Plastic waste is one of the biggest problems facing our planet today. Despite efforts to recycle, only a small percentage of the plastics produced by humanity have been successfully reused. The rest is either leaching toxins in landfills or disrupting ecosystems.
But what if nature held the key to solving our plastic problem? Insects, bacteria, and fungi have evolved the ability to break down plastics on their own. By studying the enzymes that make this possible, bioengineers are now able to create new ways to degrade plastics without the use of chemicals or burning.
The Future of Plastic
In this article, we’ll explore the exciting world of enzymatic degradation and bioengineering, and how it’s revolutionizing the way we think about plastic waste.
Curiosities are fascinating because they challenge our understanding of the world and force us to think outside the box. They also remind us that there is still so much we don’t know and that there is always something new to discover:
Nature’s Solutions: Plastic-degrading enzymes
Nature has provided us with a wealth of solutions to the plastic problem. Several species of insects, fungi, and bacteria have been found to be capable of breaking down plastics all on their own. For instance, the larval forms of beetles and moths, like mealworms and waxworms, can munch on polyethylene, or PE, which is the most commonly produced plastic. In addition, some species of algae have been shown to partially degrade plastic.
However, the real stars of the show are the bacteria inside these insects’ gut biomes. They are the ones that enable the insects to fully digest plastics. One bacterium in particular, Ideonella sakaiensis, has kicked off a global search for similar species that can be used as genetic muses. In fact, this bacterium was discovered in the sludge surrounding a bottle recycling site in Sakai, Japan.
Upgrades – Enzymatic degradation example
Researchers have been studying enzymes that can break down plastics since the 90s. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that the discovery of I. sakaiensis brought enzymatic plastic degradation into the spotlight. Unfortunately, I. sakaiensis only breaks down PET, the most abundant plastic within the polyester group, when held at a consistent temperature of 30°C for six weeks.
To address this problem, scientists began splicing together enzymes in the lab. The double-mutant of PETase that resulted from these experiments works 20% faster and can degrade PET with a crystallinity of roughly 15%, which is about the same crystallinity found in vending machine bottles. Researchers have also discovered that the same enzymes used by I. sakaiensis, PETase and MHETase, can be combined to break down PET more efficiently.
Enzymes in the Real World
While enzymatic plastic degradation is a promising field, it’s still in the early stages of development. Enzymes require specialized conditions to function properly, and the infrastructure for enzymatic degradation on an industrial scale does not yet exist.
However, a few enzymes have already proven their mettle in the real world. For example, the company Evanesto has developed an enzyme that can be incorporated into PLA products during manufacturing. This allows consumers to compost anything from mulching film to coffee pods at room temperature, right at home. The company claims that PLA plastic items will biodegrade in 255 days or less, and because PLA is typically sourced from starches like corn or sugarcane, there are no toxins or residue left behind.
Another company, Carbios, has received funding from the French State, and major brands such as L’Oréal, Nestlé, Pepsi, and Puma have invested in its technology. Carbios has developed a method of producing bottles entirely from recycled PET waste and has substantiated a method of producing white fiber from recycled PET waste, regardless of the original plastic’s color.
Can we live without plastic
That’s a very interesting question. Plastic is a very versatile and useful material that has many applications in our daily lives, such as packaging, clothing, medical equipment, electronics, and more. However, plastic also poses a serious threat to the environment, as it is made from fossil fuels, takes a long time to degrade, and pollutes the oceans and landfills. According to BBC Future, plastic could account for 20% of oil production by 2050 and plastic waste is so widespread that it could be used as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene.
A world entirely without plastic is unrealistic, as it would require a drastic change in our lifestyles and consumption patterns. However, we can try to live with less plastic by reducing our demand for single-use plastics, choosing more sustainable alternatives such as glass, aluminum, paper, or biodegradable materials, and adopting a circular economy model that reuses, repairs, recycles, and renews resources as much as possible. This way, we can minimize the negative impacts of plastic on our health and the planet.
Living without plastic would also require a shift in how we dress. In 2018, 62% of the textile fibres produced worldwide were synthetic, made from petrochemicals. While cotton and other natural fibres are more environmentally friendly, they also have drawbacks such as water consumption, pesticide use, and land degradation. Therefore, we need to find a balance between the quality, durability, and affordability of our clothing choices.
Plastic is not inherently bad; it is our behaviour and mismanagement that make it harmful. As one expert said: “We can definitely live without plastic but we need to look at plastic as a resource. Right now, plastic has become a symbol of our behavioural mismanagement. By being more aware and responsible about our plastic use, we can live with less plastic and more harmony with nature.
Enzymatic plastic degradation is an exciting field that has the potential to revolutionize how we deal with plastic waste. While there are still many challenges to overcome, the progress made so far is encouraging. By studying the natural processes of plastic degradation in insects, bacteria, and fungi, researchers have been able to identify enzymes that can break down plastics in a much more sustainable way than traditional recycling methods.
While there are still many questions to be answered about how enzymatic plastic degradation will work on a large scale, there are already some promising developments. Companies like Carbios and Evanesto are already producing products made from biodegradable plastics that can be composted at home, and major brands like L’Oréal, Nestlé, Pepsi, and Puma have invested in the technology.
As we continue to learn more about the potential of enzymatic plastic degradation, it’s clear that this is a field that will continue to grow and evolve. It’s an exciting time to be involved in the science of plastics, and we can look forward to a future where we can enjoy the convenience of plastic products without sacrificing our environment or our health.
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