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How a plastic-eating enzyme could help reduce our recycling waste

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Susan Devaney
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Scientists have accidentally created an enzyme that can ‘eat’ plastic, and it could hold the key to helping to tackle the world’s waste problem. 

In recent months talk has turned to plastic. From Waitrose pledging to remove all disposable cups in its stores this year to scientists discovering that the Great Pacific garbage patch is now nearly three times the size of France, the conversation around the ubiquitous material has left us feeling very concerned for the future of our planet.

However, scientists have discovered an enzyme that breaks down plastic, and it could revolutionise our current recycling process.

The discovery of the bacteria was first made in a waste dump in Japan in 2016. Since then scientists in the UK have tweaked the enzyme structure, leading to the creation of a molecule that can break down PET (polyethylene terephthalate) - the plastic used for soft drink bottles.

“What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” Professor John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research, told The Guardian. “It’s great and a real finding.”

The new research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down plastic waste. However, researchers are hopeful that the process can be sped up even further and reduce plastic waste on a larger scale.

“What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” said McGeehan. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”

Around 260 billion plastic bottles were sold in 2016 around the world. Currently, those plastic bottles can only be recycled into fibres for clothing or carpets. 

Around 260 billion plastic bottles were sold in 2016 around the world. 

“You are always up against the fact that oil is cheap, so virgin PET is cheap,” said McGeehan. “It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle. But I believe there is a public driver here: perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these.”

And the discovery has been welcomed by other scientists.

“Oil-derived plastics and polymers are resistant to degradation and their accumulation in the environment is an appalling problem,” said Professor Douglas Kell, a bioanalytical scientist at the University of Manchester. “Evolving enzymes to degrade such plastics is a high priority.”

From the government’s ban on microbeads to the 5p levy charge on plastic bags, changes are being made and proving to be successful in the bid to reduce plastic pollution. 

One way you can start to reduce your own single-use plastic is by investing in a reusable water bottle or coffee cup. Peruse our gallery of multiple options here.

Images: Pexels 

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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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