Plastic Not Fantastic
With only 9% of plastic actually recycled it hits hard to understand the scale of this issue. Due to the unnatural form and lack of degradability of plastic, it has become a major environmental polluter and global health hazard. FYI Coca-cola is the world's worst plastic polluter. Microplastics are now to be found in the air we breathe, the produce we consume and the water we drink. Microplastics have been found on top of some of the world's highest mountains and deep in the Mariana Trench (the deepest part of the ocean) which is 7 miles deep. How are living organisms adapting to this polluting intruder, and what is the impact of plastic doing to human chemical makeup and behaviour as it enters our food chains?
Plastic is made from natural gas, crude oil, coal and is found across all parts of our supply chain; from packaging our food, making household items, or fabricating vehicles, plastic is everywhere. This human-made micro-polluter is having a macro impact on all of our ecosystems, which in turn is impacting the water we drink, the food we eat, our mental and physical health and the way communities and individuals are adapting and living throughout the world. Most plastics are non-biodegradable because they contain chemical bonds which are not easy to break down without the application of high temperatures. Some scientists have managed to find a way of turning plastic into formic acid that can be used in fuel cells but this process is hard to scale up and still presents a number of environmental threats.
After speaking with mycologists from The International Biodeterioration Biodegradation Society, Cranfield University, UWE and the British Mycological Society it has become clear that there are many other microorganisms that are capable of breaking down plastics (at least to some extent). My initial research has led me to try and understand how microplastics are impacting the biology of subterranean microorganisms and how we might capture this interaction to better understand how it is effecting its behaviour?
I have started to identify certain aspects of how the natural world can reverse the human impact. One example of this is a fungi called Aspergillus Tubingensis - a fungi that breaks down plastic. It was found in a landfill site in Islamabad, Pakistan. Mycologists have learned that it did not need oxygen to survive meaning that it could be left underground with all the plastic waste to very slowly break it down. There are now believed to be around 50 known types of fungus that have the ability to turn plastic into organic matter. Fungus has incredible potential for reversing the impact that humans have had on this planet. Another example is mycoremediation - using fungi to break down hydrocarbon (oil) - scientists have been using this process in polluted areas of South America and it has been found to be up to 95% effective in removing the oil from the soil and turning it into organic matter.
More to follow...