In an oft-quoted scene in the classic movie, The Graduate, a young Dustin Hoffman is encouraged to get into “plastics…there’s a great future in plastics.” What’s not discussed is that many plastic products made then, and now, survive well into the future because it’s impossible or cost-prohibitive to recycle them. By one tally, nearly 80 percent of all plastic “accumulate[s] in landfills or the natural environment,” adding up to 200 million tonnes of toxic trash a year around the world.
Luckily, many have gone into fields researching how to tackle the problem of plastic waste piling up in landfills and waterways. A recent report in the journal Nature focussed on the work of Carbios, a French firm that describes itself as a “green chemistry company.” Carbios, in partnership with large-scale users of plastic containers including L’Oréal, Nestle, and Pepsico, is developing an enzyme that breaks down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic by 90 percent within 10 hours, a substantial jump over prior methods. The enzyme was originally discovered in a pile of leaf compost, then mutated to enhance its passion for plastics.
“It’s a real breakthrough in the recycling and manufacturing of PET.…The PET industry will become truly circular, which is the goal for all players in this industry, especially brand-owners, PET producers, and our civilization as a whole,” said Dr. Saleh Jabarin, a member of Carbios’ scientific committee in a press release.
Significantly, the process enables the materials to be repurposed as future food-grade plastics. Most current recycling programs only allow for reuse in lower grade products.
Carbios will begin testing the enzyme on an industrial scale at a demonstration plant near Lyon, France in 2021, aiming to be fully operational by 2025.
A note to Dustin and any budding junior scientists, the future may actually be in finding ways to eliminate plastics. You might want to start looking in the cottage leaf pile.