Human Practices: OverviewAs a coastal city with a name that translates to ‘fragrant harbour’ (‘Hong’ = fragrant, ‘Kong’ = harbour), it should concern us that plastic waste in our waters is not an uncommon sight. While this is the unfortunate case, more companies and initiatives are increasingly set up with an aim to deal with this problem. Eco.ly is one of these initiatives. We want to know how our project impacts the public and how we can better tailor and respond to their needs when it comes to reducing plastic pollution.
For human practices, we looked at how current available solutions and proposals address this problem, and how the problem is viewed by the public eye. We also specifically looked at how synthetic biology approaches appeal to the general public, to get a better understanding of whether our project’s potential could be maximised. In general, we aimed to understand the problem of plastic pollution in marine environments, which fed into our ideation and design of our project. We also reflected on and evaluated the effectiveness of our project after gaining insight from experts of all disciplines.
To achieve these objectives, we invited people to fill out surveys related to their understanding of and thoughts on using synthetic biology to treat plastic wastes. To get a grasp on existing policies on synthetic biology in Hong Kong, we also organised a policy case competition and got in touch with secondary school students, hoping we could get the new generation interested in the field. Furthermore, we contacted experts and researchers of the field for insights in the more technical aspect of the project, i.e. understanding at a molecular level how microplastics can have lasting effects on organisms such as nematodes; we also conducted meetings with companies and corporations that put effort in maintaining ecologically sustainable businesses to obtain a more customer-oriented viewpoint.
Apart from these, we also took the safety aspect of our project into consideration, and whether any precautionary measures could be adopted when implementing our project. In particular, we looked at the financial viability of the project, and if our efforts were ultimately suitable for the market: whether we can make an even bigger contribution via providing such service. Finally, we took part in many educational events that helped us reflect and evaluate our project design with the help of fellow student researchers and experts, i.e. JSSE, the Cyanobacteria Symposium, and the Techstyle for Social Good 2021 competition.
For more details on Integrated Human Practices, please see below.
Integrated Human Practices (IHP): IntroductionFor human practices, we sought to look into the plastic problem and current solutions, as well as the public’s and experts’ perceptions of synthetic biology. The interviews and research we conducted early in our project helped us in the subsequent ideation and design process.
To understand the problem and solutions currently available and used, we contacted corporations that showed interest in plastic sustainability and other experts whose work involved plastic degradation solutions. By looking at solutions that are being used, we can gain a better understanding of the actual utility of our project.
We also conducted surveys to get in touch with the general public’s views on synthetic biology and their plastic-related habits. This is to ensure that we are able to tackle the problem at its root cause, as plastic degradation only tackles the symptoms of the problem. The actual problem, plastic consumption, is not one our project alone can easily tackle. Understanding local plastic consumption enables us to roll out educational initiatives to decrease plastic waste. We aim to start with the general public, who may be able to start conversations with their peers about plastic waste to create a domino effect, maximising the impact of our initiatives.
Finally, we also sought to understand synthetic biology policies in Hong Kong. As our project involves synthetic biology, a still controversial technology due to risks and ethical concerns, we would like to predict the public’s acceptance of our project should it be implemented. We accomplished this through investigating synthetic biology policies, consulting with those who were knowledgeable in the field. We also brought awareness to synthetic biology by engaging secondary school students in Hong Kong through a case competition on the topic. All of the above activities and its planning helped us in the ideation process, where we considered what elements we wanted to include in our design.
After we started lab work, we continued to identify opportunities for project improvement in future design iterations, such as interviews with corporations and experts. We also obtained feedback from participants in various symposiums and competitions. This helped us reflect on ways to improve our project’s design and the efficiency of our system.
1. Understanding the ProblemWe wanted to work on the plastic problem because of its increasing prominence in both the Hong Kong and international context. Living in a densely populated city that has limited land, Hong Kong’s landfills are quickly filling up.
Yuk Wa Lee
To understand the problem, we contacted Yuk Wa Lee, a PhD candidate under a joint University of Toronto and University of Hong Kong PhD programme. Lee studies the effects and generational impacts of C. elegans’ plastic intake in order to extrapolate the molecular and cellular impacts of microplastics in inheritance and transgenerational effects. This includes biodegradable and fossil-fuel based microplastics. Our conversation allowed us to have a more thorough understanding of how microplastics affect organisms at the molecular level, how it worsens marine pollution, and what current efforts there are in plastics waste mitigation.
We also began to understand reasons for the difficulty of plastics degradation, where the breakdown process is extremely long even in existing solutions, and efficiency of any system would be highly dependent on external conditions such as humidity and temperature. For us, this meant that we would have to find ways to control external conditions to ensure maximum efficiency of our plastic degradation system. We also received constructive suggestions such as how we should consider the duration the microplastics are washed for and their breakdown process, which we took into account when designing our project.
Prof. Billy Hau
We also contacted Prof. Billy Hau from the University of Hong Kong to understand environmental management strategies. We learned about the difficulties of implementing a plastic strategy for the city, where it is difficult to come to a consensus in a timely manner given how there are so many stakeholders involved. This meant a lot of the more innovative strategies tended not to be adopted by the government, and a lot of the direct work - outside of educational initiatives - falls on the shoulders of the general public and corporations.
As we were expecting our system’s end users to mostly be corporations, we contacted LANE EIGHT, a locally based shoe company with a mission to integrate sustainability in their products, to understand what companies consider when thinking about sustainability. We learned that companies were ultimately still bound to their customers: customers were interested about performance of the product. This meant that any solution we proposed would need to be efficient if it were to be used. What intrigued us most about their product was their incorporation of algae into their material, which inspired us to think about a co-culture system involving algae, where dead algae from our system could even perhaps be a useful resource to other projects.
Survey on Synthetic Biology Attitudes and Plastic Habits
We conducted a survey on synthetic biology attitudes and plastic habits of people in Hong Kong. Most of the questions on plastics habits were based off a similar survey in 2015 entitled Reducing Plastic Waste in Hong Kong: Public Opinion Survey of Bottled Water Consumption and Attitudes Towards Plastic Waste by Civic Exchange  , a Hong Kong-based think tank. This would allow us to compare results and see how habits have changed over time. It should be noted that we used snowball sampling and have a small sample size relative to Civic Exchange’s original survey, so the results may not be truly representative of changes of habits in the population.
However, what the survey was able to successfully offer us was what surveyees thought the value of synthetic biology was. This helped us understand the values we wanted to pursue in our project. The majority of respondents supported the use of synthetic biology because of its potential impact, benefits, and applications. Nearly all respondents were cautiously optimistic, also noting that these benefits could only be actuated if proper safeguards were put in place. For us, this meant that we had to ensure our system would not affect the environment, especially noting how cyanobacteria could cause algal blooms when they are presented with excess nutritions. It was interesting to see that our survey respondents would rather there be a solution that brings some harm (eg. produce toxins) but also solves a major world problem, than have this solution not rolled out at all. We put this question with the context of our initial research that some of the monomers we produce from enzymatic PET degradation may be mildly toxic if accumulated. This suggests that most may be more risk-tolerant than initially thought, possibly because of the increased awareness in STEM education these recent years. Nonetheless, combined with risk considerations by respondents throughout the survey, risk and safety is an issue that cannot be easily brushed aside.
2. Ideation and DesignAfter consulting with a few stakeholders, we began to formulate a criteria we wanted our project to meet. As plastic waste is a problem that affects all, we must seek to consistently incorporate their voices and concerns into our project to develop a responsible solution.
Be safe for the surrounding landscape and people
Although the various stakeholders we met with had different interests, maximising risks and safety of the project was a high priority for all. Prof. Billy Hau spoke about his concerns of GMOs on the ecosystem, and the survey we conducted demonstrated that support for GMOs was at least somewhat dependent on their safety. We sought to understand how our system worked the best we could in order to place necessary prevention and mitigation measures. We created mathematical models on various aspects of our system, using both empirical data from our lab and literature. For more information, please see our modelling page.
We also designed hardware for our system as another safeguard that our project would not leak into the environment. Please see our hardware page for more information. People tend to be less accepting of technologies they do not understand. To ensure social licensing, we organised several educational initiatives on synthetic biology. This would also allow us to gain more substantial feedback on our project. Please see our education and communication page for more information.
Be scalable and financially viable
Tying with another common theme among stakeholder responses -- impact, our team envisioned a system that could be a low-cost, financially viable solution to degrade plastics. Synthetic biology thankfully lends itself to this vision, with organisms having their own reproductive mechanisms. We aimed to create a system that was self-sustaining to further decrease costs involved, such as human resources for maintenance of the system.
We wanted to design a system that would be highly flexible and adaptable to different needs: this leads to the rationale behind our modular design. This would allow for our system to be more easily scalable. We stuck with the idea of a co-culture system for this reason, where we could more readily innovate and add new ideas into a system with multiple organisms. In other words, different organisms with customisable functions could be included in our system, based on what the end goal would be.
3. Reflection and Evaluation
Prof. Jiandong Huang
Prof. Jiandong Huang from the University of Hong Kong was also instrumental in filling gaps in our knowledge about implementation of synthetic biology. We learned that there is currently not a lot of support for synthetic biology in Hong Kong, relative to other countries and cities. More financial and policy support is needed to develop and promote synthetic biology research and talent in Hong Kong. There is also not a clear guideline for synthetic biology policy, leading researchers to become more hesitant in adopting more innovative approaches. This conversation inspired us to start a case competition in synthetic biology -- the University of Hong Kong iGEM Policy Case Competition (HKUiPCC) -- to increase awareness about synthetic biology and policies in Hong Kong. We were also able to educate ourselves more on this matter by inviting various policy experts to give lectures throughout the competition.
Prof. Huang also offered us feedback on our design that we had not previously considered. In particular, he asked how we would maintain the co-culture system and how we might be able to benefit the cyanobacteria. Although we assume the co-culture system will be maintained in our current set-up, as a 1:1 co-culture ratio of S. elongatus and E. coli was achieved by Liu et al. (2012) , this remains to be verified by lab results.
Swire Coca-Cola (Hong Kong)
We also had the opportunity to speak with Swire Coca-Cola Hong Kong about the potential to incorporate our technology into their rPET recycling plants. Swire Coca-Cola had recently opened rPET recycling plants to physically break down and process used plastic bottles to create plastic bottles for market use. Through our discussion, Swire Coca-Cola shared their technical know-how on the financing and operation of their recycling plants, and the process by which rPET bottles are created. While they found our technology to be potentially workable with their rPET technology, they admit our lack of establishment as an independent business and the technological immaturity of Eco.ly as hurdles that must first be overcome. This helped us confirm that there would be corporate interest in our project, but as our interview with LANE EIGHT showed us, we would need to prove our technology’s efficiency.
Joint School Science Exhibition (JSSE), Cyanobacteria Symposium, Techstyle for Social Good 2021
Additionally, we were able to gain valuable feedback on our project from our participants in various events and identify flaws in our approach, which we hope to amend in future iterations of our design. These included the Joint School Science Exhibition (JSSE), the Cyanobacteria Symposium, and the Techstyle for Social Good 2021 competition organised by The Mills Fabrica.
As most people who visited our booth at JSSE were laypersons, the relatively simpler questions asked allowed us to really consider the broader picture and functioning of different parts of our system, such as the size and design of our prototype, and degradation efficiency. Most comments we received from the public during the exhibition were positive, with some being very enthusiastic about our project helping the plastic problem in Hong Kong.
Cyanobacteria experts offered us comments on our use of cyanobacteria in our project in the Cyanobacteria Symposium, which gave us new perspectives on directions we could take with this project. In particular, Prof. Daniel Ducat inquired about the potential of a use of a halotolerant cyanobacteria strain in our system. We had not previously considered using a different strain, as we had only found papers that had a successful co-culture of the cyanobacteria species and strain we were using (S. elongatus, PCC 7942) with E. coli (Liu et al., 2021). For more information on JSSE and the cyanobacteria symposium, please visit our education and communication page.
We were a finalist in the Techstyle for Social Good 2021 competition. We were able to connect with various C-suite executives who acted as judges for the competition during the final pitching round, who helped us consider the use cases of our design. When designing our system, we thought about repurposing the monomers we would collect into creating a biodegradable plastic, PHA, and thus creating a circular economy. However, one of the judges brought up how we would have to ensure that the monomers we were producing were a more preferable way to create PHA in order for this to be financially viable. If this project were to continue, we would likely need to obtain more information from recycling companies and plastics manufacturers. We had attempted to reach out to several recycling companies without response earlier in our project. For more information on the Techstyle for Social Good competition, please see our entrepreneurship page.
References Lao , M. M.-lei, & Lai, C. (2015, April). Reducing Plastic Bottle Waste in Hong Kong: Public Opinion Survey on Bottled Water Consumption and Attitudes towards Plastic Waste. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from https://civic-exchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/201504WASTE_BottledWaterSurveyReport_en.pdf.
 Liu, H., Cao, Y., Guo, J., Xu, X., Long, Q., Song, L., & Xian, M. (2021). Study on the isoprene-producing co-culture system of Synechococcus elongates–escherichia coli through OMICS ANALYSIS. Microbial Cell Factories, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12934-020-01498-8