Recent Fungi Discovery and Others Brings Hope to Plastic Problem
By Frank Yin
“By 2015, according to Greenpeace, the world had churned out 6.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic, of which only 9% has been recycled”. Plastic waste has been a large environmental issue and efforts to stop it are small compared to the grand scheme of things. There are more attempts being made to stop plastic waste. For example, 40% of plastic packaging is being recycled in Europe and they aim for a goal of 50% by 2025. This is great but there are problems that lie within recycling.
Recent discoveries are giving more hope to fixing problems due to plastic waste. A bio-manufacturing firm Biohm tested fungi surrounded in plastic for more environmentally friendly material. The fungi ate through the plastic which gave scientists the idea of using fungi to get rid of plastic waste.
The strategies we have used to solve the plastic problem have been mostly harmful. Most plastics are burned up or dumped. They can end up in our waters and soils. Plastics can harm wildlife and some of it can enter our food. Plastics also contribute to global warming and air pollution because they emit greenhouse gases. This can change life dramatically from changes in weather and damage to plants.
Plastic that is recycled can be easily washed but would have to be used the same way. In order to use the plastic in a different way, the plastics have to turn back into raw materials. The main choice is using chemicals which are bad for the environment. Chemical recycling emits greenhouse gases and lots of the plastic material is lost in the process of breaking it down. Besides the fungi discovery, ways of biologically breaking down plastic are cleaner than chemicals. But plastics like polyurethane and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) are hard to biologically break down.
Since the fungi discovery is new, it still requires more time and development. There are other options available such as a version of E. coli makes a PET molecule into vanilla flavoring, a tiny living thing can break down polyurethane, and an engineered enzyme can break down any type of PET. These discoveries are successful, but they are mostly not economically and environmentally viable. For instance, plastic requires a pre-treatment that uses lots of energy for the engineered enzyme to work. Scientists are still at work to make these potential solutions to plastic waste more efficient so that they can compete with other proven solutions.