A Novel Approach to Plastic Recycling

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String of Pearls

Each human being uses, on average, 30 kg of plastic per year. Given that global life expectancy currently stands at approximately 70 years, each person will discard some two metric tons of plastic in his or her lifetime. Multiply that by the number people on earth – which is growing constantly – and the total is staggering. In light of this, Francesco Stellacci, a full professor and head of the Supramolecular Nanomaterials and Interfaces Laboratory at EPFL’s School of Engineering, began thinking about whether there was a way to solve the problem of used plastics and recycle it more effectively. Stellacci established a collaboration with Prof. Sebastian J. Maerkl in the Bioengineering Institute at EPFL and they decided to co-advise a PhD student, Simone Giaveri, the team has published its conclusions, based on scientific research, in Advanced Materials.

After reviewing the existing plastic-recycling options available, the engineers decided to think up a completely new approach. “When we use biodegradable plastics, the degradation process leaves residue that must be stockpiled or buried. The more land that is allocated for this means the less land available for farming, and there are environmental consequences to take into account as bio-degradation products necessarily change the area’s ecosystem,” says Stellacci. So how can we come up with a comprehensive solution to the problem of recycling plastics? Part of the answer could very well come from nature itself.

Proteins are one of the main organic compounds of which our world is made of. Like , they form part of the family of polymers; proteins are long chains of molecules, or monomers, known as . “A protein is like a string of pearls, where each pearl is an amino . Each pearl has a different color, and the color-sequence determines the string structure and consequently its properties. In nature, protein chains break up into the constituents amino acids and cells put such amino acids back together to form new proteins, that is they create new strings of pearls with a different color sequence,” Giaveri says.

In the lab, Giaveri initially attempted to replicate this natural cycle, outside living organisms. “We selected proteins and divided them up into amino acids. We then put the amino acids into a cell-free biological… Brinkwire News Summary.

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