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The Kid Should See This

Could microbes eat your plastic trash?

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When synthetic plastic was first invented, it was a technological breakthrough for our safe use of electricity, an insulation replacement for a hard-to-harvest insect resin. Today, plastics are everywhere: “Each year humanity produces roughly 400 million tons of plastic, 80% of which is discarded as trash.”

10% recycled

“…man-made polymers are quite different from the polymers found in nature. And since they’ve only been around since the 1950s, most microbes haven’t had time to evolve enzymes to digest them. Making matters even more difficult, breaking most plastics’ chemical bonds requires high temperatures comparable to those used to create them—and such heat is deadly to most microbes.

“This means that most plastics never biologically degrade—they just turn into countless, tiny, indigestible pieces. And pieces from the most common plastics like Polyethylene, Polypropylene, and Polyester-terephthalate have been piling up for decades.”

In addition to reducing our single-use plastics use, how do we reduce plastic trash in our oceans, soils, and landfills? Learn more about how researchers are trying to solve this challenge with this TED-Ed by Tierney Thys and Christian Sardet: Could microbes eat your plastic trash?

eating PET plastic
While the future of PET recycling looks promising, it’s not a cure-all. Scientists are in the early stages of breaking down these polymers so options are limited, slow, and resource-intensive. And PET is just one type of plastic.

“…we can’t rely solely on these tiny helpers to clean up our enormous mess. We need to completely rethink our relationship with plastics, make better use of existing plastics, and stop producing more of the same. And we urgently need to design more environmentally friendly types of polymers that our growing entourage of plastivores can easily break down.”

scientist
Try this DIY activity next: How to make bioplastic.

Related reading with additional links: Wax worm saliva rapidly breaks down plastic bags, scientists discover.

Plus, videos about plastic on TKSST include:
Plastic was invented to replace bugs
• Plastics 101: What is plastic and how is it made?
• MarinaTex, a bioplastic made from fish waste
• The Life of a Plastic Bottle
• Recycling plastic waste to make bricks that are stronger than concrete

Previously from Tierney Thys: The Secret Life of Plankton.

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