The Plastic-Eating Enzymes Used in Recycling Clothing

Plastic eating enzymes will be used to recycle and repurpose Lululemon clothing.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Plastic eating enzymes will be used to recycle and repurpose Lululemon clothing. Image: Pixabay

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Plastic Eating Enzymes are now being used by big brands to Recycle Clothing

Plastic eating enzymes have interested scientists looking for solutions to increasing plastic waste. Enzymes are important to living things because, as proteins, they allow biochemical reactions to happen faster than they would otherwise. They aid in everything from breathing to digestion. Enzymes are even used in food processing, paper industries, and detergents.  

Because enzymes are so diverse in their uses, scientists have engineered a new enzyme to help us with our plastic problem. These super plastic eating enzymes can break down plastic in a few days. Scientists believe this is a natural adaptation by the bacteria and might be a response to the increase of plastic in the environment.

The most common type of plastic that plastic eating enzymes can recycle is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is a type of plastic used in many common products, such as bottles, food packaging, and textiles.

Other types of plastic that can be recycled by enzymes include:

  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE): found in plastic bottles and children’s toys.
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE): found in plastic bags, shrink wrap and food packaging.
  • Polypropylene (PP): found in disposable medical devices, textiles and auto parts.
  • Polystyrene/styrofoam (PS): found in takeout food containers, consumer electronics packaging and packing peanuts.

As the enzyme breaks down plastic, the bacteria produce MHETase, by which the enzymes break the pieces down further. After this process, other bacteria can break down the products into CO2 and water. Unlike other recycling methods, they can break down plastic into its original components, which can be reused to create new products. Enzymes require less energy than traditional methods, such as mechanical recycling. But maybe best of all is that they can be used to recycle plastic that is difficult or impossible to recycle using traditional methods such as those mixed with fabric or other dissimilar materials.

These plastic eating enzymes are now making an appearance in the fashion industry. The fashion industry uses tons of plastic-derived fibres in many clothing products. What’s worse is that very few of these materials are recycled today. Fashion brands have been known to turn to mechanical recycling and approaches using solvents to repurpose textiles for reuse. The challenge with these approaches is that they involve virgin plastics and require a lot of energy. Using plastic eating enzymes will break down plastic more efficiently. They will turn the materials into monomers that act like virgin-quality materials.   

Athletic apparel company Lulelemon has teamed up with Australian startup Samara Eco to help them break down old textiles so they can be turned into new ones. Samara Eco has optimized plastic eating enzymes found in nature to efficiently recycle PET and polyester plastics at scale so they can be made into new, virgin-grade plastic.  

The plastic waste is sourced and prepared for recycling by cold washing. The enzymes revert the plastic waste from its complex state into its original form. The plastics are then separated from any other additives like colourants. The recycled monomers can then be used in the re-manufacturing of brand-new plastics.  

Using this technology, Lululemon hopes to spin used nylon and polyester blends from pre-owner, damaged or discarded apparel into a form that can be used in new collections. The partnership is Lululemon’s first-ever minority investment in a recycling company and Samsara’s first partnership with a clothing manufacturer. The recycling company hopes to make breakthroughs into the mainstream fashion industry as well as work with partners in other spaces to meet its goal of recycling 1.5 million tonnes of textiles by 2030.

This partnership is also part of Lululemon’s Be Planet goals and a step toward a circular ecosystem by 2030. Samsara Eco’s infinite recycling helps to close the clothing loop by using apparel waste to create new recycled materials over and over.  

The two companies will create new recycled nylon and polyester made from apparel waste. They will be able to show that recycling textiles and repurposing materials is possible and can be done sustainably. This partnership might be the move we need to change the fashion industry for the future of our planet.

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