Researchers Discover Bacterium That Can Break Down Hard-To-Recycle & Toxic Plastic

Plastic pollution in the environment is continuing to increase, prompting scientists and researchers to find new ways to get rid of the material, which can take centuries to decompose naturally. A recent study, published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, discovered that a bacterium exists that feeds on toxic plastic, using it as a food source, as reported by The Guardian.

The bacterium, found at a plastic waste site, targets a type of plastic known as polyurethane. This plastic is widely produced to manufacture a variety of items, including sports shoes, diapers, and foam insulation. When the products are thrown out, they are normally sent straight to the landfill, as the plastic is typically too hard to recycle.

One of the biggest problems with polyurethane is that it releases toxic and carcinogenic chemicals as it breaks down in the environment. These chemicals are deadly to most bacteria except for the newly discovered strain, Pseudomonas bacteria. This family of bacteria is known for its ability to survive in harsh, unfavorable conditions.

To test whether the bacterium could break down polyurethane, scientists fed it the chemical components of the plastic in a lab. They discovered that it could utilize the compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen, and energy.

A truck drops off a load af recyclables at the Norcal Waste recycling facility July 11, 2003 in San Francisco.
Getty Images | Justin Sullivan

Research team member Hermann Heipieper spoke about the findings.

"These findings represent an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle polyurethane products."
Heipieper cautioned that it might take a decade or longer for scientists to develop a way for the bacterium to be used in a large scale and that, in the meantime, it is still crucial to reduce plastic production and use.

Professor John McGeehan, the director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation in England, was optimistic about the new work and congratulated the research team on their discovery.

"The breakdown of certain polyurethanes can release toxic additives, which need to be handled carefully. This research group has discovered a strain that can tackle some of these chemicals."
The professor added that, while further research is necessary, the findings show that nature already contains valuable biocatalysts. If they are harnessed correctly, these natural processes can open the door for innovative recycling solutions.

Previous research has shown that enzymes can be used in the breakdown of plastic bottles, made of PET. The findings were seen as a potential solution for enabling plastic bottle recycling at a large scale. Specific types of fungi have also been found to break down PET plastic.