Microorganisms Revolutionize Plastics: A Global Path to Sustainability
On December 11, KAIST President Kwang-Hyung Lee announced a breakthrough in addressing this crisis. A research team led by Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering unveiled their paper titled ‘Sustainable Production and Degradation of Plastics Using Microbes.’ The publication delves into cutting-edge technologies for producing plastics and managing plastic waste in an environmentally conscious manner, leveraging the capabilities of microorganisms.
As the global community rallies to combat the plastic predicament, collaborative efforts involving 175 countries aim to forge a legally binding agreement, with the ambitious objective of curbing plastic pollution by 2024. Amid these initiatives, biotechnology emerges as a beacon of hope, particularly the employment of microorganisms in sustainable plastic production and processing.
Microorganisms, endowed with the natural ability to produce or decompose specific compounds, become key players in biotechnological advancements like metabolic and enzyme engineering. These techniques enable the production of plastics from renewable biomass resources, steering away from reliance on fossil raw materials, and facilitate the decomposition of waste plastics. The research team’s comprehensive analysis encompasses the latest microorganism-based technologies, elucidating their role in resolving the plastic crisis.
The article explores a spectrum of microorganism-based technologies applicable to various plastics, spanning from widely used synthetic plastics like polyethylene (PE) to promising bioplastics such as polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), derived from microorganisms, ensuring complete biodegradability without the risk of microplastic generation. Commercialization statuses and cutting-edge technologies are scrutinized, offering a comprehensive view of the field.
Additionally, the piece introduces technologies for decomposing plastics using microorganisms and their enzymes, along with upcycling methods to transform them into valuable compounds post-decomposition. The competitive edge and potential of microorganism-based technologies shine through, prompting optimism about the prevalence of eco-friendly plastics in the near future. So Young Choi, the first author and a research assistant professor at KAIST, envisions a world where eco-friendly plastics made using microorganisms become ubiquitous. Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee, the corresponding author, underscores the importance of responsible plastic use for environmental protection and envisions economic and social development through advancements in the burgeoning field of new plastics industry, anticipating enhanced performance in microbial metabolic engineering technology.
With ongoing global efforts to combat plastic pollution and advancements in microorganism-based technologies, we stand at the cusp of a transformative era in plastic production and waste management. The promising trajectory towards a circular economy for plastics, driven by these eco-friendly solutions, not only addresses the urgent need for change but also points towards a more sustainable and responsible future.