Corvallis Science & Nature: Climate Code Red

“We are now at ‘code red’ on planet Earth.” That is the opening sentence of a new paper in the journal BioScience. In the world of science and nature reporting, you spend a lot of time browsing scientific papers, which have a well-earned reputation as dry and technical, so that kind of sentence gets attention. The paper is a collaboration between researchers from seven different universities and institutions around the world, to mark the 30th anniversary of an historic statement.  

In 1992, over 1,700 scientists signed the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, an unprecedented show of concern and solidarity about the state of the planet. The original statement covered a number of issues, from ozone depletion to soil quality to rainforest loss. This anniversary paper has just one focus—climate change.  

Although it’s an international effort, with contributors from Germany, Australia, Bangladesh, and the UK, five of the paper’s 12 authors are Oregon State University researchers. The lead authors are both from OSU, William Ripple and Christopher Wolf from the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. Joining them as co-authors are Matthew Betts and Beverly Law from Forestry, and Jillian Gregg from Crop and Soil Science.   

The paper lays out an updated case for immediate action, citing recent climate disasters like the devastating floods in Pakistan. It also highlights the fact that since the original warning statement in 1992, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by about 40%. It’s not all doom and gloom—the authors point to significant rises in renewable energy and fossil fuel divestment—but overall, the story is one of too little progress, made too slowly. 

Every time a new climate “report card” comes out, it carries the risk of diminishing effect. Humans are remarkably good at adapting to even the most extreme conditions, and the downside of that is that we can normalize nearly anything. An alarm bell repeated enough times just becomes background noise. Aware of this and hoping to reach as wide an audience as possible, Ripple has worked with OSU’s Oregon State Productions on a documentary about the scientists’ warning. The film premiered earlier this month at the Newport Beach Film Festival, and is available to watch for free at  

New Hope  

There are problems, and they are enormous, but they are not the whole story. New scientific discoveries and advancements are happening every day, some with the potential to help us navigate the crises of our time. Earlier this month, in the journal Science, a team including OSU faculty announced a breakthrough that could help address another huge environmental issue –plastic pollution.  

Like fossil fuels for energy and transportation, we are a society deeply addicted to plastic. According to, humanity produces over 500 billion plastic bottles, five trillion plastic bags, and 146 million metric tons of plastic packaging material every year. Our brains are just not wired to understand numbers that huge, so here’s a more manageable one: 5%.   

The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that only 5% of plastics in the United States are ever recycled. Considering the place that recycling occupies in our lives—the bins that so many of us put out every week, the printing of that triangle symbol on billions of pieces of plastic every year—not nearly enough recycling actually gets done.  

That’s where this new study comes in. One of the biggest obstacles to widespread and effective plastic recycling is sorting. Most recycling centers can only process certain kinds of plastic, or even certain sizes, and the rules often change from city to city. Portland, Eugene, and Corvallis all accept different types and sizes of plastic. That limitation means that a lot of plastic still goes in our trash bins rather than recycling, and that a lot of what we try to recycle still ends up in a landfill. To have anything like an effective plastic recycling system, we need a way to process all of our plastic together, and that’s exactly what researchers from NREL and OSU have found.  

“This is a potential entry point into processing plastics that cannot be recycled at all today,” said NREL senior fellow Gregg Beckham, one of the paper’s authors.   

The process also solves a problem that plagues both home and industrial recyclers: contamination. Right now, food and other impurities either disqualify plastics from being recycled or require expensive cleaning before the process can begin, and multilayer plastics, with different layers made from different plastic types, cause the same problems. But the process announced by NREL and OSU can take multilayer plastic, dirty plastic, almost any plastic, and make it into two reusable products: a biodegradable new form of plastic and a kind of nylon used to make fabrics. The team tested the process with some of the most commonly used—and least often recycled—kinds of plastic, including those used in disposable coffee cups, single-use drink bottles, and even carpeting. It worked for all of them, and the researchers expect the process to work just as well on other common plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC).  

Enter The Microbes  

The microbe that makes the whole thing work is named Pseudomonas putida. This helpful little bacterium lives on both land and in water, preferring oxygen-rich environments. P. putida is a genius of metabolism that can break down both natural compounds and some of our most persistent human-made materials. In the wild, it and other microorganisms would eventually break down most plastic, but it would take centuries. With this new process, the same thing happens, but the time scale is reduced to hours, or even minutes.   

The researchers are even planning on taking their process to space. An upcoming International Space Station mission will test whether microgravity has any effect on P. putida and its ability to break down plastics, possibly setting the stage for plastic recycling on future space missions or on bases in low-gravity environments like the moon.  

A discovery like this is only a step. Even if it ends up widely implemented, it’s not a magic bullet. There is no getting around the fact that we need to make and use less plastic, but the prospect of a recycling system that actually works, profitably, simply, and at scale, is something to celebrate. It’s the best kind of applied science, the kind that opens up a whole new field of possibilities for a future that’s a little cleaner and less wasteful, closer to the circular, sustainable economy we need to survive and thrive in the long run. 

By Ian Rose 

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