There''s a huge amount of plastic pollution, and scientists are working to find ways to utilize plastic without causing huge long-term damage to the environment around us.
A new study outlines the use of a specially developed enzyme type that drastically reduces the time it takes to break down the components of plastics.
According to the company that created the enzyme variant, we might even clean up places affected by plastic pollution.
In tests, polymers and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were divided down in a week and in some cases, 24 hours these are products that may be difficult to degrade in real life situations.
"The possibilities for a leading-edge recycling process are endless across industries," says chemical engineer Hal Alper from the University of Texas at Austin.
"Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this gives corporations from every profession the opportunity to take on the lead in recycling their goods."
The enzyme FAST-PETase (functional, active, stable, and tolerant PETase) has been named (FAST-PETase), a synthetic PETase that permits bacteria to degrade PET plastic, and modified it using machine learning to identify five mutations that would enable the plastic to degrade faster under different environmental conditions.
After the enzyme enzyme reduced the plastic into its basic molecular units (depolymerization), the researchers then demonstrated that they could replace the plastic again using chemical methods to create new plastic products.
FAST-PETase was designed to match 51 different post-consumer plastic containers, five different polyester fibers, and fabrics and water bottles made from PET.
Tests on all of these items proved the enzyme variation''s effectiveness, which was at temperatures less than 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
"When it comes to environmental cleanup projects, you need an enzyme that can function in the environment at ambient temperature," says Alper. "This is where our technology has a huge advantage in the future."
PET is used in many consumer goods, from textiles to soda bottles. On its own, it is thought to constitute around 12% of global waste. If this figure was not frightening enough, try this one: Globally, less than 10 percent of all plastics have been recycled.
The use of FAST-PETase might go some way towards assisting. According to the study, it''s relatively inexpensive, portable, and not too difficult to scale up to the kinds of industrial levels that would be required.
The most common methods of disposing of plastic are to throw it in a landfill where it develops at a very slow rate, or to burn it, which costs a lot, costs a lot, saves time, and fills the atmosphere with harmful gases. It''s clear that alternative approaches are urgent, and this might be one.
"This work really shows the importance of combining different disciplines, from synthetic biology to chemical engineering to artificial intelligence," says a biochemist from the University of Texas at Austin.
Nature has provided a base for the research.