How does recycling using enzymes work?

Enzymatic recycling might offer a new method of recycling water bottles and other plastics, researchers say

February 4, 2021
Enzymatic Recycling
Recycling using enzymes derived from bacteria might provide a new way to deal with some single-use plastic waste. [Credit: Casey Crownhart | CC-BY-SA]

Recycling plastic requires a big team — from people disposing of used plastic containers in the correct bins, to the workers transporting it to recycling plants, to companies using recycled plastics in their products. All these people might soon have a new member on team recycling: bacteria. 

Some researchers and companies are trying to use bacteria to recycle plastics in a new way. The process, called enzymatic recycling, employs enzymes that were initially produced by these bacteria to break down the plastics. Researchers have recently learned more about how these enzymes work, and are developing ways to employ them in commercial recycling programs. 

So, how does enzymatic recycling work? And how is it different from the way we recycle plastics today?

Disclosure: The author was a professional colleague of Dale Handlin in a previous role.

About the Author

Casey Crownhart

Casey writes about the environment, public health, and materials science. When not on deadline, you can find her tending to her small army of houseplants, running, or watching college football.


1 Comment

MrTea says:

Sounds like good news but in the meantime people should be aware of the absolutely demented practices that remain “SOP”. Like filling grocery store shelves with plastic bags (the “snack chips”) that come in non-recyclable plastic. (When the product could be packaged in the same recyclable cardboard that the breakfast cereals are). Worse yet the USDA subsidizes their consumption by permitting EBT to be spent on it. Great, while the nation wallows in worsening crisis of obesity-turning-into-diabetes we pay people to eat Hot Cheetos (read the bag!) Twinkies, cupcakes and Oreos.

The cautionary tale of “grassohol” (cellulosic ethanol) is well to remember too. Not long ago articles just like this one promising millions of barrels of fuel alcohol wrung from grassy materials by the magic of enzymes were appearing; web search the terms now and see what you find. Even though a law was passed to mandate production it has been an abject failure as no one has been able to make it “at scale”. But Build Back Biden threw some money into the Omnibus package to figure out how to make Other Stuff out of the grassy waste they were promising to turn into fuel!

“Microplastics” are an environmental disaster and we should ban all unnecessary food packaging that could be shifted to recyclable materials. The fact that no effort is being made–the “greener than thous” who run California just said they’re going to do something about it…in 10 years….tells you all you need to know.

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