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A plastic-eating enzyme could tackle polyester clothing waste

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Image via Unsplash

Polyester, a fast fashion staple, accounts for 60 percent of worn clothing. It also makes for a disproportionately high garment that ends up in landfill each year.

Polyester, a consumer plastic, is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Despite its unsustainable properties, the popularity and demand for polyester is extremely high.

New research from the University of Portsmouth is aiming to counter the environmental devastation caused by polyester textiles. The university’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation is is aiming to develop an enzyme that can effeciently ‘eat’ polyester textiles and clothing.

Professor Andy Pickford, Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth said: We want a system that uses plastic in the same way we use glass or tine cans – infinitely recycled. The ultimate aim is to close the loop – however, this requires not only the technology but also the will to do so.”

“Our research will establish the feasibility of using enzymes to deconstruct the PET in waste textiles into a soup of simple building blocks for conversion back into new polyesters, thus reducing the need to produce virgin PET from fossil-fuel based chemicals. This will enable a circular polyester textiles economy and ultimately reduce our dependence on taking oil and gas out of the ground.”

Clothing garments have a low rate of recycling

The university acknowledges that clothing has some of the lowest rates of recycling, with much of it being incinerated or ending up in landfill. Whilst it is possible to turn good quality oil-based textiles into carpets and other products, current recycling methods are highly energy intensive. Scientists hope that enzymes developed at the University of Portsmouth will help them create a environmentally-friendly circular economy for plastic based clothing.

Statistics from the European Parliament show the amount of clothes bought in the EU per person has increased by 40 percent since 1996, following a sharp fall in prices, which has reduced the life span of clothing. Europeans use nearly 26 kilos of textiles and discard about 11 kilos of them every year. Used clothes can be exported outside the EU, but are mostly (87 percent) incinerated or landfilled.

Globally less than 1 percent of clothes are recycled as clothing, partly due to inadequate technology.

Article source: Portsmouth University. For more information visit www.port.ac.uk

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