Breaking it down

University of Texas researchers make game-changing discovery for plastic recycling

UT researchers make game-changing discovery for plastic recycling

University of Texas at Austin aerial
UT researchers discovered a “plastic-eating enzyme," which can break down a certain type of plastic to the molecular level. Photo by dszc/Getty Images

KVUE — A new discovery by University of Texas at Austin researchers could be a game-changer when it comes to recycling plastics.

The “plastic-eating enzyme” can break down a certain type of plastic to the molecular level, which can then be used to recreate new plastics, according to researchers.

“When we have that perfect cycle, we're not needing to make any fresh plastic. We're recovering everything that we've used and can use it once over again. And I think this has enormous potential to be able to reduce our overall carbon footprint,” said Hal Alper, a professor at UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering.

Researchers have been able to put big chunks of plastic in the enzyme, breaking them down to the molecular level. It ends up becoming a liquid in up to about 48 hours.

Without the enzyme, the plastics could take hundreds of years to degrade, researchers said. The alternative option would be to throw plastic in a landfill or burn it, but researchers said that’s expensive, energy intensive and puts toxic gasses in the air.

The enzyme works on polyethylene terephthalate — known as PET plastic — which is used in things like water bottles, clear to-go food containers, and fruit packaging, Alper said. 

It accounts for 12 percent of all global waste.

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