Enzymes to recycle our t-shirts?

Our t-shirts and other clothing are everyday items with the lowest recycling rate in the world. It is less than 10%. So researchers are now planning to give them… to eat with enzymes!

Every year, Europeans throw away several million tonnes of textiles. On average, between 10 and 15 kilos per person. Most of these textiles are incinerated or landfilled. There are several ways to reduce the amount of this waste. The reduction of overproduction and overconsumption, in the first place. The extension of the lifespan of these textiles, too. But also the recycling of their fibres… if it weren’t too energy intensive to be interesting.

But, at the beginning of February, Portsmouth University researchers (United Kingdom) offered new hope in this regard. From a enzyme technology developed to reduce single-use plastic — including the very common polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — to its building blocks, they plan to develop a similar process — based on enzymes “eaters” of plastic, therefore — allowing our t-shirts to be broken down into their fibers for safe and economical recycling of polyester textiles — remember that polyester is made from PET.

From t-shirt to fibers

T-shirts cut into small pieces. Then immersed in liquid nitrogen and reduced to shreds and finally, in an aqueous solution, placed in the heart of a bioreactor in which the enzymes await them for the ” eat “. Or more precisely, break the molecules that compose them in very specific places. What complicates the work of researchers here is the presence of dyes and other chemical treatment products. They look difficult to “to digest” by the researchers’ enzymes.

Thus, after selecting the most suitable enzymes – out of a panel of 70 already identified to attack plastic – the researchers imagine that they might have to go through a pre-treatment of the textiles that will be served to them in the bioreactors. With the hope of succeeding in creating a circular economy that respects the environment. The objective here is no longer to find new uses for old textiles, but rather to extract simple fibers to convert into new polyesters — or why not, into other products in order to reduce the need in virgin PET, obtained from fossil resources, oil and gas.

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