With macroscopic litter and its degradation into secondary microplastic as a major source of environmental pollution, one key challenge is understanding the pathways from macro- to microplastic by abiotic and biotic environmental impact. So far, little is known about the impact of biota on material properties. This study focuses on recycled, bottle-grade poly(ethylene terephthalate) (r-PET) and the degrading enzyme PETase from Ideonella sakaiensis. Compact tension (CT) specimens were incubated in an enzymatic solution and thermally and mechanically characterized. A time-dependent study up to 96 h revealed the formation of steadily growing colloidal structures. After 96 h incubation, high amounts of BHET dimer were found in a near-surface layer, affecting crack propagation and leading to faster material failure. The results of this pilot study show that enzymatic activity accelerates embrittlement and favors fragmentation. We conclude that PET-degrading enzymes must be viewed as a potentially relevant acceleration factor in macroplastic degradation.
Keywords: BHET; Ideonella sakaiensis; PETase; bis(hydroxyethyl)terephthalate; crack formation; enzymatic degradation; enzyme; fatigue crack propagation resistance; microplastic; nanoplastic; polymer degradation.