Engineering Innovation Podcast and Radio Series

Plastic Eater

PostedApril 20, 2018

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Lede: Most man-made plastic isn’t biodegradable and it’s not as easily recycled as you might think. But nature may have given us a clue about how to fix the problem.

Randy Atkins: A couple years ago, Japanese scientists found plastic-eating bacteria in a pile of discarded bottles. The bugs had evolved to produce an enzyme that breaks down the common plastic P-E-T. Gregg Beckham, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is collaborating with an international team of researchers that has figured out how the enzyme works.

Gregg Beckham: There’s room to make this enzyme even better at degrading P-E-T.

Randy Atkins: Currently, Beckham says recycling processes only allow most plastic bottles to be converted into lower-grade products, for uses such as in textiles or carpets.

Gregg Beckham: Taking the enzyme further in terms of engineering it and making it better would allow us to go from a bottle, break that down into its building blocks, and go back to a bottle.

Randy Atkins: The positive environmental impacts of that could be huge. With the National Academy of Engineering, Randy Atkins, WTOP News.