More than eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the world's oceans every year, and concern is mounting over this petroleum-derived product's toxic legacy on human health and the environment.
One of the most common plastics is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can be recycled into items such as clothes and carpets that can then themselves be recycled.
Bottles made from PET are used to package 70 per cent of soft drinks, fruit juices and water sold in shops, restaurants and supermarkets.
For example, the Department for International Development will fund pilot programmes in up to three Commonwealth developing countries to tackle waste from cities that often ends up in waterways.
According to John McGeehan, a professor at the University of Portsmouth, UK who led the research, "What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic". During this work, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.
The new research sprang from the discovery of bacteria in a Japanese waste recycling centre that had evolved the ability to feed on plastic with a natural enzyme called PETase.
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The team set out to determine how the enzyme evolved and if it might be possible to improve it.
"That's really exciting because that means that there's potential to optimise the enzyme even further".
Researchers created the plastic-digesting protein accidentally while investigating its natural counterpart.
Prof McGeehan said few could have predicted since plastics became popular in the 1960s that huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world. However it is a much more hard process and an expensive one compared to other materials, but it seems that scientists might have come up with a way to deal with our plastic problem.
The British Plastics Federation (BPF) welcomed the move and said that it is already taking action to reduce plastic entering rivers and seas, having formed a Marine Litter Platform.