Backyard Fungi Break Down Plastic at an Unprecedented Rate


| LAST UPDATE 04/20/2023

By Stanley Wickens
plastic waste degrade fungi
Catherine Sheila via Pexels

We've got some news that's about to change the game. Scientists have found fungi in backyard soil that break down tough plastic in just 140 days! Let that sink in for a moment. We're talking about polypropylene here, a plastic that can take hundreds of years to degrade. But these fungi, Aspergillus terreus, and Engyodontium album, didn't just take a nip at the plastic - they devoured it!

But hold on, plastic-munching bacteria aren't ready to give up their crown that easily. They've been breaking down 90% of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, in just 16 hours. However, as they say, a bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone. More than 400 microorganisms, including fungi, have been found to degrade plastic naturally. These versatile beauties can degrade all sorts of synthetic substrates with powerful enzymes.

plastic environment weird discovery
Magda Ehlers via Pexels
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Recycling plastics may sound simple in theory, but in practice, it's anything but easy. There are so many different types of plastics that by the time they mix with other materials as waste, they are practically impossible to separate and recycle. So, what's the solution? Well, according to University of Sydney chemical engineer, Ali Abbas, "...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." The fungi's method requires a pre-treatment process to weaken the waste material so the fungi can do their job. This process mimics environmental conditions that allow the fungi to latch onto and attack plastics. And while the team believes that their method can be scaled up like any fermentation process, Abbas reminds us that this is no substitute for reducing plastic waste.

Of the new discovery about this process, Abbas said, "it's the highest degradation rate reported in the literature that we know [of] in the world." So, mark our words: this discovery might just be the answer we've been searching for. Though, it's not time to put our feet up just yet. Researchers still need to build a benchtop prototype, test modifications to speed up the process, and assess economic feasibility and the environmental impact of using their method on commercial scales. But one thing is for sure; we'll spare no effort to uncover how the fungi got down to business, breaking down plastic as if it was nobody's business.

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