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Israeli, Portuguese researchers to collaborate on plastic-busting bacteria

Ben-Gurion University scientists have found bacteria species able to biodegrade polyethylene; they will work with Portugal’s ECOIBÉRIA to study these and find new ones

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Plastic waste in the sea. (dottedhippo/iStock by Getty Images)
Plastic waste in the sea. (dottedhippo/iStock by Getty Images)

BGN Technologies, the technology transfer company of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), has signed a research collaboration agreement with Portugal’s ECOIBÉRIA to develop and identify bacteria that can help biodegrade and recycle plastic waste.

The collaboration will be based on the research of teams headed by Prof. Ariel Kushmaro and Prof. Alex Sivan at the Laboratory of Environmental Biotechnology and the Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering at BGU.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most used polymer in the world, with multiple applications in the textile industry as well as in food and beverage packaging. It is estimated that about 56 million tons of PET are produced yearly worldwide, mostly as single-use packaging material. Intense efforts are thus being made to boost the recycling and reuse of PET-based plastic materials, deemed to be non-biodegradable because of the highly stable atomic makeup of the polymer.

Kushmaro and Sivan and their teams have discovered several species of bacteria that are able to biodegrade polyethylene.

Based on their findings, the research collaboration project will study the biodegradation of PET by previously identified bacteria as well as new ones, and seek to develop an efficient biodegradation process of PET.

“Plastic-containing products is one of the biggest environmental challenges facing modern society, and degradation and recycling of plastic are one crucial strategy for dealing with the environmental impact of PET,” said Kushmaro in a statement.

“Existing technologies, such as thermo-mechanical recycling, impair the mechanical properties of the polymer and suffer from other disadvantages such as the need for organic solvents, high reaction temperatures and intensive waste sorting,” he said. “Bacterial degradation of PET into recyclable materials that can be then reused to manufacture new PET products, is therefore a promising strategy that can have a global environmental and economic impact.”

ECOIBÉRIA, founded in 2005 and based in northern Portugal, is active in PET plastic waste recycling. The firm is also a producer of secondary raw materials based on PET.

“We believe that BGU’s innovations in the field of bacterial biodegradation of PET complements our technologies and has the potential to become an important contribution to our plastic recycling efforts,” said Jorge Lemos, CEO of ECOIBÉRIA, in the statement.

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