Although plastic recycling plants have been in operation for decades, the recycling process itself is still in need of refinement. For example, a plastic bottle can’t be made into another plastic bottle, and many plastics simply end up as litter on land and in the ocean. However, the recent discovery of a plastic-eating enzyme could lead to a potential revolution in plastic recycling far beyond any current capabilities.
Via Gizmodo, researchers from University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a new report about a “plastic-degrading enzyme” that was discovered in Japan in 2016. This naturally occurring bacteria developed the ability to breakdown and exclusively consume PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is commonly used in plastic bottles. During the course of their study, researchers accidentally mutated the enzyme and made it an even more effective plastic eater.
Gregg Beckham, one of the study’s co-authors and researchers, told SYFY Wire “our results show that the PET-degrading enzyme can be improved, which gives us hope for future engineering and evolution of the enzyme to make it even faster.”
As explained by Beckham, their goal is to create an industrialized version of the enzyme to greatly expand the capabilities of plastic recycling.
“We anticipate that the enzyme would primarily be used for industrial bottle-to-bottle recycling, which is not typically done now with our current mechanical recycling approaches,” noted Beckham. “Wherein PET material properties are reduced after each recycling, leading to recycled PET mostly being used for lower-grade fiber applications like carpeting, and eventually finding its way to the landfill. Essentially, the use of enzymes to do bottle-to-bottle recycling could enable a more circular materials economy.”
That breakthrough may be years away, but it may offer some potential solutions for the ongoing plastic pollution.