In recent years, humanity has become all too aware of the impact our addiction to plastic has on the natural world. From yogurt containers to plastic grocery bags, cling wrap to toothbrush handles, there is hardly an area of our lives that doesn’t have plastic attached to it in some form or another. Although many plastic products are touted as durable and waste-reducing, the amount of time they take to break down and the rate at which we dispose of them has caused nothing short of an environmental disaster.
Efforts are being made around the world to curb the use and spread of plastics. Oceangoing vessels designed to scoop up plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have been dispatched, people are going plastic and waste-free, and reusable technologies are being created faster than ever. While there may not be a one-off fix for our plastic problem, other scientists are discovering methods of disposing of plastic using Earth’s smallest creatures.
Harnessing Pseudomonas bacteria to Breakdown Plastic
Scientists have identified a strain of bacterium that is able to break down plastic and use that plastic as its food source. This bacterium was found living in a resource-rich environment- a waste site. The bacterium was found to attack the substance polyurethane, which is found in many plastics that are too difficult to be recycled. The bacterium is part of the Pseudomonas bacteria family, a group of bacteria that seem to thrive in harsh environments.
Plastic abounds in the waste we throw away every day and much of it gets dumped in landfills where it remains. Plastic breaks down slowly and, as it does, releases toxins and carcinogenic chemicals. These byproducts can leach into our water sources and the soil around a dump site and negatively impact our water quality, soil, and the health of ecosystems worldwide. Plastic-eating bacteria could hold the key to taking care of the plastic waste we currently have.
Future Implications for Decomposing Plastic
Laboratory tests indicate that we might still be a decade away from using Pseudomonas bacteria in a controlled setting to break down plastics. However, discoveries of this nature are highly important for continuing to develop methods of recycling plastics for future use. There are fungi that have been found to break down plastics as well as other species of bacteria that could serve the same purpose.
We’re still a long way off from seeing a controlled, data-driven use of this bacterium to take care of polyurethane in a larger setting. Researchers recommend a reduction in the amount of plastic being thrown away and a turn towards greener methods of manufacturing and consumption by individuals and corporations alike.
Espinosa, M. J. C., Blanco, A. C., Schmidgall, T., Atanasoff-Kardjalieff, A. K., Kappelmeyer, U., Tischler, D., … & Eberlein, C. (2020). Toward Biorecycling: Isolation of a Soil Bacterium That Grows on a Polyurethane Oligomer and Monomer. Frontiers in Microbiology, 11, 404. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2020.00404
Carrington, Damian. Bacterium is able to break down polyurethane, which is widely used but rarely recycled. 27 March 2020. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/27/scientists-find-bug-that-feasts-on-toxic-plastic