Microbes convert 'Styrofoam' into biodegradable plastic

Feb 23, 2006

Bacteria could help transform a key component of disposable cups, plates and utensils into a useful eco-friendly plastic, significantly reducing the environmental impact of this ubiquitous, but difficult-to-recycle waste stream, according to a study scheduled to appear in the April 1 issue of the American Chemical Society journal, Environmental Science & Technology.

The microbes, a special strain of the soil bacterium Pseudomonas putida, converted polystyrene foam — commonly known as Styrofoam™ — into a biodegradable plastic, according to Kevin O’Connor, Ph.D., of University College Dublin, the study’s corresponding author. The study is among the first to investigate the possibility of converting a petroleum-based plastic waste into a reusable biodegradable form.

O’Connor and his colleagues from Ireland and Germany, utilized pyrolysis, a process that transforms materials by heating them in the absence of oxygen, to convert polystyrene — the key component of many disposable products — into styrene oil. The researchers then supplied this oil to P. putida, a bacterium that can feed on styrene, which converted the oil into a biodegradable plastic known as PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates). The process might also be used to convert other types of discarded plastics into PHA, according to O’Connor.

PHA has numerous uses in medicine and can be used to make plastic kitchenware, packaging film and other disposable items. The biodegradable plastic is resistant to hot liquids, greases and oils, and can have a long shelf life. But unlike polystyrene, it readily breaks down in soil, water, septic systems and backyard composts.

Worldwide, more than 14 million metric tons of polystyrene are produced annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most of this ends up in landfills. Although polystyrene represents less than 1 percent of solid waste generated in the United States, at least 2.3 million tons of it is dumped in U.S. landfills each year. Only 1 percent of polystyrene waste is currently recycled, the authors note.

Source: American Chemical Society

Explore further: Surveys may assess language more than attitudes, study says

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Ridding the sea and land from toxic plastics fragments

Sep 11, 2014

Plastic products made of PVC, Polystyrene and other prominent plastics are flooding the market. They are a growing threat to the environment, as they are found in the sea or dumped in land fills. But in a ...

New class of industrial polymers discovered

May 15, 2014

(Phys.org) —Scientists from IBM Research have successfully discovered a new class of polymer materials that can potentially transform manufacturing and fabrication in the fields of transportation, aerospace, ...

Empa helps to expand the Stockholm Convention POP list

Aug 26, 2013

The flame retardant HBCD may no longer be produced or used. This was decided by representatives from over 160 countries in late May at a UN conference on chemicals in Geneva. Empa's extensive research on ...

Sorting plastic waste: A magnetic game

Jun 14, 2013

More than one third of the total plastic production in Europe—about 14 million tonnes per year—are polyolefins, also known as polyalkenes. This is a family of polymers used for the manufacture of a variety ...

Recommended for you

Q&A: Science journalism and public engagement

16 hours ago

Whether the public is reading about the Ebola outbreak in Africa or watching YouTube videos on the benefits of the latest diet, it's clear that reporting on science and technology profoundly shapes modern ...

User comments : 0