It is a plastic recycling hack but not as we know it. This one promises to eat up our mess much faster than available technologies. The wind of change may be blowing in the recycling industry as the Japanese plastic-eating super-enzymes promise to decompose plastics at an unprecedented speed. This PETase innovation could end rows between developed and developing economies over the dumping of plastic wastes and pollution.
The Unresolved Issues Of Plastic Pollution
Plastic is among the highest and most difficult sources of environmental pollution. With the increased campaigns for a cleaner and healthier environment, many companies substituted paper for polythene or plastic bottles reducing their usage. Yet, just about 10% of the plastics used have ever been recycled, in a world where more than one million plastic bottles are being produced every minute.
Due to the poor level of recycling, plastics are found littered in the seas, on the land, and traces of plastics have even been found in the human uterus, thus, the amount of pollution is hard to comprehend. Sea and land animals consume the microplastics particles and given the natural cycle in the ecosystem, we literally consume plastics too.
Japanese Discovery In Plastic Recycling: PETase
But this challenge may be half-solved with the latest Japanese discovery in plastic recycling, a game-changer in the fight with plastic pollution. If successful, and can be applied at the industrial level, this scientific invention promises to revolutionize plastic recycling and make the world more habitable for all including all land, air, and sea animals.
The plastic-eating super enzyme was first discovered in 2016 by a group of Japanese researchers who found themselves among the hips of plastic dumps in a recycling center. The enzyme discovered by these researchers can break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics in just six hours. The PETase and another enzyme are combined to eat the plastics.
How PETase Enzyme Works
Most plastics are made from polyethylene terephthalate generally known as PET bottles. This chemical ingredient is used mostly in bottling carbonated drinks as it keeps them firm from exploding due to the carbon content of the liquids. From their research, these Japanese scientists discovered PETase; an enzyme that is capable of decomposing the PET bottle.
PETase is a mutant enzyme capable of decomposing plastics and making recycling a lot faster, decreasing the plastic pollution. It works due to two enzymes that are linked together which were initially found to be present in plastic-slicing worms.
The enzyme attacks the hard crystalline surface of the PET bottles. The PETase enzyme also combines with a second enzyme which was found to increase the decomposition speed of the plastics.
Unexpected Results That Resulted In PETase Enzyme
“When we linked the enzymes, rather unexpectedly, we got dramatic increase inactivity. This is a trajectory towards trying to make faster enzymes that are more industrially relevant. But it’s also one of those stories about learning from nature, and then bringing it into the lab,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, the UK in a report.
Scientists connected the two enzymes in the lab as the linked super-enzyme would have been impossible for a bacterium to create since the molecules would be too large. This further increased the decomposition speed of the plastic.
PET plastics that constitute more difficulty in recycling due to added chemicals that enhance coloration and rigidity were also successfully decomposed by this new super-enzyme.
Although the PETase compound used for recycling is entirely new, there existed other means of slicing plastics. However, this method was rather too inefficient in eating the recyclable plastics.
Differences Between Disposable and Recyclable Plastics
To a layman, all plastics seem alike. However, this is not the case. The problem of understanding their differences has also contributed to the difficulty of recycling and keeping the environment clean. The cost of recycling PET bottles and other recyclable plastics encourages the production of virgin ones that are cheaper to produce.
While all plastics are disposable, not all are recyclable. The PET plastics can be sliced by super bacterias and used to produce new bottles while some disposable bottles need to be sent to landfills or incinerated and possibly converted into other forms of energy.
This method is capital intensive and has resulted in many plastics being found in the sea and land disrupting the natural habitat of these animals.
The solution of ridding the environment of toxic plastic wastes resides with everyone who uses them although successful innovation and industrial application of the super enzymes will revolutionize plastic recycling. In an age where plastics are mostly preferred in comparison to paper, glasses, and ceramics, the campaign for increased recycling has increased, yet, a lot more is required.
Virgin Plastics Have A Higher Demand Than Recycled Ones
Virgin plastics have a higher demand than recycled ones. Due to the chemical makeup of plastics, the more the plastics are being heated up and recycled, the more they decrease in quality. Virgin plastics are lighter, cleaner, and less expensive to produce than recycled ones.
For plastic to be recycled and have a good market value, virgin plastics need to be produced with them. This means that for any time plastic is recycled, a virgin plastic was produced with it to increase its face value.
Limited Recycle Number Of Plastic
Plastic cannot be recycled more than twice. This limit to the number of recycling makes it even more difficult to rid the environment of toxic plastic wastes.
So many factors contribute to plastics not being recycled even if they may have been carefully sorted out at the time of disposal. Many other factors will have to be met in order to increase the chances. Plastics at the time of disposal have to be sorted accordingly and clean. Dirty plastics will never be recycled unless they are thoroughly washed. If the plastics are not carefully separated according to a country’s recycling regulation, they may never get recycled.
Is the Environment Now Safe from Plastics Due to the Super-Enzyme?
The answer is a resounding NO. Plastic is traditionally non-biodegradable. It takes between 450-1000 years before they can decompose and return to their original state; the majority of them being made from petroleum. Recycling is the invention of scientists.
To help them in their pursuit, we should reduce our consumption of plastics by resorting to alternatives. Settle for a reusable water container instead of buying bottled water all the time. Paper shopping bags and non-plastic shopping bags will be a generous decision.
Many countries are actively engaging in recycling. This is a huge plus for the industry since government regulations are necessary for successful plastic recycling. The Netherlands and Germany are some of the European countries engaging actively in recycling.
Due to its excesses, some other countries are resorting to dumping their mess in Africa. With time, increased recycling awareness, and the industrialization of the super-enzyme, new and efficient approaches to plastic waste management and recycling may be devised.