Microbes in oceans and soils are evolving to eat plastic, a new study reveals in a breakthrough that could help boost recycling of commercial packaging waste.  

Researchers in Sweden measured samples of DNA at hundreds of locations around the world, taken from both soil and water. 

These DNA samples contained 30,000 enzymes that could degrade 10 types of plastics, which includes the popular polyethylene terephthalate.  

Furthermore, it appears that there are more plastic-eating microbes in areas where they can break down more plastic waste. 

According to some scientists, the rapid rise in plastic use for packaging over the past 70 years has provided’sufficient evolution time’ for different microbes within the environment to react to these compounds. 

The number of microbial enzymes with the ability to degrade plastic is growing, in correlation with local levels of plastic pollution, according to research led by experts at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. Mass-production of plastic has exploded in the last 70 years or so from around 2 million tonnes per year to around 380 million. Pictured is waste plastic in Lviv, Ukraine

According to researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, the number of enzymes that can degrade plastic is increasing. This correlation has been shown by local plastic pollution levels. The mass production of plastic has increased from approximately 2 million tonnes annually to around 380 millions in just 70 years. Pictured is waste plastic in Lviv, Ukraine


PET, short for polyethylene terephthalate, is the most common thermoplastic polymer in the world. 

PET is light, clear and strong plastic used in packaging food, drinks and juices, as well as water. 

PET makes up almost every single-serving, 2-litre bottle of carbonated soft drinks or water sold in America. 

Both global warming due to CO2 emissions and environment pollution caused by PET waste disposal are urgent environmental concerns.

Source: PETRA/Green Chemistry  

According to Our World in Data, the plastics industry has seen an explosion in mass production from approximately 2 million tonnes annually in 1950 to about 380 million today. 

Some locations with the greatest concentrations of pollutants were known for being polluted, such as the Mediterranean Sea and South Pacific Ocean. 

The new study was led by researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology (CUT), and published in the journal mBIO.

Aleksej Zilezniak, author, said, “Using our models, I found multiple lines evidence supporting the fact the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potentia correlates strongly avec measurements of environmental plastic polluting.” 

He said that this is “a signifi cant demonstration” of the way the environment responds to the demands we place on it. 

Using synthetic biology – redesigning organisms for useful purposes – is of crucial importance in the battle against waste, as natural plastic degradation processes are very slow, the researchers say. 

In ambient conditions, for example, the expected lifetime of a PET bottle is 16-48 years.  

Researchers took soil and water samples from 169 locations in 38 countries, as marked in the map above. The locations marked in purple were soil samples. Water samples were from the Mediterranean Sea (light blue), the Red Sea (dark blue), Ionian Sea (light green), Southern Ocean (dark green), Atlantic Ocean (red/pink) and Atlantic Ocean (orange)

As shown in the map, researchers collected soil samples and water from 169 sites in 38 countries. Purple locations were soil samples. The water samples came from the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and Ionian Seas (light-blue), Red Sea and Dark Blue respectively.


According to a new report, the US produced 42,000,000 tonnes of plastic trash in 2016 making it “by far” the most significant contributor.  

The National Academy of Sciences’ report states that approximately one million tonnes of the total went into the oceans. 

With 42 million tonnes of plastic waste, the US is more than twice the size of China and has more in common with the EU’s 28 member countries (including the UK).    

According to the National Academies of Sciences, the US must develop a national strategy to decrease its plastic waste by 2022.  

Continue reading: America is the largest contributor of plastic waste 

We know that enzymes are capable of degrading different kinds of plastics. Researchers in Japan found a bacteria that was eating PET, a widely used plastic. 

According to them, the bacteria, Ideonella.sakaiensis.201-F6, can utilize PET as its primary source of energy. 

Further research by the Japanese team revealed enzymes that can be used with water to dissolve PET into simpler monomer building blocks.  

Researchers collected soil and water samples at 169 locations across 38 countries. This included the US, India and China as well as Australia and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

Researchers used computer modeling to identify microbial enzymes that could degrade plastic from the samples.

This data was then used to cross-reference with the numbers of plastic waste pollution in different countries and across oceans. 

The researchers controlled for any ‘false positives’ using data from the human microbiome – the collective genomes of microorganisms in our gut, which is not thought to contain plastic-eating enzymes. 

Over 30,000 enzyme homologues were identified that could degrade 10 types of plastic.

The homomologues belong to a family of proteins that share similar properties.   

PET is a clear, strong, and lightweight plastic that is widely used for packaging foods and beverages, including water bottles. Plastic bottles made from PET are pictured here

PET, which is clear, lightweight, strong plastic used in packaging food and beverages such as water bottles, is very popular. Here are PET bottles.

‘This is a surprising discovery that really illustrates the scale of the issue,’ said author Jan Zrimec at the National Institute of Biology in Slovenia.

“Currently, we don’t know much about the plastic-degrading enzymes. We didn’t expect to see so many of them in such diverse microbes or environmental habitats.  

Researchers believe their findings could be used in the discovery and adaptation of enzymes that can then be used for new recycling methods. 

‘The next step would be to test the most promising enzyme candidates in the lab to closely investigate their properties and the rate of plastic degradation they can achieve,’ said Zelezniak. 

“From there, you can engineer microbial communities that have targeted degradation functions for particular polymer types.”  

Each year eight million tonnes of plastics end up in the ocean.

Out of 30 billion bottles plastic used annually by UK households, only 57% are being recycled.

These plastic bottles account for half the waste in all of our recycling efforts.

Every day, around 700,000.000 plastic bottles end up in the trash.

The plastic packaging around non-recyclable bottles is the main reason.

Plastic bottles are one of the main contributors to plastic pollution in our oceans. 

Research has shown that eight million tonnes worth of plastics end up in the ocean each year, which is equivalent to one truckload per minute. 

A 2016 report revealed that plastic waste in the oceans of the world will surpass fish in 2050, provided the world doesn’t take drastic measures to recycle. 

Current rates mean that this number will rise to 4 truckloads/minute by 2050, surpassing native life and making the oceans the most populous mass.

An overwhelming 95 per cent of plastic packaging – worth £65 – £92billion – is lost to the economy after a single use, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report stated.

Research suggests that the oceans contain more than 150,000,000 tonnes worth of plastics.

It is estimated that about eight million metric tons of plastic find their way into the world's oceans every year

Both marine and terrestrial ecosystems around the globe are suffering from plastic pollution. It pollutes beaches, captures animals and chokes whole animal populations.  

According to scientists, so many plastics are being dumped into sea every year that they would take five baggies for each foot of coast on this planet. 

Only five countries are responsible for over half of all plastic waste that reaches the oceans: China (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Philippines). 

United States is No. 20 on the List of Top 20 Plastic Polluters. 20. 

Researchers found that the US and Europe do not have a problem with their waste management. This means plastic garbage from these countries comes as a result of litter.

According to a study in Science, China accounts for nearly 28 percent the amount of plastic entering the oceans. However, only 77,000 tonnes is contributed by the United States, less than 1% according to the study.