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Teenage Mutant Enzyme Feasts On Plastic Bottles Made Of PET

Researchers in France have created an enzyme that digests PET plastic, the material most single-use soda and water bottles are made from.

Last week, we reported on the discovery of a new bacteria (well, yes, technically it is a new bacterium but if we wrote that we would be accused of being effete snobs) that digests polyurethane, a particularly tough plastic that tends to create toxic materials when it is recycled. Today, there is news, via the journal Nature, of a new enzyme that can chew through a mountain of PET — the primary plastic used to make soda and water bottles — in a matter of hours. The best part is, the resulting material can be reused immediately to make new PET bottles.

Image credit: Carolyn Fortuna

There is a commercial company behind this research that calls itself Carbios. According to The Guardian, the company has a goal of commercializing the process within 5 years and is working with Pepsi and L’Oréal to accelerate development.

Alain Marty, a professor at the University of Toulouse in France, says the work began by screening 100,000 micro-organisms, looking for promising candidates. One of them included the leaf compost bug, which was first discovered in 2012. “It had been completely forgotten, but it turned out to be the best,” Marty says. In addition to teaching at the university, he is also the chief science officer for Carbios.

Once the leaf compost bug was isolated, the researchers took steps to make it mutate into a form that could digest PET. An important part of the process was making it function at 72º C, the ideal temperature for breaking down PET. When they were done, their mutant enzyme was able to break down 90% of a ton of PET plastic waste in about 10 hours, with the residue used to create new food grade bottles.

Professor John McGeehan, the director of the Center for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, who was not involved in the research, calls the new enzyme a “major advance. It makes the possibility of true industrial scale biological recycling of PET a possibility. This is a very large advance in terms of speed, efficiency and heat tolerance. It represents a significant step forward for true circular recycling of PET and has the potential to reduce our reliance on oil, cut carbon emissions and energy use, and incentivize the collection and recycling of waste plastic.”

Let’s Talk About Money

Many readers at this point are asking, “So how much is all this going to cost?” Frankly, the reports about the new enzyme are bit difficult to understand at the moment. The Guardian says the cost of the enzyme is just 4% of the cost of virgin plastic made from oil. But the waste PET bottles must be ground up and heated to 72º C — the temperature at which the process is most efficient. All that grinding and heating takes energy, which costs money, which will make the recycled PET more expensive than virgin plastic.

Martin Stephan, the deputy chief executive at Carbios, says that’s nothing to worry about since existing lower quality recycled plastic sells at a premium due to a shortage of supply. At the present time, the assumption is the enzyme itself will cost about $25 per kilogram according to Ars Technica, but how many kilograms of PET a kilogram of enzyme will digest is not stated.

 The Magic Of Economics

Anyone with more than a third grade education should recognize the problem here in about 4.2 nanoseconds. The people who make PET don’t have to pay to clean up their mess. The current economic system, known loosely as capitalism, has as one of its central tenets the belief that all business activities should be exempt from paying to dispose of their waste products. If consumers choose to throw their bottles away after a single use, that’s on consumers, right?

The thought that manufacturers should pay to clean up the trash they create would be greeted with hoots of derision inside the august halls of the Chicago School of Economics. What about shareholder value, huh? What about multi-million dollar executive compensation packages? What about Horatio Alger, Ayn Rand, and all the other gods of modern economic theory?

Better to have mountains of plastic trash on the highest peaks and in the deepest ocean trenches than to take a farthing out of corporate profits. And yet the core principles of capitalism could be leveraged in a heartbeat to make the scourge of plastic waste go away permanently. Put a price on it then watch the unseen hand of the free market magically create new business opportunities for entrepreneurs eager to spin all that trash into gold. Sometimes the sheer stupidity of the human species is simply breathtaking.

 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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