Plastic Eater, by J.D. Moyer

SECOND PLACE

Plastic Eater by J.D. Moyer

J.D. Moyer lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, daughter, and mystery-breed dog. He writes science fiction, produces electronic music in two groups (Jondi & Spesh and Momu), runs a record label (Loöq Records), and blogs at jdmoyer.com. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, The InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Cosmic Roots And Eldritch Shores. His novelette “The Icelandic Cure” won the 2016 Omnidawn Fabulist Fiction contest. His first novel, The Sky Woman, will be published in late 2018 (Flame Tree).

“Plastic Eater” comes from my deep ambivalence in regards to petroleum-based products. I love Legos, plastic miniatures, plastic storage containers, and hundreds of other plastic things, not the mention the mass convenience plastic-based infrastructure provides (insulation for power and Internet cables, parts for cars and trucks, etc.). But the giant gyres of plastic detritus in the oceans are depressing, as is the constant blight of urban litter (most of it plastic). It makes me think of the Carboniferous era, when dead trees piled up and refused to rot (because fungi had not yet evolved to digest lignin and cellulose). In a similar way, undigested plastic presents an empty evolutionary niche, and this story imagines what might fill it (and some of the consequences).

Plastic Eater
by J.D. Moyer

 I park the Prius, hurry across the parking lot, late again. My keys rattle against the sea glass in my pocket. Jeremiah and I volunteered for Sunday beach cleanup, ended up with two big bags of plastic trash, some colors. I pocketed a cobalt blue and a lime green. Jeremiah found a rare orange. A good day with my son, finding treasure and cleaning up the planet. But the sheer amount of garbage is depressing.

What if my project actually works? My heart pounds at the thought. My career, for one, might actually go somewhere. But that’s the least of it.

If Claudia notices I’m late, she doesn’t let on. I grab a jelly doughnut and a coffee from the break room, say hi to Joe and the intern he’s talking up. I grab a paper towel to wipe the jelly off my hands. I should wash up before I check the petri dishes, but I’m too excited.

There’s something wrong. The white PET pellets, food for the selectively-bred strain of I. sakaiensis I’m studying, are missing. In their place are overlapping circles of filmy white bacterial colonies. I poke the biofilm with a glass stirring rod. In one of the partially-shaded dishes, farther away from the window, the bacterial film is sparser. A few half-digested plastic pellets remain.

Something has gone very right.

“Claudia–come here!” My lab mate (and boss) looks up from her work, stares at me through thick glasses. “You gotta see this.” She crosses the lab languidly, like a hyper-intelligent sloth. “Look at this. Strain 177 has an insane degradation rate. These dishes were full of PET pellets last night.”

Claudia plucks the stirring rod from my hand, has a look. “Have you tried this strain on HDPE?”

“We don’t have any HDPE pellets.”

“Improvise, Felix. Go buy a gallon of milk. Let’s see what strain 177 can do.”

“It won’t work,” I protest. “The enzyme won’t penetrate…”

“Chocolate milk,” interrupts Claudia, “if you can find it.”

***

Claudia, as usual, is correct. Strain 177 digests high-density polyethylene slightly more slowly than PET, but just as completely. After eighteen hours all that’s left of the scissored slices of milk carton is a light gray film.

She doesn’t gloat. “Try polypropylene next. Sacrifice the old Tupperware in the break room.”

I’ve long gotten over Claudia’s direct manner and lack of niceties. It comes with the Asperger’s.

***

Claudia, myself, Joe Domingo, and the current crop of interns from UCSD comprise the Bacterial Engineering Department of the Southern California Oceanography Institute. Selective breeding of the plastic-eating bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis is my current research project.

I. sakaiensis, isolated by Japanese researchers from soil samples near a plastic bottle recycling site, is a strain of aerobic, Gram-negative bacteria of the phylum Proteobacteria. Under the microscope the cells have a long, slightly curved rod shape, propelling themselves via dainty flagella. For six months I’ve been breeding these tiny beasts, selecting for the most voracious, efficient, and metabolically ambitious.

The gyres of plastic waste that pollute our oceans are only getting bigger. Previous attempts to clean them up (solar-powered aquabot swarms, vast shallow scoop-nets, genetically engineered jellyfish) have had negligible effects (or, in the case of the jellyfish, made things worse). Admittedly, my selective breeding of I. sakaiensis is a long shot. The original strain took six weeks to degrade flimsy scraps of plastic bottles, and then only within a narrow temperature range.

But strain 177, the evolutionary apex predator of plastic pellets after six months of bacterial husbandry, is in a class by itself.

***

I pour the last of the chocolate milk from a plastic pitcher into two mugs, hand one to Claudia.

“So the polypropylene trial was a bust. Strain 177 couldn’t touch it.” I can hear the disappointment in my own voice.

Claudia looks over the results on my tablet, drinks half her mug of chocolate milk in one gulp. “Chin up, Felix. We’re just getting started. Show me the samples.”

My intrepid boss pokes around in the petri dishes with a stir rod, confirms what I have already recorded. The enzyme secreted by I. sakaiensis-177 can’t penetrate the dense molecular structure of the box-cutter-mutilated Tupperware.

Claudia hands me the contaminated rod, stretches and cracks her back, scratches her head. “Polypropylene degrades naturally at the tertiary carbon atom.”

“Only at very high temperatures, or with prolonged UV exposure.” I’ve given it some thought, put in my time staring at rotating 3D models of the repeating monomer chains.

“What if we could spike the temperature locally, at the microscopic level?”

“How? Some kind of enzymatic reaction?”

“Keep breeding 177 on polyethylene. I’ll see if I can get Ritter to authorize some CRISPR hours.”

Claudia finishes her chocolate milk, leaves the mug on my desk. I catch myself biting my nails–a nervous habit I thought I’d kicked years ago.

***

I’m at home, trying to read an old Vonnegut novel, but I’m having trouble focusing. Not my mind, but my eyes–everything looks a little blurry. I examine my sclera in the bathroom mirror. My eyes look fine, not red or irritated. I remove my silicone hydrogel contacts, apply some eye drops. Maybe I need a new prescription.

I peek into Jeremiah’s room, check the progress on his vast Lego Minecraft landscape. He’s with his mother during the week, but each weekend the build expands both upward and outward. I pick up a Lego sheep, study its blocky architecture, return it to its exact location. He’d notice if I moved anything.

I put a brighter bulb in the reading lamp. That does it–even without my contacts I can read pretty well now. I stay up too late, finishing Cat’s Cradle.

***

I dream a horror slideshow of photographs. Feathers and bones of an albatross surrounding a colorful pile of plastic debris, where its stomach used to be. A sea turtle’s misshapen shell, strangled by a six-pack ring. A seal tangled for years in plastic netting, lines cut deep into its flesh, festering wounds that never heal.

I wake up sweating, but after a minute of staring at the ceiling, my unease turns to resolve. Claudia and I are doing good work.

Plastic is cheap to produce, versatile, useful in a multitude of ways. But it absorbs toxins, takes centuries to fully degrade (even longer in the absence of light), and is considered disposable.

A toxin-absorbing material, colorful and attractive to wildlife, casually discarded by humans, generally immune to biodegradation. Would humanity be better off if plastics had never been invented?

***

The temperature-controlled canister from DraperCorp arrives two weeks later. It contains seven custom-edited strains of I. sakaiensis-178. Claudia stands behind me, too close, supervising the unboxing.

“I’ll be careful, I promise.”

“My bets are on substrain G,” says Claudia. She’s back from DraperCorp’s CRISPR lab in Palo Alto, where she’s been tweaking the enzyme production genes of our little friends, one amino acid at a time.

“Why substrain G?”

“It forms the thickest biofilm, which should increase the concentration of hydrolyzing enzymes and produce the most heat.”

“Should I start the new strains off easy, on PET?”

Claudia shakes her head. “Simultaneous trials on polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride. Then backtrack and retest PET and HDPE.”

“Polyvinyl chloride? As in PVC pipe? I’ve heard of fungi that can degrade PVC, but never bacteria.”

Claudia blinks slowly, a mannerism accentuated by her thick glasses. “It’s all hydrocarbons.”

She pats me on the back and walks away. It is the first time, in my recollection, that Claudia has ever touched me.

I can only interpret her behavior as extreme excitement.

***

Substrains A and C perish within days. Substrain 178B performs about as well as strain 177, 178D slightly better. But I. sakaiensis-178G, as Claudia predicted, has a remarkable appetite for synthetic polymers. Within days, the test lengths of PVC-insulated electrical cables are stripped down to the copper, coated in white slime.

Later that week I bring Joe Domingo up to speed. We’re drinking coffee in the break room. “We better get Ritter down here–this is big.” The truth is I’m getting nervous about who will get credited on the paper we publish. I assume Claudia will get top billing, but my name better be on there somewhere.

“Is there something wrong with the sink?” says Joe. “The flow’s all weird.”

“Probably needs a new washer.”

“Everything’s falling apart around here,” complains Joe. “Something wrong with the bathroom plumbing too. Doesn’t smell right in there.”

“I’ll send Director Ritter an email about our progress with 178G. Or should I just go upstairs and talk to him?”

“What the …?” The plastic cold-water handle has come off in Joe’s hand. “It’s completely stripped.”

“What’s going on?” Claudia stands in the break room doorway, cupping a coffee mug in both hands. Joe repeats the complaint about the sink. Claudia and I lock eyes.

“What’s this white gunk?” asks Joe. “It’s oozing.” He holds the degrading faucet handle at arm’s length, drops it into the sink.

I’m biting my nails again.

***

The lab is on lockdown, quarantined until further notice. All the samples of I. sakaiensis have been destroyed, including the backups at DraperCorp.

“There’s been a serious violation of our laboratory safety practices and procedures,” says Senior Director Ritter. We’re gathered in the conference room to debrief. “Mr. Pike is going to get to the bottom of it, and help us prevent problems in the future.”

“Bob Pike, Center for Disease Control.” My eyes fixate on the shiny buttons of Bob’s gray suit. Are they plastic, or some other material? “Strain 178G is a tenacious little bugger. You can only imagine the havoc if it were to get loose in the wild. We all need to all be on the lookout for potential exo-contamination.”

I. sakaiensis is not infectious. Is there any threat to human health?” asks Claudia.

“Not directly.”

“Then why, exactly, are you here?”

Bob doesn’t miss a beat. “A world without plastic? The collapse of civilization would pose a significant threat to human health. If you don’t like the feds in your business, make sure this damn bug hasn’t left your lab. And don’t be surprised if you get a visit from the NSA. I’d advise you to cooperate fully.”

I remove my glasses, clean them. They’re my old pair, from college, wire frames and real glass lenses. A little scratched up, but at least I can see.

***

On Friday afternoon I pick up Jeremiah from his mom’s, stop by Target to pick up a Lego Minecraft set he’s been coveting. He’s saved most of the money himself, but I’m happy to cover the last ten bucks. As soon as I unlock the front door he rushes straight to his room. I’m heading toward the kitchen, thinking I deserve a cold beer after the week I’ve had, when I hear a bloodcurdling scream.

It’s the first time, since he turned ten, that I’ve seen my son cry. Hysterical, he points at the remains of the Lego landscape. I grab him, hug him tightly.

Sections of the diorama are still intact, but most of it has congealed into colorful mounds of half-melted plastic, coated in thick slime.

I pick up Jeremiah, carry him into the living room, deposit him on the couch. “Don’t move. Don’t touch anything.”

In the bathroom, the toilet seat is half eaten, covered in a thick biofilm. My toothbrush resembles an overcooked, slimy stalk of white asparagus. The WaterPik is a moist deformed lump. The same fate has befallen the shampoo bottle, my comb, the soap dispenser. A few plastic items are untouched: a small tooth mirror, an old bottle of lavender-scented conditioner that I haven’t bothered to throw out. Things I haven’t touched recently.

From the bathroom, I call Claudia’s direct line at the lab. She picks up immediately. I get right to the point. “I think I. sakaiensis can colonize skin. Aggressively. My apartment is contaminated. I think I’m contaminated.”

“Hold on a minute.”

A soft click, and for a second I think she’s hung up, but the line is still live. Someone is banging on Claudia’s office door.

“Claudia?”

“Let go of me!” Muffled, but its Claudia’s distinctive voice. Claudia’s confidence and stubbornness.

Heavy breathing, a deep male voice. “Mr. Eckhart? Is this Felix Eckhart?” I freeze, stare at my phone. “Are you at home, Mr. Eckhart?” Away from my ear, the man’s voice sounds tinny, less imposing. “For your own safety, and the safety of others, please do not leave.”

What will they do to Claudia? What will they do to me, to my son?

I drop the phone in the toilet, run to the living room, grab Jeremiah’s hand.

“Let’s go. Now!

Hearing the fear in my voice, he obeys without question.

***

I drive north on Highway 1, observing the speed limit. Every few minutes I glance at Jeremiah in the rear view mirror. He stares out the window, scared but stoic. I know he’s wondering where we’re going, and why we had to leave so quickly, and why his father is wearing wool mittens on a hot day. I ruminate on the consequences of an I. sakaiensis pandemic: harmless to humans, but lethal to infrastructure. Every sector depends on plastics and synthetic polymers. Fiber optic cables need insulation. Cars and trucks have plastic paneling, engine parts, and of course rubber tires. Water and sewage systems rely on PVC pipes. Which domino would fall first?

“I need to stop for gas.” The first words I’ve spoken in two hours. “You hungry?”

“A little bit.”

I pull off just south of Santa Barbara, find a Chevron, fill up. In the mini-mart I grab a one-liter plastic water bottle from the refrigerator. Except for beer, not a single beverage is packaged in glass. Nearly everything for sale in the entire store is either packaged in plastic or is plastic. I suppress an impulse to take off my mittens, run my hands along the rows of chips, beef jerky, candy. Maybe try on a few pairs of sunglasses. If I came back tomorrow would the place be covered in slime, cordoned off with biohazard warnings?

I pay with my debit card. The print looks a little smudged, but the chip works. For now. I need cash, lots of it. Maybe some gold coins, if I can find a place to buy them.

Back on the road. Jeremiah opens a bag of chips. I usually don’t let him eat in the car, but in a few days the vehicle will be worthless. The dashboard is already looking a little moist, slightly deformed.

“We’re headed up to the cabin. I think we’ll be safe there, at least for awhile.”

“Safe from what?” He’s watching my face through the rear-view mirror, scared but inquisitive. “Dad, what happened to my Legos?”

“I’ll explain everything later. Right now I need to concentrate on the road.” My mind is racing. How much do I tell him? What do I tell his mother? Am I kidnapping my own son?

I run a mental inventory of the cabin contents. The propane tank is metal, as are the knobs. But the gas tubing is plastic, or at least plastic coated. The Coleman lantern is mostly metal. If the plastic pump knob decays, could I fashion a new one out of wood?

Jeremiah changes the subject, maybe sensing my own fear, and hoping to reassure me. “Dad, can we stop at that beach? It looks really nice. Maybe we can go for a quick swim. I don’t need a suit–I can just swim in my shorts.”

Without much thought I pull off the highway, follow the beach access signs. We park behind a tall dune. Jeremiah leads the way up the trail, cutting through swards of ice plant. At the top of the dune we stand together and take in the vast Pacific Ocean. It’s warm but a little breezy. A perfect California day. Where is Claudia now? Best-case scenario, in quarantine, getting sprayed down with bleach solution.

“Should we get in the water? It might be relaxing.” My son is worried about my mental state, trying to help me.

“Sure.”

He takes off his shirt and shoes, sprints down the dune. I reach for my phone to call his mother, tell her what’s going on. My hand pats my empty pocket. They’ll find my phone in the toilet bowl, know that I’m on the run.

I strip quickly: first the wool mittens, then my shoes and socks, jeans and shirt. In my underwear I run down to the water, following my son’s footprints, feet pounding on hot dry sand, then cool wet sand.

Am I really doing this? I have no idea if I. sakaiensis-178G can survive in saltwater. Apparently it can survive on my sweaty, salty skin, so maybe so. I’m ten paces from the ocean. Not too late to turn around.

Jeremiah is already in, splashing around, hollering from the cold.

“C’mon in Dad! It’s warm.”

How long will it take the feds to trace the property records, discover that my ex-wife and I co-own a little cabin in the Sierra foothills? Not long. They might be there waiting for me.

I charge into the water until it’s up to my thighs, dive in. It’s bracingly cold.

Jeremiah splashes me when I surface, laughs joyfully. For the moment, he’s forgotten his worries. But I can’t. Where can we hide? How long can we survive?

I swim out, duck under a small wave, pump my arms and legs. The cold saltwater cleans my skin, clears my mind.

I don’t want to wreak havoc, trigger an economic collapse, destroy modern civilization. I’ll quarantine myself, find a way to decontaminate my skin, do the same with Jeremiah if he’s infected. I. sakaiensis isn’t a superbug. Triclosan will probably kill it. I’ll burn the car, everything else I’ve touched.

But Claudia and I created something valuable, and I don’t want it to go extinct. Maybe there’s a chance it can reach the gyre.

As I dogpaddle in the Pacific, my palms begin to itch.

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