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Carbios: using an enzyme to destroy and recycle plastic

Carbios, a French green chemical start-up founded in 2011 has recently gained scientific recognition from its peers by being featured on the cover page of the March edition of Nature. Its innovation: using an enzyme capable of eating polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a material used to manufacture plastic bottles and packaging.


A breakthrough technology for recycling plastic infinitely

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a polymer and one of the plastics produced most in the world, with 70 million tons a year. It is used to manufacture nearly 500 billion plastic bottles. It is also used in the composition of textile fibers. Although plastic pollution in our oceans remains one of the major challenges of 21st century, the researchers of Carbios and the Toulouse Biotechnology Institute have joined forces over the last five years to create an enzyme capable of “infinitely” recycling plastic waste composed of PET, and developing the industrial processes required for biodegradation and recycling.

In a pilot installation located in Clermont-Ferrand, plastic bottles are ground and placed in tanks into which water and the enzymes developed by Carbios are added. The latter are produced by a bacterium found in vegetable compost and which destroys the protective layers of plants, called cuticles. The chemical process is designed to break the polymer chains composing the plastic until a mixture composed of its initial monomer components is obtained: terephtalic acid and ethylene glycol. This depolymerization process destroys more than 90% of the plastic within a short time: between 10 and 24 hours. This innovation, which has led to ten patents, is capable of reducing waste and recycling the plastic materials.

The next step: industrializing the enzyme process

The industrial and commercial potential of this innovative and biological process has been demonstrated. The next step will consist in Carbios building an industrial demonstrator, to the south of the city of Lyon. The project is assisted by TechnipFMC, a company specialized in engineering and construction for the energy industry. It is also supported by major companies such as Oréal in cosmetics and PepsiCo, Nestlé Waters and Orangina Schweppes in the agri-foodstuffs sector, which seek solutions for recycling their packaging. Twenty times larger than the current pilot site, this demonstrator should be commissioned in 2021.

In parallel, Carbios is involved in a private-public partnership, the European Plastics Pact, which brings together countries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and networks of companies, whose aim is to favor a circular economy for more efficient management of plastics at the end of their life-cycle.

This European Pact represents a new step in the deployment of a genuine circular economy based on innovation and collaboration between the market actors and member States most committed to sustainable development. We are proud to contribute to its implementation and share this collective ambition to achieve better plastic life-cycle management, declared Jean-Claude Lumaret, Managing Director of Carbios.

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