Polyurethane (PUR) is a polymer that is used in a variety of ways – mainly to make plastics and foams in our every day lives. PUR applications range from door frames, to the linings of cups, to carpet underlay, to footwear – and it’s versatile because it can be made to be soft, hard, thick or thin. As you probably know, these plastic materials take forever to degrade – hundreds of years in some cases, and in the case of styrofoam some sources have quoted “NEVER” as a time frame.
A group of students from Yale went on an expedition to Ecuador and brought back various samples of microorganisms called endophytes , which include bacteria and fungi, that live inside the tissues of plants without causing overt disease symptoms. Some of these microorganisms play an important role in plant decomposition when the plant dies, and some fungi are able to decompose lignocellulose polymers – polymers that form a material which gives plants their rigidity and structure.
According to the report by the Yale students, “The ability of these microorganisms to degrade a polymer as complex as lignocellulose would suggest that these organisms offer promise for their ability to degrade other complex polymers, such as those present in plastics.”
One particular fungi called, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first fungi found to be able to decompose polyurethane either aerobically or anaerobically. What this means, is that (in theory) these guys can be injected into the bottom of a landfill (anaerobic conditions) and break down our plastic junk. What could also happen is we could create dedicated facilities with anaerobic OR aerobic environments that break down plastics which aren’t recyclable.
The report didn’t mention any by-products of this decomposition process, which would be interesting to know. Let’s hope this research continues and helps us solve our plastic waste problems.
In the meantime – reduce your plastic use! Bring a cloth bag to the store, use a refillable water bottle, use your plastic products until they are truly unusable, and RECYCLE!!