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The Shocking Truth About Biodegradable Plastic
How Microbeads In Body Wash Are Ruining The Ocean
Most plastics are made from a process where petroleum is heated, the molecules are rearranged to become polypropylene, and they are connected by strong carbon-carbon bonds. These strong bonds are what makes plastic durable, but it's also why plastic doesn't break down naturally in landfills. There aren't many known animals or insects that naturally break down plastics either, which is another reason why they're accumulating in landfills and oceans. As Kenneth Peters, an organic geochemist at Stanford University, told LiveScience: "Nature doesn't make things like that, so organisms have never seen that before." Some kinds of plastics, like the ones in coffee cups, could sit in landfills for thousands of years before they break down.
Two recently published studies in the journal Environmental Science and Technology suggest there might be a natural solution to this problem: the mealworm. Researchers found that by feeding mealworm nothing but polypropylene, they can develop a microbes in their digestive system that can break it down. Despite their name, mealworms aren't big eaters: 100 worms only eat about 40 milligrams a day. After digesting the plastic, they release half of it as carbon dioxide and excrete the other half as little pellets. Early research suggests that these pellets might safe enough to use as soil. The other study found that a microbes which lives in the gut of the waxworm might also help mealworms digest plastic.
Researchers have also found a fungus native to the rainforests in Ecuador that can eat plastic. Described in a study published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, the fungus Pestalotiopsis microspora could survive on polyurethane alone. The study said there could be loads of other fungus species that could be great candidates for breaking down plastics, but they haven't been discovered yet. Since we're losing five thousand kilometers of rainforest a year, we might not have enough time to find the fungus we need. It's clear more research is needed. Until a perfect solution is found, we should keep plastic out of landfills by reducing, reusing, and recycling as much as possible.
Why Doesn't Plastic Biodegrade? (Live Science)
"Most plastic is manufactured from petroleum the end product of a few million years of natural decay of once-living organisms. Petroleum's main components come from lipids that were first assembled long ago in those organisms' cells."
Plastic-eating worms may offer solution to mounting waste, researchers discover (Phys.org)
"Consider the plastic foam cup. Every year, Americans throw away 2.5 billion of them. And yet, that waste is just a fraction of the 33 million tons of plastic Americans discard every year. Less than 10 percent of that total gets recycled, and the remainder presents challenges ranging from water contamination to animal poisoning."