Scientists have accidentally discovered a plastic-eating mutant enzyme that can potentially help in reducing one of the biggest global environmental challenges – plastic pollution.
Globally, around 300 million tons of plastic are manufactured annually, but only less than 14 percent of the total amount gets recycled.
Researchers from the University of Portsmouth (UoP) and the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) engineered the enzyme while working on plastic-eating bacteria. In 2016, researchers at the Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University found naturally present plastic-eating bacteria in waste dumps.
"The engineered enzyme is even better at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature," UoP maintained in a statement.
Findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) claimed that the discovery could help in recycling millions of tonnes of plastic bottles, made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET was only patented as plastic in 1940 and has not existed in nature for very long.
According to UoP, the researchers are now working on further improving the enzyme to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time. Non-biodegradable plastic has polluted oceans and local water sources, and has become tough to manage.
Discovery significant after China's plastic import ban
Western countries have been particularly hit after China banned the import of 24 kinds of solid waste for recycling early this year.
In 2016, Chinese manufacturers imported a whopping 7.3 million metric tons of waste metal, plastics, and paper worth 18 billion U.S. dollars, mostly from developed countries.
In the last five years, the UK has exported over 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong-based recyclers. The US last year exported 1.42 million tonnes of plastics worth 495 million US dollars to China. The EU countries alone shipped 87 percent of the recycled plastic to China.
Countries concerned over China's ban, like the UK, have monetized plastic bottle recycling through a payback system.
The discovery of the plastic-eating enzyme is seen as a solution for containing the rising volumes of plastic waste.
The EU also announced its first-ever Europe-wide strategy on plastic recycling to offset China's waste import ban.
All plastic packaging in the European market will be recyclable by 2030, the consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced, and the use of microplastics will be restricted, the EU Commission had announced in a press release.
A draft of the plan gives a deadline of 2030 to recycle 55 percent of plastic packaging waste, while per-capita annual consumption of plastic bags will be reduced to 90 by 2019 and 40 by 2026.
Professor John McGeehan of UoP from the research team maintained that few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s, substantial plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world.
"We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these 'wonder-materials,' must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions," he said.