I'll be honest: I'm not exactly sure what will become of us because of all of this plastic.
It is not biodegradable, and if we don't understand how to REALLY recycle it (effectively, quickly, sustainably, economically) it gets bad. Consider that more than 6 million barrels of oil are still used every day to make plastic bags, soft drink bottles and more, and you will understand that this is not just a huge problem - it is practically a species threat. And I didn't say "microplastics"...
A new study outlines the use of an enzymatic variant, for convenience I will simply say "enzyme", specially created to significantly reduce the time it takes to break down plastic.
The enzyme of marvels
"We could use this enzyme to clean up sites contaminated with plastic pollution," says the University of Texas team that developed it.
Tests have shown that it can break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) objects within a week, in certain circumstances even in 24 hours: in nature they also take millennia.
"The possibilities for exploiting this process are endless in all industries," says the chemical engineer Hal Alper, at the head of the research.
This enzyme would not only help companies in many sectors to reduce waste, but would allow them to take the lead in recycling their products. To recycle them "at home" without resorting to external transport and processes.
An intelligent organism
The team called the enzyme FAST-PETase (Functional, active, stable and tolerant PETase). He developed it from a previous natural enzyme that degrades PET plastic and modified it using machine learning to identify five mutations that allow it to degrade plastic faster in different environmental conditions.
The researchers were also able to repolymerize the plastic with chemical reactions. In this way, the enzyme allows the plastic to be "broken down" and "reassembled" to create new products.
Tests on the FAST-PETase enzyme
FAST-PETase's research involved studying 51 different post-consumer plastic containers, five different polyester fibers and PET fabrics and water bottles.
In tests on all of these products, the enzyme has proven its effectiveness at temperatures below 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
"When thinking about environmental cleaning solutions, you need an enzyme that can function at room temperature," explains Alper. "Our technology has a significant advantage over all others."
PET is present in many consumer packaging, from textiles to beverage bottles. By itself, it is thought to represent about 12% of all global waste. If that doesn't sound scary enough, know that globally, less than 10% of all the plastic has already been recycled.
The introduction of FAST-PETase could help tremendously. The researchers say it is relatively inexpensive, portable, and not too difficult to scale to the kind of industrial levels that would be required.
Today, the most popular ways to get rid of plastic are to put it in a landfill where it will rot at a very slow rate, or to burn it, which is expensive and harmful to the environment. It is obvious that new methods are needed - this enzyme could be ideal.
This project demonstrates the effectiveness of combining different fields, from synthetic biology to chemical engineering to machine learning. A power, that of uniting different disciplines, which will be increasingly important in the future.