Scientists have created a new enzyme that can fully break down plastic waste in less than 24 hours. This raises hopes that biological processes might be able to address some of the world’s plastic crises.
The University of Texas at Austin announced that artificial intelligence was used to engineer a type of enzyme called a hydrolase that can degrade PET plastic into its components. These materials can then be transformed into new products.
Hal Alper, one the leading researchers and a professor at the McKetta department of chemical engineering at UT Austin, said that there are many industries that can benefit from this cutting-edge recycling process. This is not only a great opportunity for waste management companies, but it also gives corporations in every industry the chance to recycle their products. We can see a circular economy of plastics through these sustainable enzyme methods.
PET, also known as polyethylene terephthalate, is one of the most widely used plastics. It accounts for about 12% of all manmade solid waste. It is used in products like soda bottles or disposal food trays.
Researchers demonstrated a complete circular recycling process that used the enzyme to completely degrade plastic into materials which they then used to make new PET. The process was equally effective with mixed-coloured PET as with clear products.
Previous attempts at using enzymes to breakdown PET have failed due to a variety of factors. These include enzymes’ vulnerability to temperature, pH, and slow reaction rates. Researchers believe that this “robust enzyme” will be able handle temperature variations in nonlaboratory conditions.
Alper stated, “When you think about environmental cleanup applications it is important to have an enzyme that can work at ambient temperature.” This is where our technology has a tremendous advantage for the future.
The enzyme can be used to clean up landfills or waste plants contaminated with plastics, or just sites polluted by them if it is in sufficient quantities.
New solutions are urgently needed to address the problem of plastic waste. Each year, 400 million tons of plastic is disposed of. The world’s plastic waste is only 10% recycled. The rest goes into the environment and pollutes the water chain and the air. Plastic can now be found all over the planet, from the environment to the human blood.
Although the health effects of this on humans are not known at this time, they are likely to prove to be detrimental. Research has shown that microplastics can cause cell damage.
March saw 175 United Nations members agree for the first time to create an international plastics treaty. This was to combat plastic pollution. Importantly, this treaty is expected to address the downstream problem of plastic oversupply, which is primarily driven by the oil-and gas industry.
Nature has the paper “Machine learning and assisted engineering of hydrolases to PET depolymerization”. To view the entire article, you will need to subscribe.