Plastic pollution threatens food safety and quality, human health, and coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change. According to scientists people ingest at least 50,000 plastic particles a year. Health issues linked to the way plastic chemicals act on the body including cancer and infertility. A magical enzyme that recycles plastics in hours? The obvious question that must have come to your mind is what and how? Well, let's get to know about it, shall we?
Yes, this is true and not a fever dream. A hungry mutant enzyme may be a new weapon in the ongoing battle to improve global environmental challenges and increase recycling.
Every year, over 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced for a wide range of purposes. According to IUCN, if discarded improperly, plastic waste can harm the environment and biodiversity. At least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Plastic debris is the most common sort of litter in the ocean, accounting for 80 percent of all marine debris discovered from the surface to deep-sea sediments. The main sources of plastic debris found in the ocean are land-based, coming from urban and stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, littering, inadequate waste disposal and management, industrial activities, tire abrasion, construction, and illegal dumping. Ocean-based plastic pollution originates primarily from the fishing industry, nautical activities, and aquaculture.
Under the influence of solar UV radiation, wind, currents, and other natural factors, plastic breaks down into small particles called microplastics (particles smaller than 5 mm) or nano plastics (particles smaller than 100 nm). Because of their small size, they are easily ingested by aquatic creatures.
Microplastics have been found in tap water, beer, and salt and are present in all samples collected in the world’s oceans, including the Arctic. Several chemicals used in the production of plastic materials are known to be carcinogenic and to interfere with the body’s endocrine system, causing developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders in both humans and wildlife. Recently, microplastics were found in human placentas but more research is needed to determine if this is a widespread problem.
BPA is the short form for bisphenol-A. This industrial chemical is primarily used for making certain types of plastics and resins like polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins since the 1950s.
Recent research has found that BPA can be quite harmful to our health as it can sometimes seep into our food or beverages over time which can lead to the consumption of such harmful chemicals further leading to many health concerns like harmful effects on the brain, prostate gland of the fetus, infants and children. Additionally, research reflects a possible link between BPA and increased blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Therefore, today's harsh reality demands you to be a conscious consumer.
Recent research published by the Journal of Nature, this research suggests that a brand new enzyme is capable of breaking down the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) majority of which is found in soda cans, bottles for beverages, food cans, containers, and textiles.
Unlike the orthodox methods of recycling PETs, which usually consist of low quality and can only be used for products like clothing and carpets, this new process results in durable base materials suitable for new food-grade bottles.
The super enzyme combines PETase and MHETase. And an amalgamation of the two breaks down PET twice as fast as PETase on its own, while connecting the two enzymes increased the speed by a further three times.
McGeehan used the Diamond Light Source, which is a device that uses X-rays but it is 10 billion times brighter than the Sun to be able to see individual atoms, to map the molecular structure of MHETase.
According to Professor John McGeehan, director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, in an interview told the Guardian, "This is a very large advance in terms of speed, efficiency, and heat tolerance. It represents a significant step forward for true circular recycling of PET and has the potential to reduce our reliance on oil, cut carbon emissions and energy use, and incentivize the collection and recycling of waste plastic."
Professor McGheen was also the leading mind behind this research. He is the lead researcher who used a similar enzyme to break down plastic over the course of several days.
Along with this a French company called Carbios practiced the latest version of this enzyme and applied mutations to improve the stability and effectiveness of their variant, known as leaf-branch compost cutinase (LLC). According to the study, 200 grams of PET in a small demonstration reactor was reduced by 90% to their original chemical building blocks in just 10 hours.
Although currently the new enzyme only breaks down PETs and not polyethylene (shampoo bottles, plastic bags) or polystyrene (insulation, packaging), it will nonetheless have a huge and valuable impact on limiting pollution and helping to improve recycling capabilities around the globe. Promoting a significantly safer and eco-friendly approach.
Dr. Saleh Jabarin, a member of Carbios' scientific committee addressing the new discovery, Says “It's a real breakthrough in the recycling and manufacturing of PET," further adding, "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 magic enzyme that degrades plastic materials nearly six times faster than before has been created by a team of incredible scientists who came up with this groundbreaking discovery.
Within a year or two, this enzyme might be used for recycling. This super-enzyme is derived from a unique bacteria that naturally evolved the ability to eat plastic, enabling the full recycling of the bottles.
The new super-enzyme is known to work at room temperature, further McGeehan said combining different approaches could speed progress towards commercial use: “If we can make better, faster enzymes by linking them together and provide them to companies like Carbios, and work in partnership, we could start doing this within the next year or two.”
Combining this plastic-eating enzyme with existing enzymes that help break down natural fibers would successfully allow mixed materials to be fully recycled, McGeehan said. “Mixed fabrics [of polyester and cotton] are tricky to recycle. We’ve been speaking to some of the big fashion companies that produce these textiles because they’re struggling at the moment.” Scientists say reducing the use of plastic is extremely important and a need of the hour. This also leads us to recycle various products and not just plastic. Nowadays, there are products like recycled cotton too in the market.
Researchers and scientists studying and working on recycling express that strong, lightweight materials like plastic are key components that destroy and pollute the environment and recycling is a significant and a major part of the solution to the pollution problem.
Even though the problem of plastic pollution looks huge, it is still possible to tackle it when consistent and urgent efforts. With the help of technology, new innovations like the calculator that estimates your risk of getting COVID-19 exists. Similarly, this mutant enzyme holds the potential to be the solution to a critical challenge we are facing.
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Shriya Sarang holds a degree in Political Science and Public Administration. Apart from having no political opinions, she advocates financial literacy among her friends.