It’s no secret that plastic pollution is one of the greatest challenges of modern society. In fact, it’s almost impossible to go a day without hearing about the grave consequences of throwaway culture. Thankfully, research indicates there may be a glimmer of hope.
Polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET, is one of the most common types of plastic produced. It accounts for almost 30% of water bottle production worldwide. Scientists in Japan have discovered a species of bacteria using PET as its primary food source, and these bacteria have actually made strides in cleaning up the ocean.
Studies indicate “Although the presence of vast amounts of plastic in the open ocean has generated great concern due to its potential ecological consequences, recent studies reveal that its measured abundance is much smaller than expected.” The paradox is partially attributed to “evolved set of organisms (the consumers) capable of degrading [plastic]”.
The discovered microorganisms, proposed to be named Ideonella sakaiensis, appears to be nutritionally dependent on PET and able to break the molecular bonds that hold plastic together. The implications of this process are still far from being understood, and there is concern about the release of toxins when the bonds are broken down.
“It’s difficult to break down highly crystallised PET,” said Prof. Kenji Miyamoto from Keio University, one of the scientists that discovered the bacteria. “Our research results are just the initiation for the application. We have to work on so many issues needed for various applications. It takes a long time.”
Enzo Palombo, a microbiologist at Swinburne University in Melbourne, attributes the phenomenon to natural evolutionary processes. He said, “If you put a bacteria in a situation where they’ve only got one food source to consume, over time they will adapt to do that.”
“Bioremediation” is a topic that has been receiving more and more attention in research. The EPA defines bioremediation as “treatment that uses naturally occurring organisms to break down hazardous substances into less toxic or nontoxic substances”. For example, certain types of fungi, have shown great potential for helping to break down pesticides that persist in the environment.
Still, it’s important to remember that although technological advances are important, they are not a cure. Thousands of other species are getting sick and dying thanks to garbage pollution. A global shift in perspective is absolutely essential for sustainably reducing waste and carbon emissions.