One of the biggest dangers to the environment right now is single-use plastics. They account for massive amounts of waste floating in the oceans and their sheer volume makes recycling a challenging proposition. The scientists at Carbios, a French company that has partnered with other European environmental concerns, has found a potential solution. Using an enzyme commonly found in composted leaves, they have discovered a way to break down plastic into an easier to recycle form in just a matter of hours.
Plastic isn’t as easy to recycle as people think. There are common varieties of plastic made from multiple layers of different chemical compounds, each one requiring different temperature or equipment to breakdown. And, there are a lot of plastic chemical compounds that could be recycled but aren’t because the market value for the recycled material is so low it can’t financially sustain the operation.
“We are the first company to bring this technology on the market,” the deputy chief executive at Carbios, Martin Stephan, told The Guardian. “Our goal is to be up and running by 2024–2025, at large industrial scale.”
The most common type of polyester plastic is polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET. PET loses a lot of mechanical utility when it's heated hot enough to recycle, which means newly manufactured material is preferred and PET waste continues to grow.
The new enzyme, developed by scientists at University of Toulouse, breaks down a minimum of 90% de-polymerization in just 10 hours. That means it breaks down the complex polymer cells into monomers and can be used to easily make new bottle and other plastic products.
While the process is slightly more expensive than conventional recycling and manufacturing operations, widespread use of the enzyme will kickstart more inexpensive recycling operations, lowering the cost of industrial use.
“These milestones reinforce our ambition to offer the market circular economy solutions that are both competitive and eco-friendly, and which will revolutionize the end of life for plastics and textiles.”