From within the Amazon rain forest, a group of researchers from Yale University’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry have discovered a species of fungus that is able to naturally break down and consume polyurethane. As the plastic addiction of our convenience driven society weighs in at roughly 251 million tons of discarded plastics a year, this discovery poses ground breaking opportunities. A compilation of data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) courtesy of the Huff Post shows the annual rate of plastic based goods thrown away annually in the US:
Plastic Plates and Cups: 780,000 tons were produced, and all 780,000 tons were discarded.
Plastic Bags, Sacks and Wraps: 3,960,000 tons were produced. 9.8% was recovered (390,000). 3,570,000 tons were discarded.
Plastic Trash Bags: 930,000 tons were produced, and all 930,000 were discarded.
Other non-durable goods including plastic: (disposable diapers, footwear and clothing) 4,810,000 tons produced with all 4,810,000 tons discarded.
PET Bottles and Jars: 2,680,000 tons were produced, 27.2 % were recovered (730,000 tons) and 1,950,000 tons were discarded.
HDPE (white translucent homopolymer bottles): 750,000 tons were produced, and 29.3 % (220,000 tons) were recovered. 530,000 tons were discarded.
Other Plastic Packaging: (coatings, closures, lids, caps, clamshells, egg cartons, produce baskets, trays, shapes, and loose fill) 3,720,000 tons were produced. 3% (110,000 tons) were recovered, and 3 Million 610 Thousand Tons were discarded.
At the time of the discovery, the group of students were on an annual research trip in Ecuador with professor Scott Strobel. They were screening several dozen fungi specimen to determine their ability to decompose synthetic polymer polyester polyurethane (PUR). Lo and behold, the team published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology that “several organisms demonstrated the ability to efficiently degrade PUR in both solid and liquid suspensions. Particularly robust activity was observed among several isolates in the genus Pestalotiopsis, although it was not a universal feature of this genus.”
Not only can the mushroom survive on polyurethane as its only food source, the team also found that Pestalotiopsis has the capacity to survive in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, like a landfill for example. This natural, non-polluting breakdown process may prove to be a powerful weapon - nature's weapon - against the plastic that we are beginning to bury ourselves in. The process through which this extraordinary fungus breaks down polyurethane can be seen below.
Russell, J., J. Huang, P. Anand, K. Kucera, A. Sandoval, K. Dantzler, D. Hickman, J. Jee, F. Kimovec, D. Koppstein, D. Marks, P. Mittermiller, S. Núñez, M. Santiago, M. Townes, M. Vishnevetsky, N. Williams, M. Vargas, L. Boulanger, C. Bascom-Slack, and S. Strobel. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. American Society For Microbiology, n.d. Web.