Enzymes often found in biological laundry detergents can reportedly be used to recycle single-use bioplastics, according to a team of scientists at King's College London.

According to the scientists, the chemical recycling of single-use bioplastics — often used in disposable items such as coffee cups and food containers — can be achieved using the laundry detergent-derived enzymes, which depolymerize, or break down, bioplastics.

Source: Cell Reports Physical Science (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.xcrp.2024.101783Source: Cell Reports Physical Science (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.xcrp.2024.101783

The approach converts the bioplastic-based objects into soluble fragments within just 24 hours, fully degrading the bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA). When compared to industrial composting processes commonly used for recycling bioplastic materials, the new approach is reportedly 84 times faster.

In the lab, the team, working specifically with single-use PLA plastics, discovered that in another 24 hours at 90° C, the bioplastics broke down into their chemical building blocks. As the PLAs are converted into monomers — or single molecules — they can be transformed into high-quality plastic for multiple reuse.

The researchers explained, "Our research marks the first step in developing new technologies in waste management for recycling bioplastics that are of equal quality to the virgin product. Until now this has been a major challenge in plastics recycling, as while bioplastics are made of biological materials, they are not all compostable and most current recycling methods are inefficient. Our chemical approach significantly speeds up the degradation of bioplastics, enabling them to be recycled and reused."

An article detailing the new process, “A general route to retooling hydrolytic enzymes toward plastic degradation,” appears in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science.

For more information on the process, watch the accompanying video that appears courtesy of King’s College London.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com