Story at a glance

  • Billions of tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s, prompting the contamination of the world’s oceans and natural environment.
  • Researchers say the findings are an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle plastics.
  • Polyurethane releases toxic and carcinogenic chemicals when it breaks down that kill most bacteria.

There could be a small answer to the world’s very big plastic problem. 

Scientists report in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology that they have identified a strain of bacteria that breaks down polyurethane and eats it in a waste site where piles of plastic that are too difficult to recycle are dumped.

The Pseudomonas bacteria is the first known to attack polyurethane. While fungi has previously shown it is capable of breaking down polyurethane, bacteria are more practical and easier to harness for industrial use. 

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Polyurethane, which is used in everything from refrigerators and buildings to shoes and furniture, is difficult to recycle or destroy as these kinds of thermosetting polymers do not melt when heated, according to Phys.org. Because of this, these types of plastic end up in landfills where they release toxic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic.


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The toxic chemicals released when the plastic breaks down kills most bacteria, but the newly discovered strain is able to survive. 

“These findings represent an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle polyurethane products,” Dr. Herman Heopieper, senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFX in Leipzig, Germany and co-author of the study said. “The bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy.”


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Scientists said a lot more research is necessary before the bacterium could be widely used to treat large amounts of plastic waste, saying in the meantime, it is vital to reduce the amount of plastic used. 

“When you have huge amounts of plastic in the environment, that means there is a lot of carbon and there will be evolution to use this as food. Bacteria are there in huge numbers and their evolution is very fast,” Heipieper said, according to The Guardian

“However, this certainly doesn’t mean that the work of microbiologists can lead to a complete solution,” he added. “The main message should be to avoid plastic being released into the environment in the first place.”

Nearly 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, with a significant portion ending up in oceans and landfills, according to The Guardian.


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Published on Mar 27, 2020