French Startup Discovers Bacterial Enzyme Which Eats Old Plastic Bottles

ON 04/15/2020 AT 22:25 PM

A French startup called Carbios has come out with a solution to the gnawing problem of plastic pollution - a mutated bacterial enzyme that can almost completely digest old plastic bottles in just a matter of few hours.

Mutated bacterial enzymes represent a breakthrough new technology to handle plastic waste worldwide. Photo: Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons

The fact that these enzymes can actually turn old plastic bottles to make new ones - have been validated in a recent study published in the world's leading multidisciplinary science journal - Nature.

The enzymatic process makes it possible to recycle a bottle into a material that’s equal in quality to virgin plastic made from fossil fuels whereas the process of standard mechanical recycling involves washing, shredding, and melting plastic, it is limited plus it “downcycles” plastic into a lower-quality material.

“To make a transparent bottle with that technology, you need a transparent bottle as a feedstock. And you cannot do that infinitely. After six or seven cycles of recycling, the plastic might only be good enough to use for something like the plastic on the backing of a carpet, and eventually, it will have to be thrown away entirely”, says Carbios CEO Martin Stephan.

 “At the very end of its life, it will end up in a landfill or incinerator. So it’s not a solution for the end of life of plastics, whereas our solution is an infinite recycling solution. The new process can also turn a black plastic bottle into a white polyester T-shirt, or turn blue polyester into a new green bottle”, adds Stephan.

The company’s scientists studied thousands of microorganisms at a landfill, eventually discovering some had evolved enzymes that could break down the most common type of plastic - PET plastic.

The natural process would take a lot of time but with the introduction of mutations – the process became much faster. In about10 hours the new process could degrade about 90% of a metric ton of shredded plastic.

The company adds that validation of its technology in a respected scientific journal would greatly help bring more partners on board. That being said, companies like L’Oréal, Nestlé Waters, PepsiCo, and Suntory Beverage & Food Europe have already forged partnership with Carbios.

“One of the solutions is to give value to waste which has low or no value and that’s exactly what we are doing. We’re convinced that by doing that we contribute to reducing plastic pollution,  because instead of ending up in the environment, a post-consumer bottle will end up in a bin—there’s value somewhere in a recycling plant using our technology.”, said the Carbios CEO.

The company is currently piloting the process in a large lab, and construction is underway on a demo plant that is set to begin its operations next year to gather more data; the company will then begin to license the technology to plastics producers. Novozymes, a biotech company, will produce the enzyme at scale.