candle wax, so I doubt that it's UV at work. There are, of course, different kinds of plastic bags, and I doubt that this kind is the one that causes all the problems.

max allan: "So, why is nobody whingeing about the hundreds of times more tons of plastic that is used as packaging?"

Indeed. There's an obscene obsession amongst the supermarkets to take a small quantity of fresh produce and to box it up in fairly heavy plastic. Most of this plastic probably ends up in landfills in the name of convenience and fancy presentation (with patronising spend-happy consumer prose on the labels in Britain, too). Somewhere there must be a tax loophole (or opportunity, depending on which side you're on) which lets people continually churn out tons of plastic for short lifespan purposes, all in the name of a "healthy economy", nice cars, big houses and knighthoods, the CBI, "vote Tory/Tony", and so on.

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plastic bags...

See thing is, if I leave a tesco bag in a cupboard for a year, pull it out, all you get is a pile of confetti.

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max

"So, why is nobody whingeing about the hundreds of times more tons of plastic that is used as packaging?"

Er, people do. Frequently. It's a topic of concern to many environmental organizations. Some major suppliers and supermarkets have already made a few token gestures towards reducing unnecessary packaging.

The main problem is that there is a certain constituency of people who won't buy some products unless they're "securely" sealed - i.e. sealed in such a way that they couldn't be tampered with without it being evident. Hence tamper-proof seals and bottle tops that pop up when opened and so on. It's quite hard to do this without using lots of unnecessary material. So if supermarkets reduce excessive packaging, they get a few 'green' customers but lose a bunch of 'paranoid' customers. That's the deal they're weighing up.

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Missing the obvious

The proper solution is to get the bacteria to live in the gut of a goat and feed the goats all the plastic they can take. Might take a bit of GM, but we're getting good at that.

Now, I wonder if you can make shopping bags from goat droppings?

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@Anonymous Coward with title @david

You've got mice mate.

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It's so easy ...

to recycle them into other plastic products as per GettinSadda's post.

Think of how many trees that can be saved if we made a simple thing like a fence or a gate out of waste plastic? Oh what if your fence or gate breaks??? Simple, just unbolt it and send it back to be recycled.

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Plastic Fantastic

It's an interesting article but basically the approach is little better than burning plastic bags in that the material is still converted into C02 and put into the atmosphere.

What would have been really clever was if he could have found a bacterial combination that could chop the polymer back to the original momomers with a reasonable degree of efficiency. If this was possible then you would have the ultimate plastic recycling system...

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Coat

I'll get my coat....

Mine's the plas... oh... where's it gone?

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Packaging

Supermarkets like packaging fresh food so much because it greatly reduces wastage. Where apples, for example, are displayed loose, customers pick only the best ones, leaving a great many second-rate apples for the supermarket to throw away. When the apples are packaged, not only do they keep fresh for longer, but also customers are forced to take away the 2nd rate apples in a pack along with the best ones.

There's an environmental angle as well as the cost issue- packaging prevents huge quantities of food from being produced and transported to stores only to be thrown away.

As for plastic bags being a major issue- DO piss off. Your computer's electricity requirements have probably produced more CO2 while you've been reading this than a fortnight's supply of Sainsburys bags. Anyway, didn't plastic consumption for supermarket bags actually increase in Ireland after they eliminated disposables?

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Pseudomonas spp

...typically smell, if I remember microbiology practicals correctly. Or as Dr Jonson would have pointed out, they stink. Unless this is a particularly atypical species, or the Sphingomonas/Pseudomonas combo somehow manages not to produce an odour, that in itself is going to limit the practical domestic use.

Furthermore, what does one do with the biomass?

Having tracked down the article on The Record, though, it seems to have been an excellent bit of student scientific investigation. Good work.

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@Why rag on the bags? (and others)

For such a well informed audience there is a bit of, ahem, rubbish being talked about plastic bags, and plastic packaging in general.

Why plastic packaging? Try this for a quote 'Societies without sophisticated packaging loose half of their food before it reaches consumers. In the UK, waste in the supply chain is about 3%. In India, it is more than 50%.'

And are some of you confusing recycling with biodegradeable (but don't in your recycling bin, because they are almost impossible to tell apart and so make the recyclate unuseable).

If you can get hold of it, I suggest you read the article 'Plastic. The Elephant in the Room' in the FT Weekend Magazine, April 26/27 2008.

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RE: David Ashe

I followed David's link to http://www.alternet.org/water/76056/ - a story about the plastic soup in the Pacific Ocean. One thing in particular caught my attention:

"Professor David Karl, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, said more research was needed to establish the size and nature of the plastic soup but that there was "no reason to doubt" Algalita's findings."

OF COURSE THERE IS!!! DOUBT IS THE VERY NATURE OF SCIENCE, YOU NITWIT!!!

This is the kind of crap that the Green movement is doing to us. One guy does some research, and another guy is willing to accept it as truth, without doubt, because it promotes the Green agenda. If the tables had been turned, the world+dog would be screaming for independent validation, rather than saying there's "no reason to doubt".

If we continue on this path, the Cult of Green with be the death of real science...

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