Finding Could Shrink Mounds of Plastic

Discovery could be a recycling breakthrough
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 10, 2023 4:05 PM CDT
Microbes Found That Can Digest Plastics at Lower Temperatures
Pakistani laborers sort through empty bottles at a plastic recycling factory in Hyderabad, Pakistan, on April 30.   (AP Photo/Pervez Masih)

Scientists have been aware of microorganisms that can digest plastic, but they're of limited help. They mostly need temperatures over 86 degrees Fahrenheit to function; heating the environment for them is impractical and not carbon neutral. But now microbes have been isolated that can do the work at a much lower temperature, about 59 degrees, the Guardian reports. Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute WSL documented their work in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology. The discovery was made in the Alps and the Arctic. "These organisms could help to reduce the costs and environmental burden of an enzymatic recycling process for plastic," one of the researchers said.

Just more than half of the strains tested—11 fungi and eight bacteria—could digest biodegradable polyester-polyurethane (PUR); 14 fungi and three bacteria digested the plastic mixtures of polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) and polylactic acid (PLA). None could digest non-biodegradable polyethylene (PE). It's a trail scientists have been on for a while, and an American researcher has pointed out the challenge in the past. "Think about the sheer scale on which we manufacture plastics and the low value of these plastics," said Susannah Scott, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It's a tall order to ask biology to do that well." (More microplastics stories.)

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