Enzyme is the Answer to Plastics Filling Up Landfills


Chattanooga had as one of its largest employers the DuPont Company which produced polyethylene terephthalate, or polyester fibers for everything from women’s hosiery to tires. Today, those plastics are filling up more than just our pantries, closets, and homes with products that end up in landfills that take up to 500 years to breakdown and decompose.

The same science that assisted in creating the advancement of this universally used plastic has now helped solve the growing problem. No. Trash, waste management, and the issue of refuse is not front of mind but knowing that microplastics do end up in our water, kill wildlife, and change our environment should make all of us more aware of how we consume and dispose of those products.

Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin (UTA), or as Tennessee folks say, “The other UT,” have worked on and employed an enzyme called FAST-PETase which is used to turn these used, dirty, and damaged plastics into reusable materials.

As the hope is to achieve a more “circular economy” in the area of consumables, researchers aim to take that which is produced, used, then discarded as spent or no longer needed to remain in that loop of materials to be reused over and again without every leaving the closed system of manufacturing. This approach would obviously protect our landfills from overuse and unnecessary expansion, but also other environmental benefits such as water and air quality and the accomplishment of being good stewards of that which is manufactured and consumed.

FAST-PETase is a variant of an enzyme created at UTA by a collaborative team of engineers and scientists that works by attacking the molecular structure of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), found in bottled water, soft drinks, food wrappers, and textiles. It’s estimated that this type of plastic makes up at least 12% of all waste–all, throughout the entire globe.

Through synthetic biology, the specific enzyme, or protein works to depolymerize plastics at low temperatures and lives up to its name: functional, active, stable and tolerant. This FAST-PETase will eliminate billions of tons of waste that takes centuries to decompose.

The obvious application of this creation of wonderful minds working with computer analysis is within recycling and this circular economy of things.

Another key application is in remediation. There are many lands and spaces made unusable by our approach to life, which is to be mobile, use excessive amounts of disposable bottles and containers, and assume there won’t be any consequence. Stay tuned for FAST-PETase and its application in years ahead. No, this does not mean our wasteful and careless habits are justified. The advancement, instead, assists us as good stewards to correct mistakes and current messes we’ve made, and work toward better communities that are sustainable as Hamilton County and Chattanooga work to deal with the Summit and Birchwood landfills.