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Green Economy

Protein Evolution Recycles Plastics Quickly — “1 Million Years Of Evolution In 1 Day”

Protein Evolution says it has developed a process that breaks down plastic waste so it can be used to make new products.

Protein Evolution, a startup based in New Haven, Connecticut, emerged from stealth mode this week to announce it has created a process that can break down plastic waste into its component parts, which can then be reused to make new plastics. Until now, it has been cheaper (assuming no cost is assigned to the damage done to the environment by plastic waste) to make new plastic than to recycle existing plastic. Protein Evolution says its technology may be able to break that economic imbalance and help the chemical industry transition to a lower carbon, circular economy.

“The technology that Protein Evolution has developed allows the world’s largest consumer brands to meet sustainability commitments at scale, without compromising on cost or quality of materials. Our investment in PEI is an incredible opportunity to support an innovator who will soon become a leader in the global bioeconomy,” the company says in a press release.

Leveraging recent breakthroughs in natural science and artificial intelligence, the company designs enzymes to break down end-of-life textile and plastic waste into the building blocks that make up new textile and plastic products. This proprietary process is the first of its kind designed to scale up into volume production. It creates a cost effective solution with immediate applications for the petrochemical industry, global consumer goods companies, textile manufacturers, and others that are looking to significantly reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

“Despite significant and aggressive industry commitments toward sustainability, the current approach to plastic recycling is costly, ineffective and resource-intensive,” said Connor Lynn, a co-founder of the company. “Right now, it’s far cheaper for petrochemical companies to produce new ‘virgin’ plastics than it is to recycle existing materials, which is one of many reasons why used plastic is piling up in our oceans, landfills and incinerators. PEI has innovated a low energy, cost competitive process for upcycling finished plastics that is poised to meet both industry concerns and deliver massive environmental benefits. We’re working hard to usher in a new era of plastics — one that is truly sustainable and circular.”

“Corporations, and the actions they take today, play a significant role in charting the course of the climate future,” says Sophie Bakalar, a partner at Collaborative Fund and PEI Board Member. “The technology that Protein Evolution has developed allows the world’s largest consumer brands to meet sustainability commitments at scale, without compromising on cost or quality of materials. Our investment in PEI is an incredible opportunity to support an innovator who will soon become a leader in the global bioeconomy.”

The Protein Evolution Technology

Protein Evolution iteratively tests, evaluates, and maps tens of millions of unique enzymes to identify the most effective way to recycle waste materials into reusable chemicals. This approach will help to decarbonize the chemicals industry and will carry significant impact in the emerging bioeconomy as companies, communities, and governments are required to meet global sustainability goals in the years ahead.

“Nature has already produced a bacteria that can break down plastic for emission free recycling, but it’s extremely slow. If we had a few million years to wait for evolution to run its course, we’d have something much more efficient,” says co-founder Scott Stankey. “Our technology condenses a million year evolutionary process into a single day — helping us create an affordable, scalable and effective solution to revolutionize the plastic waste industry.”

“As the bioeconomy continues to grow, and scaling biomanufacturing continues to become more crucial to support that growth, it’s clear that the work Protein Evolution is doing will help lay the foundation for the future of synthetic biology,” said Jonathan Rothberg, co-founder and chairman of Protein Evolution. “At 4Catalyzer, we’ve created a number of world ‘firsts’ in the health technology industry, all of which aim to help heal the people we love. I am incredibly proud of the work the team at Protein Evolution has done to leverage 4Catalyzer’s strengths in AI and synthetic biology to help heal the planet we all love and depend on.”

The Protein Evolution team works in tandem with preeminent researchers who are pushing the boundaries of protein engineering and materials innovation. The team expects to launch its first commercial partnership by the end of 2022, addressing the needs of global consumer brands seeking to recycle and transform textiles and mixed-plastic waste.

Protein Evolution wants to help the chemicals industry transition to a lower carbon, circular economy. The company was founded in 2021 by Yale University alumni Connor Lynn and Scott Stankey, in partnership with Dr. Jonathan Rothberg, a world renowned scientist, entrepreneur, and National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipient.

The company’s first product is an enzymatic process that enables textile and plastic waste to become an infinitely reusable resource. Based in New Haven, Conn., Protein Evolution has a partnership with ESPCI Paris and 4Catalyzer, a life sciences accelerator dedicated to making a global impact through bold innovations in medicine, engineering, machine learning, life sciences and biotech.

The Takeaway

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the plastics industry represents the absolute worst effects of the capitalist system. Each year, it spits out billions of tons of plastic, most of which is discarded into the environment, where it can languish for centuries. The World Wildlife Foundation says, at the current rate, there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish by 2050. Plastic pollution is found in the placentas of pregnant women and in the milk they feed to their children. It is found in the snow atop Mt. Everest and in the deepest ocean trenches. It is, quite frankly, a scourge that should be profoundly embarrassing to every person on Earth.

Yet the insanity of producing more and more plastic continues, aided and abetted by the oil and gas industry, which is planning a massive increase in plastics production to offset the lower demand for their products created by renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Since we as humans are incapable of devising an economic system that is not based exclusively on profits or which includes environmental harm as one of the factors in calculating profitability, the only solution is to devise a process that recycles plastics more cheaply than making new plastic products.

There is a great hullabaloo about recycling EV batteries and companies like Redwood Materials are showing that can be done in a cost effective way. Why there is no similar outcry about plastic waste is a testament to the unchecked power of the fossil fuel industry to control governments and public opinion in a way that radically favors their business model.

The technologies being introduced by Protein Evolution may be a first step toward rebalancing the global economy to take into account the needs of the Earth, not only those of corporate executives and shareholders.

 
 
 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?

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