How a Plastic-Eating Enzyme is Helping Fight Plastic Pollution

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How a Plastic-Eating Enzyme is Helping Fight Plastic Pollution

by Justin Dubs

We’re all well aware of the plastic problem facing our world today.  Currently, there are massive piles of plastics filling landfills all over the world. 
 
We attempt to recycle and reduce our usage, but the plastic keeps piling up.
 
Despite all the plastic filling our landfills and oceans, there is finally some good news!
 
Scientists from the University of Portsmouth have engineered a new “super-enzyme”. This enzyme has the ability to break down plastic in a few days.

Why is this significant? Polyethylene is the main ingredient in most bottles, shirts, and carpeting. It takes a couple hundred years for polyethylene to break down in the environment (and even when it does break down, it becomes a microplastic).
 
That is an enormous improvement. Scientists believe that with more testing this enzyme can have everyday use.

How This Process Works

Japanese scientists discovered PETase in 2016.  The enzyme hails from the bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis
 
Scientists believe this is a natural adaptation by the bacteria. This adaptation is possibly in response to the large number of plastics in the environment.
 
PETase allows the bacteria to eat plastic bottles and other similar plastics.
 
As the enzyme breaks down plastic, the bacteria produce MHETase. The MHETase enzyme finishes the process by breaking down the pieces further. The combination of these enzymes combines to create the“super-enzyme”.
 
After this process, other bacteria are able to break down the products into CO2 and water.
 
This discovery led scientists to attempt to speed up this process.
 
Scientists were able to combine the DNA of both PETase and MHETase. This combination boosts the breakdown process of PET and makes it six times faster!
 
Scientists hope to use the enzyme in recycling plastic products in the future.
 
Currently, PET plastics are a cheap, durable material. This variety of plastic is hard to recycle.  There are no effective ways to break it down into reusable material.
 
With the use of the enzymes scientists create new plastic from the waste products.

This has a huge impact on the manufacturing of new PET plastic. It can also help reduce the use of fossil fuels in the future.

How is PET Made?

Currently, PET production uses products made from fossil fuels.  Manufacturers use refined petroleum and natural gas to create the necessary ingredients.
 
Fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource. Many companies are attempting to steer away from using them since they are finite.
 
Fossil fuels also create a large amount of carbon dioxide as a byproduct.  This greenhouse gas is a leading cause of ozone depletion and global warming.
 
“Emissions from plastics production and incineration could account to 56 gigatons of carbon between now and 2050.”
 
Effective commercial use of the enzyme will go a long way in reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Manufacturers can use recycled PET plastic rather than new fossil fuels.
 
This way, the plastic industry reduces its carbon footprint.

Bugs Can Break Down Plastic Too!

The prospect of nature assisting us in cleaning up the environment is exciting.
 
The I. sakaiensis bacteria is not the only natural creature that is able to break down plastics.
 
Mealworms are able to consume polystyrene and polyethylene plastics.  The worm’s gut bacteria break down the plastic into safe products like the I. sakaiensis.
 
In a study at Stanford, mealworms ate their way through a styrofoam cup in about a week.
 
“Mealworms fed a steady diet of Styrofoam were as healthy as those eating a normal diet, Wu said…”
 
The waste products from this diet are carbon dioxide and other safe materials.  None of the plastic stays inside the mealworm. This reduces the risk of contaminating up the food chain.
 
This is not a quick fix, unfortunately. To break down a single styrofoam cup in a week, you need hundreds of mealworms.
 
Waxworms are another species that has the ability to eat plastics.  Their ability to do this was an accidental discovery.
 
Waxworms are a nuisance and a pest in the beekeeping community.  These worms eat through the wax in beehives. This causes devastating damage to the hives.
 
A beginner beekeeper discovered that waxworms also eat through plastic bags. She was able to watch this happen when she placed a few worms in a plastic bag after they were in her beehives. 
 
She then saw the worms eat through the plastic at a fast rate.

This beekeeper is also a scientist. She took this newfound knowledge and began to study the ability of the worms to eat through plastic. 
 
So far she thinks that the worm and its gut bacteria both play key roles in breaking down the plastics.  The gut bacteria does a lot of the work. She believes that the worm kickstarts the process when they chew the plastic.

Our Next Step

The prospects of having a revamped system of recycling is exciting. The ability to break down plastic six times faster than biodegradation is remarkable.
 
Imagine the world finally reducing the heaps of plastic filling landfills. With this enzyme, we can revolutionize the polyethylene system of recycling.
 
We could create new plastics from old plastics and reduce the number of fossil fuels used in the process.  Not only would this reduce the plastic waste, but this helps the ozone layer as well.
 
This is a great first step in creating a better earth for future generations!
 
It is also incredible to think that mother nature is helping to fight the pollution problem as well.
 
The ability of bugs to consume man-made plastics is an unbelievable bit of evolution.  A perfect instance of adaptation to a changing environment.
 
Now of course these are all things to celebrate. Unfortunately, not everyone is a scientist capable of helping with the research.
 
So what can you do to help with this plastic issue?
 
Most important, recycling is the best option.
 
You also can work to reduce your personal consumption of plastic products.
 
When you are out shopping, make sure to take a reusable shopping bag for all your goodies. 
 
Many restaurants no longer give out straws, but you can always opt for a reusable straw.
 
There are other ways to help the environment.  To learn more please visit our website oceanblueproject.org and Mushrooms used to cleanup urban streams Ocean Blue Project.
 
Please visit our informative environmental blog. It’s chock full of impactful articles.


Author Bio: Justin Dubs is a Pittsburgh-based writer and avid outdoorsman.