The discovery of plastic-eating bugs at a dump in Japan in 2016 could hold the answer to solving the international plastic pollution problem and allow for the first time the full recycling of plastic bottles.
It might sound like science fiction, but these Japanese bugs are the first known to have developed the ability to produce an enzyme capable of breaking down the plastic used for soft drink bottles in a relatively short period when you consider the amount of time it takes to achieve the same result in the ocean.
Enzymes are biodegradable, non-toxic and can be produced in considerable volume by microorganisms.
The scientific team was responsible for studying the plastic eating enzyme’s evolution discovered during the process that they had improved upon the molecule, speeding up the process of breaking down polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET by almost 20%. There is hope the enzyme can be further optimized to facilitate turning plastics back to their base components so that it can be recycled fully back into plastic once again.
There is too much plastic in our oceans
There is much optimism that once fully developed, this enzyme could be used to diminish the ever-increasing problems related to dumping plastics into our oceans and waterways. These discarded plastics over time begin to degrade due to sun exposure. The force of the tides turns plastic refuse into microplastics that are consumed by fish and eaten by other marine life and then end up back in our food supply – harmful to marine life and consumers.
It is estimated that 14 billion pounds of garbage is being dumped into the oceans every year. Currently, we recycle about 14% of PET-based plastic bottles across the globe, and the current method can only turn the plastic into fibers to be repurposed into carpeting or clothing. The potential of this new enzyme to reduce the number of microplastics contaminating our waters make this discovery one that could benefit the entire planet.