A New Kind of Cleanup: The Plastic-Eating Bacteria That Could Change the World

Source: Kohei Oda, Kyoto Institute of Technology

It’s common knowledge that humanity, as a whole, has a garbage problem. It’s constantly in the news, and environmental groups have sprung up making it their goal to tackle the problem of human garbage. And, more importantly, the problem of plastic waste.

Garbage As A Whole Is An Issue

Garbage is a problem, this is true. Landfills are filling at unprecedented levels, and governments are at a loss for where the waste will be shipped once there’s no more room on land. However, much of it will biodegrade over time. Plastic, unfortunately, will not.

Source: Shutterstock

Plastic is one of the miracles of modern technology that is a double edged sword. It’s uses are nearly infinite, and it’s almost impossible to find a contemporary luxury that doesn’t contain plastic in some way, shape or form. Likewise, its lifespan is also nearly infinite.

Plastic Poses a Unique Dilemma

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade the way other garbage does. Food waste and organic waste such as cotton and plant matter will eventually be reclaimed by the environment, given enough time. Even metal will eventually rust and degrade back into carbon, the way the planet meant it to be.

Source: Pexels @ Catherine Sheila

Plastic, though there are many different kinds, has a much longer lifespan. It doesn’t biodegrade organically, instead breaking into smaller and smaller pieces with wear and tear. The problem of “microplastics” has been talked about in great detail, but those are just a tiny part of the issue when it comes to humanity’s plastic waste problem.

Nature May Have Found a Way

Plastic is a microcosm of a problem that scales even larger, going to the industrial revolution and humanity’s mass consumption of fossil fuels. As a contemporary, singular issue, though, there’s one simple question. If plastic doesn’t biodegrade on its own, what can we do to help solve the massive amounts of plastic waste that have already been created?

Source: Pexels @ Magda Ehlers

As with many things, it appears that nature may have provided a solution. Where the traditional recycling of plastic requires it to be ground down and degraded into a lower-quality form of plastic, an environmental enzyme discovered in the early 2000’s may have revealed a different path to contemporary scientists.

An Outstanding Discovery

In 2001, a group of Japanese scientists made an incredible discovery at a dump. On a great deal of discarded plastic, they found a film of bacteria that was doing something amazing. It was dissolving the plastic, bit by bit, and using the carbon inside for energy.

Source: Pexels @ Lucien Wanda

This was an astonishing discovery. The scientists had been searching for substances that could soften synthetic materials, such as polyester. In their hunt, they discovered something even more important: a possible solution to the world’s global plastic problem.

Nothing Is Ever Quite So Easy In The Beginning

Of course, once the scientists harvested the bacteria and took it back to the lab, it became clear that the issue was more complicated. The bacteria were breaking down the plastic into basic components, yes, but it was slow. Additionally, the discovery was made before it became clear what a massive problem plastic waste was, so the discovery was dismissed.

Source: Pexels @ Magda Ehlers

Now, twenty years later, it’s very clear how plastic is a problem, and scientists are racing for a solution. The original bacteria that was discovered has been studied and examined a great deal further. The data revealed by said studies is illuminating, to say the least.

Microbiology To The Rescue! … Theoretically

While it appeared that the bacteria themselves were eating away at the plastic when they were initially discovered, the science of what’s happening goes deeper. What they’re actually doing is releasing an enzyme – tiny molecules that are meant to perform specific tasks – that breaks the plastic down.

Source: Kohei Oda, Kyoto Institute of Technology

The biology of the enzyme is important. Where the first iteration that was discovered was slow and inefficient, scientists have since encouraged mass evolution of the enzyme to speed up the process of plastic biodegradation. What once took nearly seven weeks to dissolve a tiny piece of plastic has been evolved and supercharged to be much faster.

A Bigger Problem Than One Solution Can Address

Of course, in the decades since the enzyme was first discovered, the problem of plastic waste has become much bigger than can be addressed by one solution. The research into a plastic-eating enzyme could have massive implications, particularly for ocean plastic and microplastics. Other scientists have turned to the problem of new plastic production, and the inefficiency of plastic recycling.

Source: Pexels @ Mumtahina Tanni

As mentioned, plastic recycling currently requires the breakdown of plastic into lower quality plastic, to be reused in different manners until it can’t be broken down any further. This still requires new plastic, meaning that if scientists can discover a way to turn old plastic back into new, a step will have been taken in the right direction.

Solutions From Many Different Angles

In the exploration of the microbiological world, scientists have discovered microbes that offer other solutions to the plastic crisis. One such solution is found in France, where a company has been using an enzyme solution on shredded-up plastic bits in order to break them down into their molecular components. These components can then be made directly into new plastic.

Source: Pexels @ Mumtahina Tanni

Of course, this isn’t a perfect solution. The scientists that work on this project theorize that it will still, in some form, require new plastic to recycle after so many times of breaking down the components. Beyond that, the energy requirements for the process are still quite high, though not as high as new plastic production.

A Hopeful Future … With Our Help

Scientists and nature are both working hard at coming up to the man-made crisis that is plastic pollution and what to do with it. They are doing an admirable job, but the hardest part of the solution starts at the beginning: creating less waste.

Source: Pexels @ Md Mudassir Hossain

Putting less garbage out into the world will make the jobs of science and nature that much easier. And as we work towards the solution of zero emissions and zero waste, we can find hope in the fact that, no matter what we throw at her, Mother Nature provides, in every way she can.

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James Cross

Written by James Cross

James Cross, an enigmatic writer from the historic city of Boston. James' writing delves into mysteries, true crime, and the unexplained, crafting compelling narratives that keep readers and viewers on the edge of their seats. His viral articles, blog posts, and documentary-style videos explore real-life enigmas and unsolved cases, inviting audiences to join the quest for answers. James' ability to turn real mysteries into shareable content has made him a sensation in the world of storytelling.

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