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Mutant bacterial enzyme can break down plastic bottles in just hours

Scientists have discovered a mutant bacterial enzyme that is able to break down plastic bottles for recycling within just a few hours.

In a proof of concept demonstration, the enzyme was used to break down a ton of waste plastic bottles to the point where they were 90% degraded in only 10 hours, according to a paper recently published in the journal Nature.

Research into the enzyme dates back to 2012, when its properties were discovered in a screening of 100,000 microorganisms.

Carbios, the green chemistry company behind this development, hopes to achieve industrial-scale recycling in five years. To do this, it’s teamed up with companies including Pepsi and L’Oréal to speed up the process. It has also struck a deal with biotech company Novozymes to produce the new enzyme at scale. This will be carried out using fungi in the mass-production process.

The most exciting part of the breakthrough isn’t just the speed at which the enzyme can break down plastic bottles. The mutant enzyme actually breaks plastic down in such a way that it can be recycled into new high-quality water bottles. This is a significant advance on the lower-quality plastic that results from current recycling techniques.

“Present estimates suggest that of the 359 million tons of plastics produced annually worldwide, 150 to 200 million tons accumulate in landfill or in the natural environment,” the researchers write in a paper describing the work.

The researchers hope this approach could be used to help reverse this alarming statistic by making it easy to recycle the polymer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and reduce waste.

PET is the world’s most common thermoplastic polymer and is used to manufacture bottles, polyester clothing fibers, food containers, assorted packaging, and much more. Figuring out a way to better recycle it won’t end plastic pollution altogether. But if this approach can be scaled as claimed, researchers believe it could turn out to be a massive game-changer for all involved. And, you know, planet Earth along with it.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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