Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have created an enzyme variant that can break down plastics that usually take centuries to degrade in just a matter of hours or days. This discovery could help solve one of the world’s biggest environmental problems — what to do with the massive amount of plastic piling up in the planet.


First developed in the 19th century, plastic soared in the 20th century, with productions increasing from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 348 million metric tons in 2017. Valued at US$522.6 billion, the plastic industry is expected to double in capacity again by 2040, something that will evidently result in more plastic pollution, particularly the amount of plastic in the ocean, which could total somewhere close to 150 million metric tons. 





The project has set its focus on polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is the most commonly used plastic material in bottles and other types of packaging. It can also be found in polyester clothing fibers. More than 70 million tonnes of the material is produced annually worldwide, roughly a fifth of all new plastic in any given year. In total, it makes up 12% of all global waste.


Called FAST-PETase (functional, active, stable and tolerant PETase), the enzyme created by the scientist can depolymerize — break down into smaller parts — post-consumer waste plastic at low temperatures. The research proved the effectiveness of the enzyme on 51 different post-consumer plastic containers, five different polyester fibers and fabrics and water bottles all made from PET. In some cases, these plastics can be fully broken down to monomers in as little as 24 hours.


‘The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,’ said Hal Alper, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. ‘Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take a lead in recycling their products. Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.’


Up next, the team plans to work on scaling up enzyme production to prepare for industrial and environmental application.