Researchers have created a way to break down plastics in a matter of days.
The scientists from the University of Texas published their findings in Nature Week stating they had developed a modified enzyme that can easily degrade plastic.
The scientists used machine learning to create a fast-acting protein that can deteriorate the building blocks of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a synthetic compound that is commonly found in clothing and plastics.
The process, called depolymerisation, separates building blocks that makeup PET into their original monomers and converts them into other products.
The researchers tested their modified enzyme on more than 50 types of plastic containers.
The author of the paper, and Chemical Engineering professor, Hal Alper spoke to VICE’s Motherboard about the process.
Alper said: “Once you have your original monomer, it’s as if you’re making fresh plastic from scratch, with the benefit that you don’t need to use additional petroleum resources. This has advantages over traditional belt recycling. If you were to melt the plastic and then remould it, you’d start to lose the integrity of the plastic each round that you go through with recycling. Versus here, if you’re able to depolymerize and then chemically repolymerize, you can be making virgin PET plastic each and every time.”
The scientists landed on their exact structure by using an algorithm that fed 19,000 protein structures to a machine that was taught to predict the positions of amino acids within those structures.
The structure they landed on was able to break down 51 types of PET across a variety of temperatures and pH conditions.