Scientists find enzyme that breaks down pet plastic in hours

Scientists working for Carbios have discovered an enzyme which can reportedly break down PET plastics for recycling into food-grade material in hours, rather than weeks.

PET Recycling

Billions of tons of plastic waste have polluted the planet and pose a particular danger to the environment. Campaigners say reducing the use of plastics is important, but the companies say that strong, lightweight materials are very useful and that true recycling was part of the solution.

The discovery of the new PET hydrolase enzyme was reported in the scientific journal Nature, which claims that the enzyme can break down PET plastics into their individual chemical components in as little as ten hours, allowing the creation of new high-quality, food-grade PET packaging.
PET is very difficult to break down, and many thermomechanical recycling processes produce lower-quality plastic which is then used in non-food related products.

According to the journal, the PET hydrolase enzyme can biologically depolymerise 90% of PET polymers in ten hours, a significant upswing from the initial degradation yield of 1% after several weeks when using other enzymes.

The journal stated: “This highly efficient, optimised enzyme outperforms all PET hydrolases reported so far”, including an enzyme from the bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis strain 201-F6, which had generated interest.

The company behind the breakthrough, Carbios, said it has been targeting industrial-level recycling for five years. Carbios has now formed a strategic partnership with major food and beverage companies, including PepsiCo, Nestle and Suntory, to scale and develop the technology. Corbios said in a statement that it would conduct a test in 2021 to test the "industrial and commercial potential" of the process.

Independent experts called the new enzyme a major berakthrough. If successful, Corbios said the proprietary process would represent a "paradigm shift" in the PET recycling process, and pave the way for a circular economy for plastics.

Saleh Jabarin, professor at The University of Toledo, Ohio and a member of Carbios’ Scientific Committee, said: “It’s a real breakthrough in the recycling and manufacturing of PET.

“Thanks to the innovative technology developed by Carbios, 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.”

This development follows on from a similar discovery made in 2018 by scientists from the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

These scientists accidentally engineered an enzyme which could digest plastics including PET. Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr Gregg Beckham at NREL solved the crystal structure of PETase – a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET – and used this 3D information to understand how it works. During this study, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is even better at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

The scientists analysed the enzyme and introduced mutations to improve its ability to break down the PET plastic from which drinks bottles are made. They also made it stable at 72C, close to the perfect temperature for fast degradation.

The team used the optimised enzyme to break down a tonne of waste plastic bottles, which were 90% degraded within 10 hours. The scientists then used the material to create new food-grade plastic bottles.

Carbios has a deal with the biotechnology company Novozymes to produce the new enzyme at scale using fungi. It said the cost of the enzyme was just 4% of the cost of virgin plastic made from oil.

Waste bottles also have to be ground up and heated before the enzyme is added, so the recycled PET will be more expensive than virgin plastic. But Martin Stephan, the deputy chief executive at Carbios, said existing lower-quality recycled plastic sells at a premium due to a shortage of supply.

 

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