An unusual strain of fungus found last year in a Pakistani garbage dump could one day provide a solution to our plastic waste woes. As Dezeen reports, the Aspergillus tubingensis fungus has the ability to break down the chemical bonds between plastic molecules in a matter of weeks rather than years.
The findings were presented in a 92-page State of the World’s Fungi report, published by London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew [PDF]. The report cites recent studies showing that this particular fungus can help aid the disintegration of polyester polyurethane (PU)—a substance commonly used in refrigerator insulation, synthetic leather, and many other household products. The study, by Chinese and Pakistani researchers, revealed that A. tubingensis broke down the plastic in just two months.
Once the fungus attaches to a piece of plastic, it secretes enzymes that help the material degrade faster. There’s even a word for this fungi-based method of removing waste from the environment: mycoremediation. Fungi can also “feed” on radioactive waste, oil spills, and other toxic chemicals like nerve gas, Sky News reports. Mushrooms have even been used to create an eco-friendly faux leather. According to experts, 93 percent of fungal species are still unknown to science, so there may be other environmental uses for mushrooms that have yet to be discovered.
Of course, the fungi solution is only a stop-gap measure, as many experts have pointed out that plastic production is the real source of the problem. By some estimates, the amount of plastic that’s been created by humans is equivalent to 25,000 Empire State Buildings or 80 million blue whales. Only 9 percent of that waste has been recycled.