Scientists discover plastic-eating enzyme

9 April 2020

Scientists have discovered a plastic-eating mutant enzyme that can break down plastic bottles for recycling in a matter of hours.

Researchers at green chemical firm Carbios and its academic partner, the Toulouse Biotechnology Institute, found the enzyme – that was first discovered in a compost heap of leaves – could break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and produce new high-quality plastic.

The enzyme was analysed and optimised to improve its ability to break down PET plastic. In tests, the optimised enzyme was used to break down a tonne of plastic waste that was 90% broken down in 10 hours.

Martin Stephan, deputy chief executive at Carbios, told The Guardian it aimed to bring the technology to market within the next five years. 

He said: “We all know that plastic brings a lot of value to society, in food, medical care, transportation. The problem is plastic waste.”

Stephan said collection of plastic waste must be increased to prevent it from piling up in landfills or in the environment.

Meanwhile research conducted by Tearfund found Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever are responsible for half a million tonnes of plastic pollution burnt or dumped per year in six developing countries.

The research focused on plastic pollution in six countries – Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines – and highlighted the link between burning and dumping single-use plastics and climate change. 

Plastic burnt in the six countries each year creates 4.6m tonnes of CO2, equivalent to the emissions of 2m cars on UK roads, the report said. 

Coca-Cola was found to be the worst of the four companies investigated, with 200,000 tonnes of plastic pollution – 8m bottles – burnt or dumped each year. It was followed by PepsiCo with 137,000 tonnes. 

Tearfund said the brands continue to sell billions of single-use plastic bottles, sachets and packets in developing countries, knowing waste is not properly managed. 

“Their packaging therefore becomes pollution and such pollution causes serious harm to the environment and people’s health. Such actions – with such knowledge – are morally indefensible,” the report said. 

“This massive plastic pollution footprint, while a crisis in and of itself, is also contributing to the climate crisis.”

Ruth Valerio, director of global advocacy and influencing at Tearfund, said: “At present, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever make little or no mention of emissions from the disposal of their products or packaging in their climate change commitments. These companies have a moral responsibility for the disposal of the products they continue to pump into developing countries without proper waste management systems.”

Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed the UK’s is using 1.2bn tonnes of material a year, equivalent to 18.5 tonnes per person.

Almost 80% of materials, including metals, fossil fuels, food and timber, came from abroad. The UK has increased its sourcing of materials from China and India. 

“In 1990, China accounted for around 2% of the UK material footprint. By 2017, this had risen to 17%. Similarly, estimates for India rose from 1% to 7% over the same period,” the ONS said.

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