Researcher Robin Cywar at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) purifies a catalyst to use in polymerizations for recyclable nylon materials. She is working with Dr. Gregg Beckham’s plastics group on the redesign of nylon polyamide polymers so they can be chemically recycled with improved efficiency. October 2020 (Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL) Public domain
By Sunny Lewis for Maximpact
MONACO, April 13, 2022 (Maximpact.com News) – “The plastics pollution crisis is one of the most urgent challenges of our time,” warned Professor John McGeeham as he co-chaired the very first World Plastics Summit last week at the Novotel Monte Carlo Hotel as part of Monaco Ocean Week 2022.
While plastic pollution is a global problem, research and innovation in this area are not yet globally connected, he explained. Dr. McGeeham sees a future for plastics management “through global connection, data sharing, and collaboration” towards a common goal of finding solutions for the many problems posed by plastic wastes.
An international community of about 90 researchers, technology developers, executives of multinational companies, and global policy makers gathered in Monaco March 24 to 26 to accelerate the pace of science and engineering in the fields of plastics recycling, upcycling, and redesign.
“The Principality of Monaco is internationally recognised as a neutral ground for successful diplomacy and cooperation, and with the strong commitment of H.S.H. Prince Albert II to sustainable development programmes globally, this is the perfect location to host this inaugural world summit,” Professor McGeeham said.
Sessions focused on defining the scope of the many problems plastics have created – from tonnes of microplastics falling from the sky on cities, remote mountaintops, in Arctic snow, on land and ocean alike, to plastic objects washing up by the tonne on once pristine beaches around the world.
Other speakers addressed the plastics issues from carbon, energy, economic and pollution perspectives. And everyone was seeking solutions.
The summit’s two co-chairs are a case in point.
Dr. McGeehan co-chaired the summit with his research partner Dr. Gregg Beckham of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and chemical engineer at Colorado State University.
The summit’s two co-chairs have published their joint research into the use of new chemical and biological processes that break down today’s plastics and upcycle them, in a July 2021 paper, “Chemical and Biological Catalysis for Plastics Recycling and Upcycling,” in the journal “Nature Catalysis.”
They write, “…developing catalyst-driven technologies for plastics deconstruction and upcycling is critical to incentivize improved plastics reclamation and reduce the severe global burden of plastic waste.” Upcycling is the manufacturing of higher-value products from plastic waste.
Professor McGeeham seeks solutions in his role as director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth in England.
He says plastic pollution is reaching “crisis level.” Of the one million plastic bottles sold every minute worldwide, only 14 percent are recycled. The vast amount of unrecycled plastic that ends up in our oceans contaminates marine ecosystems and harms ocean life.
A huge part of the problem is the strong plastic used in drinks bottles, McGeeham explains. It’s polyethylene terephthalate or PET, made from ethylene glycol usually derived from petroleum. It currently takes hundreds of years for PET to break down naturally in the environment.
Now, the results of a breathrough by the two co-chairs of the World Plastics Summit are being explored.
McGeeham and Beckham, working with a team of scientists, have created a new “mutant enzyme” called PETase that breaks down plastic bottles more quickly. The breakthrough took place after the scientists examined PETase’s structure at Diamond Light Source, near Oxford, where intense X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun revealed its individual atoms.
Their modified version of the PETase enzyme – first discovered in a Japanese waste dump in 2016 – starts breaking down plastic in days.
A patent for the mutant enzyme has been filed. The discovery could revolutionize the recycling process and help resolve one of the planet’s most troublesome environmental issues.
To improve the enzyme “was a bit of a shock and while it is a modest improvement – 20 percent better – that is not the point,” Dr. McGeehan said.
“It’s incredible because [the research] tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimized. It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development and make a super-fast enzyme,” he explained.
The two scientists are well equipped for the challenge. Dr. Beckham serves as CEO of the BOTTLE Consortium, a multi-organization research association led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and Bioenergy Technologies Office.
The Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment (BOTTLE™) Consortium
conducts high-impact research and development to change the way we recycle and improve upcycling. More research projects explore the use of new and existing ways to produce tomorrow’s plastics that are “recyclable-by-design.”
BOTTLE is part of the U.S. Energy Department’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, designed to accelerate innovations in energy-efficient plastics recycling technologies by 2030.
And BOTTLE is attracting powerful new members. A new collaboration between Amazon and the BOTTLE™ Consortium announced March 30 will see Amazon leveraging BOTTLE’s primary research strategy – contributing research on plastic deconstruction, upcycling, and redesign – and implement solutions in Amazon’s efforts to eliminate or reduce packaging waste.
Dr. Beckham said, “Amazon is poised to catalyze new upcycling paradigms with direct exposure to billions of consumers. Its size and scale allow it to influence the plastic supply chain in a holistic manner.”
It appears to be an auspicious moment for work on solutions to the plastics crisis. Earlier this month at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, representatives of 175 countries agreed to develop a first-of-its-kind global treaty to curb plastic waste.
In Monaco, Dr. Beckham enjoyed the networking and the problem-solving nature of a community in formation at the World Plastics Summit’s inaugural event.
“Interaction, discussion and teamwork between biologists, chemists, engineers, environmental scientists, material scientists and sustainability analysts will be critical to generate new solutions, realise evidence-based policy, and ultimately stem the flow of plastics into the natural environment and the world’s landfills,” he said. “This will help move us toward the common goal of establishing a more sustainable future for the planet.”