Is plastic-eating bacteria the answer to waste reduction?

Plastic. You can find it in the bottles we drink from, in the clothes we wear, in the chairs we sit on, and in many other products we use daily. Plastics can serve us for long or short periods of time depending on our demands, and by now, the majority of the world’s population is aware of the detrimental effects of plastics in our environment. Even with recycling programs, we still find almost 90% of plastics entering landfills or polluting our ecosystems. In 2016, scientists discovered plastic-eating bacteria to help reduce plastic pollution and reverse negative effects on the environment. 

An article published in 2018 by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) challenges the benefits of plastic-eating bacteria. EDF’s Chief Oceans Scientist Douglas Rader stated that although man-made bacteria could potentially help reduce the amount of existing plastic waste, releasing bacteria into the environment still poses a hazardous risk. We are unaware of how these bacteria will spread and should not be hasty to solve the plastic problem without further research. Relying on bacteria to decompose our waste is a great idea, however, it is not sustainable as we produce waste faster than the bacteria can break it down. Still, we should avoid planting man-made bacteria into natural habitats. 

Rader also noted in his article that: 

  1. Plastics can absorb toxic chemicals that can re-enter the environment if the plastic decomposes via microbes. 
  2. There are already natural microbes that exist and are feeding on plastic! 

On a positive note, an article published by the NYT this past October explained that in a recent study, scientists discovered that plastics can decompose in a few decades or centuries when exposed to sunlight. According to the article, plastic eventually breaks down into trace amounts of organic carbon when previously, it was known to decompose over thousands of years. Scientists are now concerned about available surface area exposure and buried plastics which are shielded from sunlight. You can read more here.

With all of this in mind, let’s work together to reduce our plastic consumption as a preventative measure. This important first step in the reduce, reuse, recycle hierarchy is often overlooked but can significantly help diminish plastic waste. So, try to avoid purchasing plastics all together!

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