In the heart of central France, Carbios, a groundbreaking company, is spearheading a recycling revolution with the aid of enzymes. The catalyst for change was a modest enzyme discovered in a pile of decaying leaves, known as LCC – leaf-branch compost cutinase.
Initially harnessed to assist microbes in breaking down the waxy coating of leaves, LCC’s potential to tackle plastic waste caught the attention of Sintawee Sulaiman at the University of Osaka. Sulaiman’s experiment with plastic packaging fragments and LCC revealed an astonishing transformation overnight, sparking hope for a solution to plastic pollution.
Carbios, led by Chief Scientific Officer Prof Alain Marty, embarked on an eight-year journey to re-engineer LCC into a PET specialist. The result is an enzyme so efficient that it can disassemble PET polymers into their constituent monomers, essential for producing new plastic. Prof Marty likens the process to breaking apart a pearl necklace, liberating the pearls for reuse.
Carbios has developed a demonstration plant in Clermont-Ferrand, resembling a microbrewery, where a cylindrical reactor processes PET plastic. The plant not only handles traditional plastic bottles but also tackles polyester-rich textiles, a significant contributor to global clothing fiber production.
The innovative process involves shredding textiles and meticulously removing buttons and sequins before transforming the fabric into soft pellets. The pellets, a blend of PET and other fabrics, offer a sustainable solution to clothing waste.
Carbios is gearing up to scale operations with plans to open a factory in northeast France by 2025. The facility aims to recycle 50,000 tonnes of PET waste annually, collaborating with major brands such as Nestle, L’Oréal, and PepsiCo.
While Carbios aims to license its recycling process to other companies, challenges lie ahead, including the higher cost of indistinguishable chemical monomers compared to those derived from petrochemicals. However, Carbios anticipates cost reduction over time as access to more feedstock becomes available.
While Carbios leads the way in enzyme-driven recycling, other research teams are exploring similar PET recycling methods. However, Carbios stands at the forefront, blazing a trail that could revolutionize plastic recycling worldwide.
In a world where less than 10% of plastic is recycled annually, Carbios’ innovative approach offers hope for a sustainable and eco-friendly future. The journey from decaying leaves to a cutting-edge recycling solution showcases the power of science in addressing environmental challenges.