Super-fast plastic eating bacteria could help global pollution crisis
Bacteria that has evolved to eat plastic six times faster compared to any other biological agent could be used in recycling plants within two years.
The research team at the time discovered the bacteria was using the molecular bonds of one of the world’s most-used plastics – polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET or polyester – as a food source.
Further tests found the bacteria almost completely degraded low-quality plastic within six weeks. The researchers revealed an engineered version of the first enzyme in 2018, which started breaking down the plastic in a few days. But the super-enzyme is six times faster.
French company Carbios revealed a different enzyme in April, originally discovered in a compost heap of leaves. It broke down 90% of plastic bottles within 10 hours, but requires heating above 70C.
Breaking down plastic into its chemical parts in order to make new plastic is currently very difficult, meaning more new oil based plastic is being created each year. Solutions such as the super-fast enzyme are therefore urgently need.
The team is now examining how the enzymes can be altered to make them work even faster.
Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK said: “If we can make better, faster enzymes by linking them together and provide them to companies like Carbios, and work in partnership, we could start doing this within the next year or two.” A £1 million testing centre is now being built in Portsmouth.
The UK-US scientists also believe that the super enzyme could be used – along with cotton-eating enzymes – to recycle mixed-fabric clothing. In the UK alone, around 350,000 tonnes of used clothing, worth £140 million, goes to landfill every year.
Plastic pollution has crept into all corners of the Earth, from the Arctic and the deepest oceans to organs, breast milk, foetuses, rain and air.
Although solutions such as plastic eating bacteria help alleviate the symptoms of this plastic pandemic, we must start with reduction.
As consumers we have a dual responsibility with manufactures to change our behaviours. This means, rejecting single use plastics alongside reusing and recycling plastic whenever possible. The market responds to our signals, so our choices are powerful.
Buy clothes that are made from sustainable and ethical natural fibres and reject plastic based clothes that are polluting the world’s oceans and killing the animals and organisms we rely on for oxygen in catastrophic numbers.
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