Japanese scientists reached a breakthrough in the field of waste management by discovering a new species of bacteria able to eat one of the world’s most common plastics, namely Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Prior to this find, scientists believed plastic couldn’t be biodegradable.
PET is the plastic commonly found in disposable water bottles, but also in many products like polyester clothing and tennis balls. More than 50 million tonnes of this plastic are produced globally every year. While it is a strong, reliable material for products, PET is really bad for the environment because it cannot broken down by microbes, which renders it non-biodegradable. In fact, much of the pollution in the oceans around the world is made of PET.
New research, published in the journal Science on Friday, Mar. 11, challenges previous beliefs. Its authors, a team of Japanese scientists, claim to have found a key solution for the planet’s pollution problem.
To find the bacteria, a team of researchers collected 250 PET-contaminated samples (sediment, soil and wastewater) from a plastic bottle recycling site. After screening the collected samples, they found a consortium of microbes that appeared to break down a PET film. However, it turned out that just one of the bacteria species, named Ideonella sakaiensis, was responsible for PET degradation. The process of degradation is slow, as it took 6 weeks to completely degrade a small film of PET, but the discovery is nevertheless very important.
This is good news especially when contrasted to alarming reports such as this one by the World Economic Forum (WEF) dating back to January, which predicts that, on the current track, oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.