New Super Enzyme Breaks Down PET Plastic Super Fast

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for ODP

By Razi Beresin-Scher, ODP Contributing Writer

According to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have engineered a new “super enzyme” that breaks down recycled plastic 6-times faster than previously possible, CNN and The New York Times reported.  The super-enzyme is designed to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is the most common polyester plastic used in bottles, carpets, and clothing. By efficiently creating new raw material, the super-enzyme allows plastic to be infinitely recycled and it could significantly reduce pollution and greenhouse gas production worldwide.

Why this matters:  Plastic bottles can take 450 years to break down on their own – if they degrade at all, but this “cocktail” can shorten the process to just days About 70 million tons of PET are produced annually, and the plastic is primarily used to manufacture drink bottles. Over 300 tons of plastic are produced annually, an overwhelming percentage of which can be traced to plastic bottle manufacturers like Coca Cola and PepsiCo. If this super-enzyme can break down PET sustainably, it could make a significant dent in global pollution. 

How It Works

The team of researchers is headed by Professor John McGeehan, who directs the University of Portsmouth’s Center for Enzyme Innovation. The Center “takes enzymes from the natural environment and, using synthetic biology, adapts them to create new enzymes for industry.”  In 2018, the team successfully broke down PET using an enzyme called PETase. Now, they’ve made the process 6 times shorter by combining PETase with a “partner enzyme” called MHETase. 

While other recycling processes can lead to a loss of mechanical properties, the super-enzyme maintains the material integrity of PET. It not only works faster, but can also break down plastic more cheaply and on a larger scale than these other processes. Now, the greatest barrier to PET recycling will be recovering plastic litter from oceans and landfills for repurposing. 

Other Possible Plastic Eaters

Last spring we reported on similar progress by the French firm Carbios, which announced a study into its PET-eating enzyme, which will be tested at a demonstration plant near the city of Lyon in 2021, according to a press release from the company.  But there are other solutions being developed too, such as using tiny waxworms, which, thanks to its gut bacteria, can chomp through plastic, even polyethylene, a common and non-biodegradable plastic.  In addition, mealworms, the larval stage of the mealworm beetle, which can break down one Styrofoam coffee cup in about a week thanks to the bacteria living in their gut

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