Innovation That Matters

Nice shoes, shame about the toxic polyurethane | Photo source Matthias Boeckel on Pixabay

Scientists discover new toxic plastic-eating bacterium


It is the first known bacterium that can feed on polyurethane – one of the world’s most toxic plastics found in shoes and other products

Spotted: More than 8 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s – and the vast majority of this has ended up in landfills and polluting the world’s oceans and ecosystems. The global plastic mountain is growing at a rate of tens of millions of tons per year. Now, scientists have discovered the first known bacterium that can feed on polyurethane – one of the world’s most toxic plastics.

Polyurethane is extremely difficult to recycle, and when it breaks down it can release toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, which kills most bacteria. However, the newly-discovered strain is not only able to survive in an environment polluted by polyurethane, but it can also use the plastic as food. The bacterium is a new strain of Pseudomonas, a family of bacteria known for its ability to withstand harsh conditions.

The bacterium was discovered in a landfill by researchers at Germany’s UFZ-Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research. In the lab, the researchers fed the bacterium polyurethane and discovered that it could survive on the material as its sole source of food. However, the bacteria cannot completely break down polyurethane foam – this must first be partially broken down using chemicals. 

The researchers caution that it will be many years before a bacteria-based solution to polyurethane waste is ready to be used.

Other researchers have come across a number of plastivores – animals such as microbes and insects that can digest waste products. At Springwise, we have recently examined caterpillars that can eat plastic bags and the use of moths to break down clothing for recycling.

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