There’s a famous and often-quoted scene from 1967’s Academy Award-winning film, The Graduate, where a family friend of young Dustin Hoffman’s character tells him, “One word…. Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.” He was trying to encourage Hoffman to start his career in the industry. But he was also inadvertently referring to the longevity of the now ubiquitous product.
Collectively, we produce a mind boggling 380 million tonnes of plastic every year. Unfortunately, only a small portion of that plastic is recycled. Most of the rest ends up in landfills or polluting the environment. And it’s literally everywhere, with plastic bottles and other trash littering everything from the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point on Earth in the Pacific Ocean near Guam.
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In a report published in the journal Microbial Ecology, researchers based in the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, point out that it can take anywhere from 16 to 48 years for a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle to naturally degrade. During that time, much of that material breaks down into what are known as “microplastics”—pieces of plastic debris 5 mm or smaller—with potential health impacts for a broad range of creatures, including humans.
We regularly but unknowingly consume microplastics contained in everything from seafood to table salt. Unfortunately, a paper published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found that once ingested, microplastics can damage human cells.
Luckily, it seems like Mother Nature may be developing a means of cleanup.
The researchers at Chalmers University explained how they found 30,000 different naturally occurring enzymes found in the gut microbiomes of a variety of species that can eat 10 different kinds of plastic. They also found that there was a direct correlation between an enzyme’s ability to digest a particular type of plastic with the amount of that plastic found in a particular area.
In other words, these enzymes were evolving to develop a taste for plastic. While on the surface that sounds like a frightening biological change, the researchers, based in the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, are excited to uncover “microbiome’s potential to degrade plastics.” The hope is that some of these enzymes can be utilized for industrial-scale plastic decomposition.
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