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Plastic-eating bacteria! Might it solve the plastic pollution problem?

by Wayne Porteous 12 months ago in Sustainability
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What can we do to stop plastic from invading our environment and poisoning our food?

Micro-plastics have shown that they are really becoming a massive problem for the environment and even invading our food chain. To put it simply, all types of plastic waste are impacting our ecosystem from the highest mountain to the depths of the ocean.

Even though we are recycling to a greater extent than at any time in history the world is consuming more and more plastics at a frightening pace.

What can we do to stop plastic from invading our environment and poisoning our food?

The plastic pollution scourge

Plastic works so well, that’s the problem! It’s waterproof, airtight, tough, lightweight, both malleable and ductile and therefore can be shaped into any form imaginable.

Plastic is relatively cheap to produce so it has a huge application in the field of low-cost packaging and storage. The major problem is; how do we dispose of it after we’ve finished using it?

Decomposition can take hundreds of years. Burning it or burying it does nothing to relieve the problem and in fact it only adds to the problem.

Interestingly, plastic was invented in 1846 and since then we have manufactured and used a staggering 8 billion tonnes - most of it still waiting to be disposed of properly.

Whilst plastic does break down eventually, its molecules do not and still continue existence in our waterways and earth, being consumed endlessly by creatures at the bottom end of the food chain.

Every year 8 million tonnes of plastic waste is escaping into our oceans by coastal nations alone, which is the equivalent of five garbage bags of rubbish impacting every foot of coastline all around the world!

Polyethylene terephthalate

Usually abbreviated to PET it's the most common form of plastic used for commercial purposes. That includes everything. From water bottles, packaging, toys and clothing right through to industrial fabrications.

Most people don’t realise that 60% of all clothing is manufactured from Polyester, another name for plastic.

PET was first discovered in the USA and is technically 100% recyclable but unfortunately nowhere near that percentage is being recycled. The European countries recycle up to half their plastic waste but what is happening to the other 50%?

60% of all plastic pollution comes from only five countries, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, all of whom have very few waste or recycling infrastructures in place, and the problem is worsening.

The super-enzyme

In 2016, scientists discovered a new type of bacterium, Ideonella Sakaienis or more readily known as plastic-eating bacteria which is capable of breaking down and consuming PET.

Similar to the way in which Penicillin was discovered by accident, this sample was taken from some sediment outside a plastic bottle recycling factory in Sakai, Japan and is able to break down PET into its original components in a matter of days, rather than hundreds of years.

Ever since its discovery, scientists have been developing this plastic-eating bacteria further, making it more efficient and doubling its digestion period.

How does this plastic-eating bacteria work?

Plastics are Polymers which are materials made from long repeating chains of molecules which are exceptionally durable making them difficult to break down and decompose in the natural world.

If these long polymer chains could somehow be broken down into shorter chains, then they could be recycled more easily to form new plastics and this is exactly what the newly discovered bacteria do; they break down the molecules of the plastics into their original building blocks.

The newly discovered enzyme “eats” the chemical bonds in the chain, the molecules are broken down into their smaller components, making them easier to be recycled.

There is hope for the future

This marvellous plastic-eating bacteria has great potential, not only for the treatment of PET plastics but for a much wider application in the future use of all plastics.

The apparel and fashion industries need to recognise and accept responsibility for their part played in the problem of plastic pollution. As technology improves and further discoveries are made, clothing and fabric manufacturers should always be at the forefront of sustainability.


About the author

Wayne Porteous

Wayne uses his expertise with the written word (and crossword addiction) in developing keyword research projects and in editing and writing content for publishing.

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