What’s Going On Here?
Scientists have accidentally created a mutant enzyme that can break down single-use plastic drinks bottles. The enzyme could help solve the world’s plastic pollution crisis and also slash the need to produce new plastic!
What Does This Mean?
PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is a type of plastic that is commonly used to make single-use plastic bottles. It is estimated that it takes up to 1,000 years to biodegrade naturally.
Back in 2016, at a waste facility in Japan, bacteria was discovered that had naturally evolved to eat plastic. Yep, some bacteria think plastic is fantastic! This prompted scientists at the University of Portsmouth (UK) to begin research on the enzyme PETase, which resulted in them accidentally improving it. This engineered PETase reduced the breakdown time of the plastic from 1,000 years to just a few days.
The hope is that this new plastic-eating enzyme could allow us to close the loop for plastic recycling. By completely reversing the manufacturing process and reducing the polyesters back down to their building blocks ready to be used again and again.
Why Should We Care?
Every minute around 1 million single-use plastic bottles are sold globally, with only 14% of them being recycled.
Creating new single-use plastic (virgin PET) is cheap because the price of oil is cheap. This means that it is easy for manufacturers to generate more plastic, rather than recycle. Currently, most single-use PET bottles that are recycled follow a downward spiral, losing some of their properties every time they are recycled. They are turned into opaque fibres for clothing, then carpets, after which they often end up in landfill sites.
On Sunday 22nd April (this Sunday) Earth Day is being celebrated across the globe to raise awareness for environmental issues. This year their campaign is to End Plastic Pollution. Check it out for events near you and how to get involved.
Remember to say ‘no straw please’ when ordering a drink and find that re-usable water bottle in your cupboard (no need to go out and buy an expensive new one that you have seen being advertised by your favourite person on Instagram).