The fungus and bacteria tackling plastic waste
1st August 2021 | Recycling
Samantha Jenkins was studying a number of types of fungus in a research project for her company, when one of the fungi made a bid for freedom. “Imagine a jar full of grain with a kind of lump of mushroom coming out of the top,” says the lead biotech engineer for bio-manufacturing firm Biohm.
“It didn’t look particularly exciting or fascinating. But as soon as it was cracked open, it was very, very cool.” The fungus had eaten its way through the plastic sponge intended to seal it in, breaking it down and assimilating it like any other food. The aim of the project was to evaluate a number of strains of fungus for use in bio-based insulation panels, but the hungry fungus has taken them in another direction.
Biohm is now working to develop the strain to make it an even more efficient digester that could potentially help get rid of plastic waste. It’s no secret that single-use plastic waste is a vast problem: by 2015, according to Greenpeace, the world had churned out 6.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic, of which only 9% has been recycled. The rest was burned in incinerators or dumped.
Things are improving, with more than 40% of plastic packaging now recycled in the EU, and a target of 50% by 2025. But some types of plastic, such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is widely used for drinks bottles, are hard to recycle by traditional means. So might biological methods be the answer?
“You put in plastic, the fungi eat the plastic, the fungi make more fungi and then from that you can make biomaterials… for food, or feed stocks for animals, or antibiotics.”
Others have also had some success.
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh have recently used a lab-engineered version of the bacteria E. coli to transform terephthalic acid, a molecule derived from PET, into the culinary flavouring vanillin, via a series of chemical reactions. “Our study is still at a very early stage, and we need to do more to find ways to make the process more efficient and economically viable,” says Dr Joanna Sadler, of the university’s School of Biological Sciences. “But it’s a really exciting starting point, and there’s potential for this to be commercially practical in the future after further improvements to the process have been made.”
More information available on the website below