More than five billion tons of plastic have accumulated on land and sea including the most remote regions of the planet as well as in the bodies of animals and humans. There is a compelling need to recycle as much plastic as possible but doing so is a major challenge. Plastic comes in many varieties and breaking it down for reuse requires different methods for each.
Polypropylene is one of the biggest challenges for recycling. It is a very common plastic used for all sorts of products including food containers, coat hangers, plastic wrap, toys, and much more. It accounts for roughly 28% of the world’s plastic waste, but only 1% of it is recycled.
Polypropylene is seldom recycled because it generally has a short life as a packaging material, and it often becomes contaminated by other materials and plastics. Thus, it generally ends up in landfills.
Researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia have discovered that two common strains of fungi were able to successfully biodegrade polypropylene. The fungi species – with unavoidable Latin names of Aspergillus terreus and Engyodontium album – are typically found in soil and plants.
The researchers found that the fungi were able to break down polypropylene after it had been pre-treated with either UV light or heat, by 21% over 30 days, and by 25-27% over 90 days. This seems rather slow but compared with the nearly endless life of polypropylene in landfills, it is a major improvement.
The hope is that methods like this could ultimately reduce the amount of plastic polluting the environment by encouraging plastic to biodegrade naturally under the appropriate conditions.
Fungi makes meal of hard to recycle plastic
Photo, posted March 5, 2010, courtesy of Kevin Krejci via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio