Recently, a group of students from Yale University have unearthed a type of fungus that seems to digest plastics in the jungles of Ecuador. Yes, that is right, a fungus that actually Eats Plastic! Pestalotiopsis microspora, the amazing fungus has been found in laboratory studies to feast on Polyurethane and can survive well in places with little oxygen like landfills.
While this discovery sounds encouraging, it certainly cannot digest the tons and tons of plastic we put out every year.
From the parts of the computer, to the water bottle, school bag, automobile parts, why even the clothes you wear, they are all made of plastic. What makes plastic very special and useful is that it is very cheap, durable, flexible and strong. But its very characteristics also make it hard to dispose of. Lets take a look at the world of plastics.
So what is Plastic?
Plastic could be any synthetic or semi-synthetic polymer. Think of polymers as many molecules all strung together to form really long chains sometimes forming complicated structures. Poly- means "many" and - mer means "parts" or "segments". The complex formations are held together by a number of repeating structural units sometimes as many as 100,000 atoms per molecule, obtained through a process known as polymerization.
Some polymers occur in nature like gum and rubber. But most of the synthetic kind that we use every day are created in laboratories and consist of hydrocarbons – hydrogen and carbon atoms.
When petroleum is refined, some of its byproducts are treated wth other chemicals to create plastics. Depending on the way the molecules bond together, different types of polymers can be created. Polyesters make synthetic fabric; polyethylene is used to make bottles, toys, food containers and other items of everyday use; polycarbonate makes clear shatterproof windows and eyeglasses; and Polystyrene is molded into the parts used for household electrical equipment casings, etc.
The very properties that make plastic useful, is also the cause of an equally serious problem – pollution. Being cheap we tend to overuse plastic. Most of it is not and cannot be reused and is thrown away. Because it is durable, the plastic dumped in landfills never biodegrade or decompose into its basic elements.
On the other hand, plastic photodegrades -- that is it breaks up into tiny bits because of heat and other natural forces and is never quite destroyed. Photo-degraded plastic is a threat to wildlife and sea creatures when they are mistakenly swallowed as food. Plastics over a period of time leach chemicals into soil and waterways further polluting the environment. Read this article on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
We need to continue to "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle" plastics which pose a threat to our planet and its wonderful biodiversity.