Home OceansHow Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
OceansBy Trista -

Ocean pollution is an amalgamation of trash and chemicals, and a majority of these come from various land sources that are blown or washed into the ocean. It poses a severe threat to the environment and the well-being of coral reefs. Ocean pollution is growing at a concerning rate and killing millions of water species. 

This pollution comes primarily from human activities that include dumping farms or fertilizer and chemical waste into the water that choke the ocean life. There has been increased accumulation of harmful chemicals like phosphorus and nitrogen that promotes the development of algal blooms, elements that can be threatening to the presence of both animals and humans. 

Marine waste is a combination of various manufactured products which mostly include plastic that is dumped into the ocean. Storm winds, littering, and inadequate waste management contribute to the combination of the waste. 80% of ocean waste comes from various land sources. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Plastic bottles make up most of the waste. Shutterstock

1. Plastic is Taking Over the Ocean

A common type of land waste that ends up in the water bodies include beverage bottles, carry bags, cigarette butts, food wrappers, fishing gears, and bottle caps. Plastic has especially become a dangerous pollutant as it takes years to decompose. In fact, a standard plastic bottle can stay in water for around 450 years. The adverse impact of plastic waste in the environment has been vast. 

It has killed wildlife both above and under the water. Millions of sea birds and turtles die every year due to the plastic waste choking their digestive tracts. Thousands of marine animals get tangled in the plastic debris and other waste materials and get injured. 60 to 90% of ocean waste is encompassed by plastic waste, and by 2050 the amount of plastic will surpass the number of fish in the oceans. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Sea turtles eat plastic bags. Shutterstock

2. A Closer Look at How Plastic Has Affected the Marine Life 

Are you aware of the alarming facts that illustrate how plastic is killing our ocean? Fish in the North Pacific oceans alone consume 12000 to 24000 tons of plastic every year, resulting in intestinal issues, death, and transfer of harmful plastic into the food chain to bigger fishes and humans. A study found that a quarter of fish that came in the market in California contained plastic, in the form of microfibers in their guts. 

Sea turtles mistake plastic for food and consume it. It results in choking and eventual death of these species by starving. This is because plastic gets stuck in their intestines, making them think they are full of plastic. Unfortunately, 50% of the sea turtles around the world have injected plastic. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
A deceased sea turtle. Shutterstock

3. Those Poor Aquatic Animals

Similarly, thousands of seabirds also ingest plastic, which reduces the storage capacity of their stomach, resulting in starvation. According to a report, 60% of all seabirds have plastic pieces, and this number is predicted to elevate to 99% by the year 2050.

Plastic pieces have also been found in the stomachs of marine mammals. Dead whales have been found on the shores with a gut full of plastic. Additionally, it has resulted in the endangerment of species like Hawaiian monk seals, a Steller sea lion. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Garbage floating in the ocean. Shutterstock

4. How Does Plastic End Up in the Ocean?

Even if you live miles away from the ocean, the plastic that you throw carelessly end up in the sea. Once these plastic materials have found their way into the sea, it takes hundreds of years for them to decompose. There are different places where plastic ends up in the sea and some of the areas, including carelessly discarding plastic. 

Dumping garbage and litter in the sea is still a common practice around the world. According to the reports, garbage from river systems carries 90% of the plastic waste present in the ocean today. There are ten major river systems out of which eight are from Asia, including Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, Yellow, Amur, Pearl, Hai He, and the Mekong, and two from Africa that includes Niger and Nile. The poor waste management system is the main contributor of garbage entering into these river systems, and eventually into the water bodies. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
An example of wastewater. Shutterstock

5. Windblown Plastics and Wastewater

Plastics are incredibly lightweight materials, and when they are dumped in landfills, they can be easily blown by the wind and enter into the water bodies. Once they touch the water surface, they get easily sunken because of their surface area. Wastewater that is flushed into the environment from municipalities contains microplastics and fibers. Whether it is microbeads from toothpaste or synthetic fibers in clothes, plastics in a different form are washed down the drain.

Additionally, fibers and microplastics are too small to detect by a majority of municipalities. This means that these tiny particles get quickly passed through their treatment centers and leaked into the water bodies, including lakes, oceans, and rivers. Owing to agriculture run-off microplastics are also found in the remains of the treatment plants. These plastic wastes come from sewage sludge that is used as fertilizers. The microplastics from the sewage, therefore, impact various aspects of the river and eventually make their way into the oceans. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
A voracious eater. Shutterstock

6. The Invention of Plastic-Eating Bacteria 

Scientists have recently developed a mutant enzyme that cuts down the plastic bottles in the water. This invention could help in solving the plastic pollution crisis that this world is currently dealing with and allow the full recycling of the containers. This discovery surfaced in the year 2016 in Japan, where a bacterium was discovered that could naturally eat plastic at a dump waste. The team then worked on that enzyme to identify how it had developed. 

However, the team had inadvertently made the bacterium better at breaking down the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic that is used to make soft drink bottles. Professor John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth, who led the research, said that it was surprising for the team when the enzyme become better at breaking down the plastic elements, and it is indeed a powerful discovery. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
The research was fundamental. Shutterstock

7. The Initial Research Phase

This mutant enzyme breaks down the plastic in a couple of days, which is way better than the centuries it takes to decompose in the water bodies. However, researchers believe that they could work towards speeding up the process, and it can be used in a large-scale operation. The lead professor said that the team is hoping to use this bacterium to bring plastic back to its original element so that it can be recycled back to plastic in a literal sense. This action means that there will reduce the amount of plastic in the environment and significantly reduce the need for digging up oil from the ground. 

Professor McGeehan continued to explain that approximately 1 million plastic bottles are sold every minute across the world, and merely 14% of it is recycled. A considerable amount of plastic ends up in the ocean, killing marine life and harming the life of people who eat seafood. And the plastic that is recycled is turned into opaque fibers that are used to make carpets and plastics. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
The enzymes have been quite useful. Shutterstock

8. The Strong Potentials of the Enzyme 

The potential of new enzymes signifies an effective way to recycle clear plastic bottles into original forms, thereby eliminating the need to make new plastic. The oil comes cheap, which makes the procurement of virgin PET cheap. So the manufacturers are more inclined to produce products from PET rather than recycling the plastic. However, public perception is evolving, and companies across the globe are looking for ways to adequately recycle plastic waste. 

This new research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. It stated that the team began to assess the exact structure of this enzyme that is produced by the Japanese bug. In the UK, the team used Diamond Light Source, which is an intense X-Ray beam that is 10 Billion times brighter than the sun and can display individual atoms. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Twenty percent increase in its effectiveness. Shutterstock

9. The Results of the Evaluation 

During these evaluations, the researchers found that the structure appeared to be similar to the one produced by other bacteria to break down plants’ natural polymer, cutin. However, the team further worked on the enzyme, only to accidentally improve its capabilities of PET by around 20%. This concept goes on to prove that the potentials of this enzyme have not been explored to its maximum. It paves the way for scientists to harness technologies and further improve this enzyme. 

Industrial enzymes are used in many areas, for instance, for the production of biofuel or washing powder. In the last few years, that process has evolved to work around 1000 times faster than previously. This result is the time scale that scientists aim for plastic-eating enzymes. Moreover, Portsmouth researchers and scientists and National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, USA, have filed for a patent on this specific enzyme. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Bacteria can’t survive above certain temperatures. Shutterstock

10. Exploring the Capabilities of Plastic-Eating Bacteria

One of the critical areas where the team is investigating the experiment is the transplantation of the mutant enzyme into an extremophile bacteria that holds the capability of surviving in over 70-degree Celsius. This is the point where PET transforms from a glass state to a viscous form, therefore allowing it degrade around 10 to 100 times faster. While some inventions in the past have revealed that certain fungi can break down the PET plastic, which accounts for approximately 20% of the production of plastic, bacteria are easier to use for heavy industrial uses. 

Some scientists have explained these plastic-eating bacteria can be sprayed on the plastic waste patches in the ocean to clean the water bodies. However, there is still a lot of research and development to be made before these enzymes could be used to recycle the massive amount of plastic and reduce the production of plastic. However, this discovery and the progression made in it are certainly pointing in a positive direction. Professor Adisa Azapagic from the University of Manchester, UK, said that the enzyme could undoubtedly be put to good use. However, researchers need to perform a full life-cycle assessment to make that that it doesn’t solve one hazard (waste) at the expense of others (including greenhouse gas emissions).

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Pick up litter. Shutterstock

11. Ways to Keep Our Ocean Clean 

The ocean wastes today pose a severe threat to both marine life and humans, and we need to take necessary measures to safeguard our water bodies. Our carelessness is the main reason why marine life suffers today, so it is up to us to save it and save our environment from the harmful implications of plastics. There are simple ways that can help a great length in saving out the ocean. The first is to become an education about the issue. 

It will be challenging for you to work towards this cause when you don’t know how it got polluted and why it needs immediate cleaning up. There are plenty of articles only including this one that will tell you everything that you need to know about ocean pollution. You can also head to your local library and grab a book about this issue and learn in-depth. It is vital that you understand how to plaster water bottles that end up in the ocean or how oil from your car engine can travel through the sewer and make its way into the river system. You can also learn some exciting and never-known facts about marine life that can help you reinforce your ocean advocacy.  

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Reduce your use of plastics. Shutterstock

12. Minimize the Use of Plastic as Much as Possible 

There are so many reasons to reduce the use of plastic in your day-to-day life. Still, if you want to save the ocean, it becomes imperative to do so. 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the water bodies every year, killing millions of marine species and reducing the water quality. This one is an awkward situation, and not just for the sake of marine creatures; it impacts your life too, especially if you love seafood.

Single-use plastics are considered the most wasteful; however, it can be mitigated if you make specific changes to your lifestyle. Rather than purchasing a single-use plastics water bottle, opt for reusable water bottles that you can use for a longer duration. There has been this massive movement across various cities to ban the usage of plastic bags, straws, utensils, and other items that can be easily substituted by more sustainable options. Make sure that you make such changes in your house as well.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Companies produce much wasteful plastic. Shutterstock

13. Asserting Accountability is Necessary

It is not merely consumers who are responsible for their plastic usage; restaurants and conglomerates are equally accountable for their consumption. Do some research and find out companies and restaurants that have sustainable practices with regards to plastic usage and the ones that do not. If you see your local cafes or restaurants being too careless with their plastic usage, hold them accountable for that. 

Do your part by telling them that plastic utensils and paper napkins will not take you. Leverage social media to get in touch with a more massive chain or write an email sharing your concern. Being a consumer, you can make a substantial impact with your strong viewpoint, and you have taken full advantage of this power. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Always read the labels. Shutterstock

14. Know the Kind of Chemicals You Use in Gardens and Lawns 

Fertilizers, pesticides, and weed killers are among the most popular products used in the gardens across the world. However, these components can have adverse effects on the ocean’s lives. Pesticides and weed killers contain harmful chemicals that benefit your plants. However, these chemicals can quickly get into the water systems and eventually end up in the oceans. Fertilizers also have a dangerous impact on the environment.

Through rain or wind, excess nutrients from fertilizers can end in the water systems. Once they reach oceans, streams, rivers, and lakes, these nutrients promote the algae growth at a fast rate. The natural toxins in algae not only poison ocean life; however, algae can also use up much oxygen of the water, making it challenging for the species to survive. So have to pick out organic products for your gardens that harm our environment. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Don’t leave your trash behind. Shutterstock

15. Understand the Adverse Impact of Littering 

When you are at the beach, make sure you pick after yourself. However, have a look around because there will be someone who doesn’t do that. Stray cans, bags, bottles, and napkins can find their way into the ocean and can pose a serious problem. Due to their lightweight, these wastes can be easily picked by the wind and can injure sea birds and animals. 

Make sure you keep your friends and family accountable for the mess they create. And if you see trash that is not yours, pick it up and throw it in the dustbin. Plastic items on the beaches are a serious threat to marine life, and you should not overlook them.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Just an hour every weekend can do a lot. Shutterstock

16. Be a Volunteer to Clean the Ocean 

If you live near an ocean, you can organize an ocean cleanup program and include family, friends, and community members. First, you need to talk to your local politicians as well as community groups to see whether there is such a pre-existing in your localities. If there is no such program, suggest those channels and assist in organizing one.

This idea is an excellent way to gather the city and get help clean up the ocean and imbibe good practice in them. It will ensure the next time they are on the beach; they will be careful with their littering habits and contribute to maintaining a cleaner and safer ocean.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Your money can do a lot. Shutterstock

17. Contribute to an Ocean Charity 

Even if you don’t live near the ocean, you can still make your contribution to cleaning the sea. Go online and check out charities in your state or country that work towards cleaning the beach. And see if they are organizing any fundraiser or collecting donations for their clean-up programs. You can even contribute money to such cleanup charities so that they can grow further. 

You can also make a financial contribution to research efforts, educational foundations, or conservation groups. A little help for you can prove to be substantially helpful in the growth of such groups who are continually working to educate people about ocean pollution and making efforts to clean our sea bodies across the globe.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Don’t flush hazardous materials. Shutterstock

18. Be Careful with Your Flush 

Medicines were found in the groundwater and water bodies, from being flushed. Around 4500 wet wipes were found in just 154 square meter area of the Thames river in the year 2017. People have this misconception that wet wipes break down during flushing; however, they stay in the water for a really long time. 

There were two examples out of hundreds of products that are commonly poured or flushed down the drain and pollute the local waterways, oceans, soils. Some other examples of such products include floss, cat litter, cotton balls, vegetable oil, paint, and insecticides. So next time you open the lid to flush anything down, make sure you check first whether or not it is safe for the environment.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Be mindful of your water usage. Shutterstock

19.Don’t Waste Water 

The water that you use in your home goes to sewage treatment, where pollutants are removed before flushing them out in the water bodies. Along with using the harmful chemical in and around the house, the problem also surfaces when you waste too much water. Studies suggest that when too much water is sent to the plants, the systems can get overwhelmed mainly because many of them are quite old. 

This concept impacts the system’s performance, and pollutants get the chance to pass through and end up in the streams, lakes, rivers, or oceans. So do your part and make sure you don’t waste water. Keep your shower shorter, don’t leave the sink running, and try to use limited water while washing your car or bike.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Fishing nets are an awful hazard for marine life. Shutterstock

20. Be Mindful with Your Fishing Waste 

Whether you are fishing on your local lake or out cruising on the international water body, be careful what you leave on the water. Small things like a cigarette butt, fishing hook, line, or chewing gum, are harmful to the ocean, so avoiding throwing them. 

Any foreign substance that gets into the water has a ripple effect, and the accumulation of such substances can create a problem for the ecosystem. While it is essential that you do your part, be aware of other habits around you as well. Encourage people to be mindful and make sure recycling bins are present on the trip.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Support sustainable fishing. Shutterstock

21. Understand the Impact of Your Eating Habits

Seafood is among the most delicious and versatile food items, and they are quite healthy as well. However, you have to be responsible for your consumption of seafood to save the ocean. Be aware of the fish that you consume and where it comes from.

Next time you go to buy a fish at your local supermarket, ask about the fish you are buying and where it was caught. This action will help you ensure that they have ethically farmed the fishes without impacting the ocean’s environment amidst this process.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Write letters to your local politicians. Shutterstock

22. Get the Leaders on Board 

Find out where your local authorities stand concerning ocean conservation. Check whether or not they have a plan. And if they do check out how feasible it is and will it contribute to the cleaner ocean. If your state has included best practices to clean the sea, then you request if there is a volunteer option to help in achieving the objectives laid down by the authorities. 

However, if your state is not doing enough to save the option, then you have to reach out to them. You can write letters to both officials as well as local environment clubs to encourage a change. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Check the news every day. Shutterstock

23. Keep Yourself Updated 

If your goal is to clean the ocean and save marine life, then you have to be vigilant and stay informed. Research about the products that are harmful to the sea and look out for environmental tragedies across the globe such as tropical storms or oil spills and be aware of the organized fundraisers or rallies that you can participate in. 

Always staying updated will allow you to take preventative measures to do your part in saving the option. For instance, if you look for harmful household products for the ocean, you will realize that wet wipes that you have been flushing down the toilet have been killing marine life. Therefore, it is vital to be aware of various aspects of ocean pollution.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Know what your carbon footprint is to start making changes. Shutterstock

24. Know and Limit Your Carbon Footprint 

Carbon dioxide is not merely impacting the air; it is also contributing to polluting the water. A third of the CO2 generated by humans finds its way to the ocean, which accounts for 22 million CO2 per day. This action can result in the acidification of the water, affecting the well-being of the water animals, especially shelled species. 

This reason is why it is essential to be aware of your carbon footprint. It is severely contributing to climate change, which brings one environmental challenge after the other. Look out for more sustainable energy habits like purchasing energy-efficient appliances, using lesser disposable products, or driving less.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Volunteer or support organizations. Shutterstock

25. Projects that Tackle Ocean Pollution 

Some transformational projects across the globe are dedicated to clean and save the ocean. The Ocean Clean UP is one of the many. Dutchman Boyan Slat discovered this project in the year 2013. At the early age of 13, he developed a passive system that is made of surface floating until along with an underwater skirt unit. A 600-meter-long floater is embedded on the surface, and through the pressure from wind, waves, or current, the system works to collect the plastics. 

A modified version of this unit was launched with two satellite pods, nine lanterns, two navigation pods, and a camera. The system has reached the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where it is exploring its Mission Plan. The Ocean Clean Up Project aims to clean half of the Patch within the span of 5 years.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Captain Boris Herrmann. Shutterstock

26. #MyOceanChallenge 

#MyOceanChallenge was founded by the infamous Team Malizia – a group of sailors led by Boris Herrmann and Pierre Casiraghi. This project aims to educate and inspire the youth with regards to ocean conservation. Team Malizia is working with Birte Lorenzen, a teacher, to develop learning material packages that are focused on imparting knowledge about ocean and sailing. 

The learning materials will students understanding the importance of water, how they can contribute to saving the sea, and keeping their planet clean and safe for generations to come. By providing the right knowledge to the children, this group of sailors wish to make the youth ambassador of ocean preservation. Over the span of years, their work and efforts have been regarded across the globe. 

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
Protect the oceans. Shutterstock

27. Parley for the Oceans 

Parley aims to create an extensive ecosystem of people who are genuinely passionate about protecting oceans and bring positive change. The project aims to create a collaborative ecosystem where people from diverse regions come together to work on a single mission of saving the oceans.

In 2016 the project collaborated with the famous sports brand Adidas. This year they launched their line of sports training apparel and liners that are designed using plastics.

How Scientists Stumbled Upon Plastic Eating Bacteria
A beautiful starfish. Shutterstock

28. Help Protect the Ocean from Plastic Pollution

Don’t retain your knowledge to yourself; share it with your friends and family. The more you share, the higher will be the awareness among people. Next time when you are with someone at a beach or restaurant, share an interesting fact. With the kind and amount of water present in the water bodies across the globe, it has become imperative for everyone to do their part to keep the ocean clean.

Scientists are indeed working towards different approaches to bring effective technology or technique to clean the water bodies, plastic eating enzymes. While this notion is still at its inception phase, this enzyme certainly holds much potential. Until scientists explore the capabilities of this enzyme, make sure you do your part to save our environment.

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/marine-pollution/

https://thecommonwealth.org/marine-pollution

https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_plastics/

https://repurpose.global/how-do-plastics-enter-our-ocean/

https://www.edf.org/blog/2018/07/13/are-plastic-eating-bacteria-solution-ocean-pollution-its-not-simple-science-shows

https://www.sailsquare.com/blog/guides/ocean-pollution-and-effects-on-humans-and-marine-life/

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/546495/things-you-can-do-help-keep-oceans-clean

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/16/scientists-accidentally-create-mutant-enzyme-that-eats-plastic-bottles

https://www.europeanscientist.com/en/environment/can-plastic-eating-bacteria-help-solve-the-plastic-pollution-problem/

http://sustainablefootprint.org/plastic-eating-bacteria-in-the-oceans/

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