Popular Science
Plastic Pollution Polymer Synthetic Image Credit: Popular Science
Plastic Pollution Polymer Synthetic Image Credit: Popular Science

Rise Of The Plastic Eaters

Scientists have new hope that nature might hold a solution for our most problematic polymers

Sarah Scoles

MOLECULAR BIOLOGIST

Christopher Johnson was schmoozing at a party not long ago, talking with another guest about his research, as scientists often do. Johnson works on breaking down plastics, which tend to be highly resistant to such things.

The woman he was speaking with at this particular prewedding soiree replied that she felt overwhelmed— hopeless— about the whole situation: how we can’t seem to stop using plastics, how they crowd landfills, how their microparticles permeate the oceans.

Overwhelmed , Johnson thought. Hopeless.

“I’m a world away from that perspective,” Johnson says, recalling his reaction.

That’s because plastics aren’t just happening to Johnson. He’s happening to them. Johnson is a research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and this past year, he and his colleagues created a biological enzyme that can chew efficiently through throwaway plastics like those that make water bottles and soap containers. The team is optimistic they can engineer a world where humans keep using this overabundant material—without winding up literally or figuratively overwhelmed by it. In that world, as part of a broader, robust recycling system, microorganisms will digest polymers into their chemical components so they can turn a profit as new and better products.

Currently, recycling doesn’t actually turn plastic into a


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