Every minute a million plastic bottles are bought around the planet. You read that right: a million bottles per minute. Within a couple of years, that number will rise to around 1.2 million per minute.
Last year alone, half a billion plastic drinking bottles were sold around the world, which translated into thousands upon thousands of bottles sold every second. Only about 14% of those bottles are recycled and the rest adds to the scourge of plastic waste our planet has suffered.
But solutions are on the way. In 2016, Japanese scientists discovered a species of bacteria that can break molecular bonds in polyester (polyethylene terephthalate or PET), one of the most widely used plastics, by metabolizing plastic. The species of bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, could be deployed to consume large amounts of plastic waste with the help of a special enzyme produced by the bacteria.
Then an international team of scientists took that discovery a step further by making the molecule in the enzyme produced by the bacteria even better at breaking down the type of plastic most commonly used in disposable water bottles and soda. The artificially modified enzyme can break down plastic bottles in a matter of days - the same bottles that would take centuries to break down naturally.
Scientists are working on ways to speed up the process even further by breaking down plastic bottles into their original components. In that way, says one of the researchers, Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth in the UK. "We can literally recycle plastic, which means we won't need to extract more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment."
Improving the initiative on an industrial scale will be a challenge and consumer habits will also need to change. At the moment, the chemical components of plastic bottles are still cheap, so manufacturers don't think twice about producing endless bottles. What is needed is a change in public perception whereby recycled plastic products are valued more by customers so that manufacturers are more inclined to start producing them.