Bacteria and the Sun Can Destroy Ocean Plastic—but Is It the Fix We Need?

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photo: Wayne Parry (AP)

It is It’s overwhelming to think about how polluted our oceans are – so much so that it is increasingly tempting to think about technological solutions To clean everything up. Two new Studies are shedding light on what exactly happens to plastic when it enters the ocean, and how some natural processes can help break down much of it — including bacteria that can actually eat the plastic itself. But the scientists say we should be careful think that it is possible to use these processes as a quick fix to the mess we’ve already created.

The two studies published in the January And February Editions of the Marine Pollution Bulletin come from a research team at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, the country’s national oceanographic research institute. She Deal with the so-called missing plastic paradox – the question of where exactly we throw all the garbage into the sea goes.

We funnel around 8 million tons of plastic in the sea worth a dump truck per hour every year – an amount so large it is almost unfathomable. But another lesser-known detail about all this junk is that we’re actually missing quite a bit of it :WWe could only find around 1% of what should to be there washed up on the sea surface and on the beaches. Scientists have long theorized that natural processes may play a role here in causing plastics to break down and dissolve them into the water.

The institute’s first study, published in January, looks at one of these possible explanations: The Sand yourself.

“Just like someone might get sunburned on the beach, UV light also degrades the molecular structure of plastic polymers,” lead author Annalisa Delre, a PhD student at Utrecht University, told Earther in an E-mail. “It basically tears up the long carbon chains into smaller ones.”

To To better understand the role of sunlight in breaking down plastic, Delre and her colleagues placed various types of virgin plastic (plastic fresh from the manufacturing plant) and plastic collected from the ocean surface of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in seawater, then irradiated them UV light to simulate sea conditions. They measured the amount of compounds broken down from the plastic and calculated that UV light breaks down plastic at a rate of about 2% each year.

“Does not sound good –blows, doesn’t it?” said Delre. “But remember, this happens year after year after year… So a piece of plastic released decades ago may be gone by then, while one released last year [is] Don’t.” Based on these observations and other research into where plastic ends up in the ocean, Delre and her team created a model that showed that sunlight could already have broken down up to 20% of the plastic that humans put into the world’s oceans .

It’s not just the SWe’re working on breaking down all that plastic. A month after the publication of Delre’s study, her colleague at the institute, Maaike Goudriaan, also a doctoral student at Utrecht University, co-authored a paper examining another possible factor helping to break down plastic in the ocean: bacteria.

Some research has was done on bacteria that appear to eat plastic in the ocean, but Goudriaan said her work is the first to actually observe that these bacteria can use plastic as a food source and to measure this process more precisely. For this research, Goudriaan and her colleagues observed the bacterium Rhodococcus ruber in artificial sea water with sea plastic. The plastic and bacteria were sealed in sealed containers, which the team allowed to measure specific carbons in the resulting CO2. This allowsled her to calculate the rate at which the bacteria break down the polymers – about 1.2% per year.

Headlines about the possibilities of plastic-eating bacteria dotted mainstream media in recent years, and one company, French firm Carbios, opened a pilot for testing in 2021 how some of these bacteria might affect plastic waste at a pilot site.

Goudriaan says she’s been getting a lot of questions lately about using plastic-eating bacteria to eat up ocean plastic, so she’s given the idea some thought.

“I see some hurdles with applications,” she said. “For example, the oceans are huge, there are currents and winds, some we can predict. What exactly happens when you throw some bacteria into the sea somewhere? Where you go? We can’t know for sure. Will they eat the plastic or something else that is available and easier to break down? Probably something else. Will they have competition from other microbes? Probably. Coastal areas are easier to access, but what about the garbage patches that lie far out in the ocean? Do we really want to send planes or boats to release microbes? How do we grow enough biomass to actually make a difference? How do we put it in the right place? How much resources and energy are required for this? Is it worth expending all that resource and energy, or will the impact of this be worse than the impact of plastic itself? I don’t think this will be a viable option to get rid of plastic waste in the ocean. But that could change as we know more. Or maybe someday humanity will be desperate enough to invest in this cause.”

But both Goudriaan and Delre strongly warn against seeing their work as a solution to the world’s plastic diseases.

“Despite the fact that nature seems to have the ability to restore itself, that doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for making sure plastic doesn’t end up in our natural environment,” Goudriaan said. “I think in general, we as humanity put a lot of faith in the fact that technological solutions will save us from environmental crises. However, sometimes the technology makes a certain process less harmful, which then seems to be an excuse to apply/scale it more and we’re back to square one.” Bacteria and the Sun Can Destroy Ocean Plastic—but Is It the Fix We Need?

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