Recycling breakthrough could eliminate billions of tons of plastic from landfills

It’s a breakthrough in plastic recycling. Researchers said a newly manipulated enzyme can break down plastic in a matter of days.

Sophia Choi with our sister station in Atlanta explains how it works.

This could be huge for landfills where a single bottle can take hundreds of years to break down, but with this new breakthrough, a special new enzyme eats the plastic.

Annalia Polemitis, who is a DeKalb County resident, makes it a habit to recycle.

“When I see things go in the garbage is such a waste,” she said.

Polemitis went to her local recycling center, where she took a bunch of plastic.

“It just seems like it’s a simple way to give back,” Polemitis said.

Because once plastic hits a landfill, it could take hundreds of years to break down.

Roger Young, DeKalb County Landfill Supervisor, said, “I think the thing about plastic is it just takes so long to decompose.”

Young said plastic takes up a lot of space out here. “Definitely a good percentage out here is plastic out here.”

Now, a new discovery by researchers at the University of Texas-Austin could change how we deal with plastic.

New video shows a piece of plastic breaking down in just 48 hours at 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

Andrew Ellington, Ph.D. is a professor at University of Texas-Austin and said, “what we’re trying to do eventually is get to the point where we can have what some of us call a circular plastics economy, where you have a plastic, you degrade it, and then you rebuild it into something new.”

Daniel Acosta is a grad student at UT-Austin and was part of the team that modified an enzyme to do this.

“If we get close, you can begin to see the pieces of plastic that have come off and now floating in the solution,” Acosta said.

Right now, the enzyme only works on PET or Polyethylene Terephthalate plastic, one of the most commonly used.

“It’s used in everything from water bottles to clamshell packaging for food,” Acosta said.

The team named the modified enzyme FAST PETase. FAST for functional, active, stable, and tolerant.

Research shows it works in a matter of days and in a wider range of temperature.

Danny Diaz, UT-Austin grad student said, “This mutation actually changed everything.

Diaz is another student who worked on the project. “You can see we can degrade all of these post-consumer plastics, anywhere from a day and a half to four and half days.” Diaz said. “By tweaking a protein through engineering, we were able to essentially accelerate plastic degradation significantly.

Right now, the enzyme is still in the study phase. But eventually you could see it used in landfills and possibly even at polluted sites.

Ellington said, “We’re trying to go as quickly as we can, and I think we will have significant progress on transitioning to things like landfills within about a year.”

At landfills, there is one concern, much of the infrastructure from bins to pipes are built from plastic at the landfill.

Young said that could be an issue, but he’s interested.

“It sounds like a plus. Can it happen? Can they do that? I’ll be looking forward to the results.” Young said.

So too are the avid recyclers like David Ray who is a DeKalb County resident.

“That would be welcome news, I think and would be encouraging to folks,” he said.

The scientists in Texas are now trying to figure out how to re-use the broken-down plastic and if it would be safe for people.