Could a ravenous bacteria help us tackle plastic pollution?

Bacteria Breakdown

According to 2022 estimates, our global efforts to recycle plastic are falling woefully short of our goals: only roughly nine percent of plastic waste is being recycled, meaning landfills keep growing at a breakneck pace and incinerators are sending huge amounts of emissions into the atmosphere.

But there may be other creative ways to break down plastic materials. In 2001, a team of scientists in Japan led by Kyoto Institute of Technology researcher Kohei Oda discovered a plastic-eating bacteria called Ideonella sakaiensis that can break down the carbon in plastic.

The team has been studying the microbe ever since, with a number of other teams discovering similar organisms as well, as The Guardian reports, bringing us ever closer to a future in which tiny microorganisms are capable of helping us tackle a growing environmental crisis.

Enzymatic Fantastic

Fast forward over two decades, and researchers have found several ways of manipulating similar bacteria to produce enzymes that can break down plastic at a faster rate.

And that's important, considering the massive scale of the issue. To make a meaningful impact on a global scale, these enzymes need to work fast and thrive in a wide range of conditions.

But finding high-performing, plastic-eating organisms that are up to the task remains difficult. The alternative, which scientists have also been working on for years, is to edit the DNA of bacteria to suit our needs.

"This is something we constantly struggle with," Gregg Beckham, the head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, told The Guardian. "Do we go back to the well to search and see if nature has the solution? Or do we take the small footholds we have to the lab and work on them now?"

Return on Investment

Meanwhile, scientists are probing existing landfills with the hope of finding a suitable bacteria, a process known as bioprospecting.

Despite their best efforts, a plastic-eating microbe hungry enough to make a meaningful impact on our environmental crisis remains as elusive as ever. The sheer number of different plastics littering our landfills only complicates matters.

The research has also suffered from being underfunded due to low interest and high costs. After all, the immediate market incentives simply aren't there.

But to supporters of the idea, that's short-sighted thinking.

"There is a return on investment to recycle plastic," Victor di Lorenzo, a scientist at the Spanish National Biotechnology Center in Madrid, told The Guardian. "But who will pay for these larger-scale projects that would help wider society? This is something only public support would remedy."

More on plastic microbes: Microbes Are Evolving to Eat Plastic Pollution, Scientists Say

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