Contact: Dr. Paolo Bombelli, Biochemistry & Dr. Federica Bertocchini, Baky Ltd.
Mentor: Dr. Mark Priest

Polyethylene (PE) is one of the most common plastics used. The annual global production is approximately 80 million tonnes. A large fraction of these 80 million tonnes is then destined to be discarded into landfills and dispersed into the environment (e.g., the great Pacific garbage patch). Degradation/biodegradation of existing plastics is a great challenge, but vast and cost effective biodegradation of existing plastic has not yet been achieved at a commercial level.

Current methods of biodegrading PE into ethylene-glycol (the monomer which constitutes PE) need chemical pre-treatment with corrosive substances such as nitric acid, and a long microbial incubation of around 4 months. Due to the long time needed for these processes, they have not yet been adopted commercially.

The inventors (working in the UK and Spain) have discovered a new process which greatly reduces the biodegradation time of PE films to around 2 hours. The process does not require pre-treatment and shows degradation activity within 40 minutes of exposure to the biological agent. The research is at an early stage, with the underlying mechanisms of the biological processes involved still needing to be further investigated and optimised.

The challenge for the i-Team is to investigate the possibilities for commercialising such a process, including identifying the types of organisations that would be interested in funding its further development and eventual industrial scale-up, as well as those that might operate the process commercially once the scale-up was complete.