Plastic munching microbes for biorecycling
For better and for worse, consumption of plastic goods is a widespread feature of human activities. Plastics are highly customisable and durable materials, which leads to both their extensive applications and their enormous contribution to landfill sites. In 2018, the estimated mass of waste plastics produced in Australia alone was 3.41 million tonnes: only 4 % of this was recycled, while a whopping 65 % went to landfill (Schandl et al. 2020).
As well as insufficient regulation and end-of-life waste management incentives, the vast chemical diversity of plastic waste is a major factor contributing to the very low rates of plastic recycling when compared to other materials such as paper or glass. With that in mind, this project aims to deliver environmental microbial communities for biorecycling solutions to the challenges associated with plastic recycling.
Microbial communities can contain hundreds of thousands of species and genetic strategies, and thus could potentially overcome the chemical diversity hurdles faced in biodegrading mixed plastic waste and its associated contaminants (e.g. plasticisers and dyes). Initially, this project will explore the genetic potential of microbial communities taken from environments such as municipal waste landfills and plastic-polluted urban streams. Then, this project will attempt to train and modify these microbial communities to have the efficiency needed for industrial-scale application to plastic waste.
Although the current focus should still firmly be on reducing the rate of plastic waste that humans are producing, it is hoped that in the future, research such as this will help manage the remaining plastic waste and bring it into a circular economy model.
Project lead: Bronwyn Campbell