Plastic-Devouring Bacteria Could Keep Soda Bottles Out of Landfills

By Eliza Strickland | September 22, 2008 5:01 pm

water bottles plasticResearchers have discovered new strains of Pseudomonas bacteria that feed on the PET plastic used in drink bottles, and turn it into a more valuable, biodegradable form of plastic. The discovery suggests a way to keep billions of pounds of discarded plastic out of landfills; a 2006 study [pdf] found that less than 25 percent of PET plastic is currently recycled because the industry doesn’t have enough use for the end product.

Getting high-quality material — such as plastics suitable for packaging food or beverages —- back out of recycled plastic is more expensive than making virgin PET, so most plastic bottles are recycled into lower-grade, and less valuable, plastic. But there’s only so much demand for lower-grade plastics, says microbiologist and coauthor Kevin O’ Connor…. “The problem is that the market [for recycled PET] is saturated” [Science News].

The researchers knew that heating PET plastic in the absence of oxygen produces a substance called terephthalic acid, which some bacteria feed on. They also know that other bacteria produce a high quality plastic called PHA that could have numerous applications in medicine–because PHA plastic is biodegradable, it’s ideally suited for sutures, wound dressings, and various implants. The researchers hoped to find a bacteria that fed on terephthalic acid and produced PHA plastic, so they collected soil bacteria from a bottle processing plant.

As reported in their paper, published in Environmental Science and Technology [subscription required], after 48 hours they screened each culture for PHA. Three cultures, all similar to known strains of Pseudomonas, accumulated detectable quantities of the valuable plastic. The next step is to improve the efficiency of the process, says O’Connor. “A quarter to a third of each cell is filled with plastic – we want to increase that to 50 to 60%” [New Scientist].

Image: flickr/fhemerick

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
MORE ABOUT: bacteria, plastic, recycling
  • modernrocko

    Didn’t a teenager discover this bacteria which speeds biodegradation in plastics for a science experiment? I remember hearing about that some time ago… or was that a different type of plastic?

  • Gay Guy

    I htink this is all a bunch of cow dunge. Bottles in landfills? WTF!! RECYCLE PEOPLE!!!!

    And to mister moderater dude, if you don’t approve this comment, i will hunt you down and eat your babies!!!

    Lick my crack y’all!

  • Max

    I agree…we should recycle. The reality is that there are 150 billion bottles being produced each year and only 20-30 percent is being recycled. Even when we recycle, sooner or later plastic bottles which were made into other objects (carpet, leisure suits, etc.) will end up in a land fill. We support recycling 100%, but we have also taken the approach that
    something needed to be done……and now.

    We knew that there wasn’t going to be one “fix it all” answer and began to wonder if anything was ever going to be done. The problem was growing every day, more bottles were being manufactured and more bottles were accumulating in places where we didn’t need them.

    We were wondering if “Earth Friendly Bottles” would ever be available?

    That’s why decided to do our part and started ENSO Bottles. We are partnering with other companies to offer a PET plastic bottle that will biodegrade, compost or recycle.
    Our plastic bottles can enter the normal recycling stream with regular PET plastic bottles.

    ENSO’s goal is to achieve sustainability with our plastic bottles. WE feel that ENSO plastic bottles can provide a useful service and have a positive impact on our environment.

    We all need to do our part and support recycling programs, construction of bio-reactor landfills and continue developing technology that will make plastics “Earth Friendly.”
    We’re doing those things at ENSO, we offer a plastic bottle that is earth friendly…it’s just one step in the right direction. If we all take just one step toward improving our planet….we will make a difference.


  • dedz

    well a kid did find a bacteria that degrade plastic bags, It was the same bacteria they’r using here but I’am not sure if they would follow the same application.
    Recycling is not everything tho!!! the industry doesn’t have enough use for the end product.”q” plus biotechnologiest need to have a job 😉


  • April Dyer

    Why don’t we start buying less bottled water?

  • Pal

    I just want to add this “Taxes do not solve pollution issues but sincere recycling and technological solutions will.” If the green side of the aisle would stick to getting people to recycle and invest in new technologies to solve or prevent pollution rather than playing the ‘taxes’ card every time I believe the environmental movement would benefit hugely.

    Taxes only benefit politicians to buy more power and alienate those who resent paying them for this reason.


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