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Plastic Eating Enzymes Could Help Reduce The Global Plastic Waste Problem

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The plastic pollution is depressingly familiar. In 2020, 367 metric tonnes of plastic was produced globally. The seas absorb more than 10 million tonnes of plastic every year. “Overtime we really do not know what effects these have,”says Tiffany M Ramos of Roskilde University in Denmark. Much of the waste ends up in landfills.

Plastic manufacturing also releases greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. A 2021 report found that the US plastic industry alone releases 232 m tonnes of greenhouse gas every year, the equivalent of 116 coal- fired power plants.

In 2016 researchers led by micro-biologist Kohei Oda of the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan reported a surprise discovery. It found a new strain of bacterium called Ideonella Sakaienns (I S) 201 -F6. This microbe could grow on pieces of polyethylene terephthalate (P E T). Not only that, Oda’s team reported that bacteria could use PET as its main source of nutrients, degrading the PET in the process.

The key to this ability was a pair of enzymes made by the bacteria. IS 201-F6 produces two unique enzymes. The first is a PETase that makes the long PET molecules drown into smaller molecules called MHET. A second enzyme called MHETase then goes to work, producing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid.These two chemicals are the building blocks of PET so that IS 201-F6 can completely reverse the manufacturing process that made PET.

Prof John McGeehan of University of Portsmouth say that IS 201 F6 micro organism could use the plastic as its sole energy & food source. The advantage of these enzymes is that they break down the plastic at the molecular level. So it is possible to recreate the highest quality plastic. Plastic eating enzymes have to be a part of a revolution in the entire way we make and use plastics. The Guardian newspaper of U.K. has taken up this enzyme project and it has got support from 180 countries including India. 

Govind Tekale

A retired teacher at Sainik School Kazhakootam, besides his lifelong reading passion he is now an avid writer.

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