If you’re hip to environmental news, you’ve probably already heard about the bacteria that breaks down PET (the plastic in plastic bottles and a bunch of other stuff). Scientists even improved the enzyme responsible! I was stoked to come across this news initially, but like a lot of things that seem too good to be true – this kind of is. According to those in the know, we already have the ability to fully recycle PET plastics. The problem lies in getting those plastics into the recycling chain. Too many of them, possibly up to 90%, end up in landfills or the environment.
So what’re the positives? Well, just because we can fully recycle PET, doesn’t mean it’s cheap or easy. Especially in the developing world, enzyme-powered recycling may be more viable than current methods. If recycling capabilities are readily available, you’re much more likely to feed your waste into that opposed to the landfill (and the researchers are working on making the bacteria more effective as we speak). Still, I can’t stress enough that it is absolutely more important than any recycling method that we use less plastic and recycle what we do use.
One thing that’s unclear in all the articles I’ve read on this topic, is whether the recycled product the bacteria spit out is good for more than just turning into plastic again? That’s one of the big problems with plastics – when they get “broken down” they’re typically just smaller plastic pieces (see: microplastics). That’s very different from organic matter, like an orange, that will break down and be reintegrated into the environment. If these bacteria can do the latter to PET and turn it into something environmentally benign (or even beneficial) now that would be some news. That’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t be mad about being “accidentally” released into the giant Pacific garbage patch, for example.
This is definitely one of those ‘wait and see’ discoveries that we’ll be keeping an eye on, but the potential is Certified R.A.D.