Fast Company writes that plastic bottles can take over a millennium to break down, while harming ecosystems, but the newly-developed solution can accelerate the process and allow us to recycle polyethylene in just a few days. The work, class of scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), can set the path for a more sustainable plastic industry, while helping us fight our plastic waste issue.
Researchers took bacteria that can otherwise consume polyethylene plastics themselves and modified their genes so that they can produce a silk-like material.
Helen Zha, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at RPI, said that "what we’re using is a process that’s very similar to brewing beer. It’s essentially fermentation."
They began with silk, but scientists say that the bacteria could be generating other type of materials from the carbon emissions found within the polyethylene.
"It functions like a plastic that we’re used to, in many ways, and it also breaks down very naturally even if we don’t treat it in some special manner. We don’t have to worry about microplastics from silk, or Pacific garbage islands floating around with silk", Zha added.
Natural silk is being used, besides the fashion industry, in the pharmaceutical and medical applications, being a versatile material that could have even more applications. Also, if it were to reach the environment, it can also degrade much faster than traditional plastics, not affecting the planet in the process, either.
Two years ago, we wrote about a similar solution, which also used bacteria to break down polluting plastics. Some of the materials that scientists were able to process were polystyrene and PET, which they were able to turn into biodegradable compounds that are used in biomedical applications.
Researcher Gregg Beckham said at the time that "the cool thing about synthetic biology, metabolic engineering and this idea of biological funnelling… is that as long as the organism can eat or consume the oxygenated intermediates, then potentially one could make anything", Beckham added."