Probably when the English chemist and inventor Alexander Parkes patented the first plastic material in 1861, no one imagined that plastic would become one of the materials with the longest and most expensive process of degradation. In addition to this, it would also become one of the most polluting.
Every year we produce 311 tons of plastic and of these between 4.9 and 12.7 million end up in our seas. If the issue of a plastic high consumption exists and it is visible to all of us, the problem gathering from it is perhaps even more important: the plastic abandonment in unsustainable quantities. For a bottle or a plastic bag abandoned, it needs at least 100 years to complete the degradation process.
These are data and information given by the Sea Education Association researchers whiche were published last year on Science magazine, warning everyone about the worst fate that awaits us if nothing is done to improve waste disposal. Fortunately, good news are coming. A team of scientists from the Kyoto Institute of Technology and other Japanese research institutions has just isolated a bacterium, called Ideonella Sakaiensis, able to degrade and digest plastic, using it as a source of sustenance and growth, by the chemical action of just two enzymes (the first able to stick to plastic surfaces, the second able to break up plastic chains into smaller molecules). Moreover Ideonella is greedy of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), usually known as one of the most popular worldwide plastics - used for food purposes, for labels, tubes and films – but at the same time also the most resistant to biodegradation process. It was not easy to discover it: scientists analyzed more than 250 samples taken from a recycling site of PET bottles.
Nevertheless, research doesn’t stop here, since unfortunately the process is still quite slow: the complete degradation of a small PET film takes about six weeks at a temperature of 30°C. However, the discovery is certainly important and can have implications for plastics recycling, even so the study's authors are keen to see if they can use Ideonella Sakaiensis to isolate acid terephthalic and reuse it for the production of new plastic, which would avoid the use of oil.