Microbes found in Alps can digest plastics at low temperatures

Cold-weather microorganisms could offer more sustainable and cheaper way to combat pollution

hand holding microplastics
Scientists believe microbes are among the most effective tools to break down microplastics
(Image credit: Alistair Berg/Getty Images)

Scientists have discovered microbes in the Arctic and Alps that can digest certain biodegradable plastics at much lower temperatures than previously thought, which could offer a more environmentally friendly way to combat plastic pollution.

A team of scientists led by Joel Rüthi, environmental microbiologist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, sampled strains of bacteria and fungi growing on plastic in the ground in Switzerland, Greenland and Svalbard.

The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, found that while none of the strains could digest non-biodegradable matter, certain microbes – some previously unknown – could break down biodegradable plastics at 15C (59F). The findings “may contribute to future efforts for an environment-friendly circular plastic economy”, Rüthi said.

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Many microorganisms that can break down certain polymers have been found, said The Guardian, but “they can usually only work at temperatures above 30C (86F)”. This is why households are asked to put biodegradable plastic wrappers in garden or food waste bins, The Times said. “Rather than being disposed of in landfill, they are put in bioreactors and heated”, which is “prohibitively expensive” and carbon intensive.

But Rüthi and his colleagues searched for these organisms in “overlooked cold environments”, said Vice News. “At the height of the Swiss Alps, little can live,” said The Times’s science editor, Tom Whipple, so the microbes “eat what they can”.

If these new microbes could be used industrially, the findings “reveal a potentially cheaper way to recycle plastic – and create a true circular economy”, Whipple said.

Microbes are “among the best tools” to fight microplastic pollution, which can be found “virtually everywhere on Earth”, said Vice News, even in our blood.

“Given that plastic pollution is only getting worse, it will be essential to come up with sustainable ways to dispose of this resilient form of waste.”

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Harriet Marsden is a writer for The Week, mostly covering UK and global news and politics. Before joining the site, she was a freelance journalist for seven years, specialising in social affairs, gender equality and culture. She worked for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and regularly contributed articles to The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, Tortoise Media and Metro, as well as appearing on BBC Radio London, Times Radio and “Woman’s Hour”. She has a master’s in international journalism from City University, London, and was awarded the "journalist-at-large" fellowship by the Local Trust charity in 2021.