Plastic eating bacteria in the oceans
Huge plastic waste dumps float in the Oceans bigger than continents. Some 10% of world’s plastic waste finds its way into the sea and ends up in the central regions where slow moving circular currents trap debris into one large constantly moving mass of plastic. This is slowly being broken down into a plastic dust that marine wildlife mistake for food. Small fish consume tiny bits of plastic as if they were normal plankton. Those fish are then consumed by larger species and the plastic contamination moves up the food chain. Over a million seabirds, as well as more than 100 thousand marine mammals, die every year from ingesting plastic debris. Some researchers estimate that there are over six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton in the Pacific plastic waste dump.
Dead seabirds having mistaken plastics for food, have been found with discarded plastic lighters, water bottle caps and scraps of plastic bags in their stomachs. / Oceanic gyres: the circular movement of the ocean waters concentrates the plastic in the centre of the oceans.
But maybe things are not as bad as it looks: scientists working on the pollution saw that it did not grow in 22 years, even if the plastic production grew fourfold. An organism may be eating plastic in the ocean, but whether the bug is green or mean remains to be seen.
We knew that some microbes can degrade plastic in landfills, but now plastic is also being degraded in a nutrient-poor area of the sea, an ‘ocean desert’. This is really new!
The bacteria, found in a region of the North Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea, is clearly breaking down the plastic, but scientists don’t know if the byproduct is environment-friendly waste or a toxin. If a toxin is produced, the effects could be detrimental to aquatic life.
The finding suggests that the vast ‘garbage patches’ that have been found in the world’s oceans may be full of living communities.
The plastic particles can be seen as a type of artificial reef that certain types of microbes can colonize. Since plastic has a much longer residence time in the water column than any natural particle, this could be making a significant impact.
The part of the Sargasso Sea that scientists studied is depleted of phosphorous and other nutrients, in other words, the question is: are the plastic colonizers stealing away phosphorous from other organisms?
Plastic eating bacteria were first discovered by a teen-aged student
Daniel Burd may have figured out a way for humanity to take care of the five hundred million plastic bags tossed into landfills and the ocean every year.
For years people had been wondering if evolution could produce plastic eating organisms, Daniel Burd just tried: he had an idea; what if nature had already solved this problem? What if there was a microorganism that could do the job? With this question in mind, Burd collected soil samples from landfills and started feeding the bacteria contained therein a constant diet of ground up polythene bags. He found that a combination of Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas bacterial types worked the best together; he estimates that a complete degradation of a polythene bag could take as little as three months.
Plastics are a new trick that humans have played on the environment; if no organisms exist to decompose them, it is estimated that plastic bags and bottles will last for at least 400 years. Even then, the small bits or molecules of plastic may remain much longer.
Bacteria that can eat plastic hasve already been discussed by science fiction writers, and it’s not all good news. In ‘The Plastic Eaters’, Gerry Davis and Kit Pedlar wrote about a biological time bomb that could destroy necessary infrastructure. Earlier still, Michael Crichton wrote about it in his 1969 novel ‘The Andromeda Strain’.
Let’s hope that these plastic-eating bacteria can be kept in the landfills, where we need them.
The amount of ocean garbage is so enormous, even if we stop adding, the bacteria will need centuries to clean it up… so better start keeping the seas clean.
What can you do?
In the meantime the plastic garbage remains an enormous problem, even if it is very possible to recycle plastic, and when that is not possible it can be burned, and give energy.
What can you do to avoid plastic problems?
- use less plastic
- place garbage in a CLOSED bin
- take care that your plastic is being recycled
source: CNN and others