Plastic pollution: Chinese scientists identify polythene-eating bacteria

While the polythene-eating bacteria qualities are already well known to the scientific community, the research by the Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong province, is the first to establish a direct link to polythene (PE).

Plastic pollution: Chinese scientists identify polythene-eating bacteria

Chinese scientists say they have identified a blend of marine bacteria that appears capable of breaking down polythene, one of the most ubiquitous plastics on the planet and source of much of the pollution in the world’s oceans.

While the polythene-eating bacteria qualities are already well known to the scientific community, the research by the Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong province, is the first to establish a direct link to polythene (PE).

In the study, which was published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials on April 23, a team led by Sun Chaomin said they had discovered a combination of bacteria that was able to break down not only polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – from which bottles are made – but also polythene, which is used to make bags.

“Compared to the extensive studies into PET-degrading polythene-eating bacteria and enzymes, research into PE degradation lags well behind,” the researchers said.

The team said they added bacteria to samples of polythene and polyethylene terephthalate, and after repeated tests it became clear that a particular combination of three types of bacteria was causing “obvious damage” to the polythene film, including making “numerous heavy cracks and deep holes”.

About five million tonnes of plastic are dumped into seas and oceans every year and scientists are keen to find an environmentally friendly way to get rid of it.

According to the paper, plastic pollution is responsible for the deaths of about one million birds and 10,000 marine animals annually, and PE and PET are among the worst offenders.

While scientists have identified more than 430 microorganisms that can degrade different types of plastics, Wolfgang Streit, a microbiology and biotechnology professor at the University of Hamburg in Germany, who was not involved in the Chinese study, said the findings were interesting.

“[Scientists] have a good understanding of how PET is degraded. We have enzymes for PET. But for PE, there is not a single enzyme known that degrades it,” he said.

The degradation capabilities of the mix of bacteria Sun and his team identified were the “best I have ever seen”, he said, but cautioned that further study was needed.

“By simply having a bacterial community that degrades plastic … it is not easy to define the exact bacteria and enzyme that does [the work],” he said. “That is another couple of years’ work to come down to that.”

Douglas Woodring, the founder and managing director of Ocean Recovery Alliance, a Hong Kong and US-based environmental organisation, agreed on the need for more research, as well as better regulation and corporate responsibility.

“While I am not dismissing the new discovery, we should not be overexcited and put all our hope on one solution,” he said. “We have all of the technologies needed to resolve the plastic pollution crisis today, but they are not being used.”

PET, he said was “one of the easiest of all plastics to collect and recycle, yet we still hardly do it on a scale that matches the volumes of bottles put into our economies”.

Paul Zimmerman, chairman of Drink Without Waste, a Hong Kong-based plastic recycling initiative said it was also necessary to consider the logistical implications of the new findings.

“Collecting plastic from the ocean is expensive. Unless you suggest that the bacteria is released in the ocean to eat the plastics up, but that creates a high risk of changing nature and unintended consequences,” he said.

Originally published at Asia one

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