Enzyme that eats plastic: real change or utopia?

In April, a news starred on the covers of the scientific headlines: a group of researchers from the United Kingdom and the United States had designed an enzyme capable of devouring plastic.

All the articles had the same informative approach, a collective euphoria that envisioned the solution of all environmental problems related to plastic. They added to the information about the discovery several expository analyzes to contextualize the contamination of the ecosystems by the excess of plastic, implying that this discovery would be the revolution that would end this form of contamination.

 

The enzyme is not ready to be used in the industry, there is still the need for more research.

 

But what does this enzyme really mean? John McGeehan, one of the scientists after the discovery, affirms that is very exciting but modest. The enzyme is not as revolutionary as some media want to tell, but still, he ensures that it brings us closer to a better waste management and that the discovery opens the door to improving the recycling system of plastics, but does not mean the end of pollution. Therefore, the enzyme is not a messiah of recycling, and there is still the need for more research in order to be used in the industry.

Alba Asenjo, a scientific journalist, explains that the true dimension of this enzyme is determined by its capacity to improve the recycling of plastic bottles, which cannot be 100% recycled. “With this discovery, we can begin to develop mechanisms that convert plastic into plastic again, and then be able to reuse all plastic waste to make new products.”

But although the enzyme can improve the recycling processes, many social changes have to be made to ensure that this improvement is useful, since the culture of recycling is not implemented in the global mentality. Around one million plastic bottles per minute are sold worldwide, but only 14% of them are recycled. If this dynamic is not reversed, these enzymes will not have a real effect on the management of plastic waste, even though they have the potential to become a tool that allows them to be 100% recycled, an almost utopian goal that increasingly seems more real.

William Shakespeare said that good news should be announced in a hundred languages, but the bad news should be revealed by themselves. In the treatment of this discovery, this phenomenon has occurred: everyone has jumped of joy when reading headlines about the end of plastic pollution, but the media did not inform about the real dimensions and difficulties of the implantation of the enzyme.

 

Around the world, every minute are sold one million plastic bottles, but only 14% of these are recycled.

 

It is counterproductive to use euphoria in headlines about researches in embryonic phases. There is a risk that the general public, without specific and uninformed training, becomes desensitized in front of a question as crucial as recycling, believing that scientists with almost superhero capacities can solve all the problems derived from modernity, allowing the general public to disengage from their own responsibility. Without promoting the culture of recycling, this enzyme will become a technology with potentialities but without real use, as has happened so many other times with other "revolutionary discoveries".

 

Abel Cobos
Biomimetics Sciences Institute