Recycling breakthrough could eliminate billions of tons of plastic from landfills

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga, — A breakthrough in plastic recycling could reduce the amount of it in landfills by billions of tons.

Researchers have manipulated an enzyme that can break down plastic in a matter of days.

Annalia Polemitis of DeKalb County says she makes it a habit to recycle.

“When I see things go in the garbage, it’s such a waste,” Polemitis said.

She regularly goes to the recycling center at Your DeKalb Farmers Market to drop off her plastic.

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

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

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

Young said plastic takes up a lot of space at the landfill.

“Definitely a good percentage out here is plastic,” Young said.


A new discovery by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin could change how we deal with plastic.

“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,” said Andrew Ellington, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is involved in the research.

“So, now you can see the plastic is submerged in the enzyme solution,” said Daniel Acosta, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

He is part of the team that modified the enzyme.

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

He showed us a beaker containing a piece of plastic that was breaking down.

The enzyme currently only works on PET or polyethylene terephthalate plastic, one of the most used. “It’s used in everything from water bottles to clamshell packaging for food,” said Acosta.

The team named the modified enzyme FAST PETASE — FAST stands for “function, active, stable and tolerant.”

Research showed it works in a matter of days and in a wide range of temperatures.

“This mutation actually changed everything,” said Danny Diaz, a graduate 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 a half days,” Diaz said. “By tweaking a protein through engineering, we were able to essentially accelerate plastic degradation significantly.”

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

“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,” Ellington said.

At the Seminole Road landfill, the one concern is that much of the infrastructure from bins to pipes is built from plastic.

Young said that could be an issue, but he is 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 avid recyclers like DeKalb County resident David Ray.

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


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