scientific beakers

Week in and week out you put your recycling out, yet somehow the plastic problem plaguing our planet continues to grow. While the world is slowly shifting towards biodegradable packing, the exorbitant amount of plastic polluting our land, air, and oceans will require innovation and ingenuity as well as all of our help. 

The Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth has made a groundbreaking discovery, potentially revolutionizing the way the world recycles plastic. Led by Professor John McGeehan, the same team of scientists who engineered the PETase enzyme in 2018 took yet another substantial leap in their research.

sprite plastic bottle on table

Breaking down the science

PET, which is the abbreviation for polyethylene terephthalate (say that three times fast), is the most commonly used plastic in the world. While attempting to determine PET’s chemical structure in 2018, McGeehan and his team accidentally discovered an enzyme with the ability to break plastics down at a rate 20% faster than ever before.

Expounding upon their research over the past two years, CEI discovered a second enzyme, MHETase, and found when these two teamed up they created a powerful, plastic-eating, impossible to pronounce enzyme cocktail. Digesting plastic at a rate six times faster than when PETase was acting alone, this new super-enzyme could potentially solve the planet’s plastic problem. 

The reality of recycling

Over the past fifty years, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of plastic for packaging purposes. There is not a single aisle of your local grocery store that doesn’t contain hundreds of plastic-wrapped goods, and even the most environmentally conscious shopper would be hard-pressed not to walk out of there with something plastic. You may be thinking to yourself, “Well, that’s why we recycle, right?” Right. Kind of.

assorted drinks on white commercial refrigerator

While tossing these items into the recycling bin is a good thing, the unfortunate reality is only a small fraction of reclaimed plastics actually end up being repurposed. According to Greenpeace, approximately 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950’s, only 9% of which has been recycled. Of those 8.3 billion metric tons, 12% has been burned, with the remaining 79% ending up in our landfills, woodlands, and oceans. 

While it may feel as if we’ve been lied to about recycling all these years, it’s not quite that simple. Combining the mass overproduction of plastic with a lack of technology to recycle millions of tons of waste each year, we have not had many viable options until now.

Currently, recycling plastic is a high-energy process that includes melting plastic down before it can be repurposed. Not only can one argue this does more harm than good, the current method degrades the quality of the plastic, only allowing these materials to be recycled once or twice. By returning plastics back to their molecular building blocks, CEI’s enzyme cocktail allows for plastics to be recycled endlessly in an energy-efficient manner. 

Join the plastic pollution revolution

While innovations like CEI’s new enzyme cocktail have the potential to revolutionize the way the world recycles plastic, it could be years or even decades until it can be implemented on a global scale. In the meantime, it is imperative that we reduce the amount of plastic waste produced every year.

Here’s how you can help:

When buying groceries, try to avoid purchasing goods packaged in plastic and bring your own reusable shopping bags. Research companies who have invested in using biodegradable packaging and encourage your favorite merchants to consider moving away from plastic.

bag full of apples

When you inevitably have to buy something packaged in plastic, consider ways in which you can reuse these materials within your own home. From storage containers and dog food scoopers to rain catchers and planters, there are countless ways to recycle plastic yourself.   

Reach out to organizations such as Ocean Conservatory to learn how you can volunteer to help keep the water systems clean within your own community. If possible, donations to organizations like these also go a long way. 
As always, stay tuned to Planet Home to find out more ways in which we can make our planet a better place.