Ideonella sakaiensis is the bacterium's name that loves plastic!
The super-enzyme, derived from bacteria that naturally evolved the ability to eat plastic, enables the full recycling of the bottles.
Combining it with enzymes that break down cotton could also allow mixed-fabric clothing to be recycled!
It all started back in 2016, when Japanese scientists, after analyzing tailings from a PET bottle recycling center, identified a new bacteria, the Ideonella sakaiensis, that can speed up plastic degrading by eating it.
The research continued by scientists at Carbios, a French chemical company. They have developed a new recycling method, known as "enzyme recycling", which can improve plastic recycling which does not attend to its purpose in terms of degrading plastics at all.
"This is a significant step forward for the true circular recycling of PET and has the potential to reduce our dependence on oil, reduce carbon emissions and energy use, and encourage the collection and recycling of plastic waste," stated John McGeehan, professor and director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth.
Of the 359 million tons of plastics produced per year in the world, more than half accumulate in landfills and other sites like the oceans as well.
This issue can be solved with the bacterium's help because the more the recycled PET plastic is devoured, the faster plastic degradation gets.
In other words, the breaking of plastic molecules into smaller parts allows its degradation in a matter of hours instead of decades as it used to be!
Enzyme Recycling will reinvent the life cycle of discarded plastic! It means there is no more harm to marine environments among other sites!
Enzyme Recycling may be available on an industrial scale in 3 years
Speaking of the oceans, this bacterium may become a new hope that might provide an effective silver bullet for treating plastics floating in the five great gyres of the sea.
Nonetheless, for now, the bacterium only can eat PET-like plastics. Soon, such a "hunger" will be for other types, like polyethylene plastics (on shampoo bottles, plastic bags, and bags made to conserve food).
Chemist Oliver Jones, from the Carbios team, mad it clear: "There is still a way until we can recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes (...) but [the discovery] is certainly a step in the right direction." He also points out that it is necessary to assess whether the recycling process would not end itself by generating environmental problems (such as an increase in greenhouse gas emissions) and also suggests that "reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place may perhaps be preferable."
PET waste disposal is one the worst environmental problem.
The structure of one enzyme, called PETase attacks the hard, crystalline surface of plastic bottles.
This study is recent and analyzed a second enzyme also found in the Japanese bacteria that doubles the speed of the breakdown of the chemical groups liberated by the first enzyme.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the recycling rate for plastic bottles has not yet passed 30%. This amount corresponds to 1/3 of the goods arriving at the recycling facilities, which is considered imperfect because the degradation of recycled plastic is as slow as the original.