How plastic-eating bacteria might just solve the pollution problem
We’ve talked recently about microplastics and how they’re damaging the environment, working their way into the food chain, and generally becoming a massive problem.
And while it’s true that we’re recycling more than we’ve ever done, we’re also consuming more, manufacturing plastics at an astonishing rate.
So how do we stop all this plastic from entering the ecosystem?
The answer might just lie in a new scientific discovery known as Ideonella sakaiensis, or, to give it a simpler name, plastic-eating bacteria.
The plastic epidemic
The problem with plastic is, that it works so well.
It’s waterproof, tough, lightweight, and can be shaped into pretty much anything you can imagine.
It’s relatively cheap and easy to make, and therefore can be used for low-value items such as packaging and storage.
The issue with plastic is what to do after we’re finished with it.
It takes hundreds of years to decompose, and burning it or burying it simply adds to the problem.
Since its invention in 1846, we have produced over 8 billion metric tonnes of plastic, most of which is still lying around in some form.
Even if a piece of plastic breaks down, its molecules are still out there, ending up in our rivers and oceans, being eaten by creatures at the bottom of the food chain.
To try and imagine how bad the situation is, picture this; every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations.
That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world!
Polyethylene terephthalate, usually abbreviated to PET, is the most common type of plastic used for consumerism.
That includes everything including water bottles, packaging, and toys. When used as fibres in clothing – about 60% of all clothes manufactured – it’s known as polyester.
First created in the USA in the 1940s, PET is 100% recyclable, but, as we know, not 100% of plastics end up being recycled.
Europeans are the world’s biggest recyclers, but even then, they only manage to recycle about half of all their plastics.
60% of all plastic pollution comes from only 5 countries, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, and with very few waste or recycling infrastructures in place, the problem is only getting worse.
In 2016, scientists discovered a new type of bacterium, capable of breaking down and consuming PET.
Much like how penicillin was discovered by accident, this sample was taken from some sediment outside a plastic bottle recycling factory in Sakai, Japan.
Ideonella sakaiensis is being touted as a breakthrough in the plastic problem, breaking down PET into its original components in a matter of days, rather than hundreds of years.
Even since its discovery, scientists have developed this plastic-eating bacteria further, making it more efficient and doubling its digestion period.
How this plastic-eating bacteria works
Plastics are polymers, meaning they have a long repeating chain of molecules.
These long chains are exceptionally durable, making them tough to break down and decompose naturally.
If these long polymer chains could somehow be broken down into shorter chains, then they could be recycled easier to form new plastics.
This is exactly what the newly discovered bacteria do; break down the molecules of the plastics into their original building blocks.
By secreting an enzyme which “eats” the chemical bonds in the chain, the molecules are broken down into their smaller components, making them easier to be recycled.
Hope for the future
While we don’t use PET in any great volume, here at immago we are very cognisant about sustainability and the effect plastics are having on the world.
This new discovery of a plastic-eating bacteria has great potential, not only for the treatment of PET plastics, but for a wider application in the future use of all plastics.
With the majority of clothing being made from polyester, the apparel and fashion industries need to recognise and accept their part in the problem of plastic pollution.
As technology improves and new discoveries are made, we promise we will always be at the forefront of sustainability.
We encourage and help our clients to aim for a better, pollution-free future, while maintaining a solid business approach.
There are big changes ahead for companies when it comes to sustainability, so if you would like our guidance in this complex area, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Our friendly and experienced staff will be happy to help in any way they can.