From packaging, to 3D printing, to microscopic beads in cosmetics, plastics have long been our manufacturing material of choice. A quick glance at your surroundings reveals our immense dependency on polymers and plastics. They’re absolutely everywhere.
The issue, however, lies with what happens after we dispose of them. The exact duration it takes for plastics to break down is still unknown, and the extraordinarily large amounts of plastic we are using are piling up and creating environmental hazards.
Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California Santa Barbara said “It’s quite sobering… We’re making enormous quantities of plastic … and we’re not very good at plastic waste management. Around 60 percent of all the plastics we’ve ever made are on the planet somewhere.” The non-biodegradable plastic waste ends up buried in the earth’s soil or floating in the ocean contaminating ecosystems and often leading to the deaths of animals.
Fortunately, the world is full of smart, ambitious, and caring scientists who direct all their efforts towards solving problems caused by humans. In this case, the ongoing research and developments in mycoremediation (using fungi to decontaminate the environment) is becoming more feasible and efficient as more plastic-degrading fungi species are being discovered.
The scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the Kunming Institute of Botany in China have recently completed a study that resulted in the identification of a type of fungi that can quickly break down plastic by using enzymes. Moreover, Australian designer Katharina Unger, a group of scientists at Utrecht University, and Julia Kaisinger of LIVIN Design Studio are utilizing the new discoveries of plastic-degrading fungi in creating human friendly edibles that can possibly be the food of the future.
Discovery of Plastic Degrading Fungus
A group of scientists and researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Kunming Institute of Botany have achieved a breakthrough discovery of fungi that can break down plastics within a few weeks. Prior to this recent discovery non-biodegradable plastics have been polluting the environment and remaining in the same state for many years. The study titled “Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Aspergillus tubingensis” addresses the problems being created by our dependency on plastics and the methods being studied to find more efficient ways to break down plastics.
Sehroon Khan of the World Agroforestry Centre-Kunming Institute of Biology and lead author of the study said, “We wanted to identify solutions which already existed in nature, but finding microorganisms which can do the job isn’t easy… 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.”
Aspergillus tubingensis (AT) is a type of fungus that typically thrives in soil. However, the research has uncovered that the fungi can also live and grow on the surface of plastics. The fungus breaks the chemical bonds between the plastic molecules by releasing enzymes onto the surface of the plastic. It was noted that the results of the study are connected to many environmental factors and the fungus’s ability to degrade the plastics required certain settings such as having the right temperature and pH levels. Regardless of any complications, the scientists behind the study remain positive and hopeful that these new discoveries can be game changers in terms of plastic waste management and its impact on the environment.
Turning Plastic Eating Fungus Into Human Food
Turning degraded plastic waste into food suitable for human consumption was the mission of Australian designer Katharina Unger. With the assistance of Utrecht University and Julia Kaisinger of LIVIN design studio, Unger was able to utilise a state-of-the-art machine that imitates the required environmental setting for the fungi to break down plastics.
A rare fungus named Pestalotiopsis microspora is able consume polyurethane, a polymer often found in foam sponges, and was used during the experiment conducted by Unger. The fungus was inserted along with a plastic into a mushroom-like pod made with seaweed gelatin as a base nutrient. The pods were covered with a sphere that controls the surrounding environments of the process to ensure the best results. After several months the fungus appears to have broken down and consumed the plastics and the nutrients in the holding pod.
The result of the process appears to be a mushroom-like cup that can be eaten by humans. Unger has explained that the flavor of the resulting food can be sweet or licorice depending on the particular pod. Although the average person may struggle with the idea of eating plastic consuming fungus, the concept and implementation of the experiment cannot be denied the credit of achieving a possibly effective solution to one of the biggest problems many countries are currently facing.