Plastic. Humanity is producing more and more every single day. The problem is, once it’s made, it sticks around….forever. It is currently very difficult to break down plastic bottles into their chemical constituents to make new ones from old ones, meaning more new plastic is being created from oil each year.
But now, scientists from UC Berkeley have produced a new form of plastic that consumes itself.
You read that right!
It eats itself!
This is the plastic when it’s produced. And this is what it looks like just three days later after it has been treated. The new plastic is manufactured with an enzyme that reacts when exposed to water and heat, causing it to begin breaking itself down.
The super-enzyme, derived from bacteria that naturally developed the ability to eat plastic, enables the full recycling of the bottles. Scientists believe merging it with enzymes that break down cotton could also allow mixed-fabric clothing to be recycled. Today, millions of tons of such clothing are either dumped in landfills or incinerated.
The super-enzyme was engineered by linking two separate enzymes, both found in the plastic-eating bug discovered at a Japanese waste site in 2016. The researchers revealed an engineered version of thefirst enzyme in 2018, which started breaking down the plastic in a few days. But the super-enzyme gets to work six times quicker.
This is a trajectory towards trying to make faster enzymes that are more industrially relevant. But it’s also one of those stories about learning from nature and then bringing it into the lab.
If you were worried about plastic-based clothes like polyesters melting off you while exercising, don’t. The material can withstand short exposures to heat and slight dampness.