lifting the lid

Scientists discover a new enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles
Current affairs | 12 April 2020
This article is part of Eco Watch

Above image: Still, Rick and Morty, Mortynight Run, 2015

If there is a material that symbolises our consumer-driven descent into environmental meltdown, our prioritisation of convenience over responsibility, greed over empathy, it is plastic, the polymer that pollutes every conceivable corner of the globe on every conceivable scale. Now, scientists have discovered a mutant bacterial enzyme capable of breaking down plastic bottles for recycling within hours.

Originally discovered in a compost heap of leaves, the newly created enzyme is generating international attention not least because it doesn’t deteriorate the quality of the plastic it recycles. Unlike existing technologies, which usually produce a low-grade recycled plastic suited only to clothing and carpets, this new enzyme reduces bottles to chemical building blocks that can be used for new, high-quality bottles.

Carbios, the company behind the new find have already partnered with the likes of Pepsi and L’Oreal and hope to achieve industrial-scale recycling within five years. A team of Carbios scientists used the enzyme to break down a tonne of waste plastic bottles, which were 90 percent degraded within ten hours and subsequently used to produce new food-grade bottles.

“It makes the possibility of true industrial-scale biological recycling of PET (the plastic used in bottles) a possibility.” said Prof John McGeehan, director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at 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 incentivise the collection and recycling of waste plastic.”


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