British and American researchers reveal a new super-enzyme that accelerates the break down of plastic. This provides a step forward in discovering a new form of recycling that is prompt, more accessible and works on a substantial scale than existing methods.

The “super-enzyme” could be utilized to break down plastic bottles faster than the existing recycling methods and develop the raw material to build new ones, according to the scientists.

“This is a very exciting development for plastics recycling and environmental stewardship,” said Jim Pfaendtner, a professor of chemistry at the University of Washington.

Approximately 359 million tons of plastic is manufactured annually globally, with a minimum of 150 million tons of it disposed in landfills or in the environment.

Plastics often take up to 450 years to break down in the ocean, that is if they break down, according to the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Most plastics break down into tiny bits known as microplastics which have been discovered in marine life, ocean water and in the guts of humans.

As climate change is being dealt with globally and the necessity to burn far less fossil fuel, oil and gas companies seeking alternatives for superfluity are turning to producing more plastics like PET, one of the widely conventional plastics in the world found in soda bottles, synthetic clothing and packaging.

The research, published on Monday in the journal PNAS from a team of scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other US institutions, concentrates on a hybrid of two enzymes gotten from a bacterium found in Japan in 2016. The scientists discovered that this bacterium could break down PET.

In 2018, the team were able to break down plastic with one of the two enzymes. But when the second enzyme is added, it was discovered that the process works six times as fast.

“You get the original building blocks back,” explained Professor John McGeehan, director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation and co-leader of the team.

Another set of researchers with the Toulouse Institute of Sciences and Carbios, a French bio-industrial company, published findings in Nature of another enzyme that degraded PET within 10 hours.

Alain Marty, chief scientific officer at Carbios, explained that his company’s technique was more productive for “the unlimited recycling of PET” and was already at a “pilot industrial stage”.

The technique invented by Prof McGeehan’s team is slower. Recycling a plastic bottle could take days or weeks. However, they are now examining pre-softening the plastic and other options to get the break down time down to hours. They are also aspiring to boost their operations.

“We created this problem in the first place,” Prof McGeehan said. Still, he said, it is nice that nature may have provided a solution.


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