But I do understand why the concept of bacterial help might make some people a little nervous. After all, if plastic is everywhere and these bacteria eat plastic, isn’t there a risk of these bacteria getting out in the environment and wreaking havoc?
Well, the short answer is no, and I’ll tell you why. These bacteria are already in the environment. The bacteria in my research are not genetically modified frankenbugs. These are naturally occurring bacteria that have simply adapted to their plastic-polluted environment and evolved the incredibly gnarly ability to eat PET plastic.
So the process of bacteria eating plastic is actually a natural one. But it’s an incredibly slow process. And there remains a lot of work to be done to figure out how to speed up this process to a useful pace.
My research is currently looking at ways of doing this through a series of UV, or ultraviolet pretreatments, which basically means we blast PET plastic with sunlight. We do this because sunlight acts a bit like tenderizer on a steak, turning the big, tough, durable bonds in PET plastic a bit softer and a bit easier for my bacteria to chew on.
Ultimately, what my research hopes to do is create an industrial-scale contained carbon-free system, similar to a compost heap, where these bacteria can thrive in a contained system, where their sole food source is PET plastic waste.
Imagine one day being able to dispose of all of your plastic waste in a bin at the curb that you knew was bound for a dedicated bacteria-powered plastic waste facility. I think with some hard work this is an achievable reality.
Plastic-eating bacteria is not a cure-all. But given the current statistics, it’s clear that we humans, we could use a little help with this problem. Because people, we possess a pressing problem of plastic pollution. And bacteria might be a really important part of the solution.
Download This Transcript as PDF here: The Bacterial Solution to Plastic Pollution_ Morgan Vague (Transcript)
Resources for Further Reading: