- PET plastic can be broken down into food-grade material in a matter of hours due to an enzyme discovered by scientists working for the chemistry firm Carbios, reported FoodBev Media.
- The PET hydrolase enzyme can break down 90% of PET plastics into their individual components in 10 hours. Current degradation solutions degrade 1% of PET plastic within several weeks, the food publication said.
- Carbios will conduct industrial-scale trials in 2021. It has already partnered with PepsiCo, Nestlé and Suntory to help scale and commercialize the technology.
The discovery of an enzyme that can break plastic down into components that can be reused in new food-grade PET packaging could be an important development for CPG companies and their push to further enhance their sustainability halo with consumers.
PET plastic is the most abundant type of polyester plastic on Earth, and a large portion of it is used in food and beverage packaging. While plastic packaging is liked for its ability to keep products fresh, endure temperature changes and affordable cost, it is bad for the environment. It is estimated that while 396 million tons of plastics are produced annually worldwide, recycled PET accounts for only about 12% to 14% of plastic packaging.
For years, consumers and investors have been pressuring large CPG corporations to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging. A 2018 survey data from Nielsen found nearly half of U.S. consumers said they were likely to change their purchasing decisions to meet environmental standards.
With the unrelenting pressure from consumers, companies have begun to rethink plastic packaging. Nestlé is establishing a packaging research institute to devise more environmentally friendly packaging solutions. PepsiCo said it is looking to package its Aquafina water products in aluminum cans for foodservice outlets and is testing the change in retail. French company Danone is turning to Montreal-based Loop Industries to package its Evian water in reusable containers. Smaller water brands, such as Vita Coco's Ever & Ever, also are using aluminum.
Still, plastic remains a popular choice and many large companies are struggling to part with the packaging.
Coca-Cola said in January that it will continue to use plastic packaging as the format is popular with consumers for its lightweight and resealability. Coca-Cola, which reportedly produces 3 million tons of plastic packaging annually, has made several moves in recent years to reduce its environmental footprint, including extending a loan to recycling company Ioniqa Technologies to develop the tools to process otherwise hard-to-recycle types of PET plastics.
Nestlé plans to spend as much as $2.1 billion to shift its packaging from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled ones. Fresh berry groups also will continue to use plastic. They announced in February an industry-wide goal to ensure that 100% of their clamshells are recycled and reprocessed into new packaging by 2025.
Even with commitments to include recyclable plastic in packaging, actually turning the material into food-grade packaging is not an easy feat. This new enzyme may change that and open the possibility of making plastic recycling a feasible and economically viable solution.
If this new enzyme can be scaled up for commercial use, it could entice companies to seriously consider recyclable plastic as their primary packaging material or to include it in the mix of options they use. This could explain why Carbios already has PepsiCo, Nestlé and Suntory on board to help scale the production and development of this technology.
Plastic has been a popular choice for companies for decades, and many businesses would probably like to continue using it. But the growing chorus of consumers for sustainable products and the role companies will need to play in reducing their environmental footprint is gaining momentum. If there is a quick and easy way to reuse plastic, it could be a win for companies because they're able to continue using the material while touting the role they're playing in helping the environment at the same time.