Plastic makes up nearly 70% of all ocean litter, putting countless aquatic species at risk. But there is a tiny bit of hope—a teeny, tiny one to be precise: Scientists have discovered that microscopic marine microbes are eating away at the plastic, causing trash to slowly break down.
To conduct the study, researchers collected weathered plastic from two different beaches in Chania, Greece. The litter had already been exposed to the sun and undergone chemical changes that caused it to become more brittle, all of which needs to happen before the microbes start to munch on the plastic. The pieces were either polyethylene, the most popular plastic and the one found in products such as grocery bags and shampoo bottles, or polystyrene, a hard plastic found in food packaging and electronics. The team immersed both in saltwater with either naturally occurring ocean microbes or engineered microbes that were enhanced with carbon-eating microbe strains and could survive solely off of the carbon in plastic. Scientists then analyzed changes in the materials over a period of 5 months.
Both types of plastic lost a significant amount of weight after being exposed to the natural and engineered microbes, scientists reported in April in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. The microbes further changed the chemical makeup of the material, causing the polyethylene’s weight to go down by 7% and the polystyrene’s weight to go down by 11%. These findings may offer a new strategy to help combat ocean pollution: Deploy marine microbes to eat up the trash. However, researchers still need to measure how effective these microbes would be on a global scale.