A Glimmer of Hope: Australian Scientists Discover Plastic-Eating Fungi

Plastic bottles.

In a breakthrough, Australian scientists found two fungi that can break down plastics in 140 days. (Image: Jonathan Chng via Unsplash)

According to a 2020 study, humans manufacture about 400 million tonnes (440 million tons) of plastic annually. But, unfortunately, about 175 million tonnes (193 million tons) are in landfills. 

There are several types of plastic, propylene being one of them. It is a sturdy product used to make toys, packaging materials, food containers, bottle caps, and more. Today, propylene accounts for almost a third of the world’s plastic waste, but only about 1 percent is recycled.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Receive selected content straight into your inbox.

But that’s about to change thanks to efforts by Australian researchers who harnessed backyard mold to break down this stubborn material. 

Plastic pollution is by far one of the biggest waste issues of our time. (Image: Tampatra1 via Dreamstime)

Fungi that can eat plastic

The researchers from the University of Sydney harnessed two strains of fungi found in soil and plants to attack small lab samples of propylene. They used two fungi — Aspergillus terreus and Engyodontium album — and within 140 days, the plastic was completely broken down.

First, the material had to be preheated with UV light, chemicals, and heat to soften it and make it easier for the fungi to “latch on.” Then, after being “fed” to the fungi, it reduced the quantity by 21 percent within the first 30 days and 25-27 percent within the first 90 days of incubation. It then was completely degraded in 140 days.

Ali Abbas, a chemical engineering professor who supervised the research, believes this is the first step in the fight against this insidious pollution. 

“It’s the highest degradation rate reported in the literature that we know in the world,” Abbas said. 

The team leader, Amira Farzana Samat, says their research will be instrumental in designing natural and sustainable ways to treat waste plastic. Now they have the difficult challenge of scaling up their lab work to meet Australia’s national problem — and probably the world’s.

Researchers hope to make the degradation even faster by modifying critical elements of the experiment, such as temperature, size of plastic particles, and the amount of fungi used. 

“Plastic pollution is by far one of the biggest waste issues of our time. Unfortunately, most of it isn’t adequately recycled, so it often ends up in our oceans, rivers, and landfills. It’s been estimated that 109 million tonnes of plastic pollution have accumulated in the world’s rivers, and 30 million tonnes now sit in the world’s oceans – with sources estimating this will soon surpass the total mass of fish,” said Mrs. Samat.

Is fungi the solution to the plastic problem?

In the past decades, we’ve seen a lot of research on using microorganisms to degrade these materials faster. However, propylene and other plastics take hundreds of years to break down. This environmental problem becomes larger as this waste grows every year. 

In theory, recycling these materials should be easy because of their makeup. It requires you to break down the material’s repeating subunits and reassemble them into a new unit. However, it becomes difficult because so much of this material is out there. And when people dispose of these, they mix different kinds of plastics with other wastes, which makes it almost impossible to separate and recycle.

The good news is that more than 400 microorganisms have been found that break down plastic biologically. Among these microorganisms, fungi are adept at degrading these materials because of their “production of powerful enzymes.”

Professor Dee Carter, an expert in mycology (study of fungi), believes fungi’s superpower is breaking down different substrates.

“Often, these fungi have evolved to break down woody materials, but this ability can be repurposed to attack other substrates. This is why we find fungi growing on all sorts of artificial materials like carpets, painted furniture, tile grout, shower curtains, upholstery, and even car headlights,” she said.

A vehicle in a landfill.
In about three to five years, Australian researchers hope the plastic-eating fungi can be used to degrade this material in landfills. (Image: via Pixabay)

A future large-scale plastic waste solution

This solution may not become an off-the-shelf remedy for consumers. However, it may be a perfect solution for huge companies’ and municipalities’ waste management efforts. In about three to five years, Australian researchers hope the plastic-eating fungi can be used to degrade these troubling materials in landfills. 

Still, there are concerns about human addiction to such products. For example, what happens when people discover that there are fast ways to reduce the problem? Some fear people may not reduce the amount of plastics they use.

Also, the fungi are not adept at degrading highly crystalline forms of plastic that account for a more significant percentage of what is produced. Because of this, the researchers believe the solution to the problem is multifaceted.

“We can’t afford to wait; we do need to act. We need behavioral issues; we need social issues, we need business issues; all of these need to be resolved around the plastics problem. The technology is only half the solution,” Professor Abbas told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 

Follow us on TwitterFacebook, or Pinterest

Recommended Stories

Illustration of Chinese scholar Qian Mu, wearing traditional clothing and glasses.

Qian Mu: Guardian of Chinese Tradition in the Shadow of Communism (Part 1)

In 1949, as the Communist Party was poised to take control of mainland China, with ...

Old photo of Chinese historian, Qian Mu, dressed in scholarly robes.

Qian Mu: Guardian of Chinese Tradition in the Shadow of Communism (Part 2)

In 1966, when Chairman Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution, China’s traditional culture faced an ...

Illustration of a man resting on a sofa.

Unlocking the Benefits of Power Naps for Productivity and Well-Being

The relentless pace of modern life often leaves us feeling drained. In the midst of ...

Colored clouds in the sky.

How a Hug Can Make Miracles Happen

Do miracles exist? Our world is governed by logic and science; extraordinary events often spark ...

A young Chinese man napping on a train.

What Is the Ubiquitous Chinese Nap Culture?

The ubiquitous Chinese nap culture is something that most foreigners usually do not follow. The ...

A laughing baby crawling on the floor.

The Science of Joy: Exploring Human Psychology Through a Babies’ Laughter

There’s something irresistibly captivating about babies’ laughter. A beacon of pure joy and an indicator ...

A laughing Japanese school girl with her friends, all in their school uniforms eating ice cream cones.

Laughter Helps You Live Longer

Research reveals that laughter can help you live longer! The Chinese saying “Smiles make one ...

John Cleese of 'Fawlty Towers.'

‘Fawlty Towers’ Reboot: John Cleese and Daughter to Revive the Iconic Sitcom 40 Years Later

Most people fondly remember classic British sitcoms such as The Office, Blackadder, Last of the ...

William Getty walking with the aid of parallel bars.

A Small Act of Kindness Helped a Boy with Cerebral Palsy Learn to Walk Again

Living with cerebral palsy is an unimaginable hardship that some people have to go through. ...

Send this to a friend