Humankind’s Get Out of Jail Free Card: Plastic-Eating Bacteria

It was 22 years ago that scientists found naturally occurring bacteria that eats plastic. That’s a short cut explanation for a discovery every bit as significant as Darwin’s theory of evolution. This is according to scientific brains who live in a factual, not a theoretical, world. For this plastic-eating bacteria actually breaks down the synthetic material and captures its carbon.

The carbon itself allows it to multiple and produce more bacteria whose diet is exclusively plastic. It’s a perpetual cycle of waste management. And the plastic itself? It’s not just any plastic, but Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). PET is the most prevalent form of plastic in our devil-may-care consumerist society.

Most Wanted

Imagine if there were an FBI-type list of the things most threatening to sustainability and the future of the planet. PET would reign supreme as the agent provocateur of an era characterized by convenience without accountability. So in a year almost solely remembered for the next-level air piracy of 9/11, 2001 was also the time when the threshold of irreversibility was pushed back without us knowing, perhaps forever.

To most of us – those who manage to remember to separate plastics from paper when we dispose of our garbage – this discovery is a righteous affirmation of our behaviour. But in the arena of science, that there exists a natural cure to the consequences of humankind’s bad habits has delivered a break through in the study of microbiology.

In the two decades since plastic-eating bacteria was first seen, there has been renewed energy put into the study of micro-organisms. Because this research has led the scientific community to believe that the active ingredient which breaks down Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) can be ‘steroided’ into a super-enzyme.

Such a voracious protein would be primed to devour PET at a much faster rate than the natural variety.

Is there a catch? Who knows. But knowing that we might not be the authors of our own destruction has come as a relief.

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