Scientists have accidentally created an enzyme that is able to breakdown plastic, specifically polyethylene terephthalate (PET) - which takes hundreds of years to degrade in natural environments. The research was spurred on by the 2016 discovery of a bacterium that had evolved to eat plastic at a waste dump in Japan. This led scientists to decipher the structure of the enzyme, before tweaking it to see how it would evolve, which inadvertently made it up to 20% more efficient at degrading PET than its original form. Currently the enzyme is able to process plastic in a matter of days, the Guardian reports.
With PET taking centuries to degrade naturally, the discovery of this enzyme has proved promising in the fight against plastic. Prof John McGeehan, who led the research, told The Guardian, “What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic.” This would mean, in theory, there would no longer be a need to dig up oil to make products like plastic bottles.
One important question - raised to the Guardian by Prof Adisa Azapagic at the University of Manchester - is what is released during the breakdown of the plastics, including potential GHGs. A full life cycle assessment will be required to determine this.
Such an enzyme will only be part of the answer to our plastic problems, and should not distract from efforts to reduce plastic consumption, and recycle the plastic we have.