New Super Bacteria Breaks Down Plastic Bottles in Hours Rather than Centuries

Enzymes derived from super bacteria found in Japanese dump could finally make recycling plastic cost effective

Scientists have created a plastic-eating super enzyme derived from a super bacteria found in a Japanese dump in 2016.

The super enzyme is capable of digesting a whole plastic bottle in a matter of hours, a process that used to take hundreds of years.

The enzyme is expected to revolutionize plastic recycling, which has not been cost effective until now.

British researchers engineered the super enzyme by joining two separate enzymes found in the plastic-eating bacteria. The combination of the two breaks down plastic six times faster than the single enzyme Japanese researchers extracted from the bug in 2018.

“When we linked the enzymes, rather unexpectedly, we got a dramatic increase in activity,“ said John McGeehan, a biology professor at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

“This is a trajectory towards trying to make faster enzymes that are more industrially relevant. But it’s also one of those stories about learning from nature, and then bringing it into the lab.”

A French company revealed a different plastic-eating enzyme in April, discovered in a compost heap of leaves, that degrades 90% of plastic bottles within 10 hours. But the enzyme requires a temperature above 160 degrees Fahrenheit to do it’s job.

The new super-enzyme works at room temperature, meaning fully recycling plastic bottles and other PET plastics like polyester and food containers could finally become economical.

Combining the plastic-eating enzymes with enzymes that break down natural fibers could allow clothing made of mixed materials like polyester and cotton to be fully recycled, McGeehan said:

“Mixed fabrics are really tricky to recycle. We’ve been speaking to some of the big fashion companies that produce these textiles, because they’re really struggling at the moment.”