A new biological tool to combat pollution

The term ‘rolling hills’ usually goes hand in hand with images of luscious green pastures, unfortunately, however, in places like Pakistan, India and Bolivia, the reality of ‘rolling hills’ is looking increasingly different to the picture standard. With mounds of plastic and waste stretching as far as the eye can see, the term has been given a new meaning. However, out of the scarred and wounded landscape, somewhat of a ‘miracle of nature’ has emerged. In a landfill site based in Islamabad, Pakistan, an emergent species of fungus has been discovered; a species capable of degrading plastic in a matter of weeks.

With the ongoing pressure of population increase, oil-dependency and our increasingly consumer-centric ideals, our already serious plastic pollution crisis is in a serious cycle of decline. According to ‘Waste Management North-west’ we produce an average of 4 trillion throwaway plastic bags worldwide each year, with only 1% of which being recycled. ‘earthday.org’ claims in 2016 alone, world plastic production totalled 335 million tons, with over 50% being destined for single-use. Even more shockingly, 10% of all plastic waste eventually ends up in the ocean, often causing irreversible damage to the already struggling marine life. Even when plastic waste ends up in landfill sites, it is by no means harmless. As well as plaguing the natural landscape, local people and ecosystems are slowly poisoned by toxic leachate, and other harmful chemicals seeping out of the plastic products dumped there.

An image of one of the world’s many overflowing landfills. It was under conditions like these that A.tubingensis was discovered Image:Pakistantoday.com.pk

Whilst harrowing, these statistics provide us a glimpse at the irreversible damage our plastic waste is causing to the environment, both for humans and the multitude of living things we try to ‘share’ this planet with. Reflecting on this information, we can begin to see the potential positive implications of this ‘plastic-eating’ fungal species, and how it might allow us to eventually reduce our current levels of landfill and ocean-based plastic pollution, but just how exactly does this fungus work?

The fungus, Aspergillus tubingensis which can typically be found in soil, was discovered thriving in a predominantly plastic based landfill site in Islamabad, Pakistan by researchers in September of 2017. So far, research into the species has discovered that its ability to break down non-biodegradable plastics, is attributed to a special enzymatic reaction, coupled with the action of fungal mycelium, temperature and pH conditions, in order to cleave apart the bonds between the molecules which constitute plastics. Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time a species capable of degrading plastics has been discovered, with the previous discovery of various bacteria and even a type of waxworm with similar abilities. However, recent research published in the journal ‘Environmental Pollution’ has made great strides in beginning to understand how we could harness its abilities on a larger scale, leading to increased interest into this fungal species. The scientists responsible for this research were even able to degrade a sheet of polyester polyurethane using A.tubingensis to such a degree that it had almost completely fallen apart.

The use of A.tubingensis in plastic degradation has many benefits. Firstly, being a micro-organism, it is relatively easy and cost-effective to mass produce; this combined with the fact that the fungus is able to break down plastic in a matter of weeks makes it a viable alternative to recycling plastic waste. Currently, recycling can be quite costly and energy inefficient, leading to waste-producers such as governments and businesses choosing alternative waste management strategies such as landfill and incineration; both of which directly contribute to a host of negative environmental impacts. However, thanks to this biotechnological alternative, almost all nascent plastic waste could someday be broken down and returned to the environment as organic compounds. One such compound, methane (CH4), could even be sold to supplement the national gas grid, allowing the green disposal of plastic waste using this fungus to become profitable and therefore incentivised. Because of this, humankind now has a chance to try and recover the last 50 years of plastic pollution. Of course, much of the damage already inflicted is irreversible, and not all waste can be physically recovered, but if we act decisively and seize the implications of this discovery, then we may be able to give our planet a fighting chance to recover.

A section of A.tubingensis looked at under a microscope. Image: Bioimágenes

This discovery, however, should not become an excuse to maintain or increase our ‘single-use plastic’ production. Even if the output of plastic waste is managed using this fungus, our over-reliance and demand for fossil fuels such as crude oil will continue to slowly destroy the environment, contributing to wider issues such as global warming and the destruction of delicate and protected ecosystems such as the Antarctic. Instead, it should be used to help remedy our current plastic waste problem, both on land and at sea. And following this, should be implemented alongside other scientific and environmental advancements to help prevent an environmental catastrophe, such as the plastic pollution crisis, from ever happening again.

So what will the environment of the future look like? Will we continue to produce and consume single-use plastics without a care for the implications? Or will we seize these scientific advancements and foster a new age of environmental conscience? The answer to these questions lies with each and every one of us and what we will each do with such knowledge. The answer lies with you.