In what new ways can bacteria help shrink our landfills?

Landfills around the world are overflowing with the refuse of daily life. See more green living pictures.
Landfills around the world are overflowing with the refuse of daily life. See more green living pictures.
Photo courtesy of Onslow County

Somewhere in the world, a recyclable aluminum can is tumbling into a landfill.

Actually, 50.7 billion cans are tumbling into landfills every year, and that's just in the United States [source: Allegheny]. Despite the availability of recycling programs, people are still tossing "garbage" at an alarming rate -- more than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) per day per person, or 56 tons (50 metric tons) per year, for the average American trash producer [source: CAC]. And not all of that trash even could be recycled if it were tossed in a different bin.


Landfills around the world, but especially in the United States and China, are overflowing with the refuse of daily life. Trash is beginning to overtake oceans, too -- there's a garbage patch in the Pacific that measures somewhere between the size of one or two Texases (see Could we clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?). And most of the refuse there is recyclable plastic.

Recycling is great, but it's not solving our garbage problem. It's not even coming close. Americans produced 60 percent more trash in 2005 than they did in 1980, and that trash has to go somewhere [source: GL]. Lately, more of it is going into compost bins, where it's turned into fertilizer. But that's just the organic waste. You can't compost plastic bags or broken microwaves.

To deal with the ever-growing refuse of the industrialized world, new methods are needed -- ones that deal with the trash that ends up in the world's ever-growing landfills.

Enter the handy bacterium. Bacteria, or microbes, already work on trash 24 hours a day. Their activities are how trash "decomposes", whether in a landfill or a compost bin, bacteria digest it. Lately, this fact of nature has picked up steam as a possible solution to our garbage problem, and a few new ideas look promising, if only in theory. In this article, we'll look at some of the more recent bacteria-focused proposals in the garbage fight. We'll find out what they entail, how much good they could do and where they are in terms of real-world viability.

One major area of research addresses the fact that, despite what you might have heard, plastic actually does decompose. It just takes a long, long time.

Or does it?