Plastic eating mushrooms could transform plastic recycling
As plastic is still a relatively new invention (around 150 years old) , it's still not clearly understood how long certain types of plastic take to fully biodegrade naturally. Generally speaking, many plastics will probably not break down for many hundreds of years or perhaps even thousands, and this is an increasing problem in the fast moving, disposable world we live in today. According to this article, the number of fish in our oceans will be outweighed by plastic waste over the next 35 years, and by 2050, it's expected that we’ll be producing over three times as much plastic as we did in 2014.
Although some plastics are recyclable, many are not and this is causing a huge problem with large amounts of plastic still being sent to landfill. However, there is a solution on the horizon.
Back in 2012 Researchers from Yale University discovered a rare mushroom (Pestalotiopsis microspora) in the Amazon which can break down polyurethane, a key ingredient in most plastics today. This got them thinking as to how they might use this humble mushroom to solve one of the world's biggest pollution problems, the ever growing mountain of wasted plastic that continues to increase at an alarming rate.
Katharina Unger, an Austrian designer working at a company called LIVIN, has worked out that this mushroom can be used to eat plastic. She already had some experience in this field of work as she was already well known for her work involving the incubation of fly eggs and turning them into lava so that the maggots could be eaten by humans. As a result of this ground work she was able to use her experience to turn the mushroom into a product that could one day be fit for human consumption. She teamed up with Julia Kaisinger and Utrecht University and the result of this collaboration is a mushroom called Fungi Mutarium, which can literally eat plastic. At the very least, even if we don't eat the mushrooms, they are still biodegradable unlike the plastic they eat.
The process begins by using UV lights to sterilize the plastic. It's then placed into small pods (nicknamed FUs) containing agar which is an edible jelly like substance that's made from seaweed. This mix is then added to the mushroom and the mushroom then begins to eat it. The whole process takes just a few weeks rather than the hundreds of years it will take for the plastic to biodegrade naturally This innovative process is gathering speed and IKEA are taking the lead by announcing that they will be swapping the styrofoam packaging they currently use for a more eco-friendly fungi version in order to reduce waste sent to landfill.
The great thing about this process is that the fungus feeds off of the sugar and starch in the agar, whilst consuming the plastic at the same time. Once the cycle is completed, what's left looks like a small rice cake this can then be used as a container for different types of food such as fruit and yoghurt containers. With such an innovative and groundbreaking idea, the possibilities are endless and we may soon see a real reduction in the millions of tons of plastic that is polluting our planet.
When you consider how much plastic already exists in the world, this monumental breakthrough could lead to a huge reduction in plastic pollution. Plastic can be found almost everywhere in all types of packaging and everyday materials. A particular problem is the huge range of commonly used items such as mineral water bottles and plastic carrier bags. If this creation can be rolled out on a larger scale it could also contribute to feeding some of the world's poorest people.
Unfortunately, one of the main problems the project is currently facing is the sheer length of time the process takes. Unger is quoted as saying:
“We know that there’s potential to speed up this process simply by optimizing the processes around it: temperature, humidity, the perfect microclimate for this fungi to colonize the plastic material. Also, though it’s more controversial, there is genetic modification. What happens if you modify the organism so that it can process the materials more quickly?”
It may also surprise you to know that a biomaterials company called Evocativ has swapped using polystyrene in favour of a mycelium mixture. Mycelium is made of fungus roots which can be shaped into packaging for pretty much all types of products.