Researchers from the University of Sydney have shown that plastic eating fungi breaks down plastic in 140 days. The backyard mushroom made light work of the plastic, Polypropylene (PP), which usually takes over 100 years to biodegrade.
The results are fantastic news in the fight against reducing plastic waste. Despite scientific warnings about the effects of plastic on the environment, production is increasing. So, could mushrooms be the solution to the global plastic problem?
The Problem With Polypropylene
Polypropylene is commonly found in food packaging, such as takeaway cartons and is hard to recycle because it gets contaminated by the products.
We produce over 68 million tons of PP annually, which accounts for 28 percent of all plastic, yet we only recycle one percent. The rest ends up in landfills or incinerators, where it becomes an environmental threat because it releases toxic additives like lead and cadmium.
Amira Farzana Samat chose PP as the subject of her study because it’s so problematic. Though she highlights the fact that all plastic waste is bad for the environment:
“It’s estimated that 109 million tonnes of plastic pollution have accumulated in the world’s rivers and 30 million tonnes now sit in the world’s oceans – with sources estimating this will soon surpass the total mass of fish”.
The two fungi in the study, Aspergillus Terreus and Engyodontium Album, are common strains prevalent in soil and plants. They are hardy mushrooms and can survive in extreme conditions.
Researchers studied the fungi in Petri dishes with pre-treated polypropylene – which had previous UV light or heat exposure.
After 30 days, the fungi processed 21 percent of the plastic – and by day 90, they reduced it by 27 percent. After 140 days, they eliminated it, making it the highest degradation rate in the world.
Scientists believe the mushrooms create an enzyme to break down the plastic into a simple form they can ingest. They don’t know the exact process behind the decomposition, but the results will pave the way for future studies to discover more.
Professor Dee Carter, expert mycologist and a co-author of the study, explains that “fungi are magnificent organisms and can break down many substrates. This is why you find them growing out of man-made materials such as carpets, shower curtains and furniture”.
She suggests that marine fungi have potentially been eating away at the plastic in our oceans for decades. Further studies also indicate mushrooms can break down harmful forever chemicals – PFAS.
Can Mushrooms Solve The Plastic Crisis?
The study indicates that fungi may help with the plastic crisis, but they aren’t a solution to the problem. Plastic production isn’t slowing down, and according to Greenpeace, production could triple by 2050.
We produce over 400 million tonnes of plastic annually – and the majority ends up in landfills and oceans. We have failed to develop an appropriate way to deal with plastic waste – according to this study, shockingly, only 9 percent of plastic has ever been recycled.
Technology Times reports that Researchers at the University of Sydney believe commercial fungi biodegradation systems could be in place in as little as five years. But, they claim it will only help with plastic waste if we can lower the production rate and use plastic more responsibly.