A team of Japanese scientists has found a species of bacteria that eats the type of plastic found in most disposable water bottles.
The discovery, published Thursday in the journal Science, could lead to new methods to manage the more than 50 million tons of this particular type of plastic produced globally each year.
The plastic found in water bottles is known as polyethylene terephalate, or PET. It is also found in polyester clothing, frozen-dinner trays and blister packaging.
“If you walk down the aisle in Wal-Mart you’re seeing a lot of PET,” said Tracy Mincer, who studies plastics in the ocean at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Part of the appeal of PET is that it is lightweight, colorless and strong. However, it has also been notoriously resistant to being broken down by microbes—what experts call “biodegradation.”
Previous studies had found a few species of fungi can grow on PET, but until now, no one had found any microbes that can eat it.