Humanity has a plastic problem. Despite recycling efforts, we release far too much of it into nature, which threatens entire ecosystems… And ourselves, ultimately.
Of the 6.9 billion tonnes of plastic waste produced by humanity since 2015, 9% has been recycled, 12% has been burned and 79% is accumulating in landfills or even worse, this waste is simply dumped in nature. There is therefore a huge effort to be made to reduce the consumption of plastic on Earth!
A recycling solution for plastic
This effort involves several initiatives: abandoning the use of plastic in industry whenever possible, encouraging recycling of course, but science can also offer solutions. This is the case of this team of researchers from the University of Austin, Texas. These describe how an enzyme can degrade plastic very quickly, in less than 24 hours, while incineration is a waste of energy.
The PETase enzyme from the bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis discovered in 2016 has this amazing property of destroying PET plastic, which represents 12% of plastic waste in the world. Only problem but it is significant, this enzyme only comes into action from a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius. It is therefore very difficult to exploit it as it is. The discovery of scientists makes it possible to lower this threshold, below 50 degrees.
The team used artificial intelligence that predicts PETase mutations to depolymerize PET plastic. To achieve this, it takes into account many factors, starting with the surrounding temperatures and the pH. According to the researchers’ tests, the enzyme thus created, called FAST-PETase, was able to cast a spell on 51 different plastics, all made from PET.
As a bonus, the same enzyme is able to repolymerize plastic, ie to recycle it for a new use. A way to close the loop. In short, a very interesting solution in the context of a circular PET economy. All that remains is to exploit it industrially…