Credits: Lynne Kirton for Indiana Public Media

In this article, Why Science concludes its exploration of issues pertaining to the unintended consequences of human activity on the environment by focusing on the promise of future research and innovation in technology.

The Problem:

Landfills, are 50 feet under anaerobic (without oxygen) environments designed to prevent decomposition of waste. It is common knowledge that a plastic bottle thrown away today is going to languish in a landfill for several hundred years.  In the U.S. alone there are over 3,000 landfills nationwide overflowing with plastics that take centuries to degrade. According to a Columbia University Earth Energy Center (EEC) study, an estimated 29 million tons of non recycled plastics (NRPs) end up in landfills each year.  Yes, this is in spite of all our recycling efforts.

Fungi. Nature’s Solution to Plastic Landfill Waste

Can fungi degrade plastics in landfills?

Fortunately, researchers at Yale have recently discovered a fungus that can potentially degrade plastic in landfills. The fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, was found by a student in 2008 in a particular type of guava plant. Other students followed up and discovered that not only does the fungus break down polyurethane, but it can do it in the depths of a landfill.

The Future Looks Bright.

Will the discovery of plastic eating fungi by Yale students result in products that significantly reduce plastic waste in landfills and other anaerobic (e.g., marine, septic tanks, below the surface of rice paddies) environments?

As with other new discoveries, it will take years to create  products which can reduce plastic waste on an industrial scale. We at Why Science, an education technology company, are looking forward to celebrating  how legions of fungi, bacteria and other simple lifeforms  help us clean up the waste in our air, land and water that has accumulated since the advent of the industrial revolution. For now let us all continue to reduce, reuse and recycle all waste produced from human activity. Happy Earth Day from Why Science!

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