Scientists from Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) have identified a novel bacterium with the scientific name Pseudomonas sp. that breaks down polyurethane oligomers and monomers and also uses the plastic as an energy source. The results were reported in a scientific article published on March 27, 2020, in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology. This is the first strain found to degrade polyurethane. It was isolated from a plastic dumping site and then tested in the laboratory. “These findings represent an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle polyurethane products,” research team member Hermann Heipieper from UFZ told The Guardian. “We found the bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy.”
Millions of tons of polyurethane are produced each year but are very difficult to recycle. The degradation process is described as releasing toxic chemicals that would kill most bacteria, but this new strain is able to survive. Fungi have been used until now to break down polyurethane, however, bacteria are much simpler to grow and apply for industrial use. Heipieper estimates that it might take another decade before the bacteria could be implemented on an industrial scale to support recycling. While it is an exciting development, the researcher says that this discovery is not a complete solution. He concludes that “the main message should be to avoid plastic being released into the environment in the first place.”
Previous research on microbial plastic degradation has led to the isolation of a bacterium that can slowly decompose polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is commonly used for food and beverage packaging (FPF reported).
Damian Carrington (March 27, 2020). “Scientists find bug that feasts on toxic plastic.”
Jordan Davidson (March 27, 2020). “Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic.” EcoWatch
Espinosa, M. et al. (March 27, 2020). “Toward Biorecycling: Isolation of a Soil Bacterium That Grows on a Polyurethane Oligomer and Monomer.” Frontiers in Microbiology