The environment is already suffocated with tons of undecomposed plastic waste. Ever since, it has always been an alarming situation for the inhabitants of earth as this possesses a threat to the living organisms.
Piled-up plastic waste is a menace. It not only causes harm to humans and animals but also degrades the quality of the soil. It makes the land barren or infertile and leads to the death of many plants. It also affects the marine ecosystem by polluting water bodies.
The decomposition of plastic waste has been a great matter of concern. Scientists all over the world have been trying hard to find solutions to this persistent problem. Somewhere around March 2016 in Japan, scientists came up with a brilliant way of tackling plastic waste. While testing different bacteria from a bottle recycling facility, they discovered Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 that was able to digest single-use plastic like polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
How does it work?
The bacteria secretes an enzyme (a type of protein), called PETase, that breaks the chemical bonds or chain of molecules that are later consumed by the bacteria. The digestion takes place at 30 degrees centigrade. This characteristic makes the process suitable enough for being recycled in bioreactors.
How practical is it?
Though plastic-consuming bacteria exist, it would take years for the bacteria to decompose tons of plastic waste that is generated over the years. In order to make Ideonella sakaiensis work and break down the molecules of single-use plastic fast, they must be chemically altered or bioengineered. In the year 2018 in the UK and US, scientists had modified the plastic-breaking bacteria that could decompose plastic within days. Later, in October 2020, the researchers combined the two different plastic-eating enzymes that the bacteria produced into one super enzyme.
Though the whole process is still under scrutiny, it does give a ray of hope. With each passing day, the bacteria will evolve and digesting plastic would not be a challenge anymore. If the situation demands, the bacteria can also be chemically altered or a blend of two different plastic-consuming enzymes can be used to decompose the waste.
Does it mean we will have a plastic-free environment?
It will undoubtedly be one of the biggest discoveries but if the bacteria starts consuming every existing plastic, it would be a problem that will have no solution. As plastic is durable and used for packaging and storing products, the manufacturers or stockers will have a hard time saving them from getting contaminated. Therefore, thorough research is required that will be helpful in both decomposing and saving plastic from Ideonella sakaiensis.