Can Mushrooms Save The Planet?

Researchers are looking into plastic-eating fungi to help solve our waste problems.

Credit: NowThis
Credit: NowThis

Mushrooms are capable of many things: They can be an ingredient in delicious meals, prompt feelings of euphoria, and help keep our soil healthy.

But did you know they can also eat plastic? Recent studies have found that certain types of mushrooms can degrade plastic and convert it into organic matter.

Since large-scale plastics production started in the early ’50s, humanity has generated more than 8 billion metric tons of the material. Estimates suggest that about 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year — and that amount is expected to roughly triple by 2040.

Since plastic can take centuries to decompose, scientists are looking into new ways to get rid of the plastic polluting the Earth. Mushrooms are one potential solution.

A 2011 study found more than 100 types of fungi with documented plastic-degrading capabilities, and with an estimated 2.2 and 3.8 million species of fungi on Earth, there are still plenty more to be studied.

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Of the fungi the 2011 study looked into, two Pestalotiopsis microspora species from the Amazon were discovered to have the ability to digest plastic and turn it into organic matter even without oxygen, which could be useful for landfills. The experiment focused on fungi decomposing a synthetic polymer called polyester polyurethane, a kind of plastic we see in all sorts of things, including kitchen sponges, furniture, and even clothing.

There have also beenstudies focused on using fungi to break down the most common type of plastic, called polyethylene, which is used to make things like milk cartons, detergent bottles, and toys.

Dr. Sonia Travaglini, a fungi materials expert, researches and tests how mushrooms can generate strong, versatile fibers simply by eating waste. “Some mushrooms will degrade things in minutes; some will take months,” she told Now This. “Typically, it's months for them to munch through the plastic.”

“You really wanna make sure that you have the right type of mushroom eating, the right type of waste you want to get rid of,” explained Travaglini.

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Another person working with mushrooms is sculpturist Elizabeth Demaray, whose plastomach (plastic + stomach) is a living sculpture that features living fungi eating plastic. The piece is based on a study on white-rot fungi’s ability to degrade single-use plastic.

All that said, decomposing plastic via fungi is a very lengthy process, and it takes all the right conditions for it to be successful. “The first thing that you have to do is wash it really well,” Demaray told NowThis. “You've gotta make sure that there's no other molds or anything else that could compete with the fungi.”

For personal use, a plastomach would only be a solution if you had a very small plastic footprint, according to Demaray.

So can plastic-eating mushrooms save the planet?

Not right now, but maybe someday. In theory, this could be a great solution, but there’s still a lot more research and logistical planning needed before it could be truly effective on a global scale.