Tiny Organisms Solve Giant Problems

The Plastic Problem

A pressing issue our world is facing is “The Plastic Problem.” Humans have been creating harmful, non-biodegradable plastics and other materials for hundreds of years and polluting the planet with them. Scientists have been working to come up with reasonable solutions to waste management. While creating environmentally friendly alternatives is instrumental in preserving our planet, something must be done about the waste produced in years past.

A natural solution?

Who could have guessed that the Earth has been working to solve this itself? Some microorganisms have evolved and adapted to consume different types of plastic and convert their components into something good for the environment.

Plastic-Eating Bacteria

Ideonella Sakaiensis is a bacteria discovered in Osaka, Japan. It secretes enzymes that break down harmful PET plastics into biodegradable PHB plastics. This bacteria could break down plastics in around 6 weeks when studied in a lab setting.

Plastic-Eating Fungi

Aspergillus Tubigensis, a naturally occurring fungus, was discovered by scientists at a waste disposal site in Islamabad, Pakistan. This fungus is also capable of breaking down plastic by secreting special enzymes. These enzymes destroy the bonds between molecules in the plastic.

Plastic-Eating Larvae

Zophobas Morio, or “super worms”, are larvae of the darkling beetle. This creature can decompose polystyrene (AKA Styrofoam) through its digestion. The larvae’s gut microbiome is being studied to learn how to replicate the process of breaking down plastics and learn how to produce more efficient larvae.

Is This Sustainable?

For something to be sustainable, it must account for three things: ecology, equity, and economy. In other words, something must be good for people, nature, and the economy.

While these organisms are all naturally-occurring, they are not the most efficient. In order for these organisms to become viable solutions to our plastic problem, they must be bio-engineered to be hundreds of times more efficient. Large-scale commercial use would be very expensive. The “willingness to pay” philosophy addresses how people will only choose sustainable products if they are willing to pay for them. More expensive endeavors are backed less by the average person. These organisms are only sustainable as long as researchers are given proper funding.


she/her/hers & they/them/theirs Georgia Tech CS '24 Concentrations: Media & Intelligence