We have all know that as useful as plastic is, it has not been that great for the environment. Plastic is the wonder material that has been made a little bit too well. Although we are all attempting to cut down our use, the problem is still considered a global plastic pollution crisis. So what more can be done? Well scientists in Britain and the US have engineered an enzyme that eats plastic, a breakthrough that could help in the fight against pollution. The mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles and allows us to recycle bottles fully.
The bacterium that naturally eats plastic was discovered of at a Japanese dump. The plastic-eating bugs, release a crucial enzyme produced by the bug that researchers have studied and tweaked to make it better at breaking down the PET (polyethene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”
“What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic”
This is a process that takes the mutant enzyme few days to break down, but scientists are hoping to speed up the process. “What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” said McGeehan. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”
On the idea of enzyme technology helping with our waste problem Oliver Jones, who is not part of the research team but is a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said, “There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable. [But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction.”
If this is possible on a larger-scale then can you imagine what a difference that could make on the 1 million plastic bottles sold each minute around the globe? At the moment only 14% actually recycle, but this could rise as public perception continues to change. They are hoping that in the future they will be able to spray the enzyme onto huge plastic garbage patches in the oceans to clean them up without causing other environmental issues. “A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem – waste – at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions,” said Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester.