A Low-Emission, Cost-Competitive Enzymatic Platform for Recycling and Upcycling Mixed PET (Text Version)

This is the text version of the video A Low-Emission, Cost-Competitive Enzymatic Platform for Recycling and Upcycling Mixed PET.

[Narrated with voice over]

Hey! Did you know, that plastic water bottle you just threw in the recycling bin is made of a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET? Chances are it will never actually get recycled. In fact, less than 29% of single-use PET beverage bottles are recycled in the United States.

That’s because today’s recycling technologies are sensitive to impurities or cross-contamination with other kinds of plastics. Conventional technologies often “downcycle” PET into products of lower structural quality.

And because of these sensitivities, the bulk of PET used and produced today—PET clothing, PET carpeting, even PET containing dyes—is not recyclable with conventional technologies.

You’ve probably seen the consequences of this yourself. Around the world, most PET ends up in the landfill. It is burned to create energy. It litters our beaches and oceans, where it can threaten wildlife. Scientists have even found plastic in the human blood stream.

So how can we change the way we recycle PET to help solve the challenge of plastic pollution?

Scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the University of Portsmouth, and Montana State University have developed an enzyme-based recycling technology that could turn the plastic waste narrative on end.

The scientists figured out how to engineer enzymes (or tiny proteins that trigger chemical reactions) to deconstruct PET back into its basic chemical building blocks.

These “PET-deconstructing” enzymes eat away at the chemical bonds of the plastic. They break the PET into smaller molecules, similar to how bacteria break down leaves, yard scraps, and other organic materials into compost. Over time, what’s left are two chemicals: Terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. Companies can combine these recycled chemicals to make PET again of the highest quality. Or they can even upcycle them to make even more exciting materials and products.

And if those abilities weren’t incredible enough, look at the savings in energy and emissions unlocked by this recycling breakthrough. By making those two chemicals from waste PET instead of from scratch using petroleum—this technology can reduce energy use by as much as 83%, and it slashes planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions almost in half.

But here’s the inspiring part—by enabling all this, this enzymatic platform creates a powerful new economic incentive for cleaning up our oceans and landfills. With this technology, PET pollution has become a valuable resource that we can use to build a better, greener world.

That way, next time you toss a PET water bottle in the recycling bin—or even that old t-shirt or carpet you used to throw away—you can be sure it will find its second, third, or one hundredth life. With this breakthrough in enzyme-based recycling, your PET waste can be infinitely reborn as a recyclable wind turbine blade, as resin to make lightweight carbon fiber for electric vehicles, or simply back into that PET water bottle again.

Now that is changing the way we recycle.