The Plastic Pollution Scare just Fizzled


Guest essay by Eric Worrall

The Guardian reports, surprise, that a species of bacteria has been discovered which can eat plastic.

Could a new plastic-eating bacteria help combat this pollution scourge?

Scientists have discovered a species of bacteria capable of breaking down commonly used PET plastic but remain unsure of its potential applications.

Nature has begun to fight back against the vast piles of filth dumped into its soils, rivers and oceans by evolving a plastic-eating bacteria – the first known to science.

In a report published in the journal Science, a team of Japanese researchers described a species of bacteria that can break the molecular bonds of one of the world’s most-used plastics – polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET or polyester.

The Japanese research team sifted through hundreds of samples of PET pollution before finding a colony of organisms using the plastic as a food source.

Further tests found the bacteria almost completely degraded low-quality plastic within six weeks. This was voracious when compared to other biological agents; including a related bacteria, leaf compost and a fungus enzyme recently found to have an appetite for PET.

Read more:

The abstract of the study;

A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate)

Poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET) is used extensively worldwide in plastic products, and its accumulation in the environment has become a global concern. Because the ability to enzymatically degrade PET has been thought to be limited to a few fungal species, biodegradation is not yet a viable remediation or recycling strategy. By screening natural microbial communities exposed to PET in the environment, we isolated a novel bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, that is able to use PET as its major energy and carbon source. When grown on PET, this strain produces two enzymes capable of hydrolyzing PET and the reaction intermediate, mono(2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalic acid. Both enzymes are required to enzymatically convert PET efficiently into its two environmentally benign monomers, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol.

Read more:

What amazes me is that anyone is surprised by this discovery. Anyone who has ever owned a large boat knows about the constant and often losing battle to control fungus and bacteria growing in the diesel tanks, and the hideously toxic biocides you have to keep adding to the fuel, to stop all the organic muck from blocking the fuel filter. Life finds a way.

100 thoughts on “The Plastic Pollution Scare just Fizzled

    • losing battle to control fungus and bacteria
      not just in diesel. black mildew of course gets on everything. but the real worry in the tropics is a fuzzy white mold that attacks all sorts of synthetic “rubber” products such as swim fins, masks and some brands of rubber dinghies. things that you would think were almost indestructible, reduced to a soft goo.
      and rats. if you have any food aboard and don’t have rat guards on all your lines it is only a matter of time. once aboard the rat will eat through any amount of plastic to get to the food. whatever color the plastic, the rat turds will match. It is a real heartbreak, thousands of dollars of gear destroyed.

      • “rat will eat through any amount of plastic to get to the food”
        Spot on! I live in Phoenix, Arizona, and last year we had the electrical systems of TWO cars destroyed, both of which were parked in our garage (the cars, not the rats). And shortly after, rats destroyed a two year old water softener. They just LOVE the plastic and rubber covering electrical wires.
        Prior to this there was one botched control attempt with a trap where I had to “finish the job” with a hammer – I felt so bad for the rat that I removed the remainder of the traps. I now no longer have such compunctions – we have traps and poisons, and if I could work out the logistics I would place feral cats and dogs in the garage for good measure!

  1. I thought the supposedly indestructable plastic trash would just collect barnacles until it’s buoancy was overcome, and just sink to the bottom. Non-biodegradable evidently isn’t.

  2. It sounds like the start of an old Doomwatch episode. Stand by as the environmentalists prophesies aeroplanes falling from the sky as rampant plastic-eating bacteria gobbles up the insides.

      • Yes but in the end the Andromeda strain mutated itself into something harmless to humans. But somehow I do not think that real nature would be so kind to us.

      • I disagree, Tom. A virus that rapidly kills its host is a horrible survival strategy. Which virus is more successful? Ebola, which flares up and dies off, always on the the edge of extinction in humans, or HPV, which infects about 80% of the human population sometime in their lifetimes?
        There is strong evolutionary pressure for pathogens to be less lethal.

      • re: benofhouston March 11, 2016 at 8:38 am
        What do you disagree with? I didn’t say a real nature virus would have to kill anyone. I said a real nature virus wouldn’t be so kind as to mutate itself so it couldn’t harm humans. Think herpes, almost everyone has some form of it, some worse than others, but the virus continues to exist without killing anyone so yes, it is highly successful. Or the flu virus, constantly mutating in order to continue to use humans as hosts. Both make us sick but do not kill us directly (other complications do).

  3. So a new endangered species is born.
    Unless we conspicuously discard plastic into the environment this precious rare species will starve.
    Oh the horror.
    What to do with my water bottle.
    Decisions decisions.
    Sarcasm aside I suspect this bacteria has been around for a lot longer than plastics.

    • @ Rhoda, if not there? Then they are surely in my car, I have put many a plastic bag in my cars over the years only to find them deteriorated within a short time, every 3-4 weeks I replace them with new ones the old ones are mostly unusable.

  4. My guess is it works ok in a specialized environment and not at all for any real needs. The third world is covered in plastic (among other things).
    While driving in rural Mexico, one used to tell how far a town was away by the density of beer cans littering the roadway. Not anymore. Cans are now worth money. Something similar needs to be done with used plastic.
    Perhaps Mr. Gore could put his money where his mouth should be and fund a worthwhile cause.

    • Seems to work in all the oceans. There is a surprising lack of plastic particles under 1mm2 in size. If plastic were not being eaten by bacteria we would expect this size particle to grow in number as the years go by as plastic breaks apart into smaller and smaller bits. It is believed once the plastic is that small, it is easily digested by these bacteria and is therefore consumed, answering one of the puzzles.of the plastic gyre in the Pacific (it is actually relatively sparse of plastic, the news reports always show 3rd world harbors after storms to get those scary plastic pictures.)

    • If you’re seeing plastic litter, every time it rains the bottom of that plastic is getting gnawed on a little. Life likes hydrocarbons and water.

  5. Interesting that Nature evolved this bacterium rather than it evolving by its own efforts. Also Nature is “fighting back” – like it is an entity that gives a shit! I guess Darwinian evolution is beyond their grasp, Directed (by Nature) Evolution is their “truth”. Almost Intelligent Design isn’t it?. None of that messy Science here!
    You can never underestimate the cretinism of The Guardian. No wonder they love AGW with its undertones and overtones of existential guilt (for adding CO2 to the atmosphere, as in breathing out) and repentance (suffer and pay money to the “high priests”).
    I guess Carbon Credits are a post-Christian form of buying Indulgences, so you don’t burn in hell for your sins.

    • I wonder if they realized that the statement “Nature is fighting back” also implies a Creator rather than evolution?

      • Creation was a long time ago. Nature has been managing on its own since then. Or is life simply a windup creation, blindly driven to follow a path already written in stone?

    • “Nature has begun to fight back” Rather nature takes advantage. Nature doesn’t fight, nature has no state of mind, it doesn’t even have a mind.

  6. Does this bacteria eat all common grades of PET used for plastic bottles and other items that get into the sea?
    Are there any bacteria that eat polyethylene? Polypropylene? Polystyrene?

    • Given the bacteria and fungus in my boating experience thrives on diesel fuel, which is a random mix of aromatics and short to medium chain aliphatics, I wouldn’t be surprised.
      The only plastic which might be truly difficult to eat is Teflon, but who knows.
      Put enough potential high calorie potential food into the ocean, and something will have a go. Life finds a way.

      • My experience was in freshwater. I’ve heard the whatever it is lives in the water and feeds on the fuel at the interface? And it’s their waste products that plugged the filters? My workaround was refueling at the end of the workday allowing everything to settle overnight. Life is everywhere.

    • Biochemical reactions that break down aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons are known and probably aren’t the bottleneck. The bigger problem is probably the solubility. It is difficult for an enzyme protein molecule to attack a solid surface. With polyesters, it may be that these bacteria release some acid, which hydrolyses the polymer, and they then simply gobble up the released monomers. This problem will be harder to solve with polymers that are held together by pH-insensitive bonds. So my guess is that the degradation would at least proceed a lot more slowly.

    • any bacteria that eat polyethylene
      poly breaks down in UV. it loses strength and then turns to powder. it is a nuisance because it floats and often washes ashore. otherwise it becomes covered in shell and sinks into the abyss.

  7. I’m not surprised at anything the ocean has at its disposal.
    Before CO2 controlled the world as we know it (back in the ’80s) I hurriedly parked my boat on a mooring on Sydney Harbour before I had a chance to anti-foul the hull.
    Just 3 weeks later I pulled it out, and it had become part of the marine environment – it was being consumed by thousands of hard little growths.
    Had to literally grind those hard shells off the hull – they were like ceramic.

  8. “Scientists have discovered a species of bacteria capable of breaking down commonly used PET plastic …”
    Sorry, but you’ll find China already beat you to the punch, they clearly already include such a bacteria with all of their plastic products.

  9. “Fizzles?” That’s a bit premature when the whole article is read.
    “However the potential applications of the discovery remain unclear…
    This particular bacteria would not be useful for this process as it only consumes PET, which is too dense to float on water. But Bornscheuer said the discovery could open the door to the discovery or manufacture of biological agents able to break down other plastics….
    But Mincer said breaking down ocean rubbish came with dangers of its own. Plastics often contain additives that can be toxic when released. WEF estimates that the 150m tonnes of plastic currently in the ocean contain roughly 23m tonnes of additives.
    “Plastic debris may have been less toxic in the whole unhydrolyzed form where it would ultimately have been buried in the sediments on a geological timescale,” said Mincer….”
    “Potential answer” would be more accurate.

    • Is not the UV level higher at the top of the ocean? Have you ever tried to get the green, pink, black, etc stain off of a piece of plastic? Have you ever looked at a piece of plastic (any type) through a microscope after you (think) you have gotten that “growth” scrubbed off?

      • @barry
        Even a high school graduate knows that UV light will degrade most plastic. As the plastic degrades, it makes a great home for bacteria. Looking through a microscope you might discover that the green, pink, black stain you find on most plastic left outside for a period of time is mold, and bacterial related. And since “it only consumes PET, which is too dense to float on water.” would it not sink to the bottom and not be a problem.
        Are you claiming there is no fungus or bacteria that will attack the plastic? If so please explain to me what that growth is on the cheap plastic yard furniture? The Expensive composite decking? The “microbactorial” coated play toys that also develop the same growth after a few years? And I can assume that you have never heard of one of those plastic lawn chairs that became brittle from the UV light? Or since you feel YOU are the expert please educate me rather than demeaning my statement.

    • That is not surprising, the gulf leaks more oil than dozens of those deep water horizon well leaks and something has to be cleaning it up. It certainly isn’t the EPA fixing what nature couldn’t for millions of years.

    • Steve I read that article and thanks, it explains the mystery why my gas tank seems to go to empty much faster than using the car does

  10. The eco-left has an odd bunch of preoccupations.
    Meanwhile here are a couple of video on youtube explaining the purpose of the excellent work of the Blacksmith Institute in aiding Indonesia gold refiners in understanding how to reduce their exposure to mercury. their wasteful use of mercury and thereby also reduce the quantity dumped into the environment.
    Seemingly though this is not presented as a pressing issue in MSM. Perhaps because these poor indonesians are not the rich consumerist capitalists who are the focal target of the watermelon eco-left agenda. Call me cynical.
    (This is a link to part 1. The video also has a part 2).

    • Call me cynical.

      That doesn’t make you wrong. What we need is a witty saying like the following:

      Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. ― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

  11. It all starts with ethylene, H2C=CH2, that lovely alcohol. It can form Hydrogen bonds at all four corners. Make this be so and you have, wait for it, polyethylene. Work this hard and you get high density polyethylene, better known as milk bottles.
    Strange as it may seem the ethylene we started with will degrade PET. That’s why you don’t by booze in PET bottles. The plasticizer is known to create transgender mice.
    Now, I never did find out exactly which enzyme these bacteria used to break those fearsome Hydrogen bonds to get at the Carbon, but seemingly it need not be a huge evolutionary leap. Maybe just an evolutionary recollection.

    • Ah! yes! We must surely be getting close to a time when The Guardian finally discovers that World War Two has ended.

      • The first nylon-eating bacterium was discovered in Japan, just like this PET-eating microbe. Other species have since been found and recreated in labs. A single simple point mutation transforms sugar-eating bacteria into nylon-eaters.
        There is all the evidence in the world for the fact of evolution and against the fantasy of creationism.

      • evolution and against the fantasy of creationism
        more against the notion that all organisms were created in their final form and are unable to adapt to a changing environment. thus all change is bad for life.
        nothing would prevent a “creator” from giving life the ability to change to take advantage of changing conditions. nothing says the “creator” need be alive or even self-aware.
        perfection has no need of change, indeed it cannot change except to become less than perfect. nothing can make perfection more perfect, so there is no need for perfection to be alive or have awareness.

      • There is no evidence of a creator of species. As I tell creationist students, you can inject your divinity into the history of life on earth at whatever points you want, but there is no valid scientific reason for imagining such an entity.

    • Yeah, I balked at that one,too. I once cited a paper which demonstrated that nylon-eating bacteria were first discovered in the 1970s.

    • As usual we get good info from Willis.
      In the last 3 or 4 years there was a story of a Canadian High School student who IDed and at least partially isolated microbes that eat plastic. Canadian new outlets were impressed and he won a prize.
      Since I work at a landfill and am a former elected (petty) official I know that plastic waste from the 60s still looks pretty good now if kept from UV in a landfill. The methane, H2S, CO2, ammonia and acetic acid produce challenges for some of God’s bacterium. Archea are not bacteria, having a different DNA system and they are the methane releasers. But between, archea, bacteria and virii something destroys plastic in all it’s forms.

  12. Let’s hope they don’t try to control the rubbish in the same way that cane toads were released in Australia – a well known ‘success’ story.
    Imagine the potential trauma of your favourite sugary beverage leaking at an inappropriate moment due to this bacteria chewing the a$$ out of your container.
    How would they control it (or does that require another round of research funding?)?

  13. The adage “nothing new under the Sun” comes to mind.
    Everything is food for something else, or so it seems.
    The Bremer Canyon off the south coast of Western Australia is “boiling” with all type of small and large sea beasties.
    It appears that the methane bubbling from the sea floor is the primary piece of yummy stuff for those occupying the basement in the food chain. And so it goes on, and up, with an abundance of Great Whites and Orcas reveling and eating the derivatives.
    Nature…got to love it!

    • Enter the EPA. No longer can you recycle plastic bottles, you must pay to have them thrown into the ocean so these bacteria will not become extinct.

  14. Does anyone have any idea what’s going to happen if an aggressive plastic devouring organism manages to establish itself in a typical modern supermarket? Or in the paint aisle of the local hardware store? It won’t be pretty.
    That said, I think that it might be worth putting up with the nuisance if plastic devouring bacteria can make a dent in the apparently unending stream of indestructible plastic waste littering local roadsides, wooded patches, and lakeshores. I live in an area where there’s an organized statewide attempt every Spring to clean up the worst of the stuff, but it’d be nice to have some additional help with the stuff that’s in between rocks, in blackberry brambles, in swampy patches, or is otherwise hard to get to.

    • Oh yeah. And are plastic eating bacteria going to eat cars? There’s a lot of plastic in modern cars. How about the inards of aircraft and other public transportation vehicles. And the insulation on wiring in just about everything. May they’ll eat cell phones? Will cell phone owners then be able to focus a bit of attention on the universe around them after their phone dissolves into slime and/or dust?
      Maybe the bacteria will eat my lawnmower. It’s never been all that clear to me why I need a lawnmower. Or a lawn, actually.

      • The lawn is there to help remove the CO2 produced when you use your mower….
        Hmm, maybe you should remove the lawn and plant vegetables or something, no mower needed, and you get something to eat. 😀

      • Actually, my lawnmower is electric. Kind of heavy. And noisier than I hoped. But unlike virtually everything else I use electricity for, I probably could charge it with solar electricity without major inconvenience. No sunshine today? Ah shucks … can’t mow the lawn.
        Anyway, I loath small gasoline engines. They are noisy, polluting, and a pain to fix when they break — which is way too often.

    • I would be more concerned about urban and domestic plumbing, Nearly all the modern pipework below around a foot in diameter is plastic based on the because it doesn’t corrode. Well should variants of these bacteria develop in urban settings there could be huge problems. I would think it is only a matter of time as mankind is leaving all this free food in the environment something will develop or spread to use it.

  15. Oil makes plastic, plastic provides environment for bacteria to evolve, bacteria eats plastic. I can’t wait to hear that Exxon knew about this in the 70’s. Wait for the remake of The Graduate and its imortal line “The future isn’t plastic”.

  16. Reminds me of a BBC series in the late 60’s called “Doom Watch”. In one episode a bacteria designed to eat plastic escapes and starts eating electric wire insulation with disastrous consequences.

  17. Plastic is food and nature always finds a way to eat food. Nature has probably found a way to go airborne above the treetops to photosynthesize CO2 but there hasn’t been a government grant to find it yet.

  18. From 2014:
    An international team of experts has found evidence there is 100 times less plastic on ocean surfaces than expected. Professor Carlos Duarte, an oceanographer from the University of Western Australia, was part of the study that towed a mesh net through the world’s oceans….
    The scientists found about 40,000 tons of plastic waste floating in the ocean. The figure is far less than the 1 million tons that had been predicted based on data going back to 1970.
    Professor Duarte says among the concerns with fish eating the waste is the possibility that the plastic could eventually end up in the human food chain….Professor Duarte says there is also the chance the plastic is breaking down into pieces too small to detect or that microbes are degrading the plastic.

  19. The UV degrades the plastic, allowing wave action to break it up. The small pieces allow
    petroleum loving bacteria to attack it from all directions. The oceans are the best habitat
    for the petroleum loving bacteria because up welling hydrocarbons have been feeding them
    for billions of years, allowing natural selection to find the best bacteria for each variety
    of hydrocarbon.
    Teflon is a petroleum derived plastic. The hydrocarbon loving bacteria in soil is mostly
    designed by natural selection to eat only the components of natural gas because that
    is the “food” which is most available. Plastics in the ground and in the air are not in the
    environment which supports the required culture which could consume them.

      • Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, aka Teflon®) also contains carbon-carbon bonds, and is susceptible to degradation by UV light.

      • Er, not true. As with most man-made polymers, the backbone of PTFE consists of carbon-carbon single bonds in a chain. Fluorine atoms fill all of the other carbon bonding sites.

  20. This reminds me of the phenomenon of polystyrene biodegradation, discovered in the 1990’s, that made the most nihilistic enviros stop whining that the discarded polystyrene beverage cups and food packaging would last ‘forever’.

  21. Yet another example of how the negative feedbacks of Nature are charged and ready to go against any perturbation of the system. No one need be surprised at this latest one. Fungus and bacteria are very powerful agents of correction and are very hungry.
    The same and similar systems are in place and ready to go against any changes that increased CO2 may attempt in the atmosphere.

Comments are closed.