McGill University chemistry professors Karine Auclair and Tomislav Friščić are following a promising lead on using enzymes to recycle polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the world’s most widely used plastics.
While the recyclable logos on PET drink bottles might encourage us to think these products are environmentally benign, current recycling methods consume a lot of energy, rely on harsh chemicals, and result in a second-use product of inferior quality.
“What happens with plastics in general is really downcycling," Auclair says.
"It’s not recycling because the second use of the plastic is different. For example, you go from a nice, clean plastic bottle to a component of a carpet.”
Illustrating the interdisciplinary strength of McGill’s chemistry department, the project combines Auclair’s expertise in biological enzymes with Friščić’s background in mechanochemistry to explore a novel approach to recycling that will use less energy and fewer chemicals to produce a product comparable in quality to the input material.
Auclair and Friščić have had success with similar techniques for breaking down cellulose and chitin. Supported by the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI) Innovation Fund, they will now push the technology a step further to see what it can do to address the challenge of plastic waste.
“We think it’s going to translate really well into plastics. But if we applied for conventional grants, we would not be able to get any funding without preliminary data,” Auclair says.
About the MSSI Innovation Fund
The MSSI Innovation Fund provides funding to move sustainability-focused projects to the next stage of development, from activities required for commercialization to policy development. The Spring 2018 MSSI Innovation Fund competition awarded a total of $354,000 to fund five projects from three departments across two faculties.