Home / News / Australian scientists say they have discovered a backyard mold that can break down plastic in 140 days — giving hope to the recycling crisis

Australian scientists say they have discovered a backyard mold that can break down plastic in 140 days — giving hope to the recycling crisis

Jun 29, 2023Jun 29, 2023

Australian scientists say they have successfully found a way to use a backyard mold to break down stubborn plastics, showing potential for improving the low recycling rate for some plastics.

Scientists at the University of Sydney discovered through experiments that they could use two types of mold commonly found in plants and soil – Aspergillus terreus and Engyodontium album — to break down stubborn plastic, according to findings published in the science journal npj Materials Degradation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported on Friday.

It took about 140 days for the fungi to fully break down the plastics tested.

"It's the highest degradation rate reported in the literature that we know in the world," Ali Abbas, a chemical engineering professor at the university, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

It is optimistic news after a 2022 report from Greenpeace found that the vast majority of plastics that are recycled in the US wind up in the ocean or in landfills, which emit hazardous pollutants into the air. Just 5% of plastics were actually recycled into new items, according to NPR.

Lisa Ramsden, a senior plastic campaigner for Greenpeace USA, told NPR at the time that industries may triple plastic production by 2050, exacerbating the problem.

"More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled," Ramsden told NPR.

According to the Columbia Climate School, plastic recycling remains a major challenge in the waste industry because it is often contaminated by food and other items.

The US generated 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2018, and just 94 million tons – or about 32% – were recycled or composted, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, some 146 million tons (or 50%) of waste was landfilled, and 35 million (or about 12%) tons of waste were combusted, according to the agency.

At the University of Sydney, scientists are testing the degradation process of the fungi to see how they can make it more efficient and ready for commercial-scale use, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The research process could take the next three to five years, Abbas said, adding that a litany of behavioral and business issues would need to be addressed in the meantime.

"We can't afford to wait, we do need to act," Abbas said, per the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "We need the behavioral issues, we need the social issues, we need the business issues, all of these need to be resolved around the plastics problem. The technology is only half the solution."