Finnish study to employ plastic-eating bugs in fight against marine litter

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The three-stage project will also aim to build a pilot/demo plant where scientists can test plastic recycling with microbes in real conditions.

The burning issue of ocean litter may be a step closer to being solved with a little help from plastic-eating bugs.

The Finnish VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is developing microbes that degrade plastic as part of a project called PlastBug.

The project, according to Kari Koivuranta, principal scientist at VTT, will involve a mobile container unit where “microbes degrade plastic waste to valuable products like fuels or chemicals.”

Microbes, explained Koivuranta in a written statement to PNE, is will “eat” plastic in the process, using it as a carbon source like sugar.

“When a microbe is eating plastics, it can at the same time produce some products like ethanol. We can also modify microbes by using synthetic biology tools to make our wanted product. So, microbe are not just cleaving plastics into smaller pieces,” said the VTT scientist. 

A complete process is being engineered around the fermenting unit containing microbes – a small plant in which plastic is modified from waste to products.

The study, according to Koivuranta, was originally a one-year project to test the feasibility of the idea.

“Results have been positive, so we are applying further funding to the project: Firstly to screen more microbes and to modify them and also to engineer the whole concept,” the project leader told PNE. 

The three-stage project will also aim to build a pilot/demo plant where scientists can test plastic recycling with microbes in real conditions.

VTT expects to start up the pilot unit on the Baltic Sea in 2021, if additional funding of roughly €3 million ($3.46 million) is secured, Koivuranta added.

The small, container-based factory will be placed in an area where centralized plastic waste collection or recycling is not possible or feasible.

The container, which can be installed on a beach or a ship, will receive the majority of the energy it needs for the process from solar energy and wind power.

Researchers in the PlastBug project have been studying microbes that are capable of degrading different kinds of plastics, including polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene or PET, and have developed methods for the pretreatment of plastics.  

According to the PlastBug team, if the pilot unit is successful, the project can progress to commercial production and be deployed in other parts of the world.

The Plastbug project, which came second in the Meriroska (Marine Litter) Challenge of the Finnish Environment Agency on Aug. 25, is part of VTT’s iBEX program, which aims to achieve rapid, bold solutions to problems.

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