Discovery of plastic-eating enzyme welcomed
Scientists have discovered by accident a plastic-eating enzyme that could revolutionise recycling and help solve the pollution problems in the world’s oceans.
“It sounds like something out of science fiction,” said Midlands green energy expert Ron Fox, “but it could be one of the great discoveries of this century.”
The finding could reduce the time it takes plastic to decompose from centuries to just days and could make it recyclable.
The breakthrough came when scientists found a plastic eating bacterium that had evolved naturally at a Japanese recycling plant two years ago.
When they used one of the world’s most powerful microscopes in Oxfordshire, which can see individual atoms, to work out its complex molecular structure they changed the enzyme inadvertently and made it more efficient.
Experts at the University of Portsmouth, together with the U.S. Department of Energy, worked out that when they added a solution of the enzyme to plastic its surface literally began to dissolve away.
Professor John McGeehan, who led the research, said even they were shocked by the reaction of the improved enzyme.
They hope to broaden their work so that the enzyme could turn one of the most common plastics used in soft drinks bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), into original new plastic to be used again.
They want eventually to speed up the system and make it a large scale process so that it will reduce the industry’s reliance on oil and the amount of plastic in the environment.
At present around one million plastic bottles are sold every minute around the globe with just 14 per cent recycled. Most of the rest end up in the world’s oceans harming marine life and potentially people who eat seafood.
Even those bottles which are recycled now can be turned only into opaque fibres for clothing and carpets and cannot yet be made into reusable clear plastic.
“This discovery is badly needed because if this issue is not tackled soon there will be more plastic, by weight, than fish in our oceans by 2050,” said Ron, of Noreus Ltd on the University of Keele Science and Innovation Park.
“However, I think the public perception is changing and they want to stop this ever-growing mountain of discarded plastic. But they can’t be complacent, this invention will take time to be brought into operation worldwide.”
He added: “In the meantime, shoppers and householders need to play their part by encouraging companies and shops to cut back their dependence on plastic packaging.
“They should also reduce their carbon footprint by recycling where possible and ensuring their homes are environmentally friendly and by using green energy.”
Ron recommends looking at renewable alternatives such as rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which change energy from the sun into domestic electricity, and air source heat pumps, which convert heat from the atmosphere into power for the home.
For help and advice about green energy matters contact Ron Fox on 0845 474 6641 or go to www.noreus.co.uk