When it comes to innovation, it’s all about that ‘eureka’ moment.
When the lightbulb in your head finally goes off. The birth of a great idea.
For scientists, this moment is usually the culmination of hours of painstaking work. The finish line in a proverbial marathon of lab work.
At least that’s what usually happens.
Other times, science is just a case of dumb luck. A random accidental discovery that no one expected. Sometimes with some pretty amazing results.
For instance, 90 years ago a man named Alexander Fleming made his own accidental discovery. At the time he was a researcher experimenting with the flu virus in a lab. But Fleming had one major flaw, he was a tad careless.
And in 1928, an absent-minded Fleming went on vacation for two weeks. When he returned though, he stumbled upon his latest mistake. He’d left a staph infection sample out and it became contaminated. The petri dish now had a fresh coat of mould.
But, to Fleming’s amazement, the bacteria wasn’t growing around the mould. He had discovered penicillin, and it was all because he was a bit airheaded.
It’s just one example of hundreds. Microwaves, insulin, super glue and more were all, at least partly, accidental discoveries.
Just because they were accidents, doesn’t make them any less incredible though. It still takes an inquisitive and bright mind to see the potential.
A less astute person may have just cleaned those contaminated petri dishes without even caring. Which is why these chance discoveries are almost more impressive. At the very least, they are certainly more exciting!
Now another accidental discovery could be about to change the world as well. One that could clean up our growing plastic problem.
Hungry, hungry enzymes
Two years ago, Japanese scientists stumbled across a type of bacteria that ate plastic. A rare breed that was found chowing down in a dump.
Naturally, scientists decided to investigate further. And now they’ve stumbled upon a breakthrough.
The team behind the discovery have isolated the enzyme that produced the bug. But, in their testing to see how the enzyme had evolved, they accidently made it even more effective.
Now, the mutant enzyme can begin breaking down PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic in just days. A common plastic that is found in almost every bottle globally.
Currently, most of these bottles end up in landfill or the ocean. A process that eventually breaks down the plastic after centuries.
Or, if they aren’t buried or thrown in the sea, these bottles are burnt. A process that produces massive amounts of CO2, directly contributing to global warming.
This enzyme though could be the breakthrough for a recycling revolution. Professor John McGeehan who is leading the research comments:
‘What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic…
‘It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.’
Despite our current recycling efforts, the material doesn’t get turned back into plastic bottles. Instead, most of it ends up in clothing and carpet fibres. With this enzyme though, we could actually turn bottles back into bottles.
That’s a big deal when you consider that globally, one million plastic bottles are sold every minute!
McGeehan says the enzyme can perform even faster, as well. It’s still not completely optimised according to the team’s research. And if it’s anything like previous industrial enzymes, then the potential could be massive.
As The Guardian explains:
‘Industrial enzymes are widely used in, for example, washing powders and biofuel production, They have been made to work up to 1,000 times faster in a few years, the same timescale McGeehan envisages for the plastic-eating enzyme.’
In other words, in just a few years we may never need to make another plastic bottle ever again…
Meaning the US$140 billion PET bottle industry could be about to get a very harsh reality check.
Lightning in a bottle
Now, I don’t expect this miracle enzyme will solve all our plastic problems. But every little bit helps.
In Australia for example, we like to think we’re pretty good at recycling. The latest national waste reports states that we recycled 60% of all our waste in 2014–15. A pretty damn good effort I would have thought.
Turns out, we’re not doing great at all.
We’re still dumping massive amounts of waste into landfill. Recycling industry experts are reportedly calling it a crisis. And it could be set to get a whole lot worse.
In 2016–17 we shipped 1.2 million tonnes of waste to China. Roughly 30% of our recycling ends up in the Middle Kingdom. But in July last year, China said no more. They announced they would no longer import waste from other countries.
That ban came into effect in January and now local recyclers are feeling the pinch. Right now, the future looks uncertain as to what will happen. If the government wants to keep recycling, then councils will likely have to foot the bill. And that could mean higher rates for everyday Australians.
In other words, there is no easy solution unless we can solve the issue of cost. After all, we certainly have the capabilities right now.
Visy actually has a plant that can turn used PET bottles back into 100% recycled bottles. But it’s not proving all that popular because of the cost. As Beverages Council CEO, Geoff Parker comments:
‘It’s about the price of that [recycled plastic or recycled PET]. It’s also about the price of virgin PET — that’s the original PET. And that has a number of different factors at play around world oil prices and electricity prices.’
But despite these challenges, it is possible. And hopefully this new enzyme could be the next big breakthrough in making recycling more efficient.
For Markets & Money