bottled water, water bottles, plastic water bottles
Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP

Bacteria Could Help With Plastic Bottle Recycling

September 25, 2008 07:59 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
Scientists have learned that a newly discovered bacteria strain can make plastic drink bottles biodegradable.

Bottled Water and the Environment

Pseudomonas bacteria can change the “low-grade PET plastic” found in drink bottles into a biodegradable plastic known as PHA, according to ABC News. Traditional recycling of these PET bottles just makes more PET, Kevin O’Connor of University College in Dublin, Ireland, explained. However, a procedure called “upcycling” creates the more valuable PHA.

Heating PET in the absence of oxygen breaks it down into terephthalic acid (TA), oil and gas. O’Connor and his colleagues knew that some bacteria could survive on TA, and that others could produce PHA when “stressed.” They decided to search for a bacteria that could do both. O’Connor called the search a “long shot,” but knew of the potential benefits if the researchers were successful.

In 2006, the United States recycled 23.5 percent of the plastic bottles it used. “There are many other systems that are economically more viable to produce PHA with better material properties,” microbiologist Sudesh Kumar said. “But Kevin’s work offers an interesting novel approach to solve the problem of PET accumulation in landfill dumps.”

The bottled water debate has a couple sides: many people are worried about the environmental impacts caused by too many unrecycled bottles. Others say it’s questionable that bottled water is even very healthy in the first place.

One of the many camps trying to do something about the issue is the U.S. House of Representatives, which recently began selling water in bottles made from corn. When they’re empty, these containers will be composted with paper plates and wasted food instead of recycled. “These bottles are as harmless as the water they contain,” Perry Plumart, deputy director of the House’s Green Capitol Initiative, told The Des Moines Register.

Bottled Water and Health

Stephen Edberg, a water researcher and professor of medicine at Yale University, explained in WebMD that the chief benefit of bottled water is that it can be sealed, whereas tap water is exposed to “great variability” as it travels from its source to individual homes. This could be advantageous to helping people with compromised immune systems stay healthy.

It’s the cost of these potential benefits that has people concerned. Depending on the location, bottled water can cost between $8 and $10 a gallon.

Related Topic: Bottled water bans

Reference: Recycling


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