We’ve all wondered when we take out the recycling just how much of it will be recycled, remade, and repurposed into a new product as we hope. Sadly, only 10 percent of plastics globally are successfully recycled, and there’s a lot of work to do to ensure everything we put in the recycling bin is reused.
Biological researchers from the University of Texas in Austin have developed a new enzyme that can break down plastics, facilitating industrial recycling and even more.
The biological approach
Many industrial methods of plastic recycling involve energy-intensive processes of glycolysis, pyrolysis, and/or methanolysis. Besides these, many plastics are just harmfully burnt in landfills, releasing noxious gasses and wasting what could otherwise be reused. Tackling the problem biologically, however, changes the game.
The new enzyme from UT Austin could give industrial recycling a super boost by breaking down and reusing plastics at the molecular level.
“The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” says Hal Alper, professor in the chemical engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin.
It’s aimed at a polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a very common plastic found in soda bottles and about 12 percent of the world’s plastic waste. The enzyme — called FAST-PETase (functional, active, stable, and tolerant PETase) — was able to successfully break down the PET plastic into smaller parts and then chemically put it back together, what’s called depolymerization and repolymerization. It can also do this in as little as 24 hours, while most plastics take up to hundreds of years to naturally decompose, and it can do it at 122 degrees Fahrenheit, far below the extreme temperatures of other recycling methods.
“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,” says Alper.
Alper and the team plan to take this FAST-PETase into the world to use in landfills and in the environment at large to clean up plastic waste. They plan to scale up enzyme production and refine the process to apply it to high-waste industries, as a resource for landfills, and to clean up polluted sites.
“When considering environmental cleanup applications, you need an enzyme that can work in the environment at ambient temperature. This requirement is where our tech has a huge advantage in the future,” Alper says.
Source Study: UT News — Plastic-eating Enzyme Could Eliminate Billions of Tons of Landfill Waste – UT News (utexas.edu)
This story was part of our Best of 2022 series highlighting our top solutions from the year. Today we’re featuring environment and climate-focused solutions.