Digging in the wrong place, but digging

Many empty water bottles. Shallow DOF.

The use of enzymes to break down lignin in the quest to produce biofuels has a long history lined with small breakthroughs and a lot of futility. But a new study in Nature describes a mutant enzyme that can reduce plastic bottles to chemical building blocks to make new bottles:

A mutant bacterial enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles for recycling in hours has been created by scientists.

The enzyme, originally discovered in a compost heap of leaves, reduced the bottles to chemical building blocks that were then used to make high-quality new bottles. Existing recycling technologies usually produce plastic only good enough for clothing and carpets.

The company behind the breakthrough, Carbios, said it was aiming for industrial-scale recycling within five years. It has partnered with major companies including Pepsi and L’Oréal to accelerate development. Independent experts called the new enzyme a major advance.

Billions of tonnes of plastic waste have polluted the planet, from the Arctic to the deepest ocean trench, and pose a particular risk to sea life. Campaigners say reducing the use of plastic is key, but the company said the strong, lightweight material was very useful and that true recycling was part of the solution.

The new enzyme was revealed in research published on Wednesday in the journal Nature. The work began with the screening of 100,000 micro-organisms for promising candidates, including the leaf compost bug, which was first discovered in 2012.

“It had been completely forgotten, but it turned out to be the best,” said Prof Alain Marty at the Université de Toulouse, France, the chief science officer at Carbios.

The scientists analysed the enzyme and introduced mutations to improve its ability to break down the PET plastic from which drinks bottles are made. They also made it stable at 72C, close to the perfect temperature for fast degradation.

Bugs doing the heavy lifting has long been an illustrative trope – it is said that life on Earth would grind to halt in days without the constant work of ants. Industrial-scale biological recycling sits on the other end of the teeter-totter with banning all plastics. Only significant inroads into both will help us turn the corner. Promising news. Keep digging.

Green Expo(sition)

Not competition, so no wagering. As mentioned early, I interviewed some of the participants at the Green Life Expo last week. Here is part one of the video extravaganza version

Green Expo

I dropped by the Green Life Expo today, to check out what is and is not green. The signs, the products, the people, the giant inflatable planet in the middle of the room… they were all green. It seems we’re just past the marketing extravaganza phase but not quite into the details of what any of it means, as yet. Several people agreed to talk to me on camera about what they or their company were doing, and I’ll post some short videos soon.

Talking to a rep from a large recycling company, one of the things that came up was, after extolling the benefits of recycling, getting small cities and towns on board, doing all manner of public awareness campaigns, when those basics are behind you and you’re left to contemplate the evaporated foreign market for your material what you are left with is creating new profit-streams for companies that collect and “recycle” recyclables. The very nice guy did the equivalent of taking his hat off, wiping his brow and squinting into the sun to say, “Heck, I don’t know, hoss.”

Yeah, no kidding. There are many things like this that people aren’t thinking about, and they might sound complicated – like creating vertical integration with manufacturing companies, or getting companies to be happy with a lower domestic price for recycled materials rather than shipping then stuff overseas for a little higher return. These things are inherent to coupling ethical responsibility with economic viability – and it’s important to acknowledge in someway that this what we’re talkign about. But most of the earnest participants didn’t have anything to add to this besides agreeing that it was a good question.