We manufacture over 300 million tonnes of plastics each year for use in everything from packaging to clothing.
Plastics linger in the environment, littering streets, fields and oceans alike.
Plastics are polymers, long thin molecules made of repeating building blocks.
Most plastics are made from carbon-based monomers, so in theory they are a good source of food for microorganisms.
Unlike natural polymers plastics aren’t generally biodegradable.
Plastics have only been around for about 70 years.
So microorganisms simply haven’t had much time to evolve the necessary biochemical tool kit to latch onto the plastic fibers, break them up into the constituent parts and then utilize the resulting chemicals as a source of energy and carbon that they need to grow.
Now a team at Kyoto University has, by rummaging around in piles of waste, found a plastic munching microbe.
After five years of searching through 250 samples, they isolated a bacteria that could live on poly(ethylene terephthalate), a common plastic used in bottles and clothing.
At present, most plastic bottles are not truly recycled.
Packaging companies typically prefer freshly made ‘virgin‘ plastics that are created from chemical starting materials that are usually derived from oil.
The PET-digesting enzymes offer a way to truly recycle plastic.
These could then be used to make fresh plastics, producing a true recycling system.