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A time traveler went back in time to the 21st century, but don't worry: he took every precaution possible to not interact with anything*.

*Of course, it's impossible to not interact with your direct surroundings (the air around you, the floor you stand on).

Unfortunately the time traveler brought back all of the microbes that were on him, including multiple species of plastic-eating microbes, which happily took home in the 21st century.

So now, thanks to this time traveler, some species that in its own spacetime continuum had years of evolution to go through, and competition to deal with has been placed down in time with tons of plastic food, and the humans that otherwise had time to prepare, have none.

How devastating is the sudden introduction of these microbes? How does humanity respond, and can they "win" this battle without preparation?

Assume that since there are multiple species of microbes, they are able to consume multiple types of plastics.

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    $\begingroup$ I guess all plastic is hit more or less equally by this multitude of microbes? There are a billion kinds of plastic that are placed under the same name, but some could be gold and the other oxygen from how different they are. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Aug 10, 2020 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane Could be up to the answerer if they think of a fun route to go with it, but if anyone would prefer more direction to go with, I would say that the most common plastics are hit by the initial surge of microbes (think PVC, grocery bags, water bottles) and if humans can't eradicate them before too long they will start evolving to eat more and more types. $\endgroup$
    – Tyler N
    Aug 10, 2020 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ Seems like a paradox. If those microbes are endemic in the future, and their effect is severe, then how is there any plastic remaining in the future for them to eat? And if there are no plastics in the future, why are the microbes still so common? And if the microbes only eat some plastics, aren't terribly damaging to the future world (it had the leisure to develop recreational time travel), and have generally modest effect...then what's the point of the Question? $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Aug 11, 2020 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ It really matters how fast these microbes act. Do they decompose plastics at the same rate a banana peel rots? Or over many decades? One end extreme would be debilitating while the other end would be a god send. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 11, 2020 at 1:30

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We already have plastic eating microbes and we've dealt with plagues of pests that destroy clothes and crops for thousands of years. Sometimes they destroyed civilisations, sometimes we just put mothballs in our socks drawers and they went away.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/16/scientists-accidentally-create-mutant-enzyme-that-eats-plastic-bottles
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideonella_sakaiensis

The impact could range from absolutely devastating to quite convenient depending on a number of factors:

  • How voracious are they? What sort of plastic do they eat?
  • How do they move?
  • How hard are they to kill?

An incredibly voracious, fast multiplying microbe that was capable airborne transmission would be a major disaster, on a vastly larger scale than the current covid-19 pandemic. Plastic is in almost everything that has been manufactured in the last 100 years. That includes all food packaging/production, all transport, and all buildings. If you suddenly eliminated plastic from the world overnight then the population of every major city would starve to death within a month while the buildings around them collapsed. Even in rural areas harvests would be impossible, food production would grind to a halt and the resulting civil unrest would be catastrophic. It is just about the biggest apocalyptic event you can imagine.

If it's less hungry, well contained, easy to kill/control, then it could be put to good use in recycling plants around the world. We still probably wouldn't want it out in the wild due to the risks outlined above, but a cheap, accessible, recycling facility would be a nice way of solving a number of the plastic waste issues that the west currently exports to the developing world.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, I think if nothing else you just identified the earliest ancestor of the time-travelling super plastivore(?) bacteria... $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Aug 11, 2020 at 15:44

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