According to EcoWatch, we have produced more plastic over the last ten years than during the whole of the last century. And of all the plastic that we use, 50% of them are only used once and thrown away, left to rot for thousands of years in landfills. Also, plastic accounts for around 10% of the total waste we generate.
These alarming statistics need a call for action among scientists to solve the growing plastics problem. And researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Kunming Institute of Botany have found a solution with a great potential.
They were able to identify a fungus that can break down plastics in only a matter of weeks compared to years without an agent. The fungus, called Aspergillus tubingensis, is usually found in soil but was discovered to thrive on the surface of plastics. It is capable of secreting enzymes which break down the bonds between individual molecules and then use its mycelia to break them apart.
Factors like the temperature and pH balance of the fungus’ surroundings and the type of culture medium contribute to the capacity of the fungus in breaking down plastic. But the researchers were able to test the fungus ability to degrade polyurethane in three different ways – on an agar plate, in liquid, and after burial in soil – and discovered that plastic degradation in the agar medium was the highest.
While this breakthrough has been discovered, getting the fungus might be a challenge. The researchers found Aspergillus tubingensis on a rubbish dump in Islamabad, Pakistan.
“We decided to take samples from a rubbish dump in Islamabad, Pakistan, to see if anything was feeding on the plastic in the same way that other organisms feed on dead plant or animal matter,” said Dr Sehroon Khan, lead author of the study from the World Agroforestry Centre and Kunming Institute of Biology.
But if human activities and deforestation continue to destroy fungal habitats, we may no longer be able to utilize the potentials of species of fungi.
Another challenge now for the researchers is on how to speed up the process of breaking down and optimizing the performance of the said fungi. They are after the scale and practical implementation of this breakthrough.
Ultimately, great potential has been found in this study. “This could pave the way for using the fungus in waste treatment plants, or even in soils which are already contaminated by plastic waste,” said Dr Khan.