‘Recover’: cocktails of worms, insects and microbes that eat plastic | Science

Plastic recycling plant in El Ejido (Almería).Paco Points (Pais)

Humanity itself has created some of its greatest challenges. This is the plastic case. Latest assessment of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) About this waste warns that its presence on land is greater than the presence of seas. According to FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo, “Soils are one of the main acceptors of agroplastics and are known to contain higher amounts of microplastics than oceans.” Faced with this challenge, Maria José Lopez, a microbiologist at the University of Almería, is coordinating the European project RecoveryIt is a plan to reduce waste from cocktails of insects, worms and microbes capable of converting non-recyclable plastics into bio-products or removing them from the earth.

the Evaluation and sustainability of agricultural plastics The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that agricultural and livestock production, as well as food packaging, produces 60 million tons of plastic products annually compared to 2 million tons from fishing and aquaculture. Half of the global total comes from Asia.

Since the beginning of the conquest of plastics, since 1950, 6,300 million tons of this waste has been generated, of which nearly 80% has not been disposed of properly. Microplastics, less than five millimeters in size, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, are found even in human feces and the placenta.

The United Nations proposes a Six-Party Plan, an urgent line of action that includes “reject, redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle and take back”. Maria José Lopez in this regard: “Despite the implementation of many measures to reduce it, the production of plastic that eventually ends up in the environment and in our homes continues.”

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To deal with this artificial plague, the Recover project, funded by the European Union, coordinated by researcher Almeria, has brought together 17 partners from seven European countries since 2020, within four years, to find possible solutions to the problem of soil pollution by turning plastic into bio-fertilizers or Similar but biodegradable products.

The researcher in Almeria explains: “We will do this thanks to a mixture of different microorganisms, insects and worms as tools for biotechnology. Insects and worms, with the microorganisms in their digestive systems and the enzymes they produce, work collaboratively, converting a large part of these plastics into components from which we will extract Chitin, a component of biodegradable plastic.

Another strategy is that the same process, from the excrement of insects and worms, as well as the bed used for their growth at the expense of plastic, generates bio-fertilizer. The same organisms will also be used to get rid of the pollutants in the compost that end up being incorporated into the soil.

Mix

What’s new, Lopez explains, is that we’ll combine all the elements to strengthen the action of insects, which has already been verified in other studies. We have seen that it is able to shed a large amount under laboratory conditions, but we are not yet at the verification stage in a near-real environment. From now on, the most complex stage will be dealt with: testing the selected organisms in conditions similar to reality, in soil contaminated with plastic or in the composting process where we will monitor what happens with these plastics. All this, in addition, will have carried out economic, social and logistical studies to find out how non-recyclable plastics are transported to processing units and how these measures will be implemented in controlled composting reactors.”

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The results are promising. Lopez comments that they achieved reductions of up to 20% in the weight of plastic between three and four months while in nature this waste can persist for centuries. But she is cautious: “I don’t want to raise false hopes that this will be a panacea, but we are confident that we can provide new tools and new procedures to treat this waste” and cautions that the priority step is to minimize plastic generation.

Project Recover speeds up processes discovered in nature. A study was published in mBIO Identified more than 30,000 microbial enzymes in the environment with the potential to degrade 10 different types of commonly used plastics. “Currently, very little is known about these plastic-degrading enzymes and we did not expect to find such a large number of them in many different microbes and ecological habitats,” explains Jan Zrimek, first author of the study and a researcher at the National Institute of Biology in Slovenia.

For Alexig Zelzniak, Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology, “The next step will be to test promising candidate enzymes in the lab to more closely examine their properties and the rate of plastic degradation they can achieve. From there, microbial communities can be designed with specific degradation functions for specific types of polymers”.

Plant and animal species have also been discovered colonizing tons of plastic and waste dumped in the sea, according to a study published in Nature Communications. A team from the Ocean Voyages Institute analyzed 103,000 kilograms of debris in the North Pacific Ocean and found that coastal species, including anemones and crustaceans, not only survive but thrive in this exotic and artificial environment.

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Scientist Greg Ruiz, Director of the Marine Invasions Laboratory of the Environmental Research Center Smithsonian “The open ocean has been uninhabitable for coastal organisms until now due to habitat limitations,” SERC explains. Lynsey Haram, lead author of the article adds: “The problems of plastic go beyond ingestion and entanglement. It creates opportunities for the biogeography of coastal species to expand exponentially beyond what we previously thought was possible.”

On the existence of these new colonies, which they have dubbed “new lagoons,” and their implications for the marine ecosystem, the sanctuary comments: “Coastal species compete directly with these marine beams for space and resources. These interactions are very little known.”

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Aileen Morales

"Beer nerd. Food fanatic. Alcohol scholar. Tv practitioner. Writer. Troublemaker. Falls down a lot."

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