Scientists have created a breakthrough enzyme variant that can successfully break down waste plastic in less than 24 hours, increasing hopes that biological processes may give a way to manage some of the world’s mounting plastic crisis.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin reported on Thursday that they have successfully engineered a type of enzyme known as a Hydrolase that can break down PET plastic into its component molecules using artificial intelligence. These resources can then be repurposed to create new items.
Hal Alper, one of the lead researchers and a professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin said that “The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process. Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take a lead in recycling their products. Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.”
PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, is a common plastic that accounts for around 12% of all man-made solid trash worldwide, and is used to produce items like soda bottles and food disposal trays.
The researchers demonstrated a complete circular recycling process by utilising the enzyme to completely break down plastic samples into components, which they then used to make wholly new PET pieces. It’s worth noting that the procedure worked just as well with mixed-color PET as it did with clear.
Previous attempts to break down PET with enzymes have been hampered by a variety of problems, including the enzymes’ sensitivity to temperature and pH ranges, as well as their slow response speeds. However, the researchers anticipate that this “durable” enzyme will be capable of handling temperature variations in non-laboratory conditions.
Creative approaches to the plastic waste dilemma are desperately needed, with 400 million tonnes of plastic discarded each year. Only around 10% of the world’s plastic waste is recycled; the rest degrades in the environment, damaging water, the food chain, and even the atmosphere. As a result, plastic may now be found in almost every part of the planet, even in human blood.