The researchers stress that these findings do not condone plastic pollutionNaja Bertolt Jensen/UNSPLASH

Since the introduction of synthetic plastics with Bakelite in 1907, plastic has found its way littered around the planet, all of it slowly decomposing, with an added drawback of releasing toxic compounds in the process.

But new research out of Cambridge University indicates that bacteria have begun to clean up our mess – and even more surprisingly, they might prefer to snack on plastic than their traditional staples like leaves or twigs.

The study found that some naturally occurring bacteria grow faster on plastic bags than on natural organic matter. Meaning that they could help to gobble us out of a plastic pollution crisis. However, if toxins within plastics are absorbed by the bacteria, it could spell serious problems for food chains.

In the study, the researchers added water previously contaminated with plastic bags to water samples taken from 29 Scandinavian lakes. This resulted in faster and more efficient bacterial growth than adding distilled water alone. The study suggests that the plastic provided a trigger to aid the breakdown of tougher materials.

It also found that lakes with higher bacterial diversity and less naturally occurring organic matter were better at digesting the plastic compounds.

One senior researcher, Dr Andrew Tanentzap, commented: “It’s almost like the plastic pollution is getting the bacteria’s appetite going. The bacteria use the plastic as food first, because it’s easy to break down, and then they’re more able to break down some of the more difficult food – the natural organic matter in the lake.”

‘It’s almost like the plastic pollution is getting the bacteria’s appetite going’

The study also has implications for how we might tackle plastic pollution in the future, by making it easier to identify individual lakes to target for pollution management. However, the researchers stress that these findings do not condone plastic pollution, which comes with an abundance of unpleasant repercussions.

Concerns were raised about the toxic chemicals from plastics being absorbed by the bacteria, and then building up through the food chain. Animals which eat bacteria may ingest greater amounts of the chemicals in a process known as bioaccumulation, disrupting the food chain from the bottom up.

Eleanor Sheridan from the Department of Life Sciences, and first author on the paper, stated: “Our study shows that when carrier bags enter lakes and rivers they can have dramatic and unexpected impacts on the entire ecosystem. Hopefully our results will encourage people to be even more careful about how they dispose of plastic waste.”

Perhaps the most important take-away from this research is the fact it needed to be done at all – plastic pollution has been demanding more urgency from us for so long that slowly, nature itself is having to find ways to fight back.