While the world continues its ongoing battle with the COVID-19 virus, there is still the looming global threat of climate change still banging at the crisis door. We have all learned over the years about the destructive characteristics of common plastic materials. However, what if there was a way to keep enjoying the highly useful plastics, while also ensuring that these so-called “plastic devils” cease from polluting our oceans and adding to the looming climate horror.

Prof. Ariel Kushmaro and Prof. Alex Sivan and their team from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) have been studying plastic biodegradation and have discovered several bacteria species that are able to biodegrade polyethylene, which was previously considered a non-biodegradable plastic mainly because of the highly stable carbon−carbon (C−C) bonds of the polymer backbone.

56 million tons of PET produced annually

This ongoing and relentless research to find a sustainable solution for plastic pollution has led the technology transfer company of the university, BGN Technologies, to partner up with Portuguese plastic recycling company ECOIBÉRIA on a research collaboration based on the findings of Ben-Gurion University’s Profs. Sivan and Kushmaro.

Shirley Sheffer, VP Business Development at BGN Technologies, added, "Prof.s Kushmaro and Sivan are world experts in the field of plastic biodegradation. We are very pleased to partner with ECOIBÉRIA, a leading European company in the field of plastic waste recycling, for further researching this important field. This research collaboration holds the potential of implementing future findings into ECOIBÉRIA environmentally-friendly materials and products."

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most abundantly used polymer in the world, with multiple applications in the textile industry as well as in food and beverage packaging. It is estimated that about 56 million tons of PET are produced yearly worldwide, mostly as single-use packaging material. Therefore, intense efforts are directed towards recycling and reuse of PET plastic materials.

Based on these findings, the research collaboration project will assess the biodegradation of PET by previously identified bacteria as well as novel ones, with the aim of developing an efficient biodegradation process of PET whose products will be used as raw materials for recycled PET in the future.

"Plastic-containing products is one of the biggest environmental challenges facing modern society, and degradation and recycling of plastic are one crucial strategy for dealing with the environmental impact of PET," said Prof. Kushmaro. "Existing technologies, such as thermo-mechanical recycling impair the mechanical properties of the polymer and suffer from other disadvantages such as the need for organic solvents, high reaction temperatures and intensive waste sorting. Bacterial degradation of PET into recyclable materials that can be then reused to manufacture new PET products is therefore a promising strategy that can have a global environmental and economic impact."

Mr. Jorge Lemos, CEO at ECOIBÉRIA explained that “we believe that BGU's  innovations in the field of bacterial biodegradation of PET complements our technologies and has the potential to become an important contribution to our plastic recycling efforts."