Can Fungi Save The Planet? Pioneering Research Promises Revolutionary Waste Solution

Australian researchers have found a solution that may help the world avoid the consequences of millions of tons of plastic waste. 

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Two types of fungi — Aspergillus terreus and Engyodontium album — are able to break down polypropylene plastic. Polypropylene is commonly used in food containers and is rarely recycled, taking decades to degrade. The plastic was heated, then treated with UV radiation and Fenton’s chemical before being “fed” to the fungi and incubated for 90 days. After 90 days, the plastic was degraded by 27%, and after 140 days, it was completely degraded.

Study co-author Ali Abbas noted that this was the highest degradation rate of its kind in the world. The researchers hope that within five years, the fungi can be used to break down landfills. They anticipate that this process will scale up in the same way as fermentation processes, borrowing technology from chemical process engineering.

While the use of fungi to break down plastic waste is a promising step toward more sustainable waste management, other innovative companies in the space continue to put forth promising solutions. For example, startups like Timeplast have raised millions from retail investors for their ‘programmable plastic’ that can completely dissolve in water after a few days.

The use of these fungi could be pivotal for isolated areas that produce waste but lack infrastructure or space to house the waste. The world also must reduce its plastic use, even if full degradation becomes widespread, as plastic production and recycling produce large amounts of carbon.

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The research has been described as an “important stepping stone” in designing practical biological ways to treat plastic waste, and more than 400 microorganisms have been found to degrade plastic naturally. 

While plastic-munching bacteria recently discovered in a compost heap have been able to break down 90% of polyethylene terephthalate in just 16 hours, fungi are attracting attention for their versatility and ability to degrade all sorts of synthetic substrates with a powerful concoction of enzymes.

When the many types of plastics are mixed together with other materials as waste, they are practically impossible to separate and recycle. Most plastic waste is either incinerated or dumped into landfill. 

“We need to support the development of disruptive recycling technologies that improve the circularity of plastics, especially those technologies that are driven by biological processes,” Abbas said.

Researchers are still investigating how fungi digest plastic. They believe fungi degrade materials like plastic into simpler molecules they can absorb or excrete. The plastic was found to be riddled with pockmarks as the fungi did their work.

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