Mutant enzyme recycles plastic

This enzyme can break down polyethylene terephthalate which is used for plastic.
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April 24, 2022
For the past years, plastic has been a significant problem on our planet. It has clogged up oceans, polluted the environment, and destroyed the lives of animals everywhere.

According to Voices of Youth, plastic attributes to pollution on earth and the destruction of marine life. More than “80% of marine litter is plastic which kills up to 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine creatures each year by ingesting it,” according to Voices of Youth. However, scientists may have found an enzyme to fight against the huge problem of plastic waste.

The enzyme is capable of reducing plastic into chemical building blocks which then can be reused to create fresh new bottles, cans and more. Specifically, this enzyme can break down polyethylene terephthalate which is used for plastic.

“It makes the possibility of true industrial-scale biological recycling of PET a possibility,” said Professor John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth. “This is a very large advance in terms of speed, efficiency and heat tolerance. It represents a significant step forward for true circular recycling of PET and has the potential to reduce our reliance on oil, cut carbon emissions and energy use, and incentivize the collection and recycling of waste plastic.” 

The company behind the enzyme discovery is Carbios and intends to initiate industrial-scale recycling. It began with researching thousands of micro-organisms and screening them to find the perfect enzyme. After they analyzed it, scientists applied mutations that allowed it to break down PET found in plastic quickly. Two hundred grams of PET were reduced by “90% to their original chemical building blocks in just 10 hours,” according to Treehugger.

“It’s a real breakthrough in the recycling and manufacturing of PET,” said Dr. Saleh Jabarin, a scientist from Carbios, in a statement. “Thanks to the innovative technology developed by Carbios, the PET industry will become truly circular, which is the goal for all players in this industry, especially brand-owners, PET producers and our civilization as a whole.”

To use the enzyme, the plastic is grounded up and heated in order for it to break down the PET stored in the plastic. This process is 4% of the cost of virgin plastic that is made from oil. The result is plastic that is as fine and new as the original, unlike other recycled plastic materials.

All this work was also dedicated to another reason besides easier and cheaper plastic making, which was to save and protect the environment Martin Stephan said, the deputy chief executive at Carbios. Instead of reducing plastic usage to stop the massive flow of plastic waste, the company stated that strong and light material such as plastic was too useful, and instead the solution should be true and total recycling. 

There are still many more improvements to be made. The enzyme can only break down PET, and cannot break down polyethylene which is found in plastic bags, or polystyrene which is used for packaging. That is why Carbios grabbed some help. Carbios teamed up with companies such as Pepsi and Nestle to help develop and accelerate the improvement and usage of the enzyme.

Nonetheless, this enzyme is a huge help in plastic waste recycling and has the potential to impact the world largely.