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Plastic-eating microbes

How are microbes helping to reduce plastic waste?

Given the frequent news stories highlighting the amount of plastic in the oceans, it comes as a surprise to hear that there is not actually as much as scientists would expect to find. The difference in amounts is significant, too – estimates of what should be found are at least ten times higher than the reality.

So why is this?

Nobody knows for sure, but one theory is that plastic-eating microbes have evolved and multiplied as their food source has increased. Such microbes certainly exist; a team in Japan has discovered a bacterium, which they have named Ideonella sakainesis, which uses enzymes to break down, and obtain energy, from PET. A colony of these plastic-eating microbes were able to break down a thin film of PET over six weeks as long as their environment was maintained at a steady 86 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Given that PET is readily recyclable, encouraging bacteria to eat it isn’t the best way of handling new waste, but could point to a way to dealing with waste that has already been carelessly disposed of, and found its way into the sea and soil. 

Bacteria may also explain how it is that wax moth caterpillars can digest plastic. The moths get their name from their habit of feeding on beeswax. Frederica Bertocchini, a scientist in Spain who keeps bees as a hobby, had to clear an infestation of the hungry caterpillars from her hives.

Having put the debris into plastic bags, she noticed by chance that the caterpillars had eaten their way out. It is thought, though not yet proven, that the ability to digest plastic may lie with bacteria that live in the moth’s gut (this is certainly true of another insect that seems able to eat plastic, the Indian mealmoth).

What is less clear is whether the caterpillars ate their way through the plastic bags because they were hungry, or simply to escape! 

Farming these insects and plastic-eating microbes in the interests of digesting plastic waste may not be a great idea. For example, the event that led to the discovery of the wax moth caterpillar’s plastic-eating ability reflects the devastation they wreak on bee colonies, which are already under huge pressures.

However, if the enzymes that break the plastic down can be synthesised, they could then become a practical tool for handling waste. 

It’s all interesting stuff. In the meantime, we would like to reassure Cambrian customers that 1) virtually all our products are recyclable and 2) we have not yet had any reports of any of our packaging being eaten!