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.
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, is 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.
- How should the plastics packaging industry celebrate Earth Day (Plastics Today)
- Plastic-Eating Fungus? (Indiana Public Media)
- Amazon fungi found that eat polyurethane, even without oxygen (Phys.org)
- A Fungus that eats polyurethane (Yale Alumni Magazine)
- Yale researchers find fungus that can break down plastic (New Haven Register)