Enzymatic hydrolysis holds great promise for plastic waste recycling and upcycling. The interfacial catalysis mode, and the variability of polymer specimen properties under different degradation conditions, add to the complexity and difficulty of understanding polymer cleavage and engineering better biocatalysts. We present a systemic approach to studying the enzyme-catalyzed surface erosion of poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET) while monitoring/controlling operating conditions in real time with simultaneous detection of mass loss and changes in viscoelastic behavior. PET nanofilms placed on water showed a porous morphology and a thickness-dependent glass transition temperature (Tg) between 40°C and 44°C, which is >20°C lower than the Tg of bulk amorphous PET. Hydrolysis by a dual-enzyme system containing thermostabilized variants of Ideonella sakaiensis PETase and MHETase resulted in a maximum depolymerization of 70% in 1 h at 50°C. We demonstrate that increased accessible surface area, amorphization, and Tg reduction speed up PET degradation while simultaneously lowering the threshold for degradation-induced crystallization.
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