Solving the 448 Million Ton Plastic Pollution Problem with CRISPR

Aaron Lewis
3 min readJan 18, 2020


It's about more than just saving the turtles.

Plastic pollution is one of the most talked-about and emotion-inducing problems today. Through the use of social media platforms awareness for this issue is at an all-time high, especially amongst the younger generation. This is for good reason.

There are currently 448 million tons of plastic in the world today. And by 2050 that number is expected to double. The amount of plastic has adverse effects on the environment by the killing of animals due to the plastics. This can seriously harm the balance of ecosystems.

These solutions are not sustainable

There have been some proposed solutions to combat the number of plastics that enter the environment but many of them are very hard to execute. One solution, for example, would be to prevent plastic to enter bodies of water by better waste management systems. This, however, would require wide-spread compliance for it to have an effect.

Thanks to recent advances in genetic engineering a new solution is possible.

Introducing CRISPR

One solution to the problem of plastic pollution could be to engineer bacteria that destroy the plastic when it reaches the ocean. The mechanics of engineering is done by a technology called CRISPR.

CRISPR is a very hot technology, and if you are not familiar with it you can read about it in this article. Basically, it is a protein that allows scientists to edit and subtract certain parts of an organism's genetic code. Editing the genetic code can change expressions of traits in organisms and can give it different functionalities. An analogy would be like computer programming but for molecular biology.

This tool can be applied to the plastic pollution problem. What some scientists have done is edited enzymes to make them break down plastics so they can be taken out of the ocean and then recycled again.

PET plastic

One example of this is at the University of Portsmouth researchers created an enzyme called PETase which is able to break down PET ( polyethylene terephthalate) plastic, which is used in water bottles, much faster than it does naturally in the ocean. Once broken down the plastic can be recycled into creating new plastic bottles!

This is a step in the right direction towards solving the world plastic pollution problem. There will not be just one solution to this problem it will have to be a collection of different things. Using CRISPR as a tool for one of the solutions can be one of them