In Canada, 29,000 tonnes of plastic leak into the environment and oceans every year, creating severe environmental problems. Waste plastic kills 100,000 marine mammals annually, including whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions, either through ingestion of plastic debris or entanglement in fishing gear. Another 2.8 million tonnes of plastic are sent to Canadian landfills, which creates a latent problem for future generations. Only 9% of plastic is recycled.
Despite the waste and environmental impact, plastic production is increasing in Canada, with an additional 4.8 million tonnes produced per year. Demand for plastic continues to grow because it is cheap to produce and has many important benefits. However, with a growing awareness of the environmental impacts of plastic, governments and manufacturers are working towards a zero-plastic waste future. Under this paradigm, plastics will be made with recycled or biodegradable components. For this change in paradigm to succeed, government, the public, and industry will all need to play a role.
In this project a Canadian-led team consisting of multiple universities, municipal governments, and industries will drive a shift to a zero-plastic waste future by harnessing genomics technologies to create a circular economy for plastics. Our goal is to identify and engineer bacteria and enzymes that can break down plastics into recyclable components or into valuable fine chemicals more effectively than chemical conversion-based technologies. On a second front our team will conduct a holistic investigation into the impact of these new plastic biotechnologies on society, the economy, and the environment. Preliminary estimates indicate that if 90% of plastic is diverted to recycling instead of landfill, Canada could avoid $500 million per year in costs, and create 42,000 jobs in new industries. The market for recovered waste plastic in the textiles sector alone is up to $600 million per year. We could also save 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year in greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, stopping plastics from leaking into the environment would avoid up to $13 billion per year in damage to marine ecosystems. Ultimately, we envision a future where plastics continue to contribute to the economy in a positive way, but without the concomitant negative impact on the environment.
This project is affiliated with the Contaminants of Emerging Concern Research Excellence Network (CEC-REN) at Queen’s University, which is an interdisciplinary research and innovation initiative. CEC-REN is focused on the detection and treatment of emerging contaminants in the natural and built environment that pose environmental and human health risks.