VTT is developing microbes that degrade plastic as a solution to marine plastic waste problem

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Photo of petri dish containing plastic-degrading microbes.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is helping to solve the global plastic waste problem. VTT develops in a project called PlastBug a mobile container unit to remove plastic waste from ocean areas, in order to create a safe living environment.

"Our idea is to design a mobile container where microbes degrade plastic waste to valuable products like fuels or chemicals," says Kari Koivuranta, Principal Scientist at VTT. 

The aim is to develop a small, container-based factory that can be placed in an area where centralised plastic waste collecting or recycling is not possible or feasible. The container can be located on a beach or ship. The factory unit would get most of its energy from solar energy and wind power.

This year researchers in the PlastBug project have been searching for microbes that are capable of degrading different kinds of plastics (PE, PP, PS or PET) and developed methods for the pre-treatment of plastics. Researchers are currently using a three-stage screening method to screen microbes from different sources.

"Some microbes have already passed through the first two stages of the screening. In the third stage, we will confirm that they are capable of consuming and digesting plastic. In the next step, if plastic degrading microbes are  found, we will improve the ability of the most effective microbes to digest plastic, and we will develop plastic pre-treatment methods further to ease the work of the microbes," says Koivuranta.

A complete process is being engineered around a fermenting unit containing microbes – a small plant in which plastic is modified from waste to products. The aim is that the pilot unit will operate on the Baltic Sea in 2021, but funding still needs to be secured for the realisation of this plan.

If the process can be made to work effectively enough, the PlastBug units can progress to commercial production and operate in different locations around the world.

The Plastbug team took second place in the Meriroska (Marine Litter) Challenge arranged by the Finnish Environment Agency on 25 August 2018.

This annual project is part of VTT's iBEX programme, which aims to achieve rapid, bold solutions to problems.

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