Plastic-Eating Bacteria: an Alternative to Recycling
Like I’ve wrote about for SocialUnderground before, landfills are overflowing and there really isn’t an incentive to recycle plastic anymore. According to the World Economic Forum, plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050. Luckily (?) oceans full of trash are starting to negatively effect the global economy; which means that something will probably be done about it. Researchers might have found a solution: plastic-eating bacteria.
In order to understand how this process works it’s important to note that not all plastics are equal in terms of degrading and recycling. Anyone who recycles knows that not all plastic can be tossed into the recycling bin; that’s why plastic products are all labeled with a recycling number. PET plastic takes a long time to degrade. This is the plastic that makes up most containers for food and water. Even if you’re like me and you use a refillable water bottle to reduce plastic waste, chances are you’re still buying food in containers made with PET plastic: yogurt, juice bottles, salad dressing, honey and on and on. It’s not just food waste though, PET as a textile is more commonly known as polyester. When I hear “polyester clothing” I usually think of 80’s jumpsuits in loud colors. But in reality, polyester is widely used in all kinds of clothing. Makes sense: plastic is a cheap way to “cut” higher-quality threads like cotton. Despite its widespread use, PET plastic is not very profitable when it comes to recycling. Plus you can’t really “recycle” clothes.
PHA plastic, on the other hand, is of a much higher quality than PET plastic. PHA is much more profitable to recycle, too. The cool thing about PET plastic though is that it can biodegrade when exposed to water and carbon dioxide. So yes, PHA will decompose, but scientists still aren’t sure if the degrading process is creating toxic byproducts; which could still have a negative impact on the environment.
Well, two groups of researchers seem to have solutions– or at least hope– in the form of bacteria. If in fact the PHA plastic does NOT create toxic byproducts when it degrades, then the team at Woods Hole Marine Biology Lab in Massachusetts have a usable solution. They found strains of bacteria (and other unknown organisms) that can convert PET plastic into PHA plastic– thus making it biodegradable when it ends up floating around in the ocean. One strain of bacteria they found was closely related to the bacterial strain that causes cholera, so maybe we shouldn’t unleash this strain into our oceans in mass quantity just yet.
Researchers in Japan have also been working with plastic-eating bacteria. They have found a strain of bacteria that produces two beneficial enzymes: one that “eats” PET plastic, and another that uses the byproducts created during the breakdown process as an energy source. So this strain can basically live off of PET plastic with an essentially benign effect on the environment. This bacteria completely “consumed” and degraded the PET plastic in about 6 weeks. Which is slow when we’re talking about practical applications in landfills and oceans– but researchers say adding heat can speed up the process. I’m sure a dump filled with garbage and bacteria rotting in the sun must smell fantastic.
Interestingly, both groups of researchers came to similar conclusions: these plastic-eating bacteria are probably the result of adaptation. The research team in Massachusetts was surprised to find the bacteria created complex communities on the plastic surfaces. Creepy! The Japanese team believes the bacteria they found is breaking down the PET plastic as the result of a gene mutation, or “gene swapping” with other bacteria. Which sounds cool because it means bacteria are sharing genes with each other to adapt to all the crappy situations we put them in. It’s also not cool when you think about this same process in terms of antibiotic resistance and “super bugs.” Since these types of plastic were introduced to our environment only 70 years ago, it’s likely these new bacteria are finally finding ways to compensate for living among garbage.
So maybe don’t tell the World Economic Forum about these findings? Let them invest in a quicker solution. Or maybe do tell them so they invest in this one? I don’t know but I think more research into this could be a good idea in the long run. Or maybe it will just help create more super-resistant bacteria! Either way, if we don’t find a sustainable way to reduce waste and plastic in our oceans, we are surely doomed.