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“Plastics: made to last forever, designed to throw away”

Plastics play an integral role in our modern world. Due to their relatively low cost of production, they serve to promote the development of industry and lower the cost of consumer goods but perhaps the largest advantage to using plastics is their ease of production on a large scale. Because of this ease of production, products using plastics account for over a third of the products manufactured today. However, because this plastic is marketed as disposable, much of it ends up in landfills or in the ocean. Although 10% of the waste generated in the world is plastic, plastic makes up a much greater percent of the waste that is strewn about in the environment [1]. Plastic pollution is more than a problem of aesthetics. One of the many environmental problems associated with plastic pollution is that debris in the ocean are ingested by wildlife and often result in injury or death [2].

The PUR Problem

One commonly used plastic, Polyurethane (PUR), is extremely versatile and is thus used to create a wide range of products including dense solids, rigid insulating foam, and thermoset elastics. Because of this versatility, the world consumption of PUR is continually increasing. According to current market analysis, the global production of PUR is estimated at 27 billion pounds per year and is expected to increase to 36 billion pounds by the year 2016 [3]. This increase of demand can largely be attributed to the enormous population of Asia-Pacific countries and this region’s recent move toward modernization. Over half of the produced polyurethane is used in the construction and furniture industries, both of which are expected to experience widespread growth in the Asia-Pacific and South America [3]. All polyurethanes can be recycled. The leading method of recycling polyurethane is to mechanically grind the waste and rebond it into carpet cushioning. This accounts for about 4% of waste polyurethane [4]. However, due to the high costs of transportation and chemical degradation, most PURs are incinerated to recoup some of the energy used to make them [5].

Current Means of Disposal are Undesirable

Nonbiodegradable plastics are often removed from the chemosphere through waste incineration because it is the most efficient way to degrade these plastics. However, a major issue with this is that the products of waste incineration, which include polychlorinated di-benzo-p-dioxins/furans, are known to be carcinogenic [6]. When the plastics are incinerated, these products are released into the atmosphere and have the potential to cause problems in the future. Plastics are also often disposed of in landfills where they occupy a large volume and create future problems as the plastics degrade. It has been shown that plasticizers and plastic additives leak from degrading plastics in the landfills and contaminate aquatic environments [7].

Engineering Microbes to Degrade PUR

The complete system pathway takes PUR, an undesirable waste product and converts it into food for the bacterium.

To solve the problem of PUR recycling, we propose a bacteria that is able to both degrade PUR and subsist off of the products of degradation as its sole carbon source. To this end, we propose a two plasmid system. The first plasmid would have two genes. The first gene, polyeurethane esterase [8], will encode an enzyme that is able to break down the PUR polymer structure into two molecules, one of which, ethylene glycol, can diffuse across the membrane of the bacterium. The second gene, osmotic inducible protein Y (osmY) [9], would encode a protein that is fused to PUR esterase and exports the enzyme through the cell membrane and into the supernatent. The second plasmid would have an operon composed of, glycolaldehyde dehydrogenase (fucO) and glycoaldehyde reductase (aldA), that allow the bacterium to use ethylene glycol as its central metabolite [10]. This system would allow the bacteria to turn the plastics plaguing our landfills into bacterial biomass which would in turn degrade more PUR.

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  2. Gregory, M. R. "Environmental Implications of Plastic Debris in Marine Settings--entanglement, Ingestion, Smothering, Hangers-on, Hitch-hiking and Alien Invasions." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526 (2009): 2013-025. Print.
  3. "Global Polyurethane Market to Reach 9.6 Mln Tons by 2015." N.p., 30 Aug. 2011. Web.
  4. "Polyurethane Recycling." Polyurethanes. American Chemistry Council, n.d. Web. .
  5. "Frequently Asked Questions on Polyurethanes." European Diisocyanate and Polyol Producers Association, n.d. Web. .
  6. Takasuga, T., N. Umetsu, T. Makino, K. Tsubota, KS Sajwan, and KS Kumar. "Role of Temperature and Hydrochloric Acid on the Formation of Chlorinated Hydrocarbons and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons during Combustion of Paraffin Powder, Polymers, and Newspaper." Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology (2007): 8-21. Print.
  7. Teuten, E. L., J. M. Saquing, D. R. U. Knappe, M. A. Barlaz, S. Jonsson, A. Bjorn, S. J. Rowland, R. C. Thompson, T. S. Galloway, R. Yamashita, D. Ochi, Y. Watanuki, C. Moore, P. H. Viet, T. S. Tana, M. Prudente, R. Boonyatumanond, M. P. Zakaria, K. Akkhavong, Y. Ogata, H. Hirai, S. Iwasa, K. Mizukawa, Y. Hagino, A. Imamura, M. Saha, and H. Takada. "Transport and Release of Chemicals from Plastics to the Environment and to Wildlife." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526 (2009): 2027-045. Print.
  8. Kang, Chul-Hyung. "A Novel Family VII Esterase with Industrial Potential from Compost Metagenomic Library." Microbial Cell Factories 10.41 (2011): n. pag. Print.
  9. Bokinsky, Gregory, Et. Al. "Synthesis of Three Advanced Biofuels from Ionic Liquid-penetreated Switchgrass Using Engineered Escherichia Coli." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108.50 (2011): 19949-9954. Print.
  10. Boronat, Albert, Estrella Caballero, and Juan Aguilar. "Experimental Evolution of a Metabolic Pathway for Ethylene Glycol Utilization by Escherichia Coli." Journal of Bacteriology Jan. (1983): 134-39. Web.