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A French company is using enzymes to recycle one of the most common single-use plastics

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A French company is using enzymes to recycle one of the most common single-use plastics


Because single-use plastics are largely derived from petroleum, by 2050 plastics might account for 20% of the world’s annual oil consumption. Reducing our dependence on plastics, and finding ways to reuse the plastic that’s already out in the world, could greatly reduce emissions.

Right now, only about 15% of all plastics worldwide are collected for recycling each year. Researchers have been trying since the 1990s to find new ways to break down plastics in the hopes of recycling more of them. Companies and researchers have worked to develop enzymatic processes, like the one used at Carbios, as well as chemical processes, like the method used by Loop Industries. But only recently have enzymatic and chemical processes started to go commercial.  

Carbios’s new reactor measures 20 cubic meters—around the size of a cargo van. It can hold two metric tons of plastic, or the equivalent of about 100,000 ground-up bottles at a time, and break it down into the building blocks of PET—ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid—in 10 to 16 hours.

The company plans to use what it learns from the demonstration facility to build its first industrial plant, which will house a reactor about 20 times larger than the demonstration reactor. That full-scale plant will be built near a plastic manufacturer somewhere in Europe or the US, and should be operational by 2025, says Alain Marty, Carbios’s chief science officer.

Carbios has been developing enzymatic recycling since the company was founded in 2011. Its process relies on enzymes to chop up the long chains of polymers that make up plastic. The resulting monomers can then be purified and strung together to make new plastics. Researchers at Carbios started with a natural enzyme used by bacteria to break down leaves, then tweaked it to make it more efficient at breaking down PET.

Carbios’s demonstration facility in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Image courtesy of SkotchProd.

Carbios estimates that its enzymatic recycling process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 30% compared to virgin PET. Marty says he expects that number to increase as they work out the kinks.

In a recent report, researchers estimated that manufacturing PET from enzymatic recycling could reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 17% and 43% compared to making virgin PET. The report wasn’t specifically about Carbios, but it’s probably a good estimate for its process, according to Gregg Beckham, a researcher at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a co-author of the report.

While developing new enzymes has been a major focus of new research and commercial efforts, other parts of the process will determine how efficient and cost-effective the technology will be, says Beckham, who leads a consortium on new plastic recycling and production methods.

“It’s all the less glamorous stuff,” Beckham says, like getting the plastic into a form that the enzymes can efficiently break down or separating what the enzymes spit out, that can take a lot of energy and time, and drive up emissions and costs.

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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing

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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing


The researchers claim that their approach could be used to train AI to carry out other tasks. To begin with, it could be used to for bots that use a keyboard and mouse to navigate websites, book flights or buy groceries online. But in theory it could be used to train robots to carry out physical, real-world tasks by copying first-person video of people doing those things. “It’s plausible,” says Stone.

Matthew Gudzial at the University of Alberta, Canada, who has used videos to teach AI the rules of games like Super Mario Bros, does not think it will happen any time soon, however. Actions in games like Minecraft and Super Mario Bros. are performed by pressing buttons. Actions in the physical world are far more complicated and harder for a machine to learn. “It unlocks a whole mess of new research problems,” says Gudzial.

“This work is another testament to the power of scaling up models and training on massive datasets to get good performance,” says Natasha Jaques, who works on multi-agent reinforcement learning at Google and the University of California, Berkeley. 

Large internet-sized data sets will certainly unlock new capabilities for AI, says Jaques. “We’ve seen that over and over again, and it’s a great approach.” But OpenAI places a lot of faith in the power of large data sets alone, she says: “Personally, I’m a little more skeptical that data can solve any problem.”

Still, Baker and his colleagues think that collecting more than a million hours of Minecraft videos will make their AI even better. It’s probably the best Minecraft-playing bot yet, says Baker: “But with more data and bigger models I would expect it to feel like you’re watching a human playing the game, as opposed to a baby AI trying to mimic a human.”

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death


+ Scientists have found a way to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab. It could offer them new ways to start a family—without the need for distressing IVF procedures. Read the full story.  + How reproductive technology is changing what it means to be a parent. Advances could lead to babies with four or more biological parents—forcing us to reconsider parenthood. Read the full story.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Elon Musk wants to reinstate banned Twitter accounts
It’s an incredibly dangerous decision with widespread repercussions. (WP $) 
+ Recent departures have hit Twitter’s policy and safety divisions hard. (WSJ $)
+ It looks like Musk’s promise of no further layoffs was premature. (Insider $)
+ Meanwhile, Twitter Blue is still reportedly launching next week. (Reuters)
+ Imagine simply transferring your followers to another platform. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Russia’s energy withdrawal could kill tens of thousands in Europe 
High fuel costs could result in more deaths this winter than the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ Higher gas prices will also hit Americans as the weather worsens. (Vox)
+ Ukraine’s invasion underscores Europe’s deep reliance on Russian fossil fuels. (MIT Technology Review)

3 FTX is unable to honor the grants it promised various organizations 
Many of them are having to seek emergency funding to plug the gaps. (WSJ $)
+ Bahamians aren’t thrilled about what its collapse could mean for them. (WP $)

4 It’s a quieter Black Friday than usual
Shopping isn’t much of a priority right now. (Bloomberg $)
+ If you do decide to shop, make sure you don’t get scammed. (Wired $)

5 The UK is curbing its use of Chinese surveillance systems 
But only on “sensitive” government sites. (FT $)
+ The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Long covid is still incredibly hard to treat 
Its symptoms vary wildy, which can make it hard to track, too. (Undark)
+ A universal flu vaccine is looking promising. (New Scientist $)

7 San Francisco’s police is considering letting robots use deadly force
The force has 12 remotely piloted robots that could, in theory, kill someone. (The Verge)

8 Human hibernation could be the key to getting us to Mars 
It could be the closest we can get to time travel. (Wired $)

9 Why TikTok is suddenly so obsessed with dabloons 
It’s a form of choose-your-own-adventure fun. (The Guardian)

10 We can’t stop trying to reinvent mousetraps 🧀
There are thousands of versions out there, yet we keep coming up with new designs. (New Yorker $)

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?


His parents told a court that they wanted to keep the possibility of using the sperm to eventually have children that would be genetically related to Peter. The court approved their wishes, and Peter’s sperm was retrieved from his body and stored in a local sperm bank. 

We have the technology to use sperm, and potentially eggs, from dead people to make embryos, and eventually babies. And there are millions of eggs and embryos—and even more sperm—in storage and ready to be used. When the person who provided those cells dies, like Peter, who gets to decide what to do with them?

That was the question raised at an online event held by the Progress Educational Trust, a UK charity for people with infertility and genetic conditions, that I attended on Wednesday. The panel included a clinician and two lawyers, who addressed plenty of tricky questions, but provided few concrete answers. 

In theory, the decision should be made by the person who provided the eggs, sperm or embryos. In some cases, the person’s wishes might be quite clear. Someone who might be trying for a baby with their partner may store their sex cells or embryos and sign a form stating that they are happy for their partner to use these cells if they die, for example. 

But in other cases, it’s less clear. Partners and family members who want to use the cells might have to collect evidence to convince a court the deceased person really did want to have children. And not only that, but that they wanted to continue their family line without necessarily becoming a parent themselves.

Sex cells and embryos aren’t property—they don’t fall under property law and can’t be inherited by family members. But there is some degree of legal ownership for the people who provided the cells. It is complicated to define that ownership, however, Robert Gilmour, a family law specialist based in Scotland, said at the event. “The law in this area makes my head hurt,” he said.

The law varies depending on where you are, too. Posthumous reproduction is not allowed in some countries, and is unregulated in many others. In the US, laws vary by state. Some states won’t legally recognize a child conceived after a person’s death as that person’s offspring, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). “We do not have any national rules or policies,” Gwendolyn Quinn, a bioethicist at New York University, tells me.

Societies like ASRM have put together guidance for clinics in the meantime. But this can also vary slightly between regions. Guidance by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology, for example, recommends that parents and other relatives should not be able to request the sex cells or embryos of the person who died. That would apply to Peter Zhu’s parents. The concern is that these relatives might be hoping for a “commemorative child” or as “a symbolic replacement of the deceased.”

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