Scientists in Germany report “Toward Biorecycling: Isolation of a Soil Bacterium That Grows on a Polyurethane Oligomer and Monomer” in Frontiers in Microbiology that they have identified and characterized a strain of bacteria capable of degrading some of the chemical building blocks of polyurethane.
“The fate of plastic waste and a sustainable use of synthetic polymers is one of the major challenges of the twenty first century. Waste valorization strategies can contribute to the solution of this problem. Besides chemical recycling, biological degradation could be a promising tool. Among the high diversity of synthetic polymers, polyurethanes are widely used as foams and insulation materials. In order to examine bacterial biodegradability of polyurethanes, a soil bacterium was isolated from a site rich in brittle plastic waste,” write the investigators.
Unfortunately, polyurethane is difficult and energy-intensive to recycle or destroy as most of these kinds of plastics are thermosetting polymers that do not melt when heated. The waste mostly ends up in landfills where it releases a number of toxic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic.