Statistics have found that the planet is clogged with more than 340 million tons of plastic every single year, and it is discarded (and ends up in the oceans) faster than there are methods to recycle or otherwise break it down to prevent that pollution.
However, a revolutionary new breakthrough by British and American scientists offers new hope for dealing with this global problem.
Researchers have developed a plastic-eating enzyme after conducting X-ray experiments on mutant bacteria that evolved in a plastic recycling center in Japan. The bacteria, called Ideonella sakaiensis, was discovered in 2016 and noted for its natural ability to break down plastic.
On Tuesday, new findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) detailing the plastic-eating enzyme derived from the bacteria.
Scientists from the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory were originally studying the bacteria’s enzyme structure when they engineered – by mistake – a spinoff enzyme which showed itself to be stronger than the original enzyme at degrading plastic.
This “super” enzyme has been named PETase for its ability to break down plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). An estimated 70 percent of soda, juice and water bottles are made out of PET, which can take 500-1,000 years to biodegrade naturally.
Professor John McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Portsmouth developed PETase along with his colleagues. In a press release, he said, “There is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics.”
He added that since plastics became popular in the 1960s, no one could have imagined the amount of plastic debris that would clog the oceans. “The scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’ must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions,” he said.
One example of how bad the plastic problem has gotten is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an 80,000 ton mass of plastic and debris located in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. Latest estimates are that it contains nearly two trillion pieces of plastic that spans an area twice the size of Texas. It is the largest accumulation of debris on the planet.
About half of the debris originates from fishing gear, including fishing line and bait paraphernalia. Plastics in general, regardless of their origin, are not biodegradable and marine life either consumes it or becomes entangled in it and dies. Not only that, it and other debris work to damage and kill coral reefs, ecosystems, and underwater plant life that act as food and shelter for marine animals. Much of the plastic that currently ends up in landfills and in the oceans of the world takes at least several hundred years to degrade.
Although the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest on Earth, there are four other areas of accumulation: the South Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the North Atlantic Ocean and the South Atlantic Ocean all feature smaller debris patches.
Although many plastic items end up in the ocean, there are companies now using recycled plastics to manufacture everything from shoes to clothing.
To date, San Francisco-based Rothy’s shoes has recycled more than 10 million plastic water bottles to manufacture its durable, flexible, and washable ladies’ shoes. They’re made with recycled PET plastic “yarn” and are carbon free.
Madrid-based Ecoalf manufactures apparel, shoes, briefcases, handbags, helmets, and accessories from recycled plastic.
Blue Planet Eyewear manufactures sunglasses made with recycled plastic frames, reclaimed metal for plating, and lead-free paint, just to name a few eco-friendly aspects.