A team of Japanese scientists at the Kyoto Institute of Technology recently discovered a strain of bacteria that has the capability to decompose certain types of plastic in six weeks, compared to the thousands of years that plastics take to naturally decompose.
The bacteria, a strain known scientifically as ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, is able to use polyethylene terephthalate or PET plastics as its primary energy and carbon source. PET plastics are primarily used to make single-use water bottles, polyester in clothes and manufacturing packing such as plastic foam.
The team, led by professor Shosuke Yoshida, published their report on March 11 in Science Magazine following an extensive search of the grounds surrounding a Japanese plastic factory.
The report describes how the bacteria create two enzymes that split the PETs into two environmentally harmless subunits. The bonds in the PET plastic are very strong, and until now scientists knew of no other organisms with the ability to break it down.
So why does this matter? Well, we currently produce over 343 tons of plastic per year, and almost a sixth of that total is PET. While PETs are some of the easiest plastics to recycle, almost half of the PETs produced end up as pollution in the environment.
Even the smallest plastic bottles can take over 1,000 years to naturally decompose, and when they eventually do, they decompose into toxic molecules that can remain in the environment forever. This process has led to environmental catastrophes such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a section of the Pacific Ocean larger than the state of Texas with extremely high concentrations of plastic particulates.
These bacteria may be able to greatly alleviate the plastic concentration in the ocean and landfills and could provide a non-toxic means to decompose these harmful particles. If it could be used on a large enough scale, this discovery could save landfills, wildlife and the ocean.
But the science may have drawbacks, and there is a lot of potential for disaster.
“The risks and benefits have to be researched and weighed,” CHS AP Biology teacher Darrell Steely says. “While it’s easy to think that would be an end-all fix, what if the strain mutates further? What if they can’t survive in the water? There are still a lot of unanswered questions.”
Maybe ideonella sakaiensis isn’t the immediate solution, but it may be a major step along the way to solving the environmental crisis in which we have put ourselves.
“We can talk about fixing the Pacific Garbage Patch all we want, but at the end of the day we are going to have to stop putting the plastic in the environment,” AP Environmental Science teacher Jason Maas- Baldwin adds. “Prevention is the key.”