Usually, it takes hundreds of years for plastic to break down naturally, but German scientists have now discovered a highly efficient enzyme that breaks down PET in record time. The discovery is being hailed as a game-changer, given the dire state of plastic pollution around the world.
The enzyme, which has been called polyester hydrolase (PHL7), was recently discovered in a German cemetery chewing on compost.
Scientists from the University of Leipzig then took the enzyme to their lab, during which they found that the enzyme was able to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) by 90% in less than 16 hours.
Notably, it’s not the first plastic-eating enzyme discovered. In 2016, a PET-greedy enzyme called LLC was discovered in a recycling plant in Japan. It is considered a particularly effective “plastic eater”.
But German scientists found that the newly discovered PHL7 is at least twice as fast as LLC.
The results have now been published in the scientific journal “ChemSusChem”.
“The enzyme discovered in Leipzig can make an important contribution to the establishment of alternative energy-efficient plastic recycling processes,” said microbiologist Wolfgang Zimmermann from the University of Leipzig in Germany, according to Sciencealert.
“The biocatalyst currently being developed in Leipzig has proven to be very effective in the rapid breakdown of used PET food packaging and is suitable for an environmentally friendly recycling process in which new plastics can be produced from the breakdown products. “
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What’s more, scientists found that PHL7 doesn’t even require any pre-treatment to break down plastics. It will eat plastic without crushing or melting.
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“Thus, by using powerful enzymes such as PHL7, it is possible to directly recycle post-consumer thermoformed PET packaging in a closed-loop process with a low carbon footprint and without the use of petrochemicals, achieving a recycling process sustainability of an important PET plastic waste stream,” the authors conclude.
(With agency contributions)
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