Degrading Pervasive Plastic
Plastic-eating fungi. Photo: American Chemical Society.
One of the reasons that plastic remains an “alien” or artificial material to most people is the fact that it avoids the natural process of decay. Not only do most synthetic polymer materials refuse to break down like other materials, but they also leach pervasive pollutants into the environment. Bisphenol A (BPA) is one such controversial substance, and has been classified as an endocrine disruptor—a chemical that can emulate the body’s hormonal processes and lead to adverse health effects. BPA is found in common plastics such as polycarbonates and PVC, and refuses to biodegrade in the waste stream.
Despite the concerns about BPA, manufacturers still generate almost three million tons of plastic with BPA annually. However, biotechnology researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras have recently developed a method to biodegrade the substance. Using ultraviolet light and three types of fungi, Mukesh Doble and Trishul Artham were able to decompose BPA-containing plastics within 12 months. By comparison, untreated plastic showed negligible signs of degradation in the same period.