Lookout, Landfills: New Bacterium Feeds on Plastic Waste

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Lookout, Landfills: New Bacterium Feeds on Plastic Waste

Plastic waste may have finally met its match.

A newly discovered bacterium called Ideonella sakaiensis has shown an ability to digest plastic, which could be great news for slimming down our bursting, greenhouse-gas-emitting landfills.

There’s so much plastic waste on earth right now that it’s mind-boggling. Aside from the billions of pounds of plastic in our oceans right now, there are billions more on land. Plastic, which is widely used as packaging in the food and beverage industry as well as most every other area of consumer goods, is notoriously hard to dispose of; it can sit in landfills for ages, and recycling it is not as simple as tossing it into a blue bin--it requires water, energy, and puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And what doesn't make it into trash or recycling bins, is creating a huge problem for marine life.

“In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments—like grocery bags, straws and soda bottles—are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day,” [italics theirs] reports EcoWatch.

While it pollutes the planet and is linked to human health issues like hormone imbalance and obesity, plastic has been a food packaging choice in part because of its ability to protect against bacteria. Unless contamination was introduced before the item was packaged, nothing else is getting in.

But it seems even nature has taken to remedying that, as the new bacterium discovery shows. Named for Sakai, the Japanese city where the bacterium was recently discovered, Ideonella sakaiensis feeds off of common plastic, reports NPR, like those used in “clothing, plastic bottles and food packaging.”

"It's the most unique thing. This bacterium can degrade PET and then make their body from PET," Shosuke Yoshida, a microbiologist at Kyoto University and lead author of the study told NPR.

“Most plastics are insurmountable obstacles for microbes because plastics are large chains of repeating molecules called polymers,” explains NPR. “The entire chain is far larger than the individual microbe,” and this makes it impossible for bacteria to metabolize it; it’s too big. Try eating your car for dinner and you’ll get the idea.

But Ideonella sakaiensis, “has two enzymes that can slice and dice the plastic polymer into smaller pieces,” NPR explains. “The bacterium can then take the pieces and eat them, eventually converting the plastic into carbon dioxide and water.”

Yoshida and his colleagues on the research said it took Ideonella sakaiensis about six weeks to eat through a plastic film. That’s a bit slow to manage our massive plastic waste problem, but the researchers think there’s an opportunity to modify the bacterium to work faster, or to play a role in bioremediation technology.

But even if we could just dump our plastic waste into a (non-plastic) bucket of bacteria, there will still be carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from the process, which will only complicate our global warming issues.

For now, recycling is still the best way to manage our plastic waste—that is, after reducing our use of it in the first place.

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Landfill image via Shutterstock

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