Plastics are used in almost all the objects that make modern life possible, and that means we’re producing many millions of tons of it every year.
Plastic is useful because it’s durable, but that also means it sticks around in the environment long after we’re done with it. Scientists have been searching for a way to deal with those mountains of plastic, and the solution might be a newly discovered bacteria that can gobble up PET plastic.
Plastics are polymers, long chains of repeating molecules cross-linked together to make them strong and flexible. Plastic is not the only carbon-based polymer in the world. In fact, plant cellulose is a very common polymer that many bacteria can digest easily.
Cellulose has existed on Earth for hundreds of millions of years, so bacteria eventually evolved to break it down. We’ve only been pumping out plastic for a few decades.
The scientists from Kyoto University went looking in trash heaps for bacteria that might be evolving toward eating plastic, and they found just that. Dubbed Ideonella sakaiensis, this microorganism produces an enzyme that allows it to decompose PET plastic, one of the most common forms of plastic.
When provided with some plastic and a warm environment, the bacteria was able to completely consume it in a few weeks.
When plastic is recycled, it’s usually just melted down and reformed into other hard plastics, but the “best” plastic is made from the base petrochemical components.
The newly discovered bacteria might allow us to actually break down used plastic into the chemical components, making for the first truly recyclable plastic. The enzyme has been identified, so we might even be able to produce it on an industrial scale to mix with used plastic. Humanity could finally start cleaning up after itself.