Science |Report

Enzyme has potential to ‘eat’ waste plastic bottles

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Steven Abbott

"But it's not a "depressing story". Re..."
Angela Long

Angela Long

"Fair comment, and thanks as always fo..."
SA

Steven Abbott

"[I'm aware that what I'm writing now ..."
Angela Long

Angela Long

"Thanks both, and that's a great fact ..."

A man-made enzyme holds hope of a natural solution to plastic waste, according to research reports. The enzyme appears to have “evolved” in a recycling facility in Japan, but was manipulated to make its plastic-eating more effective.

Researchers from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory added amino acids to the new enzyme to increase its tendency to digest plastic material (Guardian).

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Results of the project were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

The enzyme naturally digested polyethylene terephthalate, or PET – a form of plastic used in plastic bottles. Plastic pollution, especially in the oceans, has been much discussed in recent months (Nature) and is the focus of a WikiProject.

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History for stories "Enzyme has potential to ‘eat’ waste plastic bottles"

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19 April 2018

13:09:05, 19 Apr 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → )

17 April 2018

14:14:03, 17 Apr 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → italics)
14:13:33, 17 Apr 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → added cat and shortened headline)
12:13:38, 17 Apr 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → pubbing)
12:10:49, 17 Apr 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → italics)
12:05:47, 17 Apr 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → adding thumbnail)
12:01:35, 17 Apr 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → adding Commonwealth project)
11:38:57, 17 Apr 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → links added)

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  1. Rewrite

    [I’m aware that what I’m writing now is closer to “opinion” than “reporting”. This is a draft to point out that the rather naive hype aroused by the scientifically interesting paper (and NOT created by the paper itself which makes no grandiose claims) is essentially irrelevant to the real issues of recycling/repurposing any plastics which is one of collecting and sorting.]

    The reports need to be put into context. The full paper makes it clear that when the enzyme is used on real PET, which is rather crystalline, the enzyme can to some extent erode the surface of the test sample and break down a small percentage of the polymer. This is a noteworthy scientific advance but is, currently, almost irrelevant to any urgent issues of dealing with waste plastic. Nor do the authors claim any immediate possibility – they simply state that “These findings open up the possibility…” As mentioned in the ocean plastics article (ref to the Wikitribune one), the solution to large-scale plastic polution is not something sophisticated but just the huge-scale rollout of rather simple waste disposal systems in the countries (mostly Asian) that produce the vast majority of ocean trash. In terms of countries that already collect the vast majority of their plastic trash, the question is the best way to use or dispose of it. Recycling most pure plastics is not too hard if the waste streams have been fully separated. Whether the recylcing is done via a chemical or biological process is not deeply significant because even a biological process still needs a big complex factory which itself will consume energy and produce waste. The far bigger problem is the sorting of the waste. If it is not sorted properly then neither the chemical nor biological routes can be efficient and reliable.
    [I’d finally want to say “Let’s not get diverted from the genuinely difficult task of recovering and sorting complex wastes by naive hopes of some ‘natural’ solution to the totally different problem of recycling pure polymers, which we can already do rather well by conventional means” – but again this is “opinion”]

    1. Rewrite

      Fair comment, and thanks as always for your informed view, Steven. The reality of an effective enzyme is well in the future as you say. But it is some hope in this rather depressing story.

      Hope you will write something yourself again soon.

      1. Rewrite

        But it’s not a “depressing story”. Remember, people are confused between the mass plastic polution in the Pacific, caused by a simple absence of infrastructure, and non-stories like banning plastic Q-Tips and using enzymes to try to eat PET. The “Western” story is one of hope because we’re now worrying about problems that a few years ago were under the radar because even simple sorting/collection of plastic waste was hardly done, and public attitudes to waste were far too lax. Landfills used to be disaster areas, now they are well-controlled and actually contribute a significant amount of relatively green energy by capturing the waste methane.

        As Hans Rosling found, telling these good stories, without appearing to be naive or uncaring, is very hard. Telling irrelevant stories about enzymes eating PET bottles is somehow seen as “better” because they are addressing a “crisis”. This is all nonsense. But how to put this in a cool-headed WikiTribune article?

  2. Rewrite

    Love this! Technology is the free lunch (sorry for the bad joke). What is the waste product of the engineered enzyme? How will the waste product be managed? When will the scale up to industrial use of the enzyme be completed?

  3. Other

    I followed the story of Daniel Burd. Daniel Burd was a Canadian High School student who in 2008 isolated two bacteria (Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas) that at the correct temperature ate almost half of a plastic sample within six weeks.

    He won the first prize at the Canada Wide Science Fair and a $20,000 scholarship.

    In an article in The Record (the article no longer there), Burd is quoted as saying:

    “The inputs are cheap, maintaining the required temperature takes little energy because microbes produce heat as they work, and the only outputs are water and tiny levels of carbon dioxide – each microbe produces only 0.01 per cent of its own infinitesimal weight in carbon dioxide.”

    Since then, nothing – and I have not been able to find any trace of him or the developments from his work. I tried again recently to find him and there is a reference on a Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sphingomonas

    1. Rewrite

      Thanks, Dave. I should have read your comment before posting mine.

      1. Rewrite

        Thanks both, and that’s a great fact about Daniel Burd. He wasn’t mentioned in the latest news. Hope he’s working on something similar. Maybe add a par about him, Dave?

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