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Israeli researchers find bacteria that could revolutionize plastic recycling

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The team from the Laboratory of Environmental Biotechnology and Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will work with Portugals ECOIBÉRIA to further research in plastic recycling by bacteria.

By ILANIT CHERNICK

A group of Israeli scientists has discovered bacteria species that may revolutionize the way certain plastics can be biodegraded and recycled.

Following the discovery, the team from the Laboratory of Environmental Biotechnology and Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will work with Portugals ECOIBÉRIA to further research in plastic recycling by bacteria.

On Wednesday, under the auspices of BGN technologies, the Israeli researchers signed a research collaboration agreement with ECOIBÉRIA in the field of plastic biodegradability.

Prof. Ariel Kushmaro and Prof. Alex Sivan, both from the Laboratory of Environmental Biotechnology and Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering explained that plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most abundantly used polymer in the world, with multiple applications in the textile industry as well as in food and beverage packaging.

“It is estimated that about 56 million tons of PET are produced yearly worldwide, mostly as single-use packaging material. Therefore, intense efforts are directed towards recycling and reuse of PET plastic materials,” the researchers said.

Kushmaro, Sivan and their team have been studying plastic biodegradation and through their intensive work “discovered that several bacteria species are able to biodegrade polyethylene, which was previously considered a non-biodegradable plastic mainly because of the highly stable carbon−carbon (C−C) bonds of the polymer backbone.”

Kushmaro pointed out that “plastic-containing products are one of the biggest environmental challenges facing modern society, and degradation and recycling of plastic are one crucial strategy for dealing with the environmental impact of PET.” 

“Existing technologies, such as thermo-mechanical recycling impair the mechanical properties of the polymer and suffer from other disadvantages such as the need for organic solvents, high reaction temperatures and intensive waste sorting,” he said. “Bacterial degradation of PET into recyclable materials that can then be reused to manufacture new PET products is, therefore, a promising strategy that can have a global environmental and economic impact.”

ECOIBÉRIA’s PET flakes. Credit: ECOIBÉRIA

Based on the teams’ findings, the research collaboration project with  ECOIBÉRIA will assess the biodegradation of PET by previously identified bacteria “as well as novel ones, with the aim of developing an efficient biodegradation process of PET whose products will be used as raw materials for recycled PET in the future,” the researchers said.

Addressing the research collaboration agreement, ECOIBÉRIA CEO Jorge Lemos highlighted that the company’s “mission is to guarantee the sustainability of the production and consumption models and assist in the transition from the linear economy to the circular economy, through the transformation of PET plastic waste into valuable secondary raw materials.”

“We believe that BGU’s innovations in the field of bacterial biodegradation of PET complements our technologies and has the potential to become an important contribution to our plastic recycling efforts,” Lemos said.

Adding to this, BGN Technologies VP for Business Development Shirley Sheffer stressed that Kushmaro and Sivan are world experts in the field of plastic biodegradation. 

“We are very pleased to partner with ECOIBÉRIA, a leading European company in the field of plastic waste recycling, for further researching this important field,” she said. 

“This research collaboration holds the potential of implementing future findings into ECOIBÉRIA environmentally-friendly materials and products,” Sheffer concluded.

BGN Technologies is the technology transfer company of Ben-Gurion University, the third-largest university in Israel. BGN Technologies brings technological innovations from the lab to the market and fosters research collaborations and entrepreneurship among researchers and students.

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