On October 16, 2019, the University of Surrey, United Kingdom, announced that its researchers have partnered with colleagues from France, Germany, and Spain to start working on a new technique to tackle plastic waste. According to the university’s article, this novel technique may revolutionize the recycling industry. The plan is to create engineered microbial communities that will digest two types of plastic polymers -- polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyurethane (PU) -- and transform them into molecules that can be used to develop a more environmentally friendly material called Bio-PU. This more environmentally friendly material is often used as a construction and insulation material.
According to the University of Surrey, current physical or chemical methods to degrade PET and PU are inefficient. Impurities in PET polymers and high energy costs associated with the high temperatures required to break down the material make its degradation very difficult. Similarly, degradation of PU is limited due to the difficulty in breaking down urethane bonds in the material. Given these challenges, University of Surrey Senior Lecturer in synthetic biology Dr. Jose Jimenez highlights that “[m]oving away from the reliance on single use plastics is a positive step; however, the problem of how we deal with current plastic waste still needs to be addressed.” Hence, the project will investigate the ability of microorganisms to digest plastic waste and turn it into a more environmentally friendly material that can be recycled.