Plastics are the planet’s biggest nightmare. The horrendous material has a million uses in our everyday lives, but they also take about a millennium to degrade in landfills. It has been a little over half a century since we began producing plastics but 8.3 billion tonnes has been brought to this world already. About 70 percent of this has gone to waste, only to end up in landfills.
There is nearly no way to break down plastics in an organic way. Dr. Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist from UC Santa Barbara, says,
“We are rapidly heading towards ‘Planet Plastic,’ and if we don’t want to live in that kind of world, then we may have to rethink how we use some materials, in particular, plastic.”
Fortunately, scientists from Pakistan have found a living being, a fungus that consumes plastic. A study titled “Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Aspergillus Tubingensis” was published in the journal ‘Environmental Pollution’ this year. The team was lead by Sehroon Khan of the World Agroforestry Center. They picked plastics from a dump in Islamabad, Pakistan to collect their samples. They wanted to find something that could feed on plastic the way many organisms do on dead plants or animal matter.
Aspergillus Tubingensis, the plastic devouring fungus, colonizes the plastic and then secretes enzymes that destroy the chemical bonds of the polymer. The chains of molecules that form the plastics are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and occasionally oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine, fluorine, phosphorus, or silicon. The fungus degrades polyester polyurethane and tears the plastic using its mycelia. The process was found to take only a few weeks to reach completion.
Earlier this year, Dr. Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, Spain also discovered that wax worms ate through a plastic bag in which they were held, and they did it quite efficiently. The worms consumed 12 milligrams (0.0004 ounces) of plastic in only 12 hours. That is another one on the list of plastic consuming living beings.
Considering the dangerous and deadly effects of plastics, this is a huge achievement. If the idea can be expanded to a larger scale, we might be able to achieve a cleaner plastic-free world in the years to come.