Austin, TX

Plastic takes hundreds of years to break down, now it can be done in hours

Amber Alexandria

Scientists and engineers at The University of Texas at Austin have created a plastic-eating enzyme that could be our solution to cleaning up landfills. Traditionally plastic takes centuries to degrade leaving plastic products like toothbrushes that can't be recycled left to pile up in landfills or end up in the ocean.

What used to take plastic hundreds of years to break down its chemical components can now be broken down in less than a few days and some cases hours by using the plastic-eating enzyme.

In the United States, 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away every hour.

How to solve the plastic pollution crisis is one of the most widely discussed environmental problems and plastic-eating enzymes offer a real-world solution.

“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.”

The scientists and engineers of UT focused on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, more commonly known as polyester. This type of plastic is used for making all sorts of consumer goods like microwavable containers, vitamin containers and soda bottles.

Results showed that the plastic-eating enzyme was able to complete a "circular process" where the plastic was broken down into smaller pieces and then chemically put back together, a process known as chemical recycling.

The team at UT plan on scaling the plastic-eating enzyme for mass production to prepare for industry use to aid in cleaning up landfills, making high waste-producing industries green and environmental remediation.

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