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Plastic-eating enzyme 'takes plastic waste and makes it disappear'

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Posted at 4:03 PM, May 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-05 16:06:37-04

There are more than 30 million tons of plastic waste sitting in American landfills.

Those plastics can take hundreds of years to break down naturally.

A scientific breakthrough could help clean it up much faster.

Through the use of plastic-eating enzymes, "we are able to take that plastic waste and make it disappear," according to Hal Alper, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

"We have engineered an enzyme, which is a protein, that can actually chew up P.E.T. plastic," Alper said.

P.E.T. stands for polyethylene terephthalate.

"It's a major plastic found in containers, water bottles and the like," Alper said. "This enzyme goes in, chews it, and breaks it down to its monomers, which we can then use in various different ways."

In one study, researchers placed a large piece of plastic in a bath of enzyme solution.

The enzyme broke down the plastic in less than 48 hours.

The technology is dramatically different from current plastic recycling methods, which result in lower-quality plastic over time.

"By breaking it back down to its starting points" with the enzyme, Alper said, "you can build it back up each and every time. You're making fresh P.E.T. plastic each and every time."

The idea of breaking down plastics with enzymes dates back to the 1990s.

Until now, plastic-eating enzymes have worked at higher temperatures, which makes it difficult to consider them as a cost-effective solution on a large scale.

Alper and his team developed an enzyme that works at temperatures of -50 degrees Celsius.

"The bigger challenge now is how to implement that," Alper said.

Unlike a sterile laboratory environment, landfills are recycling facilities are filled with "the gunk that's sitting in the recycling bin with food residue and other types of residues on it," Alper said. "How do you clean them up or separate the plastics so that we can then run a process on them?"

Solving these challenges could take several years.

When these enzymes are ready for widespread use, they are expected to be a game changer.

One study claims the enzymes will cut emissions from plastic facilities without raising the cost of production.