Scientists discover that fungi can effectively break down plastic

ABC News Australia recently reported that scientists from the University of Sydney have discovered that two types of fungi—Aspergillus terreus and Engyodontium album—are effective at breaking down polypropylene, a plastic that is found in common containers that we usually toss in the recycling bin or the trashcan. ABC New Australia explains:

It took 90 days for the fungi to degrade 27 per cent of the plastic tested, and about 140 days to completely break it down, after the samples were exposed to ultraviolet rays or heat. Chemical engineering professor Ali Abbas, who supervised the research team, said the findings were significant: "It's the highest degradation rate reported in the literature that we know in the world," the professor said. 

I think it's great news that scientists are finding ways to break down plastic—because lots of plastic trash isn't recycled, and thus ends up in landfills. And even lots of the waste that is placed in recycling bins is never actually recycled. Plastic Pollution Coalition explains:

When you put used plastic (packaging, bottles, wraps, films, etc.) in a recycling bin (or trash bin), it is transferred into the hands of the global waste industry. This industry is made up of a wide network of businesses, governments, and individuals vying for a share of the nearly $500 billion that is generated annually in the global waste market. This trash trade has grown significantly over time, apace with plastics production and per capita waste generation, though recycling of plastic and other types of waste makes up a very small share of the market.

From a recycling bin, plastics are sent by rail or truck to waste-sorting facilities, also called materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Here, plastics are commonly sorted by like types (think films and bags, bottles, foams) and baled (squashed together into easily transportable space-saving cubes). Then it's loaded back up on a train or truck, or a cargo ship, for the next leg of its journey.

So, I truly am glad for ongoing research finding new ways to break down plastics. But let's not kid ourselves. Just as we shouldn't fall for the idea that recycling is the answer to all our ecological problems, we also shouldn't fall for the idea that scientific breakthroughs—even those that are grounded in nature, such as these plastic-dissolving fungi—are going to save us. This is an example of technological utopianism—the idea that, as Maize explains, "An easier life in a perfect society is possible, and science is the key to reach it." Against this idea that science will save us, the Plastic Pollution Coalition argues that the real solution to solving our plastic waste problem is to "turn off the plastic tap": 

Only 9 percent of the plastics made since they were first mass-produced in the mid-1900s have been recycled. The recycling rate in the US, the world's biggest plastic-waste producer, is presently a mere five to six percent. But even if plastic recycling rates were higher, recycling alone could never come close to solving the serious and wide-ranging health, justice, socio-economic, and environmental crises caused by industries' continued plastic production and plastic pollution, which go hand in hand. Production of plastic has only grown over time, and has presently hit a rate of more than 400 million metric tons per year, more than double the rate at which plastics were made just 20 years ago.

This is clearly a much more rapid pace than at which plastic recycling actually occurs. It's clear recycling is not enough to solve the plastic pollution crisis. The fossil fuel industry, governments, and corporations really need to turn off the plastic tap. 

Echoing this sentiment, Duncan McLaren and Nils Markusson, researchers at Lancaster Environment Centre, argued in a recent piece published in Nature Climate Change:

For forty years, climate action has been delayed by technological promises. Contemporary promises are equally dangerous. Our work exposes how such promises have raised expectations of more effective policy options becoming available in the future, and thereby enabled a continued politics of prevarication and inadequate action.

They also explain that, instead, we should be putting our efforts into collective action to create real structural change:

Putting our hopes in yet more new technologies is unwise. Instead, cultural, social and political transformation is essential to enable widespread deployment of both behavioural and technological responses to climate change.