Pakistan, neighboring India, and Bangladesh are three of the most polluted countries in the world. Every year, Pakistan generates about 48.5 million tons of solid waste, a substantial part of which is plastic, which is a problem since, as we all know, plastic takes a long time to decompose. Now, a team of scientists in Islamabad has been able to isolate a species of mold capable of breaking down at least one type of plastic.
First, we need to understand what decomposing, or biodegradation, actually is. All organic matter, given the proper conditions, degrades. But what this degradation actually is doesn’t just reflect the effect of the elements on the matter, but an actual biological process of the matter being dissolved and eaten by bacteria or mold.
But are plastics even organic matter? The short answer is “yes, but”, the longer answer is that plastics are a type of organic matter that has been synthetically manipulated into an unnatural form. As such, bacteria and fungi don’t recognize it for anything edible and just move along to the next matter.
What makes it worse is that the most cost-effective way to get rid of plastic is to just dump it into the ocean, where it *does* degrade due to heat and moisture, but not before releasing a host of toxins into the water that are then inhaled by marine life.
But current science is hard at work at finding the few microbes and fungi that can break down plastics. The Pakistani scientists found one such fungus, aspergillus tubingensis, capable of breaking down a common plastic polymer known as polyurethane. Though a fungus, is isn’t a mushroom, as it lacks a stem and flesh, and is rather a type of mold, much like the black mold that afflicts onions, aspergillus niger, to which it is related.
Polyurethane is a plastic that is used in manufacturing foam insulation, varnish, sponges and synthetic leather. A. tubingensis is not the first type of microorganism found that can break polyurethane down, but the rate of biodegradation that was observed by the Pakistani team was especially fast, taking two months for the mold to absorb the plastic.
The results of the research fill the team with hope that a. tubingensis could be used consciously in removing polyurethane waste through biodegradation, and we can only hope they are right.