Plastic Bottles Can Now Be Recycled in Hours with a Newly Discovered Mutant Enzyme

A bacterial enzyme found in compost could lead the path to faster and more efficient recycling of plastic bottles.
Fabienne Lang

However wonderful recycling is, it's sadly not as guilt-free as it may seem. Only 30% of the plastic from bottles is recycled into new ones, often ending up as a weaker version of plastic. 

Now, researchers from Carbios have reported that they've discovered a method that converts 90% of that plastic back into full-strength proper plastic to be reused. These researchers have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down this plastic in a matter of hours. 

Their findings were published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.


High-quality new bottles

The researchers at Carbios, who have partnered with Pepsi and L'Oréal for this project, were able to use the enzyme to reduce plastic bottles back down to chemical building blocks, which were then used to make new high-quality bottles. In other words, true recycling. Current recycling technologies usually can only re-use this plastic to make carpets or clothing. 

The team's hope is to have their method of recycling up to industry-scale levels within five years

The enzyme the researchers discovered was found in a compost heap of leaves and had in fact long been forgotten for this usage. "It had been completely forgotten, but it turned out to be the best," said Prof Alain Marty at the Université de Toulouse, France, the chief science officer at Carbios.

The team introduced mutations to the enzyme so that it could break down PET plastic from which drinks bottles are made. Then the researchers used the enzyme to break down one tonne of waste plastic bottles, all of which was 90% degraded within 10 hours. Following this, the team used the broken down material to create food-grade plastic bottles. 

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Martin Stephan, the deputy chief executive at Carbios, said "We are the first company to bring this technology on the market. Our goal is to be up and running by 2024, 2025, at large industrial scale."


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