New research eats through plastic waste

Monday, 02 May, 2022

Scientists in Texas are working on a variant of an enzyme that can break down plastic in mere days. The discovery of this enzyme by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin could help with environmental pollution by converting plastics waste into usable material, thus helping to clear out packed landfills and oceanic waste.

The enzymatic process is a circular one and focuses on breaking down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic to its constituent parts and then putting them back together again into new material. Some plastics were broken down using the enzyme in only 24 hours, compared to the many hundreds of days it would take without the enzyme, which the researchers are calling FAST-PETase (functional, active, stable and tolerant PETase).

“The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” said Hal Alper, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin and one of the paper’s authors. “Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take a lead in recycling their products. Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.”

Only about 10% of all plastic has been recycled and it mostly ends up in landfill or being burnt. This enzyme, and others similar to it, would see plastics processed at low temperatures and in a circular fashion. The scientists were helped in the development of the enzyme through the use of machine learning.

The research is due to be expanded on in the future as the team works to scale up production of the enzyme to allow for industrial and environmental applications and a patent application is in the works. There is a possibility of using the enzyme to break down plastics in landfills and waste-producing industries, as well as cleaning up polluted sites.

“When considering environmental clean-up applications, you need an enzyme that can work in the environment at ambient temperature. This requirement is where our tech has a huge advantage in the future,” Alper said.

The study was published in Nature.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/nevodka.com

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