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Plastic fantastic: this new revolutionary enzyme can break down plastic waste in hours, not decades

By Sam Wareing

May 9, 2022

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Here’s a terrifying fact for you: less than 10 per cent of the world’s plastics have been recycled. Not a great statistic, huh? For years, humanity has been struggling with plastic pollution, a product of our own design, and as such scientists around the world have been working tirelessly to come up with a solution to the problem. Now, thanks to all their hard work, they may have finally found an answer.

Polymer polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which makes up about 12 per cent of all global waste and is a clear, strong, and lightweight type of plastic that is widely used for packaging foods and beverages, especially convenience-sized soft drinks, juices and water, has been used in trials in conjunction with a new enzyme that is reported to cut the breakdown of plastics from decades to—in some cases—mere hours. The team behind this revolutionary creation, hailing from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, has called it ‘FAST-PETase’ (functional, active, stable and tolerant PETase). “The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” chemical engineer Hal Alper said in a press release. “Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take a lead in recycling their products.”

After studying a natural PETase that allows bacteria to break down PET plastic, they used machine learning to single out five different mutations that would help it degrade plastic faster, and allow it to work in a variety of environmental conditions.

Through this trial, scientists have tested the new enzyme on 51 different post-consumer plastic containers, five different polyester fibres and fabrics, and water bottlesall made from PET. In all of the tests conducted, the enzyme was successful in breaking them down at temperatures below 50 degree Celsius, which is key, according to Alper. “When considering environmental cleanup applications, you need an enzyme that can work in the environment at ambient temperature. This requirement is where our tech has a huge advantage in the future.”

Biochemist Andrew Ellington from the UT at Austin, whose team led the development of the machine learning model, was also very excited by this development. “This work really demonstrates the power of bringing together different disciplines, from synthetic biology to chemical engineering to artificial intelligence,” Ellington said in the press release.

Considering that PET is part of a vast majority of global waste, this new enzyme could be key in helping reduce plastic pollution. Some of the major factors in play here, according to the researchers,  is its reasonable cost, ease of mobility and the fact that it can be easily up-scaled to meet the requirements of industrial-level production.

Sadly, the current methods of disposing of plastics consist of chucking it in a landfill and letting it slowly rot away over many years, or burning it and releasing noxious gases into the atmosphere—exactly like how we deal with returned goods. Both of which aren’t particularly environmentally friendly. Alternative strategies are the need of the hour, and although this new discovery is still in its infancy, it’s a step in the right direction. Who knows, the planet may still have a fighting chance because of it?

Here’s what really happens to the clothes you return

By Alma Fabiani

May 2, 2021

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We’ve all been there: you gave in to your consumerism urges and spent a pretty large sum of money you probably don’t have on a haul from one of your go-to online fashion retailers. Your order gets delivered, and as you try on your purchases, you realise that at least half of the items will need to be returned. One pair of jeans doesn’t fit, the top that looked amazing on your ASOS app is actually made in this awfully cheap fabric that will most definitely make you sweat on the coldest days, and for some reason, you went for another tracksuit, which you really don’t need.

Long story short, you’ve had to return a big part of your haul, and it’s all good now, because you’ll get your money back while someone else will get to enjoy the items that simply weren’t for you. Right? Well, not really. Here’s what happens to the clothes you return.

According to Paazl, in January 2020, returns rates to stores were around 8 per cent, and around 25 per cent for items bought online. Free next-day delivery and free returns made it easier than ever for customers to buy clothes online. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as brick and mortar shopping wasn’t possible, return rates saw a sharp increase as more people shopped online.

What you probably didn’t know however is that after these garments have been shipped out to you and back—potentially a trip across a whole country or more—the products won’t even make it back onto the shelf. Retailers will not accept the item back unless it is in a saleable condition despite the fact that they’re not actually looking to sell them again anyway. So, why is this enforced then?

Different brands take different approaches to returned items. In a best case scenario, your returned clothes end up going into a clearance sale or sit in a warehouse until they are out of season. However, in most cases, these returns take a clear pathway to landfills.

In other cases, it is also common for brands to destroy apparel that gets returned instead of sending it straight to a landfill. This is customary for brands that don’t want their garments falling into the hands of retailers that might damage the reputation of the company. Burberry has previously admitted that returned garments and stock that doesn’t sell were burned.

H&M has stated multiple times that it has burned 15 million tonnes of clothing because they weren’t in a “fit condition to be recycled.” That’s because although brands could find better options in order to reduce waste production, it would cost them money and time to find a solution—the easy way out is to simply burn or discard those items instead.

However, many fashion companies have now been forced to consider other options after facing backlash for their unethical practices. As people start doing more than ever before to protect the environment, brands need to be held to a higher standard in order for them to do everything they can to reduce returns and prevent perfectly good clothes from ending up in landfills.

Luckily, some big retailers have made a first step in the right direction: The Renewal Workshop, for example, works with brands like Carhartt to help them reduce the negative environmental impact of apparel returns on the environment. As for the impact that you can have on the matter—no matter how small—maybe next time, think twice about buying that shimmery top that’s ‘screaming your name’. Take it from a professional: it probably won’t be once you put it on.

 

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