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November 7, 2020

Combatting the Plastic Problem: A New Super-Enzyme to Break Down Waste

Kathryn Shanks
Combatting the Plastic Problem: A New Super-Enzyme to Break Down Waste
Plastic pollutants are an ever-growing problem for our ecosystems.

As much as 58 million tonnes per year is projected to reach our waterways over the next ten years. While movements to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics have made efforts to mitigate the problem, none can keep up with the sheer volume of plastics being produced and discarded. This year has seen some excellent news, however, with the advent of a super-enzyme that can degrade plastic six times faster than previous efforts.

The super-enzyme was derived from plastic-eating bacteria, enabling the full recycling of bottles – and Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth believes that, with development and industry cooperation, the enzymes could be used in the recycling industry ‘within the next year or two’. The plastic problem affects the entire globe, and the rate of pollution has become so extreme that it almost defies description. That’s why this enzyme is so timely: it has never been more urgent to curb the environmental impact of plastic.

The super-enzyme is a combination of two separate enzymes, both of which were originally discovered at a Japanese waste site in 2016. The bacteria that used these enzymes could break down low-quality plastic within six weeks, while researchers two years later engineered the enzymes to work within a few days. Now, with the enzymes linked together into the super-enzyme, degradation occurs six times faster, requiring no specific heating conditions: French company Carbios revealed a similar, separate enzyme in April that must be heated above seventy degrees Celsius, but the super-enzyme works at room temperature. The transatlantic research team at Portsmouth and in the US are continuing to develop the enzyme to make it work even faster, with a £1m testing centre under construction in Portsmouth; Carbios is building a plant in Lyon for the same purpose.

There’s huge potential […] We’ve got several hundred in the lab that we’re currently sticking together.
— PROFESSOR JOHN MCGEEHAN, THE UNIVERSITY OF PORTSMOUTH.

The team also believes that, by combining the plastic-eating enzyme with ones that can break down cotton, we could recycle mixed-fabric clothing, which is another source of mass waste. Mixed fabrics are difficult to recycle owing to the different processes required for natural and synthetic fabrics, posing a significant problem for sustainable fashion. This makes the team’s work all the more important, potentially enabling the recycling of both plastics and blended fabrics – a great two-birds-with-one-stone scenario.

This super-enzyme is an incredible creation, comprising the perfect example of nature and technology combining for the betterment of the world. We at Casper Magazine are big proponents of sustainable practices, particularly within the fashion industry, and we’re optimistic that the team at Portsmouth can really make a difference to the plastic problem that’s threatening our oceans.

If you liked this article, you might like our feature on Tom Ford’s newest timepieces, which are made from ocean plastic!

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