Imagine a world where plastic is always plentiful without ever having to make any more.

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have not only imagined it but created a way to get there. 

They’ve enlisted E. coli, the common bacterium, to make a plastic that’s infinitely recyclable.

Part of the problem with recycling plastic is that after being recycled a few times, the basic ingredients degrade and can’t be made into new plastic again. Even though recycling helps cut down on the amount of new plastic being made, it’s only a delaying action.

In 2019, the Berkeley lab made a new plastic called polydiketoenamine (PDK), that allows bonds between molecules that comprise it to be broken more easily. There’s no loss of quality, which indicates the material could be recycled an infinite number of times.

Problem: PDK was made out of the same petroleum derivatives that regular plastic is.

Now the lab has bioengineered a strain of the common bacterium E. coli that eats plant sugars and excretes something called triacetic acid lactone that can be combined with other chemicals to make PDK.

PDK’s new version can be adjusted to be soft and flexible like a bottle of water, hard and tough like a football helmet, or even sticky so it adheres to surfaces. 

The test versions of PDK have been about 80-percent bacteria-produced material. The researchers are on track to make the next generation entirely of E. coli’s output.

TRENDPOST: Reinventing plastic to be petroleum-free, biodegradable, and endlessly recyclable has become an industry in itself. Already, there are several versions entering the commercial market.

As so often is the case, the bottleneck to adoption will be the transition to a mass market. The process for manufacturing the new versions has to be proven at scale, then the necessary supply chains need to be established and adjustments made in manufacturing processes.

That will happen but will only gain speed as public sentiment continues to shift against the oil industry and throwaway plastic. Currently, that shift is happening in a linear way while the problem of unrecycled, oil-based plastic is rising exponentially.

Skip to content