Plastic Can Really Become Biodegradable by Adding Specific Enzymes

Plastic is one of our biggest enemies that we have to face nowadays along with coronavirus and climate change. But still so many people seem to ignore the caution about plastic pollution, that can be seen from how people still consume it a lot.

Reducing our consumption is indeed the most effective way to reduce our plastic waste production, especially that single use plastic. It is still too difficult to find the perfect replacement to plastic, because we have got used to its presence.

Well, what if the solution is not to find a replacement for plastic? Instead, what if the right solution is to keep using plastic but we have to change a little detail about it? The second option seems like more fun and more doable.

Luckily, that’s not a dream anymore. A group of researchers have discovered a way to make plastic usable again in the future. Here is the story of the discovery.

The Plastic Problem

plastic waste river

Plastic is everywhere nowadays, and by everywhere we literally mean in every single corner of the earth. It can be found in the top of mount Everest up to the depth of Mariana trench, it can be found in your drinking water, it can even be found in unborn baby’s placenta.

Surprised? Well, that’s natural because nobody has ever predicted such kind of thing would happen because of our obsession to plastic. But what’s important nowadays is not whether or not we are surprised to the news.

Instead, it is our response to such kind of thing. what’s important it or real action to prevent something even worse and more surprising to happen in the future. And the best way to do that is to reduce our plastic consumption.

Our plastic consumption is already too much, and it affect our ocean a lot. Data stated that around 5.25 trillion macro and micro pieces of plastics are now floating in our ocean. In addition to that, around 46.000 pieces of plastic can be found in every square mile.

The number is piling up, with around 8 million pieces of plastic keeps entering our ocean. And we all know that in the ocean, plastic pieces have almost zero chance to biodegrade. It means we keep on ‘investing’ plastic pieces in the ocean every single day.

Self-Destruct Mechanism

scientists developed infinitely recyclable plastic enzymes

We all know that nowadays there is a kind of plastic that’s called biodegradable plastic. We can call it a technology that doesn’t live the hype. This type of plastic is just slightly more degradable than conventional plastic, which still takes almost forever!

“Under other conditions such as soil or marine environments, these materials often display a similar durability as their conventional fossil-fuel-based counterparts, causing significant environmental damage and pollution,” said Hendrik Frisch, Queensland University of Technology materials scientist.

A group of researchers at University of California, Berkeley, know about this problem very well. That’s why they are currently tinkering with the part of plastic that they have high understanding of, the ingredient of it.

Changing the elements needed to create plastic is a good way to reduce plastic pollution. The main mission is to create a plastic-like material or just a kind of plastic that has “self-destruct” ability so it can disappear from the nature after being wasted.

After a long research, they discovered an innovation to make eco-friendlier material of plastic. This new kind of plastic contains specific enzymes wrapped in four-part nanoparticles that will break down by itself when exposed to warm water or damp soil.

What’s With the Enzymes?

Microplastics among sand and glass spheres in sediment from the Rhine. The white bar is 1 mm long. Photo by Martin Wagner et al. Wikimedia Commons enzymes

So, what’s actually with the enzymes? The enzymes are actually an addition to the plastic that will not change its property. However, just like mentioned above, it can be activated when exposed to warm water and damp soil.

Both conditions exist on the ocean and landfill, the two places where plastic usually end up the most. After exposed to those two conditions, the coat that wraps the enzymes will break down and release the enzyme to help plastic breaks down.

This is the idea of Ting Xu, UC Berkeley professor of materials science and engineering and of chemistry. “We are basically saying that we are on the right track. We can solve this continuing problem of single-use plastics not being biodegradable,” Xu said.

The end result of this material is not going to be microplastics like we know nowadays. Instead, because of the work of the enzymes, the plastic will be reduced to lactic acid. The lactic acid is a friendly substance that can even feed the soil microbes.

This process can reduce the amount of plastic released into the environment by 98%. Not only that, it will also help to reduce some pollutants and chemicals already exist around the process.

Programmed Degradation By The Enzymes

plastic waste in water

What’s more amazing about this new plastic is that you can even use it as an ingredient as well as a tool for composting your waste. The ‘programmed degradation’ ability is the reason why it can be handy for many things other than ‘just’ plastic that is useful.

“It turns out that composting is not enough. People want to compost in their home without getting their hands dirty, they want to compost in water,” Xu said. “So, that is what we tried to see. We used warm tap water. Just warm it up to the right temperature, then put it in, and we see in a few days it disappears.”

The innovation shows that not only using biology to solve our problem is possible, but also that programmed degradation can be the key for many problems in the future. In example, electronic waste is another problem that we have to face nowadays.

Applying programmed degradation may be able to solve the problem easily and cheaply instead of using complex and expensive methods. Let alone knowing that we can control what needs to degrade and what doesn’t will also allow us to recycle more efficiently.

“Imagine using biodegradable glue to assemble computer circuits or even entire phones or electronics, then, when you’re done with them, dissolving the glue so that the devices fall apart and all the pieces can be reused,” the researcher stated.


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