Green Matter: There's no accounting for taste

02/22/2012

Earlier this month, when the news hit the Internet that a plastic-eating fungus had been discovered in the Amazon jungle, polyurethane unexpectedly joined the ranks of the biodegradable plastics. And all of a sudden, bioremediation was the newest buzzword.

Bioremediation is a technology that, simply put, relies on the use of biological agents, such as bacteria or plants, or in this specific case, a fungus, to break down, remove or neutralize contaminants in, for example, polluted soil or water. Earlier examples include the microbes found to be digesting the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the bug that is currently feasting on the remains of the Titanic. Now, polyurethane joins the options on the microbial menu.

Polyurethane, a synthetic polymer developed in the 1940s found in numerous applications ranging from automotive components to coatings, has excellent resistance to abrasion, oils, solvents, oxidation and more while maintaining high tensile strength and resilience. Very durable, polyurethane does not readily degrade. And while technologies have been developed for the chemical recycling of polyurethane, these are not yet applied on a large scale. Some polyurethane is recycled mechanically; a lot of it is incinerated or goes to landfill - where it remains almost indefinitely. Hence when it was found that a fungus called Pestalotiopsis microspora not only ate, but positively gorged itself on polyurethane, the green scene was quick to spread the good news.
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