Plastic eating

For years I have expected some sort of bacteria would be created which would digest waste plastic. It would be tricky because what if it escaped the waste plastic treatment plant and the milk jug in your refrigerator turned into a sieve overnight?

This is probably a better solution:

Two substances in the saliva of wax worms — moth larvae that eat wax made by bees to build honeycombs — readily break down a common type of plastic, researchers said on Tuesday, in a potential advance in the global fight against plastic pollution.

The researchers said the two enzymes identified in the caterpillar saliva were found to rapidly and at room temperature degrade polyethylene, the world’s most widely used plastic and a major contributor to an environmental crisis extending from ocean trenches to mountaintops.

The study builds on the researchers’ 2017 findings that wax worms were capable of degrading polyethylene, though at that time it was unclear how these small insects did it. The answer was enzymes — substances produced by living organisms that trigger biochemical reactions.

For plastic to degrade, oxygen must penetrate the polymer — or plastic molecule — in an important initial step called oxidation. The researchers found that the enzymes performed this step within hours without the need for pre-treatment such as applying heat or radiation.

The idea would be to produce the worms’ saliva enzymes synthetically, which the researchers succeeded in doing, to break down plastic waste. Bertocchini said the use of billions of wax worms to do the job has drawbacks including generating carbon dioxide as they metabolize the polyethylene.

“In our case, the enzymes oxidize plastics, breaking it into small molecules. This suggests alternative scenarios to deal with plastic waste in which plastics can be degraded in controlled conditions, limiting or eventually eliminating altogether the release of microplastics,” said study co-author Clemente Fernandez Arias, an ecologist and mathematician at CSIC.


9 thoughts on “Plastic eating

  1. Dayum. Maybe the military (and us too) should keep a few metal pistols around just in case our Glocks and P320s get et.
    Just a thought.

  2. I believe that early efforts to isolate this had some problems.
    Crichton, Michael; The Andromeda Strain, 1969.

  3. This is a solution looking for a problem, thus funding? The problem is not how to handle plastics. As a small amount of heat breaks them down quite handily. The problem is distribution and collection.
    Third worlders can’t seem to grasp the idea of a trash can. They drop crap where they finish using it.
    And since the 70’s we’ve moved away from recycling. (Milk, beer, soda, and a host of other products were in glass. And recycled.) And more into single use product packaging. Not that that’s a bad thing, as sanitation is a big part of first world living standards.
    Trash cans and the non-use thereof are the problem.
    As for breaking down plastics. Their made of hydrocarbons, and as such are very easy to manipulate.
    And as all chemical equations have to balance. The carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, chlorine and such in one piece of plastic is available to be reassembled into some other type of plastic. Or just burned down to CO2 and water. With other elements filtered or removed.
    Using worms and enzymes is intriguing, But somewhat, or maybe a lot what, disingenuous?
    Because honestly, one can recycle plastics much easier than one can recycle steel. There’s just no will to do so.

    • Not dumping trash where you live seems to be one of the defining traits of Western Civilization, when compared to 3rd world environments.
      Here in the US we seem to be losing it, since my memory of how clean the streets and other public areas were when I was young doesn’t match things today.

      • I seem to see a lot more paper towel litter in the restrooms at work that I did 25 years ago. Why is this difficult? Do they just not care? Or figure that is the janitor’s job?

        • It’s a cultural part of any civilization that makes more than you can hold in your hand. Sort of like not puting shopping carts back in the cart-corral, or walking them back with you when you initially head into the store. Many non-westerners simply leave them wherever. They simply don’t get, and don’t care, how much better things work if everyone does their little part for the collective. It’s a step above not understanding they should not take a dump in the street, on par settle the bill honestly rather than argue everything little thing and hope to walk out w/o paying. They are in Rome, but not doing as Romans do. The wages of diversity, etc….

          Sink the ships. Send them back.

          • I’ve read about a new way to get carts back to the corral. You have to deposit a coin into a unit on the cart to release it from the cart it is nestled into. When you return the cart and plug it into another cart, it returns the coin. So, if you don’t return it, you are paying someone else to retrieve it. In Europe, they use a Euro coin. To make it work well here, I suspect they will have to revive the $1 coin. Anything less makes it too easy to abandon it.

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