Scientists discover new enzyme that can chomp off plastic in record 16 hours
Usually, it takes hundreds of years for plastic to break down naturally, but scientists from Germany have now discovered a highly efficient enzyme that degrades PET in record time. The discovery is being hailed as a gamechanger, considering the dire state of plastic pollution worldwide.
The enzyme, which has been called polyester hydrolase (PHL7), was recently found at a German cemetery, chewing off the compost.
The scientists from Leipzig University then took the enzyme to their lab, during which they found that the enzyme was able to decompose polyethylene terephthalate (PET) by 90% in less than 16 hours.
Notably, this isn’t the first plastic eater enzyme discovered. In 2016, a PET-guzzling enzyme called LLC was found at a recycling plant in Japan. It is considered to be a particularly effective "plastic eater."
But the German scientists found that the newly found PHL7 is at least two times faster than the LLC.
The findings have now been published in the scientific journal ‘ChemSusChem’.
“The enzyme discovered in Leipzig can make an important contribution to establishing alternative energy-saving plastic recycling processes," said microbiologist Wolfgang Zimmermann from Leipzig University in Germany, according to Sciencealert.
"The biocatalyst now developed in Leipzig has been shown to be highly effective in the rapid decomposition of used PET food packaging and is suitable for use in an environmentally friendly recycling process in which new plastic can be produced from the decomposition products."
Moreover, the scientists found that PHL7 doesn't even require any pre-treatment to decompose plastics. It will eat plastic without grinding or melting.
"Thus, by employing powerful enzymes such as PHL7 it is possible to directly recycle post-consumer thermoform PET packaging in a closed-loop process with a low carbon footprint and without the use of petrochemicals, realizing a sustainable recycling process of an important PET plastic waste stream," the authors conclude.