AUSTIN, Texas — A new discovery by University of Texas at Austin researchers could be a game-changer when it comes to recycling plastics.
The “plastic-eating enzyme” can break down a certain type of plastic to the molecular level, which can then be used to recreate new plastics, according to researchers.
“When we have that perfect cycle, we're not needing to make any fresh plastic. We're recovering everything that we've used and can use it once over again. And I think this has enormous potential to be able to reduce our overall carbon footprint,” said Hal Alper, a professor at UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering.
Researchers have been able to put big chunks of plastic in the enzyme, breaking them down to the molecular level. It ends up becoming a liquid in up to about 48 hours.
Without the enzyme, the plastics could take hundreds of years to degrade, researchers said. The alternative option would be to throw plastic in a landfill or burn it, but researchers said that’s expensive, energy intensive and puts toxic gasses in the air.
The enzyme works on polyethylene terephthalate – known as PET plastic – which is used in things like water bottles, clear to-go food containers and fruit packaging, Alper said.
It accounts for 12% of all global waste.
“What makes most sense in the future is probably taking that dumpsters' worth of plastic, going through a little bit of a shredder so that it can actually just consolidate and make it smaller, just because otherwise, there's … a lot of air in most of these plastic containers, if you think about it,” Alper said. “If you can shred it into a bunch of pieces, you have almost plastic confetti and then you can kind of throw that into the tank and then have that enzyme work on it in that way.”
The discovery took about 3.5 years, which is “pretty quick” in the science world, Alper said.
From here, the researchers plan to figure out how to scale up production of the enzyme so that it can be used at an industrial level and eventually clean up polluted sites. They’re also taking into consideration that plastic may not always be pristinely clean when put into the enzyme and how that could affect the process of breaking it down.
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