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Plastic Eating Mushrooms Could Help Clean Up The Planet!

Updated: Oct 2, 2021

At first glance, mushrooms don't look like much. These little round, sometimes bell-shaped, things just grow out of the ground, usually after raining. They grow and sit there and then they die and decay and their nutrients go back into the Earth. We know we can eat some of them, but other than that, what are they good for?

Aspergillus tubingensis mushroom
Aspergillus tubingensis by Tomasz Proszek on Pixabay

Believe it or not, mushrooms have a ton of uses and applications in everyday life! Like I said, some are edible, but others can be used in different industries. Some mushrooms can be turned into building material, like drywall, and used to construct houses. Others are being used to make new foods like impossible meat; Ecovative, a mycelium technology company, has used mushrooms to create alternatives to pork. Mushrooms are also present in biofuels, beauty and cosmetics products, medicine, packaging, and so much more! And relatively recently, it's been discovered that some mushrooms can even grow by feeding on plastic.

Back in 2012, researchers from Yale did a trek through the Amazon rainforest. On their journey, they discovered a type of fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, that could grow by consuming exclusively polyurethane, the base molecule in many plastics. The mushrooms grew by taking this molecule, and converting it back into organic material. I don't know how they found this out but I believe this discovery has huge potential in the coming years as a way to help reduce the amount of plastic waste on the planet.

Pestalotiopsis microspora
Pestalotiopsis microspora

Pestalotiopsis microspora could be helpful in landfills and breaking down plastics. As we learned in our First Step post, plastic leaks poisonous chemicals into the environment when it breaks down. Using PM could be critical to stopping these poisons from harming the Earth anymore than it already has.

Since 2012, over 50 other mushroom species have been discovered to be able to grow by feeding on plastic. Some of these include the widely popular oyster mushroom, the split gill mushroom, and Aspergillus tubingensis (sorry to throw so much science at you). Researchers believe that edible mushrooms grown this way retain their edibility, however there is not a consensus on this or enough research to be conclusive on this.

Oyster mushrooms growing out of tree stump
Oyster mushrooms by Aniko Boros on Pixabay

For example, Katherina Unger of Livin Design partnered with Utrecht University in the Netherlands to study the edibility of oyster mushrooms (check out the article here) grown using plastic. They concluded that the mushroom was still 100% edible, even after having consumed plastic. On the opposing side, the University of Rajasthan in India decided that the mushrooms consume too much toxic material to be edible, concluding that they are not edible.

With all this opposition surrounding this topic, and the fact that I find this concept fascinating, I've spent the entirety of the semester researching the feasibility and viability of plastic eating mushrooms. Participating in the first cohort of the Ratcliffe Foundation's Eco Entrepreneurship Fellows (REEF) at the University of Delaware, I did extensive work into creating a business model that utilized the plastic eating mushrooms to get rid of plastic waste.

Todd with fresh grown mushrooms from kit
My mushrooms and me!

This past Monday, I pitched the idea to a group of judges on the last day of the REEF class. They liked the idea, but stated that I needed to provide some proof of concept, meaning they need to see evidence that these mushrooms will actually break down and get rid of plastic. Which is fair; words can only get you so far. So, that means I know what I'm doing this summer.

Using what's called a Monotub (a DIY at-home mushroom growing kit) and oyster mushroom spores, I'll be seeing if I can get these mushrooms to eat my plastic waste. The mushroom growing process is fairly straight forward: mix and inoculate the substrate, then wait until the mushrooms grow. I'm confident I can test this by incorporating plastic into the substrate, so that when the mycelium takes, it will latch on to the plastic and pull the chemicals out of it. After a few months and a few cycles, I'll dig through the substrate to see just how much, if any, plastic was consumed. From there, who knows what'll happen or what I'll do. I will definitely report back on it.

Monotub used to grow plastic eating mushrooms
My monotub

What do you think of this? Do you think plastic eating mushrooms are a feasible way to get rid of our planet's abundant plastic problem? Let us hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments below! We look forward to hearing from you!

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