Scientists create enzyme that breaks down plastic in a week instead of a century

Some clever cookies over at Texas University are using AI to produce an enzyme that can break down plastic waste more than 5,000 times faster.

Not so fun fact: Every piece of PET plastic (toothbrushes, water bottles, plastic takeaway containers) take about 100 years to break down. Until then, every little bit of plastic you throw away sits there, chilling in landfill.

Obviously, that’s not an ideal situation. In fact, 12 per cent of the earth’s total landfill is made up of PET plastics. Huge yikes.

Plastic landfill
Credit: Mohamed Abdulraheem / Shutterstock.com

But in better news, some legends at Texas University are developing an enzyme that can break PET plastics down in a week, rather than a century. That’s 5,000 times faster than it currently takes.

So here’s how it works. Enzymes are proteins that speed up the process of chemical reactions. There are plenty of enzymes sitting in your stomach, waiting to give food the old left-right-goodnight.

So Texas University has created an enzyme that breaks down a part of the plastic which is called a monomer.

For explanations sake, we’re going to use relationship structures to make it easier to understand wtf this all means.

So you’ve got monomers, which are molecules that bind to other molecules. Kind of like a monogamous relationships.

But then one of the monomers is keen for a bit of exploration, and binds to another molecule while still holding onto the first monomer. That chain is now called a polymer.

Basically, the enzyme comes in and splits up that dynamic, breaking the polymer down into its original molecules. That process takes place in a single week, and what scientists are left with, is a molecular structure that can be used to make… more plastic.

But hey, better to be reused as another bottle than to be sitting in landfill.

The process isn’t quite ready for regular use, but the boffins are working on ways to make the process as efficient and affordable as possible.