The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Pacific trash vortex. A danger to marine life everywhere. Regardless of what you choose to call it, there is no denying the level of concern that the sight of 3.6 trillion pieces of plastic floating around in the ocean brings.
Triple the size of France, this debris harms wildlife, disturbs marine food webs, and pollutes the ocean water. Since it mostly consists of non-biodegradable microplastics, this patch is unlikely to break down by itself in the foreseeable future. However, a recent scientific find brings hope: the discovery of plastic-digesting bacteria.
While collecting plastic bottles outside a research facility in Japan, scientists observed a species of bacteria “eating” its way through the plastic. Most bacteria usually absorb dead organic matter but, it turns out, Ideonella sakaiensis developed a taste for polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is widely used in daily life; in fact, virtually all single-serving and 2-liter bottles of soft drinks and water sold in the U.S. are made from PET.
Upon further analysis of the bacteria, scientists were able to determine the exact mechanism that allows Ideonella sakaiensis to digest PET. Essentially, the bacteria produce two digestive enzymes called PETase. When these enzymes come into contact with plastic, they break down the long molecular chains into shorter chains called monomers. These monomers are further metabolized by the bacteria and used to release energy for growth.
As exciting as this discovery is, this bacteria, unfortunately, comes with a few shortcomings. Firstly, it can’t decompose PET fast enough to mitigate the tens of millions of plastic waste that enters the environment every year, eventually accumulating in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. To solve this issue, genetic scientists are working on ways to increase the efficiency of this bacteria, hoping that one day it will be fast enough to help negate the effects of plastic pollution. One current research venture is to transfer PETase from Ideonella sakaiensis to a type of bacteria that produces enzymes at a faster rate, such as E. Coli, but they don’t expect this to succeed any time soon. Secondly, it’s important to remember that PET is only one of the six types of plastic that contributes to plastic pollution. Therefore, although being able to degrade it is a remarkable achievement, we are still unable to degrade other plastics using enzymes.
As aforementioned, these advances are timely. During COVID-19, the use of single-use plastics has only increased, due to masks and takeaway boxes, and scientists have now calculated that Earth is on track to have as much plastic in the ocean as fish by weight in 2050. Therefore, it’s still important to actively work towards reducing plastic pollution. Here are some steps from our No Plastic Please campaign you can take to reduce your use of plastic:
- Use metal straws
- Equip yourself with reusable cutlery when ordering takeout
- Encourage nearby restaurants to use compostable containers (or bring your own Tupperware!)
- Switch to a reusable water bottle
- Order your morning cappuccino in a reusable mug
- Deter from disposable plastic
- Use reusable bags while shopping
- Take HAP’s “No Plastic Please” pledge by clicking here!
Moreover, while scientists work to improve the efficiency of plastic-digesting bacteria, we can work alongside them through our own efforts to improve the current state of plastic pollution. Through these combined efforts, it is likely that one day, the daunting Great Pacific Garbage Patch will be a thing of the past.
Abhi, this is really great! My only suggestions are the action items I mentioned in the comments. Please let me know if that feedback isn’t clear.