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Colorado researcher changes the game on recycling plastics

Compared to conventional ways of plastic recycling, the enzymatic recycling process can reduce total energy use by about 75%.

GOLDEN, Colo. — More than 480 billion plastic bottles are produced every year, and although some of that plastic is recycled, the reality is that most of it is not.

What if that plastic could be dissolved and made new again? It might sound like some cool science experiment, but it's already being done right here in Colorado, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden.

"What we're trying to do is come up with a way where those plastics don't end up in landfill," said Elizabeth Bell, a researcher at NREL. "And instead we can recycle them in an environmentally friendly way."

Inside her lab, Bell is changing the game when it comes recycling plastics by using enzymes to degrade the plastics, specifically PET, which is the kind used in plastic bottles.

Here's how the process works:

The plastic is ground down. Enzymes are then added to break down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) into its basic building blocks. Those blocks can then be made into brand new plastic again and again.

"In theory, this should be a completely circular process so we can do it again and again, and we don't need to make any new plastics from fossil fuels," Bell said.

Compared with conventional ways, the enzymatic recycling process can reduce total energy use by roughly 75%.

"The types of recycling we do at the moment, like mechanical recycling or chemical recycling, they can be very energy intensive," Bell said.

Researchers are working to scale up the process and better understand which enzymes break down which plastics. Within the next decade, pilot plants will be operational and breaking down multi-tons of plastic using enzymes, Bell said.

Researchers are also working on ways to use enzymes to eliminate the need to sort plastics, as well.

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