Around 5 to 10 years from now a tiny organism with an unusual appetite made a home in an industrial site near a bottle-recycling plant in Sakai, Japan.
Soil and water were contaminated with polyethene terephthalate, also known as PET. This is one of the most common plastics in the world, used to make from soda bottles to space blankets. It is cheap, durable, and flexible, but it can also linger for years.
In this plastic wasteland a new bacterium species, Ideonella sakaiensis, figured out how to do something that humans have struggled to do for decades. It could break PET down and use the plastic for energy.
This discovery moved scientists and engineers into a race to optimize nature’s tools to dissolve the overwhelming amount of plastic in the world.
Make it faster
“This discovery is amazing. It’s really cool,” said Gregg Beckham, a researcher studying plastic degradation at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado to Vox. “But the huge caveat is that it’s very slow.”
It took a colony about six weeks to completely degrade a sample PET sheet. This was done under precisely controlled laboratory conditions. It can take weeks, even months, for the bacterium to disassemble a PET bottle or food container in the real world. That’s far faster than plastic would degrade on its own, but it’s not fast enough for, say, a plastic digester we might build one day.
At that pace, it would be hard to justify the cost of building a facility to break down PET, and it would scarcely keep up with the speed at which our plastic waste is piling up.
But the fact that such an organism evolved at all should be troubling. We’re changing the world in unprecedented and unpredictable ways. And while the smallest motes of life may find a way to survive our waste, many creatures, on land and in the sea, may not.