Microbes could be the solution to our oceans’ plastic problem

National News

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In our search for solutions to cleaner oceans, enter: plastic eating microbes! 

Of the millions of tons of trash humans create every single day, a significant amount floats out to sea. A map created by Litterbase shows how litter is distributed in our oceans. Plastic makes up nearly 70% of all ocean litter.

On May 1st, ocean explorer Victor Vescovo journeyed more than 35,000 feet below the surface. It’s the deepest manned sea dive ever recorded. What did he find down there? Plastic candy wrappers.

The good news is the ocean itself may have already figured out one solution. In a study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, scientists discovered that microscopic microbes are colonizing plastic, then eating it.

Here’s how they figured it out: They gathered plastic from two different beaches in Greece. This plastic had been worn down by the elements, making it more brittle. They made sure to use two types of plastic as well, polyethylene and polystyrene. Polyethylene is the type of plastic found in grocery bags and shampoo bottles, whereas polystyrene is a harder plastic found in food packaging and electronics. 

The scientists placed the plastic they gathered in ocean water filled with microbes. Some of the microbes were found in the ocean, while others were engineered in a lab to eat plastic. Over five months, the plastic fed both types of microbe and lost significant weight, 7% for the polyethylene and 11% for the polystyrene. 

The scientists concluded they need further research, but were excited about the problem-solving potential of these tiny microbes.

You can read the full study here.

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