Amazingly, plastic pollution in the sea and the rest of nature seems to be activating microbial evolution.

Preliminary studies

In the EU Crowth program in 2001, we found environmentally friendly enzyme methods to improve the dyeability and properties of synthetic textiles.  Trametes hirsuta laccase and laccase mediators such as violetic acid and tetramethyl-1-piperidinyloxy (TEMPO) based compounds were used to treat polyamide (6.6), polyester (PET) and polyacrylic. It was found that surface treatment can save dyestuffs, energy, and water in the dyeing of textiles. Coating chemicals in the manufacture of protective textiles and coverings could be saved, as well. (Nousiainen et. al., Xth Int Izmir Symp 2004).

Searching enzymes from nature

A novel study by Chalmers shows that there is also an increase in the number of degrading enzymes in areas with high levels of plastic contamination. The new results are based on DNA analyses of samples taken from hundreds of locations around the world, both on land and at sea, showing how plastics affect global microbiology. The presence of these enzymes was also compared with official data on plastic pollution in land and sea areas. More than 30,000 types of enzymes were found that can degrade ten different common plastics. The most enzymes were found in areas known to be exposed to high levels of plastic pollution, such as the Mediterranean and the South Pacific.

Enzymes for recycling monomers 

In the US, an enzymatic recycling process is being studied that breaks down PET into two building blocks, terephthalic acid (TPA) and ethylene glycol. Compared to traditional fossil-based production routes, the research team concluded that an enzymatic recycling process can reduce total supply chain energy consumption by 69-83% and greenhouse gas emissions by 17-43% per kilogram of TPA. In addition, a national-wide comparison of virgin TPA and recycled TPA in the United States shows that the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the two processes are not evenly distributed throughout the supply chain. The proposed recycling process can reduce environmental impacts by up to 95% and generate up to 45% more socio-economic benefits, including local jobs in material recovery facilities.

The study also predicts that enzymatic PET recycling can strike a cost balance with new PET production, highlighting its potential to reduce PET production in terms of reducing carbon dioxide and enabling the recycling of waste containing high amounts of PET fibers, such as clothing and carpets.

Future Enzyme project

Launched in the EU, the Future Enzyme multidisciplinary consortium consists of 16 European academic and industrial partners from Spain, Germany, Italy, Austria, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Switzerland. The project began in June this year and will run until 2025. Industrial biotechnology is being developed e.g. by Henkel and Evonik, the University of Düsseldorf and Inofea aiming environmentally friendly and sustainable surfactants for textile and cosmetics industries. 

Enzymes are extracted from microorganisms using techniques that allow a sensible selection of the most appropriate enzymes for each product. The technology combines massive biological data analysis using supercomputers. Data is collected from bioprospect, protein technology, and biotechnology. Pre-industrial testing is applied to select the best enzymes from millions of enzymes.  

Information on enzymes will increase enormously and will have an impact – in addition to other actions, e.g.  SUP control – to reduce plastic pollution of the seas and other environments.

Key words: enzymes, recycling, plastics, textiles, microplastics, cosmetics