Scientists have accidentally developed a plastic-eating enzyme that may be used to combat one of the world’s worst pollution problems, a media report said.
Researchers from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme found in a waste recycling centre a few years ago in Japan, CNN reported on Tuesday.
The finding was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
They said the enzyme, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, is able to “eat” polyethylene terephthalate, PET, which was patented as a plastic in the 1940s and is used in millions of tonnes of plastic bottles.
Their aim was to study its structure, but they accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics.
“We hoped to determine its structure to aid in protein engineering, but we ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics,” said NREL’s lead researcher Gregg Beckham.
The discovery could result in a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of plastic bottles made of PET, which currently persists for hundreds of years in the environment, the University of Portsmouth said on its website.
“Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,” said Professor McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth.
The enzyme can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles, CNN reported.
PEF plastics, although bio-based, are not biodegradable, and would still end up as waste in landfills and in the seas, the NREL said.
According to a three-year study published in Scientific Reports last month, a huge, swirling pile of trash in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is growing faster than expected and is now three times the size of France, more than double the size of Texas. IANS
This flamboyant nine-metre-long dhow, made from 10 tonnes of plastic waste collected from Kenyan beaches and roadsides, sailed more than 500 km from the idyllic island of Lamu to Zanzibar this year with a message to eliminate single-use plastics.
And it also reminds the global policy-makers the urgency to address and lessen the growing impact of plastics on the world’s marine environment.
The Flipflopi dhow was positioned right at the entrance of the conference venue in the UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi where over 4,700 delegates from 170 countries gathered for the week-long UN Environment Assembly, the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment.
“Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting more than 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change,” UN Environment’s coral reef unit head Jerker Tamelander said.
“Waste continues to leak from land and coral reefs are at the receiving end. They also trap a lot of fishing gear as well as plastic lost from aquaculture. With the impacts of climate change on coral reef ecosystems already significant, the additional threat of plastics must be taken seriously.”
The majority of marine litter – between 60-80 per cent – is composed of plastic.
Only nine per cent of the nine billion tonnes of plastic the world has so far produced has been recycled.
The overwhelming majority of plastics – comprising drinking bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, lids and straws – are designed to be thrown away after a single use, ultimately ending up in landfills and polluting the environment.
“The first leg of the journey is over, but the journey continues,” Kenyan entrepreneur and Flipflopi project leader Dipesh Pabari told reporters here.
“When you are on the boat and you come to know that it’s made from your toothbrushes and Pet bottles. You will ask how and that is the real story,” he said.
Coming from a family of carpenters and dhow builders in Lamu, an island off the North Coast of Kenya, Ali Skanda is intimately familiar with what goes into building a dhow – a sailboat that has been used in East Africa for more than a thousand years.
On its maiden 500-km-long sojourn, supported by the UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign, the Flipflopi stopped at towns and cities to sensitize the communities on ways to cut down use of single-use plastics.
A report, Plastics and Shallow Water Coral Reefs, released at this UN Environment Assembly, which focus on innovative solutions for environmental challenges, identifies a number of knowledge gaps that must be addressed to strengthen the scientific evidence base for action on marine plastics that impact coral reefs.
Inspired by 15-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, activist Rebecca Freitag, 26, a UN delegate for sustainable development from Germany, told IANS that the youth should be given participation in environment talks as they comprised 25 per cent of the global population.
Before coming to the UN summit, she collected the plastic waste from roadsides of Kenya, which introduced the world’s toughest laws on single-use plastic bags two years ago, and got her dress stitched to spotlight solutions for the growing impact of plastics on the world’s marine environment.
The Flipflopi is now ready for a voyage next month for a greater political and social awareness of the issue of plastic pollution.
“Now we want to build a 20-m long boat that is capable of sailing to South Africa and beyond,” Pabari said.
For this, $1.5 million is required.
The Flipflopi team has had to pioneer new techniques to craft the dhow’s various components.