Saturday December 15, 2018

Plastics Can Be Eaten By Enzymes And Reduce Pollution

The enzyme is able to digest polyethylene terephthalate

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Packs of flattened polyethylene terephthalate (or PET) bottles are carried into a depot before being pulverized as part of a recycling process at Tokyo PET Bottle Recycle Co. in Tokyo, Aug. 13, 2002. Researchers in Britain and the United States have engineered an enzyme that breaks down such plastics.
Packs of flattened polyethylene terephthalate (or PET) bottles are carried.VOA
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Scientists in Britain and the United States say they have engineered a plastic-eating enzyme that could help in the fight against pollution.

The enzyme is able to digest polyethylene terephthalate, or PET — a form of plastic patented in the 1940s and now used in millions of tons of plastic bottles. PET plastics can persist for hundreds of years in the environment and currently pollute large areas of land and sea worldwide.

Researchers from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme thought to have evolved in a waste-recycling center in Japan.

Finding that this enzyme was helping a bacteria to break down, or digest, PET plastic, the researchers decided to “tweak” its structure by adding some amino acids, said John McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work.

This led to a serendipitous change in the enzyme’s actions — allowing its plastic-eating abilities to work faster.

“We’ve made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already,” McGeehan told Reuters in an interview.

“That’s really exciting because that means that there’s potential to optimize the enzyme even further.”

The team, whose finding was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, is now working on improving the enzyme further to see if it could be capable of breaking down PET plastics on an industrial scale.

Plastic pollution
Plastic pollution, Pixabay

“It’s well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET, and potentially other [plastics], back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled,” McGeehan said.

‘Strong potential’

Independent scientists not directly involved with the research said it was exciting, but cautioned that the enzyme’s development as a potential solution for pollution was still at an early stage.

“Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms,” said Oliver Jones, a Melbourne University chemistry expert. “There is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society’s growing waste problem by breaking down some of the most commonly used plastics.”

Douglas Kell, a professor of bioanalytical science at Manchester University, said further rounds of work “should be expected to improve the enzyme yet further.”

Also read: Ayushmann Khurana speaks against plastic pollution

“All told, this advance brings the goal of sustainably recyclable polymers significantly closer,” he added. (VOA)

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Air Pollution Worsens In Western Balkan Cities

Activists say the funds allocated are insufficient and that the government's response is inadequate.

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Smog, Air pollution
General view of the city as smog blankets Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. VOA

When winter arrives in the Western Balkans, it is not unusual for dense smog to envelop its cities, making it hard to breathe and impairing visibility. But this year, air pollution levels are among the highest in the world and public anger is on the rise.

In recent days, the Bosnian, Macedonian and Kosovar capitals topped the charts of the world’s most polluted cities as the smog intensified due to heavy traffic, excessive use of coal, poor spatial planning and solid fuel based heating.

The air quality index measured by the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo hit 383 on Tuesday, a level identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as hazardous to health and almost 10 times the average. In Pristina, the index registered 415 on Monday night and marked air quality in several Macedonian towns as very poor.

“This is all the result of a situation in which political elites treat the city as a construction plot which should be occupied at all costs rather than a place where people live,” Anes Podic of Sarajevo’s Eko Akcija environmental group said.

global warming, air pollution, Asia
The sun is seen through evening air pollution, Feb. 8, 2018. VOA

“You can feel how bad the air smells even inside the car or home,” said a taxi driver Mirsad Pobric.

According to the WHO, pollution costs Bosnia the equivalent of more than a fifth of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) every year — around $3.9 billion — in lost work and school days, healthcare and fuel costs.

Macedonia loses an equivalent of 3.2 percent of GDP a year to pollution, the World Bank said in a report, more than$360 million a year.

As a way of bringing more attention to the issue, the Embassy of Sweden has been using red lighting on its facade in central Sarajevo to reflect air quality each day. The deeper the red, the worse the pollution.

According to the WHO, 230 Bosnians die of air pollution per 100,000 citizens a year, compared to 0.4 in Sweden. The World Bank estimates that in Macedonia there are 1,350 deaths related to air pollution per year.

Air pollution
Sweden has launched a four-year project in Bosnia that will bring together experts from its Environmental Protection Agency .Wikimedia Commons

“Pollution is killing people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, therefore something really needs to be done,” Swedish Ambassador Anders Hagelberg told Reuters.

As part of efforts to combat the issue, Sweden has launched a four-year project in Bosnia that will bring together experts from its Environmental Protection Agency and local hydro-meteorological agencies and governments.

The aim of the program is to help improve air quality monitoring but also to bring more investment into energy efficiency.

Also Read: U.N. Chief Warns The World About Not Doing Enough To Prevent Climate Change

Macedonia has launched its own program to combat air pollution to which the government allocated 1.6 million euros ($1.83 million) in next year’s budget. It aims to halve Skopje’s air pollution within two years by reducing taxes for central heating, restricting traffic and introducing stricter control of industrial emissions.

Activists say the funds allocated are insufficient and that the government’s response is inadequate. (VOA)