The world’s prolific use of single-use plastic products, such as water bottles and plastic bags, produces about 300 million tons of plastic waste annually. While recycling programs exist, only 7% to 9% of plastic waste gets recycled, 12% is burned and the rest accumulates in landfills and pollutes the environment, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. 

Tae Seok Moon, an environmental engineer in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, plans to address the plastic waste problem with a bacterium that would upcycle the plastic into a value-added chemical with a three-year, $861,571 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The grant was one of 34 projects funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research totaling $45.5 million to advance biotechnology research to create clean biofuels and bioproducts.

“Since China and India have banned importing plastic waste, there is no way in the U.S. to treat plastic bottles but to export them, recycle them, put them in a landfill or burn them, which causes climate problems,” Moon said. “This project is a way I can contribute to the community by solving the plastic problem.” 

In this project, Moon plans a process to convert plastic into a value-added material. First, he plans to discover, engineer or improve an enzyme that degrades plastics and insert it into a bacterium he discovered and engineered for which he has a patent pending. The enzyme breaks down the plastic into monomers. The bacterium eats the monomers and converts them into a high-value chemical, such as lycopene or beta carotene.

“This is a high-risk, high-reward project, but we have many preliminary data already,” Moon said. “I have wanted to do a project with plastic for many years. I have a passion for it because this is a very important, challenging problem to solve.”

Moon is working with the university’s Office of Technology Management to obtain an issued patent on the bacterium and the process he has developed and to establish a startup company to further develop and commercialize this technology.
The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 165 full-time faculty, 1,420 undergraduate students, 1,614 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

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