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Amid a global plastic Pollution crisis, with an alarming 400 million tonnes of plastic waste generated annually, a glimmer of hope may have just emerged from some of the coldest corners of our planet.

Source: TED-Ed/Youtube

Swiss researchers from the Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research WSL have made a promising discovery in the Arctic and the Alps. In these frosty regions, they’ve found microbes capable of consuming certain plastic waste, a breakthrough that could potentially revolutionize how we manage this global challenge.

The concept of using microbes to eat away at our plastic problem is familiar. However, previous efforts have been hindered by one crucial limitation: the microbes typically used need a cozy 86 degrees Fahrenheit to start munching away. This temperature requirement makes the plastic recycling process both energy-hungry and costly.

But here’s where our newfound chilly friends come in. These Arctic and Alpine microbes can break down plastics at 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Theoretically, this could make the plastic degradation process significantly more efficient and sustainable.
The researchers’ discovery unfolded when they buried plastic fragments in the soil of Greenland and the Alps. Over several months, they noticed fungi and bacteria colonizing the plastic. A year later, they collected these microbes and began lab tests to assess their plastic-eating potential.

Among the 34 cold-adapted microbes they examined, 19 strains produced enzymes capable of breaking down some plastics. However, the plastics that could be digested were only the biodegradable kind. The microbes didn’t have an appetite for more traditional plastics like polyethylene, commonly used in trash bags.

These findings, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, add to the growing understanding of plastic degradation. Nevertheless, the scientists stress that a mountain of work is still ahead.

“The next big challenge will be to identify the plastic-degrading enzymes produced by the microbes and to optimize the process to obtain large amounts of enzymes,” says study co-author Beat Frey. Further modifications may also be required to enhance the enzymes’ stability.

While we should celebrate this innovative discovery, remember our roles in fighting plastic pollution. We can all contribute by reducing our plastic consumption, reusing and recycling whenever possible, and supporting research like this. Let’s turn the tide on plastic waste together and secure a cleaner, greener future.

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