Biodegradation Environments

The most common environments for testing include soil, marine (tropical), and composting in industrial, home, and anaerobic environments. But a material that biodegrades in warm ocean water may not biodegrade off the shores of Alaska.

To account for additional environments, we have considered ‘the journey’ of waste leakage alongside urbanization and population trends. Also, considering a faster (than conventional plastic) biodegradation rate, we assume priority to immediate environments.

This investigation has led us to include river (freshwater) and beach sand (coastline). In your opinion, are there any other environments that must be accounted for (i.e, wastewater, desert, swamp, landfill, cold marine, deep sea)? why?

Hi all, here is a new discussion exploring environments to consider for biodegradation testing. What environments do you all feel should be included? Please feel free to share any thoughts, links, experiences or ideas you may have, thank you!
@eakinyi @LHanson @Joanne @Utobou @Thanku @AustinClowes @iduaolunwa @AKB @kjbradford @marsxr @bngejane @renskelynde @kcamphuis @ricardoyudi @NoraEatREAL@neillk @jcoonrod @FranckSaintMartin @Olawale @LaurenTurk @barbswartzentruber @yusuke @janetlee @schalkj @ErnieRogers @brandonkion @SteveK8 @ethan @ymedan

Rather than explore what environments to consider for biodegradation testing, find out where it’s already happening and go from there.
Send out an S.O.S. to the world to find organisms that can eat/digest/convert plastics.
Search the internet for mycelium that eats plastic. Mushrooms that consume plastics and similar.
Paul Stamets is a global leader in this field. Check out his TED talk.

Important environments: Roadsides, campgrounds, over the back fence, sewer lines.
Did I mention? I think it would be nice to put the plastic eater into the inks used for labeling-or in the paper or glue.

I agree that the microcosm of soil and fungi is hugely important to understanding biodegradation and the environment…we have plants and we have people and we have animals and many living things but the soil is the basis for the health of living things, at least on land!.. when our soil is healthy our environment can be healthy. appreciate Paul stamets in his work but I also think that understanding how soil Works in microbes and microorganisms work is vital.

On plastic degradation and upcycling trash, Waxworm caterpillars have been found to break down plastic in a matter of hours, and mealworms possess gut microbes that eat through polystyrene. I’d like to see the PETase microbes developed to help in a composting way.

@nmgraham and @NickAzer That’s a great list of environments to consider, and your thinking seems spot on. Clearly there are several potential environments worth considering: all environments encountered on Earth, as our pollution reaches everywhere.

The practicality of testing all of these could be challenging and so it might need to be conducted under standardised laboratory conditions. This allows much better comparison of proposed materials and the collection of good data sets, as a function of various parameters. For example, degradation rates in ocean type environments as a function of temperature and light levels; rates in soils of different types and moisture levels, and at varying temperatures. This data will result in a multi-dimensions scoring system. In other words, some materials might perform well in some environments, and poorly in others. [The cold arctic environments might be particularly challenging in terms of degradation rates.]

So it might be difficult, but by no means impossible, to get new materials that degrade rapidly in all environments. With this in mind an additional criteria is worthy of consideration. It’s one that applies almost everywhere on the planet and should help to remove the presence of new materials quickly and safely. One of the most significant factors in nature’s recycling process is consumption by animals (of all species), right down to insects. So if we include edibility in the testing then we will, hopefully, have products that are safe, and quickly consumed. We’d want to make sure the material and its degraded, or digested, byproducts are safe to all life.

This does not necessarily mean that the material is nutritious to the animal that consumes it, but in addition to being safe, some level of degradation should take place in an animals digestive system to at least ensure that we avoid the current scenario where birds die because plastic clogs up there digestive system.

[If we want to buy in to nature’s recycling system then it is likely that our products / materials need to use nature’s molecular chemistry set.]

Inspired by some comments above… It would be smart if we could include the molecular chemistry set needed to degrade a material, in the material itself: Self-degrading material.

For example, if the dry material included the structural component (e.g. fibres or polymers) and the enzymes that accelerate the breakdown of those fibres/polymers. While the material is dry no chemical reaction takes place, but on exposure to moisture the catalytic enzymes start the degradation reactions.

There would be an additional technical challenge, however, for food films that contain moist food. This might require an additional hydrophobic layer between the moist food and the self-degrading film above. But we’d also want this layer to degrade when the material is thrown away. That reaction might be triggered by exposure to air [oxygen]. It’s already common to fill some food containers with nitrogen to prevent spoiling, so this could work well with existing systems.

Another possibility might be self-degrading materials triggered by ultraviolet (UV) light from sunshine. [However, some litter might not see the light of day - so this might be less useful as a technique on its own.]

So the challenge might point out to contenders that the degradation process may use: natural processes in the environment; consumption by animals; and/or independent self-degrading processes. (All materials, components, and byproducts should be safe to all lifeforms.)

I like the comments above especially @SteveK8’s comment about seeing what’s out there already. My focus might be on the most pressing types of environments where these types of technologies can be most impactful. Wastewater, near chemical production areas, oceans (as stated), sewage, landfills, grey infrastructure for the urban environments all seem relevant and needed at moment.

@ErnieRogers , we’re currently looking in to waste water as a potential environment for testing. Is there any particular part or process that you see as most relevant? As for your plastic-eating idea, yes! What kind of traps could we potentially run in to by releasing enzymes into the environment that can break down plastic? @SteveK8 @akb would love to hear your thoughts on the latter question as well.

@Janetlee , most definitely! I think the only limitation here is that our competition is focusing specifically on packaging, so while advances in biodegradability/composting would be amazing it is out of the scope of what we are doing, unless of course it is incorporated into the packaging itself. With that thought (and continuing from my Q directly above this), what kind of implications do you think we would run in to if we had an added value plastic-eating system ingrained into the package?

Awesome @Thanku ! Can you elaborate more with what you mean re: grey infrastructure for urban environments?

@nmgraham below are some good links. and

I wasn’t sure where to put this link (below) in the overall prize conversation but found it to be a great resource on weather movement over the next several decades. Food production will certainly be impacted in the US. My thought was this could be useful in the design of product–perhaps more temperature range so it doesn’t breakdown, as an example. Kind of rambling…apologies.

Not rambling at all, @Thanku - those links are great! :smile: Climate change could be an important long-term consideration for how materials break down in different environments.

@nmgraham That’s a good question: What kind of traps could we potentially run in to by releasing enzymes into the environment that can break down plastic?
The environment does seem to contain a natural balance, and a bit like Newton’s law of action and reaction, every action has the potential to cause an adverse reaction. We already know that some chemicals and hormones when released into the water course can have a potentially detrimental impact, and so analysing the impact of enzymes on the environment [under laboratory conditions] is a wise and recommended precaution.

A pollutant’s impact is typically determined by the quantity of pollutant emitted, its dilution rate (resulting in its concentration), the pollutant’s lifetime, its toxicity, and the amount of exposure an organism experiences. So, ideally, all of these factors should be considered in testing, simulation and prediction activities.

Agreed @akb . To take it a little further, what kind of implications could we have re: introducing plastic eating bacteria/enzymes to plastic based environments? Specific context: The plastic is hospitals is keeping people safe from contamination; what happens if plastic eating bacteria from food packaging establishes itself in an ER room? What kind of constraints would have to be applied towards the bacteria strain/enzyme that would limit the potential risk of demolishing our infrastructure? Or, on the flip side, is this not an issue?

@Thanku , no need to apologize for rambling, I personally find it to be the beginning of a new complex idea! Shifts in environmental composition of species and variables, while ubiquitous in the general daily conversation, is not something we’ve actually discussed yet. This is definitely something to consider with regards to bacteria “species” distribution and ability to disperse to new environments (aka follow the environmental shift and actively compete in their new locality). Thanks so much for the resource!

@nmgraham Re: plastic eating bacteria/enzymes to plastic based environments
I think you’re wise to flag up potential risks.

I know this has been proposed here and elsewhere, and on the face of it releasing a technology or bacteria to clean up our pollution could seem appealing. Personally I’m hesitant to suggest such measures for the following reasons.

Prevention is better than cure - it’s always better to prevent pollution, or litter, in the first place. And if society thinks that we have a “fix” then some people will just think it’s okay to carry on polluting and littering because “we have a fix for it”. All actions have a reaction, and cleanup actions might have a significant adverse reaction.

Unknown impacts from releasing excessive quantities of, new unfamiliar variants, of bacteria into various environments. That requires a huge amount of testing to be sure there are no adverse consequences to any environment on Earth and any species! (Our pollutants and litter are everywhere.)

Lack of control. If there is an adverse impact then it can be very difficult to stop microbes. Just take a look at bacterial outbreaks, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the current pandemic! See also “grey goo” - in the context of nanotechnology out of control.

The precautionary principle might suggest: we avoid such approaches. It might turn out to be the metaphorical equivalent of throwing petrol (gas) on the fire!

For those that still think it’s okay, here’s a list of things that were said to be okay or safe and turned out not to be. See Ugly Innovations in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The scenario painted on its presence in an ER is a bit scary, I must say. It seems like something that can be mentioned but not necessarily a focus for this project. Great concept though.