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European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency
News article3 August 2023European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency2 min read

New LIFE for waste plastic

A pioneering biological recycling process which uses naturally-occurring enzymes to transform plastic and textile waste into new products could revolutionise the circular economy.

©LIFE20ENV/FR/000596. All rights reserved. Licensed to the European Union under condition

A pioneering biological recycling process which uses naturally occurring enzymes to transform plastic and textile waste into new products could revolutionise the circular economy. 

The new bio-industrial process, known as enzymatic recycling, allows PET (polyethylene terephthalate) waste to be made into recycled and recyclable products with no loss of quality. Carbios, the French technology company behind the breakthrough, says they are ‘the first to have developed industrial biological processes bringing plastic and textiles into the circular economy.’   

PET circular recycling is urgently needed. Currently, less than 40 percent of the plastic waste generated in the EU is recycled. More than 14 million tonnes of PET products are consumed each year, around half of which is incinerated and a quarter dumped in landfill. Hardly any PET textile waste is recycled. Until now, conventional thermomechanical processes have been limited because they can only deal with clear plastic, while complex and soiled plastics are very difficult or impossible to recycle. 

The EUR 3.3 million LIFE CYCLE OF PET project represents a significant leap forward in plastic recycling. Carbios – the project’s coordinating beneficiary - has been operating a demonstration plant in Clermont-Ferrand, central France, since 2021, using an enzyme known as a PET hydrolase - modified to work faster and at higher temperatures, breaking down plastic at the molecular level.    

Enzymes are complex molecules, or proteins, which can speed up chemical reactions. As the journal Nature reported at the time, ‘this highly efficient, optimized enzyme outperforms all PET hydrolases reported so far.’ LIFE CYCLE OF PET uses this enzyme which biologically ‘depolymerises’ PET waste, including textiles such as polyester. The resulting new polymers are as good as those used in virgin petrochemical plastics. 

‘It's a real breakthrough in the recycling and manufacturing of PET,’ says Dr Saleh Jabarin, Distinguished Professor at the University of Toledo, Ohio who advised the project. ‘Thanks to the innovative technology developed by Carbios, the PET industry will become truly circular, which is the goal for all players in this industry, especially brand-owners, PET producers and our civilisation as a whole.’  

Now plans are underway to scale up the demonstration plant into a full-scale industrial circular economy. ‘We have demonstrated our ability to enzymatically recycle complex waste to produce new bottles and fibres and have proven the robustness of our process,’ says Emmanuel Ladent, CEO of Carbios. ‘The success of this project is a springboard for a sustainable future and an introduction of plastics and textiles into a true circular economy.’ 


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