Plastic-eating enzyme may help solve our waste problems

plastic bottles Don Pablo/Shutterstock

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.

Elsewhere, other researchers are working with a bacteria that breaks down polyurethane and moth larvae that eat polythene bags.

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.

Featured Video