It's estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. But what if there was a way to recycle all plastics, including those that are hard to break down? Researchers may have found a solution in enzymes that eat away at plastic waste. These enzymes could help supercharge recycling and cut down on the amount of plastic pollution in the world.

The global problem at hand

The world is facing a plastic pollution problem of epidemic proportions.

Though the production of plastic has increased exponentially in recent years, recycling rates have lagged far behind. As a result, mountains of waste plastic are accumulating in landfills and polluting the natural environment.

Source: Perytskyy/Adobe StockSource: Perytskyy/Adobe Stock

Plastic pollution is a global problem that requires immediate action. We must find ways to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and increase recycling rates. Only then can we hope to stem the tide of this growing pollution crisis.

The problem with plastic

Plastic is everywhere. It’s used to make everything from bottles and packaging to toys and furniture. And while it’s convenient, cheap and durable, plastic is also a major pollution problem.

Each year, we produce over 300 million tons of plastic. And much of that ends up in our environment, where it does serious harm to wildlife, ecosystems, and even human health.

Littering is one major way that plastic pollution enters the environment. When people carelessly discard their trash, plastics often end up in our waterways and oceans. Once there, they can do serious damage to marine life.

Animals can become entangled in plastics or mistake them for food. This can lead to malnutrition, suffocation and even death. And as plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces (known as microplastics), they’re ingested by ever-smaller organisms. This can disrupt the entire food chain, with potentially devastating consequences.

Plastic pollution also contributes to climate change. The production of plastic creates greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. And when plastic waste breaks down in the environment, it releases harmful chemicals that pollute the air and water.

The health effects of plastic pollution are also worrisome. Studies have linked exposure to microplastics with several health problems, including reproductive damage, hormonal disruptions, cancer and other illnesses.

Depolymerization and repolymerization of polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is a type of plastic that is used in a wide variety of products, from water bottles to food containers. It makes up 12% of all global waste. While PET is recyclable, the process is often expensive and time-consuming. However, these new enzymes that have been developed by researchers claim to be able to break down PET into its individual monomers in just 24 hours. This means that PET could potentially be recycled much more efficiently in the future.

The enzymes work by breaking down the long chains of molecules that make up PET into smaller pieces. This makes it easier to repolymerize the plastic back into its original form. The process is still in the early stages of development, but it has the potential to revolutionize how we recycle PET and other plastics.

Currently, most recycled plastic is downcycled into lower-quality products. However, with depolymerization and repolymerization, it would be possible to recycle plastic back into its original form, making it infinitely recyclable.

In addition to being environmentally friendly, this process is also much faster than traditional recycling methods. As mentioned previously, it can take just 24 hours to completely break down a plastic object into its individual monomers. This is a significant improvement over the current recycling process, which can take weeks or even months.

While there are still some challenges to be overcome, depolymerization and repolymerization of PET holds great promise for the future of plastic recycling. With further development, this could become the standard way to recycle plastic, reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and helping to protect our environment.

Scaling enzyme production for industrial and environmental applications

The team has now filed a patent for the enzyme, with the aim of using it to clean up landfills and significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste produced by industry.

While the discovery is still in its early stages, the developers behind it are confident that the enzyme could be used on an industrial scale to degrade plastic waste. This would be a major breakthrough in the fight against pollution, as currently, less than 10% of plastic is recycled.

The researchers are also now working on improving the enzyme so that it can degrade other types of plastic, which will no doubt help with environmental remediation. Biological solutions also take much less energy than typical recycling methods, meaning that this could be a more sustainable way to reduce plastic waste in the future.

While there is still much work to be done in terms of perfecting the depolymerization and repolymerization process for PET, this research offers a promising solution for dealing with the global plastic crisis. It will be interesting to see how this technology develops in the coming years and what applications it might find in industry and the environment. However, there are still some challenges to overcome before these enzymes can be used on a large scale for recycling.