Home Lifestyle Weird & Wonderful No jokes! This mushroom actually eats plastic waste

No jokes! This mushroom actually eats plastic waste

Heard about the plastic-eating fungus that could help fight against waste? Mushrooms have confounded scientists for years, and the environment-saving potential of these fungi are being more deeply explored

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Since the 1950s, humans have created over nine billion tonnes of plastic. A total of 9% has been recycled, while only 12% has been incinerated. This leaves a whopping 79% of plastic waste that is piling up on landfills, the natural environment and oceans.

In an effort to lighten this load, researchers are seeking alternative measures of reducing plastic waste and its negative environmental impacts. This has led to deeper research into the possibility of using fungi to eat plastic.

Yes, you read that correctly: scientists are looking into using mushrooms to eat polyurethane, the main ingredient in plastic products.

ALSO READ: How to start mushroom farming in 6 easy steps

Mushrooms can be used to break down waste plastic and create sustainable building materials, according to scientists from Kew Gardens in London. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Mushrooms can be used to break down waste plastic and create sustainable building materials, according to scientists from Kew Gardens in London. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Rare discovery in Ecuador

There are between two and four million different species of mushroom, and while some are rare, others can be found at your nearest supermarket.

In 2011, Yale students on a class research trip discovered a rare mushroom in the Amazonian rainforest in Ecuador. The fungus, called Pestalotiopsis microspora, can grow on polyurethane and consume it as its sole source of carbon.

After some study, the Yale research team found that this aesthically insignificant plant can survive in environments without oxygen. It can also break down and digest polyurethane while turning it into organic matter.

The research team also conducted a study to see what sort of fungus can consume plastic the fastest, and Pestalotiopsis microspora cleared polyurethane even more swiftly than Aspergillus niger, the fungus that causes black mold.

A 2014 collaboration made headlines when designer Katharina Unger of LIVIN Studio and the microbiology faculty of Utrecht University in the Netherlands made use of mycelium, which is the fungi counterpart of a traditional plant root system, to turn plastic into human-grade food.

They used oyster and split gill mushrooms in the experiment, and the mushrooms were cultivated in pods made of gelatin and filled with UV-treated plastics.

The gelatin was derived from seaweed.

The process which mushrooms use to break down or isolate contaminants from the environment is called mycoremediation.

Further exploration needed

While Yale’s study did not examine whether the plastic-degrading mushrooms were edible after breaking down polyurethane, the LIVIN Studio project concluded that the mushrooms it used were edible even after consuming plastic.

Speaking to Dezeen, Unger says the mushrooms had a sweet quality similar to the taste of star anise or liquorice.

Research reflects that there are mushrooms that can break plastic down in mere weeks or months, and may become a particularly protein-rich source of food for humans, animals and plants.

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Lucinda Dordley
Lucinda Dordley
Words and people: these have been Lucinda's only two passions from a very young age. As soon as she found out that journalism was the perfect marriage of the two, she knew it was what she had to be. She has worked in many spheres within journalism, including crime and human interest news, lifestyle, and tech for publications such as The Cape Argus, Fairlady Magazine, Cape Town Etc, Getaway Magazine and Popular Mechanics. In her spare time, she can be found with a book in hand or chatting to someone to find out what their story is.
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