The plastic materials polyurethane and polyvinyl alcohol can now be degraded under mild conditions with the help of enzymes as biocatalysts. This helps to address the worldwide problem of plastic waste based on the example of these two synthetic polymers, which are produced industrially at large scale.
Biotechnological methods using microorganisms or enzymes as natural biocatalysts represent an alternative as they enable the degradation and especially recycling—the isolation of the building blocks to make new plastics—at moderate temperatures of no more than 40°C and without the use of chemical reagents. Polyvinyl alcohols (PVA) have versatile properties and are also widely applied, for instance for the coating of fibers and as foils for packaging.
So far, no mature processes exist for the degradation of PVA. Here, the team of Professor Bornscheuer was also able to develop the basic principles for a biotechnological process together with a polymer expert from the University College Dublin (Ireland) and scientists from Leipzig. The degradation of PVA could be achieved through the elegant combination of three different enzymes, which are then able to modify the polymer in a stepwise fashion to obtain fragments of the polymer, which then can be used for its recycling.
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