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Plastic-Eating Bacteria: Where the Technology Stands

Two years ago, Japanese scientists made headlines when they announced they had found a bacteria capable of eating polyethylene terephthalate (PET). And now, there are more breakthroughs to report.

At the time, this was a major discovery. Previously, some fungi had been found that can break down PET, but bacteria are much easier than fungi to use in industrial applications. After two years, how close are we to actually seeing this bacteria used to recycle our plastics? Scientists have been hard at work with this bacteria and its enzymes to figure out how to speed up the process, since it was far too slow for any bio-recycling application — that is, using some type of biological element, such as bacteria and enzymes, to break down waste.

How It Works

Most PET bottles, when recycled, are turned into fibers for clothing or other textiles. Recently, a few companies have started recycling PET back into plastic bottles, which is an improvement.

By using bacteria in the recycling process, rather than shredding PET into flakes, the bacteria will actually break down the PET back into its chemicals. Those chemicals can then be used to create all-new plastic bottles. This would be complete, end-to-end recycling.

This bacteria produces two enzymes when it’s in an environment surrounded by PET. Scientists were able to find the gene in the bacteria DNA that controls the production of the enzymes. With that information, they were then able to manufacture the enzymes without the bacteria and show that it could break down PET.

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