Plastic-Eating Enzyme Could Regulate Plastic Pollution Problem

Every day humans throw trash on the floor. Whether it is you or not, it happens. The bad part is the effects of such acts have only been detrimental to the planet. Recycling alone would greatly reduce the amount of trash we see daily. However, recycling has only done so much, until now. 

The Next Answer

A new solution to the human race’s plastic pollution problem just arose.  In the April 27 edition of the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, researchers at the University of Texas published their development of a “plastic-eating enzyme”.  By utilizing machine learning technology, they managed to mutate the natural enzyme PETase. This would allow the enzyme to quickly break down plastics made with the polymer polyethylene terephthalate, PET. 

PET is found in most consumer packaging, such as soda and water bottles, cookie containers, fruit salad containers, and some polyester fabrics and fibers. This makes up about 12 percent of all global waste. The enzyme uses a “circular process” to break down the plastics into smaller parts.

This first part of the process is called depolymerization. Then it will chemically reform the smaller parts into smaller, reusable plastic. This step is called repolymerization. This newly developed process can sometimes take as little as 24 hours to complete. This is in comparison to the centuries it usually takes to break down plastic. 

The plastic-eating enzyme can begin to function when used in temperatures below 122 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a requirement researchers thought of with environmental use in mind. The enzyme would need to work in the field as landfills and polluted sites are the targeted places of use. The enzyme functioning at such temperatures is ideal and mirrors the conditions the enzyme will be working in. 

Checks and Balances

The researchers at the University of Texas have developed a new and more environmentally safe way of recycling plastic. Currently, humans dispose of plastic in one of two ways. Plastic is thrown into landfills where it waits to get burned. Burning down these plastics can cost a ton of money and releases noxious gasses into the environment, thus causing another problem. The other way of disposing of plastic is by using the complicated and energy-intensive processes of glycolysis, pyrolysis, and/or methanolysis. These processes would still take centuries to reduce plastic pollution levels.

The newer enzymes are not only environmentally safe, but efficient as well. Researchers are looking to develop industrial use methods for the plastic-eating enzyme. This would put major pressure on the major industries. Major industries would now be able to recover and reuse plastics they develop at the molecular level. If the industries played their part, the process of recycling would be sped up. The major industries would begin to reduce their plastic pollution footprint at a much greater scale.

Researchers have only figured out how to get the new enzyme to break down PET. The plastic-eating enzyme may not work on other kinds of plastic. Regardless, being able to break down PET is still a major breakthrough as it begins to eliminate 12 percent of all global waste with new developments on the way. 

Irony and Peace

It is important to mention the research was funded by ExxonMobile. This is a company whose pollution footprint is bigger than most as it is an oil and gas corporation. While many see this move as a cover-up for all the harm they have done to the environment, funding the research is still a great gesture. Though it may be for their own sake, the funding proved to be useful as researchers were able to develop a new method for recycling. If major industries and researchers can continue to work together, the plastic pollution on Earth would be no match for the human race.