Many of us know that pollution in the ocean is a rapid growing problem that started well before most of us were even born, but it’s only getting worse. One of the most common forms of ocean pollution that we’ve seen over the past century comes from plastic, which has become a staple of our everyday lives. Most people aren’t discarding of their plastics in the right way, which has caused it to slip into the ocean, creating tons of pollution.
When we say tons, we mean it literally, as it’s estimated that more than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans on a yearly basis. Cleaning out the existing plastic proves to be a monumental task, but scientists have found that there’s one species of fungus out there that wants to help. The fungus comes from the Amazon rainforest, and found that it only eats polyurethane, which is what plastic is comprised of.
The discovery of the fungus had researchers believe that it could survive in landfills, cutting down the plastic pollution tossed into dumps on a yearly basis. David Schwartzman of Howard University said “It’s interesting research. I think this approach of bioremediation could be very useful in treating accumulated plastic waste.” Schwartzman added that “Landfills are sources of serious problems. They’re leaking methane as well as other pollutants that get into the groundwater. Some bioremediation may be necessary to deal with the huge mountainous accumulation of these wastes.”
After the discovery of the fungus, it was named Aspergillus tubingensis, and they were found to take just weeks to break down wasted plastic. The fungus does this by secreting enzymes that dissolve the bond between plastic molecules, causing them to fall apart. While the A. tubingensis had been known about for a few years, the species was again recently found far away from the Amazon rainforest, this time in Pakistan.
Researchers took samples from a landfill in Islamabad to see if the fungus or any similar species were present and breaking down plastics “in the same way that other organisms feed on dead plant or animal matter,” said Dr. Sehroon Khan, the leader of the study and member of the World Agroforestry Center. “We wanted to identify solutions which already existed in nature, but finding microorganisms which can do the job isn’t easy,” he added.
Polymers in plastic are further broken down thanks to the strength of the A. tubingensis roots known as mycelia. Now, researchers are optimistic that this fungus could be introduced into landfills all over the world to help reduce the amount of plastics, though they need to see how efficient they truly are over a long period of time and if they can thrive in different environments. As of right now, though, researchers are optimistic about what A. tubingensis can do.
“Our team’s next goal is to determine the ideal conditions for fungal growth and plastic degradation, looking at factors such as pH levels, temperature and culture mediums,” Dr. Khan said. “This could pave the way for using the fungus in waste treatment plants, or even in soils which are already contaminated by plastic waste.” With more than a quarter billion tons of plastic currently sitting in landfills around the world, even making a small dent would create a large positive change in the environment.
As for what A. tubingensis can do for the oceans, that’s one of the next steps that researchers will take. Since the fungus grows mainly on soil, it’s unclear of how effective A. tubingensis can be underwater, and how long it can survive. One of the places that researchers want to investigate is waste treatment plants to see if the fungus can break down plastic before it even has a chance to get to the oceans.
While Schwartzman is optimistic about the research, he also adds that people shouldn’t expect A. tubingensis to solve the world’s problems just yet. “This research is of value,” he said. “But we should be quite cautious about the application. I would be very leery of releasing some organisms into (a new) environment. That’s fraught with a lot of potential dangers.” He says that the true course of action should include “Collecting the debris and then applying bioremediation to break (the plastics) down.”
The research is still early in the process, but the fact that there’s a natural way to get rid of extra plastic in the oceans and in landfills is bringing a lot of optimism, even with a high amount of caution that comes with it.