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BBC Future

60 Second Idea

A friendly bug that feasts on plastic

Each week a global thinker from the worlds of philosophy, science, psychology or the arts is given a minute to put forward a radical, inspiring or controversial idea – no matter how improbable – that they believe would change the world.

This week, psychologist Susan Blackmore suggests we use a friendly bug that feasts on plastic.

“Just imagine this, you’ve got your shopping and you’re packing it into your nice cloth bag, when the person in front of you goes: “Ugh!” The six plastic bags they are carrying are falling apart, dripping goo onto the floor and all over their shopping. Behind you plastic bottles are giving way, and slithering slime and water off the shelf.   

It’s a newly evolved polythene-eating bacterium.

I’d welcome this horrible-sounding bug, because we humans use something like 500 billion plastic bags a year. A few are re-used, but most are just thrown away. But, hang on a minute – there’s no such thing as “away”, is there? I mean, they are burned, releasing toxic fumes, they go into landfill, or into the sea, where they kill fish, sea birds, turtles and whales. Then there’s all the bottled water people buy, even when their tap water is just as good and costs them and our environment almost nothing.

Here in the UK, we appear to be too lazy to remember to take out cloth bags or re-fillable flasks, and the government won’t force us to do this. So perhaps this friendly bug is needed to help us out.”

You can listen to Susan discuss her idea with tropical medicine professor Peter Piot and biomedical engineer Angela Belcher in more detail on the BBC World Service programme The Forum, where you can also download more 60-second ideas.

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