NZ Bans Single Use Plastic by 2025, Could New Plastic-Eating Bacteria Help Combat Plastic Pollution? Bacteria In Cow Stomachs Can Break Down Plastic, Climate Champ Fionn Ferreira

by | Jul 15, 2021 | Podcasts, The Climate Daily

New Zealand bans single-use plastic By 2025, plus could a new plastic-eating bacteria help combat this pollution scourge? Bacteria in cow stomachs can break down plastic, and who is climate champion Fionn Ferreira?



New Zealand is banning single-use plastics such as cutlery, bags, cotton buds, drinking straws and polystyrene takeaway containers in an effort to protect the environment. The products will be phased out in three stages beginning late next year, as the government moves to ban hard-to-recycle products by mid-2025.

In 2019, New Zealand took its first step toward a ban on all plastics by banning plastic bags. 

“We estimate this new policy will remove more than 2 billion single-use plastic items from our landfills or environment each year,” David Parker, New Zealand’s environment minister, said. “Phasing out unnecessary and problematic plastics will help reduce waste to landfill, improve our recycling system, and encourage reusable or environmentally responsible alternatives.”

In that vein, the government also announced a $50 million pledge to the Plastics Innovation Fund, which will launch in November to help businesses find alternatives to plastic packaging. “The fund will help tap into our collective ingenuity to find ways to use less plastic, and make what we do use recyclable for the benefit of the environment – while also boosting jobs and supporting the economic recovery,” Parker said in an interview with TVNZ.

DEEPER DIVE: Independent, Global Citizen, Eco-Watch


Scientists have discovered a species of bacteria capable of breaking down commonly used PET plastic, but they remain unsure of its potential applications. 

Believe it or not, Some bacteria think plastic is fantastic. Bacteria isolated from outside a bottle-recycling facility can break down and metabolize plastic. The proliferation of plastics in consumer products, from bottles to clothing, has resulted in the release of countless tons of plastics into the environment.

Nature has begun to fight back against the vast piles of filth dumped into its soils, rivers and oceans by evolving a plastic-eating bacteria – the first known to science. Japanese researchers show how the biodegradation of plastics by specialized bacteria could be a viable bioremediation strategy

The team sifted through hundreds of samples of PET pollution before finding a colony of organisms using the plastic as a food source. The new species, Ideonella sakaiensis, breaks down the plastic by using two enzymes to hydrolyze PET and a primary reaction intermediate, eventually yielding basic building blocks for growth.  

Further tests found the bacteria almost completely degraded low-quality plastic within six weeks. “This is the first rigorous study – it appears to be very carefully done – that I have seen that shows plastic being hydrolyzed [broken down] by bacteria,” said Dr Tracy Mincer, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The discovery suggested that other bacteria may have already evolved to do this job and simply needed to be found.

DEEPER DIVE: The Guardian, Science Magazine, World Economic Forum



Cows have stomachs with four compartments and the bacteria in one of them – the rumen – produce enzymes which can break down some widely used plastics. The discovery could lead to new technology for processing such materials after use.

Plastic pollution is all-pervasive, in the water and in the air, with people unwittingly consuming and breathing microplastic particles. In recent years, researchers have been working on harnessing the ability of tiny microscopic bugs to break down the stubborn material.

Microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi, are becoming an emerging resource for the development of eco-sustainable plastic degradation and recycling processes.  Given that cow diets contain these natural polyesters, scientists suspected the bovine stomach would contain a cornucopia of microbes to degrade all the plant material.

To test that theory, Dr Doris Ribitsch, of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, and her colleagues procured liquid from the rumen, a compartment of a cow’s stomach, from a slaughterhouse in Austria. One cow typically produces a rumen volume of about 100 litres, noted Ribitsch. “You can imagine the huge amount of rumen liquid accumulating in slaughterhouses every day – and it’s only waste.”

The results showed all three plastics could be broken down by the micro-organisms from cow stomachs in the lab setting, with the plastic powders breaking down quicker than plastic film. The next steps, she said, were to identify those microbes crucial to plastic degradation from the thousands present in the rumen, and then the enzymes produced by them. Once the enzymes have been identified, they can be produced and applied in recycling plants. 

DEEPER DIVE: The Guardian, Frontiers in Bio, New Scientist


 Google launched the Google Science Fair in 2011 where students ages 13 through 18 can submit experiments and their results in front of a panel of judges. The winner receives $50,000. Back in 2019, Irish teenager FIONN FERREIRA from West Cork, Ireland won that $50,000 prize for his project focusing on extracting micros-plastics from water.

Ferreira used a combination of oil and magnetite powder to create a ferrofluid in the water containing microplastics. The microplastics combined with the ferrofluid which was then extracted.

Nasa engineer Steve Papell discovered a way to stably disperse magnetic nanoparticles throughout a carrier fluid, making the first ferrofluid. He came up with the idea of magnetizing rocket fuel as a way to draw it from a storage tank into an engine in the absence of gravity back in the early 1960s. 

Plastic and oil are nonpolar, meaning they’re likely to stick to one another in nature. As a budding scientist, Ferreira had a hunch that the same effect could be created using ferrofluid.  After the microplastics bound to the ferrofluid, Ferreira used a magnet to remove the solution and leave only water. 

After 1,000 tests, the method was 87% effective in removing microplastics of all sorts from water. The most effective microplastic removed was that from a washing machine with the hardest to remove being polypropylene plastics. With the confirmation of the methodology, Ferreira hopes to scale the technology to be able to implement at wastewater treatment facilities.

Mariette DiChristina, editor in chief at Scientific American said “Fionn showed tenacity and dedication to solving an important environmental problem. He embodies the spirit of exploration.”

DEEPER DIVE: FIONN , FORBES, Business Insider, Ferrofluid