Using Bacteria to Get Rid of Plastic

As we mentioned on the previous post, there is an island of trash the size of France, Spain and Germany combined floating in the Pacific Ocean. Although the vastness of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is astonishing, its existence should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Plastic is notoriously slow to decompose. Some types are expected to last a thousand years. And we produce over 400 million tonnes of it every year. It is hard to picture numbers of that magnitude, but if you put on a balance all the plastic produced in 2017 and all the human beings on Earth, the plastic produced last year would be heavier.

…it ultimately comes to customers to make an effort to lower our consumption.

A problem of this magnitude can only be solved by attacking it from several fronts. The first step is to slow down production. Innovative companies like Avani are creating more environmentally-friendly substitutes to the plastic products we have become accustomed to, but it ultimately comes to customers to make an effort to lower our consumption.

When it comes to the plastic already here, recycling can be incredibly efficient. However, most plastic will not end up being recycled.

But there doesn’t seem to be an elegant solution to the plastic waste that is not suitable for recycling. Even if we were able to haul the whole garbage island back to land, what can we ever do with it? The only alternatives seem to be burning it, which is disastrous for the atmosphere, or dropping it off on landfills, where it may end up in the ocean anyway and is taking up land that cannot be used for anything else.

Fortunately, researchers all over the world are working on an alternative. In 2016, scientists in Japan found a bacteria feeding naturally on plastic waste. To test its effectiveness, they grew the bacteria in a container along with a piece of PET (which is the type of plastic used for bottles and food containers) and after some weeks the plastic was gone.

“After some weeks” may be the least encouraging part of the discovery, but recently a team of international researchers managed to isolate the protein and mutate it in a way that speeds up the process. The result is not an immediate solution; instead it is a step on the right direction and an interesting path for innovation in recycling.

What is left from this process are two substances (TPA and EG) that can be combined again in order to recycle, as an alternative to the production of new PET.

 

José López Cusi

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