New Mutant Enzyme Breaks Down Plastic Fast – Could Solve Recycling Problems

Researchers at Carbios, a French company, report in the Journal Nature that they’ve “engineered an enzyme that can convert 90% of that same plastic back to its pristine starting materials” and they are working to open a demonstration plant next year.  The enzyme breaks down plastic all the way into a recyclable form — the company, in collaboration with Pepsi and L’Oréal, hopes to have market scale production within 5 years.

Why This Matters: 70 million tons of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is produced annually.  But it requires a high temperature to melt it down and the result is a gray or black plastic starting material that few companies want to use to package their products so it gets incinerated or ends up in a landfill — it does not get re-used.  This new enzyme reduces PET into small single particles in less than a day and it can actually be reused to create things like plastic bottles and does this at a fraction of the cost to make a new bottle from petroleum.  What is needed is the recycling infrastructure to grind up and then heat the plastic bottles before the enzyme is added would still make it more expensive in the end.

Mutant Enzymes

The scientists took an enzyme discovered in 2012 that showed promise and generated hundreds of mutant enzymes then looked for ones that could work at high heat.  Then they mass-produced the mutants in bacteria and screened them to find the ones that could break down PET efficiently. After repeating this process looking for the best of the best, they isolated a mutant enzyme that’s 10,000 times more efficient at breaking down PET than the original one. The researchers then used the broken down PET “building blocks” generated by the enzyme to create new PET and produce plastic bottles that were just as strong as those made from conventional plastics, according to the study in Nature.

What Else Can They Do?

They are working also on a way to deal with the normally-unrecyclable plastic film.  They have demonstrated a plastic film that can be compostable at home or in municipal compost piles. They have set their sites on a solution by the end of 2020 for plastic films and carrier bags—and then they will tackle rigid packaging and disposable tableware.  The Company’s Deputy CEO said, “These milestones reinforce our ambition to offer the market circular economy solutions that are both competitive and eco-friendly, and which will revolutionize the end of life for plastics and textiles.”

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