Bugs that eat PET plastic – great news?

So, as many of you probably now a team of Japanese researchers have discovered a bug that ‘eats’ PET plastic (this is the type of plastic you coke bottle, or indeed most bottles come in). This is obviously exciting as until now they were seeing bottles hanging around 50+ years and although there are a few fungi out there which do help we have a big issue with plastic including these PET types so any extra help is always good news.

This new bacterium they have named Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 (catchy 😉 and from their understanding so far can nearly completely degrade a thin film of PET after 6 weeks at 30 degree C temperatures (Griffiths, 2016). So at first this seems like the breakthrough everyone has been seeking – the number of shares I alone have seen on Facebook tell me of the excitement this causes and I too am pleased – however, lets just read that again.

It nearly breaks down completely degrade a thin film of PET after 6 weeks  at 30 degrees Celsius 

So, it doesn’t quite break it down (I am guessing it gets it down to microplastic bits – but I am no scientist so don’t quote me on that) but it’s more the rest that bothers me. It was a thin film that took 6 weeks in temperatures which aren’t consistent to U.K. weather so if used here would take energy to produce at  a consistent level. Making energy to provide the heat to get rid of a problem we keep creating more of, in a world where we are running short of fuel.

They also found this:

Further investigation identified an enzyme called ISF6-4831, which works with water to break down PET into an intermediate substance, which is then further broken down by a second enzyme, ISF6-0224.These two enzymes can break down PET into its simpler building blocks. (Griffiths, 2016)

Again this is exciting – we want to find new ways of getting rid of plastic – the problem is we still have a lot of plastic already needing breaking down and we keep producing more. My concern is looking at all the shares is that people see this as “hope” in “too hopeful a way” (sorry folks). This is great steps forward but it is going to take years to undo the current crop of plastic floating in our oceans and residing on our streets.

My worry is that these enzymes which are such positive steps forward are being seen by too many as a means to keep using plastic the way we have been – which frankly even with these new enzymes is still ecologically unsustainable.

I worry these enzymes actually mean we will see more of this:
image1 (23).JPG

Now, obviously all these things aren’t plastic – but if you look how many objects can you see which are? How many that don’t like plastic which may have a plastic thin layer on it? And this is just one tiny bit of a fence by the side of a small road in Sheffield. This is microcosm of litter that didn’t make the bins. The rest (in Sheffield at least) keeps getting burned (90% upwards), which may reduce the amount of plastic lying around but has its own issues attached to it.

I guess I just want to encourage folks to keep sharing the good news when there are scientific breakthroughs – we need them in tackling the plastic crisis – but keep it in perspective. Refusing plastic first is, in my opinion, still the best option and then reusing, reducing, recycling…and all the rest. Less is always more 🙂

 

References 
Griffiths, S., (2016) The Bug That Eats Plastic from Mail Online, Accessed 24/03/2016 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3486167/The-bug-eats-PLASTIC-Bacteria-breaks-bottles-bags-help-clean-planet.html#ixzz43rfAotwx

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