Healing the Oceans: New ways to break down plastic

Scientists in Kyoto, Japan have identified a bacterium that breaks down and assimilates PET, a kind of plastic commonly used to manufacture bottles, containers and clothes. The new species, Ideonella sakaiensis, was discovered and isolated outside a plastic bottle recycling facility. Prior to this discovery, two species of difficult-to-culture fungi were the only organisms known to break down PET plastic. Ideonella sakaiensis is easy to culture and could help reduce plastic pollution in our oceans.

Plastic is the number one threat to the health of marine ecosystems. Many forms of plastic require more than 700 years to begin decomposing. Most marine mammals, birds and fish accidentally eat or become entangled with plastic at some point in their life. Plastic can cause poisoning, death and birth defects in all these species.

Some forms of plastic, such as Styrofoam and BPA, appear to begin breaking down within one year in warmer regions, releasing potentially toxic byproducts into the water. The fact that Ideonella sakaiensis metabolizes PET makes it possible to avoid the release of such byproducts.

In a similar discovery, Chinese researchers recently identified a species of plastic-eating mealworm that chews up and breaks down Styrofoam.

Every day, humans discard more than 100 million plastic bottles. Only 1 out of 5 plastic bottles is recycled, with the remainder ending up in landfills or the ocean. In addition to turning the world’s oceans into a plastic soup, bottles and other plastic products have created a garbage patch the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You can learn more about this area, known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the following video, which reminded me why I need to bring my stainless steel canteen with me whenever possible:


Environmental Science and Technology


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