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Scientists accidentally discovered a plastic-eating enzyme that could revolutionize recycling

Scientists have found an enzyme that "eats" plastic, breaking the building blocks down into pieces that can be used to make plastics again

by Frederick Tiffin
May 12 2018, 1:50pm

An international team of scientists have accidentally enhanced a plastic-eating enzyme, leading to a discovery that could change our relationship with plastic forever.

The breakthrough, if scaled up, could result in a process of plastic being broken down into its original components and then formed into plastic items again, removing the need for making more of the material.

With over 1 million plastic bottles sold a minute, plastic is set to outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050, an environmental menace that United Nations has dubbed a "planetary crisis."

Professor John McGeehan, who headed the research, believes the findings could turn the tide.

"I think there's been a huge amount of doom and gloom stories around plastics and justifiably because it's a terrible environmental scourge," he said. "But this is a story where we've got some hope that we can actually put together."

The research was based on a 2016 discovery in a waste facility in Japan, where a bacterium had evolved to eat plastic. During the teams' attempt to understand the how the enzyme evolved, they made alterations that inadvertently led to the enzyme eating plastic 20 percent faster than before.

VICE News travels to the seaside city of Portsmouth in the UK to meet the man behind the discovery — and learn what it might mean for a world being poisoned by plastic.

This segment originally aired May 3, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

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