Our lakes, rivers and oceans are increasingly polluted by plastic. They are released from useful and incredibly durable plastic products produced by the oil and gas industry. This huge amount of plastic waste has grown exponentially over the past 60 years. Around 10 million tons of plastic bottles, nets, bags, buckets and food packaging, are intentionally or unintentionally dumped into our river systems each year. Plastic pollution can kill marine life, and destroy body parts, including humans, if ingested them.

What can we do? For 70 years, people have been trying to recycle plastic but not much success. Some people think it will never really work because there are so many different types of plastic, and they often can’t be recycled together. In addition, recycling plastic is more expensive than producing new plastic; The plastics industry is expected to produce amount three times by 2040, with current capacity.

plastic pollution

Plastic has become so popular in our ecosystem that bacteria have evolved to be able to digest it. Those bacteria may now offer a hope in recycling plastic waste. To save the cost of recycling, people need to find chemical enzymes that can decompose plastic quickly, restoring the original molecular structure. By studying these plastic-eating bacteria, scientists have discovered some enzymes that can break down plastic much faster than a decade ago.

It’s a big advance over traditional recycling, which uses heat to melt plastic, resulting in the material being degraded and less useful. After demonstrating the new technique, a company in France called Carbios is expected to recycle 50,000 tons of plastic a year soon. But this might just be a start. Humans know very little about the world’s microorganisms. The microbiome – the universe of all microorganisms – is a storehouse of chemicals that help create new drugs, and other potentially useful biochemical compounds.

plastic pollution thanks to bacteria

In a study published last year, biologist Aleksej Zelezniak of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, and colleagues identified plastic-degrading enzymes in the genomes of many bacteria, including both in the ocean and in the soil. And there is a strong correlation between the diversity of such enzymes and the amount of local plastic pollution. In the 60 years that plastic pollution has been with us, bacteria have responded by evolving biochemically to digest plastic as a food source.

Of course, there are other barriers to plastic recycling, especially the lack of widespread community involvement. It is starting to change thanks to China’s ban on plastic waste imports, which has made it difficult for Western nations to hide their plastic pollution by transporting waste far away. But we need even stronger commitment from countries to tax plastic packaging, and to encourage packaging alternatives that use less plastic, or don’t use any packaging at all. If we take these steps, it’s not too crazy to hope that, in 10 or 20 years, scientists can figure out how to create a set of enzymes that can rapidly digest a variety of plastics.