Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic

Science
Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic
Aerial shot top view Garbage trucks unload garbage to a recycle in the vicinity of the city of Bangkok, Thailand. bugto / Moment / Getty Images

German researchers have identified a strain of bacterium that not only breaks down toxic plastic, but also uses it as food to fuel the process, according to The Guardian.


The scientists discovered the strain of bacteria, known as pseudomonas bacteria, at a dump site loaded with plastic waste, where they noticed that it was attacking polyurethane. Polyurethane's are ubiquitous in plastic products because they are pliable and durable. However, when they reach the end of their usefulness and end up in landfills, they decompose slowly and slowly release toxic chemicals into the soil as they degrade. They are also notoriously difficult to recycle, according to Courthouse News.

Since it is so difficult to recycle, millions and millions of products containing polyurethane like sneakers, diapers, kitchen sponges and foam installation end up in landfills. Polyurethane usually kills most bacteria too, so it surprised the researchers to find a strain that not only survived, but also used polyurethane to thrive, according to The Guardian. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

"The bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy," Hermann J. Heipieper, a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ in Leipzig, Germany and co-author of the new paper, said in a statement. "These findings represent an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle polyurethane products."

Pseudomonas bacteria are part of a family of microorganisms known for its ability to withstand harsh conditions, such as high temperatures and acidic environments.

While the little germs offer hope for a solution to the plastic crisis polluting land and water around the globe, scientists are still a long way away from being able to use the bacteria on a large scale. Heipieper estimated that it could be 10 years before the bacteria are ready to consume plastic at a large scale. He added that in the meantime, it is important to reduce the use of non-recyclable plastic and to cut the amount of plastic used around the world, according to The Guardian.

Our reliance on plastic has created a waste crisis. In 2015, polyurethane products alone accounted for 3.5 million tons of the plastics produced in Europe, according to a press release from the journal that published the study. More than 8 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, according to The Guardian, and a vast majority of it has polluted the world's land and oceans, or ends up in landfills. Scientists say it threatens a "near permanent contamination of the natural environment."

As for polyurethane, its heat resistance make it a difficult and energy intensive to melt down. Because of that, it is disproportionately tossed into landfills around the world where its slow degradation releases toxic — and often carcinogenic — chemicals, according to Courthouse News.

In the laboratory, the researchers fed key components of polyurethane to the bugs. "We found the bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy," Heipieper said, as The Guardian reported.

"When you have huge amounts of plastic in the environment, that means there is a lot of carbon and there will be evolution to use this as food," Heipieper said as The Guardian reported.

"Bacteria are there in huge numbers and their evolution is very fast. However, this certainly doesn't mean that the work of microbiologists can lead to a complete solution," he added. "The main message should be to avoid plastic being released into the environment in the first place."

Japan's Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide poses for a portrait on September 14, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan, after being elected Liberal Democratic Party President. Nicolas Datiche / Pool / Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that Japan will become country carbon neutral by 2050, Bloomberg reported.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Danielle Brigida / CC BY 2.0

The Trump administration released on Friday its plan to start oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) this winter, as The Hill reported.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A memorial project installation of 20,000 American flags on September 22, 2020 in Washington, D.C. represents the more than 200,000 American lives lost to COVID-19. Win McNamee / Getty Images

By Derrick Z. Jackson

Officials at the highest levels are discussing the possibility of caving in on controlling the coronavirus and instead letting it run rampant throughout the United States until we reach "herd immunity," the point where the virus effectively runs out of people to infect. More than 6,200 scientists, health professionals, and research organizations say this is inhumane and have signed a memorandum rejecting herd immunity as a legitimate strategy.

Read More Show Less
Purdue researcher Joseph Peoples uses an infrared camera to compare the cooling performance of white paint samples on a rooftop. Purdue University photo / Jared Pike

By Kayla Wiles

What if paint could cool off a building enough to not need air conditioning?

Read More Show Less
Tropical Storm Zeta could be the fifth storm to hit Louisiana this season. National Hurricane Center

The extremely active 2020 hurricane season has another storm in store for the beleaguered Gulf Coast.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch