Bacteria Eats Plastic — Hungry Enough To Clean The World?

Scientists in Japan have discovered a type of bacteria that eats plastic. The discovery could convert non-biodegradable plastic to nature and promises a greener alternative to harmful waste.

The research is headed by Dr. Shosuke Yoshida, from the Kyoto Institute of Technology. The findings published in Science Journal raises hopes that the bacteria could be used to dispose enormous amounts of plastic that is polluting the world.

Reportedly, the bacteria that eats plastic has the capability to digest polyethylene terephalate, or PET, which is the ingredient found in many bottles and other disposable products. PET is economically viable for packaging because it is lightweight, colorless, and durable. However it is harmful for the environment.

According to the study at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, the plastic eating bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, uses two enzymes to decompose the plastic polymer into two harmless substances, which become their main source of food.

Reportedly, tests showed that the bacteria eats plastic within six weeks. This is a better agent compared to a fungi which also has an appetite for PET.

The discovery leads to the question whether Ideonella sakaiensis is an answer to toxic plastic waste clogging the environment.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Dr. Uwe Bornscheuer, a biochemist at Greifswald University in Germany, who wrote a commentary on the Japanese study.

“That is, of course, a major achievement. But the digestive process is slow, and further research is needed to determine how useful the bug might be against growing piles of plastic waste.”

Plastic is one of the world’s most popular materials because of its durability and low production costs. Its use is projected to increase and almost double in the next 20 years. So, civilization’s love for plastic is not ending any sooner and its accumulation in the environment, clogging of oceans, and destruction of ecosystems is a global concern.

It is pertinent to note that the plastic-eating bacteria could be applied to reduce industrial waste during plastic manufacturing. What about the massive tons of waste already scattered in the world’s ecosystems and what are the potential applications of the discovery? Can it be used to disintegrate the massive floating plastic heaps building up in the oceans?

Researchers worldwide have been documenting the destruction of marine life and warning how plastic finds its way into a range of ecosystems.

“There will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, it’s probably in our food, and will likely leave its mark long after we’re gone,” according to Quartz. Reports mention massive garbage patches of plastic in our oceans, which eventually reach the bottom and stay for years without degrading back to nature.

While the findings do not make it clear whether the bacteria will help disintegrate the plastics clogging the oceans, or create an alternative to landfills, it could lead to identify other bacteria in the environment that may has similar PET-disintegrating properties.

“PET makes up nearly one-sixth of the world’s annual plastic production of 311 million tonnes, however according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) just over half of this is recycled and far less is reused,” the Independent reported.

Seemingly, the latest discovery is a reaffirmation that nature does fight back to clean the environment and humans have found a new approach to plastic recycling and decontamination through the bacteria that eats plastic.

[Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images]